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Cam O’bi has known who he wanted to become since he was 11, a long journey through music just beginning, but his mission didn’t always revolve around melodies and samples.
Growing up in Las Vegas, Cam fell in love with Pixar films. He’d obsess over animations and cartoons, in awe of their emotional weight, delighted by their adventurous spark. Each movie, every episode, unlocked another little planet to dwell in and explore, even if those stories nominally took place on earth.
Though he hoped to contribute a tall tale of his own to the animation universe, Cam soon spent his days and nights on songs. Music had assumed priority status. And yet, it’s not far-fetched to say the same creative muscles required by visual storytelling are toned through production. Producers will magic into existence.
Many of his best songs—”Cocoa Butter Kisses” by Chance The Rapper; “Living Single” by Big Sean—are as Miyazaki as they are hip-hop, illustrated with rich, vibrant strokes of color. Telefone, Noname’s debut project which Cam executive produced, plays like a 33-minute short film detailing the vulnerability of innocence and death during adolescence. He makes music like he sees it, which lets listeners envision his sounds for themselves.
It requires more than talent to make an audio file vivid enough to picture. You need source material. Around the same time Cam was watching Toy Story, dreaming of Pixar, his big sister had started showing her little brother what was really possible with the right guitar, drum machine, vocal run. We are what we hear, and O’bi was enjoying the cream of the crop, across all genres.
Stem spoke with Cam about the artists and songs that inspired him to make music his everything. In his own words…
On his sister and the influence she had over his wide-reaching taste:
She’d have DMX playing, then Cam’ron’s album, the joint with the purple jacket on the front [Purple Haze]. She also put me on to Jay Z—In My Lifetime and Blueprint. Also, heavily playing Aaliyah, R. Kelly, Amel Larrieux and Alanis Morissette. It’s hard to pick between two of her songs. One of them is called “Ironic” and another is called “Hand In My Pocket.” I’ll just say the second one because that’s my big sister’s favorite song. She’s so dope. So raw. She had that album Jagged Little Pill and that was kinda it. She has this yodel thing that Slim from 112 also does on “Cupid.” I try to do that myself and imitate it on certain songs.
My big sister’s music was so eclectic. And she’s a hood mother fucker. Looking back on it, it’s crazy. She’s hood as fuck [Laughs]. Straight up. No other way to slice it. But her music taste becomes that much more important. I feel like people think people in the hood are so narrow-minded with music. My sister is proof that isn’t true. She likes anything that speaks to her soul. Me too, coming from that same neighborhood and what I’m into. My friend Dee Lilly too.
On The Neptunes’ opening up new worlds to explore:
“When This Feeling” [a 1996 song by SWV] is incredible. A lot of people don’t know that song. It was an album cut. My big sister used to play that song on repeat—whenever she’d clean the house. She had that song on full blast. Every time I heard it, it took me to some place new. Just magical to me.
I remember playing with this thing called Mega Bloks, which was like some bootleg LEGOs. You know! [Laughs]. I had the glow-in-the-dark sets. My earliest memory of “When This Feeling,” I’d be sitting there for hours playing with these blocks, building things, when this song played over and over. I didn’t find out until later that the Neptunes made that song. They became my favorite production team, period. They had the biggest effect on me.
On the greatness of J Dilla:
“Turn Me Up Some” by Dilla [a 2002 classic by Busta Rhymes]. That’s a joint. I remember I was in middle school, 6th or 7th grade, the first time I heard it. One thing about me, when I was that age, I was really into underground hip-hop. A lot of people my age were not listening to that. Black Thought was my favorite rapper. Common, Pharoahe Monch, Black Star, all those dudes. And Slum Village, that’s how I knew about Dilla.
I was 12 years old. If you can imagine a 12-year-old kid listening to “Turn Me Up Some” off the It Aint Safe No More… album, knowing J. Dilla produced it, that was me. My big sister had hella CDs. I’d open them up and look at the credits. I can’t remember if he was credited as Jay Dee or J Dilla at the time, but that’s how I knew. [Plays “Turn Me Up Some” on the studio monitors.] Yeahhhhh. That beat is crazy.
On discovering Kanye West for the first time:
My big sister’s boyfriend is the reason I was really into underground hip-hop. He’d say, “Man that shit on the radio is cool, but they’re not really spitting.” He’d put me on to different people. He’s the reason I learned about Kanye West. He gave me this XXL magazine with 2Pac on the cover from October of 2002. Kanye was in the producer section. They interviewed him and Just Blaze. That was two years before College Dropout. That shit is crazy! I have the issue at the crib, I found it on eBay and bought it because the interview changed my life.
Before it came out I told all my friends about it at school. I was known as the kid who knew early. I’d walk around saying, “Y’all gotta check out this dude Kanye, he produced this, this, that. He made ‘Izzo.’ They used to tell me to shut up about him. Toward the end, he said, “Well, you know, I’m a rapper too though.” I remember my initial gut feeling was, “Damn, I really love his beats though. I hope he doesn’t stop making beats.” It was sad at first but then I was hopeful for his album.
Cam’s knee-jerk reaction to Kanye’s ambitions deserves a chuckle in retrospect, with Grown Ass Kid, his debut solo project, around the corner. The artists share a strong bond in that regard. They could stomach their egos the way learning from others requires, yet remain confident enough to trust greatness awaited them. To Cam’s credit, the songs that shaped him cover a lot of ground. Such early exposure to so many styles of music undoubtedly contributed to what he does best: Draw something out of an artist (or himself) that no one else can.
With that, these are some of the songs that made Cam’s music possible, a few of his personal creations sprinkled throughout. Listen below or hop over to Spotify. Stay tuned for our deep dive profile of Cam to learn about his highs, lows and lessons learned on the road to making a living from music.