Amir Obe has seen many sides of the music industry. From coming up during the MySpace era to getting a Drake co-sign and being signed to two different major labels, he's been in positions that many up-and-coming artists dream of. But the 27-year-old rapper prefers to keep things low-key, in a lot of ways. He works in private, with people he's close to, and he's more productive in his hometown of Detroit than in music hubs like New York or Los Angeles.
Instead of crafting some long-term takeover plan, Obe—now signed with Def Jam—just wants to figure things out as he goes. He's finally got the creative control he's always wanted, and he's using that control to live in the moment. Ahead of the release of his project NØTÇW (NØNĘ ØF THĘ ÇLØÇKŚ WØRK), which is out now, we talked to Amir Obe about his new music, what he's learned from his music industry experience, and his plans for the future.
I want to open up with this new joint you got called “Wish You Well.” What’s the idea behind that?
A lot of the music on my project was really heavy, conversational. This one was just a fun record, me and my producer just wanted to do something uptempo, something melodic with a bounce. So it’s kind of our escape from the deep records we were doing. I wanted that balance between all of the darker stuff, the relationship records. I wanted one where I felt I could just do whatever I wanted on it.
I think sonically it has that bounce but there’s still elements of it that feel relationship-based, like, “You did some fucked up shit, fuck you, but I wish you well.” Is that a real feeling?
That was the response, the hook was like, “Know your place.” At end it’s like, “I still wish you well.” I’m not that fucked up. [Laughs]
How did you first come in contact with Mike Dean and how is he getting involved?
Me and my A&R were looking for a good mastering engineer who could really push the music sonically. Noah suggested Mike Dean and he hopped on board for the masters.
What do you think he brings to a project?
I think he just has a very good track record on who he’s worked with and he knows the depths of sounds and music. Me and him had conversations on how wide it should be and loud it should be. I know he’s really good with loudness, and 100% of the masters he’s done are perfect. He did all of the mastering for the songs on this project.
Who else are you working with?
This project was all done by one producer and his name is Niles, he’s from Detroit. That’s like my go-to, also my engineer.
When you go about selecting people you want to work with, engineers or production and collaborators, what are you looking for?
I’m just looking for free collaborative process, I don’t like forcing shit, I don’t like being in big studios, I like a home environment. I feel like if I click with you in that environment and we can just vibe and create the best product possible, that’s all I’m going for. Doesn’t matter what we’re trying to do. It’s just let’s get in this moment, let’s create for this moment, and let’s do whatever happens naturally.
I’m just looking for free collaborative process, I don’t like forcing shit.
When you arrived when were saying that you just flew in from Detroit. Why do you choose to stay in Detroit? With music, a lot of it is happening on the coasts, and like you said there’s a lot of big studios, a lot of names you can run into. Why keep it Detroit? Why keep it home-grown?
One reason is because my producer doesn’t leave Detroit at all. We grew up in that home environment so when we do get placed in a studio with a whole bunch of opinions it’s like we just like making shit that we can vibe with. It’s a very private process. Him improvising off of my lyrics and me improvising off his beats. It’s always been that way and I intend to keep it that way.
Is that something you learned in this industry? I know at one point you were signed to Atlantic, and that was a different career path. You had a different name and aesthetic and now you’ve signed with Def Jam. Is the decision to stay home-grown is response to that?
It’s definitely in response to that. I feel like in that situation, I was too young to really grow into my own and I was dealing with a label that really wanted to go for singles and hits. They didn’t care for the story at the time, they had this vision for me and what they wanted me to be. I felt like, growing through that process I’m just like, “This is not what the fuck I want to do.” So after that, I took a year or two for self-discovery and experimentation. I knew the music I’ve always wanted to make so I’ve just been refining that music and that’s where we are today.
It was just a very premature situation, they heard something they liked and it led into a very forced situation where they were pitching songs my way and I just didn’t like any of that. I would always at least try to be a little inventive with my music, even then. I really didn’t know what the fuck I wanted to do. I was just making good music in a very confusing and fucked up situation. I’m glad I got out of it.
Where does that confidence come from to be like, “This isn’t right, I'm going to go this way.”
A lot of that is just trial and error. I wasn’t proud of the music I was making but some people liked it and even back then my producer wasn’t leaving Detroit so he would hear the music I was making with other producers and he’d say, “This has no integrity.” He’s got like six years on me so he was always giving me those talks like, “You need to stay back here, we need to do dope shit.”
What does Detroit give you that other places don't?
I like Detroit just because my family is there, the pace is a lot different. I’ve lived in New York for about 10 years, I’ve been in LA for certain times. I like changing environments for perspectives and living through those but I like coming back to record. That’s where I can let things marinate and know what to speak on. That’s always my reference point, going right back to Detroit and being around family.
That’s always my reference point, going right back to Detroit and being around family.
Anyone I’ve met from Detroit, even specifically in the music industry, that love for the city is unmatched.
I think the beauty of Detroit is everybody there knows what Detroit is and I think the perspective of people that’ve never been there just have stereotypes from watching movies so they just wouldn’t get it. Detroit probably left a bad taste in people’s mouths for years. They didn’t know what to expect from Detroit. They just heard it was one of the murder capitals, bankruptcy, just a lot of bad news surrounding the city.
So being from Detroit, even though a lot of that shit is real, people are proud to be from there. There’s a lot of culture there, Motown started there. A lot of things in music happened there.
What’s it like growing up in the public eye?
There’s good things and bad things about it. I’d say it’s all about maturity, you don’t discover yourself. Whether it’s in music or not, you won’t really know who you are until you start going through phases. I just knew I liked making music, I knew I had a following, and I had a corporate environment trying to choose the name and how we're gonna market it.
Why embark with another label again? Especially in a climate when people are going independent, what does Def Jam afford you?
It happened very organically. I never had a plan on doing a deal until I put out a few more projects, but when it got to the point of real interest and good relationships, there was no real business talk. It just happened, the situation just presented itself as, “We just want to support everything you’re doing, and creatively you do whatever you want.” They really backed us on being able to make music without any distractions or hassle.
What do you like about the music industry?
That’s a hard question. There’s a lot to like but mainly, when you’re in a good situation, that support. The backing, the amplifying of a vision and doing things correctly. That partnership I think, is the best gift.
What is your vision? Where do you see Amir Obe going?
Growth. I want to continue to experiment, develop new sounds, new ways to present it. We did this cool campaign with clocks and the countdowns, and even our merch is refined. My vision is just to really take my ideas as they come. I don’t have it all right now, but as they’re coming, get them projected and understood exactly how I want them to be understood.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing music?
If I wasn’t doing music I’d be designing. I wanted to go to art school, I even wanted to get into architecture at one point. Anything that I could express some form of design element, I’ve always been interested in. Me and my producer design these songs, we don’t sample.
Where does that influence come from?
I grew up in art, my dad went to art school. He used to paint, that’s where the artist side comes from. My mother was a piano teacher for kids in the neighborhood. I was always in an art environment and a music environment. At one point, my dad was my art teacher for three months at school.
What are your influences outside of your household creatively?
Traveling, seeing new things. I like looking at art and being in artistic environments. Lately I’ve been able to travel a lot, especially with the tour and hitting Europe so I’ve pulled inspiration from that. Also, conversation. I wouldn’t say private environments, but I like being in natural environments.
You said your new project is darker, can you paint that picture?
Not so much darker, there’s a lot of beautifully composed, melodic sections and stuff. Just content wise, it’s way more aggressive. My last project was a little more apologetic, now it’s just, “This is where we’re at now,” and it’s a little more raw.
Based off what experiences?
Based off day-to-day experiences, you would have to hear the music. I want listeners to paint their own narrative when they hear. I don’t like giving the listener the full plot, I want them to live with it. They might hear something totally different. I could follow up on a question like that after everyone’s made an assumption on their own.
I don’t like giving the listener the full plot, I want them to live with it.
What’s the next year looking like for you?
The project is coming out March 30. Aside from that, we’re going straight into a full-length album and a lot of shows.
With the full-length, what are you looking to get out of that? Continuation of this narrative or are you thinking of shifting a little bit, or still to be seen?
Still to be seen. It might have glimpses of this but when I do a body of work that’s what the moment is and I don’t even know what I’m going to do next. Based off the response or based off where this project takes me, that’s where the album will go, probably.
Do you have any reservations about shifting your plan with the weather?
I prefer to just be in the moment, this project was based on that idea. Being timeless, like I said, I don’t know where it’s gonna go and I prefer that. I don’t like having everything planned out, that’s when I feel like you have no head room to do what you want to do, because you’re already fixated on that. My mistake is, I’ll go, “I want to make this kind of song,” and I’ll go brain-dead trying to make that song because nothing will come to me. It’s not until I start experimenting again that something dope happens.
What do you want out of the near future?
I just want my art to be understood or accepted. Definitely want it to be heard. Everything I’ve been doing, I want to happen organically. I want people to make the decision to listen to my music, I don’t want to force it down your throat. Right now, I just want this project to come out and I want to see the response.
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