10 Years After Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange,’ Producer Om’Mas Keith Reflects

Grammy-winning producer Om’Mas Keith opens up about his favorite memories of working on Frank Ocean’s 'Channel Orange' and contemplates its legacy.

Frank Ocean Getty image 2012 by Kevin Winter

Image via Getty/Kevin Winter

Frank Ocean Getty image 2012 by Kevin Winter

The first time Om’Mas Keith heard the entirety of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange—an album he helped create alongside Frank and a close team of collaborators—he grabbed the nearest bottle of champagne. Maybe a few almonds, too. 

“It’s a delicious beverage that takes time,” the Grammy-awarded producer explains to Complex. “Champagne and almonds go well together. They both take time to make.” Keith, just like Frank, is familiar with taking his time for the best results. And as Channel Orange proved, Keith and Frank go pretty well together, too.

With a bottle of champagne in hand, Keith was celebrating what he calls a “rebirth” in his music. As he explains in a rare voice-memo interview to celebrate the album’s tenth anniversary this week, the producer entered 2012 by asking the universe for guidance. It had been three years since he and his group Sa-Ra had released an album, and he knew the trio would always be a part of his legacy, but he wanted that legacy to extend elsewhere. That’s when he started to say yes to all of the opportunities that were presented to him—including working with Frank Ocean. 

By the end of the year, he was credited on what he says is “one of the most incredible fucking albums ever,” secured an eventual Grammy win, began a musical partnership that will be felt for eternity by Frank Ocean fans new and old, and launched a new chapter in his career as the in-demand producer behind a landmark LP. And he did it all just by taking a chance (and taking his time). 

Channel Orange, Keith explains, will live on forever. “When you start in the music business, nobody sits you down and really tells you, ‘This is 100 years now.’ As an individual, you create something, you participate in its creation, and it’s gonna be here after you’re bye-bye,” he explains. “Everything’s been digitized and it’s going to live forever on servers. After one server breaks down, it’s all backed up to another server. And someone’s building another server on a mountain. The data ain’t going nowhere.”

In celebration of Channel Orange’s tenth anniversary, a record that Keith brought to life alongside Ocean, Malay Ho, Pharrell, John Mayer, and a handful of other collaborators, he contemplates its legacy and how it’ll evolve as new audiences continue to welcome it into their lives. This might be a long read, but just as the producer promises, taking your time won’t hurt. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.

Om'Mas Keith producer Grammys Getty image

What’s the first thought that comes to your mind when you think of Channel Orange these days?

Legacy. That’s it. And to elaborate a bit, what really comes to mind is the joy and pleasure that I feel inside knowing that something so powerful, and so poignant and impactful, is part of my legacy. It’s a pleasure to be able to join and share in the legacy of such a luminary, special, and powerful artist.

Does it feel like it’s been a decade to you?

No. There’s a phrase I heard one time when I was working with this Jamaican artist. The hook was like, “It’s funny how time flies when you’re having fun. Before you get started, boom, boom, ya’ done.” You don’t even think about it like that—at least for me—because I know I’m here for a limited time on Earth. I don’t even think about time like that. I’m just like, “I’m in the studio, man. I’m in the studio making music.” I’ve been in the studio every day, you know, damn near since I was 14 years old. 

With Channel Orange in 2012, it was at such an unusual and transformative time in my life. Ten years ago, I was on the cusp of something very special. I didn’t know it. I was definitely looking for direction. I was asking the heavens and the universe for some direction, help, and assistance. So it doesn’t feel like a decade. It just feels like it was yesterday, really. It feels like it was just yesterday when I got the call to go to East West and work on Channel Orange on my first session that summer.

What does 2012 and that period of time mean to you today?

That period means basically the “rebirth.” My rebirth. I’m in a band called Sa-Ra, right? The Sa-Ra creative partners. We’ve made some very special music and have done some very impactful things for culture. But around 2012, I was trying to figure out what was next. You know, when you’re in a band, you’re always in a band. That’s forever, at least for me. Sa-Ra is forever. Sa-Ra is eternal and perpetual, but I was looking for something different. 2012 brought a lot of great change, and 2012 was very revealing. Today, 2012 means to me that if you go inside of your mind, get on your fucking hands and knees and ask the universe for some help and for some direction—but you’re going to really pay attention and it’s not superficial and you’re really asking for the direction when it comes to it—you follow it. And I followed it. Now here I am with Grammys, more plaques, more money, more success, more positivity, more growth, more of everything, more abundance. 2012 is that, period. It means the new beginning. 

“People will walk up to me and they’ll just make a pyramid sign and they’ll bow their heads. They’ll just be like, ‘Man, ‘Pyramids,’ man.’”

Before going into Channel Orange, what did you think about Nostalgia Ultra, and even Odd Future in general as a collective, at the time?

I really did have a great appreciation for Nostalgia, ULTRA. I loved it. I heard Odd Future, and I loved them. I met Odd Future and I loved them. To be honest, the whole Odd Future thing for me really started with Earl’s video. I seen that shit, bro, and I lost my fucking mind when them cats put them pills in a blender, bro. Mind blown. Michael Uzowuru was my intern at the time. Of course, he would grow into developing himself into one of our brilliant young creatives. And he was definitely at that time the most trusted human in my creative life. He was like, “Yo, there’s these cats. There’s this cat Tyler. He really likes your band Sa-Ra—he has this list of his all-time favorite bands. In the Nigerian community, we have a really strong and serious camaraderie to the extent that you know, we all view ourselves as cousins so Tyler’s like my cousin. I know him. Want me to bring them by? Want me to set that up?” I was like, “Yup.” 

That was at the time when I was opening myself up to all experiences and trying to figure that the fuck out. Part of that time was about not saying no. Part of that time was about saying yes to everything presented in front of me. To taste and try and see and just experience. So Michael brought the cats over. I think the first people to come over were Tyler and Left Brain, and maybe after Hodgy, Jet Age, and Syd. It all happened so fast. Within a few days, I just met everybody, and I loved them because they were so creative. All of them, everyone, the whole Odd Future crew. Everyone associated with Odd Future. I just thought those human beings were magical. 

Is there a favorite moment you remember from working on Channel Orange in particular?

Playing piano on “Sweet Life” was so much fun. It was my favorite moment. 

I’ve read about the setup in the studio, with the movies projected in the background, and the Bruce Lee and Pink Floyd posters up on the wall. Is that usual for you when you’re working on a project? To have bits of personality sprinkled around the studio to help you and whoever it is you’re working with? 

Imagery, still and moving, has been and always will be part of my demonstration as a creator when I’m in the recording studio. Any environment you deem a recording studio is just that. It ain’t about some room with anything, panels and all this shit. It’s about the laboratory that you can set up in your mind whenever you want to. You say, “This is the studio and this is where it is.” That being said, moving imagery and still imagery have always been part of my process, and I love that it’s part of the process of other brilliant young creatives. 

It definitely can have influence and inform decisions. If you say yes to something, that’s a decision, or if you say no to something, that’s a decision, but the information that you get to make that decision is what’s important, right? The intel. So it’s like, “Yo, let’s upload ourselves with as much intel as we can, so long as it’s not a distraction to the process. And as a producer, you have to be very mindful not to create any distractions that might hinder the process. But movies and posters and print-outs and stuff like that, that’s the swag. I love it when creatives demonstrate their desire to have that kind of stuff around them. I’m happy if they don’t as well. Being of service is really important to me, and I basically am of service to artists. When I’m in artist-mode that’s one thing, but when I’m not in artist-mode, everything that I create ain’t even going to be seen unless that artist gets out there and does their thing. Without the artist as the leader, nothing happens. Be of service, man. Be of service to great artists, so that they may ascend to the highest heights, and you may assist them in any way you can in being their best selves.

Channel Orange is one of the most incredible f*cking albums ever, and I’m just humbled to no end to have had the opportunity to participate in something so powerful and impactful.”

Was there a certain point in putting the record together that you realized you were making something that could potentially be impactful? Or did that not come to you until after?

It’s not like there’s a certain point when you’re making a record that you’re like, “Oh, this is something that could potentially be impactful.” How do you feel about yourself? How do you feel inside? Who are you? I feel like I’m an impactful human being. I feel like I align myself with impactful human beings. So it’s not like you’re in the middle of the project or in the middle of any of that stuff, or in the middle of Channel Orange, like, “Oh shit, this bout to be…” That shit happens way early, when you just meet somebody and within the first 20 seconds, you’re like, “This shit ’bout to pop off whether I like it or not.” 

I’ve developed this unusual character trait and ability to know if somebody’s about to be one of them ones. Early on, within a few minutes of meeting somebody, sometimes a few seconds. So it’s like, I wouldn’t have signed on to do Channel Orange if I didn’t think it was going to be impactful. Because I’m an impactful human being. And everyone around the project was an impactful human being. And our leader is definitely an impactful human being. The artist is one of the most impactful human beings you’re ever gonna meet, so it was just immediate. 

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Is there a particular song that you worked on that means the most to you today?

Working on “Pyramids” was just very meaningful. And it was a labor of love. Yeah, that record “Pyramids” really means the most. What a labor of love. People will walk up to me and they’ll just make a pyramid sign and they’ll bow their heads. They’ll just be like, “Man, ‘Pyramids,’ man.” 

Looking at the lineup of guests on Channel Orange, from some of the most respected rappers to John Mayer and Pharrell, did it feel like a large undertaking to create something succinct with all that assistance across the board?

No, that’s not how it works. You’re not in the middle of greatness like that and say to yourself, “Oh my God. How are we going to make sense of all this brilliance?” I guess that’s a skill that creators like us have, is to know that you bring around the best and you put the data in and you figure that shit the fuck out later, man. And you figure it out with your brilliant homies, your brilliant co-creators, co-collaborators. Just keep working until it feels right. It’s never some big weight or some large undertaking feeling like, “What are we going to do?” It’s a bigger undertaking to move your house and have to deal with unpacking and figuring out where everything goes. Even if you’re at the highest heights in your life and you’ve got a lot of money, you still have little items that you don’t want those motherfuckers to touch and you get stressed out. It’s almost easier to make an album—you just be yourself and show up every day. How fucking fly is that?

What do you recall of release day, and how it came out on iTunes a week early? Obviously this was a time period where physical releases were a lot more important. Did it feel like a risk?

I recall it being a time where people were pleasantly surprised. Very happy, joyous, peaceful, excited. The iTunes release was positive. And did I personally feel like it was risky? Hell no. I usually only work with artists who I believe strongly in, so those kinds of feelings—like if I personally feel like it’s risky—shouldn’t even matter to me, bro. I fall on my artists. My artist is my leader. I provide my services to great creative minds and help them bring forth their very best and stick with them until that fucker is turned in and in the matrix, right by my artist’s side. If you don’t take no risks, you don’t get nothing in life. Scared money don’t make none. If it was a risk, I take that motherfucker. Let’s make some progress in life.

The critical acclaim was immediate. Did you anticipate it?

I did not anticipate the critical acclaim nor do I ever anticipate it. But without sounding at all self-serving, people would refer to me as a guy who likes to make unusual music. As a human being, personally, Om’Mas Keith, I’ve always lived in a critical-acclaim space. I’ve always lived in that space creatively since I’ve been making music, so you don’t anticipate it. You don’t expect it. But it wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t a surprise with all the hard work that went into it. You have one of the most brilliant artists of our time demonstrating their truth for all humanity to see and hear, leaving the audio record—not the record that you see, the vinyl—but the record, like any record, in the storage facility that is Earth. Leaving that record for all humanity forever. 

You just want to be there. You just want to be part of that and do your best, and definitely don’t give the artists no wack shit. Definitely don’t give the artists your wack parts—give the artists your best parts. I wasn’t surprised at all. It was right on time. And you better believe it was immediate because it’s one of the best albums ever friggin’ made. Thank you.

Beyond that, we’ve since seen Channel Orange listed as one of the greatest records of all time by numerous publications. Would you agree with that sentiment when you listen to it today?

I’d never heard nor did I care about Metacritic ratings until I was informed that my contributions resulted in one of the highest Metacritic ratings of all time for the Black Album. Damn, that blew me the fuck away, though. I would agree with anyone who would offer their opinion of Channel Orange as one of the greatest records of all time. Happily, humbly, as well. You know, with a head bow, you agree to that. And when I listen to it today, it’s even better than it was back then.

“People used to call me the ‘wiz kid’ and ‘boy wonder.’ After Channel Orange, I feel like I was a beast.”

What do you recall feeling on Grammy night?

I wasn’t part of the Grammys like I am now. I’m our national secretary treasurer. The third in line of the elected leadership of the entire Recording Academy, heavy duty. But back then I was a dude who was digging on the Grammys. Like everybody else who started, you just want to be part of that. So I remember feeling complete excitement and happiness and joy on Grammy night, and I remember not feeling any nervousness literally until the award for the album was given. 

Funny thing, I was with my girlfriend at the time, that night, and I brought her as my date, but I brought my daughter as my date as well. And I brought my attorney and my brother. You know, you get your tickets for your Grammys, you’re a nominee, you can have your tickets. So basically, when you’re a nominee and you’re a voting member like me, you get two tickets on the floor. So it was me and my daughter on the floor. I feel like she needed that experience in her life, to see people that she looked up to, and to be able to be on the floor with them. 

At one point, I was like, “Honey, I’m gonna go speak with my girl.” She was like, “OK dad.” So we went to go get hotdogs or whatever, and I remember walking back from the concession stand to come back down to my seats. And I looked back at my girlfriend, and she was kind of crying. She was like, “Yo, I just thought it was gonna be more like us together tonight.” I just was stuck between a rock and a hard place—your girlfriend and your daughter. I mean, it’s two people you love, they’re human beings you love. And as the tears were rolling down her eyes, and she was articulating to me why she was feeling sad, the announcer literally said, “The winner is Channel Orange for Best Urban Contemporary Album.” And I looked at her and said, “Baby, we won.” She was crying. And I said, “We won,” and I ran down. I tried to run down the aisle because we’re in the concession stands. And I tried to run down like 110 metal steps down into the pit, because you’re on the floor. By the time we made it down to the floor, Frank was on stage saying thank you and then that was it. You can’t make this shit up. 

And what does the Grammy itself mean to you now?

This Grammy means a lot to me. It sits prominently, and it’s prominently featured in every recording studio that I make for myself. Basically, it’s featured in all of my personal recording studios, or has been since I received it from the Academy.

A lot of newer artists started to collaborate with you for their projects after your work on Channel Orange. You’ve spoken on it before, but did that added interest feel immediate?

The added interest was pleasant. It didn’t feel immediate, it just felt good. It felt natural and it felt right. It felt like the right thing to work hard, bear the delicious abundant fruit, and then have people want to come and enjoy the bounty. Come and share in the bounty. The real thing is to share in the bounty. 

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The album has touched plenty of people, reaching new audiences as the years go on. I’m not sure if you’ve been keeping up with what “Lost” has done on TikTok, and the resurgence of its streams from yet another generation of fans, but do you take pride in knowing that this is a project that stands the test of time?

I take great pride in knowing I was part of an album that stood the test of time. It’s no surprise to me that years later there is a resurgence. Years later, there is a reemergence. Years later, there is a new awareness. With platforms being invented every day, it’s just no surprise. It’s right on time. Wait until the sample’s released. There’s endless possibilities of what people are going to do with these recordings as the years go on. How they will enjoy them, how they will display them, how they will utilize them in their daily lives—whether it be for pleasure and listening or sample and creation. Channel Orange is one of the most incredible fucking albums ever, and I’m just humbled to no end to have had the opportunity to participate in something so powerful and impactful. 

“Thank you for Channel Orange, Frank, and this amazing gift to humanity.”

What did you learn about yourself through Channel Orange?

I learned that I was really built for this shit. When you’re a kid, you’re sleeping on couches, you’re just trying to please people, right? You get a little bit older, you try to please yourself, and you still enjoy pleasing human beings. But when you spend a lot of time making a record like how we did—locked in studios, doing 18-hour days, doing 22-hour days, doing 28-hour days—and when it’s done, you emerge and you’re still alive. You’re still, as Mohammad Ali said, ”Happy, healthy and pretty.” You can look back and say, “Damn, I guess I’m really built for this shit, huh?” 

My life as a creator was that of someone who would spend a few days with an artist, and do my job, aside from being in a band where we lived it together. But when you’re in your own band and it’s yours and it’s you, that’s that part of creation where you’re not an outsider. You’re an insider. And we all know there’s a different perspective as an outsider. When you’re the producer and you’re of service, you’re in the matrix but you also have the perspective of being on the outside looking in. It’s really important for me to have a 36,000-foot view down at my project. 

When you’re working with an artist who has the creative vision for us, our leader, that’s handled. So now I can go, get in the airplane, and get up to 36,000 feet and look down. I was maybe able to do that in Sa-Ra, and while I was able to do it with other artists for a couple days at a time, being able to do it on Channel Orange with a full immersive experience, meaning everyone living together in houses and studios across the world, I learned that I’m really about this life. I’m really about this life as a producer, a creator, a service provider, and I’m really built for this shit, because it didn’t break me. It made me stronger. It made me better for all the creatives who are gonna come into my life after I had that experience. I’m better. I’m the best me now. My n—a, we made it. That shit is the realest shit ever. You take great pride when you say it, when you feel it. We made it through that project and we emerged victorious. 

Looking at it now, did the album impact your creative process at all? 

That impact was, without a doubt, one hundred percent affirming that I was on the right path the whole time. When you look back and realize that something you did impacted your process by affirming that you did the right thing, well, now you’re gonna go and have more confidence in yourself and your abilities. That’s how I’m gonna be the best for any artists I create with. I need to have those affirmations, I need to be confident, I need to feel strong. Working on that album made me feel like a fucking body builder. People used to call me the “wiz kid” and “boy wonder.” After Channel Orange, I feel like I was a beast. 

Do you think we’ll view the album differently in another 10 years?

I don’t know if we’ll view it differently. Part of me hopes people continue to demonstrate their nature and evolve and grow and develop additional views. If someone adds to something, it’s different. Building on that to the extent that people say, “It was great, and I found something more.” That is also a different view of something great. I don’t think people are gonna flip on Channel Orange all of the sudden like, “In hindsight, that shit was booty, that shit was wack, son.” I don’t think people are gonna flip on Channel Orange in 10 years and be like, “That shit was straight gaga.” What I really think is, over the next 10 years, this album will become more important to humanity. There ain’t a lot of albums like Channel Orange. Go ahead and view Metacritic and see. What an incredible gift to humanity. Thank you for Channel Orange, Frank, and this amazing gift to humanity. 

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