Atlantic Records did a worthy job in signing a diverse array of emcees in the 2000s. Much better than most majors, anyway. T.I., for example, is not only one of the most important artists in Hip Hop over the past decade plus—amassing an incredible number of fans inside and out of the music industry—but is also without a doubt the most lyrically transcendent Trap-rapper of his era. In Lupe Fiasco, Atlantic notched plaques off an artist kicking wicked extended metaphors about project buildings turning into robots and a hustler digging himself out of his own grave. The label even took a chance on a trio from North Carolina that so embodied the Native Tongue everyman aesthetic that they named themselves Little Brother (in homage to their influences). For all of the qualms many placed on post-Golden Era Hip Hop; for all of the cries for diversity on the radio and complaints about dumbed-down Rap music, Atlantic consistently took chances on acts challenging the status quo. Perhaps none are more willing to step outside of groupthink than Atlanta's Bobby Ray—otherwise known as B.o.B.
It's starting to seem like everytime we hear B.o.B. it's a sonically different B.o.B.—more experimental with a slew of new tricks in the utiltity belt. Raucous mixtapes like "Who The Fuck Is B.o.B." shined through vicious rhymes and an appreciation for Hip Hop's grimier side, while his Atlantic Records debut—The Adventures Of Bobby Ray—proved that the ATLien could put together a project polished enough for Pop radio without pulling too far away from the sound that solidified his fanbase. And though the chimes of sideseat criticism muttered in the underground in response to his sophomore release (which included a collaboration with Taylor Swift) Strange Clouds, B.o.B. remains unphased.
"Throughout my whole career, I kind of always allowed myself to make whatever I want to make," he said to HipHopDX in this exclusive interview. "I never really saw myself as, 'Alright, I have to be this type of artist,' or, 'I have to be an underground artist,' or, 'I can’t do endorsement deals because I’m an underground artist.' Fuck that. Do whatever you want to do. If you have fun and enjoy doing it, then do it."
Sitting outside on a picnic bench in the middle of Boring, Oregon's Camp Kuratli at Trestle Glen an hour prior to his "Brilliance Uncapped" performance as part of vitaminwater's #MakeBoringBrilliant campaign, B.o.B. recalls recording "Past My Shades" with Lupe Fiasco, responds to Tech N9ne's description of a tour bus encounter, and explains the similarities between T.I. and a young Malcolm X.
HipHopDX: We’re out here in Boring, Oregon for [vitaminwater's® "Brilliance Uncapped"]. What does that mean to you?
B.o.B.: It’s really about opening something as an extravagant quality to it. Something that has a lot of substance and style. This is like the third concert series for "Brilliance Uncapped." It’s really about livening up things and bringing our art to a place where you wouldn’t expect excitement.
DX: You’re very consistent about not limiting yourself or what type of music you allow yourself to put out there. What are the challenges around that?
B.o.B.: There are really no challenges. As an artist, you spend your whole career trying to find yourself, but you’re always yourself—you don’t have to find anything. I’m one of those artists where I realized that very early before I got signed. Throughout my whole career, I kind of always allowed myself to make whatever I want to make. I never really saw myself as, “Alright, I have to be this type of artist,” or, “I have to be an underground artist,” or, “I can’t do endorsement deals because I’m an underground artist.” Fuck that. Do whatever you want to do. If you have fun and enjoy doing it, then do it. There may come a time where all I want to do is play guitar, but just being open to yourself is really what’s going to work for you.
DX: Is Hip Hop at a point now where we have to get past some of that? The selling out, the crossing over?
B.o.B. I was talking to Playboy Tre, we’ve been together for years, and he had a great point. You know how [Rock & Roll] got Contemporary Rock, Southern Rock, Heavy Metal? I think Rap has become like that where in several years you’re going to have your Commercial Rap, your Underground Rap, your Gangster Rap. It really is like that, but I think it’s going to be more recognized in that fashion when someone has something.
DX: Can you pinpoint a point when you first recognized the difference between mainstream and underground?
B.o.B.: As an emcee and as a Hip Hop fan, it’s something you always see growing up from rappers like Devin the Dude to 50 Cent. You’ll see [50 Cent] come out with “Wanksta” and then sign to Shady [Records] and blow up. Now he’s doing a deal with vitaminwater®. It’s just crazy to see. It’s crazy because I grew up listening to Eminem, and it’s a small world. There are certain things I wasn’t meant to know when I was an aspiring artist. Now the whole point is learning it. The whole process is a trip. I just have fun with it. That’s the main part.
B.o.B. Describes Recording "Past My Shades" With Lupe Fiasco
DX: I think the Atlantic Records roster to me has some of the most diverse artists. I think about you, Lupe Fiasco and Wiz Khalifa specifically. “Past My Shades” is one of my favorite songs over the past 10 years. How was that song recorded? Were you [and Lupe] in the studio together?
B.o.B.: We were in the studio together. That’s why I like it, too. It’s one of my favorite collaborations because it happened. I love when shit happens organically because it’s like life. Would you rather have genetically modified favor-less strawberries be as big as your head but ain’t got no flavor in it, or would you want a real piece of fruit? The organic things that come about are usually the things that stick around the longest because they have the most substance.
DX: Around that same time, Lupe was going through a rough point with the label but also with meeting his fan’s expectations when he was experimenting with Japanese Cartoon and wanting to do more rock stuff. Have you encountered that as well as you’ve branched out? You mentioned there’s really no drawbacks.
B.o.B.: It’s crazy because for me, I went through a lot of different phases. I been through my underground rapper phase with songs like “Haterz Everywhere.” I been through my smoker phase with “Cloud 9,” my hippie, spiritual phase when I did songs like “No Mans Land.” For me, I got signed when I was 17 and went straight into the corporate music industry. I didn’t get that party, young, wild and reckless side of life. I kind of grew into that as well. It’s a whole different phase for me.
I enjoyed doing what I do but at the same time, at heart, it’s always about the music because I’m always adding guitar elements to my songs with just live music. Bass, piano keys whenever I get my hands on them in the studio. At the end of the day, I’ll do that shit with the keyboards on my Macbook. As long as I feel like I’m getting satisfaction out of making music that’s true and actually honest, that’s what yields the best results.
B.o.B. Comments On Comparisons Between T.I. & Malcolm X
DX: I’ve talked to about three or four different people at this point who’ve described T.I. as a young Malcolm X on their own without me asking about it. What do you think about that metaphor?
B.o.B.: The thing I notice about Tip and his following is people genuinely fuck with Tip. People genuinely like Tip. He has a following. If you look at the whole Hustle Gang thing—even the logo—if you want to look at it from a hippie point of view, it’s like a tribal chief leader. Everywhere he goes, it’s like a pow-wow. People gather, and I think that’s something that will further evolve into Hip Hop. It won’t just be about the songs you have or the hit records necessarily, but how you connect with the people. That’s what's real. Not the genetically modified strawberry—that’s the real essence of what Hip Hop is all about.
I remember when I was doing open mics, I noticed that the crowd will only react as much as I would be connected to them. It’s not about having a popular song and then they’ll sing along to it. When you’re actually emcee-ing some shit, and the crowd is rocking with you, that’s the connection with the people and that’s why, for the most part, I don’t think people like Pop music because it has no substance. Then, you have that one Pop song that’s actually got substance to it and that’s the song of the year. People just want substance.
DX: What’s the difference between connecting with an audience in an open mic setting versus something like Coachella?
B.o.B.: I really think it’s up to the artist. For me, I don’t even look at it like an open mic or a Coachella. It’s like, “Alright, this is what I’m saying,” so it ain’t no gimmick. What I’m saying in my lyrics has no separation between my conversation that I’ll have with somebody and my lyrics so I can just talk into a Rap verse and start rapping and segway into it.
Back to the Malcolm X thing with Tip, I definitely see Hip Hop evolving more into a freedom of speech type of thing. Not just about who’s the biggest artist but who’s really going to say some shit. Who’s really going to be real? I feel people are really waking up and becoming hip to what’s going on in the world and the things that they don’t want us to know. Now that people know that, they’re like, “Who’s going to say something then? Everybody got all this money and fame so who’s going to actually say something that’s going to give me something as a listener?” That’s what I feel from people.
DX: Do you feel that it's your responsibility to give them that?
B.o.B.: I feel like everybody’s first responsibility is to be themselves. If it’s on your heart to really go out and say some shit, then do it. But if it’s not, then you’re going to look stupid trying to go do something just for trying to do something. With Hustle Gang, we all have the same intentions of changing the world through music. I think that’s what really the main thing is and that’s how we get along. From Chipmunk to Tip to Trae Tha Truth to Iggy [Azalea]—we all have this international type of appeal to it. The puzzles kind of fell that way because the whole time Tip was in jail, I was loyal to the movement. I looked at it as something I wanted to be a part of. It is a business decision but at the end of the day it’s family.
DX: I mean from the business standpoint—it was family for you—being an artist from the label, that has to creep up into your mind when the label head is not in the position to be at the forefront.
B.o.B.: For me, my relationship with Hustle Gang has been something growing since 2008, a year after I got signed after high school. It’s like an entity that has always been there and is backing me and giving me support but at the same time allowing me to grow into my own type of artist. I never felt that I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do or grow how I wanted to grow. I think that’s why I value the relationship the most.
B.o.B. Responds To Tech N9ne's "Awkward"
DX: We spent Paid Dues shadowing Tech N9ne. You guys collaborated on “Am I A Psycho?” on All 6’s and 7’s. On his Klusterfuck EP that came out the following year, at the end of the song “Awkward,” he tells a story of you coming on the bus and you were asking about [Tech's guns]. You were asking about some tools and if he shoots guns. Is that how it really went down?
B.o.B.: Man, look. I came on the bus and I saw a pistol. I was like, “Oh okay. I’m into pistols, too,” so I’m trying to see what’s up. I seen Tech N9ne and I’m like, “Tech N9ne? You on that gas right there?” [Laughs] He was like, “No. B.o.B. Not at all.” I went back and it was gone. It was confusing to me. I don’t know if I just saw it because my head put it there but he was shocked. I be going to the range working on my targetry. It’s not even a word.
DX: It’s a word now.
B.o.B.: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s funny. I ain’t never told that story.
DX: It’s on the album. Two rapper verses and he just talks through the last one [about that situation].
B.o.B.: That’s funny. I gotta check it out.
DX: I look around Hip Hop and things look really ‘90s to me, like in a good way.
B.o.B.: Like you said about the ‘90s, they’re definitely rolling back again because it’s so crazy. When you actually look at the dance moves that were popping back then, they kind of are like that now but just swagged out. It’s more about the "uhh." With clothing, it’s way more vibrant and colorful than what it was in the 2000s when white tees was popping. It was straight white tees, jeans, Timbs, and a fitted. That was the outfit.
DX: It was a huge white tee.
B.o.B.: It was like a jersey-sized tee. It just evolved and now circled back around. Now, people just want to stand out and make a statement. Like you said, “Who’s going to say some shit?” The whole civil rights thing. People don’t change. There’s all types of stuff going on. Now the challenge will always present itself to stay true in an artificial environment.
DX: You’ve been cynical about it [throughout this interview]. It’s funny. You’re in this [corporate music industry] but you call out the system.
B.o.B.: Yeah, I mean it’s like you gotta play their game by your rules. But at the end of the day, you gotta be yourself first because when you start trying to become something else, you’ll lose yourself. You’ll get lost if you just have a closed perspective on life. There’s certain ways I feel and I don’t feel that way because I just want to hold on to it. I feel that way so I’ll say it to get it off my chest and if I still feel the same the next day, then cool, if not, I move on and life continues. Really, I think Hip Hop is definitely becoming more defined and recognized. Now, as I travel the world, I see it really seeking into the roots of the youth on a widespread scale. I remember when I went to Australia, people were like, “Yo, you gotta do something with Kendrick.” I already did, it just isn’t out yet. [Laughs.]