If you haven’t heard Evan Okun ’13’s, otherwise known as E. Oks, new album Back Up, Black Out, you’re seriously depriving yourself. Available for free on his Bandcamp, Okun’s album encapsulates his outlook on life with smooth rhymes atop a soundscape of samples and carefully crafted beats. Oh, and it’s rife with Weskids. Like, on every track. I chatted with Okun about the album, the inspiration and process behind it, the videos it’s spawned. I got to dig into his mind and it was pretty dope – here’s the product.
Me: So, for those unfamiliar with Back Up, Black Out, it’s a concept album. Want to get into the concept, the creative inspiration and such?
E. Oks: Back Up, Black Out tells a continuous story: I wake up after having graduated from Wes, live a day (in the hood I’m from, Washington Heights), go to sleep, and dream (the final four tracks are all dreams). It investigates how all humans are simply reflections of the light they have absorbed. There is no birth and no death. Just a recycling-of-sun. After presenting this truth on the first track, it pokes fun at the fact that humans are still impressively egocentric. As the album develops, the narrative argues that self-obsession is the root cause for societal oppression. Then, as I am about to take action on this fact, I fall asleep, only to wake up and live the same day, once again. As Sara Ahmed so brilliant writes: “Critique is where we deposit our anxieties.” Academia teaches us to compulsively critique (and then go get drunk or satisfy our ego by critiquing-even-more at a poetry slam), rather than shaming us for even considering a critique that does not directly lead to action.
Me: Is that derived from Buddhist philosophy – the recycling of sun? I remember you saying that the Buddhist philosophy class you took at Wes was one of your biggest inspirations.
E. Oks: Ah yes! A central idea in Buddhism is Samsara, which captures how we are caught in cycles of suffering. The recycling of sun is my own fusion of Buddhism with science (I resonated a lot with chemistry at Wes, too.). This album precipitated from an independent study I did in the spring of my senior year at Wes, with music professor Jay Hoggard and Buddhism Professor Lang Chen. And everything I have done since taking Introduction To Buddhism with professor Jan Willis has been, in some way, a reflection of her brilliance.
Me: I definitely got the philosophical vibes, but it didn’t feel preachy.
E. Oks: The album was an attempt to examine Buddhist philosophy without using any isolating Buddhist terminology. For example, on the first track I repeat, “some sorrow has a funny way of circling back” and eventually pronounce it as “Samsara has a funny way of circling back” – but I’m cool if people don’t pick up on that, you know? It’s for the Buddhist heads I guess.
Me: Woah. That’s crazy! That’s awesome Wes had such a profound impact on your music and your outlook on life. Speaking on Wes’ impact, clearly it left a profound social impact on you, too, considering there’s a student presence on just about every track. Did you intend to create a Wes-filled album from the get-go, or was it something that just developed as you got more and more people featuring?
E. Oks: I did not intend for it to be Wes filled, but I am not surprised it turned out that way for three main reasons:
(1) My favorite part of music is collaboration – mutual exploration that culminates in something more beautiful that either individual could produce solo.
(2) Musically, I have so many ideas that my being is not capable of realizing. For instance, I see all humans as refracted light (where light is warped in someway by the surface off which it reflects) – our beings shape the light we’ve absorbed. I wanted to convey that in the beat of the first song. I, however, cannot make beats. You know who can? Jared Paul ‘10, the brilliant man who recorded, mixed, and mastered the album. So I told him my idea, played him the Dr. Dre song I wanted to refract, and he made it happen! The first half of the song is the beat from Dr. Dre’s song “Big Ego,” and the second is a refracted interpretation by Jared.
(3) Wesleyan’s music scene is unreal. The amount of talent is just absurd. To not collaborate would just be dumb.
Me: I’m curious about “Clair De Lune,” which you state is a refraction by Ada Okun, who I assume is your sister. How’d you go from Debussy to this? What was the process of refraction?
E. Oks: Ada Okun is my older sister. She is the most amazing pianist, but never gets shine. So back when I only had one or two songs, I decided I wanted to have her on my album. The only song I had recorded of hers was “Clair De Lune.” A few months later I flipped out when I realized that “Clair De Lune” means “Moon Light.” For this reason I used it as the half way mark of the album, around which all the song titles would refract each other (from “Moving On” vs. “Circling Back” to “Boom, Bang” vs. “Drip, Drop”). I had already written the first song that uses moonlight as the primary metaphor for refracted light. So yeah, I freaked.
Me: That’s actually ridiculous – your sister was clearly meant to have her moment on this album. So we should get to the videos. We start with “The Feature,” taking us to Hawaii. Why’d you choose that as the first song to release with a video?
E. Oks: I chose “The Feature” for two reasons:
(1) It is in many ways the thesis of the album. It urges the listener to “Back Up, Black Out and give the feature some shine” – the feature is meant to represent whatever light we are blessed to have floating in our being.
(2) Adjua Pryor ’15 is in many ways my music guru. I performed “The Feature” on stage opening for Dead Prez and right after the song was done, I went to take a sip of water from the side of the stage. Adjua was there and she said, “Evan – that’s the single.” I laughed.
With regards to why Hawaii: I wrote this album in the six months after visiting Evan Weber ’13 in Hawaii. So much of what this album became was due to that trip. For instance, when Weber was driving me to the airport for my flight home, he was playing a Jack Johnson album. I heard a song, and said, “That would be a hot hip-hop sample.” I texted Lucas Turner-Owens ’11, told him my idea, and that became the beat for “All Relative.” In this way, my trip to Hawaii represents a fist full of light beams that the album refracted. Given the content of “The Feature,” it was only right that I honor this. Oh! And the only non-Hawaii shots were from that Dead Prez show! So it really works out!
Me: I was wondering where the Jack Johnson sample came from! We should end with “All Relative,” your most recent video. You give Washington Heights love in the video, showing the minutest details that seem to make it unique to you. Did you write the song while in the Heights or was a sort of homage you came up with at Wes?
E. Oks: When Lucas sent me the “All Relative” beat, I was blown away. To get some creative juices flowing, I went to chill with Paulie Lowther ’13, a frequent feature on the album, and we freestyled over it. We then spent ten-ish minutes writing over the beat, then spit what we had. Paulie then had to dip out to a track meet – I went over to the (secret 1 Vine) laundry matt. It was the day before the Dead Prez show. As I was finalizing the details for picking up Stic-Man & M1 [of Dead Prez], the line “sssssssliped on ice at the top of the stairs” came into my head. I wrote the first two verses there as I waited for my laundry. I loved Wesleyan, but I spent a lot of time missing Washington Heights – my friends, the routines, the music. So that song was a way of revisiting home even while at Wes.
Me: I have to ask for that song how you switch between languages so seamlessly. Like, the flow is so smooth and you really capture the day-to-day experience of the Heights. What was that whole writing/shooting experience like?
E. Oks: It came quickly. I rarely write two verses in under 30 minutes, but Donat [De La Cruz, the “star of the song and the album”] and I had lived the story of the song so many times, the words were just waiting to precipitate. It is all true. He lives on 164th and Edgecome in an apartment building ten feet from a juvenile detention center. From his roof you can see mad kids who are locked up for the same stuff college students do every single day. Luckily Wesleyan has its own mini-judicial system!
Me: Any idea what the next video’s going to be?
E. Oks: The same day we shot “All Relative,” Marguerite Suozzo-Golé ’15 came to the Heights to shoot a video for “Drip, Drop.” We are putting the finishing touches on that one now. Matter fact, at 1:34 into the All Relative video, the camera moves onto me as I’m rapping on Donat’s roof. The reason it was moving was because it had turned away from us & towards Marguerite who had just arrived and walked out onto the roof.