“Acknowledging Sampling as the Classic Sound of Hip-Hop Is Essential:” An Interview With Ol’ Burger Beats

Oumar Saleh catches up with the Norwegian producer about his love for jazz, expanding his influences through sampling, his aversion to the 'lo-fi' label and more.
By    May 25, 2021
Photo via Lisana Preteni

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As soon as Ol’ Burger Beats logs onto our Zoom call, I notice the mammoth vinyl collection stacked behind him. An avid crate digger, one glimpse at his Instagram page reveals a fondness for obscure jazz and soul from the ‘60s onwards. Lou Donaldson, John Coltrane and Donald Byrd albums surround him in his endearingly analogue studio, which happens to be located in the living room of his apartment. It’s here where he creates the smooth, sample-heavy beats that have become his trademark since 2014’s Dilla and Pete Rock-indebted High Rhodes LP.

With music teachers for parents, it was perhaps inevitable that Ole-Birger Neergård would follow their path and become a student of the game. Encouraged to pick his instruments from the age of four, he learned how to play Chick Corea compositions on piano and Weather Report songs on sax. He copped his first turntable during his late teens, forming the beginnings of his longstanding hobby of collecting records to be sampled, looped and infused into hip-hop.

Since OBB’s debut — a homage to his electric Rhodes piano, laden with nimble keys and seductively ambient jazz — the 30-year old Oslo native has built up a dedicated following among those who love soothing loops and chopped-up samples. Already a household name in Norway thanks to his work alongside veterans Ivan Ave and Side Brok and up-and-comer Kjartan Gaulfossen, subsequent projects saw him also forge transatlantic collaborations with stellar underground rappers like Chester Watson, Pink Siifu and Quelle Chris. This all culminated in February’s Dialogue., a joint effort with fellow countryman Vuyo whose introspective raps and Seinfeld shout-outs blended effortlessly with OBB’s mellow production.

Naturally, Dialogue.’s success led OBB to release an instrumental version that can stand on its own. A love letter to his influences, Monologue is sumptuous and soulful with soft guitar chords and deep bass lines that remind me of Madlib’s more tender beats. In the wake of its release on vinyl and streaming platforms, I reached out to OBB to reflect on his background, his influences, Dialogue.’s concept, ‘60s Norwegian jazz and much more. – Oumar Saleh

Can you remember when you were first exposed to hip-hop?

Ol’ Burger Beats: My first exposure to hip hop was a Jay-Z track that was on one of those Hits for Kids compilations. Probably ‘Big Pimpin’ or ‘Hard Knock Life’, can’t remember which one exactly, but it was one of his more mainstream tracks. I don’t know how he managed to sneak into a pop album for kids [laughs], but he was my first introduction to hip-hop. The first act I truly loved though was OutKast and Stankonia, that was when I was around nine years old.

Naturally, that soon transitioned into your first steps towards producing beats? Can you recall the first record you tried to sample?

Ol’ Burger Beats: While I learned how to play the piano and saxophone, I also dabbled with the music production software that was in one of the computers we had when I was little, must’ve been Sonic Foundry Acid? But back then, it was real fun importing samples where you could just tie loops together and make stuff that I wouldn’t call beats, but just simple songs. This was way before I got proper equipment and began diving into sampling old records. I can’t remember the first record I tried sampling per se, but my first vinyl experiences were a couple of Barry White albums and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, which inspired me to dig through my parents’ collection and play around with sampling old soul records. I also made a habit of buying the cheapest jazz and soul albums I could find around Oslo when I got older, starting my own record collection in the process.

Your approach to making beats is very instrumental, yet heavy on samples as well. How important is the art of sampling not just in your work, but to hip hop in a wider sense?

Ol’ Burger Beats: To me, it’s almost everything. Sampling has introduced me to a lot of older music that I love as much as the songs that sample them, and in a way, it’s the essence, the soul of hip hop. Also, acknowledging sampling as the ‘classic sound’ of hip hop and the history that comes with the music is essential, especially as someone from Norway who is essentially a ‘hip hop tourist’, and that should be the mindset going forward.

I couldn’t agree more, and that mindset was evident with your debut back in 2014, High Rhodes LP. As well as Dilla and Pete Rock, can you name-drop other producers who have influenced you?

Ol’ Burger Beats: Madlib’s probably the biggest influence on my music, his work as Quasimoto is truly the rap version of a Sun Ra recording. There’s also 9th Wonder, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, and Tommy Tee from Norway who’s worked with Souls of Mischief, Masta Ace and other US rappers. There’s also some classic jazz producers as well… there’s loads, I’ve definitely left a lot of names out. I also count Alchemist, but his stuff is generally darker than my work, with the possible exception of Mind Games though.

Mind Games is my personal favourite project of yours, especially the shimmering drums and sax lines in ‘It’s Black’ and how ‘Soundless/Daydream’ sounds like a spaced-out 9th Wonder production. I noticed how the majority of the album’s tracks phase out with an instrumental solo two-thirds of the way in. Was that deliberate?

Ol’ Burger Beats: Looking back, I think so, because I made the beats first before deciding which rappers would best fit into each track while still wanting the beats to have their own spotlight. Mind Games was also the first project where I released an instrumental version of one of my albums, but I didn’t know that I would get the chance to release both while making it. It is good to see more and more producers getting the chance to put out beats-only albums, and it’s a chance for me to join in on this growing trend without compromising the way I want to make music.

It sometimes irks me when instrumental hip hop, including yours, is mislabelled into this Spotify-friendly term of ‘lo-fi’ without considering its various influences. What are your thoughts on redundant terminology like that being used to describe your work?

Ol’ Burger Beats: Actually, it’s been really difficult to find my place on such platforms because terms like ‘lo-fi’ and ‘chill hop’ expose a slight ignorance towards music. It also gives off the impression that producers like Dilla weren’t influenced by his predecessors, such as Pete Rock before him who was influenced by James Brown, and so on. Once you start categorising music into genre names and playlists like ‘…To Relax To’ or ‘…To Sleep To’, you kinda move away from its essence. Music to me shouldn’t just be in the background, you should engage with it and immerse yourself in it. At the same time though, I’m really privileged to have earned some money off of those online playlists [laughs], so I’m not going to criticise it completely, but I just wish the playlist curators would see the bigger picture.

Let’s talk about Dialogue., which was favourably received by some big publications. Tell us about working with a rapper like Vuyo on an album which is a seamless blend of diasporic political discourse and soothing jazz loops? Were you trying to channel The Low End Theory on Dialogue.?

Ol’ Burger Beats: A Tribe Called Quest became the biggest influence on this project as it progressed. Diaspora is really at the core of Dialogue., where (Zimbabwe-born) Vuyo ties his experiences growing up here and in southern Africa with what’s been happening in the US. I was also inspired by spiritual and revolutionary jazz records from the ‘70s, a lot of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, and we felt that they also enhanced the feeling of yearning that the African diaspora have for unity. The album’s concept was taken from voicemails that Vuyo’s sister (South African artist Lunga Ntila) left him about their father, who was heavily involved in political activism. Thus, we saw it as a project where dialogues can start between people in a polarised society in the way that a dialogue began between Vuyo and his sister about mending their relationship with their father.

One of the tracks that caught my attention was the DJ Chali-assisted ‘Mahershala Ali’ because it featured DJ Premier-like scratches that differed from the rest of the record. Do you see yourself producing more boom bap cuts in the near future?

Ol’ Burger Beats: I think boom bap has always been part of my sound. Most of Dialogue.’s beats came from an archive where there were these jazz loops and sample splices I hardly made any edits to. ‘Mahershala Ali’s beat came from that archive, where DJ Premier’s influence is very clear. Right now though, I’m probably a couple of steps away from producing the traditional boom bap sound, as I’m more inspired by the ‘less is more’ approach of some of my favourites today like Roc Marciano and Ka.

Alongside last year’s All Yours EP, you’ve worked with Vuyo on a couple of projects now. With the rise in rapper/producer tandems over the past decade, do you see yourself on the path to being a sonic auteur of sorts, like you’re the Scorsese to Vuyo’s De Niro? Or do you prefer working with multiple rappers?

Ol’ Burger Beats: I hope to be both, but I don’t want to be the guy who only has one beat in an album where there’s ten different producers. I can do that too, but it’s not my ideal way of working. I like to make one track, then another that sounds similar, then conduct the third track to make it sound different to the previous two. That one would be stowed away in the archives to be dug out at a later time. Everytime I make a beat, I envision which album it would fit best in. There are two types of albums I want to make: one where I’m the executive composer who wants to showcase a bunch of dope rappers like what Mind Games was, and one where I make these producer/rapper duo projects like the albums with Vuyo.

Speaking of showcasing dope rappers, your works are scattered with guest features from some of the States’ most talented underground acts. Pink Siifu, Quelle Chris, Illa J, and Chester Watson are just some of the names you’ve produced for; how did your paths cross?

Ol’ Burger Beats: On the Internet, unfortunately; I still haven’t met them face-to-face. Linking up with them was simple though. I was familiar with music and sometimes vice versa, and I’d send them an email or a message on Instagram and we’d go from there. Most of the time, I’d put a couple of rappers together in one track like I did with Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey on ‘Make Due’, but even though they’re friends who have regularly collaborated with each other, they still have to record their verses on two separate occasions. Sending back-and-forth emails and sharing Dropbox folders isn’t the most inspiring process, but it’s still cool to form these working relationships around the world. And once we can all travel safely again, I hope to visit the States one day and work with them in-person.

You strike me as the type of composer who is deliberately selective about the artists you produce for. Do you envisage the rappers on beats that you’ve already made or do you fit your production style after a discussion on direction?

Ol’ Burger Beats: It’s somewhere between the two. For Mind Games, I think I made a hundred, maybe two hundred beats for that album. Then I wrote a list of rappers I wanted to work with, and made a folder for each of them containing five to ten beats that I felt would fit them best. They would then choose their favourites, and it sort of grew from there.

Your love for ‘60s and ‘70s soul and jazz is well known, but you also take inspiration from Norwegian jazz from the same time period. Tell us about how it shaped your sound?

Ol’ Burger Beats: Norwegian jazz is a big part of my sound, thanks to this European label called ECM. While it’s still around, the ‘70s were really important for ECM. The sound at the time was ‘cool’: very minimalistic but also well produced and crisp, with a lot of piano, jazz and isolated percussion. I’m also a big fan of the great musicians that recorded for the label. A lot of Norwegian acts like Jan Erik Vold, Erik Andresen, and Kalin Krog who was sampled by Madlib once, but American ones too like Stanley Cowell, who’s one of my favourites. There was also this influential jazz club in Oslo called ‘Club 7’ which was the centre of the jazz movement here around the time and where Webster Lewis recorded this legendary, avant garde, funky jazz set. Such incredible music.

Talk us through Norway’s hip-hop scene and who we should be paying attention to.

Ol’ Burger Beats: The two most well-known English-speaking rappers from here at the moment are Ivan Ave, who has been around for some time now, and Vuyo. There’s also Kjartan Gaulfossen, who raps in Norwegian and who I’ve worked with in last year’s Hver Gang Når, and a lot of producers who are spread around the country. However, there isn’t a ‘physical scene’ as such – we don’t even meet up in a studio to produce and record beats. Bergen, like Oslo, also has a strong hip hop scene, but they are more inspired by trap and DJ Screw-style production whereas Oslo lean more towards the UK and genres like grime and drill.

Not counting Monologue., you’ve now released four full length projects since the COVID pandemic forced us to stay indoors. Did being in lockdown help you feel more inspired to create?

Ol’ Burger Beats: The first couple of months were great [laughs]. I made music every day then produced two full albums during that time. But since then, it hasn’t been great in terms of creating new stuff. I’ve spent time instead finishing up the songs I’ve made, recording everything and compiling them to their final versions. So I’m hoping that with spring and summer coming up, the inspiration to make new material will start flowing again.

With that said, how much of that process was applied to Monologue. and what separates it from the other instrumental versions of your previous work?

Ol’ Burger Beats: I think it’s a more cohesive project than what I’ve released before, with a constant thread that runs through it that’s easier to follow. It starts off really mellow, then you enter this boom bap territory as we talked about before, but all very much inspired by those spiritual revolutionaries of the ‘70s. The process was different to 2019’s Daybreak, which was at the request of the label and for that album, I dug into my beats archive and found twenty tracks that I liked for the project. For Monologue. though, each track was meticulously crafted to fit the album from beginning to end. Even though half of the tracks came from that same archive, the album’s defining tracks like ‘Athens’ were made for Dialogue. and was a key part of the sonic direction I wanted to take.

Can we expect more material after Monologue.?

Ol’ Burger Beats: Vuyo and I have already started discussing a sequel to Dialogue. and I’m also thinking about releasing a mixtape of the music that inspired that album. It could be a cassette with one side filled with hip hop songs and the other side full of jazz, perhaps. I’m also working on a project that’s a little outside of the beats you’ve heard so far where I play all of the instruments myself with no sampling involved. Finally, I’m putting the finishing touches on a soul project with my sister which is inspired by Latin jazz and bossa nova and marks the first time I get to work with a singer instead of a rapper, but it will be released as an Ol’ Burger Beats album. It’s probably the first project my parents are fully supportive of, which means that it’ll also be the first time I get on Norwegian radio [laughs].

Finally, where does Ol’ Burger Beats see himself in five years?

Ol’ Burger Beats: Hopefully doing more of the same stuff, making music almost every day and being more inspired than I was the day before. I miss being at the clubs and DJing every weekend, but at the same time, I’m happy with where I’m at right now where I can make music from home, I can release a lot of work under my own label and play my part in this awesome world of music production. And as I get older, I realise that it’s a pretty good place to be in as well. So I’m grateful for where I’m at right now, and I hope it stays like this.

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