Exclusive Interview: Obii Say Finds Inspiration In Himself And A Hip Hop Legend
Obii Say is one of many bright spots in the emerging hip hop scene in the DMV (DC/Maryland/Viriginia) area. He most recently put out Donuts For The Villagers, an entire project dedicated to the late legendary producer J Dilla, but he’d prefer to have listeners compare, contrast and connect his music to no one else but him.
I recently talked with Obii Say about J Dilla, hip hop in his hometown and more. Check out the conversation below.
JMC: What got you started as an emcee and how long have you been doing it for?
Obii Say: Roughly since the tenth or eleventh grade. I graduated a year ago, so roughly three years now. What basically drew me to it were there were little cyphers outside and little cool things like that going on. And not necessarily for the attention, but I would go over and do some stuff and I guess I kinda got bored with that so I decided to start recording. I started doing it with other rappers and producers I went to school with. It basically snow balled from there and I stuck with it.
JMC: Talk about the hip hop scene out in the DC area.
Obii Say: It’s a pretty untapped scene as far as talent goes. You got the Wale and Tabi Bonney and there are artists like that and then you have artists who I guess bring to the table things I’ve never seen. But there are so many, you can find a new artist almost everyday here. I guess the hardest thing is to try not to bump heads with someone else and try not to do what someone else is doing and just stay as original as possible because like I said there are so many people. I feel like everybody can flourish in their own lane.
JMC: So what’s your lane? How would you describe Obii Say?
Obii Say: Umm, Obii…I would describe myself as I don’t wanna say different, but I’m definitely more absorbed, not self-absorbed, but when it comes to my work I really don’t try to seek too many outside influences to keep my work as pure as possible. I try not to keep myself to one area. Donuts For The Villagers is a lot of soul and I know based on that people would just say “well Obii’s a soul rapper.” But my influences come from everywhere and I wanna put on display what I know what a person and what I know as an artist, and not to try to sound like anyone else or say “he wants to sounds like Common” because that’s not the goal for me. My goal is just to make my music and if it goes where it goes then cool with me, as long as it’s not tagged along with everything else.
JMC: What made you put all that energy into putting out a whole project over J Dilla beats?
Obii Say: Ah man, Dilla is…man…an inspiration. I always say Dilla is to producing and sampling what Rakim is to rhyming. He’s really innovative. And Donuts, the way that it came about, him making it on his death bed and things like that it just represents a lot of cool things. And I felt like his sound had the best sound for what it is I wanted to portray and get across for this particular project. And I always say I don’t have too many outside influences on my music directly, but what influences me as a person plays off into my music. And I really understand and I like what he represented. And it was actually part my idea and part Liz’s (Obii’s manager) idea to re-release it because it was done, but then when I started working with Liz we kinda revamped it and put it out again.
JMC: Was putting out a whole project over music that wasn’t original, but Dilla beats, ever something that you questioned?
Obii Say: I don’t look at it as any different from somebody doing a mixtape with somebody’s else’s beats. And my reasoning behind it, it was a little more so a personal thing. So it didn’t really go too far in thought with me. It was just something that I wanted to do, and it was the way I felt at the time. So I just reached out to whatever avenue I could find that portrayed what I felt.
JMC: Your style probably lends itself to more of an old school hip hop feel. How do you see hip hop in the present and where it’s going in the future?
Obii Say: Umm, it’s diverse, but everything is kind of sectioned off into listeners. Because what they tend to do is take a certain group of artists or certain sound or image and they tie it off from everthing. And it just becomes this Team Edward and Team Jacob (Twilight movie reference) type thing. So I would say it’s thriving, but everything is thriving in it’s own little division. But for the most part it’s cool, it’s still solid and there are a lot good people coming out. Some people have the old boom bap sound, some people have this innovative pop sound. A lot of independent artists and major artists as well, but it’s kind of in a renaissance period if you ask me, like a pre-renaissance period.
JMC: In the future what things do you want to get out, what messages and what goals do you have with your music?
Obii Say: My message is to just do what you feel is appropriate for you or for your situation without too much outside criticism. Because I feel like criticism kind of affects you. Whether you respond well to criticism or not it kind of affects you. So I always tell people, “do what you want don’t really ask too many questions, just do it.” And that’s the message in my music as well. The message in my music is also a bunch of different life lessons, but it’s mainly to just do what you feel as an artist. I don’t think artists should have a definition and I don’t think one person should ponder too much on someone else’s art because it comes from within. So that’s the message I pretty much wanna give out as a person and as an artist.
JMC: You get three wishes for three specific things to happened for you musically, what would those wishes be.
Obii Say: I would want to find people that I can work with that see everything almost tit for tat. Like “I see this,” “Oh I see this as well.” If I can have a wish in the way that music affected my life, I just want to be comfortable. I don’t need to be super rich or super famous, or have to have everything. Just things that can accommodate me as an artist and as a human as well. And I wish for music to be simple, just for things to be simple. The whole allure of being in the industry is really misleading. Even if you aren’t in the “industry,” there’s always a lot to deal with, as far as business and people and everything. So I just wish a lot of simplicity upon the business side of things.
Obii Say is expecting to release a new project sometime during the first quarter of 2012.
Follow Obii Say on Twitter: @ObiiSay
Follow Julian Michael Caldwell on Twitter: @JulianCaldwell