Bobby Ray Simmons—better known as B.o.B—is an up-and-coming artist on T.I.’s Grand Hustle label. Over the past three years, he has made guest appearances on nearly 30 album tracks and released five mixtapes of his own: Cloud 9 (2007), Hi! My Name Is B.o.B (2008), The Future (2008), Who The F#*k Is B.o.B? (2008) and B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray (2009). The Adventures of B.o.B, his highly-anticipated major label debut, will be released on Atlantic Records in 2010.
Although Bobby Ray’s music hasn’t hit the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores, his underground fame landed him on the covers of XXL—as a member of “Hip-Hop’s Class of ’09—and Vibe, which generated significant buzz about his alternative approach to hip-hop music. On Friday, October 23, 2009, he kicked off his third tour, as a supporting act for the rock band Blue October.
While on the road with his previous tour mate, Shwayze, Bobby Ray managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry—reflecting on his eclectic tastes, the production lessons he learned from Jim Jonsin, and the reason why Atlanta was the perfect place to grow and develop as an artist.
The title of your current mixtape is B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray. For those who don't know you, who exactly is B.o.B, and how is he different from Bobby Ray? How would you describe yourself to new listeners?
If you're just now really getting into my music, B.o.B is like a backup persona that I created, like a certain type of energy I had when I first started. And it went along with a different kind of sound. If you listen to my early mixtapes, like Cloud 9 and The Future and even Hi! My Name is B.o.B, you'll hear a lot of B.o.B. That's really B.o.B, and the songs are like really different from my newly released tape, B.o.B vs. Bobby Ray. A lot of songs on the Bobby Ray side kind of sound like two different artists, almost. Really, Bobby Ray is just me. There's really no persona to it. It's honestly just me, expressing my evolution as a person, musically.
Your music is very eclectic. Considering your background, I'm curious to know how you became so open-minded about the boundaries of music.
I think my personality led me to things that led me to music and different artists like Outkast, Bjork, Gnarles Barkley, Goodie Mob, and rock musicians, like the Foo Fighters, My Chemical Romance, Coldplay. Even the earlier stuff by James Brown and Michael Jackson and Tina Turner. I've always been led to the right musicians who inspired me the right way at the right amount of time. It's almost as if it was meant to happen. So that kind of kept my boundaries open, understanding that there's always more that I can do.
Why do you think Atlanta was the perfect place for you to grow and develop as an artist?
Atlanta is a place where it's kind of difficult to define a sound, to have a defined sound or a different sound. And I feel like it was necessary for me to be in Atlanta. Even though Atlanta's a melting pot there was a period where Atlanta’s sounds was one thing, and if you're doing something different, it feels really challenging. Now I feel like it's easier to be different in Atlanta. But at the time when I was coming up a few years back it was really challenging to develop your own. And I feel like it was necessary for me to go through that, to really have to work even harder and discover my own self. Just know that you should never expect anything from my music, because it will always be the unexpected.
In addition to being a rapper, you're an accomplished instrumentalist. You play the piano, the trumpet, the French horn…
The guitar, too [laughing]. Don't forget that!
…and the guitar [laughing]. When did you first pick up these instruments, and how has your ability to play them helped your career move along?
Well, I picked up the trumpet first. And that was what made me understand music theory. And my sister and I played an instrument at the same time. I played the trumpet, she played the piano. So she just got ridiculously freakish at the piano. She said it was just natural from my being around her that I picked up piano. And so when I learned piano and chords and things like that, that's when I learned how to produce. And that was real vital for me, being in the studio all the time, because I knew chords and I knew how to do chord progressions. Also, being in the church – because my dad was a preacher, so I was also in church. So subconsciously, I was just receiving all the music. Little did I know what it was, but it was in my head every Sunday. That's how you get songs like “I'll Be In The Sky” and “Satellite” and “The Lost.” Things like that are heavily influenced by gospel music, when you really break it down. And so when I picked up the guitar a few years back, that got me into live music. That's really what pushed it up to live music. I'm going to pick up the cello eventually. It's been sitting in the attic, because it's something that's hard to do when you're on the road, sit down and play a cello [laughing].
You give credit to Jim Jonsin for taking your production game to a whole other level. What particular lessons did you learn from him?
He taught me how to make music slap. You know how you say a beat is slapping? Like music's just slapping your speakers? That's what I got from Jim Johnson. His beats are really defined. They're really polished and really full. Every frequency from the lowest frequency to the highest frequency is hitting, you know?
Various media outlets have called you a mixture of Q-Tip, T.I. and Andre 3000. In what ways are the comparisons on-target and in what ways are they completely off-base?
Well, I'm kind of impartial to comparisons and critique, because I like good critique as much as I like bad critique, and I like good comparisons as much as I like bad comparisons. I'm actually more of a fan of bad critique because that's more motivational. When there's nothing that anybody can tell you, you've got to be concerned. Wait a minute: either everybody's telling you yes or you're just getting lazy! [laughing] But I like bad critique. I actually prefer bad critique so I'll know what to improve on. Because I just love getting better. I love the challenge.
That’s good to hear, because your sound is really alternative, in comparison to a lot of the music played on Top 40 radio stations. Why do you think people have gravitated towards your music?
The whole idea is there’s a certain fearlessness. There's a certain truth to it. A certain sincerity, and an enjoyment that they can hear in it. When they see me perform or when you're watching me in the studio, you know I'm having fun with it. Like, it's really fun. There's nothing else besides that. But now I'm at the point where I don't even want to do anything unless it's fun. Of course there's always going to be things you've got to do. I don't want to drive in a van for hours and hours, but you've got to do it in order to have fun.
These past few months, you’ve spent a great deal of time on the road, with performances at SXSW, as well as The Great Hangover Tour with Asher Roth and Kid Cudi. Although you haven’t released your debut album yet, what joy do you get from interacting with the public?
The main thing you get from tours is the energy and different participation that you get from people. It's like, even though I'm performing my songs and people know I'm in there singing along – the energy of interacting with the crowd, to hear what people say and hearing their stories is where I get joy. It's really kind of therapeutic for them and for me, because regardless of being known and making a living off of doing something you love, you get the experience of meeting lots and lots of people. Each person you meet has a different perspective. And when you gain all these different perspectives vis a vis different people, you really gain a lot – a lot more than what you would think. It doesn't get monotonous, ever.
What do you think has been the greatest thing you've gained in terms of being an artist and touching lives?
I guess that would be in touching people. Like, I had a few shows where people would cry – like a few girls will cry – and people singing the song, word for word, and they loved it. I'm like, “Wow! That's great!” And that's the main thing: when somebody actually gains something as opposed to just me gaining something, because it's not about me gaining anything. It's more about the fans than anything.
When you take something from the studio and actually put it out on stage, it doesn't always translate the way that you might have thought. What's the biggest lesson that you learned along the way in terms of your performance?
One time we did a show, and we were kind of down, kind of bummed about it. We missed a few notes. We had a few technical difficulties. We were all talking about it, and my guitar player, Kyle, was like, "You know, man, it's not about that, man. Like everybody had fun, and no one saw anything. And really, nobody really cares that you messed up." That lesson was: you never really think about that. The main thing is that everybody has fun and has a good time. And that's really the main thing. And that was like the biggest lesson for me to learn, because as an artist and a musician, you strive to be better and just be perfect. And it's like everything in time — you're not going to go on stage and mess up and be like, “Ah, whatever.” I still have a professionalism about it, but the main focus should be the crowd, and that was the biggest lesson for me to learn.
As a new, up-and-coming artist, why do you think that Grand Hustle was the perfect home for you?
It's like you would expect me to sign with Pharrell [Williams’ Star Trak Entertainment] or Kanye [West’s GOOD Music] or Purple Ribbon or something – but it's all about the chemistry. Jim Jonsin has Rebel Rock, and he’s partnered with Grand Hustle, so the environment allows me to create the unexpected, and I like being unexpected!
Well, I took a few of your mixtape tracks and turned them into some unexpected questions! [laughing]
Before asking the question, I'll tell you the song’s title, so you can get your mind right, and then I’ll follow-up with the question. So, the first song is “Mellow Fellow.” Even though you’re a “mellow fellow,” what gets you riled up?
What it takes to get me riled up is negative energy – people being negative. That's my fuel. If you want to stop me, just be nice to me [laughing].
The next one is “Satellite.” If you could beam one of your songs to another galaxy using a satellite, what song would it be?
Oh, that's a good question. It would probably be — let me think about what I perform — it would probably be “Cloud 9” or “I'll Be In The Sky.”
The next one is “Grip Your Body.” What's the craziest line or advance you've received from a fan that wanted to grip your body?
A fan once told me that she wanted me to sign her boob and she wanted to come follow us for the rest of tour.
The next one is “Haterz Everywhere.” Now that you're signed onto Atlantic, what parting words do you have for your haters everywhere?”
Keep hating and thanks for the motivation!
For more information on Bobby Ray, visit his official website.