Detroit producer Apollo Brown has mastered the art of the sample, supplying soul-blessed bangers for underground royalty like Danny Brown, Has-Lo, Elzhi and Finale. “Trophies,” his collaboration with Brooklyn rhyme legend O.C. dropped at the top of the month. It’s his fourth back-to-front production effort for an emcee, following albums for NY’s Haasan Mackey, Detroit crew the Left and Atlanta rapper Boog Brown. O.C.’s ageless penmanship proves an excellent pairing with Brown’s frenetic Premo style chops. We discussed his personal introduction to rap, his favorite O.C. tracks, and the importance of recording in person. —Aaron Matthews
When did you first decide that rap was something you wanted to do?
Ever since I can remember, man. MTV Raps, RapCity, the early days of that. I was exposed to rap through older friends who had tapes. My first album was He’s The DJ…I’m the Rapper by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. And then I went the whole other side of the spectrum and got the D.O.C.’s No One Can Do It Better. My first two tapes were at opposite ends of the spectrum, and both classic albums in their own right. It wasn’t until I heard Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, when I heard the song “Looking At The Front Door”, that was the song that sealed the deal. That made me fall in love with hip-hop. I wanted to be a part of it.
What was it about Main Source that drew you in?
It was always the melody and the feeling. I was always interested in the background, what I didn’t know at the time was a sample… the music playing behind the lyrics, that’s what drew me into the song. If I could feel it, it could take me places.
That record was really revolutionary for its use of new sampling techniques at the time. How did it influence your own production?
Large Professor is a beast. He’s still a beast. My biggest inspiration is DJ Premier, he’s the GOAT to me. He’s the one cat I always looked up to, he’s consistent and I’m all about consistency. I don’t need to make hits or that one standout song that takes me to the top. I want to make sure all my albums and all my songs are consistently quality music. I think that’s what [Premier] did, all his songs, all his albums…it’s all quality music and it’s all consistent. He stayed true to himself, he didn’t stray. He didn’t go here because it’s what’s popular on the radio. He stayed true and he always has. That’s where most of my inspiration comes from.
It’s interesting that you draw on Premier so heavily because you’ve also recorded several LPs where you’ve worked exclusively with one emcee to produce a record.
It’s one of those things I enjoy doing, working with one emcee or one group. Like The Left [Gas Mask] album, I produced the whole thing. Brown Study with Boog Brown, Daily Bread with Haasan Mackey and this O.C. album. I enjoy holding down a whole album. I’m probably going to use the word “consistent” a lot, but when you have one emcee and one producer, you have a nice flow to the record. You know that every song is produced by this one producer, but every song sounds a little different but has that same feel that only that producer can give it. It’s like a marriage. When you have chemistry like that, you can make a good album.
What specifically about the collaboration process is satisfying for you?
I enjoy it because you get the vibe with that emcee not just on a musical level but on a personal level as well. When we do a record together, whether we live in a different state or not, either they’re flown out or I’m flying in. It gives you a chance to work one-on-one with a person and create a masterpiece with no distractions. You might have a few features on an album but to work on an album with one person…there’s nothing better than that. There’s no mix-ups. You don’t have to play with different egos or different personalities. It’s like being a waiter in a restaurant, you’re waiting on the same person all day. You know what they want, when to fill up their coffee or water. You know that person by the end of the day. Instead of waiting on a whole bunch of different people coming into the restaurant all day. Your attention is all over the place, so you can’t focus on just one person or one goal. That’s the weirdest analogy I’ve ever come up with [laughs]
You can concentrate on one goal with a single artist and it’s easier to get things down that way.
How did you and O.C. link up?
A friend of mine used to work at an old label that O.C. was a part of back in the day. He caught wind that I wanted to work with O.C. and did me a favor and got me in contact. I caught O.C. out of the blue one day and was like, “yo, I want to introduce myself”. It was funny because he already knew who I was, and starting naming off songs and albums of mine. I did the same thing. I remember buying Word…Life in ’94 when it came out. I remember buying Jewelz in ’97 when it came out. It changed my life, probably one of my top five albums of all time. And now I’m producing and DJing for one of my favorite rappers of all time.
It was all love from when we first linked up.
What’s your favorite O.C. track?
Probably “Jewelz” or “The Chosen One”. “Time’s Up” is a classic…”Stronjay”…c’mon, it’s O.C.! I love “My World” too. Lotta great songs come out of the D.I.T.C. camp.
O is an interesting character because he’s completely disappeared from the rap scene for years at a time.
He’s not really a limelight person, he values the work more than anything. He can write something real quick though, it just depends on what’s he writing. On [Trophies], the concepts are crazy, the stuff he wrote about…you would never hear emcees write about.
What tracks are you particularly proud of on this album?
All of them. I loved the beats when I was making them but [O.C.] took them to another level. [My favorite song] is a chronological rhyme about his career, “Fantastic”. It’s the last song on the album and there’s something eerie about it.
There’s a lot of concept songs.
Yeah, like “Nautica”…who raps a whole song about a storm. You’ve never heard that [before]. “Fantastic” is another example.
What’s next for you?
Can’t divulge too much, but my next album will be dropping September sometime, working with another very talented emcee. The album is going to be a little more sinister, more along the lines of the Left album [Gas Mask], a little more grimy and niche.
Are you planning to do more with Danny Brown? “Contra” is one of my favorite joints.
Hopefully if we cross paths in the near future. We do good work together, “Contra” came out really well. He’s getting big now so I gotta try to catch him.