“I want to be a chameleon of hip-hop.” – An Interview with Oz Alone
Oz Alone goes all out for Halloween, donning two different costumes throughout the season. The first is a crude take on Frida Kahlo. The second, a frighteningly accurate recreation of Saltbae.
I appreciate this for two reasons.
The first is simply because I have a sense of humor, and both left me laughing. Having met a few rappers in my time, I can say with certainty that Oz is the most unabashedly funny of them.
The second is that he’s just saved me roughly 2,000 words of trying to explain who he is. A rapper, though he may prefer singer or musician, operating mostly out of Saratoga, Oz brings an unparalleled force of personality to everything he does.
The first time I saw Oz, he was performing with frequent collaborator Devin B at Rap Night. Hip-hop in the Capital Region is often marked by it’s raw, 90s tinged sound. I like to say that Albany is where New York hip-hop flew to. Emcees like Mic Lanny exhibit the dense lyrical prowess typical of Harlem, over dusty beats. Against this backdrop, Oz and Devin immediately stood out.
Loud, synthy, Run the Jewels style beats pumped through the speakers in the Allen Street Pub. Devin unleashed rhythmically perfect rhymes, his methodical syllable placement and emotional subject matter reminiscent of technically revered emcees. Oz served as a perfect partner, employing the same mechanical lyrical prowess to a belting, soulful, melodic performance. The chemistry between the two was undeniable, and my night was made.
While I ran into both a few times after that, my next encounter with Oz would come in August. In the midst of throwing together a backyard show with my partner Peter, aka PA Soul, we were searching for local emcees to take a spot. We reached out to Dezmatic, who was quick to throw Oz’s name in the ring.
A couple of conversations and some weeks later, Oz pulled into Peter’s driveway ready to perform. We greeted him at his car, where we helped to unpack his set-up. Out of his backseat, he pulled a golden microphone, an all-white stand, a laptop and MPC controller, and a Stewart’s bag containing two Red Bulls and a four pack.
Oz makes his presence known.
We got him set up, and Oz cracked two cans in preparation. Taking to the mic with a cacophony of sound, Oz kicked off his performance with “Almost Always,” a song I didn’t know had a name at the time. As he worked up a sweat on Peter’s porch, Oz gave us all a first look into his new album.
When it was released in mid-October, this album became one of my favorites of the year.
A few weeks later, I meet Oz on another porch to share a cigarette. We talk briefly about our day jobs, before stepping inside.
David Bowie played a much bigger part of my Halloween than I had anticipated, but it was a much-welcomed surprise. We talk for quite a while about the legend, as Oz shows off all the memorabilia in his house. I was taken aback at first, but after a minute it makes sense. Listening back to Oz’s album, it’s logical that he would be inspired not just by Biggie or Tupac, but by a singer who went beyond the vocals. Bowie’s stamp was imprinted in every instrument, and Oz does much the same.
He tells me he’s a little nervous, because he’s never done an interview before. The nerves wear off quickly.
Generic rap question: top 5?
David Bowie. You talking bout top 5 hip-hop?
Top 5 who influenced you.
To be honest, my influence is more along the lines of whatever I grasp. I’m sure that sounds pretentious as fuck. I don’t like the conversation of top 5, honestly, cause it’s forever changing. Right now it’s totally different than when I was younger. I’d say who influenced me as an artist the most, from a rap perspective would be: Method Man, RZA, Busta Rhymes, Poetic from Gravediggaz, and El-P. In no particular order. If I had to, El-P would be the Greatest of All Time. He’s the most talented rapper/producer ever.
This is a tough question. I never think about this.
There’s a lot of people who’ve influenced me that I wouldn’t consider the greatest. Like Slug from Atmosphere. Right now, I’d throw in Anderson .Paak. “Malibu” is one of my favorite albums of all time. That indirectly influenced this album. That came out after I started working on this, but it’s the path I’m on.
I don’t know. I think that would be it.
What influences you outside of music, and just living life?
Just art in general. Drawing, painting, photography. I do a lot of that. Music, to me, is just like anything else that I put my mind to. Art is like an OCD to me. I have to figure it out, it’s little pieces. The influence would be from my background poetry and little things that I do. When I’m in that zone, it’s an absent-minded thing. I get obsessive, I try to figure out it’s little pieces, but I’m not grasping at any of the concepts.
Alcohol and people around me. Devin inspires me a lot. Justin, the guy who did the drums on the album, he inspires me. Hes one of my best friends, so he always made me aspire to be as good as he is.
How did you and Devin link up?
He was on Sub-Bombin’. We originally met on a website called Future Producers. I was only on there promoting my music, and I was still in Memphis at the time. We had talked about connecting, then I came back and saw him at Beatshot. I really liked his stuff, he has such a different approach. There’s rappers who rap like rappers, and rappers who rap likes producers. Before he ever produced, he rapped like a producer. His cadence is the opposite of what I naturally do, so I can’t wrap my mind around how he writes.
I talked to him about linking up, like “We gotta kick it,” and we never did.
Then, one day when I was working on a different project, we decided to make a really shitty song. There was a miscommunication. I thought we were supposed to write bullshit, so that’s what I did. Then Devin was on the song. Devin was working with the engineer we work with now. We go to record, and we hear his verse and he came correct. We got so pissed off. So, we go up, and we’re like, “This song will never exist anywhere.”
Then I did my last album, and I booked him for the release party. Me, him and Badger were hanging out, and I told him I wanted to work with him on something, but not something normal. At that time, even now, when I hear a standard hip-hop beat I get bored. I feel like I’ve figured it out.
I could be doing a world of other things, but I think I understand it enough like… I don’t have a good metaphor.
I felt like I figured it out, so I wanted to be loud. I have big aspirations. I want a big sound. I want to mix indie rock with hip-hop. Correctly. No one does that.
So, I told him I wanted to do something that sounded big.
The next week, my brother started producing. He showed me his beats. They were electronic, and weird, and big. Like, when you play them they’re just big. So, I called Devin and was like, “Come over.”
He did, and we wrote a song called, “Spit Ballin’,” which is this weird brag rappy song over this vocal sample beat. We just clicked, just went full bromance. It was just different. Me, him and Adrian were like a trio. We weren’t just working on music, we were friends for life in like a week.
There’s a magic there. Do you prefer to collaborate?
It’s like two separate entities for me. I think if you really dive into it, you can hear that. I do prefer to collaborate to a degree, but the obsession comes into play more when it’s me solo. I feel like I do better work solo, but I prefer to collaborate with someone who challenges me. Every time I work on something collaborative, I feel like it takes me to the next level. It gives you growth. I feel like after “Dead Summer” and “Niche,” Devin and I both reached a new level.
I feel like that’s a part of hip-hop, taking in the influence of someone else. That’s what keeps it from staying the same for 25 years.
I always wanna push the envelope, so I guess I prefer to collaborate. But I do think I do my best work on my own.
Do you ever find yourself debating with collaborators?
No, I’m kind of an asshole. I have a vision, and if things don’t fit that vision I cut it out. It’s unfortunate that I do that, but if I feel like something isn’t meeting that vision it checks me out.
It’s weird. I think that’s all I have for that one.
Did you grow up in Memphis?
I’m a Navy brat. I lived on Navy bases until I was 12, then I moved to Memphis because of family stuff. I lived there for about six years.
I’ve lived in North Carolina, Rhode Island, California. I was born here, moved to Middletown, RI, then Oceanside, California, then somewhere in NC, then Jacksonville, then back to Rhode Island, then back here. I did a circle.
How did that impact you?
The culture on Naval bases, in Naval housing, is completely different. You gain a lot of appreciation for a lot of family types. Like, I grew up half-white half-Cuban. We’re pretty diverse, but we had a very strong culture in the house.
I got to understand a lot more at a very young age.
The culture up here was pretty shocking. Naval bases are like melting pots.
When I moved to Rhode Island, I thought everyone was rude. I’d go to people’s houses and they’d tell me not to touch anything, I was like, “What the fuck is this?”
At the Naval base, there would be dog shit on people’s floors, we didn’t care we were playing Sega. The next house over would be nice as hell, but there was still toys. There was a sense of community you don’t get anywhere else. Everyone’s a new kid.
That was another benefit. Always being the new kid forced me to step out of my comfort zone. Every time I’m on the stage, I just think, “You’re the new kid again, make ‘em laugh.”
Did you ever feel isolated?
No, that depends a lot on how you approach it. I grew up on a home that’s two different cultures melted into one, which helped. I have a loud, friendly Cuban dad and a stereotypical funny, white Mom. We all love laughter, and being fun and inviting. That’s how I approach everything.
If you’re my people, you’re my family. That’s probably my Cuban side.
That’s what I expected everywhere, though. Like, if I embrace this there’s opportunity. If I don’t I’m fucked.
Do you view yourself as extroverted?
Yes, I’m naturally extroverted but that flips when I’m depressed. You won’t see me for months. I got colitis last year, I was sick all year. A lot of people haven’t seen me in a long time. If I’m sick or depressed, I’m definitely in an introverted mindset. It’s draining. I need to go home and recharge after.
I can’t help myself from putting on a show though, when I’m out. I guess both, but naturally more extroverted.
Was depression something you dealt with growing up?
Always. I looked at life differently.
To me, it was like, I was depressed even at an early age. I questioned life, I never looked through things like, “this is the way it is.” When I brought that up, when I was funny and weird, that lead to feelings of isolation. To a degree.
Depression is very natural for me. I take it out in my music.
Does that affect how or why you write music?
Yes. I write music to put my thoughts on paper. When it comes time to write a song, I’ll sing a hook and just free write. With songs like “Almost Always,” it was prewritten then I went back and found meaning I didn’t know then.
When I write, I’ll put myself at a low and harness that pressure that I feel, that obsession. I run into it, then write to escape it. I’ve grown myself into a mind state where I can put myself into a lucid depression. Not depression, but a depressive mood. I need to do that to clear my mind, so I don’t just let myself go.
I’m a subliminal type person. Like, right now I’m just speaking. I’m not thinking about what I’m saying. I force myself to get calmed down and drawn out so I can put it on paper.
Every great musician, painter, or whatever, is depressed. Van Gogh was so depressed he ripped off his ear. The struggle for me is finding influence in the happiness. That’s what I want to do.
Depression being my comfort zone is problematic. The hardest thing for me to do is write a happy song, but those are my favorite when I do. Like, “It’s still good, too.”
Did you decide to make dark music, or was that choice made for you?
Kinda. A lot of my poetry growing up was positive. When I first started making music, I used to smoke all the time, and just did whatever got into me. So it was just super, hyper poetic. When I was a kid I was just drawing and writing poetry all the time. In high school, poetry was the only part of English I passed. I always wrote in 4/4, but it was just trippy and weird at first.
It didn’t become talk until I redefined everything. I didn’t have any footing, I was just modelling myself after Gravediggaz and Wu and Busta. The only “backpack” guy I knew was DOOM. The Wu-Tang influenced stuff was dark, but my metaphors weren’t as out there as they are now.
Depression was the only thing I knew everyone dealt with. I wanted to make something that stopped people from hurting themselves, and it helped me, too.
I am trying to make happier music though.
You mentioned Devin raps like a producer. Do you rap like a rapper or a producer?
I don’t know. I focus on syllable placement a lot, so that’s like a rapper. I really try to rap like a lead guitarist, or a singer. I always had a knack for cadence. I can hear a song I’ve never heard before and sing along.
I try to emulate that with my rapping. I want it to bend, twist and formulate into the song. My voice is an instrument, I want it to behave as such. Even when it isn’t necessary. My grandfather used to do that. My grandparents did events in Cuba, against Castro. My grandmother did poetry and my grandfather sang.
So, you come from a musical family?
I think we have artistic blood. Not to be cocky or pretentious. My brother also produces, and draws. My sister has a good singing voice. It’s just in the blood.
How involved are you in the production? You brought in a band for this?
I was heavily involved. I took a Kanye West approach, that’s the way I came to it. He used to write beats, then he started bringing in musicians. That’s what I did.
I used to produce, but I could never rap over my own production. It was very weird. I still do. It’s not good. I was good enough for a little while, but it was too dark or weird.
I have a production background. I know what works and what doesn’t.
When we started “Almost Always,” it was all regular beats. Then we found out some of the samples weren’t cleared, but I loved my part in it. I’ve wanted to do hip-hop with a live band for years. I’ve tried it twice, and it just never worked, so I contracted musicians.
we took the base of the sample and sent it out to James Rock who gave me tons of guitar and piano takes. I recut it, rerecorded everything. Then, I sent that out to Justin to take some time to write the drums. I recut it again. I sent it out to Jesse Bolduc from Candy Ambulance for bass, then had Justin record the final drum tracks.
It was all standard structure at the time, though. It was boring. So, for like 2-3 months, I was time stretching and cutting.
So, this was a long process.
Oh, yeah. The only ones that sound similar now are the first part of everyone’s verse in “Always Been.” The majority of it was completely reformatted. A lot of the beats were like a minute. “Hideout” was like a minute, and now it’s six.
Were the features locked in before the change?
Somewhere in the middle. Nobody except Devin and I heard the final version before it was released. I think everyone heard their piece before the live instruments. I think the only people who heard it through was us justin and PJ Katz the engineer.
Where do you get off the creative train?
I stay on the whole way. If my name is associated with it, I have some sort of direction. I want to do a music video. I have a very clear idea of what I want to do. This promotion got fucked by time and money issues. I wanted to have one or two music videos before this came out. My girlfriend, Lindsay Brandow she did the cover.
Are you a planner or a pantser?
I have no idea, honestly. I have no idea where things are going. My next step is to get a band. An actual band. To get people who can really work together to create a song. My dream is to be like, “Yo, let me get some samples!”
If I could do it myself, I would. But if I could get a producer who can just structure everything, and people who will just let me paint, that would be great.
My next step is a band.
What is your biggest strength as a musician?
Versatility. I look at things in a larger scope. I want things to be big. If I do a show, I want to customize and tweak it to highlight a specific aspect that I want highlighted. I can produce a backdrops and video projections so I look at it differently than just being a rapper. I want people to be like, “you did that?”
I think it’s the worst thing for a career for people to have labels. Art should have no chains.
That’s how I view it, dude. People always told me “rappers don’t do that,” and I got really fed up with it.
So, for me, I want to be a chameleon of pop. Like Bowie. I want to be a chameleon of hip-hop. I don’t want to be a rapper consistently. I want people to not hear a hip-hop album, than walk away knowing it was hip-hop. That’s why I respect .Paak. What is “Malibu”? It’s jazz, it’s funk, it’s hip-hop.
I want to take a little bit from everything, and spice it up. No one is doing that right. They can’t mix it. Rock rap is always making rock “rap.”
I don’t want to push any genres. I think hip-hop should be pushed any more. Young Thug and Nas should not be on the same bill. Maybe sometimes, but there needs to be a clear divide.
What is El-P? He’s not doing the same thing as Wu, or Common.
If you look at punk rock, There’s probably a subgenre trashcan punk or something. “What the fuck is trashcan punk? Let’s get into it.”
That’s the way it is, but in hip-hop… I would do a bill with Young Thug. It’s not necessarily hip-hop, but it’s not pop. He needs a genre. With punk, there’s subsects that all connect. With hip-hop, it’s always just “hip-hop.”
You should never feel beholden to a genre.
What do you think your biggest weakness as a musician is?
Being stubborn. I always have a particular sound I want. I don’t know how to highlight other artists. I do, and I do a good job. But I feel like one of my biggest problems is that I have a hard time backpedaling or compromising my own aspirations. I can’t just do what we set out to do, I’m in a mode. I’m in the singing mode, like I said earlier, I can’t control it enough to take a backseat. It’s a struggle for me.
I think I do so much extra shit that it takes away from what their vision is. If I’m on a song, it’ll stick out on the album.
Does that change how people collaborate with you?
If someone says, “Hey, let’s make a song together,” that’s great. If they come to me with a song, it’s very hard for me to get into it.
The opposite of that is “Hideout.” I gave Mirk a sketch, and he stepped in and took it over. So, I had to come back and come correct. I think a lot of people would just back it out. I’ve had it happen to me a lot, I’ve done it, but I don’t want to be that guy.
I have a particular sound, and I don’t want to be an asshole and do some extra shit on someone else’s song.
You were involved a lot in promotion. Why?
Necessity. If I wanted to play hip-hop nights all the time and not form a relationship outside of that, I could have done that. Maybe it’s an odd point of view because I’m the one who makes it, but I think if you heard my music you wouldn’t know where to book it. I’m not gonna open most national acts. Maybe someone who does weird music. Or a mixed genre night. I kill those.
At that time, when I was doing that, there was a whole division of people who were telling me it wasn’t even possible. So, I set out to book the kind of shows I wanted to go to, which were those mixed genres nights.
I wanted to put people together where maybe you wouldn’t have them in the same playlist, but you would have all their music on their phone.
People at shows like that eat me and Devin up, especially alt bands. We just don’t give a shit. There’s a photo somewhere of the two of us doing the Creed pose live.
So, on the outro you talk about how things have changed for you. Can you tell me more about those feelings?
That was actually a poem I posted on Facebook about losing my childhood, and that adolescent creativity. It was about that feeling that you might be losing who you are, a little bit. That’s why it’s “Almost Always.” It’s almost always a part of you, creativity. It’s sort of personifying a younger version of myself.
It’s been a minute since I’ve gone back to it, but that’s what that’s about it.
I guess everyone goes through that.
Are you happy with where you’re at, looking back? Not necessarily content.
Yes, I’m incredibly happy with where I’m at, and how this album came out. There’s more to be done with this sound and feel.
I don’t think I’ll ever be completely happy. I think if you’re completely happy, you don’t grow anymore. If there is nothing to strive for, what are you passionate about? Doing the same thing over and over?
Oz Alone’s newest album “Almost Always” is available on all major streaming services. Two years in the making, it’s everything he wanted it to be. Follow him on Instagram to see his frequent antics and enticing taco meat.
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