Hip-Hop, like any another musical genre, is littered with the stories of talented artists who, through a combination of circumstances, business politics and fate, never quite left the the mark they perhaps deserved to.
North Carolina’s Omniscence came to the attention of most global Hip-Hop fans on a wave of excitement thanks to his 1995 promo single “Amazin'”, a punchy, drum-heavy track that perfectly showcased the upcoming emcee’s talent for memorable rhymes and battle-ready wordplay.
Having been scooped up by Elektra’s East West Records subsidiary following the underground success of his 1993 EP “The Funky One Liner”, the twenty-something lyricist appeared to be on the verge of joining the likes of Busta Rhymes and Ol’ Dirty Bastard as the major label’s next wave of mid-90s Hip-Hop talent.
1996’s Sadat X-assisted “Touch Y’all” single only further increased the buzz around Omniscence’s debut album “The Raw Factor”, a project which unfortunately would be shelved, with the NC emcee subsequently fading back into the shadows of a pre-Internet rap world.
In recent times, however, the name Omniscence has been commanding attention once again, thanks in part to the Dope Folks imprint reissuing some of the artist’s older material, but mainly due to the new music the talented wordsmith has been recording with Australian producer Debonair P.
Last year’s limited edition vinyl single “Raw Factor 2.0” announced the official return of Omniscence, with the recently-released “Sharp Objects” EP further proving the 90s veteran hasn’t missed a beat when it comes to quality lyricism, backed by impressive production from Debonair which mixes boom-bap sensibilities with a soulful flavour.
In this first part of my career-spanning interview with Omniscence, the North Cackalack-based microphone fiend discusses his early memories of Hip-Hop, being introduced to a young Will-Ski (aka Ski Beatz) and the impact of local crews such as the Bizzie Boyz and B.A.D. Rep during the Payroll Records era.
Was music a part of your life before Hip-Hop came along?
“Well, I’m originally from Bear Creek in North Carolina which isn’t one of the main cities in the area. It’s a very rural area. But back in the day, my family was always known for music. My grandfather was in a gospel quartet who ended-up singing with some of the early successful gospel singers of the day. So they toured around a lot in the gospel circuit. Then my mom and my aunt, they were very big collectors of music. But it was my uncle who got me into a lot of the more obscure music from back in the day. He was one of the first guys in our area to have a Technics 1200 turntable. I’m talking this was around the early-80s. That’s how serious he was (laughs). But back in his day he was part of a group called The Mighty Majors and they were a local group from Greensboro, North Carolina and they made some noise going around doing live shows. It was even said that at one time they had some label offers on the table but I don’t really know what happened with those. But those were my earliest influences when it came to music. I remember my mom putting on those classic Philadelphia International records in the house, Gamble & Huff, and then of course Chic and Nile Rodgers. I grew-up listening to all types of music. I remember my dad turning me on to Steely Dan when I was about eight-years-old. I noticed that the sound was a little different to the classic soul that I was used to hearing in the house, with the jazz and rock elements that they brought to the table. So I became a very big Steely Dan fan at a very young age because of my father (laughs). I was just listening to a lot of different music and pretty much like a lot of us who grew-up at a certain time, we were hearing the records that would go on to be sampled in Hip-Hop before we really knew what Hip-Hop was (laughs).”
At what point did you first become aware of Hip-Hop?
“Well, I would really have to credit my first cousin Jeff Hanner, we called him Big Jeff, for introducing me to Hip-Hop. He had an uncle who used to drive these big eighteen-wheeler trucks out of town and sometimes he would make trips up to New York and he would take Jeff up there with him. Now, when Jeff would come back he would bring these records back with him that he’d picked up on the trip. One of the first twelve-inch singles I remember him bringing back was the Fatback Band’s “King Tim III”. He also used to bring back these cassettes. Now, Jeff had family on his mom’s side who actually lived in New York. So he used to bring back these cassettes of the Cold Crush Brothers, Flash & The Furious Five, all that stuff. He would play these cassettes to me when he’d come home and I would just be mesmerised, man….”
These were live recordings of the Bronx block parties and jams, right?
“Right, right. Exactly. I’ve actually been hounding Jeff in recent years, like ‘I know you’ve still got some of that old stuff’ but he claims he can’t get up with it (laughs). But those were some of my earliest moments being introduced to Hip-Hop. Then of course, by the time the Sugarhill Gang came through with “Rapper’s Delight” I was already fully aware of the culture and what was taking place in New York. I remember they were playing that song on the radio here in North Carolina and I was telling my parents like, ‘This is what’s coming next’ and they were like, ‘No, no, no, this record is toooo long’ (laughs). I mean, they were even fading the record out when they played it here on the radio because I guess they thought it was too long as well (laughs). One record back then that really amazed me was Flash’s “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel”. I remember when my cousin had brought that single back and it just really amazed me because that was the first time I was hearing records being cut-up ON record! I mean, I’d heard the live tapes of Flash so I understood how he was catching the break and everything, I’d figured that much out, but I didn’t know that they could actually put that on a record (laughs). That’s what amazed me. But my cousin was bringing all types of records home, like the Treacherous Three joints, Jimmy Spicer’s “Adventures of Super Rhyme”. So those records were my early introduction to Hip-Hop.”
At that point, given that you weren’t in a major city, was it literally just you and your cousin listening to the music or were there other local kids who were up on Hip-Hop as well?
“Honestly, because we were in such a rural area, it did actually feel like it was just me and my cousin who were listening to this music (laughs). But of course, then we started to spread what we were hearing through our friends in the neighbourhood. I mean, when I say we lived in a rural area, I guess it makes people think of farms and cows (laughs). I mean, stuff like that was around, but I definitely grew-up in a neighbourhood, there just wasn’t any real big buildings around or stuff like that (laughs). But I mean, I was about eight or nine-years-old at that time, so it definitely felt like Hip-Hop was just our thing. But then as I got a little older and started to travel to other places in North Carolina I soon started to realise the music was everywhere. But at that time, it definitely felt like me and my cousin were in our own little world with the music (laughs). See, to be honest, I was listening to some of those early records before I even became fully aware of the graffiti, the break-dancing and how all the elements of the culture fitted together. I mean, for people living in the cities, all the different aspects of the culture were happening together at the same time, but for me and a lot of us down here in North Carolina, it was the rhyming side of things that was our introduction to Hip-Hop, even more so than the deejay aspect because we were just hearing the records. As a kid back then, I would try to visualise what was going on, but like I said, as I began to travel a little more and the culture simultaneously started to become more accessible by being televised and things like the “Beat Street” movie, I started to see how everything came together. To be honest with you, I saw “Beat Street” before I saw “Wild Style” (laughs). But back then, it was about what you had access to.”
How early on did you actually decide you wanted to start rhyming yourself?
“I’ll say in the mid-80s. Now, at that point there were a few record stores that were kinda close-by to me. Still none in my town though, here in Bear Creek (laughs). I think one of the closest stores to me was in a town called Sanford in North Carolina. I would go to this record store down there and it’s kinda crazy because you would never be able to guess who worked in there. It was Mista Lawnge of Black Sheep! Now, he’s originally from New York but he had family who lived down in Sanford.”
Do you remember the name of the record store?
“It was called Diamond Dee’s and it was owned by a guy named Sammy Dally (laughs). He was one of the biggest deejays in the area and used to do gigs all across the state. Now, Will, which is what I called Lawnge at the time, had got connected with him somehow and must have told him he had some skills when it came to this Hip-Hop thing. So, they used to have a teen night that Lawnge would deejay at with his cousin called Ishmael. Obviously at this time we didn’t know he was going to go on to do his thing like that with Black Sheep, but he definitely had some skills back then. Now, it was through going to these teen nights that I first started to think about actually rhyming because at these gatherings there used to be people break-dancing and rapping and I knew it was something that I wanted to do, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it. I mean, I didn’t want to just jump up onstage because I hadn’t really figured it out yet. It was kinda like how Nas said on “Halftime” that he used to be afraid to rap at the park jams (laughs). I didn’t want to get up there and make a fool out of myself. So, I went home and started to really think about writing. I wrote a couple of things but I still wasn’t really pursuing it. The first time I would really start to go after the rhyming thing was when I first met Will-Ski of the Bizzie Boyz.”
Now, this is Will-Ski who went on to find fame as the producer everyone now knows as Ski Beatz, but back then he was known more as an emcee. Had the Bizzie Boyz already put records out when you first met Ski?
“Yeah, the Bizzie Boyz already had records out when I first met Ski. I mean, their first records started coming out around 1987. Now, I had a cousin who was going to school at the time in Greensboro at North Carolina A&T and she was staying with her aunt who lived right around the corner from Will-Ski. I’d already been listening to the Bizzie Boyz stuff on the local college radio station, which was North Carolina A&T’s radio station, 90.1. I was just intrigued by the fact that these guys were from North Carolina yet their music was just as official as anything else I was hearing in 87 / 88 from New York. So, my cousin knew that I was really into the music and that I wanted to rhyme but that I’d not yet really started pursuing it. So she called me one night and was like, ‘Yo, you’re never going to guess who I live around the corner from?’ She didn’t even know Ski’s name, so she was like, ‘One of the members of the Bizzie Boyz!’ I was just like, ‘Wow! I would love to meet him.’ Now, about a month later, I guess she’d caught Ski’s eye or something and they started dating each other before I ever even met him. Then, finally, my cousin was like, ‘Why don’t you come up here and meet Ski.’ So I went up there, Ski put on some beats for me and was like, ‘I hear you want to rhyme.’ So we’re there and Ski just said these incredible lyrics, because at that time Ski was definitely on-point when it came to the rhymes. He hadn’t really moved into the production side of things like he did later on, so he was definitely on top of his game as an emcee. So anyway, I started freestyling and to be honest with you I didn’t really have it together that day (laughs). I’d always been able to freestyle but on that particular day I was a little nervous so it just didn’t come out right. So Ski stopped me and was like, ‘Yo, take these beats home. Formulate your rhymes, think about what you want to say and put your own style on it.’ So I went home and wrote two verses, which were the first rhymes I ever actually penned with serious intent. I brought the rhymes back to Ski, he put the beats back on, I ran through the verses and he was like, ‘Yo, you’re a natural. You can do this.’ So that was really the start of me being an emcee.”
You also had another local crew that came out on Payroll Records alongside the Bizzie Boyz, which was B.A.D. Rep with MC Dizzy Dee and DJ Def, who would go on to be known as the producer Mark Sparks. At the time though, how much of an inspiration was it for you as an aspiring artist to see acts coming out of North Carolina who were gaining attention outside of the local area?
“It was crazy and that’s how I know that everything that happened was meant to happen because North Carolina was probably the most unlikely place at the time for Hip-Hop to shine its face. I mean, we felt like we were out there doing what we did and that nobody knew we even existed. Being overseas, I know that’s a feeling that people out there in the UK who were involved with Hip-Hop back then can probably relate to. I mean, even when I was hearing the Bizzie Boyz on college radio along with some of the other releases that came off of Payroll Records, they were coming out of Greensboro, which was still a more metropolitan area than where I was from. So even though I saw that they were doing it, I still couldn’t see how that could ever happen for me being where I was from in Bear Creek. I really didn’t know how I could ever get into that circle. So, it was just fate that my cousin ended-up living right around the corner from Ski and that I then ended-up meeting him. It was just meant to be.”
It’s also pretty crazy when you look at the wider impact both Ski and Mark Sparks went on to have as producers in the 90s…
“That’s true. But before that, you really have to look at Fanatic, who was involved with the Payroll situation and also produced my first solo release in 1993, “The Funky One Liner” EP. It was Fanatic who really taught both Ski and Mark how to use the SP-1200. I mean, Fanatic was really the architect production-wise behind those Bizzie Boyz records like “Droppin’ It” and “Dope”. But it is crazy to look at what both Mark and Ski went on to do. I mean, Mark did some incredible records with people like Grand Puba and then Guru on one of the “Jazzmatazz” projects and of course Ski did what he did with Jay-Z on the “Reasonable Doubt” album.”
Aside from the Bizzie Boyz and B.A.D. Rep were there any other local artists you were looking up to around the late-80s?
“I will say there was an artist who was called O-Shabazz who was from around the way as well, who didn’t put records out with Payroll but his name definitely rang many bells locally. He was an emcee who had gained a lot of notoriety as far as live performances were concerned and being able to go up in the clubs or the parties and really do his thing. O-Shabazz and Ski actually used to battle each other back in the day before Ski even started making records. He’s a dude I actually got to meet some years down the line, but I always have to mention him as an emcee I definitely looked up to back in those early days. Plus, there was also a brother from around my way who was the first person I ever saw go and actually record music. Now, this was before I was recording with Fanatic in the Payroll era. This was a guy called Rule who was in a neighbouring town. I hadn’t even started to write rhymes or anything at the point he was doing his thing in the 80s. I was more of a dancer at this point and I was kinda nice as well (laughs). But I definitely have to give Rule his props because he was someone else who really got me interested in the whole idea of making music. I remember him telling me he was going to record this song one weekend and I actually got to go with him. We went over to somebody’s house, I can’t remember whose house it actually was now, but it was a small four-track set-up and the beat didn’t even have any samples in it or anything, it was one of those old 808 joints (laughs). But I got to see that whole process happen, so I definitely have to include Rule as an influence on me. There was also a guy called Darryl Jones from Fairfield who took “Outstanding” by the Gap Band and made a joint around 87 / 88. But to be honest, nobody was making records to my knowledge with the officialness and the seriousness of the Payroll guys.”
Where did Supreme DJ Nyborn fit into all of this, as he was rolling with the Payroll Records crew as well?
“Honestly, Supreme Nyborn’s “Versatility” was actually the first record I heard from the Payroll camp, even before the Bizzie Boyz, although chronologically I believe the Bizzie Boyz came out first on the label. But Nyborn’s sound was just so New York, because obviously he was originally from New York, so at the time I had no idea that record had anything to do with North Carolina. But both Nyborn and Roland Jones, who was the founder of Payroll Records, were from New York City. So what happened is, Roland had come down to Greensboro and set-up a little record store in the hood. That’s what drew Ski, Fanatic, Mixmaster D of the Bizzie Boyz and B.A.D. Rep in, going to the record store, which then led to the music that came out on Payroll Records. I would venture to say that Nyborn was there from the very beginning of everything because him and Roland were so tight back then. But my interaction with the crew and how I came through the door was through Ski, then I met Fanatic and a guy called Eli Davis who now actually manages the singer Anthony Hamilton and 9th Wonder. So I never really got to chop it up with Nyborn until later on. So when I talk about my earliest memories of being around that crew, I always speak on the Bizzie Boyz and B.A.D. Rep because that’s who I was close with at the time.”
Read Part Two of this interview here.
The Bizzie Boyz – “Hold The Lafta” (Payroll Records / 1989)