In this third part of my interview with North Carolina’s Omniscence, the talented lyricist discusses signing with EastWest Records in the mid-90s, recording his shelved debut album “The Raw Factor” and being awarded Rhyme Of The Month in The Source – check Part One and Part Two.
How did Vincent Herbert and 3 Boyz From Newark become involved in your career?
“So, Vincert Herbert came to us and obviously he was more known as being an R&B guy. He’d done stuff with Christopher Williams, Babyface and some other high profile R&B stuff. But what happened was, he’d come to Charlotte, North Carolina to a radio station on some other business. Now, the deejay at the station was called DC and he was our man from back in the day. He was actually the quiet storm deejay on the station playing the R&B songs and there definitely wasn’t no Hip-Hop stuff going down on his show (laughs). Vincent was promoting a particular act or record, I’m not really sure, but he’d come by DC’s show and they started talking. DC asked Vincent if he was looking for any new artists and if he was, would he consider signing a Hip-Hop artist. DC played Vincent “Gotta Maintain” off the “Funky One Liner” EP and he loved it. So that was what first got Vincent interested in signing me. Simultaneously, whilst Vincent is trying to sign us, Biggest Gord and Enid Shor are in New York putting this potential deal together with Chris Lighty. Vincent was saying that he wanted to sign both me and Fanatic, with Fanatic getting a production deal, but the deal Gord and Enid were putting together with Chris Lighty was just for me only as an artist.”
So was that swaying your decision, the fact that one deal was for both of you and the other deal on the table was for you only?
“Yeah, yeah. I mean, I wasn’t about to turn my back on Fanatic, even though he would have still been involved in any project I did, but the plan was for both of us to get signed, which is what Vincent was offering. I remember Vincent was always in the Benz with all the jewellery on which kinda amazed both me and Fanatic because he was younger than both of us (laughs). I mean, I’d have been around twenty-two years old at this time and Vincent must have been about nineteen or twenty. He always had money (laughs). But long story short, Vincent flew both me and Fanatic up to New York, put us in a hotel room, told us to kick back, relax and he was going to be back the next day so we could sign the paperwork. I’m thinking, ‘Yo, I don’t know if this is the right move or not’ because I’d met so many wonderful people through Enid so I was wondering what might happen there. I mean, through her and Biggest Gord, I got to meet pretty much the whole Gang Starr Foundation, like Bahamadia, Malachi The Nutcracker and a few of the other guys. Now, this is something that I have to live with everyday, that potentially I could have fallen under the wing of Chris Lighty business-wise and the musical umbrella of DJ Premier (laughs). That would have truly been out of this world. But everything happens for a reason.”
So why did you eventually decide not to sign with Chris Lighty and Violator?
“Well, this is what happened. Fanatic and I are sat up in this hotel room having some heated arguments about which direction we should go in (laughs). Obviously, one direction didn’t involve him, although I was loyal to Fanatic so I would never have left him behind, but the other direction meant that both of us would be part of the deal. Now, Enid had called my mom back home in Bear Creek looking to speak to me about something. My mom doesn’t really know what’s going on so she’s like, ‘Oh, he’s in New York.’ So Enid asked my mom if she could get in touch with me and when I called home my mom passed the message on for me to call Enid. I called her up and she’s like, ‘What are you doing in New York?’ I was like, ‘Yo, we’re getting ready to sign this deal with Vincent Herbert.’ She was saying, ‘No, no, you’re getting ready to make one of the biggest mistakes of your life.’ I was telling her that this deal was Fanatic’s opportunity as well because he’d put everything into me as an artist and that was something that I really had to keep in mind while deciding which deal to take. Enid was like, ‘Don’t go anywhere, I’m going to get Chris Lighty to call you right now.’ Sure enough, two minutes later the phone rings, Fanatic answers, passes me the phone and it’s Chris Lighty. We started talking and I explained to him that I was looking to move in a direction that would benefit both me and Fanatic. I remember Chris saying, ‘Yo, I know Vincent, he’s a good dude, but he’s an R&B guy.’ I mean, this would have been around winter 1994. But we were talking and Chris was telling me how much he liked my music and that when he listened to what me and Fanatic were doing it put him in mind of a group like a Black Moon. He actually told me that Black Moon were a group that he’d wanted to get his hands on as well, but for some reason that never really happened. Chris said to me, ‘Yo, if you give me this opportunity to work with you, I will make sure that your music does not get diluted in any way, but yet you will still see the numbers you need to see.'”
It definitely sounds like Lighty was giving you a strong sales pitch…
“I remember saying to Chris, ‘Yo, I know who you are Mr. Lighty and it’s a real honour that you would even be speaking to me right now on this phone. But I think we’re going to go ahead and go in the direction that we spoke about with Vincent.’ He was like, ‘Alright, man. Good luck’ and hung up the phone. I didn’t talk to him again after that (laughs). But rest in peace to Chris Lighty, man. I mean, I’ll be honest with you, for a long time I kicked myself over making that decision not to sign with him. But anyway, we went ahead and signed the deal with Vincert Herbert.”
So you’ve signed to EastWest Records through Vincent Herbert and now you’re part of the Elektra family which already included the likes of Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Brand Nubian, Leaders Of The New School etc. You must have thought you’d made it at that point?
“Exactly (laughs). At the time, I got over the Chris Lighty situation quick once we got signed (laughs). It was time to do work now. So we got signed, we got our little budget, money was coming in and things were moving. Now, keep in mind, I’m from Bear Creek, North Carolina, and now here we are up in the big city, not just as visitors for the New Music Seminar, but we’re living in the city now and I’m a new, upcoming artist. Everything was moving so fast. I’ll never forget those initial recordings we did. I mean, we recording what was supposed to be the “Raw Factor” album at the Hit Factory in downtown Manhattan, which was this real, upscale studio. Now, I remember saying how I wanted to keep the vibe on the same train as the “Funky One Liner EP”, but by this time, in early 1995, Biggie was on the scene and had really made an impact. I mean, Biggie was really one of the first times that a raw emcee like that had been able to make both the underground records and the radio records. With the music he was making with Puffy, he was really showing you how to make both types of record. Biggie was really doing it and of course Puffy had started using the old 80s samples and loops, so a lot of labels were looking for artists to pull that formula off, including Vincent Herbert because he already had that R&B background anyway. But inside, I was thinking, ‘Nah, this is the vibe I’m about. I’m in this other lane over here.'”
Had you discussed the possibility of attempting to achieve that underground / radio balance with Vincent prior to you being signed or was that a conversation that came after you’d done the deal with EastWest?
“Right, right. It was after Biggie had really made a mark that we started talking about that particular sound. I actually remember me and Fanatic sitting down with Vincent just after we’d signed and discussing the fact that even though they’d been on the EP, we wanted “Gotta Maintain” on the album, which was a record Vincent liked, and we also wanted “I’m On Mine” on there as well. We wanted those two records on “The Raw Factor”. So we’d told Vincent that we wanted to keep that original raw side of our sound, although we did obviously understand that we were in the music business now. But I really trusted Fanatic, so I knew whatever sample we might have used, he was still going to come hard with the drums, like with “Touch Y’all” and even “Amazin'”, although that was the only track on “The Raw Factor” that Fanatic didn’t produce (note: the original “LP Version” of “Amazin'” was produced by Rheji Burrell of 3 Boyz From Newark). So I was never too wary of what we were doing, but I was aware that the sound was changing compared to what we’d originally come in the door with.”
Around that 1995 period there were definitely plenty of artists who were starting to follow that Bad Boy Records blueprint…
“Exactly. So that’s why when you listen to “The Raw Factor”, I was conscious of what was happening with the music, so I made sure that I kept that griminess in my voice. Which, at the time, I remember thinking created a very different sound. But I love those records, man. To be honest, I like them more now than I did back then because I was a little upset about the transition the music was going through (laughs).”
Elektra put out a promo project in 1995 called “iLLSTYLE LiVE!” which featured performances from yourself and label-mates such as Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Das EFX, Supernatural, Juggaknotz etc. Firstly, I wanted to ask you what you remember from that night, and secondly, do you recall noticing a reaction from the audience when you dropped that Mary J. Blige bi-sexual line during your intro?
“This is another Funkenklein thing, right (laughs). I love it. Okay, let me answer the first part of the question. By the time that event happened, we were probably about eight or nine tracks into the recording of “The Raw Factor”. “Amazin'” had already been recorded and that was due to be the first single. To this day, I kinda wish that had been the official first single. I mean, even Fanatic had come to me, even though it was the one song he hadn’t produced, and told me that was the joint we should have gone with and done the video for rather than “Touch Y’all”. But at any rate, we got the call from the label headquarters, Sylvia Rhone, to say they were going to do a showcase and they wanted all the artists to come to this particular location. It was kinda weird actually because it was in somewhere that was more like a warehouse rather than being in a club situation or anything like that. Believe it or not, there wasn’t actually that many people there because it was an industry function so it was just industry people there rather than fans being involved. But I remember coming in and the first people I got to rub elbows with were Daddy D, who was signed to the label, and MC Lyte and Lin Que were there, so I spoke to them for a little bit and expressed my utmost respect to both of them. I remember, everybody wasn’t there at the same time. So people like Busta Rhymes, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Das EFX, they all came in later in the night because we were the newer artists, so we were performing earlier than them. But see, I’m not the type of guy to be running up on cats like, ‘This is me! I’m your label-mate!’ So I wasn’t particularly sitting down and chopping it up with everyone (laughs). But I do definitely remember Ol’ Dirty buggin’ out that night (laughs). He bugged out! I got to holla at him for a minute and I’ll tell you the truth, Ol’ DB was like, ‘Yo! I don’t know who the f**k you are, but if you’re getting in this industry s**t then be ready because these muthaf**kers are devils’ I was just like, ‘Yo, there it is. That’s Ol’ DB’ (laughs). I got to chop it up with my man Rampage from Flipmode as well. I also remember at the end of the night we all got together and Sylvia was saying how proud she was of what we’d all done and made us aware that the label were going to put it out as a release. So it did feel like I was kinda in a family before it was all said and done, but after that night we never reunited like that again. Other than my man Supernatural, as we definitely stayed in touch and would meet up, freestyle and just hang out. Out of everybody, he’s the one person during that era that I could say outside of the label functions etc, we would make an effort to hook-up and talk.”
So what about that Mary J. Blige line?
“Damn, I thought I was going to be able to talk long enough for you to forget that part of the question (laughs). I mean, at the time there was a rumour going around that Mary went both ways. I had the utmost respect for Mary J. and she was like the Queen of Hip-Hop at the time. But I was always into the rhymes that would make your jawdrop, like some of the things that a Lord Finesse would say. Nas was someone else who had that impact on me with some of his earlier records like “Half Time” with some of the imagery he was using. He would say some things that were just so ill, man. I mean, in some ways there are some things that you should never really speak on, but then on an emcee level you have to take it there (laughs). I just wanted to grab people’s attention with what I was saying. So with the Mary line, that was something people were talking about all the time in the street, so I just wanted to throw it in there (laughs). But I definitely did see some raised eyebrows among some of those industry cats who were there that night (laughs). I wouldn’t say there was a huge gasp when I said it, but I definitely remember thinking that people had heard what I said and it had got some attention (laughs).”
Omniscence – “Amazin’ – Live Version With Intro” (1995 / Elektra)
What did it mean to you when you were awarded Rhyme Of The Month for one of your verses off “Amazin'” in the October 1995 issue of The Source?
“It was a big deal to me. I’d been a fan of The Source for so long. I mean, as we discussed earlier in the interview, I’d just been such a big fan of the music and the culture for so long, so to get that Rhyme Of The Month in The Source really meant so much to me. I mean, I remember The Source from when it was just a sheet of paper before it became an actual magazine, so for them to recognise me like that was very big, man. It was just a moment that I’ll never forget.”
Did you already know you were getting that month’s Hip-Hop Quotable before you actually saw the issue?
“I did know that they were going to do a brief write-up on the “Amazin'” single and I was waiting for that particular issue of the magazine to come up so I could read the article. That was crazy in itself, because if you look at the other artists included in that issue’s Sureshot Singles you’ll see that Jay-Z was getting his shot with “In My Lifetime” which was crazy to see considering the little bit of history that we had and with Ski producing that single as well. That was a crazy moment to see that. But anyway, I didn’t know that I was going to get Rhyme Of The Month and I actually saw that first before the single write-up as I was flicking through the pages. I saw it and was just like, ‘Yo! What the…??!!’ (laughs). I was blown away, man. I literally kept going back to that page and just staring at it (laughs). My boys were telling me, ‘Yo, get off your own d**k, man’ (laughs). I was just like, ‘Nah, you don’t understand, man. I just got Rhyme Of The Month in The Source!’ It was a very big deal back then.”
It was definitely considered a real stamp of approval back then because there were so many talented emcees out at the time who were just as worthy of being given that accolade…
“Exactly, exactly. I mean, I don’t know if there were any politics involved or not. But all I know is that from my end, I didn’t know anybody at The Source like that. I just did a little quick interview with the guy for the single review and he was really feeling “Amazin'”, so he might have gone back and said they should put me in there, I don’t know. But I really appreciated it, man. Being able to say you had Rhyme Of The Month in The Source back then was kinda like a trophy amongst emcees (laughs). I mean, I don’t want you to think I’ve got it framed and hanging on the wall in my hallway when you come in the house, but in my mind it still stands as a big moment for me (laughs).”
Did you notice an increased level of interest in you once that issue of The Source came out?
“Well, shortly after that issue came out the label flew us down to Miami for the How Can I Be Down? conference and various people were coming up to me like, ‘Yo, you’re the guy that got Rhyme Of The Month…’ so I think it definitely contributed towards the buzz on the “Raw Factor” album that was supposed to be coming out. I remember my man Do-It-All from Lords Of The Underground gave me a call to let me know he’d seen it and people were definitely talking about it. But it didn’t influence me in any way as far as the direction I wanted to take my music in, it just made me very appreciative of where I’d gotten to up to that point.”
Check the final part of this interview here.
Omniscence – “Amazin’ – 3 Boyz From Newark Ka-Ka Lak Mix” (EastWest Records / 1995)