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Studio Sessions | Cam O’bi talks SZA making ‘Ctrl,’ Jhene Aiko and Big Sean’s musical chemistry, Chance the Rapper and more

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the producer explains how Natasha Bedingfield and J. Dilla led to Snoh Aalegra’s “I Want You Around,” working with Kendrick Lamar and SZA on Ctrl, and coming into his own as an artist.

Nicky B

For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.

Cam O’bi is a producer talented enough to bring artists like Big Sean, SZA, Kendrick Lamar, and Vic Mensa — to name a few — into some of the strangest sounds and having them love them all. He could be making indie-rock one day and the next end up with two placements on a Best Rap Album nominee at the Grammys. More than anything, he’s shape music this decade because O’bi has worked with some of the biggest artists.

“When I met [Chance the Rapper in 2013], he was a quiet kid who had a shy disposition. But, when he got in the booth, it was a totally different person,” O’bi reflected to REVOLT. “It was almost like he was going into a character. While he was recording, he didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. He would be making these crazy sounds. His voice would change. He was like a totally different person.”

In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the producer explains how Natasha Bedingfield and J. Dilla led to Snoh Aalegra’s “I Want You Around,” working with Kendrick Lamar and SZA on Ctrl, and coming into his own as an artist.

Congrats on the Grammy nomination for your work on Revenge of the Dreamers III. Weeks after the news came out, you released ‘Grammy’s Babies.’ What’s the story with that?

Actually, I started that song in 2013 right after Acid Rap. Chance and Vic Mensa would always invite me to do things vocally on their songs and I would always decline because I was too shy, and didn’t believe in myself as much as they believed in me. ‘Orange Soda’ was a hook Vic and I did together, and he invited me to do the hook instead of him, and I was like, ‘Nah (laughs).’ With ‘Grammy’s Babies,’ I made that for Coloring Book. Chance was supposed to have a Stevie Wonder collab on that album, he told me that, and they just needed a song for him. So, I made that beat. BJ The Chicago Kid wrote a hook for Stevie.

We didn’t end up using it for the album, but I loved that beat. I pulled that beat up one day and started writing to it. ‘Grammy’s Babies’ is a song about my grandfather who passed away and his relationship with my grandmother. There’s a deeper message in it about using the stars as a metaphor about our loved ones passing on. I like the idea they’re not gone at all. They’re here. The stars represent them, but also using the stars as your navigation system when you’re lost.

I first heard of you years before the Grammys when you were on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap. How’d you two link up?

Me being involved with all of that is the most interesting story of my life. In December 2012, I went out to Chicago and I didn’t know anyone there. I knew one person by the name of L-Peezy, he was Rockie Fresh’s tour DJ. I went out there to work with Rockie and I was supposed to only be out there for a week. I was working at Kohl’s at the time and quit, so I could stay longer than that week. It was my first time in Chicago. I asked LP if I stayed in Chicago could I live at the studio. He let me shower at his apartment, but I was living at the studio and sleeping under the mixing console (laughs).

Peezy introduced me to Vic and in our first time meeting, we made the core of his INNATAPE mixtape. We made ‘Orange Soda.’ ‘I Love L.A.,’ and ‘Holy Holy.’ We did a few more too, but those are the ones that ended up on the tape. I hadn’t really heard of Chance at the time. I saw him on 2Dopeboyz for 10 Day in 2012. Vic introduced me to Chance early January 2013. Chance came to the studio, sitting there really quiet like a typical kid to me. He was explaining to me the Acid Rap theme and asked if I wanted to help him with it. I told him, ‘Yeah.’

What’s Chance like in the studio? What’s his process?

There’s so much. Chance really inspired me so much. I remember working with him on Acid Rap. I remember watching his writing and recording process. The biggest thing I admired about him was that he was unapologetically himself. He would sort of lose himself, in a way, when he’d record. When I met him, he was a quiet kid who had a shy disposition. But, when he got in the booth, it was a totally different person. It was almost like he was going into a character. While he was recording, he didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. He would be making these crazy sounds. His voice would change. He was like a totally different person. I had an ‘a-ha’ moment watching him. I realized how to be an artist and perform. It’s a matter of letting go and releasing inhibitions.

What were those early sessions like?

For a session like ‘Cocoa Butter Kisses,’ it was me, Chance, Vic, and Peter Cotontale in a room together. It was super organic. That’s how I would describe all the sessions. There were no pre-made beats. There were no sending things. It was all made from scratch on the spot. They already had the hook for the song written, but they needed a beat. Peter and I had them sing the hook out loud over and over again. Peter was on the keyboard and I was on mine with my laptop, and we were just improvising to create what matched what they were singing. There was a really strong epiphany moment when Peter played the right chords. Everyone in the room was like, ‘That’s it right there.’

They all kind of dumped it off on me because they had to tour. I think Kids These Days (KTD) had a tour and Chance was going on tour with them. They were like, ‘Hey, can you have it done when we get back?’ I think they were supposed to be back in a week. I was like, ‘Sure (laughs).’ That was a big moment for me because of all of the training and all of the practice I had put in over years at that point. I started making beats when I was 11 years old on Fruity Loops in 2001.

You all were coming up, so what was the studio like back then?

For KTD, that studio was a rehearsal space. It was messy as fuck. There were musical instruments everywhere. There were books and empty soda cans. It was a mess (laughs). We did record horns in my friend Carter Lang’s apartment. He was a big part of that scene in Chicago, as well. He went on to produce ‘Sunflower’ for Post Malone. He also did the bulk of [SZA’s] Ctrl with Ty and Cody.

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Laying horns today. New music droppin soon.

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I imagine making Coloring Book was different. What’s your favorite session from that project?

My favorite session was for a song that didn’t make it on the album. It was called ‘Living Single.’ The original version has Smino on it. It’s out there on YouTube somewhere. That was my favorite session because it actually started with Big Sean and Jeremih. I made a beat while I was on the J. Cole ‘Forest Hills Drive Tour.’ I made it backstage and I had no idea to do with it. I was thinking of giving it to Joey Bada$$. Then, I met Sean and he wanted me to come on his bus and play him some beats. I only had that, so I played him and Jeremih that beat.

Jeremih wrote the hook immediately and then, Sean did a verse. Then, Sean asked me who I think would be a good feature on there and I said Chance. He ended up hitting up Chance. Chance ended up loving it and Chance asked if he could have it. I guess Sean let him have it (laughs). When we were in Chicago working on Coloring Book, he pulled it up. He ended up writing to it and I loved what he did on that verse with the raspiness to his voice. The real highlight of it was when Chance asked me who he should put on the song as a third verse. Taylor Bennett actually suggested Smino. I ended up calling [Smino] and [he] ended up pulling through that same night, and I watched him write his verse from scratch. It was incredible. It didn’t make the album, so that verse ended up becoming ‘Netflix & D’Usse.’

What about those Coloring Book sessions produced such a special record?

For Coloring Book, it was an extension of what we were already doing. Before that was Donie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf album. That sound that Chance was into on Acid Rap was natural for me. I made some songs for Coloring Book that didn’t end up on the album that I kept for myself like the song ‘Grown Ass Kid’ that leaked. I made that for Surf first. I moved to L.A. between 2014-2015. They played me Surf and there was a song on it that really inspired me. It was a song featuring BJ The Chicago Kid that didn’t make the album. It inspired me to play this certain chord progression that ended up being the main chord progression for ‘Grown Ass Kid.’

I did it at the studio where they did Surf. They gave me my own private room and nobody came in to bother me. I made ‘Grown Ass Kid’ there. I was going to give that to them and then I thought, ‘Nah, I’ll keep that for myself.’

You’ve been working on your album Grown Ass Kid for years. How will taking all of that time making it affect it?

Yes, I would say it’s going to feel like a journey. It’ll be immersive. A lot of things will be happening out of nowhere. Throughout ‘Grammy’s Babies,’ there’s this sound of wind and I use it at the end to transition into another interlude sort of thing. All these things are so meticulously put together and that will show I took my time on it. It progresses like a dream. I’m inspired by all of the animated musicals and wanted to make one. Before I got into music, I was serious about wanting to be an animator.

This album feels like that to me. I was making these songs for Vic, while I was on tour with him in 2013. I showed them to him and he was like, ‘You should just do this yourself because you sound good doing it.’ I remember being on tour with him, dozing off, and the title Grown Ass Kid came into my mind. It was like God slapped with me with (laughs). In my mind, it was a movie poster of the back of some really small boy looking up at this gigantic fantasy world.

Noname (left) in the studio with Cam O’Bi (right)
Nicky B

You produced on that Twenty88 collab project between Big Sean and Jhene. That was one of my favorite albums from 2016.

Thanks, man. That means a lot. I didn’t know Sean at all before that tour. The reason I got on the bus with him is because everyone who I did know on the tour kept talking about me to him. I think he was kind of annoyed with hearing about me, honestly, because he didn’t know who I was (laughs). I was born and raised in Vegas, and my good friend Bootleg Kev, who has a show out here in L.A. on 92.3, was at the L.A. stop interviewing Big Sean. We caught up and when Sean walked over, Kev was just talking me up to Sean. At that point, he heard about me that many times that after his interview he asked, ‘Yo, you want to come on my bus and play some beats?’

After I played him the ‘Living Single’ beat, he left. But, he let me stay on in his studio on the bus. In the span of maybe five or 10 minutes, I ended up making ‘De Ja Vu.’ He came in while I was in the middle of it and freaked out when he heard it. He was, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I did the slowed-down vocals in the beat on his bus. By the end of the tour, he was inviting me to his actual crib to work on music. That really meant a lot to me. I felt really honored. I ended up meeting Jhene Aiko in those sessions, too.

You produced ‘De Ja Vu’ and ‘On The Way’ from the project. What was their dynamic working on that album?

It was dope. At the time, I think they had recently started knowing each other. It was cool to watch them have that affinity for each other before it became a thing. It was actually funny as hell (laughs). We were laughing, joking and playing around. There were so many things that happened that weren’t even music-related. It really was just us chopping it up and having fun. It was kind of like if you have a friend who ends up meeting his wife and you were there (laughs). That’s kind of how it felt.

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#blurredlife with the new homie @sza

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You completely murdered the ‘Doves in the Wind’ off SZA’s Ctrl. When during that session did you know you were making something special?

I met SZA in either 2014 or 2015 through this guy Script from Chicago. I remember hanging out with her every so often to get to know her. I started to realize she was after something different and unique. I knew that from her mixtapes. There’s a song I made for my album back then called ‘Take The Wheel.’ I played it for her and she really wanted it. She was like, ‘I’ll buy that song off of you.’ I had to decline because it was my song. I told her, ‘But, let’s work.’

I remember going to a house in Carson, CA. Isaiah Rashad was there, and so was Ty and Codie. I had met all of them for the first time there. They let me have fun and making beats in front of them. At first, I made something pretty sounding. She shut that down real quick. She said, ‘I want something masculine. Give me something ugly, gutter and dirty. Give me something a man would do. Give me something someone hard would do.’ I had this beat I did early, early, early for Vic that I never completed. It was basically that song, ‘Turn Me Up Some’ by Busta Rhymes produced by J. Dilla.

I slowed it down, listened to it screwed, and I loved the sound of it slowed down. It gave me this idea to make this beat at this tempo. But, I never did it because I was waiting for the right moment. When she said what she wanted I was like, ‘I have just the thing.’ I ended up building it up from scratch right there.

A SZA record with J. Dilla inspirations. That’s amazing. How and when did Kendrick get involved?

I guess SZA heard it and she had a session an hour later. She had to go to dinner and then, go to a session. So, she didn’t have any time to write to it. But, she wrote the whole thing within that time. I don’t know when she had time to write that. I showed up late to the session, so everyone was already there. Kendrick was there when I got there, but I didn’t know it was him. I saw this guy hunched over the speakers with my beat playing loud as fuck. His hoodie was on and he was bobbing his head really hard. I was like, ‘Damn, this nigga really fuck with my beat (laughs).’ This is early 2015 before To Pimp A Butterfly came out.

I walked in and SZA saw me. She went, ‘Oh, shit. K. Dot. This is Cam, the dude I told you about.’ She was talking me up. She called me a genius and everything in front of him. Then, he turned around, I saw his face and I froze. I didn’t know it was him at first. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and told me how much he loved my work, and what I was doing. It was a big moment of validation for me.

What’s your chemistry like with Cole? ‘High For Hours’ is one of his best songs in the last few years.

I made so many songs with Cole, but that was the only one that came out. ‘High For Hours’ happened at the end of his tour at the Denver stop. Elite and I were in the studio on his bus. He gave us an assignment. He showed us an Outkast song and he wanted us to do something to capture that same vibe. I was really trying to make it sound like some southern, funky Funkadelic-esque hip hop shit. Outkast’s early shit really did play a lot of the Funkadelics’ energy. They had that song ‘Synthesizer’ with George Clinton off Aquemini. I love that song.

I love ‘Sleep Deprived.’ Where did the inspiration for this come from?

‘Sleep Deprived’ came from me wandering around. ClickNPress was working on that beat. There was a grand piano in the room, and I heard the groove and thought, ‘Let me jam on this.’ I didn’t know they were recording. Before I got up, they were like, ‘Can you do that one more time?’ I was like, ‘Oh, y’all were recording the whole time (laughs)?’ There actually was another one I made before I made ‘PTSD’ that they ended up taking off [the album] to use for something else. But, I actually liked that one a lot more (laughs).

What was that?

It was this track I did with Marcellus Juvan, Mereba, Buddy and this dude named Elton Aura from Chicago. J. Cole came into the room, heard it, and was really into and wanted to be on it. He asked, ‘Can you send this to me?’ He came back again around the last day of the sessions about us sending it to him, so we did. They told me it was going to be on the album, but the day after, they said they were going to use it for something else. But, I don’t know what (laughs).

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Makin songs w/ @nonamegypsyy

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Thank you for Snoh Aalegra’s I Want You Around. That might be some of my favorite R&B production of the year.

Thank you. I met Snoh through No I.D. I met No I.D. in January 2018. I had a meeting with him when he was the executive vice president at Capitol Records. At the time, he was really into my album and offered me a deal, and everything at Capitol. That conversation led to him telling me about Snoh. He set me up in a couple of sessions with her. I brought my producer friend Dee Lilly with me. Dee and I had a session with Snoh and actually made three songs. The first one was on some Natasha Bedingfield meets J. Dilla (laughs).

Wait, so it was like ‘These Words’ with some J. Dilla chops?

Exactly! (Laughs). We were just feeling her out, seeing what her sound would be. That was the first song we made. Honestly, it was my favorite. Then, we made another one that D started that was more on some indie rock type shit with a hip hop undertone. It was some St. Vincent type shit. The third one was ‘I Want You Around.’ That was the most contemporary sounding one. That one I didn’t start. That was started by Nes, who is Bryson Tiller's producer.

It started bare. Dee and I filled it up. They played it and we got on our keyboards, and played on top of it. We were improvising, but didn’t know they were recording us. Come to find out, they’re about to put it out and all of our shit is on it. I was like, ‘Damn. I didn’t even know that was going to happen.’

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