In this second part of my interview with 90s favourite Omniscence, the North Carolina emcee talks about performing at the New Music Seminar in NYC, recording his debut 1993 EP “The Funky One Liner” and rhyming with a young Jay-Z – check Part One here.
Shortly after that initial run of releases on Payroll Records the crew split with Ski going up to New York – was there ever any talk of you going with him at the time?
“So this is what happened. When I first came through the door and said those rhymes to Ski, he had immediately introduced me to Fanatic. But it was kinda like the situation when Dipset joined the Roc-A-Fella camp, although obviously on a much smaller scale (laughs). There were already tensions happening within the original crew. So you’re coming into that as a new jack and you’re looking up to all these guys but you don’t know that there are these underlying tensions and the crew is actually getting ready to split. So what happened was, Fanatic, Mark Sparks and Dizzy Dee from B.A.D. Rep decided to stay together in North Carolina and Ski decided to go with Roland Jones and Supreme Nyborn to New York. With both Roland and Nyborn originally being from New York, they decided to go back up there because that’s where everything was happening. I mean, even though the Bizzie Boyz and Nyborn had put those records out which had got some buzz, nothing was happening in North Carolina because of that. When it came to Hip-Hop, it was all happening in New York. So they decided to go up there to make it happen and that’s where the split in the crew came from. So Fanatic and Mark formed a production crew called Def Rhythm Productions, with the name coming from DJ Def, which is what Mark was known as then, and the Rhythm Fanatic. That was actually where I got my first shot on wax when they put out a vinyl compilation called “Back To The Lab” in 1990.”
Which featured your solo track “Lost In The Music”…
“Yeah, that was my debut, man (laughs). There was this local guy called DJ Starchild and we all went over to his house way out in the woods and literally recorded all the vocals for the album in one day. If you listen to the record, you can hear there are no ad-libs or doubling or anything like that. Plus, if you listen to my voice, you can hear I sound totally different on that record to anything else I did afterwards.”
To me, you sound like a mix of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith’s rhyme styles off the first EPMD album on “Lost In The Music”…
“Right, right, laidback (laughs). For one, my voice hadn’t really developed when we made that record as I was only sixteen-years-old. But also, at that time I enjoyed the smoothness of rhyming. I was a huge Rakim fan and he was one of the first guys to get on who wasn’t screaming or shouting his lyrics. He just had that smoother vibe. But then as time went on, my style started to become a little rougher around the edges as I was becoming a little older and starting to see certain aspects of the street life which were then having an influence on me as an emcee. Plus, Hip-Hop in general was starting to become a little grimier once we started to get up into the early-90s, with groups like Das EFX, Lords Of The Underground, Onyx. Basically, when I made “Lost In The Music” I hadn’t been corrupted yet (laughs).”
So after Ski had left for New York did he keep in touch at all because at this point I’m assuming he hadn’t met up with Clark Kent and started doing the Original Flavor stuff yet?
“That’s a great question, man. Like I said, it was Ski who introduced me to Fanatic. I’ll never forget there was this one Saturday afternoon when him, Fanatic and myself were going to meet at Mixmaster D of the Bizzie Boyz’ house to go over some beats. The original plan was that I was going to be on the second Payroll compilation and they were recruiting artists at the time to be on that. But the split was happening between the crew at the same time. So Ski never showed up at the house that day and I’ll never forget that Fanatic was very upset about that and was like, ‘Yo, Ski’s on something else, man. He’s got something else going on.’ But I’ll never forget, before Ski went to New York he called my house and was like, ‘Yo, I would love to bring you with me but I know you can’t go.’ I was only sixteen-years-old and I already knew my mom wasn’t going to let me go to New York (laughs). Now, at the time, Ski was still really learning to make beats and Fanatic was the more seasoned producer. I remember Ski telling me, ‘Yo, you’re in good hands with Fanatic, man. You’ve got the beats so you’re good.’ I’ll never forget that conversation. But to answer your question, yeah, Ski would come back to North Carolina from time to time. Then of course, when we put out the “Back To The Lab” compilation under Def Rhythm Productions, we were like, ‘Yo, we’ve gotta go to New York and let this be known.’ I’ll never forget we went to the New Music Seminar in 1990 and we ran into Clark Kent who already knew Fanatic from being in the Bizzie Boyz and he was like, ‘Yo! Where’s Ski, man? I’m looking for Ski!’ He thought Ski was still with us even though there had been that split in the crew and Ski had already gone to New York with Roland and Nyborn. So there was definitely a rivalry there between the two sides of the Payroll camp, although Ski and I were never rivals like that.”
So did the two sides of the crew bump heads at the Seminar that year?
“This is a crazy story, man. I’ve never actually told this story in an interview before. So we’re up there in New York City at the New Music Seminar. Now, the name of our crew was the Over-Due Crew. Obviously we couldn’t run with the name Payroll anymore because the other guys were running with that. Now, there was this showcase at Irving Plaza in Manhattan the weekend of the New Music Seminar. Now, when I say that everybody was there, I mean everybody was there. I’m talking about Poor Righteous Teachers, BDP, Leaders Of The New School before they’d even come out. I remember Poor Righteous Teachers were having a problem with their sound, and Busta Rhymes, who I had no clue of who he was at the time, he jumped onstage and started beat-boxing for them (laughs). Ultramagnetic MC’s were there. Everybody was there. I’ll never forget that night. But I was very, very nervous (laughs). There must have been about forty acts who performed that night, some established and some who were coming up. The night was hosted by Ice-T and a then up-and-coming group from the Native Tongues called Black Sheep (laughs). Which was crazy for me to see because of knowing Lawnge from back in the day. I remember telling Fanatic that Lawnge used to deejay in Sanford and he didn’t believe me (laughs).”
That must have been a mind-blowing experience as a fan of Hip-Hop to be seeing so many huge acts all in the one place?
“I’m really trying to paint a picture for you (laughs). There were just so many people there and it was packed to capacity. I remember, every now and then either Dres or Lawnge would shout-out who was coming up later and I remember they said, ‘Yo! Brand Nubian is in the house tonight!’ and the whole place erupted. I was looking around like, ‘Who is Brand Nubian?!’ (Laughs). I think they had ” Feels So Good” out at that point, but I didn’t know who they were yet (laughs). I’ve also heard Common say he was there that night as well. Anyway, I might have been like act twenty on the bill and Ski and the Payroll crew were on a few acts afterwards. Now, if you remember, during that era everything was very fast-paced and uptempo with people trying to prove that they could rhyme over really fast beats and everything. I remember, everybody before me had come out and was rhyming super-fast. Now, as we said earlier, at this point I was a lot smoother in my style and delivery. We had a record called “Make The Connection” which sampled the “Superman Lover” joint from Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson which nobody had really used yet. It was so smooth and the crowd just really got the opportunity to sit back and listen to my lyrics. I did have two dancers behind me, but even they were cutting some smooth steps (laughs). But everything just went really, really well and I could have so easily messed everything up because I was super nervous (laughs). Well, later on that night Ski and all of them got up onstage, with Mixmaster D on the turntables. Now, both Ski and D were assassins on the mic and turntables, so this is no reflection on the skills of the Bizzie Boyz, but there were just a few things that didn’t go their way on the night. There was a banner that was behind them that fell down whilst Ski was performing and they had to take it back on a couple of records because the turntables were skipping. It just didn’t go well for them, man (laughs). I’ll never forget that night because with my performance going so well, it felt like I was carrying the flag for my crew. I came through that performance and it really gave me a super-boost of confidence that I could actually do this, man.”
It let you know that you had the talent to carry on without the Bizzie Boyz etc being part of the crew…
“Yeah, man. I mean, like I said, there was still a little tension between the crews. Supreme Nyborn went on to make a record called “What If I Was Serious” where he threw a little shot at our crew and he was clowning Fanatic at the end of it.”
Speaking of lyrics, on the track “Stage Domination” which you recorded in the mid-90s after the East West /Elektra situation, you say a line ‘Back in ’89 I was gassed up by Funkenklein.’ Now around that time, Dave Funkenklein would have been putting his Hollywood BASIC roster together, so I always wondered what that line was in relation to…
“Oh my god (laughs). Yes indeed. Well, I didn’t know Funkenklein personally and never had any dealings with him myself. It was Fanatic and Mark who had made some connections with him. They were dealing with him and they’d always tell me that Funkenklein was loving my “Lost In The Music” joint. So they were always talking about how we were going to try and get some more music to Funkenklein. Now, I never met the man or had anything against him, but back then that line really came out of me wondering what had happened with that situation, because I kept hearing the name Funkenklein from Fanatic and Mark but then nothing came out of it. So I was just throwing it out there. But from what I understand Funkenklein was a fan of what I was doing. Yo, you’re the only guy that’s ever asked me about that line so big-ups to you for that (laughs).”
So what happened after the success of the Over-Due Crew’s appearance at that 1990 New Music Seminar?
“I mean, in terms of people who were part of the Over-Due Crew, many of whom were included on the “Back To The Lab” project, there was probably about twenty of us, all of whom I hold in high regard. But what happened was, if things ain’t happening then people start to fall off and go in different directions. So our crew got narrowed down to Mark and Fanatic who were the producers and Dizzy and D-Mack who formed a group called Southern Hospitality, plus me as a solo artist. So as time goes on, I’m hanging out with these guys, we’re shooting rhymes back and forth, and I want to credit both of those guys with giving me the name The Funky One-Liner. See, Dizzy’s name was The Funky Beat-Breaker, D-Mack was The Funky Break-Ripper or something like that (laughs). Now because I was on the punchline thing, they decided to call me the Funky One-Liner (laughs). I mean, they had punchlines too and we were all very influenced by Big Daddy Kane and what he had been doing with the one-liners. But then of course, there was also Lord Finesse and we were all loving what he was doing lyrically. Now, if you go back and look at all our names, you’ll see we all had ‘Funky’ in there and of course Lord Finesse had dropped the “Funky Technician” album. So I started to become known as Omniscence The Funky One-Liner. I also want to say that I was very influenced by Chill Rob G as well in terms of how he was putting certain words together.”
Were you and the guys in Southern Hospitality both looking for separate record deals at this point?
“So, I actually joined their group Southern Hospitality which we shortened down to SoHo. We recorded about five or six songs together which we started to shop around trying to get a record deal. We’d go up to New York to the Seminar, we went to the Jack The Rapper events, shopping our demo and performing. Now, we ended up signing a contract with Kenny Smith out of Queens, New York who played basketball for North Carolina and then Houston. Somehow our demo fell into his hands and he liked what he heard. The name of his label was Baseline To Baseline. So we were getting ready to fly out to Houston and Fanatic called me to say he thought the contract wasn’t the right move. He was like, ‘Yo, the only way you can get out of that contract is to get out of the group.’ So I thought about it long and hard, man. I called Dizzy and talked to him for awhile and told him I was getting out of the group. My thought was that Fanatic had brought me into the game, well Ski had brought me in initially, but Fanatic had guided me along the way since. So long story short, I got out of the group. They went on to record a song called “Shorty” which was actually produced by Mark Sparks as he stayed with them even though he wasn’t part of the contract. But it was a dope record.”
So is this when you and Fanatic started working on what would become 1993’s “The Funky One Liner” EP?
“Yeah, now it’s just me and Fanatic. We didn’t have a deal or nothing, but Fanatic had a connection to a real high-quality studio in Greensboro called Ultimix. This is where he would begin the 6th Boro label. Fanatic had actually formed his own little group called the Funke Leftovers and he came to me and said he wanted me to write some rhymes for him that were aimed at the ladies and then we’d work on my stuff separately at the same time. So the first release on 6th Boro Records was a record by the Funke Leftovers and they had a real Jodeci-type look with the leather vests, no shirts on and everything. Of course, I wanted no part of that (laughs). But simultaneously I was crafting what would become the “Funky One Liner” EP. I’ll never forget I was writing crazy rhymes and Fanatic shot me this one particular beat-tape and that tape had pretty much all but one of the joints that would end-up being on the EP. I scrapped all of the rhymes that I’d been writing previously and decided I was just going to zone into those tracks. Something about those particular beats really caught me and I wrote all of the rhymes in about a week, man. Those beats just had a certain vibe to them and definitely put me into a certain zone. I was pretty much sleeping all day, getting up and going to the studio late at night and I would have all my peoples with me who were living various elements of the street life which had an influence on me at the time. I mean, I never want to portray myself as being the super criminal street killer or anything like that, but I was always able to be around that element and not be out of place just by being myself.”
Were those late-night sessions for creative or practical reasons?
“The late night sessions were because the hook-up Fanatic had meant that we could only use the studio after everyone else had finished and gone home (laughs). Now, Fanatic didn’t smoke or drink, but I told him that I needed to have my element around me while we were recording the EP. So I’d bring my boys in, we’d get lifted and have the forties and everything (laughs). I mean, I wouldn’t get too zooted, but enough for me to be able to really get into my zone. So that’s how the “Funky One Liner” EP was born.”
Around this early-90s period there were so many up-coming emcees who were trying to get on. Do you ever recall battling or ciphering with anybody who went on to make a name for themselves?
“Definitely. I mean, if we flashback to the time when Ski was doing Original Flavor, he would come down to North Carolina. Now, following that moment at the New Music Seminar when Clark Kent approached us and was looking for Ski, of course he found Ski and subsequently connected him with a young Dame Dash and an upcoming Jay-Z. So these guys would all come down to North Carolina at different times and when we would go up to New York we would connect with them. So I definitely remember me and Jay going at it a couple of times (laughs). I mean, it’s almost hard sometimes to tell people that because not everyone knows where Jay-Z was at in his career back then (laughs).”
Who would you say had the edge between the two of you?
“Me and Jay ciphering together was like the immovable object going up against the unstoppable force (laughs). Jay-Z was the unstoppable force, meaning that, at that time, his rhymes were being said at the speed of light with that fast style he had back then. He was really quick with what he was saying. But then you had me, and I was about the punchlines and the one-liners. So if we had truly battled back then, I don’t know that I wouldn’t have won that (laughs). But I definitely respect Jay to see where he’s taken it, from where he was at back when I was rhyming with him. I mean, he’s one of the few emcees to have obtained true power in the music business.”
Were there any actual battles you were involved in that standout to you?
“I mean, locally, I had plenty of battles with other emcees (laughs). But as far as the industry is concerned, right after we dropped the “Funky One Liner” EP in 1993, the main battle I had was as part of the New Music Seminar in 1994. At this time Fanatic and Ski were on much better terms so Ski had spoken to Clark Kent about getting me into the emcee competition at the Seminar that year. So I stepped up into that and I was like, ‘Wow!’ But it was a different format than how I’d seen it done previously. I would come out and spit my rhymes, then the next man who I was against in that particular round would come out and do his thing. So it wasn’t like we were onstage together rhyming face-to-face. But anyway, I went first in my round, which perhaps was my downfall, and went out and hit the crowd with a barrage of punchlines. Then the guy who beat me I’m positive was called MC Chill and was from Brooklyn. This wasn’t the same MC Chill who came out on Fever Records though. But he was really animated in what he was doing, so he really had the crowd in an uproar to, so the whole crowd was just shouting, ‘Rematch! Rematch!’ Actually, if you go back to the “Stage Domination” record we were talking about earlier, if you listen to the beginning of it, that’s my battle in the New Music Seminar that I was talking about on there. The crowd were saying they couldn’t pick a winner but the decision had to me made, so I was one and done (laughs). I remember Jay-Z was there that year and people were saying he was going to be in the battle as well. Now, I’d already rhymed with Jay, so if we’d have got put together I already knew how he was going to come. But a lot of people were definitely wary about the fact that Jay was possibly going to battle, so he was definitely feared by other emcees. But for some reason he stayed out of it. Judgemental from Chicago defeated King Sun in the final to take the crown that year”
The label on the “Funky One Liner” EP featured the statement ‘This Material Is Currently Being Shopped’ and a phone number to call if anyone was interested in doing business. Did you actually have people reach out to you off the back of that?
“Yeah, we did. That number on the label was actually Fanatic’s number. But people definitely reached out to him and we ended-up being bidded on heavy! Going back to that New Music Seminar battle, I remember stepping off the stage and the first person who came up to speak to me was Tom Silverman from Tommy Boy who said he wanted to talk about some things. But actually, before we’d gone to the Seminar, we’d enlisted the help of a lady called Enid Shor who had numerous years of experience of getting artists signed to labels with good deals. Now, at this time she was partnered up with DJ Premier’s man, Biggest Gord, and the way it would work is that Enid had the experience of the business and Gord had the access to the streets to find all the raw upcoming talent. So before going to the Seminar we were actually working with them on trying to get a deal. The way that happened was that Gang Starr had come down to North Carolina to do a show, and DJ K-Nyce, the same K-Nyce who had done some recording previously with Supreme Nyborn, he slid their road manager a vinyl copy of the “Funky One Liner” EP. They called back like ‘Yo, this s**t is crazy!’ and before they left town they actually came through the studio. So imagine this, me and Fanatic are in the studio listening to some beats or whatever, and then here comes DJ Premier with the Carhartt suit on and everything telling us how much he likes the record. So he ended up passing it to Gord and Enid who were doing their thing, which is how we ended up working with them. But we ended-up with a few deals on the table. Firstly, we had an offer to sign to East West / Elektra straight up without Vincent Herbert and 3 Boyz From Newark. Then we had another offer from Vincert Herbert, who we ended up signing with, which I’ll get into. Then we had a couple more as well. But none of those offers were as big as what Gord and Enid managed to bring to the table, which was Chris Lighty, who was very interested in the project.”
Part Three of this interview coming soon.
Omniscience – “I Gotta Maintain” (6th Boro Records / 1993)