Bigger Than Me: The Musical Journey of BLK ODYSSY
A child of funk who lost his brother to police brutality soundtracks a revolution on BLK VINTAGE
“Pull up like skaters, alligators on my boots at the show/ That joint ain’t funny, sweet like honey, my swag drips down the wall.” – “Nineteen Eighty”
It's March 2017 and Sam Houston is hustling like countless other music industry hopefuls at Austin's annual spring break megaconference.
Wu-Tang is set to swarm the ACL Live stage that night, with Erykah Badu blessing the turntables. An aspiring soul singer himself, Houston scored an invitation to the show from a member of Badu's team, but they lacked the juice to produce tickets or a spot on the guest list.
Instead, just a simple set of instructions: Dress like a star, go backstage, walk upstairs like you belong there.
"So I threw on the freshest fit that I had, trying to really look like somebody," Houston recalls. "I walked up through the back loading dock and didn't even look at security – was just on my phone texting. I get on the elevator, pacing around nervous, and Wale walks in. So I just put on an act. You know, like he should know me! So for the rest of the night I put that on. I talked with Erykah and Wale. I met J. Cole that night too."
That same silent swagger oozes from every note of BLK VINTAGE, the forthcoming album under Houston's new solo moniker, BLK ODYSSY, and the best local debut this side of Black Pumas.
“Let me stick this funk in your veins.” – “Funkentology”
"I've been listening to Funkadelic for as long as I can remember," Houston attests.
That claim might trigger a bullshit detector coming from many 24-year-olds, but this is no empty boast. Houston landed in Austin to pursue music in 2016, but he grew up in Plainfield, N.J. – the same small town where George Clinton birthed a doo-wop quintet named the Parliaments in the back of the Silk Palace barbershop in 1955. The cosmic ride that took Parliament-Funkadelic's mother ship from Plainfield to a permanent parking spot in a museum on the National Mall in D.C. is one of the greatest music stories ever told. Houston bore witness, and soaked it all in.
"My dad was a roadie for them back in the Seventies. He used to get high as shit with those guys. My best friend coming up, his uncle was Diaper Man [P-Funk guitarist Garry Shider]. When we were younger George Clinton would come to his house. You'd just see all these people in the community – going to the corner store, going to church – and it's like, 'Oh shit, you played on Cosmic Slop!'"
That upbringing gave Houston a molecular-level understanding of funk music's DNA. It ain't all spaceships and LSD, even if it's most certainly that as well.
"It's spiritual," Houston says. "Open up your heart and open up your mind. That's what you need to receive that sort of music. Like they said, give me your brain and let me play with it."
Guitarist Alejandro Rios has been one of Houston's closest collaborators since landing in Texas, and the pair have played under the banner of Sam Houston & BLK ODYSSY since 2017, up until the recent name change. As evidenced by their live shows, Rios worships at the altar of guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. The six-stringer introduced Houston to Zeppelin and Floyd, while Houston hipped Rios to Frank Ocean and D'Angelo. Determined to communicate and realize his vision, Houston invited his friend to his hometown for a funk and R&B baptism. Put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip, as it were, and climb aboard the mother ship.
"That trip was super important for me," says Rios. "The first rehearsal was with a bunch of Sam's friends who he grew up with and a lot of people with gospel chops and more of the urban soul roots that I hadn't really been around as much. That's absolutely where everything clicked for me. There were a lot more drag drums, and everything's gotta have that stank to it. It opened my eyes to what he was going for and that's when our sound evolved into the territory that we're in now."
“It’s complicated my relations with vibrations and all.” – “Nineteen Eighty”
If you've heard BLK ODYSSY live over the last several years, forget everything you know. Two years in the making, the self-produced debut album shelves overt rock and Americana elements for a sound that lives squarely on the border of soul and hip-hop. Think Questlove's work with the Soulquarians and Voodoo-era D'Angelo, or Kendrick Lamar in the studio with Thundercat and Bilal.
Those are admittedly lofty comparisons for an unsung and unsigned rookie, but the proof is in the product. Even with a sublime honey-kissed falsetto, it's easy to walk away from this album convinced that Houston is at least as talented behind the boards as he is on the mic. The creative energy is palpable, an explosion of ideas bursting from every track.
"Those sessions were so cool, bro," Houston remembers. "They were all at like 1am and the studio was smoked out. It was nice and warm in there, we had the lights low, it was just such a vibe. My sister-in-law Eimaral Sol sings on a lot of the project, so it was cool to have family around. I had this lady [Jen Major] playing the flute, my homie Andrea Taylor came in and would just sing all over the tracks, and Wyatt [Corder] would come in and play the trumpet. It just put everyone in this Harlem in the 1930s mood. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie – that realm of stuff is what we were trying to capture in that moment. It was beautiful. I wanted to have a room full of people who are all better musicians than me, and who can all bring ideas to this project. All in all, there are probably upwards of 50 people on the record. You need a community of people to put together a project like this, and it brought the songs to a new level."
To take them a notch higher, Houston turned to Derek Ali, better known as MixedByAli, the in-house engineer for Top Dawg Entertainment (Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Schoolboy Q, et al.). Sonically, BLK VINTAGE floats in the same lane as To Pimp a Butterfly and Childish Gambino's Awaken, My Love. One of those albums features George Clinton and the other is an homage to his legacy. Ali just so happens to have gold Grammys on the shelf for his work on both. With no direct connections, Houston took a shot and slid into his DMs.
"I thought there was maybe a 5% chance that someone with 200,000 followers on Instagram is gonna see my DM. I told him, 'Look, I don't have a lot of money, I'm not famous, and I'm not on a major label, but I think I have a sound that you would really fuck with.'"
Ali not only saw the message, he liked what he heard and agreed to mix two standout tracks for the album: "Hang Low" and "Funkentology." The latter is an ode to P-Funk (through a prism of sex addiction) while the former finds Houston and guest vocalist James Robinson channeling Bilal and D'Angelo. Sweet, rich, silky, and layered, it's straight-up tiramisu for the earhole.
"Ali is masterful and an artist in his own right," Houston says. "There's the art of creating the song and then the art of making the song feasible. As musicians, we create things and have all these ideas that we try to cram in. He understands the vision and literally creates space in the record so that you can hear the depth. He really puts himself in the middle of the song, fixing frequencies and feeling the mixing board out like a piano."
“This is a story of a young Black man, shot down with no gun in his hand. His mother starts to cry ... ” – “Drinking Good”
While there are undeniable moments of joy, BLK VINTAGE also paints a portrait of Black pain, offering a very particular lens through which to see the world.
"I want people to see and feel what it's like to be in our skin," Houston says. "It's a view from the inside looking out."
From "Murda" to "Drinking Good," police violence pops up like flashing red-and-blue lights throughout the album. From Houston's vantage point, the murder of George Floyd and ensuing mass uprisings were anything but theoretical. It was deeply personal and deeply painful.
"The pandemic provided so much different shit for me and one was zeroing in on my brother's death for the first time, for real for real," he says. "When you have a young mind you're able to suppress it."
Houston was 13 years old in 2010, when his oldest brother, David, was shot and killed by police. News reports indicate there were a dozen officers at the scene and that David fired a gun – a claim the family disputes.
"My brother was a college graduate," Houston eulogizes. "We were from the hood, but he was doing positive shit. He had a son, had ideas about community and growth. He had bipolar [disorder] and this country just doesn't deal with mental illness in the correct way. One of his caseworkers came to his house, said he was having an episode, and there was a rumor that he had a gun – which was proven not to have been there. He was scared. He was running from them and they shot him in the back 11 times. They emptied 71 clips, hit him 11 times.
"Having to see his son for the first few years after that happened was so hard. I was like, 'I'm not your dad. I can't be your dad. You don't have a father anymore.' I suppressed that memory for so long."
Watching Derek Chauvin squeeze the life out of Floyd's body on a Minneapolis street corner brought all of those memories rushing back into focus.
"I'm looking at George Floyd and them kneeling on his neck for all those minutes. Looking at his face, watching him die. I was enraged by that. I came face to face with my own conscience. Like, damn, this isn't just something you're watching on Twitter. I literally watched my mom sobbing over my brother's casket. Seeing my dad – who is a huge 6-foot-3-inch dude – break down and cry in the parking lot. Watching my older brother sit on the edge of his bed in the dark just staring out. These are things that I saw. Watching this shit on TV, I just started having these crazy flashbacks. Like, fuck, this is my reality. I can leave the house and get killed by police and my mom would have to deal with that shit again. This is my reality as a Black person in the country."
Jay-Z raps about that reality on the "The Story of O.J.," illustrating the predicament of being Black in America with brutal efficiency, and Houston riffs on the same lines on "Drinking Good."
"Those bars really stuck with me. You could be light, you could be dark, you could be rich, you could be poor. You could be a college grad, you could be a doctor. You could be a professor and get arrested going into your own apartment. At a certain point if you come across the right cop it doesn't matter. People don't think that shit is real. There are good cops out there, a lot of them, but the system is rotten. The foundation of why police were created in America was to capture runaway slaves. How can you build something on poisonous roots and expect the branches to not be poisonous? It's poison from the roots, and that's what it will always be until the roots are dug up and purified. Is that shit gonna happen? I don't think so ... not in this country. This is what this country is."
“Brothers and sisters, we shall no longer walk in trepidation.” – “Blk Revolution”
If BLK VINTAGE has a thesis statement, it comes on the penultimate track, "Blk Revolution," co-written by Houston and delivered like a warrior-poet by Trouble in the Streets frontwoman Nnedi "Nebula" Agbaroji.
"Black is the new gold. Black been the new gold."
It's a mantra. An affirmation. Big ol' facts.
"That is the realization part of the album," Houston says. "Nnedi came in and was able to combat my American views of Black beauty with her African views of Black beauty."
"As a first-generation Nigerian in America, that dichotomy comes into play a lot," Agbaroji explains. "There are some Africans who are always shitting on Black Americans for the predicament they found themselves in, not taking into account the hundreds of years of generational trauma that came with being disenfranchised in this country. That's the dissonance that's part of the Black experience in America – not knowing where you come from. I was trying to say that Africa is standing behind you, you are part of us, and we know where you come from. If nobody else in the world acknowledges where you come from, you still have a home."
Houston further tapped into the diaspora by commissioning a Nigerian artist to design the album art. On the haunting cover, a shirtless Black man stands in waist high water, surrounded by a cipher of hands reaching up from beneath the surface.
"I didn't want to have a picture of my face or the band because this album is so much bigger than me," Houston says. "There are so many people on this project. It's a project for us, a project for the people."
BLK ODYSSY’s BLK VINTAGE arrives August 27. The band headlines an album release show on Saturday, Aug. 20, at the Parish.