Once a teenage dreamer settling for janitorial work in his Michigan hometown, he now records albums for Brainfeeder and Stones Throw.
Photos by Theo Jemison
Sam Baker’s first taste of success came in the V.I.P. section of a strip club at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. “They’re letting [us] smoke blunts in the club, and they brought us out a platter of fucking deep-fried beef tacos,” he says. “I was like, ‘Damn, I can get used to living like this.’” Baker, now known as hip-hop producer Samiyam, was only 19 back then and working as a janitor in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. In his spare time, he’d spend hours drawing and making beats on his MPC, sometimes giving them to MC friends to rhyme over. One of those friends rapped over a beat during a show that happened to have revered Detroit hip-hop figure House Shoes in attendance, who immediately wanted to know who made the track. Upon hearing it was Baker, Shoes invited him to his home to play more beats—which, according to Baker, lasted less than 30 minutes. That’s when Shoes decided that everyone in the room needed to go to Platinum, a gentleman’s club off of 8 Mile Road, to smoke weed and eat greasy tacos.
“To meet someone like that and have him just be cool and be telling me to take my shit more seriously… it really meant a lot to me at the time,” he says. Baker took Shoes’ advice by spending only another year in Michigan before moving out to Los Angeles, where he hoped to turn his musical aspirations into a full-time gig amid the city’s thriving beat scene. Thanks to Myspace, he already had a like-minded contact out there in Steven Ellison—better known these days as Flying Lotus—who was also eager to take his homemade compositions to the next level. Together they would attend now-legendary beat events like Low End Theory and become enriched in the scene, selling tapes and, eventually, full albums through Ellison’s own startup label, Brainfeeder.
While Lotus beats are beloved for their endless intricacy and swirling of sounds and textures, Baker’s are respected for their simplicity and golden touch; his straight-to-the-point debut, Rap Beats Vol. 1, is built on glimmering samples laid over off-balanced kicks and snares. While the listener may recognize the sound, it’s Baker’s ability to expound upon it that has earned him admiration from fellow producers, as well as prominent MCs like Earl Sweatshirt and Action Bronson, who are both featured on his newest album, Animals Have Feelings, out this month on Stones Throw. In Baker’s mind, Animals is the proper follow-up to Rap Beats, which was named in homage to the no-thrills hip-hop he listened to growing up.
NOISEY: Was music a big part of your childhood?
Samiyam: Absolutely. I feel pretty fortunate to have grown up with all the music around that I did. First of all, I grew up in Ann Arbor, which is close enough to Detroit where I can get all the radio stations, so there was always good music. Turn the radio on here, amazing stuff. When I remember when I was really young, I just remember loving the song “Sweet Love” by Anita Baker because they played it so damn much on the radio. I was always hearing stuff like that. And then my mom liked a lot of music; she liked a lot of more pop-y stuff, but good pop, like the Beatles, and some reggae stuff.
My dad was into crazy jazz and all kinds of stuff, everything from more standard stuff to dudes like Roscoe Mitchell. I still don’t know what’s going on when I listen to that stuff. I’ve been hearing all types of jazz since I was a little kid. He’s always been a fan, and he would tell me about how he used to go check these guys out when they came to town.
When you got out to LA, did you immediately start producing full time?
I moved out here and got a job at a weird vegetarian restaurant, and it was awful. It was good at the time cause I moved out here without too much money. I just wanted to give it a shot. I was just about in serious financial troubles when I found that job. It lasted just long enough before they fired me that I figured out how to make a little bit of money off of it. They fired me because mainly I was just miserable there. You know how that goes if you’ve had a job like that working at a restaurant. If you take the job and you don't have this gift that a lot of people have where they can just smile and act like they're enjoying it even when it’s the worst time of their life, they don’t really like you at jobs like that, you know? So it took me not really enjoying it for quite some time and then coming in late a few times in a row.
When did you start hanging with Flying Lotus?
We actually got into contact through Myspace. I don’t know if I’m recalling this perfectly but I think he might have hit me up. He heard the shit on my tapes somehow, and we got in contact through Myspace on some, “Oh I like your music, let’s make something” kind of shit. We started sending some sounds back and forth. I got into contact with him and developed that relationship before I ever came out here. The first time I came out here to get a feel for it, I stayed with him and met all types of people. We went out to several events, like Low End Theory and some type of Dilla tribute thing going on because I came out here in February (a nice time to take a little trip from Michigan to L.A.). I linked up with Shoes and met up with a bunch of people through him as well.
What led you to decide to release your new project on Stones Throw?
I put out this project almost two years ago called Wish You Were Here with my man Matthew David, who has this thing called Leaving Records. He’s been working closely with Stones Throw for a while. I had been talking with him forever about doing a small project. I’ve always loved cassette tapes, and he does these really cool limited releases. So Wish You Were Here came out on cassette, and Stones Throw handled the digital. It was just kind of a natural progression to do something with them. Everything went pretty smoothly with the cassette. It’s also, for this record, you’ll have to let me know what you think when you hear it, I think it kind of fits more with a label like Stones Throw.
If you’ve heard Sam Baker’s Album, which I put out years ago on Brainfeeder, there’s a lot of drum machines and synthesizers, and I didn't feel like I was going with straightforward beats. [Animals has] a different feeling to it. This album is more just chopping up drum breaks and taking samples from records. I feel like this record sounds like my version of the kind of shit that has always made me look up to Stones Throw and see them as a dope label. It’s straight up hip-hop shit. No one is going to have to be confused about what to call it.
Yeah, I read that you thought this was more of a proper follow-up to Rap Beats than your last record.
Absolutely. And also there some tracks on this album that are several years old. If you never heard this shit before, you probably can’t tell the difference because it’s all the same feeling on there. Some of the tracks actually were meant to be on Rap Beats Vol. 2 but there were a few circumstances at the time that made me feel like that it didn't make sense to do that. In a way it’s another official Rap Beats. And you know I called it Rap Beats in the first place because I thought it was straightforward shit that anyone could rap over.
Why did you go back to the straightforward sound? Did you think Sam Baker’s Album was too experimental?
For me mainly I just wanted to sample some more shit. I felt like I hadn't really flipped all the stuff that I wanted to make when I first started making beats, ya know? I just wanted to get back to that. It wasn’t really about how it was received, but of course I loved all the reviews full of all kinds of colorful, creative language. People interpret it and hear it however they deal with it; if they enjoy, they call it whatever it want. And if they hate it, I just hope they tell five of their friends about it. But it was mostly about me going back to the sound that made me want to start making beats in the first place.
How did you link with Action and Earl?
Both of those guys, I’ve known them for a few years. We’ve been just recording shit; we have a bunch of tracks. Earl, he was hitting me up… it was funny because it was during a time on Twitter where I was like, “Fuck this shit,” and I hadn’t looked at it for five months or whatever. And I looked on there and I saw that Earl was trying to contact me and I was like, “Ah shit, this guy probably thinks I’m some kind of dick now.” I think it was a minute after that initial communication that we linked up, but we’ve just been cool ever since and recording shit occasionally. And then Action, I met through Alchemist; those guys are working together all the time. I met him over at Al’s and just started playing beats. I had recorded several songs with either one of those dudes and I just thought, “Shit, we got to put some of this stuff out. Can’t let it sit around.”
How did the title track for Action’s album Mr. Wonderful make it on yours?
“Mr. Wonderful” was actually recorded right before he finished the album. Obviously it was going to be the title track; now it’s a missing title track. If anyone is interested in hearing the title track… it’s like the bonus track, you only had to wait eight months for it.
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