Dave + Sam Drop Socially-Conscious Odyssey
Out on Classic, their debut album No Shade explores the deeper rhythms of hip-house
Words: Jim Butler
Quite reasonably, artists often talk about what their music sounds like. But how often do you hear them describing what colour their music is? For vocalist Dave Giles II, one half of Dave + Sam, talking about music in terms of colour – visualising it in other words – helps him not only contextualise it, but understand the nuances at work in any given track.
“Colour really matters to me,” he explains in an excited and infectious fashion – a manner which soon becomes apparent is his default setting. “Especially when it comes to sound. I’m not trained. I just know what to do and colour is one of the ways I work and feel what’s supposed to happen.”
According to Dave, the colour of the music that producer Sam O.B. creates is blue. “A bright, warm blue. Very cool.” It’s this colour – this aesthetic – that has shaped the pair’s debut album, No Shade. Out now on Classic Music Company, it’s a 13-track, socially-conscious odyssey into the deeper rhythms of hip-house – a future classic that takes O.B.’s mellifluous sonics and melds them to Dave’s righteous, rapier-like raps that hold a mirror up to the manifold ills of mainstream American society (and by extension, much of the world right now). “You know, Trump, fascism, white supremacy,” Dave adds with a hint of resignation.
Even before the current global Covid-19 crisis, Dave + Sam’s galvanising mix of hip-hop’s poetic legacy with the bump ‘n’ grind grooves of house music has proved to be a compelling antidote to the notion that dance music is nothing more than mere escapism. Both Dave and Sam were keen to get their empowering messages out there, and in doing so return house music to its marginal roots. “It was certainly going through my mind when we were making the record,” affirms Sam. “The history of house music comes from a very disenfranchised place. Yes, in some respects, it got scooped up, commercialised and had the meaning squeezed out of it, but we were very conscious not to go down that road.”
And in the ostensibly party sounds of late ’80s hip-house, Dave + Sam found a vibe they could happily pursue. “That music might use lots of simple, repeated phrases to get you hyped in a club, but when we were making No Shade I was definitely keeping that sound in mind,” Sam continues. “I didn’t want to overproduce it like a lot of house music is today. I wanted to channel some of the naivete and rawness that existed back then: these people were coming across a drum machine in a pawn shop – and wondering how they could make a disco beat with it.”
Dave concurs: “I’m interested in taking the hype of hip-hop and putting it through a dance tempo. Commanding you and entrancing you – that’s an opportunity to try and put something together that allows me to say all the stuff that my kids don’t want to hear in a lecture form, that there’s only so many hours in a barbershop to discuss or whatever… and that is what we did. I am so proud of that fact. That we could say so much within the lines – in and around the lines – of this larger genre.”
The pair first crossed paths a decade ago. Chicago-born Dave Giles II was in Brooklyn hip-hop ensemble The Paxtons, while Sam O.B. was operating out of the same New York borough producing and DJing, working with the Astro Nautico label and supporting acts like Flatbush Zombies. When The Paxtons and Sam both began working with the same R&B artist, Niyre, independently of each other, it soon led to Dave, Sam and Niyre collaborating together on The Paxtons' track, Stay in Love.
From there, the collaborations began to flow. “We were both doing shows around 2012 at this DIY arts space in Fort Green, Brooklyn,” Dave recalls. “At one event, Sam and his Astro Nautico crew got into this footwork-like set. I’m from Chicago and it was a crowd that was not from Chicago and they didn’t really know how to get with it. They were enjoying themselves, but you know. So me and my partner Chris from The Paxtons, we crashed it. Chris was dancing and I was freestyling, and the crowd got into it. I think we had the realisation that night that there was something to that dynamic.”
The twosome’s first track was You Da Shit Girl – eventually independently released in 2016 but completed much earlier. A stripped-back, ultra-smooth slice of Body & Soul-like deep house, it soon became apparent they were on to something. “It felt effortless,” says Sam of their early forays into music. “I’ve been in many situations where it’s the opposite. Like pulling teeth. I’d send him a beat, he would record his own vocal and then send it back. He had the trust and allowed me to do whatever with it. Which was cool. Very freeing and refreshing. A lot of times vocalists are hyper-protective of every single line and how they said it. But I would move stuff around and edit it and Dave was always super down and open.”
For Dave it was a lightbulb moment. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is what producing is’,” he booms, laughing heartily. “Somebody actually taking the time to make a connection between the relationship between the tone of your voice, the frequencies that should be on the track, the space that should be in the track. When I worked with Sam, I realised I could do virtually anything and I could trust that he would turn it into a song. You know, in basketball, you throw it up and you know that LeBron James is gonna bring it down. When I saw how Sam worked, I got it.”
He continues: “We also knew we wanted to recreate – where possible – our idea of that first crashed party. Stripped back Chicago dance music. Sweaty, close, intimate. A bit of improvisation. Rhyming and connecting with the crowd. That kind of energy.”
When You Da Shit Girl eventually found its way to Classic Music Company, a meeting with the label’s Luke Solomon and Simon Dunmore eventually led to talk of an album. Which, in turn, led to No Shade. As for the album’s title – and cover – that comes from a painting Dave’s wife had of two sunflowers reaching for the sun.
“When we were doing the recording sessions it was coming up to the winter,” Dave explains. “It was cold as hell in Brooklyn – but I was looking at sunflowers staring at me in the face. They can grow in any condition because they want to reach the sun. They will do whatever it takes – as long as they have the space. Me and Sam come from different environments, but it’s all the same. You’re still carrying the same issues, traumas, dreams – they make you who you are. We’re all essentially looking for some light. To stay warm, stretch out and be the best we can be.”
And what about the elephant in the room, the duo’s moniker? Well, everything you probably thought is correct. Yes, it’s a nice little flip on one of soul music’s greatest partnerships, Sam & Dave, but it’s also practical and, of course, an icebreaker. Initially they were going to go with Sam + Dave, but with some additional millennial lettering. And then Isaac Hayes’s son started to follow them on Instagram and began commentating on their name.
“It wasn’t an official tap on the shoulder or anything,” Dave chuckles, “but we soon realised maybe it wasn’t a great idea. So Sam was like, ‘We could always be Dave + Sam’, and I was fine. I’m now realising that intentionally or not the soul music history of Sam & Dave actually now has relevance with us being a deep house act. We’re harking back to the early days of deep house with this modern fusion. We’re doing that with a black lead vocalist, so even that is putting a nice fast-forward onto the legacy that was laid by groups such as Sam & Dave, who were basically making call-and-response dance music out of the gospel tradition with rock and blues. There is a correlation there, but it was a kind of organic arrival.”