Beat Break: Cam O’bi Shares the Story Behind His 5 Biggest Songs

By | Posted July 17, 2017
The GRAMMY-winning producer sheds light on his soul-soaked beats for Chance The Rapper, Isaiah Rashad, SZA and more.
2017-07-17-cam-obi-interview-beat-break
Photo Credit: Truth Studios

Cam O’bi might just be the most soulful producer in rap right now (all due respect to 9th Wonder, Terrace Martin and Jake One). A student of J Dilla, Dr. Dre and, above all, The Neptunes, the 27-year-old Las Vegas native has honed a distinct sound that blends gorgeous chord progressions, soothing vocal samples and big ass drums. The results, like Chance The Rapper’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” radiate with warmth, innocence and optimism. Cam O’bi’s beats put a snap in your neck and a smile on your face.

Cam got his start in the industry through GRAMMY-winning production team J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, who signed him after hearing some of his beats in a Ustream listening session. But over the last four years, Cam has stepped out on his own and quietly become the beating heart of hip-hop’s current soul movement, producing standout songs for Vic Mensa, J. Cole, SZA, Isaiah Rashad, Noname, Big Sean, Jhené Aiko, Mick Jenkins, Saba and, of course, Chance. Cam even won a GRAMMY of his own this year for his work on Coloring Book.

Looking ahead, Cam O’bi has collaborations lined up with J. Cole, Smino, Moses Sumney and Rejjie Snow, but the project he’s really focused on—and excited about—is Grown Ass Kid, his long-awaited debut solo album that’s been four years in the making. Taking cues from Kanye West’s The College Dropout and André 3000’s The Love Below, Cam intends to establish himself as a triple-threat artist (you can already hear his voice on TWENTY88’s “Déjà Vu” and Noname’s “Diddy Bop”) while sharing his story with the world.

“I have this really cool story behind [the album] and at the same time I’m showing all the things I’m capable of doing—from rapping to singing to producing to storytelling,” he says over a video call. “People will be like, ‘Who the fuck is this dude, Cam? What the fuck is Grown Ass Kid?’ And then you look and you see, ‘Oh shit! He did this, he did this, he did this.’ Kinda like when people discovered Kanye for the first time, the way he built a name for himself as a producer and then came out with a solo album as an artist.”

Until then, here are the stories behind five of Cam O’bi’s biggest songs.


Chance The Rapper — “Cocoa Butter Kisses” ft. Vic Mensa & Twista (2013)

Co-produced by Peter Cottontale

“Vic [Mensa] orchestrated that song actually. [Him and Chance] wrote that song before I even met them—they wrote it while they were on mushrooms. They did a voice memo recording of it originally to a totally different beat. It was called ‘Babies and Gun Shots (Fuck Hawaii)’. It had a meaning to it that they would have to explain to you. Like I said, they were tripping on mushrooms [laughs].

“They couldn’t use the beat because the dude who produced it already gave it away to another local rapper and didn’t want to give it to Chance. Even at the time, I was like, ‘what?’ Because everybody knew he was about to blow up. So Vic introduced me to Peter Cottontale and was like, ‘Y’all should join forces and do something together.’ Vic had this crazy idea in his head of what that would be like. So we did.

“[Peter and I] had a session in the Kids These Days rehearsal space. Chance and Vic were singing us the hook repeatedly while me and Peter sat on our keyboards and tried to work out chords and shit. I had my computer with Fruity Loops up and I had drums going, and Peter was on keys coming up with the chords. I remember the moment he hit the right chords: he was playing this chord [*hums melody*] and I was like, ‘Oh shit! Go up, go up.’ [*Hums melody*] And I was like, ‘Go up again! Boom! Right there, that’s the chord progression.’ Everything else was easy after that.

“They all had to leave to go on tour so they left the shit with me—all we had was the chord progression and a bassline. I remember Chance asked me, ‘You think you can have this done by the time we get back?’ They were only going to be gone a week maybe. I was like, ‘Sure, I got you.’ I was confident in myself. So I took all the pieces with the original a cappella and just used that as my guide.

“You know how the drums are super dirty, right? I was like, ‘What if I had some New York drums playing a Southern bounce?’ I was super interested in The Cool Kids’ drums and I was trying to make it sound like some of their shit. It took me a while to get the sound I was going for and I still didn’t quite get it, but it sounded good.

“When they came back, I played [the finished beat] for Chance and he lit up. He was so excited, he couldn’t contain himself. When I heard it I was like, ‘This is a fucking hit.’ I thank all of them for that because it wouldn’t have been made without them. That came from us vibing together. Peter laid down the most important part to that shit, but they left it to me to make it work.

"The first time I met Chance, I didn't know who he was. He was wearing a tie-dye Dope Boy Magic hoodie, I remember that [laughs]. Vic played him ['Hollywood LA' and 'Holy Holy'] and was bragging like, 'Ay, look what I got.' I wasn't there but apparently Chance was flipping out like, 'Who the fuck made these beats?!' So Vic introduced me to him while he was working on Acid Rap. He was so humble and so innocent and gave me the whole spiel on what he was trying to do, and asked if I wanted to be a part of it.

“[Working with Chance] is like the stars aligning, bringing me together with my musical match. I’ve never felt that way, as an artist and producer, about anyone as I do with him. My sound is so animated, so optimistic, so playful, but it’s also grounded and serious—that’s him. That’s Chance embodied.

“[That song] catapulted my career, too. It changed my life. I was trying to establish myself outside of the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League and that’s exactly what it did. People noticed me, and not only that, it’s my sound. Usually with the industry, in order to have a hit song you have to do the sound that’s trendy, you have to compromise. But with ‘Cocoa Butter Kisses,’ I got to define my own ‘hit.’”

Lil Wayne — “You Song” ft. Chance The Rapper (2013)

Co-produced by Peter Cottontale & Nate Fox

Samples: Joe Tex “Papa Was Too” + Michael Jackson “The Way You Make Me Feel” + Reverend W.A. Donaldson “Baptizing Scene”

“After Acid Rap came out and it was a big success, Wayne reached out to Chance ’cause he wanted him on Dedication 5. Chance scheduled a session, he called me, Nate [Fox] and Peter [Cottontale] up and was like, ‘Yo, Wayne wants me to be on his project, he told me I can use whatever producer I want and he’ll hop on the song. I wanna work with you guys, let’s make something.’ I was like, ‘Dope!’ We were all excited. 

“We made that song from scratch. [Chance] played ‘Thank You’ by JAY-Z, he was like, ‘I want to rap on a beat like this.’ We were like, ‘Bet.’ I did the drums first and then Peter played the chords—I love those chords so much. Then Nate added the Michael Jackson sample which was so important. ‘G-g-g-g-gon’ girl!’ Nate just knows the small details.

“That song wasn’t even finished, it’s just that we had to have it done and sent over by the next day. Peter had to leave because he was working at a restaurant at the time, so it was just me and L10, the engineer, in the studio. I think Chance was there but he fell asleep [laughs]. So we stayed up ’til the sun came up; the sun came up and we were still working on this fucking song. Chance did the hook—‘this is not a love song, this is a you song,’ I love that shit—but we didn’t get a chance to finish it before the deadline.

“Chance let me sing on it, too—I did little ad libs and the ‘I just happen to love ya (looove ya)’ part. It was fun. For him to believe in me to do that was a big deal. I was like, ‘Oh shit, Chance The Rapper wants me to get on a song? This is crazy!’ Vic Mensa was the first person to encourage me to do my own thing as an artist, but Chance heavily encouraged me, too.

“We submitted the song, unfinished, to Wayne, thinking that they were going to send it back to us so L10 can mix it. They never sent it back, they just put it out [laughs]. But it was great.

“I feel like if you think about [the pressure] too much, it’ll fuck you up. I’ve had many, many situations like that and what I’ve learned is, when you’ve been doing something your whole life, have fun with it. You’re going to get lost in having fun with it and before you know it, you’ll be done and will have made something so incredible.

“But sometimes you take that call and it doesn’t work out [laughs]. That happened with me with JAY-Z, I had an opportunity to make a beat for [Magna Carta…Holy Grail]. Vinylz, who produced “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” he hit me up to send some beats. I made a beat from scratch called ‘Hov Back.’ I was like, ‘What do I want to hear Jay on right now?’ You know, I like the soulful shit.

“But that was one of those situations where it wasn’t the right thing. Vinylz told me, ‘I can’t play this for him ’cause this isn’t what he’s looking for right now. He’s looking for some dark, trap shit.’ I was like, ‘Ah, fuck it.’ Then when [4:44] came out I was like, ‘Oh my God, that would have been perfect for this!’ [Laughs]. Eventually, I’ll get on his radar.”

Isaiah Rashad — “Free Lunch” (2016)

“I made that in 2015 at J. Cole’s house—for his album that he was working on at the time, 4 Your Eyez Only. Cole recorded a song to it with Bas. It was damn near done, but he just didn’t like it. He didn’t like what he wrote. I loved the song, personally, but Cole didn’t.

“So I asked him one day, ‘Are you sure you’re not going to use this for your album?’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I’m not going to use it.’ So I was like, ‘Bet.’ Isaiah, I met him when I met SZA, and he’d been wanting to work for a minute. I was trying to get in with him, I just didn’t have the time. I still need to get in with Isaiah properly. So I was like, ‘Let me just send him a bunch of shit.’ And he picked that.

“I want to shout out my homie Benjamin J. Shepherd, who’s a jazz bass player. I played the bass on the verse, he played the bass chords on the hook—all the crazy, pretty-sounding shit. I love him, he’s so dope. He worked on ‘Grown Ass Kid’ and ‘Blessings (Reprise),’ too.

“I was so glad that [Isaiah] made that song, and also that he made it his single. I was flattered, like, ‘Dude, that’s what’s up!’ It felt good because I loved that beat so much and I was kinda discouraged at first because Cole didn’t want it. But at the end of the day, you should never take those things personal. Cole wants a specific thing and it doesn’t have anything to do with me. Thankfully, this one found a home.”

Chance The Rapper — “Blessings (Reprise)” ft. Ty Dolla $ign, Raury, BJ The Chicago Kid & Anderson .Paak

Co-produced by The Social Experiment

Sample: Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ “Let the Praise Begin (Chapter II)”

“We did this at Conway Studios in LA. I did a lot of stuff for Coloring Book that didn’t end up making it. The only thing that made it was [‘Blessings (Reprise)’]. I made that on the spot with them because [Chance] told me what his inspiration was, which was the Fred Hammond song ‘Let the Praise Begin.’ I’m very familiar with that song, I just loved that chord progression, that 4321. He told me he wanted that swing.

“I started off doing the drums and did the 4321, the [*hums melody*]. It was pretty simple. I played it at first on the bass and then I was like, ‘Nah, lemme sing it and speed my voice up.’ The chipmunk voice. From there, that’s where my guys Ben and Joey Lopez, a guitarist, come in. I brought them in and had them play on it all the way through, they pretty much completed it. Nate [Fox] and Nico Segal, they kinda sequenced everything.

“Chance already recorded that song to a different beat, but he wanted me to make a whole new beat. He played me the original and was like, ‘Man, there’s something about this beat, I just don’t like it.’ I listened to it and started taking pieces away. Once I was finished, there wasn’t no beat left so I had to make a new beat [laughs].

“That one was pretty simple, we did it in one night. [Chance] took a break and stepped out for a few hours while we working on it, and when he got back he heard it and he was like, ‘Aw shit! This is crazy!’ Same reaction as [‘Cocoa Butter Kisses’] [laughs].

“Man, [the GRAMMY win] was huge. It was another of those moments where I was like, ‘Damn, shit has changed.’ I was homeless when I first moved to Chicago, sleeping in the fucking studio. Before that, I was depressed because shit wasn’t working. Four years later, I have a fucking GRAMMY and I’m at the GRAMMYs. I’ve always wanted to win a GRAMMY ever since I was kid, 11 years old working on a stolen copy of Fruity Loops [laughs], so that was crazy. Really, really crazy.

“I was making so much for that album. The beat to [Noname’s] ‘Shadow Man,’ I made a version of that without my sped-up vocals at J. Cole’s crib. I wrote a hook and everything to it with Cole but he didn’t end up using it. Then, I go to Chicago and make [a new version of] the ‘Shadow Man’ beat in front of Chance, like on the spot. He’s sitting there, watching me do it, and Chance just loved it. He was like, ‘Damn bro, this shit is crazy!’ But he didn’t do anything with it either.

“So I go back to Cole’s crib with the ‘Shadow Man’ beat before Noname ever heard it, played it for Cole and he remembered the chords. He wilded out and wrote a whole ass song to it featuring EarthGang. But you know, it didn’t end up making the album, so I played it for Noname. I was in the studio with her, Saba, theMIND, Smino and Phoelix. I was going to use [‘Shadow Man’] for my album at that point, but Noname wanted that beat bad. We ended up making that song together on the spot.

“One song that wasn’t supposed to be on there is ‘Grown Ass Kid,’ though, that was always my song. I made that beat towards the end [of the Coloring Book sessions] and Chance just loved it. He wanted it but I was like, ‘Naw! This is my title track!’ It was funny, every time he saw me he’d be like, ‘What about that ‘Grown Ass Kid’ though?’ I folded a little bit, I was like, ‘This would be a good look. Let me do two versions—one for his album and one for mine.’ I tried and the universe said ‘no.’ It just didn’t work out. So I was like, ‘Cool, it’s mine.’

SZA — “Doves In the Wind” ft. Kendrick Lamar (2017)

Samples: Busta Rhymes “Turn Me Up Some”

“That one I made on the spot with SZA at… not her house, but somebody’s house. Isaiah was there, [ThankGod4Cody] was there, The Antydote was there—SZA’s whole little family. We made this song in 2015, by the way.

"I was just at their crib making beats from scratch, playing them out loud on the speakers. It was really fun. After a while SZA told me what she wanted, she was like, ‘I don’t want anything pretty-sounding. I don’t want to sing over anything that’s feminine. Give me something dirty, something hood, something masculine.’ I thought about it and was like, ‘I got the perfect thing.’

“Way back in 2013 I was working on Vic [Mensa’s] album, INNANETAPE, and I took [Busta Rhymes and J Dilla’s ‘Turn Me Up Some’] and slowed it down, like screwed it. It sounded so dope. It was soulful but it was also dark. It was kinda difficult to find those chords so I could never get it, but I was like, ‘One day I‘m going to do it.’

“So when she told me that she needed something dark and hood and gritty, it just popped in my mind right there. I was like, ‘Let me try it this time.’ And I did it on the spot in front of them. I took the song and slowed it down and they were like, ‘Oh shit, what’s he about to do?’ [Laughs]. I started to play the synth parts, the chords, one sound at a time. Then I put the drums on there. The drums are inspired by ‘Everybody’s Something,’ how they’re really big, loud and slow-moving, and have a little dustiness to it. I knew it was going to work.

“I make a lot of beats in my head over time and have all the pieces in my mind. It’s like if you have a recipe in your mind and you’re like, ‘Ooh, what if I put some almonds with some coconut and mix it with this?’ [Laughs]. I had [the ‘Doves In the Wind’ beat] in my head already and that was my opportunity to do it. It was perfect. She instantly wrote the song.

“I remember I went to the studio for a session with her to record it and Kendrick was there. He had his back turned and had a hoodie on when I opened the door so I didn’t know it was him. He was really into the beat. I was like, ‘Damn, whoever this is, he loves this shit!’ He was all up on the speakers [laughs]. I walk in SZA’s like, ‘Oh Cam, what’s good?!’ She starts talking me up in front of Kendrick, I’m so happy she did that. She was like, ‘Yo K. Dot, this is Cam, he’s dope as fuck, he made this beat.’

“So Kendrick turns around and I didn’t know it was him so I jumped. I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ He came up to me like, ‘Yo, I fuck with this beat. This shit is raw.’ He said some more shit that I can’t even remember, it was a blur. He was talking and it was going in one ear and out the other. I wish I knew what the fuck he said about the beat. I couldn’t respond because I was froze. I couldn’t say shit [laughs].

“At first it was just SZA on the song and I love that song because of what she did. What she wanted to do was take this masculine energy, harness it and channel it in a song designed for female empowerment. That was so genius. The original song with just her on it, the message really gets across. She had this line at the very end—it isn’t there anymore, she took her verse off for Kendrick—where’s she’s like, ‘My pussy is above you, doves in the wind.’ That’s why she called it ‘Doves In the Wind.’ It’s like a poem.

“I didn’t even know Kendrick was on it until she dropped the tracklist. I was like, ‘Oh shit! Kendrick rapping on one of my beats?’ I just felt good, man. If I’m going to be the kind of producer that I want to be and have the impact that I want to have, you got to have the biggest rappers on your beats.

“I’ve always been true to myself musically, no matter what I was working on or who I was around. I never compromised, never did something because I felt like the people or the fans would be more into it. I was always being told by people in the industry that I couldn’t do that, that it would never work. So it feels good to get to this place. I don’t want to just have a bunch of money, I want to be great. I want to make an impact.”

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