“I Had Wanted to Put Out a Rap Project For So Long:” An Interview with Ovrkast.

Pranav Trewn speaks with the young rapper/producer about stepping from behind the boards in order to rap, Earl Sweatshirt rapping over one of his beats, and more.
By    February 8, 2021
Photo by Gabriel Saravia

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You can trace a majority of the musical tastes of Generation Z back to Odd Future. Within a decade of their pop culture insurrection, their members would go on to remake the contemporary trends they once rebelled against in their own images and interests. Tyler, the Creator cultivated a distinctly LA strain of blue-eyed soul. Frank Ocean refined an R&B mystique that would redefine Coachella-core. 

Meanwhile, Earl Sweatshirt, once the group’s baby-faced poet laureate, fell in with a new school of idiosyncratic rap germinating on the opposite coast. Built on muddy samples waded through with imprecise flows, the “loop rap” renaissance had already begun seizing a segment of the hip-hop consciousness before Earl became its ambassador. Yet with his languid but lucid lyricism, an instinctual spiritualism even at his most irreverent, Earl had already proven the biggest influence on this new generation of would-be beat poets. 

That once nascent scene, initially led by the NYC-based sLUms collective, is now beginning to teem with a rapidly accelerating enrollment of new recruits, and its inaugural graduating class are well within their own breakout moments. MIKE is entering his fourth year as a crossover critical darling. Mavi, the most clear Earl protégé, is receiving the kind of wonderkid acclaim that once chased his precocious mentor. And Ovrkast., one of the scene’s few West Coast representatives, is positioning himself as not only the next in line, but the quiet force who might most push the genre forward. Having learned to rap on Odd Future, it’s fitting that his breakthrough came from placing a beat on an Earl Sweatshirt album that was directly influenced by a sound he and his friends helped craft. 

Despite long being part of that scene – the first beat Mavi ever bought was from Ovrkast. in 2015, which was also the first beat Ovrkast. ever sold – it took the 23-year-old artist years to release his debut rap tape. Where his peers were becoming better known for being prolific, Ovrkast. was driven by a sense of perfectionism. A desire to create a statement project – a unified and self-contained entry point for his work – dogged Ovrkast. with a paralyzing self-doubt. He watched as friend after friend blew-up, sometimes over his productions, but couldn’t string together any of his own songs into something that felt cohesive and whole. The Earl beat proved to be the catalyst for the year in which he would go from a behind-the-scenes affiliate to among its leading voices on both sides of the board.

He took the opportunity as a sign he could no longer wait around, that his moment was now. He dropped his working album Work in Progress as a series of loosies, and tried again, this time with fire beneath his feet.

The resulting album, aptly-titled Try Again, was a rap debut as coming of age story, but one that transcended the tropes by making you feel the progression, rather than just telling you it’s taken place. That quality is reflected best by the knocking and knotty title track. “Try Again” is an ode to starting over, to the idea that it’s never too late to keep going. The song itself begins anew after a 30-second false start, a musical metaphor for the journey the album took from its scrapped first draft that eventually paved the road for the rapper’s proper introduction.

He laments being stuck with writer’s block, the rote nature of his many prior Bandcamp beat tapes, and his failure to live up to his own ideals. The rest of the album that follows is a medley of instructions and mottos for him to put into practice. The struggle to “send my good intentions out to stars and universes” is a constant push and pull – pushing himself to take up the space he knows he’s earned, but being pulled back by reservations, anxieties, and memories of disappointments he can’t let go of. 

The struggle to complete his album eventually became the raw material for the album, and the positive reception helped ease the self-doubt that almost blocked its creation. Where it took Ovrkast. five years after he first began releasing music to drop his proper debut, his work on its follow-up began only a month later and is planned to be out by the fall. And exactly a year to the album’s original release, Ovrkast. gave Try Again the deluxe treatment, adding three bonus tracks with features from Pink Siifu and Chris Keys, the latter perhaps his closest contemporary in the world of grand piano-laced rap beats that your grandparents could fuck with. The best of them is “Love Somebody”, Ovrkast.’s joyous foray into “uncle raps” to celebrate the recent birth of his nephew (who is prominently spotlighted in the coda for the song’s homespun and hand drawn video, which we’re premiering below).

Although all recorded in the year since Try Again, the songs come across like Ovrkast. closing out a chapter, a bookend before he ventures into new territory, one he’s teased over Twitter over the past few months. Against the expectations set by years of producing among rap’s prettiest and least hurried beats, Ovrkast. reveals a curiosity for how far he can stretch his music from his comfort zone, and how deep he can extend its influence. Having already worked with one of his heroes, his response when I ask him the rapper he most aspires to produce for in the future? “Playboi Carti.” – Pranav Trewn

The first time most people heard you was behind the boards on Earl’s Feet of Clay. How’d “EL TORO COMBO MEAL” come together?

Ovrkast.: I think Earl had probably known about me for a little bit, but we never connected. Then he connected with Mavi, who I knew from years ago. 2015 or so was when we first met, just through mutual friends. He was first rapping and I was first making beats, and I thought his raps were cool and he thought my beats were nice. I sent him some stuff and he’d rap to it. I think he was actually the first person to buy a beat from me. But yeah we linked up years ago, and saw each other’s trajectory throughout the years. After connecting with Earl, Mavi got connected to Pink Siifu and Maxo, both of whom I had also kind of known for years, so it was similarly a mutual friend thing. I think Earl followed me on Twitter, we got in contact, and I sent him some stuff through email. Then I went to New York, met up with Sage [Navy Blue], got more in contact with Earl, and then I think he came to the Bay later that year, 2019. We actually didn’t make anything, we were just in the studio. I played the “EL TORO COMBO MEAL” beat, but I put drums over it as I was playing it and it just didn’t sound good. And I was like, yeah, this sucks, so I went on to the next beat. I didn’t even talk to him about it.

But I think like a week or so after, I was going through what I had on my computer and was like, “Oh that sounded cool, I’ll send it to him.” So I sent it to him and then I just didn’t hear anything back. And I was like, it’s cool, whatever. If he wants it it’s cool, he doesn’t want it it’s cool. I didn’t hear anything back, so I sent it to Mavi and he was like, “this is tight,” and I was like, “word.” I think two weeks after that, Earl sent his back and I was like, oh shit, he actually got on this, that’s crazy. I was shocked. And then Earl sent his to Mavi, and they figured out that they both had rapped to the same beat. And then fucking that’s how it happened – ”Yo, we should make it one song” – and then it was one song. Earl hit me up a few months after that had happened, and was like “Yo, this song is going on Feet of Clay.” And I was like, “word.” And that was that.

That’s cool to see how long your friendship with Mavi was in the making, because a lot of people probably first got on to you both from the beat you placed on Let the Sun Talk, then the Earl track. You both had similar time periods in which you were becoming more well known.

Ovrkast.: Yeah, true. The Earl thing was really cool to see happen cause he had been a friend of mine musically and personally for years. Everything just kind of worked out.

Is that also when you started making music with Navy Blue and Pink Siifu?

Ovrkast.: I had this stuff with Pink Siifu from years back, but we never dropped it. It was more like friends making music type thing, which it still is now, but you know back then I didn’t see it as big as it would be now. But yeah, I was doing stuff with him for sure. When I did the Earl record, Earl and Navy were really cool, so of course I made more stuff with Navy. But I worked with Navy before I did Earl, because I got tapped in with Navy through Mavi and we flew in to New York to make some stuff. I made “Face” with Navy before I made “EL TORO COMBO MEAL.” So we were always cool. It’s just over time, you meet new people, and make more records with people.

At least in this scene, you’re among the only ones out in the Bay area. Have you still been able to stay connected during quarantine?

Ovrkast.: Yeah, it’s me and Demahjiae in the Bay Area. I talk to Sage and I talk to Mavi whenever I can, even though I don’t see them a lot. I do stay connected with the homies, you know.

Try Again came out right before live music shut down dramatically. Did you have plans to do any shows?

Ovrkast.: Yeah, I was going to do a lot. I was getting ready to go to London. These people who own a small venue were going to pay for me and my homie to go out there, but Covid stopped it. I also had another show at the Brick and Mortar that I had lined up. But it’s fine, I came to terms with it. It kinda made people digest the album a bit more, you know? It didn’t just come and go. I feel like people having to stay inside made people listen to it a little bit more and watch the videos. We had a lot of shit going on, but even through everything people kind of recognized it, which was cool.

Prior to Try Again, you built up this whole back catalog of beat tapes on Bandcamp. When did you first start making music?

Ovrkast.: I started my journey in 2015, which was when I first actually got on Fruity Loops and was making beats and uploading stuff to Bandcamp. But I had always wanted that way before then. I would look at my favorite producers, like Knxwledge, you know? And I’m like, yo that’s so tight, to have all that stuff on Bandcamp people can just look at and go through. I switched schools in 2015, and I had a teacher at the school who met with me and was like, “Yo, do you make music?” And I was like, “No, I don’t sorry.” He was like, “Do you want to?” I was like, “I guess so.” [Laughs] And so he showed me how to use FL studio. And then, you know, from then he also showed me how to chop a sample and lay down some drums on FL, and I was like “word.” I think he knew that that’s all I wanted, like the basis of what I wanted to do was that, and so he showed me how to do it. So from then on, I just said, “All right, bet, I’m gonna just go from there.” I think within my first two or three months I was uploading stuff on SoundCloud. I kind of just knew what I wanted to do. And that’s how it really started, in 2015 when I switched schools and met a mentor. I think some of the old stuff is still on my Soundcloud too, from when I first started.

Were you still using the same equipment when you made Try Again as when you made your earlier tapes?

Ovrkast.: Some of the earliest beat tapes I used the [Roland] SP, but that was just for a second as a way to learn how to use it. The SP really helped me with chopping samples and understanding melodies and song structure, cause when you chop on the SP it takes a while. You have to know what you want to do before you do it, which really woke me up when it came to chopping samples. But I didn’t use SP at all for Try Again. Now it is all FL Studio, although I channeled the knowledge I had from using the SP.

What made you pivot from the beat tapes to doing a full rap album?

Ovrkast.: I had wanted to put out a rap project for so long. Even with the beat tapes, I never had that one that I had properly put out on cassette and vinyl. I channeled that drive for something whole into the album. And it was kind of both, you know? Kind of like my debut beat tape and also my debut rap tape at the same time. I think the beats, you know, they were a little bit different. They were made to fit for rapping. But I think I was coming to a meeting point for both of those things on Try Again.

You mentioned Knxwledge. Who else were your earliest influences both as a producer and as a rapper?

Ovrkast.: As a producer, for sure Knxwledge. J Dilla. More recently Madlib, though back then he was an inspiration too. Rapper wise, it’s kinda hard to say, cause for me, I’m never really thinking about a specific rapper, but it’s more like a specific type of energy on a song. I started rapping when I was in eighth grade, so this was like waaaaay before I made beats. I didn’t record anything because I was too young to know what to do, but that’s when I started writing and rapping. And of course I was listening to a lot of Odd Future back then, Joey Bada$$. All them dudes were pretty much my inspirations back then. But I feel like over time, I don’t know, I still struggle with writing myself. I still feel like at times I’m still finding myself.

You rapped about struggles with writer’s block, self-doubt, and anxiety throughout Try Again. What inspired your writing on that album?

Ovrkast.: I had rap loosies here and there and I had people telling me, “We want a rap album, we want a rap album.” And I wanted one too for myself. But it’s really hard going about making one when you’ve never made one before. With the beat tapes it was easy for me to keep pushing them out, cause I knew the formula, I knew what to do. But for never making a rap album, it was hard for me to piece it together, because I was such a perfectionist and wanted everything to be just right. All the rappers and producers that I looked up to, they all have those projects that are cohesive joints beginning to end. And that kind of weighed on me, like if I’m going to put out a rap project it has to be what I want it to be. I was waiting, and I was waiting a little bit too long because a lot of my friends, even people outside of the scene, were blowing up. These people were just putting out music, and I felt like, man, I’m the only person who’s not doing shit. Everyone was blowing up and all these opportunities were happening. I think that’s what pushed me. I was working on a project in 2018, I even scrapped that. 2019 came around, and my life started changing. I met all these people, all these opportunities started arising, and I knew that was like a sign that I have to finish this thing. I’ve been trying and trying to put this thing together. This is the time. No matter what I do, this is the year I have to finish this shit.

Throughout the year I would make a song, make different songs, different stuff would happen, and the album kind of fell into place. As much as it feels cohesive, it’s also very scattered. And that’s kind of on purpose, because that’s how my mind was when I was making it. Each song was like a different snapshot of a different month of the year. It’s just what was going on at that time and how I was feeling, what I was thinking about. There’s not much intentional cohesion to it, but I think that album is a representation of what an artist goes through when they’re making something. You got to see me struggle at certain times, and shine at certain times, and you got to see me be confused and see me be focused. I didn’t have anything conceptual to show you, so I’m gonna give you this thing that I was working on. And this is just me, you know? This is just me. This is me as a project. That’s pretty much what it was.

You mentioned that you scrapped a project in 2018. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Ovrkast.: So “Red Light,” “Wrthasht,” and one of the Soundcloud joints “More Raps No Reason” were the ones that were going to be on that album, which was going to be called Work in Progress. Which is what it was. I was struggling to make a thing, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Well I did, but I didn’t. It was just you know, this struggle of trying to make a thing and then make multiple of those things into one thing. So I just started dropping those as loosies to get hype throughout the year. After that, when 2020 came, I dropped Try Again.

“Red Light” is one of my favorites of yours actually. Was there any reason you felt like that song or any of those others you dropped didn’t fit for Try Again?

Ovrkast.: I mean it could have, but it was just two different mindsets. After “Wrthasht” is when I really started working on Try Again. I made “Wrthasht” in 2018, and after I made that is when I was like, “All right I’m on something new.” I dropped it in 2019, middle of the year, but I was past that, I wasn’t making shit like that during that time. When I dropped “Wrthasht”, that’s when I was making Try Again, and it was like the ones I dropped were very much loosie songs. They just had that energy, even “Red Light.” But for Try Again, I was really aiming for like “song” songs, you know? Stuff that sounded complete.

One other thing I think is really interesting across the project is your use of vocal modulation. There are times you bury your vocals below the beat, other times when you’re giving it a rougher edge. How did you decide how you wanted your voice to sound on any of the individual tracks?

Ovrkast.: It’s usually based off of the beat. Like with “Capricorn,” the beat was so entertaining that I was like, alright I’m not going to rap too hard over this. I’m just going to have my vocals be a little bit buried and act more as an instrument because I don’t want to have it be all muddy where I “rap rap” and say some shit when the beat is going to do most of the work. But you know, for something like “Love Somebody” or songs like “Face,” where it’s a very minimal thing going on and there’s a lot of space for me to move around, then I can have my voice be at the forefront.

Speaking of “Capricorn,” how’d you get connected with Chris Keys?

Ovrkast.: I’ve known him for years, through the Oakland scene. He played a set at a beat battle I did one day. Every beat he played, I was like, “these are fucking crazy. These beats are insane, what the fuck.” It shocked me, and then I followed him after that. He was just this quiet dude, up there playing his beats, but every beat I was just nodding like, “these are amazing.” After that we got connected. I met him through just different friends. He actually played the keys to “AllPraise.” That’s him on there. Those keys are from a pack he sent me a year before that, super old. Cause we got connected before then, years ago, but I hadn’t really used anything.

That’s so interesting to hear, because one of the first thoughts I had last year when I listened to Try Again was that the closest analog to another producer it reminded me of was Chris Keys. You both have very similar styles, at least on recent projects.

Ovrkast.: Yeah, definitely we do. That’s why I love working with him. Our energies are always on point. He always knows exactly what type of shit I like to do, and vice versa. That’s how “Capricorn” came to be. I heard that sample, and I was like, “Yo, I want to use this but I want Chris to remake it. I sent it to him, and he remade that shit in like an hour and sent it back. And I was like, oh, this is perfect. I just threw drums on that shit and that was it.

Where do you find samples? What crates are you digging in?

Ovrkast.: YouTube man. The YouTube crates. My new thing now is if it’s hard, if it’s dope enough up, I can either try to remake it myself, or just have one of the homies try to remake it.

You’ve been posting snippets of new music on Twitter. Are you working on something right now?

Ovrkast.: Yeah, I am actually. I’ve been working on it this whole year, really right after Try Again. I was back on it instantly. I think I had half a month where I was like, “I don’t know what to do!” After that was over, I just got back on it.

At least from what I’ve heard, it’s sounding less piano-focused, with a little bit more distortion on some of the clips you’ve posted. What’s been inspiring this project?

Ovrkast.: I think a little bit of Slauson Malone.

I loved his new tape.

Ovrkast.: Hearing his stuff, like how he structures his songs is cool. I’m trying to push the envelope of what sounds can sit by themselves and what sounds can’t sit by themselves. It sounds a bit different, but I’ve just been testing waters of what sounds cool and what doesn’t to me. I’ve been heavy in the drum brakes recently. Last year I was very into jazzy, loopy stuff, which I still am. But I think right now I’m heavy on my drum game. So yeah, the next project is like 70% finished right now. I’m really excited about it, I think it’s going to be really good.

When do you think we’ll hear anything from it?

Ovrkast.: Probably later this year? Maybe after summertime. I might drop some stuff before then, but yeah something like that.

As you’re working on your next tape, I’m curious if you’ve been producing for anyone else right now?

Ovrkast.: I’ll shoot beats out here and there. I just sent a beat out to FlySiifu for what they’re doing. But no, I’ve kind of been to myself really. I’m getting to a point where I like a lot of the stuff I’m making so I’m getting more comfortable with sending more stuff out. I mean, I’ve been working with my homie Nimsins, another rapper from Oakland who I produced an album for two years ago. He’s putting some new stuff out that I’m giving some beats to. I’ve been working with Chris Keys. But I haven’t been doing anything for any projects that have been coming up. Probably in the future I will though, but yeah, not right now.

Besides music, what are you up to? What are you doing with your time?

Ovrkast.: Just working on myself, relationships in my life. Trying to eat right, mental health. All that stuff. Working on projects here and there. That’s pretty much it. I’m just excited for this year. We got a lot of stuff coming. That’s like my main thing I’m working on, just the process of putting all this out.

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