Orlando experimental hip-hop duo OhTwo wrapped their new album, A Time to Be Small, in early March, right before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in earnest. This album was a decided break from their creative past, a bleak, minimal, left-field collection of songs that, like some cursed talisman, seemed almost a herald for our current timeline. Suddenly inner doubts and personal struggles suddenly took on a very sharp real-word focus.
"The subject matter of the album is all social isolation," says vocalist/MC Faust. "It fit in with the moment in a really literal way."
"We set out to make an album that sounded more somber and even apocalyptic," adds producer/beatmaker Byson.
Orlando Weekly chatted with the duo over the weekend via Zoom and they're just rolling with the punches. One member is currently out of work, one member isn't. Any plans for shows or physical media of A Time to Be Small – out at the end of the month, self-released – or new merch in general are off the table. And yet, Faust and Byson are proud of the new album, and proud of the new chapter that OhTwo are beginning.
A Time to Be Small is a work to be justifiably proud of, a stylistic left turn for a group that was once a trio. (Founding member Sean Mingo left to pursue a solo career; see our July 1 feature, "The Upsetter.") So it was: Everything must go. Much of the celebratory nature of their past work was jettisoned, and sonic tropes they'd used on previous albums were reworked or abandoned altogether. With a head full of Joy Division (check the JD interview sample on instrumental "From Under the Beat"), New Order and "post-punk, new wave," OhTwo took a hard turn. They refer to the music on the album as post-pop, a considered deconstruction of their music and lyrics up to this point.
"There was a lot of social anxiety, there was a lot of heartbreak," says Faust when explaining the life circumstances that inspired his lyrics. "I had a fondness for designer clothing, and a fondness for painkillers. ... It's not about drugs, but I would be saying shit to people that I didn't mean. And I would be saying shit to let myself and other people down, and so a lot of it was just expressing how you feel when you can't say anything, because things aren't fitting right. It was a really dark six months of my life."
- Photo via OhTwo
"We have the motifs down, the ideas of pop music," explains Byson of the musical side. "But we wanted to double down on the depth and the emotion and the vulnerability. ... It's 100 percent rooted in hip-hop and I would never want to dismiss that, But the other side of it is that we're kind of trying to create something new from it. The production was very much me not caring about my comfort zone."
It's another strange trick of timing that OhTwo dub their new sound "post-pop" at this uncertain and fragmented time. "It's all I think about," Faust laughs bleakly. "I'm stuck here in post-everything."
Recording the album was a collaborative effort from start to finish. Everything from choosing samples to picking drum sounds and recording vocal takes was done together. Besides guest spots from Adamn Killa and Cimid, it's just the two of them. "We were in the same room for the entire album," Faust says. "That was important for us. It was really organic, it was fun."
"I'd have to credit [Orlando noise-rock trio] TTN for inspiring us some to work this way," Byson admits. "When I was producing their album and talking to them about their collaborative process, I was like, 'This is the way Faust and I need to work.'"
Which brings us to a crucial understanding of OhTwo's unique creative path. This is a group just as comfortable playing Will's Pub with Quelle Chris as they are playing a house show with a bunch of experimental acts. And by sheer force of convocation and performance chops, they always fit right in. OhTwo even toured with TTN and Broken Machine Films for an East Coast run in 2018, playing their mod, kinetic hip-hop to mostly underground audiences. They're released tapes through Central Florida experimental haven Illuminated Paths. OhTwo are no strangers to underground weirdness.
"One of the first shows I played was when Josh [Rogers, Illuminated Paths head] invited me to play Uncle Lou's with Trotsky's Watercooler," recalls Byson. "I was like, 'Here I am playing lo-fi hip-hop beats at a noise show at Lou's and I think this is the weirdest scene I could be a part of and I really don't want to be a part of any other one.' ... If it weren't for that scene, I don't know what kind of music we'd be making today."
For a group that made their name on their energetic live work, they're remarkably clear-eyed and about their current situation.
"We're a studio group for a little while," shrugs Faust. "We had a lot of reconstructing to do. And we made this album for discerning listeners, and I don't even know why we'd want to play it live. But it's obviously going to be a minute."
"It's a weird social context to be releasing music in right now," Byson says. "You're already hearing people reference COVID in rap songs. It's just so weird to be putting out music, like, 'Oh yeah, that's the album that was released in the middle of the world's biggest pandemic.'"
As for the immediate future after the album drops, Byson's in the slow process of building a home studio and they're already working on new ideas for songs – a couple of music videos are all that's currently set in stone. "We're just gonna let it marinate and then fucking get it, man," Faust promises.
A Time to Be Small is out July 31 on Spotify, Bandcamp and other digital platforms.