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TAXI member Owen Chaim
TAXI member Owen Chaim

Where did you grow up?
Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Did you grow up in a musical family?
Not at all. 

What did your parents listen to?
This is strange. I’ve never noticed it before, but now that I think of it I’ve never seen my parents enjoy music in any form. 

Wow, you’re the first person to ever say that! I hope they listen to your music, now! How old were you when you first fell in love with music, and who was the first artist that you couldn’t get enough of?
I really started to fall in love with music when I was 8 years old or so, when I found Hip-Hop. It was around the time when a movie about Hip-Hop called Beat Street came out. It was a time when it was considered a fad, along with breakdancing.

It was really difficult for me at that age to go out and find that music. I was really craving it. All I could get my hands on were some K-Tel compilations. There was a college radio show for Hip-Hop called Fantastic Voyage that I started listening to. That’s when I really got deep into the music.

I don’t think there was any one artist that I couldn’t get enough of, but if I had to choose I think it would have to be Whodini. Songs like, “The Freaks Come Out at Night,” “Five Minutes of Funk,” and “Friends.” Hearing those songs still gives me a chill down my spine.

At what point did you start playing music?
By the time I was 13 years old, I really felt the urge to participate in Hip-Hop.  Specifically, to start learning how to do the record scratch rhythms I was hearing on records like U.T.F.O.’s Roxanne Roxanne and all over DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s debut album, Rock the House.

When I was 14 my grandmother bought me a pair of turntables and a mixer and I started collecting records and learned how to do the record scratches I was hearing in songs.  That led to entering scratch DJ competitions around the city for the next 5-6 years. 

At what point did you decide to start writing your own music?
I don’t consider the sample-based beats I was making early on “writing my own music,” because it’s not really my own. But I started because I was hearing how the Hip-Hop producers made their beats. And, again, it was like how I started DJ’ing, I wanted to participate and put my own spin on Hip-Hop beats. I did start writing Rap lyrics when I started making beats. I did it out of curiosity and ambition, as well not having any close friends who were into Hip-Hop like I was.

Actually writing original music didn’t start until much later probably around 2004 when I started adding bass lines or melodies to the sampled beats I was making. I gradually sampled less and less and started writing music from scratch using VST synths and sample libraries.

"Hip-Hop is typically rather simple and repetitive, rooted in rhythm. If the music moves around too much, getting into three or four chord progressions, as paradoxical as it sounds, it becomes less Hip-Hop-like."
-Owen Chaim

Who were your biggest influences then, and who are they now?
As rappers, Special Ed, Big Daddy Kane, and Das Efx were really big influences on me.  But I remember for a long time I would have LL Cool J’s voice in my head as I was writing lyrics as if I was subconsciously asking, “What would LL say, and how would he say it?” Production-wise, I would always try to make beats that had the ruggedness and darkness of DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and DJ Premier of Gang Starr.

Were you any good in the beginning?
No. I really struggled. As a rapper, my voice was really weak for a genre that is known for cocky and confident attitudes. My beats really lacked any emphasis. I was using a primitive DAW, called a tracker. It was a program that was used for making Chiptunes.  All on a 486 computer with a Soundblaster card. The sound quality was terrible. I knew I wasn’t any good. But I really had a lot of fun.

I remember reading that at some point, your tunes became strong enough that they started getting played on college radio stations all over North America. How did it feel the first time you heard your music coming through a radio speaker?
It was certainly a proud moment. It was a bit of validation for the music I was making. I was finally at a level where I could fit in with the indie/underground Hip-Hop that was out at the time. But doing it on my own and not being able to go on the road to support the radio promotion, it only went so far.

Did you, or do you still play live shows?
I’ve always been more of a “studio” rapper. I hadn’t performed in public until 2005, when I auditioned for a promo spot for a Hip-Hop specialty station here in Toronto. I ended up being one of the artists selected and that promo ran for a year. I had a unique twist for that performance. I had thought of a way to do a Rap performance by scratching a rhythm using a turntable and mixer while rapping. I had seen it done before, but the guys who did it weren’t scratch DJs, they were rappers who could do very basic DJ techniques. I really brought the idea of scratching and rapping at the same time to another level because the DJ’ing part — which I developed to a high level by then — was second nature to me. And I haven’t seen it surpassed since.

I used this type of routine and developed a performance set with two turntables, a mixer and a microphone, and started doing some shows for a couple years, playing during Canadian Music Week and NXNE.

What was it that got you into doing music for TV and Film?
I released an album through a small indie label, and through their radio servicing a DJ from Vancouver got in touch with me because he liked my album, so we stayed in touch.  A number of years later he told me he just started this music supervision gig for a small local cable show. I think it was called, Don’t Quit Your Gay Job on OUTTV. I got a bunch of music on there. I didn’t get that channel so I never saw the shows, but when I saw the $20 it generated from SOCAN I thought I should look for more opportunities like it.

How long after that did you join TAXI?
I joined TAXI the following year.

"I could really tell TAXI wasn’t just an A&R company. As a side effect of the [TAXI’s] feedback and the [TAXI] forum, it also facilitates artist development."
-Owen Chaim

What was it about TAXI that caused you to take the leap of faith?
I lurked around the [TAXI] forums for a bit to see if I could get a sense of what type of music was successful, hoping I’d find some Hip-Hop. When I heard some of the music that was being forwarded [by TAXI], I thought that I wasn’t quite there yet. But I knew if I studied it, maybe I could get better, especially using the feedback I was reading about and eventually [I could] get a Forward. I really needed some kind of assessment of where I was in terms of what I could produce compared to the standard of what was being forwarded. The Forums provided the perfect window into what TAXI is about, by seeing what other TAXI members were submitting for the listings, what the quality was like on the [other members’] submissions that were getting forwarded, and further, what was actually getting placed. I could really tell TAXI wasn’t just an A&R company. As a side effect of the [TAXI’s] feedback and the [TAXI] Forum, it also facilitates artist development. And to get more placements, that was exactly what I needed. I had no problem investing in that.

Did you have any of the typical “growing pains” that new TAXI members often have in their first year, or were you successful right out of the gate?
I definitely went through some growing pains. I thought I had a good handle on Hip-Hop so setting aside that ego was rather difficult. I wasn’t really able to do away with the ego until I approached the writing like I was providing a service, like customer service. I approached it like, “Whatever [the industry] wants that is within the wheelhouse of Hip-Hop, I’m going to use my experience and give it to them.” When I finally got a couple of Forwards [from TAXI], it just seemed like they went into a black hole. I had no idea what was going on at the receiving end. I may or not may get a call back. That was really tough to accept.

"I wasn’t really able to do away with the ego until I approached the writing like I was providing a service, like customer service."
-Owen Chaim

Are there any major differences between doing Hip-Hop for radio and records, and doing it for Film and TV?
The music can be quite different. Traditionally, Hip-Hop is typically rather simple and repetitive, rooted in rhythm. If you’re in tune with the aesthetic of Hip-Hop, the music can be simple and repetitive, but it just feels right, if it’s right. If the music moves around too much, getting into three or four chord progressions, as paradoxical as it sounds, it becomes less Hip-Hop-like. This applies mostly to the earlier music of the ’80s and ’90s, particularly the stuff from the underground scene. Some contemporary Hip-Hop has really developed into more traditional songwriting, where you get into chord progressions, pre-chorus, and bridges.  But there is still a lot of contemporary Hip-Hop that lives in the one- or two-bar loop.

When you’re writing Hip-Hop for Film and TV and you’re trying to make that simple, repetitive rhythm interesting for two minutes, it can be very challenging. Sometimes you can get away with making it more musical even though the vibe isn’t exactly Hip-Hop. But, because the drums are programmed and hitting at the right frequencies, that’s all the style of Hip-Hop that the publishers and music supervisors want. Knowing that helps me push the musicality outside of what I would normally consider Hip-Hop.

Writing Hip-Hop lyrics as an artist is very different from writing lyrics for Film and TV as well. Hip-Hop frequently makes reference to people, places, dates, and popular culture. But using those references in songs pitched for TV and Film, you’re really limiting the possibility of placements [because of potential conflicts with the scripts or story line].

Do you mostly do songs with vocals or instrumentals?
I do mostly instrumentals. I usually do songs with vocals if there’s a specific request.

Do you see any sort of pattern as to whether it is songs or instrumental that get the most placements, or is it all across the board?
I get a lot more placements with instrumentals. The vocal placements feel like a bit more of an accomplishment though. If only because they’re usually more prominent in a scene and I get to hear my voice on TV.

Do you do all your own vocals?
I do most of my vocals if I can pull it off. If I write lyrics that I know I can’t deliver because my voice doesn’t sound right for it, I’ll hire someone with the right voice to rap the lyrics as a work-for-hire if I need to. 

I know that you do old school material and more contemporary stuff as well. Do you do the old school stuff because there’s a demand for it, or because that’s what you grew up on?
I do the old school material for all those reasons. There is some demand for it, but I also love to do it. It is what I grew up on, and since I’ve developed some skill in reverse engineering sounds, I think I can replicate that old school sound and vibe well enough for it to be considered. If there weren’t a demand for it, I probably wouldn’t do it only because I want to make the best, most profitable use, of my time. I’ve also noticed there aren’t a lot of people doing the old school style of Hip-Hop, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to carve out a niche for myself.

Read Part Two of This Interview in Next Month’s TAXI’s Transmitter!

Hear Owen’s Music Here: