Life works in mysterious ways. Sometimes getting to your destination involves a detour via a place you’d never imagined visiting. “I didn’t start making beats to make instrumental albums,” Sam Baker told me in early 2013 when I was visiting Los Angeles, the city he has lived since 2006. Baker started making hip-hop beats as a teenager, emulating producers like Gangstarr’s DJ Premier and thinking that, one day, rappers might employ his talents. But it was a different kind of beats that Baker, under the name Samiyam, became known for in the late 2000s through releases on Flying Lotus' then-nascent Brainfeeder label and Kode9's U.K. imprint Hyperdub. These beats were purely instrumental and built for the dancefloor for a new generation of fans attending parties from Los Angeles to Glasgow to Lithuania. In his trademark nonchalant manner, Baker rolled with it, grateful for the attention, releases, and shows. In embracing this unexpected role, he found time to hone in on a sound all his own—slow yet energetic, classic but with a new sheen—that has finally taken him where he always wanted to be.
“In a way it’s full circle for me,” Baker says today, speaking on the phone from his home studio in Venice Beach. Over the past few years he has placed productions on albums by rappers Earl Sweatshirt and Pharoahe Monch, collaborated with Action Bronson and Dilated People’s Evidence, and struck up a working relationship with L.A.'s The Alchemist, a longstanding hip-hop producer who was an early inspiration. “I’m doing what I always wanted,“ Baker says, which includes writing and performing his own raps, another early interest he first demonstrated on 2013’s Wish You Were Here. The Samiyam of today—a producer and rapper comfortable on his own or collaborating with others—is the one a young Baker had imagined over fifteen years ago when he first started making beats in his native Michigan. Everything else he did to get there is “fantastic, but also secondary,” he adds with a laugh.
“Music has always been a by ear thing for me, I don’t want to look at pictures of waveforms or navigate complex menus.”—Samiyam
Baker doesn’t speak much, or very loudly; his music does the talking. His beats are languid, inspired by the classic sound of New York in the ‘90s: often sample-heavy, sometimes electronic, and always full of grit. The only metronome he follows is internal, the movement of the neck as the drums snap into place on an imaginary grid. It’s this sound that defined his 2008 debut, Rap Beats Vol.1, a beat tape that wished for voices but instead found receptive ears on its own, and one which he is revisiting, with newfound wisdom, on his fourth album, Animals Have Feelings on Stones Throw. “It’s almost Rap Beats Vol.2,” Baker says of his latest, a collection of 22 tracks that evoke “the same feeling and sound” as his debut. The notable difference is a handful of rapping appearances from Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, Jeremiah Jae, and Oliver The 2nd. “I like to think it is a better version of the music I used to make,” Baker says jokingly. “I’ve always had the same sound in my head I want to create.”
The most memorable producers, in hip-hop or elsewhere, are remembered for a unique sound or approach, be it Quincy Jones and his work with Michael Jackson or Lex Luger’s orchestral trap beats. What makes Baker’s sound memorable is a certain “funk,” a specific approach to samples, melodies, and rhythm. “I hear things in a specific way in my head,” he explains. The way Baker hears it is “how it’s going to be presented to you,” with little editing or retouching. The result is unmistakable, a groove that can sometime feel like it’s about to tumble into chaos yet always finds it feet.
Essential to realizing Baker’s vision was finding the right machine to work with. It turned out to be the SP–303, a simple sampler he discovered as a teenager in Michigan that allowed him to understand “how to make the sound I wanted.” Inaugurated by Japanese manufacturer Roland in 1998, the Dr. Sample series (which runs from SP–202 to 505) came to quiet prominence in the 2000s through the creative uses of producers like cLOUDEAD’s Odd Nosdam and, most notably, Madlib. Today, everyone from Grimes to Four Tet uses a model and the machine has also become a symbol in the L.A. beat scene, preferred by the likes of Ras G, Teebs, Dibia$e, and Baker for both studio and live use.
But it was necessity that brought Baker to the 303 rather than the cool aura it now possesses. Back in the early 2000s, Baker had purchased an MPC—the machine every producer name checked in interviews—but was “getting nowhere” with it. The limited effects of the MPC led him to look for a dedicated effects unit. “I just came across [the SP] randomly,” he recalls. It looked “cool” and, most important, was affordable for a teenage beat maker. The 303 offered Baker a different route into production and, crucially, a way to create his own sound. “Its limitations made me adapt to a simpler way of working,” he explains. “Music has always been a by ear thing for me, I don’t want to look at pictures of waveforms or navigate complex menus.” The 303, a machine that only allows you to sample, effect, and crudely sequence, proved to be simplest way for Baker to get the sound out of his head. Today, the 303 continues to inform his approach, even when he’s using other instruments: “I’ve been making beats on the MPC again and it finally sounds like me,” he says.
Perseverance, humility, and the right machine brought Baker to a place he can call his own and a sound that has captured the attention of everyone from Hyperdub founder Kode9 to The Alchemist. Sometimes it’s the path you didn’t know you had to take that will lead you where you want to go. By following his own rhythm, the same one you can hear in his beats, Baker is getting there. “It’s all I ever wanted,” he says in a confident voice. “For people to be able to hear the music and know it’s me.”