From the basement to the stage, Toby Hendricks, known as Otem Rellik has become the Cinderella story of do-it-yourself musicians, and a home-recording guru. He has come a long way since his humble beginnings as a bedroom-recording artist – armed with only an iPod, a mic and a Casio keyboard. Now, nearly six years later, he has released his biggest album to date, “Chain Reaction Robot,” on the Denver-based label Ponowai Flora.
Where the 25-year-old Fort Collins native is usually eccentric and animated in his shows, on casual terms he is quiet, politely reserved and sometimes borderline apprehensive when it comes to discussing his music. Though you can’t blame him – he has good reason. “Chain Reaction Robot” dances a very thin line between rant and rave hip-hop and electronica.
“I don’t know,” he said about his music, “I would just say that it’s like experimental hip-hop. You know, I just try different things that aren’t really common in hip-hop.”
Though his muse for experimentation may sometimes prove to be a bit avant-garde, it is always purposeful.
“A lot of hip-hop acts are just guys rapping or maybe a DJ or something,” he said, “but I wanted to actually play stuff and make it more performance oriented.”
At shows, Otem brings a suitcase full of electronic devices and looping systems. He experiments with something called circuit mending, which he started working with over a year ago. It is the art of modifying electronics to produce new sounds – most of it static and tonal buzz.
“I just cracked open a Casio keyboard and started messing with it,” he said. “I’ve probably got about 12 keyboards that are all circuit bent in my studio.”
On stage, he is often seen working with cheap plastic electronic toys (including a modified doll aptly named Gretchen) to produce his music. Though it may seem like an odd medium with which to work, it has proved successful for Otem.
“It’s how I’ve always done it.”
And “done it” he has. He started out playing around coffee shops in Fort Collins for a couple years, but since then, things have picked up. After attending a show by Ancient Mith (fellow experimental hip-hopper Braden Smith, director of the Ponowai Flora label), Otem handed him a CD.
“I got five or six CDs that night,” Ancient Mith said of the night he heard Otem’s music, “and Otem was the only one that stood out.”
Eventually Otem joined the ranks of the newly formed label and went on two international tours in Canada and Europe. His music was received well.
“It was amazing to see everyone’s reaction to Otem’s music,” Ancient said of his protégé’s European performances.
Of course, all of this touring and performing was going on while Otem was working on “Chain Reaction Robot,” which explains why it took three years to complete.
“Some of the songs are pretty old, ” Otem said. “A lot has gone into the album with the artwork and everything and it just took a long time to record.”
His attention to detail certainly shows, as “Chain Reaction Robot” is an easy listen full of headphone candy. Otem’s lyrics form a thread that runs through every song. He writes about cigarettes, coffee, technology, relationships and anything and everything going on in his life.
“A lot of the songs are pretty metaphorical and they’re about my life and a lot of my friends,” he said. “There’s way more emotional stuff on here – a lot of personal songs – more so on here than my older stuff.”
But Otem’s music would not come across as a rant to most, but more of a caution to the listener. His sound is like he’s trying to warn us about a cold industrial future, but can’t seem to get enough words out in time – or muster enough breath to do so.
“The whole album is a lot about nature vs. machine – and even the way I did instrumentation is a lot of mechanical sounds or organic sounds that I’ve run through a lot of filters,” he said.
The songs themselves still remain relevant despite his panache for electronic fuzz. “Warm Pockets” opens with an ominous chorus before breaking into a sedated down-tempo groove.
“This guy Astronautalis was on it,” Otem said, “and he was a really big hero of mine who has kind of become a friend. We eventually did a song together, and that’s a big accomplishment for me – to have one of your heroes on your album.”
The title track of the album opens with an optimistic theme, but soon develops into industrially-modified beats compounded by Otem’s ceaseless confessional rapping.
“My brain’s got some f***ed up wiring — another dot on the chart. I’m selling my soul, but no one is buying,” is just one example.
It seems that Otem is an artist aware of himself and his craft, as he often devotes a portion of his lyricism to subtle masochism.
The entire album is unbelievably personal, but, fortunately for Otem, his world is real, dynamic and a guilty pleasure.
Otem has made a name for himself here in Northern Colorado as well as on the international scene – and without much of the sweat and struggle that most musicians endure.
“I’m not super big on pushing myself really,” he said. “I just like to focus on my music and things just seems to happen – which is really cool.”
It is his touch of simplicity that Otem brings to the art of hip-hop – paradoxically through the manipulation of the technology around him that wins him fans and gains him praise.
“For as much as a quiet person as Otem is, ” Ancient Myth said, “to accomplish what he has is a really great achievement.”
Staff Writer Chris Galis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.