Spoken-Hearted: An Interview With OVEOUS
Finding a softly sensual counterpoint to the minimal robotic grooves, rapper OVEOUS employs a haunting and hot-blooded practice in humanizing the machine.
“Some of my earliest memories include moments like the time my mom picked up a baseball bat and swung it at a woman who came to our fire escape window,” says OVEOUS of his upbringing in Washington Heights, New York. “[She] thought her husband and my mom was having an affair. Me and my little brother were both in the kitchen when the woman came to our window trying to start beef. I was about five-years-old, I think. My brother was just an infant. Next thing I remember was seeing my mom with a bat, a bloody shirt, and the police in the hallway trying to get this story straight.”
Much of OVEOUS’ life is filled with such curious, startling and unsettling moments, and they inevitably find their way into the fabric of his multifarious work. A producer, rapper and spoken word artist, the New York native has cultivated a career in hip-hop with the deliberate designs of a clued-in strategist who enjoys equally the thrill of impulse and whim. His aural-wrap of woozy atmospherics and minimalist hip-hop grooves pulse with an oneiric ambience -- sounds which are primed for the dance floor during after hours, but blossom even more in the quiet confines of the bedroom.
While he has spent the last several years honing his craft in sound design, OVEOUS has also spent years on the poetry circuit, paying dues at venues like Def Jam Poetry, earning him the attention of some notable musicians.
His first taste of mainstream success came with British jazz-rap outfit Us3 (best known for “Cantaloop”) on their 2011 release Lie, Cheat and Steal, an album on which he featured significantly. OVEOUS’ jazz-talk slipped in smoothly with Us3’s hip-hop speakeasy swings, resulting in a cool, blue mess of live grooves, beatnik jazz and conversational rhymes. The album proved the perfect platform to present the audacious talent who pulls from many disparate influences.
Growing up in Washington Heights in the early days of rap, OVEOUS reached a pivotal moment in his youth that would signal his later approach to music. “I bought my first cassette tape album and it was by an artist called LL Cool J,” he says. “I remember feeling the hard rhymes, heavy drums and guitar riffs at first listen. He was a very captivating artist for the youth at that time. But then came Michael Jackson. And I was distracted by that dude for awhile.
"When my parents separated, my mom took me and my little brother to Miami for a few years. It was there that I heavily connected with hip hop. I was 13-years-old at the time. Public Enemy and Gang Starr were among the first to catch my ears. Poor Righteous Teachers and NWA were also groups I loved.
"But it wasn’t until I moved back to the northeast that I discovered my true love for hip hop. My freshman year in high school I discovered A Tribe Called Quest and it was all over after that. I can still remember how my entire mind and body felt the moment my friend at the bus stop told me to put these headphones on and began to play 'Can I Kick It'. It was the most amazing experience for me. I felt like I had discovered my musical soul mates. Since then, one of my goals with music has been to give people that same exact feeling.”
OVEOUS’ 2009 debut, Future Intentions touched upon themes of suicide (detailing his late brother’s personal struggles), sex, love and death in the slow-turning ripples of electro-sonic waves. Between shuddering drum-loops and the airy plumes of synthesizer feedback, the rapper espoused the street-life philosophies of a lone city-dweller outlining daily life in the percolating rhythms of an MPC sampler. As on subsequent albums, OVEOUS’ discourse often finds a softly sensual counterpoint to the minimal robotic grooves, a haunting and hot-blooded practice in humanizing the machine.
If the ethereal soundscapes of Future Intentions explored navel-gazing reflections on the dance floor, then 2010’s grittier The Iambic Moment surveyed an even deeper reserve of clandestine emotions, oscillating between brittle, subdued electro-funk and the booming rough-hewn loops of old-school hip-hop. Awash in the red-glow of sexual desires, The Iambic Moment also examined the personal politics of inner city youth. In every instance on the album, the rapper’s voice cut through with the pointed clarity of a sharpened knife; his raps are often mixed high on his albums and they gleam with clear precision atop the beats.
“I’ll start by saying that I’m a huge believer in words,” OVEOUS maintains. “I believe that if your pen game is super strong, then you don’t need to overproduce a track and hide your voice behind the music. All the years I spent in the poetry battle world prepped me for this. There's nothing more terrifying than hoping to inspire and entertain thousands of people in a theatre with just your words. It literally feels scarier than being naked in front of them.
"So yeah, all those battles I did back in the mid-00s prepped me and gave me the confidence to approach my music with a minimalist style. I also love it when music has room to go from one extreme sonically to a breakdown that simplifies to give the listener a roller coaster ride. To me, 'Lithium' by Nirvana is the perfect example of this.”
OVEOUS’ third full-length studio release, 2012’s Kill Your Myth, saw a return to the more lush airs of ambient electronica, the beats appropriating the moodier R&B textures that have made the Weeknd quite a thing these last few years. The relaxed rhythms on Kill Your Myth worked an angle of hypnotic, trancelike graduation, pulling listeners into the suctions of a downbeat momentum. Often divorced from the hip-hop trope of a heavy bassline, the album delivered OVEOUS’ usual meditations on life and death with the eerily detached grooves of clean, unsaturated drum loops.
“I was telling Dre de Santanna (co-producer and bass player on my next LP for The Q&O Project) that he has taught me so much about the importance of the bass and how it can really take a composition of music to worlds people haven’t explored yet,” the rapper explains. “During this exchange, he also told me that he appreciates my approach to producing and my willingness to learn and explore. We all have different ideas and I believe that when it comes to Art, you have to be willing to do things that feel right. Even if what feels right, isn’t the norm. I believe that’s how innovation sparks. So in short, sometimes I keep the bass very subtle in my productions to give the listener a different experience.”
The rapper’s most recent effort, 2014’s Passion in Veins, broadens the rhythmic scope with sly percussive taps echoing in and out of earshot and filling the sonic atmosphere with cosmic ripples. Even bluer and moodier than Kill Your Myth, Passion in Veins edges closer to the sci-fi R&B vibe OVEOUS has been cultivating these last few years. There's also the feverish warmth of Africana blues that seeps deep into the heart of the retro 808 grooves.
“The album has percussive elements because of my love for house music as well,” says OVEOUS. “I’ve worked on and produced records with some of the best in the game. Osunlade, Louie Vega, Boddhi Satva and Atjazz, just to name a few. They’ve taught me and have inspired me to listen with different ears. They’ve taught me to explore various world rhythms and electronic sounds. So having this knowledge from these great teachers really helped me shape and carve a new sound for hip-hop.
"With Passion in Veins, the beats are more soulful and dense. Passion was also mastered with special analog equipment to give it a rich and warm sound that is compatible with vinyl; it’s soulful and funky and electronic and I’m good with all that coming together the way it did on Passion.”
OVEOUS’ upcoming album, tentatively called The Q&O project”, sees a shift in sound toward soul and blues with the hip-hop elements pushed to the peripheries of the music. The rapper’s initial forays into the more conventional flows of hip-hop lyricism has led to a more pronounced influence of spoken word and beat poetry. In addition to Def Jam Poetry, his spoken word pieces have caught the attention of some media moguls, landing him a guest spot on Arsenio Hall’s rebooted talk show. “I remember that being the turning point for me,” he says.
OVEOUS has also, in recent months, exchanged rhymes for croons as he pushes further toward singer-songwriter territory. A few clips circulating online reveal a few rough in-studio demos (recorded in Peru) that feature him rehearsing some funked-up quiet storm slow jams. “I’ve always said that finding my voice has been quite a journey,” he reveals. “Now at this very moment I finally feel like I have found my pocket and the best of my vocal range abilities. And man it feels great.
"Only took me a decade! But still, it feels so good to know that I’m in my prime. Soul, blues and funk have made their way into my next album with The Q&O project. I can’t wait to share it with the world in 2016.”
And with impishly good-natured humour, he adds: “I can say with confidence that if D’Angelo, The Roots, Outkast, Funkadelic, Little Dragon and Kanye heard my next album, they’ll more than likely wish they were on it!”