Motown Heir Sam Austins Talks Phillip Lim Collaboration

Motown Heir Sam Austins Talks Phillip Lim Collaboration

VMAN caught up with the rising artist about collaborating with Lim on the “youngin’” music video, and being 22 without a passport.

VMAN caught up with the rising artist about collaborating with Lim on the “youngin’” music video, and being 22 without a passport.

Text: Tess Garcia

Long since passed are the days of Smokey Robinson and The Supremes, but 22-year-old Sam Austins is bringing Detroit’s music scene back to life. The indie rapper, singer, and lyricist has creativity in his blood: He’s the son of the Four Tops’ Harold “Spike” Bonhart and nephew to Barrett Strong, the songwriter who penned Motown’s first gold record.

In November 2017, Austins released Angst, a dreamy hip-hop EP produced by Syblyng of the rock band Flint Eastwood. Primarily created at Assemble Sound, a church-turned-studio on the outskirts of downtown Detroit, the project showcases Austins’ staggering versatility in only 6 tracks. Songs like “Swim” and “videogames” feel fiery and Swae Lee-esque, while the willowy vocals on “youngin’” have garnered attention from the likes of fashion designer Phillip Lim. In an exclusive phone interview with VMAN, Austins spoke about his inspirations, collaborating with Lim on the “youngin’” music video, and being 22 without a passport.

What was your introduction to music?

I think that, for me, I had music around me my whole life. My dad was a Four Top, he’s in the Four Tops, so he’s around music and had me playing the keyboard and MPCs and stuff like that as a kid. I would always be involved, but I feel like I took it seriously probably in high school. I was like, “This is what I want to do with my life. I don’t care about what anybody else says” [laughs].

Have your dad and uncle played a role in your sound or your career as a musician?

I wouldn’t say my career or my sound. I’d say more so, like, well maybe my sound, but I would say more so, they’ve played a role in my drive. I feel like it’s just in me without even trying. You know? I don’t ever realize it until, like, I just started to realize how big it is that I come from a Motown family.

Was there a moment when you realized that you wanted to pursue music as a career?

Mm. When I realized there was no other option was probably last September, but I always thought of it as a career, me working towards my goal, but then I realized it was either this or normal life. I had to make a decision to change my life dramatically, probably last year. I quit my job and I was like, “I’m about to just do this,” and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Was your family supportive?

At first, no. It took a lot of me having to get my accomplishments and keep getting them for me to get my whole family onboard, but right now, my whole family, everybody’s so supportive. The last person that finally hopped onboard was my dad [laughs], which is crazy because he makes music. He was like, “Alright, this is what you want to do, gotta do it.” At first, he was like, “Go to school, don’t do music yet. Wait til you graduate to do music. Go to school and graduate.” I was like, “Dad, nah.” I’d waste so much time. I feel like I didn’t want to waste my time. Time is more important than money and I feel like that was just me deciding what I wanted to spend my time doing. Like currency.

Did you have particular inspirations you looked to when writing Angst?

I just wanted to make the best sonic project that I could make at that moment. We did a lot of songs, and we skimmed down and were like, “Let’s make this a bare bones, six song project where there’s emotion and sonics.” I got inspired by other artists. For “youngin’,” one song on the project, I got inspired by — and this is gonna sound crazy because I don’t know if anyone else would notice — but I actually was inspired by André 3000. It doesn’t sound like anything he’d actually do for real, for real, but I feel like only he would say things like “You can’t bring me to your parents.” I feel like that was just some wonky, weird stuff to say and I feel like only he could think of stuff like that. I was like, “Let me tap into the mind of André. How would he approach this song if he were doing it?” That was one clear case that when I was writing, I was thinking about another artist. And then Kanye, of course, because Kanye is a sonic god [laughs], but that was, like, for “videogames” in particular. For “videogames,” I wanted to do my own Pinocchio story, so that’s what “videogames” was.

How would you describe your sound?

Universal. Universal because I can do rap, I can do trap, I could do a pop song, I could do an alternative song, a rock song, like the “When You Were Young” cover. I feel like I just do what I want, so I would say it’s universal.

Let’s talk about your collaboration with Phillip Lim for the “youngin’” music video. How did you become connected with him?

He was just randomly in Detroit for a wedding. One of the people who was getting married is a fan of my music, so they just shared the love and basically spread it to Phillip through a homie. He came through, came into the studio, and we vibed out to music for like a couple hours. We were just talking about so many different things. He’s just the man. This was before Angst was out, months before.

So it was a year or so ago?

Yeah, it was probably last summer. It was towards the end of last summer, probably a month before Fashion Week. I was surprised. Usually you have to fly out to New York to find these things, so when it comes to Detroit, it’s like, “What?” [Laughs] It’s crazy.

Did he mention anything about a potential collaboration while you were at the studio?

I can’t recall. I remember I got an invite to the fashion show — he was gonna have me as a guest of honor. I was the guest of honor for his Fall Winter show, but I didn’t know if we were gonna do anything music video wise. I just knew that he was gonna have me at the show, dress me, guest of honor. It was good, it was a cool experience, but I didn’t know we were gonna do a video together. I had an idea that we would collaborate eventually. I just felt like, yeah, this is gonna happen [laughs]. It was cool. We just talked. We just vibed out and we’re just friends, so we were gradually like, “This is cool.”

What was it like working with him on the “youngin’” video? What was his involvement like?

Like I said, he’d listened to the songs. He had the Angst project before it even was out, so he had time to sit with the songs and “youngin’” was his favorite. We knew we needed something royal because we were shooting at the Masonic Temple and the video is kind of based off of me, as an artist, becoming who I am today. He sent through this outfit that just was, like, reflective of that, that royalty, that Motown, just everything. He got the vision. I feel like he was one of those, he just knew what I needed and he went crazy.

So Phillip sent through the outfit — that was his contribution to the video?

Yeah. He styled the whole look, made sure everything was proper.

Did you Skype him into the shoot or something?

We didn’t even hop on FaceTime. I think we just sent a picture off because he’s so busy. We didn’t want to clash with him because he’s got so much going on, but he gave me the official sign-off when I put it on. We filmed that in December, early December. It was a beautiful video, for sure.

Have you always had an interest in fashion or do you think Phillip brought that out of you?

It’s funny. I was actually talking to one of my good friends, his name is Demoine, we were talking about how it’s crazy that back in 9th grade, in like 2010, I was gonna spend a whole check on a Phillip Lim shirt. I wanted his clothes way back when, so it was crazy to think that. I’ve always been into fashion. I’ve always loved it. I went to [New York] Fashion Week every year starting 2016. I’ve been deeply, you know, I love that. It’s very cool.

If you could choose anyone, who would you want your next designer collaborator to be?

Hm. That’s a good question. Honestly, if I could collab with anyone next, like my next move…It can be from any scale, right?

Anyone.

Winona. Winona’s a brand that is coming out soon that I know a lot about.

Where are they based?

Detroit. I think that’s gonna be one of the biggest brands one day. I know it will.

Any future plans or goals you can share?

I gotta just let you know, this summer and this year, there will be new music. There will be new music and I will be on the road. That’s all I can say. I will be on the road, there will be new music. Period. You’ll know very soon. Check social media, @samaustins everything, and you’ll know [laughs]. It’s gonna be good. I’ve been working with a lot of different producers, with a lot of different people, I have a plethora of tracks and right now I’m working on the next project. I think my next move that I want to do, other than put out this project that I’ve been working on and this tour, I’m planning on taking a month or two-month break away from making music and going to Tokyo to get my mind right.

That’s so exciting! Have you traveled out of the country before?

No. I don’t even have my passport yet [laughs].

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