by Sam Robinson
It’s not everyday that an evangelical Christian musician reaches number one on a music chart in Japan. But this has just happened for American singer-rapper Sam Ock. I recently caught up with Sam and discussed this success, as well as his personal testimony, and the stories behind his Move EP which was released last November.
SAM ROBINSON (SR): Where in the world do I find you today, Sam?
SAM OCK (SO): I’m currently in LA, in transition between a couple of AMP shows. So my group is called AMP. We’re a Christian hip-hop trio. I’m the singer, and I sometimes rap in the group as well. We’re just staying out here trying to network with people, trying to work on music. Seeing what happens.
SR: And in an ordinary week, what do you spend most of your time doing?
SO: In an ordinary week, most of my time is dedicated to thinking about and making or working on music. Either for myself, or for other artists I’m working with, or for AMP. That’s what I do during the day, Monday through Friday. Then on the weekends and in the evenings there’s usually stuff that I do for my church. I lead a Bible study at my church and also I’m part-time staff at my church: Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, Maryland. I lead worship for the English ministry there.
SR: Can you tell me briefly how you became a Christian?
SO: Sure. I grew up in a very religious environment. Both my grandfathers are pastors and they prayed for their sons to be pastors as well, and for their grandchildren to be pastors. So I grew up in a very Christian, very conservative environment. I grew up actually with a lot of entitlement and legalism, kinda being a pharisee. I didn’t cuss, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t drink, I didn’t party. I didn’t do any of these things. So I [thought] I kind of am entitled to receive God’s blessing or something like that. So I thought I was saved by association. If you asked me when I was a kid: ‘Hey Sam! Who are you?’ I’d be like ‘Oh I’m the choir director’s son.’ Because that’s what I was. ‘I’m the church elder’s son.’ And I thought I was saved by my association with Christianity instead of having a real relationship with Christ.
That kinda changed for me when my family moved churches and we also moved areas. So I kinda lost all my friends, lost my identity because my identity was being this church kid with all these friends. I lost my identity and didn’t know who I was. I got caught up in depression and also becoming addicted to lustful desires and those kinda things. Out of that desperation, I realised what the gospel actually meant: that Jesus dies for unworthy sinners, just because he loves us. That really became a message that spoke to my heart. I remember asking Jesus into my heart, and ever since then it’s been a ever-growing process of me realising more and more of my humanity, and more and more of the sufficiency of Christ to cover the multitude of sins that I commit all the time.
SR: Your Move EP came out in November last year. How long did it take to make that record?
SO: Some of the songs were very old songs that I wrote that I re-did for this project. But most of the EP took around a year/half-a-year to think about it and try to make the songs and make them in a way that was musically pleasing.
SR: And where did you record it?
SO: I recorded it in my house. I have a little home studio in my basement. That’s where most of the production for my music and AMP’s music comes out of. It’s a lot of basement production.
SR: It’s handy having something like that in your house.
SO: Yes. [Laughs]
SR: I want to talk about the track Every Moment. It’s got so much soul! What can you tell me about it?
SO: I think with that song – the subject matter of the song is… There are so many struggles and times of hardship and suffering in our life. It’s this idea that as someone who is loved unconditionally, by Christ I can – even in those moments of suffering – know that I’m cherished and loved. I can believe in those promises and in that, cherish every moment. Even though I might be suffering in that time, I can identify with the one I love then, because he suffered for my sake. And also in the times of joy and times of celebration I’m also able to cherish those moments as well. It’s about cherishing every moment in life. I wanted to make a song that was timeless in appeal, but also something that sounded joyous and more like I was celebrating. That’s the idea. It was definitely influenced by a Stevie Wonder kind of soul/pop genre.
SR: Speaking of those joyful sounds, the track Here I Go – there’s some incredibly lush, layered harmonies on that track. Are they all you?
SO: Yeah, they’re all me!
SR: Did that take ages to put together?
SO: That was just sitting down for a few hours and just knocking those harmonies out. [Laughs]
SR: On that track you’re singing and rapping about freedom in Christ. What amazes you about God’s grace and the freedom that it brings?
SO: I think the thing that amazes the most about God’s grace is that it’s constant. It is an ever-constant, ever-present truth. It’s been said and it’s been done. Christ died for past, present and future sins. Thinking about that – there’s so many times in my life where I feel paralysed. How can God love me, because I’m so caught in this sin? Or, so caught in this cycle of doubt or struggle, and it feels like it’s never going to get better. But in those times what the Word helps me to do is pull me out of that picture and sets me on a longer timeline, looking forward to eternity, knowing this suffering is only for a little while, it’s not going to be forever. Things are going to get better, if not in this life, in the eternity to come. There will be restoration. Reminding myself of those truths, it really helps in those times of feeling paralysed. I think what that song really is about it that in those times when I’m so ready to just stop and give up I’m going to trust that God’s word is true, that his promise is faithful, and I’m going to try as much as I can to continue to live life and to still move. That’s the title of the EP. Tell myself ‘I’m running away from this.’ Running away from sin, and struggle. I’m going to go from here. So God has definitely been faithful to show me even in the times of doubt, he still pours so much grace. He’s always faithful to sustain us.
SR: I can tell that you’re influenced by many different styles of music. What do you enjoy listening to?
SO: I enjoy a very wide range of styles. I think what inspires me the most is musicians who both innovate musically but also make it accessible. There’s that very fine balance of being able to be very musical but also make something that common people resonate with. A lot of the classic artists that I enjoy listening to – Stevie Wonder, Queen, Earth Wind and Fire – a lot of those artists make timeless music. Also classical music is very influential to me: Chopin, Beethoven, Moller. A lot of those composers. A lot of contemporary composition – I really enjoy listening to the Miyazaki film scores or Joe Hisaishi, the Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli soundtracks. They’re very melodically based. I’ve been very influenced also by hip-hop. More melodic or mellow type of hip-hop, like A Tribe Called Quest or very nineties hip-hop. My sound is a fusion of all these different classic sounds trying to make it one.
SR: You both rap and sing, and you’re quite skilled at both. Do you prefer one over the other?
SO: You know I never thought I would rap! That wasn’t something that was in my original vocabulary as a musician. The reason why I started rapping was because I started making beats. And I wanted rappers to make songs with the beats but then I couldn’t find any rappers to work with. So I was like, ‘I’m just going to learn how to rap myself!’ That’s how I developed that. Singing-wise, I’ve been singing since I was a kid, my mother was a choir director, my dad was also very musical. I have an older sister, so as children we would sing four-part harmony for our family worship services. There’s always singing, but the style I developed was very interesting because my mother was a classical opera singer so she was kind of surprised that I sing the way that I do. It’s not operatic at all. It’s more of a jazzy, soulful type of singing. That’s just from the music I listen to.
SR: And of all the instruments that we hear across the record, are you playing the majority of them?
SO: Yes. Most of the instruments are either composed electronically or I’ll play them acoustically. And if there’s a part that I absolutely can’t play that’s when I usually ask for help. I’d say probably 90% of the composition is self-played.
SR: How do you make that happen live?
SO: I actually haven’t had too many opportunities to perform live. In an ideal setting I’d like to perform with a band. That hasn’t been the case because of budgetary or opportunistic restrictions. Mostly it’s just singing with a backing track and maybe having a keyboard and playing. A lot of the times I’ll strip down the songs just to play on the keyboard or something like that.
SR: Let’s talk about your recent success in Japan. I see that you’ve hit number one on the hip-hop charts over there!
SO: Yeah! That’s kinda crazy. Honestly, I’d just say that’s by the grace of God. I really didn’t think that my music would ever reach somewhere like Japan. Especially where it’s less than 1% Christian there. I guess how that happened was this small company called Goon Trax reached out to me to license my music. Through that opportunity my music started picking up, having a grassroots following among a lot of the Japanese people. With this new release, I guess there’s enough hype on there to put the album on the charts, at least for a few days. I don’t know if it’s still there. But it’s pretty amazing.
SR: It is! So do you now see that as perhaps a place that you can reach with the gospel?
SO: I think that’s definitely a hope. Through the lyrics… I don’t know if they actually understand what the lyrics are because they’re all in English. But for those who do want to know the deeper meaning of the lyrics, I hope that one day I’ll be able to use that as a platform for pointing people to Christ. ‘This is what I believe, this is the faith that I have, and the faith that I identify with, and I hope that’s something I can share with you, and give you an ear to listen to.’
SR: You’ve named this EP Move. Why did you run with this title?
SO: I think it falls into line with my previous works in terms of their titles. My first debut album was called Simple Steps. I was thinking about what it means to be a Christian, to live life. If you break it down the steps are very simple, but they’re extremely hard to execute. But in the end they’re very simple. Trust in the Lord. Live life. And then the EP I released after that was called Rest Easy. That was based around the idea of resting in God and taking time to just sit down and reflect on God’s grace and on life and things that you have, and the blessings you’ve been given. I think with that, Move was all about: now that we’ve rested, let’s take this grace that we’ve been given, let’s take this life that we’ve been given and all the blessing that we should be thankful for, and from there – especially in those times of hardship – just try and keep moving. Try and go from there. We always ask ‘Where do I go from here?’ We look way into the future and wonder how we’ll ever get there but the key is sometimes you gotta look one step ahead and take that step. The more you take those small steps you realise how far you’ve come.
SR: You’re pretty honest on the track Me Vs. Me. What can you tell me about that song?
SO: I wrote that song in college. That’s one of the song that’s around two or three years old. That song is basically… I think any Christian struggles in their lifetime of trying to be a Christian. Trying to reconcile God’s love with this thing that feels like it takes so much faith to believe in with what also feels like reality. A lot of the time it’s like ‘God says in his word that he’s going to…’ He has promises that he’s going to restore, forgive. In Romans 8:28 we read God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. And Philippians 1:6 – He who began a good work will finish it at the day of Christ Jesus. We hear these promises and in your life you’re like: I know that’s what you’re saying, but that’s not how I feel. Because I feel like a sinner. I feel like all these lies about who I am are true. That I am worthless, I’m not changing. As much as I try to ask God to help me, it feels like I’m not changing.
That song is a war song. It’s you battling you. And the two different types of you are the you that trusts in God battling the you that trusts in yourself. That’s the whole idea behind the line in the chorus: I won’t let me get me down. Our biggest enemy is us in a lot of ways. We allow ourselves to delve into those areas of self-condemnation and believe in the lies that there is no hope, there is no way out. But the word of God always has a hope for us to trust in. It’s a song I wanted people to resonate with because it’s a real struggle. It’s one thing to say and proclaim ‘We have victory!’ because it is a truth, but it’s another thing to say ‘We have victory, but sometimes it’s really hard to struggle in that.’
SR: As you recorded this album, were there any funny moments?
SO: I record most of this album by myself, so I feel like I do a lot of embarrassing things that nobody knows about. One of the big things is that a lot of those vocal harmonies are high! So it’s basically me trying to [laughs] sound more high or feminine… I don’t have access to a girl’s voice! So I try to sound like one to achieve that harmony. So there’s lots of times where I’ll try to sing that harmony but my voice cracks. Or something goes wrong, you know?
SR: The track Something Divine is a great melding of hip-hop and jazz music. What can you tell me about that song?
SO: I wrote that song out of this idea that… Because the way that you would initially perceive that song if you just heard it being played in public, you’d assume it’s a love song. Or that it sounds like a song that someone would sing to a girl. My desire is, in all the genres of music, I think that God is able to redeem all those things for his glory. So I wanted to take a genre like that where it was more on the soft, spoken and maybe romantic feel. And then take that and meld it with this idea that God can still be glorified and that we can still appreciate God in these subtle types of ways. That song is about how when you listen to music and you hear the harmonies and you examine it and study it, the more you look at the beauty of music the more you see the beauty of God and the beauty of Christ. It’s how music itself many times points to something divine.
SR: And the last track Goodbye – you’re farewelling idols and the flashy things of the world – were you trying to finish the record by highlighting the transformation that a Christian goes through?
SO: That was one of the last songs that I wrote for the EP. In writing that song I think it was a conclusive statement to the album. This is the journey we take: we keep moving. This is the hope we look forward to in the future: the kingdom of God. That’s what J. Han talks about in his verse that he raps. He’s saying we’re looking forward to the days when we’re redeemed, unashamed, unfettered. It’s like saying goodbye to this world ultimately, and the things of this world, and looking forward to the hope we have in heaven. Leaving that as the conclusive statement of the album.
SR: And did J. Han seem like the right fit for that track?
SO: Yes, definitely. He’s a good friend of mine, fellow band member, and also I honestly think he has one of the most unique voices. Especially in an Asian-American artist. So I felt like his voice and what he wanted to say really matched the tone of the song.
SR: What does the rest of the year hold for you?
SO: So I’m currently in the pre-production process on working on a hopefully full-length so album. A sophomore album for myself. Also thinking more about what we’re going to do as AMP. Seeing what our next project is going to sound like. We’re in the pre-pre-production process of that. This year is more just trying to play shows with AMP and trying to make high-quality music that glorifies The Lord.
SR: Do you think we might hear your full-length this year sometime?
SO: I think so. I think we should have that out before the end of this year.
SR: Thanks so much for your time, Sam. Great to talk to you.
SO: Thank you so much. I had a really good time.
Move by Sam Ock is available now on iTunes.