Om'Mas Keith is best known as a Grammy-winning producer on Frank Ocean's Channel Orange album, but the Queens native has a deeper background story. In his new Across The Board documentary with Red Bull TV, we see the man behind the award: a passionate multi-instrumentalist, dedicated father and loving son.
We spoke with Keith about his intensive artist roster (Ty Dolla $ign, Christine and the Queens, St. Vincent, Goldlink, Anderson .Paak, Kevin Abstract, Erykah Badu, Jay Z, etc.), what we can expect from Ocean's anticipated sophomore album and the importance of jazz mentality for the younger generation.
FUSE: When I came into the documentary, I didn’t expect it to have so many funny
moments. How did feel about all the laughs and reactions from the audience?
Om'Mas Keith: Well, I only demonstrated my true nature. So to the extent that there was laughter and joy, that was part of my character. I’m a funny guy! I worked with some great people so my natural self came out, and that’s what you see on the screen.
How important was it
to tell your story with this project?
I feel like I was telling the story of my ancestors, man. I don’t feel like it’s my story because there’s so many people involved in it that I just feel like it’s our story. It’s a true American story and I think it really resonates with what people would refer to as the African-American community. I know I wanted to particularly depict a positive image of my community, and that it’s possible to come from a place that isn’t desirable. Even if your mom is still living there, it can happen for you.
It’s very relatable
too, because you’re from Hollis, Queens, and I was raised in the Bronx. So when I
saw that parallel, I was like, “Wait, this is me!”
I grew up in the projects! So I don’t think of it as telling my story because it wasn’t a selfish thing. At the end of the day, this wound up being an homage to my mom. It started off as one thing, but after shooting day after shooting day, it ended up being about where I came from and my mom, who gave me everything.
And what would you
say was the biggest lesson you learned from your mom, Sister Mekea?
She taught me how to be accessible to people and how to work a room. She taught me about smiling and bringing positivity into an interaction, and how it important it was. She taught me how to be savvy in political environments, and just to be myself no matter what.
She’s incredibly talented as well! The scene that really stuck out to me was towards the end,
when you all were having a jazz session. How endearing was it for you to see
your mom totally in the zone and you getting to play with her?
I’m a strong guy, so I held back the tears. But that was heavy. What was even heavier was when I was actually doing it, because we were on the bandstand. That was a like a gig. What you don’t see is me and her looking at each other and doing what happens in a bandstand: everyone is looking and communicating. My mother had multiple sclerosis, and her voice is not all there. So hearing that she could still sing her ass off, it was awesome. When we found the right key for her, it was autopilot. That’s what she’s been doing the past 60 years of her life. It just shows that even at your illest, the music is all we got, and it’s a genetic predisposition in my opinion.
Did you have any
challenges while filming this documentary? Was there anything you were
afraid to expose?
Yes, we had “chamber talk” as what I refer to it as, and that’s the most private conversation you can have with somebody—and it ain’t for everybody. You know when you’re in front of the camera you say crazy shit, so I definitely had to go back and say, “Oh, we’re not gonna allow me to say that.” The ending was the only thing I was torn about, because I’m a jovial, happy-go-lucky kind of guy. And the ending is tough, man. It’s uplifting and very intense. But it is the right ending, because it’s a new beginning. It was a big lesson. If you’re gonna be complaining and there’s this woman laying up in the bed and still living her dreams…c’mon man! I think that should be inspiring to anyone who is maybe feeling down and out, and doesn’t know where they’re life is going. Just know it could be way worse for you. So just keep your head up.
Shifting gears, in the film you speak a lot about jazz mentality. For a lot of people in my
generation, we’re not as receptive to jazz, or we don’t try to understand it. How
would you try to turn them onto something so important to you?
I would hope that jazz’s appeal lies within its improvisational natural, and that’s really the only correlation I can make. If you’re someone who appreciates improvisation in any shape, then this is the mentality. That mindset prepares you for anything people throw at you in life. Because when you’re six years old playing the drums and you don’t know what’s gonna happen, you’re often scared to death on the bandstand.
Here’s how improvisation works: you gotta have repertoire and uploaded your mind with some data that you can call upon in that quick minute where you need to activate. So a 16-year-old kid who is a Tumblr genius, the same things apply. These kids are some of the best improve people in the world, because I think they’re way more prepared for change. And this generation is the generation of change. They’re the ones who are telling the Grammys, "You motherfuckers better recognize streaming," and the organization says we can’t improvise like that because it’s too much infrastructure! But the kids are like, “We gotta do this shit now!” Because we don’t sell records, we put them online for people to listen to.
I’m sure people ask
you this all the time, but how did it feel to win the Grammy for Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange?
It was awesome! I manifested it, [because] I knew I was gonna get one. In maybe 2010, I wrote down this master document of what I’d like for myself. It includes things like being able to provide for generations to come, so my great-grandchildren could have dinner and I’m not even around because of all the work I put it. It also includes a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony, an Emmy, a Pulitzer. That’s how you do it, you put your goals on paper. Manifest it, do the work, and it will come.
And what was the vibe
like when you all were doing the recording sessions?
It was incredible, because Frank is one of the classiest guys you’ll ever meet. So he really knows how to create an environment that’s really conducive to really potent work. We worked in EastWest [Studios] in Hollywood, we rented a big mansion in Beverly Hills… you wanna talk about vibe! I’m so blessed to have the opportunity to work with some of the best artists in the world.
Are you working with
him again on the upcoming album?
Oh yeah, Frank and I are always involved. I love working with him.
People have become so
impatient, especially on Twitter, when it comes to this album. What do you have
to say to those who just can’t wait?
Any human being who is dealing with some sort of nervous energy or impatient energy, they just need to do some mantras and find peace, solace and appreciation for the craft and the art. His previous offerings are enough to sustain your whole life! Let it be! Creative people are gonna do what they want. So for everyone who’s waiting, put yourself in his shoes. It’s not a cool place to be. You don’t ask people, you just wait for them and allow the statement to happen.
We’re all under enough pressure as creative people anyway, and fans who claim they have such love—well, the true love is in the demonstration of patience. Let the bro live, man. He’s clearly making the most impactful music of our time, you can’t rush that shit. Let me just say this: You can probably expect to hear one of the greatest pieces of music from Frank Ocean’s next offering. It’ll be a long-lasting, powerful statement.
Your roster is so
long already, but is there anyone you’re dying to work with?
Taylor Swift. She’s awesome. Who knows what could happen in day with me and Taylor in the studio?
Click here to watch Across the Board. Below, watch a vintage Fuse interview with Om'Mas Keith: