Richmond, Virginia is a fascinating city with a criminally underrated music scene. With a total population hovering around 200,000, the state capital has given us modern R & B legend D’Angelo, successful rapper and ghostwriter Skillz, the cult metal band Gwar, and rapper, producer, songwriter, and rumored Drake ghostwriter Nickelus F. As of late, however, Richmond has gained recognition for its diverse, ever-evolving beat scene. The increased attention lead to an April of 2017 Bandcamp feature showcasing the likes of recently-signed Stones Throw artist DJ Harrison and Street Corner Music-affiliated producer Tuamie. The article also paid particular attention to Ohbliv, a prolific Richmond pioneer who boasts a whopping 44 Bandcamp releases and a recent entry in Fat Beats’ prestigious Baker’s Dozen series.
For Ohbliv, seeing so many Richmond beatmakers find success through their craft is a long-held dream come true. “I tell all the young cats that this is what I’ve been waiting for,” he told Bandcamp. “We’ve finally become ambassadors for our city, finally we’re carrying our vibe elsewhere.”
But Ohbliv’s status as a spokesman for his city didn’t happen overnight. Long before he was held in high regard as an ambassador, the SP-404 sensei started out from the humblest of beginnings — making pause-tapes in his parent’s basement. “I had just started doing pause-tapes around 97, 98,” he tells me. “I’m a bit older than a lot of the current producers out here. I actually grew up in that time of pause-tapes. That was pretty much what you had to do to make beats if you didn’t have any other equipment.”
“Patience, that’s a very important factor that a lot of people fail to understand or acknowledge or even embrace — the patience that’s involved in finding something that works.”
For Ohbliv, using his parent’s stereo system and vinyl was the only way to test his production abilities before he had any real gear. “At the time I didn’t have any samplers, I didn’t have anything,” he says. “I just had my dad’s records. I had a component set with a turntable on top and the cassette decks in the middle and all that.”
Before mastering the labor-intensive art of the pause-tape, the inspiration for Ohbliv’s very first beat started with a connection he made between a hip-hop classic and the original sample source. “I clearly remember hearing ‘Lyrics To Go’ by A Tribe Called Quest and the Minnie Riperton loop, and I knew that I had that record,” he says. “So that was one of the first pause-beats that I tried to re-create.”
The decision to interpolate a well-known Tribe song set the wheels of his production career into motion. Before long he was immersed in his family’s record collection and all the possible sounds it could offer him for manipulation. “It pretty much just started that way, just exploration,” he remembers. “I had a bunch of records and I didn’t have anything to do with them. I loved hip-hop so I was like, ‘Let me try to make this stuff.’ I would sit in the basement of my parent’s house and I would just pause, un-pause, pause, un-pause and just try to make something that was clean enough to rap over.”
“At the time I didn’t have any samplers, I didn’t have anything. I just had my dad’s records.”
Though the pause-tape phase may seem like it was a mere workaround until he obtained his first sampler, Ohbliv thinks of this period of his development as something much more meaningful. “It taught me patience first of all,” he says. “Patience, that’s a very important factor that a lot of people fail to understand, or acknowledge, or even embrace — the patience that’s involved in finding something that works and then manipulating it to make it work for you.”
Ohbliv emphasizes that patience and mental toughness are key if you expect to last long in a profession that requires many hours of frustration, repetition, and isolation. “You gotta have the patience and the will, cause it gets tedious,” he says with a laugh. “You spend thirty minutes on it and it’s not working. You might have to scrap it and start on a new thing. Dedication and patience is super, super important if it’s something you really want to do.”
In addition to patience, making pause-tapes taught him about timing and the art of chopping samples. “When I first was making beats I would just pause it right on the snare,” he says. “ I learned that you gotta pause it a little bit before the snare so it doesn’t clip. Little stuff like that, little technical things.”
“I’m definitely a more sound-driven artist.”
When the eventual transition to a Roland SP-303 happened, it felt like someone had given Ohbliv a cheat code. “Learning that way made making beats on a sampler so much easier,” he says. “It jumped leap years when I finally got my sampler. I already had a working knowledge of how to chop, how to sequence, things like that.”
As comfortable as Ohbliv was on the 303, he soon felt discouraged about his future as a producer when a well-known DAW started to grow in popularity during the early 2000s. “This was during the time of Little Brother,” he explains. “Fruity Loops was going crazy and everybody was trying to make 9th Wonder beats. I was using my 303 and it wasn’t really sounding like that.”
Disheartened, he even tried cooking up his own FL Studio creations, but his attempts to master the program fell flat. “That was a quick six months and I was done with that — back to the SP,” he says with a laugh. “I was stubborn and I learned on hardware initially. It felt more natural to me. I’m definitely a more sound-driven artist.”
“I would sit in the basement of my parent’s house and I would just pause, un-pause, pause, un-pause and just try to make something that was clean enough to rap over.”
Thankfully for his fans, Ohbliv met some like-minded LA producers through MySpace before his frustration reached a level that made him want to give up. “I discovered Dibia$e and Jonwayne and they were using the same equipment I was,” he says. “It helped me, whether they know it or not. Dibia$e and Jonwayne were like the only two people I knew of that were even using SP products back then. They were definitely influential and inspired me to go further and continue with it.
He has indeed gone much further with it — now with the SP-404 as his primary weapon. After carving himself quite a niche and a staggering discography worth of in the instrumental material, Ohbliv is opening himself up for more collaborations with rappers. Though he’d prefer to keep the specifics hush-hush for the time being, it’s exciting to think about who his collaborators might be.
Whatever his next release brings, with over 20 years spent honing his craft Ohbliv shows no signs of slowing down or burning out. If his recent Passion and Lewse Joints VI albums are any indication, he’ll continue to be one of the leaders of the Richmond, Virginia beat scene for many years to come.