It can often take a little time to break the ice when interviewing an artist. But B.o.B and I hit it off right away thanks to an unforeseen cosmic coincidence: We both grew up in the same southwest Dekalb County ’hood, and both went to Columbia High School (which, for trivia purposes, was also home to comedian-turned-actor Chris Tucker), though our time there was 20 years apart.
Our instantaneous bonding occurred at Crossover Studios, where the 21-year-old singer/songwriter/rapper/producer behind “Nothin’ On You” and “Airplanes” was rehearsing his live band before launching his “Shootin’ For Stars” tour (which will continue through Oct. 30). It’s his first-ever headlining tour, and after it’s over he’ll immediately head over to the UK to open for Paramore, whose frontwoman Hayley Williams sings the infectious hook on “Airplanes.”
Though a bit groggy with jetlag after performing in Japan the day before, the artist formerly known as Bobby Ray Simmons Jr. was surprisingly energetic and excited to discuss his burgeoning career. As well he should be: After signing with Atlantic Records in 2006, it took four long years for the consummate perfectionist to finish his genre-smashing debut album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, during which time he was able to work with rap icons such as Eminem and T.I. (as well as other heavy hitters from the pop, R&B and rock worlds). Now that he’s gotten a taste of fame, what he really wants is to be the sort of household name that only comes from being a career artist. And B.o.B understands that that sort of longevity only comes from hard work, focus and an extraordinary amount of talent.
What follows are the highlights of an extended conversation that covered diverse topics ranging from improvisational theory and non-linear time to what Eminem is like as a person and why Atlanta remains such a bustling urban music mecca.
You grew up during a time when the Atlanta hip-hop scene was really starting to explode.
Yeah, from OutKast and Goodie Mob to crunk music like Trillville and Lil’ Jon, to T.I., Ludacris and Bonecrusher, it was just a good window where there was always something buzzing in Atlanta that people were excited about. It was inspiring because it wasn’t like the Atlanta artists were catering to the mainstream sound. The Atlanta sound went worldwide.
Who were the artists who initially influenced you to start rapping?
I would definitely have to say Eminem, DMX and Nas. DMX was the first rapper that I studied: He made me write out my lyrics and figure out which words would rhyme. I learned some basic music theory because I started playing trumpet when I was six, so I could figure out time signatures. But the Atlanta scene influenced me a lot just because I grew up in it.
Playboy Tre was the first guy to take you under his wing. What did you learn from him?
Playboy Tre taught me how to use ProTools and how to record. He taught me how to really invest your time and effort into something, and not do it just to be doing it. My manager, Brian, introduced me to Tre, and he became like a big brother and a mentor to me, even to this day. Putting myself in his shoes, if one of my good friends brought someone to me and asked me to help them, I’d probably help. But just the fact that he let me stay in his house when I was like 14 even when he wasn’t there… he put a lot of trust in me and I really owe him a lot.
You rap, sing, produce, write your own music and play multiple instruments. You don’t see a lot of people in hip-hop who can do all that, so why was it important for you to develop such a diverse skill set?
I get bored easily and I’m continually inspired. I don’t ever feel like I’ve reached the pinnacle of where I want to be. I always see something new I want to soak up and respond to. There are never enough hours in the day! [Laughs].
I see you have a tattoo on your forearm reminding yourself to “Live In The Moment.” It’s interesting because if you study improvisational theory, you can learn to become so focused in the moment that it feels as if you can actually slow down time to experience every second to its fullest potential.
Yes! [Laughs] Because time isn’t linear—it’s circular—so who says you don’t have time?
[Laughing] Suddenly this has become an interview out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception… So at what point did you realize you really wanted to make a career out of music?
I was 14. I felt like I needed to do this, kinda like a Jedi realizing he’s found his calling. I almost felt like it had been predetermined that this was the most likely direction for me to take. It’s like if you’re walking in a certain direction and all of a sudden you trip: You’re not gonna fall backwards. You may not necessarily land exactly where you expected to, but if you fall you’re gonna fall forward. I knew with music that I was gonna land there, one way or another.
People have been talking about you in the ATL underground scene for years, and you signed with Atlantic Records four years ago. What took you so long to get the debut album out?
The album was meant to come out this year [as far as fate/destiny], but back then I didn’t want to think that. I wanted it to come out as soon as possible! But it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. I think it was because of the fact that I spent so much time working on the album that it came out the way it did. So it wasn’t like, “OK, we’ve got a hot single: Let’s hurry up and get the album finished so we can keep the momentum going!” The album has been done, so I can only keep getting better as I create new songs.
We talked about the diversity of your skill set, but there’s also a diverse range of sounds on the album as far as stylistic influences, which you don’t hear in hip-hop much these days. Was there ever any resistance from the label to all these different sounds you wanted to tackle?
I think it took a while for the vision that I had to take a clear enough shape for the label to see it, because it is so broad. At one point in time, it probably seemed like I was kinda all over the place. But it was really like building an infrastructure or a blueprint. Once that big vision blossomed—and it took me a while—they understood what I was trying to do.
What was it like landing Eminem to appear on “Airplanes,” considering he was one of the guys who inspired you to pick up a mic in the first place?
I was telling myself, “This is crazy!” For me, it was about being able to hang around him for a while and getting to see the type of person he really is. When I was a kid I could relate to him because of his life story, but now that I’m in the music industry I can also relate to him as an artist. I haven’t been in the game anywhere near as long as he has, but I think I have an idea of where he’s been.
And what were your impressions of him as a person, outside of being the artist you’d grown up admiring?
He’s just a real genuine person. I think the course that his career has taken and what he’s been through in his life, for him to still be such an amazing artist is impressive. Your music is a direct reflection of your what’s happening in your life, if you allow that to show. It takes a lot of energy to put an album together, promote it, tour and all that, and to do it for as long as he has earns a lot of respect from me.
Yours is one of the first albums I’ve heard that truly represents the diversity of Atlanta’s urban music scene. How would you describe that scene for someone who’s never been here?
Atlanta’s urban music scene has several different worlds. There’s the nightlife scene, which consists of everything from adult lounges and strip clubs to underground house parties. There’s the college scene centered around the AUC (Atlanta University Center, which includes Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University), with lots of college dorm parties. There’s Friday night high school football, where a lot of schools take pride in their marching bands, especially after that movie Drumline came out. And then you’ve got the Apache Café open mic nights and the Little 5 Points neo-soul scene, which is really my world. There’s a lot of different worlds that mix and mingle, and because a lot of people in Atlanta aren’t from Atlanta, they bring a lot of different ideas that keep the city culturally rich.
How has our hip-hop scene changed over the years since you started performing?
I don’t even know how to describe it, but it feels like home to me. Whenever I perform for Atlanta, I feel like I know everybody in the crowd even if I’ve never met them before. There’s a certain way people from Atlanta talk, think and understand life, and there’s a lot of hometown support there. That’s why I wanted to do this free show [at Center Stage in August]—to thank the people that have been supporting me for years.
What would you say to those 13-year-old kids who might read this story and listen to your music with the same joy of discovery you had when you listened to Eminem and DMX eight years ago?
I’d tell them, I am you. I’d tell them that this is the most challenging time ever to be an artist, but those challenging times are necessary to prepare you for what will be asked of you if you become an artist. Everything you’re going through is preparation for what’s to come.
Do you believe that adversity is necessary to achieve success?
Absolutely. How can you be successful if there’s not an obstacle to overcome?
You’ve already had several Top 10 singles, gotten to work with some of your hip-hop heroes, and had a successful debut album on both a critical and commercial level. That’s a lot for a 21-year-old. What are your primary career goals as you move forward?
I guess I’m really hard on myself, so there’s always that little voice in the back of my head saying. “Keep going! Keep going!” If days were made up of 34 hours, I would still not have enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do. I always look in the mirror and think, “Come on, you KNOW you can do better!” But creatively I want to keep writing music, keep performing and to keep growing, regardless of whether I have a hit single or album out. I want to be a career artist.