Interview: Ohbliv


Ohbliv is a producer and DJ from Richmond, Virginia. He’s produced records for rappers from Richmond (Nickelus F, Fly Anakin, Koncept Jack$on) and elsewhere (Mick Jenkins, Armand Hammer, ThaGodFahim), as well too many solo projects to count. At the time of writing, his latest is LewseJoints The Seventh One Pt. 2.

You from Richmond originally?

Yeah man, born and raised. I was born in Richmond and then moved out to Chesterfield, grew up out there, and moved back to Richmond. But in this area the whole time.

Has there always been a scene? It’s always seemed to come in waves.

I don’t know, man, I was in high school from ‘96 to 2000 and that’s when I really started gettin’ into hip-hop for real. Back then it was just more like Supafriendz, Skillz, people like that. There wasn’t really a lot going on. But we had the Friday Night Flavors, which played underground hip-hop and then some local artists at like, two in the morning Friday nights. So that was my introduction to local hip-hop, and ever since then I’ve been into the scene.

Where in town was all that happening?

Richmond, downtown Richmond. Power 92, at the time, was like the main radio station, and then they used to have local nights on the weekends. Supafriendz, Lonnie B, Clef Dollaz, all those artists from that late ‘90s era.

Was that a big thing for everybody in high school, or did you have to be kinda deep into it even at the time?

Oh, yeah, you had to be really into it. Most of my friends, we were into a lot of mainstream hip-hop, but I was like the anomaly. I was the tape kid, my parents used to take me to Willies - I thank them because I was privileged enough to be able to do that, like every weekend my parents would take me to Willies or Sam Goody and I would get two or three tapes. So I’d be known as the tape kid, always had the latest stuff. So for me it was always around, but I was aware that I was privileged to be into it like that.

You could find a sample on any of these I’m sure, but how would you categorize the records that you’re collecting or listening to for pure enjoyment nowadays?

Man, right now I’ve been listening to a lot of new age, ambient. I’ve always been into that, I was classically trained vocally, so I was exposed to music theory, classical music, all of that around the same time that I was getting into hip-hop and beats and stuff. Right now, I’m into a lot of that, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Mike Oldfield, stuff like that. I think as I get older my taste has been mellowing out, I was really into like heavy breaks, DJ Shadow, FReeZe, all of that in the early 2000s. Super-heavy 45 collecting and stuff.

Is that the direction you were headed with all the DarkTwaine stuff, like an intentional leap into a whole other tradition?

Absolutely, absolutely. It started off as just an avenue for me to express that stuff, because with the Ohbliv stuff it’s definitely kind of gotten pigeonholed into like r’n’b, ‘80s, soul, you know, but at the same time I was classically trained and always had that side in me that I wanted to express. And if you go back and listen to my old, old stuff on Bandcamp there was always at least one track on each project that’s kind of like… not like the others, you know what I mean? So I was kind of hinting at all that stuff, but the DarkTwaine is just more concentrated, a whole project.

Did you feel like you had to make that an entirely separate entity, or that it was gonna turn people off if you slipped it in with the Ohbliv releases?

At the time I did, but right now I feel like I wanna consolidate it all into one because it’s gettin’ kinda crazy with all the aliases. But at the time I definitely made it a point to differentiate this and that. I didn’t wanna confuse people, Ohbliv had a certain “brand, so to speak, people were looking to Ohbliv for a certain sound. But I feel like its created more confusion along the way now, some people know I’m doing the whole DarkTwaine thing and others haven’t caught on.

I was gonna ask how you imagine people parsing your Bandcamp splash page or whatever. You load it up and then suddenly there’s sixty different releases coming at you.

Yeah, I think it’s all about catalog. And at that time that I was doing a lot of Bandcamp releases, me and a couple of heads kind of had a little unspoken competition. Knxwledge, myself, Swarvy, all at that time like 2012-14, 2015, we were puttin’ out Bandcamps like “oh, ok, you droppin’ that? Well I got this, goin’ back and bouncing off each other. Its kind of broadened, but definitely for a certain period of time I was making stuff for specific people to hear. Then they’d pass something along to me, you know, I see you.

What do you see as the function of a beat tape at this point?

I mean, the original function was just, you know, a tape of beats that you would give out to rappers to choose beats for whatever. Over time, of course, it’s changed, but for me personally it’s just to present ideas, whether they’re fully fleshed-out or just sketches. But to me, it’s more just rough ideas as opposed to constructing an album. Like an album is the things that I was using the beat tape to figure out. So that was the function for a long time for me, just practice.

That makes total sense with Bandcamp and the whole flexibility with what constitutes a release.

Yeah man, that’s the whole beauty of Bandcamp! Just being able to dictate what you want it to be. That type of creative control.

And then simultaneously controlling what form that music takes when it goes from the internet to a physical thing, I guess.

That’s super-important; that’s become very important, especially in this age of streaming and things being so disposable or getting lost in the mix. It’s really cool for people to have something tangible, whether they keep it out or tuck it away and forget about it for five years. Pull it out, I remember this, this time. Play it and all those memories come back.

What attracted you to cassettes when you were younger?

It was all I had access to, I didn’t have a laptop or a CD burner or anything. I just had a dual cassette deck with the RCA ins that I could plug my SP[-404] into, record straight into. This was before the influx of all the tape labels and all that stuff, this tape right here is at least thirteen, fourteen years old.

I hadn’t thought about that before, that a tape deck is the only stereo equipment that you can both listen and record with.

Yeah, back then it was turntable to SP, RCA to the cassette deck auxiliary, and I would just plug it in there and go straight to tape. I did that for years, just making tapes for me, and then eventually I started handing them out to people ‘round the way, you know. Motherfuckers was just like “yo, you need to put these out!

I’ve read about you trying to replicate some loops using pause tapes right when you started - do you think people get tripped up trying to make something brand new right from the get-go?

There’s times where I feel like that, things get stale so I feel the need to innovate, but at the same time you have to understand that there’s nothing new. The more you research and study, the more you find out that this concept you might’ve had has already been done fifteen years ago. When you understand that everything’s been done, it becomes about how you interpret that thing. That’s what makes it fresh. It might be the same thing, but seeing it from a different angle. I do feel like with the advent of technology that people do get caught up in that rush, but I feel like limitations actually drive that innovation, whether it’s self-imposed or by circumstances.

You’ve been around for a couple big steps forward in musical technology - do you think there was an inflection point where it just got too overwhelming for somebody to get into?

Yeah, of course, and with anything there’s gonna be oversaturation as things become easier to get into. When we talked about hip-hop back then, we talked about hip-hop being this sort of insular thing. Before it was pop, like in the past two years they made the announcement that hip-hop is now the number-one music, right? Now with that, you have to understand that you’re gonna get a whole lot of grifters, a whole lot of scammers, a whole lot of conmen coming in there trying to get some money. That’s when anything gets big and goes mainstream. So there’s an ebb and flow of some new technology that comes out, people are gassed on it, and then there are some second thoughts and people start reverting back to old ways. Then something else comes out and there’s a rush to that… me personally, I just try and stay steadfast.

The loop that we’re in now is that new music technology mostly just means more accurate replication of old stuff.

That’s all it is! Every time I’m going on a website, checking out plugins, everything is just a replication of things that already physically existed. All it is is just making it more accurate so it can sound similar to the actual hardware. That’s what’s interesting to me, we’re rushing into all these advances just to make stuff sound… I have buddies that totally have bypassed VSTs and all that stuff, they collect hardware for real for real. It’s crazy, and I still feel like they can’t get the sounds exactly as they come out of the hardware. It still comes down to the atmosphere, the room, all that stuff plays a part.

Talking about the influx of money into the rap world, it seems like Richmond’s in a tricky spot where people love it specifically for how local it is now, or -

[claps hands] Bro! Let me tell you how it is. I don’t know where you’re going with this, I don’t mean to cut you off, but that’s been a major point of contention that I’ve been bringing up. I don’t know what it is, it just seems like the ceiling for Richmond hip-hop is just very, very clear. It’s so hard to get through, like we get accolades from people, gatekeepers all over the place… you can put it on the artist, in some respects, but I do feel like there’s a bias towards Richmond, and I really can’t put my finger on why, or what it is.

It’s just real easy to snub Richmond artists. You’ve got people like Nickelus F who might have just had his biggest year with the Stuck project and all his touring. That might be the direction that more artists need to take, but at the same time I feel like he still needs to be much bigger too! But I mean, we’re a blue-collar city, a blue-collar state, and so even if we’re working hard we’re not flashy about it. That’s our attitude, we’re just doing the work. We all workin’, but that next spot is just right there out of reach.

It’s been really weird to see people start to get on as soon as they start pulling in another city’s styles - Mutant Academy working the New York thing, Lil Ugly Mane starting out with the Memphis stuff.

Yeah, and also Richmond’s never had that really concrete identity. I talk to people about how that is our identity; we’re fluid, we’re malleable, we can do different types of sounds. To this day, you’ve got artists that go on tour and hit DC, Charlottesville, and Virginia Beach. We don’t have that local, unified market, but we’re inundated with all types of sounds. Growing up watching Rap City, I would see videos from N.W.A., then MC Breed, then Fat Joe, Lil Jon.

So we’re all over the place - I’m making lo-fi, soul-based, crate diggin’ backpacker music and then you got people like Flexico who’s doing kind of trap-ish stuff, Segga Spicoli who’s making more street-oriented stuff, Mutant Academy making grimy boom-bap stuff. And I feel like we’re finally at that stage where we feel like we can use that to our advantage. For years, it’s been “what’s the Richmond sound? Norfolk, Virginia Beach has got Timbaland, Missy, and Pharrell, but here it’s whatever - grew up listening to Lite 98, Q94 Top 40, and then Power 92 the urban station.

At the same time, Richmond’s got all the infrastructure for an underground scene. Is there a sense of where things might be moving now that Strange Matter is closing down?

Well, there was. It’s kinda going back to underground house parties, and that’s the nature of Richmond too. When I first started, there was a strong underground scene - places like Nanci Raygun, then Gallery 5, Camel, Canal Club, Have A Nice Day, all these places to go and check out hip-hop. Then the sound ordinance happened and it was back to house shows. Then Strange Matter popped up, Balliceaux, and we were back at venues. Then the incident at Balliceaux happened and Flora took over. Now Flora’s closed, Strange Matter’s closed, Gallery 5 is open but they havin’ drives because they ‘bout to close every couple years. So it just ebb and flows, you know? But it’s kinda hard right now. Everybody that does music, though, we’re still connected, so all it takes is a call. But Richmond is a strange place man, there’s still this Old Richmond/New Richmond thing going on.

And New New Richmond.

Right, now it’s like New Richmond vs. New New Richmond! With all this VCU development and all this stuff, it’s crazy man.

In an older interview I saw you talking about the odd dissonance between having your work embraced on, or by, the internet and feeling like it was totally being missed locally - is that still the case?

I feel like it was an education process; at the time, what I was doing was still pretty new in the area. I’d take my SP to a show and people would come up like “what’s this box, what’re you doing? People would come up and request songs. But now, the kids that couldn’t go out but might have heard me online are of age and there’s a changing of the guard. It’s a lot easier to get traction out here in the streets now, being around long enough that the people who grew up on it are buying stuff. But I feel like being a newer artist, it’s still pretty difficult to break through that barrier between the internet and the real world. Really, it’s probably gotten worse for newer artists with the over-saturation of all this stuff, especially with the lo-fi thing going on. Everybody feels like they can get a SP, find some YouTube samples, and do it. But if you got something special, I still think it’ll cut through.

It’s crazy how much that stuff just steamrolls scenes - even if the musical DNA of “lo-fi beats to study algebra to or whatever is maybe 50% shared with your stuff, for a lot of people that’s more than enough to make it all background music.

Yeah, that’s been the strange thing about it. That’s why I feel for a lot of the younger cats coming out now, without a strong identity you’re absolutely going to get lost. And that’s cool, you’ll get your streams up, but it all comes back to what you’re in it for. If you’re in it to get them streams, get that bread off of that, more power, you know? There’s avenues for that. But I see myself as an artist; before making beats, I was writing songs, playing piano - I chose to express myself through beats. I’m in it for the long haul.

That’s what’s strange to me about how this stuff gets out over the internet moreso than locally - theoretically you’re so much more anonymous. Rather than a person, you’re a name and some songs, with a whole lot of other names competing for attention. On the other hand, I guess the super heads would say they know your swing or your drum processing or whatever like their friend’s face. Do you think that’s conveying an identity, or just a technical preference?

When I started, one of my ethos was - and this was during the, like, super keyboard, Triton, kind of sterile beats - the whole thing was that I wanted to inject humanity into beats. So the way that I program it, the way it might be off a little bit or the sound’s a little shaky in areas, those are all sonic markers of who I am. So that’s something that I definitely set out to do, even down to what I choose to sample. I want people to be able to get a sense of who I am through my music, even if you still gotta talk to me.

Was debuting the DarkTwaine project freeing in terms of letting you be a bit more explicit with the spiritual or philosophical content?

Absolutely, that was definitely one of my main objectives with that. The Ohbliv stuff, over time, it became kind of its own thing. I got outside of myself with it, because people would hit me up for tracks and they would want a certain vibe, right? So when I started the DarkTwaine stuff, I definitely was intent… my wife jokes with me about it, when I make something and tell her it’s a DarkTwaine joint she’ll be like “nah, that’s an Ohbliv beat! But my intent was definitely to bring out another side of what I’m about.

Spirituality and things of that nature are very important in my life, always have been. It’s evolved over time, growing up Christian and then getting out of the church and exploring. Now I’m just trying to exist; I don’t believe in anything specifically, I just take what I want from each thing and try to apply it. And that’s exactly what the DarkTwaine stuff is, a hodgepodge of everything that has influenced my life. And in the purest sense too; it’s not beats or stuck in that form or structure. It can be whatever, however I’m feeling at the moment. That’s definitely a real true sense of what I am.

And that makes sense, formless expression for an innately abstract set of ideas. Rather than, you know, “here’s 30 seconds of movie dialogue followed by a beat with no relation to it.

Right, everything with the DarkTwaine stuff has a meaning. Nothing’s arbitrary; I’m really big on narratives and storytelling, and that’s right where that side comes in. Telling a story with each project, and with the concept as a whole.

Have you ever worked at all with generative music?

Oh, no, I definitely am a fan of incidental stuff. I love that. A lot of the Ohbliv stuff, especially early, was like that. Mistakes that happened but got kept in there. DarkTwaine, absolutely; a lot of that happens not necessarily on purpose, but for a reason.

I’ve heard people in those scenes describing themselves not as composers but more as setting the parameters that will shape what’s created.

I would never consider myself a composer, I hold too much respect for that position. But yeah, I’ve definitely been into setting the mood, setting the tone. Creating some type of emotional… an effect with sounds. I’ll make a point of playing first at shows because I want to set the tone for the night.

I assume you’d say that marriage and fatherhood have changed you - do you think that’s had concrete effects on your music in turn?

[laughs] Yeah. On a mundane level, my son or my wife will offer up samples. They’ll go through and find stuff for me. But definitely, just my mentality about it and the type of legacy that I want to leave behind for my family. My wife’s been around since the beginning though, she’s my high school sweetheart. So she’s been influencing this stuff from the beginning. But with my son, he’s definitely made me re-evaluate what I want to leave behind.

So more your goals than anything with the process itself.

Yeah, the process has pretty much stayed on the same path. A couple tweaks, but the process has always been the same: listen, listen, listen.

Your early musical upbringing and influences are pretty well-documented at this point, but what are some things that have been directing your output more recently?

I’m kind of a contrarian when it comes to music - whatever everybody’s doing, I’m trying to work on the opposite. So with this whole lo-fi thing, for Ohbliv I’ve definitely been trying to get stuff more hi-fi. Just in terms of how I’m EQing and mixing, taking more time to make sure my stuff sounds clean. That’s what I’m saying about this whole lo-fi thing! When I started, that was not a good thing. People would criticize me, Knxwledge, the whole clique for our sound quality and mixing. They’d tell me, like, “I want to play your stuff out but it don’t sound right on big speakers. I stayed steadfast because that was my sound, and turned that weakness into a strength. And now it’s a whole badge of honor to be lo-fi, so I’m on the flip. I’m not gonna say it’s my sound now, but it’s definitely something that I’ve been playing with for a while.

Hanging out with the young heads, yo, they’ve been keeping me on my toes. I’ve let some people hear the newer stuff and they didn’t even realize that I made it because it was kind of trap-ish. Playing around with my programming a bit more, just keeping myself on my toes. Then with the DarkTwaine, just studying different religions. Hermetics, I’ve been into Hermetic Science for some years now. I’ve been getting back heavy into it, and a lot of the stuff I was reading years ago finally makes sense now. That’s the nature of this type of stuff, you read it and it takes a year to click with you. So now I can finally apply that.

I’d meant to ask when you were talking about the Richmond ceiling - are there points where you’ve had to kind of choose between making sure that you’re still doing what you want to vs. the opportunity to reach a wider audience?

Yeah, definitely. Dealing with labels who only know about you from what you’ve released, then having an actual conversation with them and seeing their ideas about what they want from you. That’s always been a fight - not all labels, but there’s certain people out there that don’t get it or come in with a certain thing in mind. But I learned from my mom - whatever you’re doing that’s positive and it’s working, keep doing it ‘til it isn’t working anymore. So I’ve kept my vision, and the other labels that respect that and appreciate that are the ones I work with. But yeah, there’s always this struggle. Externally, and then internally - I need to be doin’ this, I should be here right now at this juncture of my life. But whatever’s out there for you will come to you.

How do you approach putting together the SLPHNC radio shows?

I just listen to music, man! It all just comes back to that, yo. It’s pretty much just an outlet for my to play what I wanna play. I had a terrestrial radio show around 2010-11, me and DJ Mordecai, and it was mostly a beats show with a few tracks and stuff. I’ve always had the itch for radio, just presenting songs. Growing up always making mixtapes for friends, dubbin’ tapes and making mixtapes. Curating, record collecting, all of that’s very big for me.

What are your most prized couple of records?

Alright, so there’s the prized records that are worth a lot but aren’t necessarily my favorites, and then there’s my favorite records. So I’m gonna give you those. Gosh man, my most prized records. That’s a hard question… [flipping through records]... this, Bo Hansson (Attic Thoughts), that’s a prized record. I love it. This right here, Karma (Celebration), just some really uplifting spiritual jazz stuff. Oh yeah, of course! This right here, Stanley Cowell (Waiting For The Moment). This has one of my favorite songs, “Sienna: Welcome My Darling. Me and my wife played this song on her belly every night when she was pregnant with our son, and now he’s playing the trumpet. This song right here… that’s definitely a prized record. This is a lot… man, my George Duke records are super prized. This one right here, Feel. Don’t get me started. Oh and of course, I gotta show you this one. Junie, Freeze. All of my Parliament and affiliated records, I will never part with those. Gotta give credit to pops for that, because he put me on super early.

When you’re going out and playing shows now, what form does that usually take?

It’s changed, because at first I was on some quasi-DJ kind of shit but now it’s turned into like… once I did the Boiler Room set, that kind of signalled the change to trying to tell a story. Beginning, middle, end, arcs in it. Something to give people some type of emotional reaction. I remember one time at the Camel, I was playing a surprise DarkTwaine set billed as Ohbliv and this girl came out like “I cried. What? “Yeah, I never cry, but what you played brought something out of me. Man, I’m sorry. “No, that’s good! I felt something! That’s the barometer for the reaction, I want people to be elated or crying. With the DarkTwaine, I don’t want to leave room for any middle ground. I want people to love it or hate it. Any reaction is good, I just don’t want people to be like “yeah, whatever, that was cool.