Rapper Amir Obe Talks Drake Collaboration & 'Happening In The Grey Area' EP

Meredith Adelaide
Amir Obe

Amir Obe wasn't the type of kid who hogged the mic. Growing up, he was a shy guy who played high school basketball while making music behind closed doors.

"My parents never even knew I was making music 'cause I'd only do it privately," he tells Billboard over the phone. "I was really into sports -- that was my passion first. I was trying to play college basketball."

With hoop dreams deferred and shuffling between the two places he called home -- his native Detroit, then Brooklyn -- Obe, 25, says he always had a musical household. His father was a principal while his mother worked as a music teacher. Obe's first taste of recognition as an artist began on MySpace. Formerly known as Phreshy Duzit (see 2012's "Good Mourning"), he switched his name and updated his sound for the 2014 Detrooklyn mixtape, which hosted one of his more popular jams "Hennessy Breath."

Obe's style of conversational yet tweet-ready bars (sample line: "Girl I used to fuck with you 'til I realized who I was") set against dark yet moody backdrops has already landed co-signs from rap magnate Drake and Partynextdoor (Obe and PND collaborated on "Truth For You" and "I'm Good" this year). 

While Amir tells Billboard nothing is "official" as far as his rumored signing to OVO, his current focus is making his brand of music over "chasing the radio hit." With his Happening In The Grey Area EP arriving today (Dec. 11), allow Amir to re-introduce himself in the interview below. 

Describe your upbringing, growing up in both Detroit and Brooklyn.
I think it's just a real cool contrast. In Detroit, I got to have a real childhood, a real magnificent childhood. I got to play football in the street. I got to ride my bike. I got to really be a kid out there. And then during high school, I was always back and forth from New York to visit my sister and just see how New York is 'cause she was telling me it was cool out here. She liked the culture out here. I been here after high school pursuing music and I basically came and made it. I've been here for nine years now. 

Who were some of your influences?
I was a big fan of the era of Kanye [West] and Pharrell when they were both leading music. I just liked the fact that they had their own style and were big on fashion. They did really kind of change the culture of music and made it more of like an experience. Everything they were doing at that time made me want to do [music]. 

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Recall the first song you ever wrote.
I think I was 16 or 17 and I had a computer mic, and I made a song called "Step Your Swag Up" and it was just real braggadocious. It was just a fun record, kind of corny but it's cool.

When did you begin to pursue music seriously?
I'd say during the MySpace era. I had a real big MySpace following, and [the site] allowed you to put music up so I had a music profile and a couple 100,000 fans. Every week, I kept feeding my MySpace with new freestyles and new music and after just seeing attention and getting messages from labels, I just felt like I can really take this seriously, like refine my craft and just get better. 

Your buzz started building with the Detrooklyn mixtape. Take me through your creative process there.
When we made Detrooklyn, me and my producer [NYLZ] kind of just got to the point where we wanted to approach this project like an album and just put all the love into it, mixing every song on that project. We didn't chase hit records or anything. It was more like every song had to have purpose on the album; it had to have a story to it. We wanted to catch the vibe of how it was like for me at least being back and forth from [Detroit and Brooklyn] so much that it kind of like blurred the lines. I started feeling like both these places were the same place, so it was an imaginative project talking about my upbringing and my philosophies as an early teen 'til where I'm at now.  

How has music-making changed for you now?
Now, I'm just really focused on songs. Like really creating a song that has a lot of replay value, real big hooks and just something I think of me performing as I create it. With Detrooklyn, I approached every song like I wanted it to be a statement and not so much like 'OK, people are gonna have this song on replay in their car and at the club.' It was more like 'I need to get this across.' It was kind of like a therapeutic thing to make these songs on Detrooklyn.  

How important is authenticity in your lyrics?
A lot of my music is very conversational, and I think a lot of people in my age group, who are growing up or a little older can relate. Most of my songs are just thoughts and emotions and everybody has thoughts and emotions, so they can relate no matter who they are.  

Was "Truth For You" born from text messages?
Yeah, it was phone conversations and text messages, and it was just like a weird couple days with a girl I was speaking to, kind of like just me being out of town so much that it took a toll on her. The distance was just like causing a little bit of drama. I didn't even have nothing to write about that day [I made "Truth For You"]. The fact that that whole argument or exchange happened -- it really wrote the song for me. 

How did you end up working with Drake for "Star67"?
It was actually during the introduction process last fall. [Drake's manager] Oliver [El-Khatib] was reaching out and he just said Drake's a fan of Detrooklyn. He likes what he's hearing and I'm just like, 'If it's cool, I want to keep sending you music and just get your opinions on it.' I kept sending records and some of them, Drake goes, 'Ah, I really like this beat' or 'These ideas are cool.' So it was all fresh, we were building a relationship by that time. 

You also have history with Partynextdoor and Big Sean.
With Partynextdoor, I was recording in L.A. when I was 18 after I was starting to gain notoriety from MySpace. [PND] was just a Twitter friend. He was going by a different name -- I always knew him as Jahron B -- then and he was also songwriting and producing so he'd always send me beats that I would work on. I was a fan of his work. It was a mutual respect.

As far as Big Sean, I grew up in Detroit so I used to be out a lot. I used to go to the teen clubs and I used to always actually be at his high school. I knew him around high school when he first got into music and a lot of people didn't know who he was. He used to drop off tickets to his shows when he was performing for 30, 40 people if that and most of the people in the crowd were his friends. He knew I was making music so we just kept building a relationship. He heard my new stuff, a lot of his friends were playing it for him and we just recently got in contact again about a year ago and just been sending ideas and talking. 

Collaboration soon?
Possibly. We've been sending a lot of records back and forth.  

Internet would like to know: are you officially on Drake's OVO roster?
Oh, no. Not anything official. 

What are you bringing to the table with your new mixtape Happening In The Grey Area
I think they're gonna get a real authentic, progressive, real melodic project. I did a lot of experimenting on this project, so I just discovered new ways to approach songs. It's still very conversational. It's still very me as far as my personal experience but I think this is gonna be a real solid body of work.

Listen to Amir Obe's Happening in the Grey Area below.