Electronic music has existed for over a century, evolving from a plaything of the avant-garde to the dominant music production paradigm. Yet, despite its current ubiquity, the idea of what electronic music is, and can be, remains confused. From performance to distribution and consumption, definitions and understandings abound, sometimes in contradiction. Maybe that’s because while we know the machine can make the music, be it synthesizer or software, we also know it doesn’t have a soul. The modern musician, then, makes sense of this conflict by injecting humanity in the machines.
Sam Obey grapples with this particular predicament. As Obey City (pronounced Oh-bee City), the young Brooklyn-based artist creates electronic music that plays with tension, mood, and styles——from humid r&b and raucous rap to ecstatic dance music. Technology helps Obey, a bass player-turned-producer, distill ideas to their essence. “I’m not a virtuoso of any instrument,” he admits, “but in a sense my music is very electronic, not natural.” From his 2011 debut, the Melted Magic EP on Astro Nautico, through to his current place alongside Lunice and Jacques Greene on the international LuckyMe roster, Obey has been searching for a way to reconcile the inherent coldness of electronic music with the warmth of the human touch. As he concludes a trilogy of EPs for LuckyMe this spring, he may have finally found a way forward.
I meet Obey on a late April afternoon in a Brooklyn bar near his apartment. Tall and slender, with a trimmed beard and long hair hidden beneath a dark blue Kangol cap, he has a calm, soothing demeanor. Born and bred in Long Island’s suburban Suffolk County, Obey smiles when I ask about his background. It’s the “classic story” of the modern producer: dad was a vinyl junkie who exposed him to music early on; he picked up string bass in 4th grade and played in orchestras; by high school he transitioned to bands, and as he entered university he graduated to the world of computers. In his late 20s, Obey belongs to the first generation of kids given free creative rein through pre-packaged visual and music editing software bundled in laptop and desktop computers. Apple’s Garageband was his entry into a world where he could experiment without the burden of tradition.
Obey’s shift towards becoming a modern producer happened as he finished high school. Punk was the big scene in his hometown, but he had “never resonated with it.” Instead he’d spent his formative years going deeper into what he calls “the other side of music” – hip-hop, funk, soul, and rock & roll. With Manhattan a short train journey away, he would visit whenever he could to soak in different vibes. Obey lights up as he recalls one show from May 2005. Together with some friends, he travelled to the Bowery Ballroom to see Prefuse 73, a producer, alongside Battles, then an upcoming rock band, and the rapper Beans. Obey had been obsessed with Prefuse’s One Word Extinguisher album and the show left a lasting impression with its celebration of experimental potential and the links between hip-hop, electronic music and rock.
That same year, Obey acquired a cracked version of FruityLoops for his desktop – the lingua franca of bedroom producers in the 2000s – and continued to explore what could be done when the band was just one person. “It was more instrument-based at that point,” he recalls, “just layering things and recording audio into the computer.” With no prior knowledge of the basics of production or even the software, Obey stumbled awkwardly around the different features. He even tried making his own sample packs. “The drums were pretty terrible,” he laughs. “I didn’t know what I was doing but I was just learning the basics.”
This continued, and intensified, when he left for Tufts University, near Boston. Shunning the traditional pastimes of campus life, Obey moved further into the ever-expanding world of digital production that lit up his computer screen. “Making music was more exciting than any class,” he says. He settled on a major in Japanese that took him to Hirakata City, north of Osaka, for an exchange year of music-making and language-learning in 2007. “I went there to absorb the culture and aesthetic,” he recalls. Japan’s influence has lingered and grown gradually since then. “I’m pretty obsessed with Japanese music now, especially anything related to Yellow Magic Orchestra and City Pop.”
In 2013, Obey debuted on LuckyMe with the Champagne Sounds EP, six tracks fizzing with ideas at the intersection of hip-hop, r&b and club music. By then, the Scottish label had cemented its position as a filter between underground cool and mainstream appeal with the unstoppable success of TNGHT, the duo of Hudson Mohawke and Lunice. Meanwhile Obey had moved to Brooklyn in early 2010 with hopes of turning his passion for music into a profession. The first years in the city were spent juggling day jobs, finishing a debut release, and getting the Astro Nautico label up and running alongside childhood friends Paul Jones and Charles Bennett. While at university, Obey and Jones had attended the Montreal date of LuckyMe’s first North American tour and later Obey met Travis “Machinedrum” Stewart, a LuckyMe artist, at a local Boston show. Obey reconnected with Stewart in Brooklyn and sent him demos. “Travis eventually suggested LuckyMe might like the music and sent it on to them,” Obey recalls. Stewart’s hunch was correct, the two were a good fit.
Over the past decade, LuckyMe has ascended to a unique place in the current music landscape by effacing themselves behind the artists and allowing them to grow. In the case of someone like Hudson Mohawke that has meant providing support as he climbs to new heights while for someone like Obey it required creating a space in which he could challenge himself and grow. “Dom [Flannigan] and Martyn [Flyn] both encourage grandiose ideas,” Obey says of the label’s founders. “They push you to do more than what’s expected, to go beyond what has been working.”
Obey took the advice to heart for his second EP on the label, 2015’s Merlot Sounds. The idea was to move past the club sounds of its predecessor by collaborating with vocalists. Kelela, a Los Angeles-based singer, proved instrumental in helping Obey kick on.. For the track Airy, a stand-out and favorite of many on the release, the pair worked across different studios in New York and took Obey’s original production further, workshopping it from a beat into a song. The experience fundamentally changed Obey’s approach to production by making the importance of the songwriting process clear. Its effects were weaved throughout the rest of the EP.
The personal, and public, success of Airy convinced Obey convinced he had found the right approach for his next release. I originally met with him on the understanding that a third EP was ready to complete a sort of unofficial trilogy for LuckyMe. As it turns out, the new EP is a collection of remixes and it’s on the following release, a full-length debut album, that Obey will showcase a newfound vision of his music, one where songwriting and lyrics are at the centre of the creative process.
Before we get there though we have his remix EP, five takes on Obey’s work by an international cast including LuckyMe’s S-Type, Seiho, a young Norwegian producer named Hi Tom, Toronto’s Deebs, and the Nashville duo Jensen Sportag, whose take on Airy Obey calls “epic.” Renowned for remixes that transcend their purpose, Jensen Sportag have transformed the original into a delicate ballad that stays true to its spirit and delicate touch. By letting others reinterpret his work, the EP underlines Obey’s growth over the past five years and how he has remained askew from any particular style. “The album will be the first time I’ve clued out a lot of what is going on, figured out a lot of ideas I’d put aside for a while,” he explains. “I’ve decided to take the jump and do it all myself.”
When Yellow Magic Orchestra broke out in the late 1970s, the Japanese trio became the standard bearers of a new approach to pop music – one where technology was enhanced by the human touch and possibilities felt expansive. Their work inspires Obey to this day. “[YMO members] never restricted themselves to the same sound or palette,” he says, “and I relate to that in many ways. It resonates with what I’m trying to do now.”
Listen to Obey’s work over the past five years and you’ll hear him searching for his own way to achieve a more natural sound through technology. “More so than before, I want my music to have a human element,” he says, his beer now finished. “Whether it’s a vocal or a finger snap, I want something organic in there, a texture.” He is quiet as he searches for his words. “It has to be a fusion of the two; electronic soul music.”