Hailing from the streets of Chicago, Omen is an artist with no limits to his musicality. He doesn’t stick to writing the craziest metaphors in his lyrics or dropping fire bars over tantalizing beats. No, he’s also capable of creating and mixing cold melodies of his own, proving that the Dreamville signee can’t be defined by one label.
Sure, he caught J. Cole’s eyes because of his spitfire rhymes, but it was the recipe of a spoonful of his hard verses mixed with a dash of his ill music production that landed him a deal with the North Carolina rapper. As a lyricist, Omen has gone toe-to-toe with Cole himself, and even Kendrick Lamar on tracks from his second mixtape, Afraid of Heights. In 2015, he bodied his verse on “Caged Bird” with Cole from Revenge of the Dreamers, but in terms of rapping, that’s the last Omen’s fans have heard of him, or at least his voice.
Omen’s been on a rapping hiatus for the better part of three years since he dropped his debut album Elephant Eyes, however, he’s been just as involved in music, if not more, as a producer. Even though the 35-year-old believes that rapping comes more naturally to him, it wouldn’t seem so given the flawless beat he made for labelmate Ari Lennox that eventually became “BMO” off her debut album, Shea Butter Baby.
“It’s hard to say which [rapping or producing] come more naturally. I would say rapping because to me it all starts with the writing. I feel like I’m a rapper first and I feel like the writing, I’m not going to say that writing is easy for me, it’s not, but I know that I can do it,” he said. “I’ve been doing it my whole life, I know I can get it done. And then producing, it came later in my life. It’s a more practiced skill. I’ve got to work on it all the time. Even as a producer, a couple of years from now, sound will change and you have to adapt and so you’re always learning. That’s the same with a rapper as well, you learn different tones, cadences, and styles too. They’re kind of equal.”
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It’s safe to say that Omen was in his producing “bag” when he made “BMO.” How he knew that sampling Galt McDermott’s song “Space” for the track would mesh well with Ari’s voice was a mystery at first. However, according to the experienced producer, when it comes to sampling it’s not so much strategic as it is organic.
“With sampling, I kind of look at it as if you’re a painter. I can’t draw but if I was to paint, maybe I would do collages and add this here, this here but I create something new out of that,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. Sometimes a sample, it might just be a loop that you’ll hear in the beat, or sometimes you might chop it to create your own melody. It’s just about having fun with your ear. I’m always trying to create something new but still dope. Even though ‘BMO’ kind of had the ‘90s vibe, I still wanted to bring it into today.”
He’s not wrong and that’s probably a sentiment Omen’s fans echo when it comes to his music. They just like it, no strings attached, no questions asked because after putting decades of work into reaching the position he’s in today (a recently signed contract with Interscope), Omen deserves devoted supporters.
With his second studio album aiming for a release later this year or early 2020, it was only right for VIBE to invite the MC for our Views From the Studio series to pick the brain of a rapper and producer wrapped in one.
VIBE: You recently produced the song “BMO” for your labelmate Ari Lennox’s album Shea Butter Baby. What was the process like for creating that record and how long did it take?
Omen: That record went through a journey. I made that beat originally a couple of years ago and I made it with Ari in mind. I normally make beats for myself but I knew I wanted to work with her. I had this idea that she had the perfect voice for; like a classic sound. I wanted to hear her over something like that because she gave me those kinds of vibes. For whatever reason I thought about it, I found a sample, it was the same sample of Busta Rhymes’ “Woo Ha.” I was thinking, “Man this could be totally different.” The way the energy was, so crazy and animated and to have something smooth over this might be a totally different vibe. It was a fun, creative idea to play with and then I liked the beat. I played it for her, and she liked it. What’s crazy to me, the first day she texts me and she’s like, “Yo, I didn’t know. I didn’t know.” I was like, “What do you mean?” She was like, “I didn’t know it was going to be you making me a hit. I just didn’t know.” It was a funny thing she was saying, but that was two years ago when she said that. So, I was like, “Whatever.” I was just glad she liked the beat.
Fast forward, my computer, in a tragic situation, my computer died. I lost a lot of stuff that I didn’t have backed up and that beat was a part of it. I had to redo the beat from scratch. That was a whole other process of trying to get it to sound like it originally did. Then I got in with another guy that’s a part of our team, Ron Gilmore, who’s an incredible musician and producer himself. I had him come to play chords and play some instruments. Then Elite, at the last minute, just him having the ear of being a veteran producer, he came in and tweaked certain sounds on the snare a little bit. The beat was there but it was a team effort to make it what you hear. I’m really happy, just the response it’s gotten, it’s been crazy, it’s been dope.
Do you ever choose a sample before you make a song and if you do, does the sample influence the type of song you make?
Oh yeah, for sure. I would say most of the time, honestly. Because of the sample, depending on how you make beats, there are different approaches. Sometimes you start with a sample, sometimes you start with just the drums, sometimes you’ll have live musicians and maybe you’ll just work in some samples around to see how it plays. There’s a lot of different ways. But the sample is really just the core of the music usually. The music for me, and I feel like I can speak for Ari, the music is what inspires the feeling and then the feeling brings what you’re going to write about. It starts with that music because the music creates that emotion and then you think about, “What have I experienced, what comes to mind when I feel this emotion?” that you write from. You know whatever you’ve been through, or what your friends have been through, whatever comes to your mind. I think the music, the sample is one of the most important parts.
When you collaborated with Ari, did you feel like your creative habits or your creative tendencies matched her’s, or were they different?
I would say our tendencies are similar but different, we write differently. She writes very…it could be what happened to her an hour ago, or what happened to her that day or yesterday. It’s very in the moment. My writing is more contemplative. I’m like circling in the past. So, that’s where we’re a little different. But I would say we’re really similar in terms of our music taste. I think whatever she was coming up listening to must have been similar to me because a lot of music that we listen to in general is the same, even old songs. Way back Stevie Wonder songs. It’ll be certain songs are our favorites.
I think we have kinship there just with musical taste so it’s easy for us to collaborate because it’s the same kind of cool digressions. We’re influenced by the same people. I think that makes it real easy and we’ve been around each other enough that we have a good friendship.
I heard they’re going to do it again so now that I’m prepared I can go in as a producer and a rapper. - Omen on Dreamville's creative recording camp.
As a producer and an artist who would you say you’re influenced by?
As a producer, definitely it was always [J] Dilla. He was my favorite and still to this day. The Neptunes, a lot of the older guys, Timbaland, Dr. Dre. Even today I like Metro Boomin, T-Minus. Monte Booker, he’s a new guy, he’s dope. Flying Lotus. Those guys inspire me in the production type. As far as artists, similar kind of area. The Nas, the Jay-Zs, Tupac, but there are a lot of good artists today that I’m also inspired by. Cole, Kendrick, Drake. Even some of the younger guys, Smino, Saba, they’re bringing something new but it’s also skill. It’s a cool, new perspective on rap that I like. It’s a lot of people. And Mereba too, because I haven’t named any women, but Mereba’s dope.
Dreamville is known for collaborating mainly with fellow Dreamville artists. What do you think makes you guys such a solid unit, and how do you manage to work so well in the studio together?
I think it’s the experiences that we’ve all had together, the amount of time we’ve spent together. It’s more like a family unit than a business relationship, even though it is business. We’ve spent real time with each other, we’ve seen all of the moments. We’ve all known each other for a long time. Like Cole, a lot of the staff are people he went to college with or people he grew up with. I’ve personally known Cole since I was 17. A lot of friendships developed into business relationships. Even with the artists, it’s like Bas is Ib’s [Ibrahim Hamad] brother and Ib is the president.
Even with some of the newer acts, they’ve been there for a while, but J.I.D, Earthgang. I don’t want to say it’s a vetting process but when they sign people, they spend real time with them first. It’s like, can we hang out with you. It’s bigger than just the music. It’s what kind of person are you. I think all of that helps that once we all get together we think like-minded. Even though we have different personalities, the energy, the goals, the intentions are the same.
The Dreamville Camp that you guys did earlier this year, that was the first time you all really ventured outside of Dreamville, right?
For sure, it was.
What did you take away from that experience?
It was dope. It was definitely new because of what you said and it was unexpected. We didn’t know, the artists didn’t know that was going to happen, we just kind of showed up at the studio. And it was just tons of producers and different artists. It was really amazing. For me, as an artist and as a producer I got to see so many different people approach making music. The way this person writes, the way this person freestyles, the way this person got on the mic and just did whatever and it worked. Seeing how certain people make beats, things I might’ve thought was crazy, or too hard to do, or even things I thought were easy to do I was surprised. I was like, “Wow, that takes a lot of skill.” I didn’t know that. It just opened my eyes and I think it was really valuable for all of us to build relationships with these artists. And like you said, I think because of our reputation, working together people might not have known if we were cool to work with or if we’ve been open to working with people because we’ve been so close-knit. I’m glad that we initiated it. So now, it’s open arms, we want to work with people. We just cool with each other that’s all. We’re definitely open, so I think it was really cool.
Did you produce any songs while at the Camp or were you mainly rapping and writing?
I was mainly rapping and writing during the Camp. I think I made a beat for Lute but I don’t know if it’s going to be used or not. But I was mainly rapping and writing. I heard they’re going to do it again so now that I’m prepared I can go in as a producer and a rapper.
At what point into producing did you start to realize that the songs you were making were actually good, quality songs? How long did it take for you to realize that the songs deserved to be heard producing-wise?
It took me a while because I’m a really tough critic, just in general. I come from a family of music. My dad was a singer on Motown, my stepdad is a musician, my mom was an aspiring singer. I come from a real musical background. I heard a lot of different types of music, so my palette is big. It’s hard to shock me with something new because I’ve heard a lot. I would judge myself a little too harshly sometimes. Like, “Oh, this has to be groundbreaking,” and if it wasn’t I didn’t feel good enough. It really is about having honest friends around, honest people around you to say this is really good or this could be better and trust in those people. And then just seeing the results and taking chances by putting music out and seeing what people say. I think it’s a mix of all that. And putting the work in. For me, my confidence comes from knowing I really put the work into this. I know how to do it. I think putting in 10,000 hours, that gave me the real confidence to say, “I’m ready.” I know I feel really good about this, so how other people feel might not affect me too much.
Along the lines of rapping and producing, do you feel like the two provide something different for you? When you produce do you feel that you gain something from it that you don’t gain from rapping and vice-versa?
For sure. I think for me making beats, even when it’s a stressful thing. But sometimes I can put so much focus on saying the best possible things, the best possible metaphors for a story, it just puts a lot of pressure on yourself. With beats it’s more of a free-flowing thing, I’m just having fun. Like, “Ok what am I trying to do today?” It’s not as much anxiety. They’re both really rewarding though, obviously what comes from them. For whatever reason, I’m just more open to being, just not caring when I’m making a beat. With writing it has to be remembered forever in time. I don’t know why that is.
When did you figure out that rapping is what you wanted to do?
Actually, it’s been a long time now. Because it was a hobby in high school, I didn’t really take it seriously, I was doing it just because it was something to do. I still had hoop dreams. But then when I got to college, I basically realized those hoop dreams were ending. And I wasn’t really enjoying school that much because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So, I started taking rapping more serious, because it was something I enjoyed doing. I didn’t get anything from it, I was just doing it as a hobby. But then friends of mine were saying you’re really good you should try it, so I started taking it more serious. I wouldn’t even go to class, I was just spending all of my time rapping. It was my life to the point of where my grades were really suffering. I actually got kicked out of college, came back home, and basically had to tell my family. A letter came in the mail saying I got kicked out of school and then I had to tell them I want to be a rapper. To my surprise, my mother was actually like, “Ok, well if that’s what you want to do then let’s do it.” She was in full support, it was shocking. I thought she was going to be like, “What the hell are you talking about, what are you doing, how can you get kicked out,” blah, blah. But none of that really. That actually made me want to go back to school.
I went back and finished college just because I felt bad at that point, like, “Damn, she’s supporting me.” I went back and finished and it gave me confidence because I knew I at least had my mother behind me. I started doing more open mics, performing more places, then I went to New York. I think in ‘08 or ‘09. That’s when Cole had just gotten signed and I had a little bit of family out there so I moved out there. I was doing more open mics, performing but I released a mixtape called Afraid of Heights. Well my mixtape was delayed but later I released it with Cole on it, Kendrick [Lamar], and by that time I was also touring with Cole, I went on his first tour and just released more music. After Afraid of Heights, I released Elephant Eyes which was my first album for real. We ran into some sample clearance issues so that caused a little friction or hiatus in my career. Recently I signed to Interscope and now I’m ready to put out my new music. It’s still a journey.
When you first started rapping, did you have an idea of what type of rapper you wanted to be?
I wanted to be like the people I listened to. I wanted to be like Nas, Common, the Roots, Jay-Z. I liked Jay-Z a lot, he always came out to be the most confident person in the room and I never felt like that at times. As a kid that wasn’t my real demeanor. So, it’s harder to relate to him growing up. But as a grown man I related a little more to him. I would say Nas and Common the most because I like writing, I like vocabulary and I liked reading stories as a kid and they were doing storytelling. Not only was it storytelling, it felt like real images. It wasn’t like a novel but in Common’s case all of the things he was rapping about I knew. Mentioning things happening in Chicago, that only people from Chicago would really know. It was specific references, that’s why I connected to him in a different way.
With Nas, he put me on a New York street corner. I’d never been to N.Y. but I felt like I could see it when he was writing. The fact that somebody could do that with writing to me was cool and I was like I wish I could be able to do that for somebody, just transport somebody to a different place for a couple of minutes. I thought that was cool because sometimes I would be at work with jobs I hate and a song would give you an escape for a while. If I could do something like that, that’s a cool superpower. That’s how I viewed it. Those are the people I shaped myself after.
You’re working on your album right now. What can we expect to hear from it, will we hear any Chicago influence?
With my album, I’m 90 percent there, it’s pretty much done. It’s maybe like a record or two left. It’ll probably be out later in the year. As far as what to expect from it, it’s storytelling, telling people who I am and what my journey has been. I mentioned the other day to somebody that I feel like I’m going to be one of the first to tell what life was like being a 30-year-old rapper trying to fight for a dream, and what happens behind the scenes of that life. I think it makes for a good story. I’m excited to get it out. The album will be out a little later this year or early next year. But I’m excited to get back on the scene and get some music out.
With this second album, aside from telling the story of being a 30-year-old fighting for a rap dream, is there anything else you want to accomplish?
I think bigger than that. That’s what I’m using to tell the story, the message behind it is to pursue what you’re after no matter what. It’s not about your age, or gender, or race. It’s about what you have within you that no one can take away. Is it your will, is it your belief, is it your faith? That can carry you through your toughest moments and I feel like I can use myself as an example. Going through this journey of ups and downs, I’m still climbing but I’ve reached a milestone moment. That’s the goal.