A & E MUSIC | Believe the hype
Hamilton's OB has the street cred, and focus, to go far in the global rap game
By James Tennant
The studio, perched at the top of a narrow, long staircase, is a modest, sparsely furnished series of rooms. The place is quiet, evoking the forlorn atmosphere of an abandoned building, a state in which the darkened, derelict-looking structure on Ferguson Avenue has spent some time.
At the centre of the studio lies the command centre. Icons shine from bright blue desktop screens, flanked by enormous speakers. At the helm, like the captain of a starship, sits OB. He's an odd-looking commander, though; the musician, also known as Matt O'Brien, looks more like some kind of Hasidic street tough in his hoodie and long red beard.
"I've been working really hard the last year, and I'm focused right now. It's like exam time."
What erupts from the speakers at that moment changes the atmosphere completely. Bass notes boom through the air, nearly visible as they rock OB's head up and down in time.
Suddenly, this humble studio is just about the hottest place in Hamilton. It ain't about where you are, it's about what you do there, as OB well knows. He chooses to spend much of his time holed up in his studio, writing songs, writing rhymes, making beats. It's all the more impressive when you discover he could, at least theoretically, spend more time with his high-rolling friends – a group that includes Aubrey Graham, also known as Drake, the rap superstar. Drake insisted his buddy OB fly to Miami to appear in the video for "HYFR"; OB wound up with plenty of screen time in his yarmulke, blazer and Jewish Community Centre basketball jersey.
Yet despite the video shoots, private jets and parties in Miami, OB remains single- minded. He spends most of his time on Ferguson Avenue, head down, music up, beard bobbing to the beat.
"All this stuff is cool," OB admits, "and it's trippy being a part of something great…but it is what it is. I've been working really hard the last year, and I'm focused right now. It's like exam time."
OB's focus on production and songwriting has seen results. OB has pulled in heavyweight co-writers like Ajax-born T-Minus, who worked with Drake, Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar. He got rave reviews for his guest rhyme on "Say I," by Toronto's Saukrates. He produced an album for local battle rap champion Arcane, all the while writing and producing his own tracks. One of these tracks, "Hamilton," is accompanied by a video that features Ivor Wynne, Westdale and several points in-between. It's interesting to note that when he started his latest, most important project – the debut mix tape – he had his co-producer, the multiplatinum- selling Boy Wonder (Eminem, Drake, Nicki Minaj) make the trip up those Ferguson Avenue steps for some of the recording.
OB's Hamlton roots run deep. Born and raised in Westdale, his mother Susan was a high school principal, while his father, the late Michael O'Brien, was a respected blues musician. Michael's home studio was where OB and his brother J-Beans – aka blues keyboardist Jesse O'Brien – were introduced to music.
In high school, however, music was second to basketball, but OB knew he was never NBA-bound. After graduating from Westdale, he chose another direction, applying to the Humber College Comedy Writing & Performance Program. "All my friends growing up, we think we're hilarious and we're obsessed with SNL," he says. "When we talk to each other it's a constant improv."
Goofing off, joking, playing basketball and listening to hiphop – all trivial pursuits that sometimes become careers. Comedy, however, wasn't to become OB's career, either. It came back to music, his long-time hobby. At a young age, he started making tracks, chopping up Bill Withers songs and reassembling the samples. He taught himself to produce, mix, master and even MC his own tracks. Fresh out of college, OB refocused on music, creating more and more beats. Eventually, he was introduced to Drake; the two exchanged beats online before they met in person.
Drake, post-Degrassi but presuperstardom, was pursuing a television career with an independent pilot and asked OB to join the project. "He said, 'yo, it's not Degrassi,'" OB recalls. "'No lines to memorize, just come and improv.'"
So it was through hip-hop and comedy that Drake and OB became fast friends. When "HYFR" was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award, Drake invited OB to the awards show; when the video won, he invited OB on stage, along with Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne. "I got to thank OB for being in the video," Drake told about six million viewers. "Shout out to Hamilton."
"He's an ill dude," says OB of Drake. "I don't tell him to shout out Hamilton... No, he just says what's on his mind. He likes Hamilton. I don't even think it has anything to do with me."
Of course it has something to do with OB, but his response is characteristically humble. His attitude towards his hometown is in keeping with his personality. "A lot of things can happen from positive energy and being proud of where you're from," says OB. "When I go to Toronto people say, 'You're from Hamilton, Hamilton's wild.' It's definitely a cool time to be from Hamilton."
There are plenty of jokes in a conversation with OB, and even when he puts on the swagger, the gleam in his eye suggests he's not all that serious. He also comes across as friendly and positive-minded – an attitude that must have helped last year when his computer mutinied and his beats disappeared into the digital dead zone.
"Everything I ever did, anything I was working on, so many ideas… just gone," he says without regret. "But it made me work. It made me get out of my house more and start networking... And I like my new stuff a lot more than anything I had before."
His enthusiasm for the new songs has helped him maintain that focus on his upcoming release, which will feature anywhere from six to a dozen tracks. When asked about what comes next, he says at this point, nothing. "I like to keep things very basic," he says. "For now, it's just a mixed tape that everyone thinks is dope. Then we'll get to doors a, b, c and d – and hopefully they'll be open."