For Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr., staying in one lane was never a goal or an option. Breaking musical molds and constant artistic evolvement has always been part of the plan. Ten years ago the Decatur, Georgia-bred rapper known as B.o.B. had a vision for the artist he saw himself to be and set out to make it happen. Launching a career as a beat maker, B.o.B. caught some buzz with "I’m The Cookie Man" for Slip-n-Slide’s Citti. A future meeting with T.I. and an impromptu performance of his song "Cloud 9" set the southern rapper on a path he’d always envisioned. After signing with Atlantic records, he remained loyal to his hometown roots and signed with T.I’.s Grand Hustle and Florida producer Jim Jonsin’s Rebel Rock imprints.
After dropping multiple mixtapes he created his alter ego Bobby Ray and released 2009’s standout B.o.B. vs. Bobby Ray, which only increased demand for his debut disc B.o.B Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray. The chart-topping album featured blockbuster singles "Airplanes" and the award-winning “Nothin’ On You," cementing B.o.B’s place as one of the freshest sounds coming from below the Mason Dixon. At last, after an over 10 year hustle, one man’s vision met with reality and had a full force, head on collision.
With the release of his sophomore album, Strange Clouds looming, the genre busting, multi-instrument playing B.o.B. spoke with HipHopDX in Philadelphia this month about his musical influences, his appreciation for the art of performance, and creating music for his latest album..
HipHopDX: Were you a fan of Paramore before you worked with lead singer Hailey Williams on "Airplanes"? How did you two connect?
B.o.B.: When I got signed to Atlantic [Records] I would always tell the label I want to work with Paramore. But you know, that’s something that has to happen. A chemistry that has to happen between artists with common interest with whatever project is going to be. Fortunately and ironically, it came in the form of "Airplanes." From that point on it kind of catapulted.
DX: Did that musical relationship solidify itself when you opened for them on tour in Europe?
B.o.B.: It was a dope tour to really open up and show that side of the world that I’m more than just what they may have perceived. We did a UK leg. We did Manchester, Dublin, Birmingham, and Liverpool. We did all of the major cities and of course London.
DX: What were some of the differences you noticed between UK and US audiences and how they responded to your music?
B.o.B.: Well overseas, I feel like they have more of an open-minded, un-pre-conceived notion about music. I think in the States because everything happens so fast and so close to everything, you pick up on it real quick. You kind of have a preconceived notion of what it is and what type of personality the artist may be. Or what that artist may bring to the table. The cultural difference may not apply to the perception of the music as much as it would in the States. I feel like good music is appreciated world wide but I definitely think maybe just overseas is more of an appreciation because it’s not as common. The world is becoming a smaller place and the bridge is being gapped more and more every day.
DX: As the son of a preacher's kid, you’ve have some church exposure. Growing up, how did seeing choirs and the effect of live spirit filled sounds incorporate itself into the visual and feeling of your music?
B.o.B.: It’s definitely a culmination of seeing things in church. It’s also from seeing concerts and watching live music being performed. When you do live music you can connect with the audience and kinda move how they move. Whether it be something up close and intimate or huge stadiums far away. When it’s live you have more of a freedom to express what energy is present at the time. Whereas with a track, it’s just straight. No matter what, this is what’s going to happen, this is the tempo. I don’t think that necessarily determines whether it’s going to be a good show or not. I started out with tracks and deejays. I think the live element of you being a live person kind of gets the energy across to the crowd.
DX: How many instruments did you play on Strange Clouds?
B.o.B.: I play guitar. Bass. Piano. Cello. I also read music. [I played] Everything stated except the cello. I did a lot. I got a guitar solo on Strange Clouds. I also put [out] a lot of material that I have been working on acoustically.
DX: Tell us about your new single "Ray Bands."
B.o.B.: I produced it with a friend of mine, a production partner named Jamison. It’s funny because the bridge started out as the hook. But it didn’t really seem complete. So I wrote something else to the hook music and it grew into its own thing. I think it’s a great song. I love the beat. I love the energy behind it. I’m excited to perform it. I want to see how people react to it. This is why I do it. I make music to perform it, to travel the world with it.
DX: You’ve also worked with Pop producer Ryan Tedder, co-writer of Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love." You seem to love working with producers that aren’t strictly Hip Hop. How did that happen?
B.o.B.: It’s funny because we were in the studio in L.A. The first song we worked on was a song called "Wrong," a song off my E.P.I.C. (Every Play Is Crucial) mixtape. It turned out so good and the chemistry was there from that point. So we thought let's keep it moving, let’s keep going. I came out to his studio in Denver. We continued to work and we actually ended up having three songs on the album that we collaborated on. Three strong songs. I feel like the whole album is a strong project overall. It has a really distinctive sound.
DX: Was he already a fan of yours?
B.o.B.: He definitely was aware of what I was doing in the music industry. And I think because we both play a lot of instruments too. You put us in the studio we are going to make something happen. I think having both of us in the same studio, songs like "So Good" came together in a major way.
DX: The chorus on "So Hard to Breathe" sounds as if it was created from personal experience.
B.o.B.: It definitely has a personal tone and vibe to it. I wanted to pull the listener into my own personal emotions and feelings, generally speaking. But you can still feel it as a listener. You can feel it for yourself. Even though I’m telling my story on the record, you can still relate. If you are sinking in, you’re trying to reach, you gasping for something, for relief, a breath of fresh air. I wanted to really open up on and pull people into my world.
DX: You performed at South By Southwest this year with T.I. How was it working with one of your earliest supporters?
B.o.B.: It was a great chance to perform with [T.I.]. It was the first time we performed together like a real performance. We’ve been on stage together before, but only momentarily. To really do a show felt pretty dope. It’s definitely foreshadowing things to come in the future.
DX: Did you get an opportunity to record “Play The Guitar” in studio with Andre 3000?
B.o.B.: We recorded separately. We talked through the whole process and even after. It was really meant to happen. I think the treat about that song is that he put a guitar solo at the end of it.
DX: Who came up with the concept?
B.o.B.: I was working with Salaam Remi. We were in the studio and he had this idea of flipping a Bo Diddley sample. I wanted to take it to the club and make it a club driven beat. So I said, “What if we got Tip's line “B.o.B., play the guitar?” The rest just came. I wrote a lot of verses to that song. The beat inspired a lot of lyrics. Me and Playboy Tre picked the best lines and structured them to together to make it the best verse it could be.
DX: Did you hear Dre’s finished verse before or after yours was done?
B.o.B.: I heard his after mine.
DX: Less pressure?
B.o.B.: I feel like it’s better than to have a real competitive nature. As a lyricist you want to put your best foot forward. I think if you hear the feature verse before, you may over think what you are doing. It could come off less natural because you are trying to give at a certain level. But I think it came out pretty dope.
DX: Given your age and where you grew up how have the sounds of Goodie Mob, Outkast, T.I. and other southern Rap artists influenced you?
B.o.B.: Oh yeah all of them. Outkast, Goodie Mob, Trillville, Lil Jon And The Eastside Boyz, Crime Mob, Bone Crusher. All of them played a huge role in creating the sound that I had. When you are in Atlanta you see everything, but I still ventured off into other areas. I was a huge Eminem fan. A DMX fan. [A] Dr. Dre [fan]. I think that’s why I have a universal appreciation for such music.
DX: Do you try and mix your love of '80s music into your sound?
B.o.B.: I went through a lot of phases. I would listen to artists from David Bowie to the Beach Boys. I listened to a lot of Doo-Wop music from the '50s. Different time periods really captivated me. I like the sonics. I feel like each time period had an emphasis on a certain sound sonically. But you can hear it recreated in today’s music. It’s a certain ear that people had back then.
DX: You seem to feel as comfortable rapping as you do singing. Are you?
B.o.B.: Definitely. Now I’m even more comfortable. I didn’t start out playing guitar on stage. Its something I picked up later in my career. I’m early in my career. I started when I was thirteen. It’s something I had to find a comfort zone with it. It’s something you have to be passionate about. If you aren’t passionate about playing the guitar and singing, it’s not something you are going to just pick up and be all into. You have to stick with it and hone it.
DX: When did you gain that comfort? Is this the B.o.B. you envisioned yourself to be when you started?
B.o.B.: It’s definitely becoming more and more what I am envisioning. I get a clearer and clearer vision as time moves forward. I’m keeping up with myself. When I made B.o.B. Presents: The Adventures of Bobby Ray, I already had songs for this album. "So Hard to Breathe" was already written on my acoustic guitar. I collaborated with Sean Garrett and we completed the idea. He gave new life to the record.
DX: Once word got out that Lupe Fiasco passed on some songs that you ended up recording, whispers of Lupe comparisons were in the air. Do you care?
B.o.B.: I don’t feel like I get that a lot. When I spoke to him about it, he was actually for me getting the songs. I guess the label wasn’t as satisfied with what he did with the songs, and he was glad for me to get them. It’s just the music industry.
DX: Should fans anticipate a Rock album next?
B.o.B.: It’s already hatched and semi recorded.
DX: Who are you looking forward to working with on the Rock album? Do you have a dream list?
B.o.B.: For me it could be a new artist or someone who has been out for years. But for For people who like "strange clouds," metaphorically speaking, check out James Blake. Catch a cloud and pop that in.
DX: So you will be dropping your first rock album and a collaborative album with T.I. too?
B.o.B.: We are working on the Man and the Martian project. It’s a project on the horizon. We are trying to get our solo projects out first. We already have songs recorded for it. It’s on the agenda of things to do.
DX: Will it be a true collaboration in the vein of Watch the Throne? Or a two disc concept like Speakerboxx/The Love Below?
B.o.B.: I think it will just be a natural occurrence. We just gonna get in the studio and take one song at a time.
DX: Complete the analogy: ‘Strange Clouds’ is to ________ as music is to __________
B.o.B.: Strange Clouds is to the sky as music is to music fans.