For the last 20 years, O.C. has made a career out of street imagery and intricate storytelling with a signature vocal tone. The Brooklyn, New York native has never been an artist drawn to the spotlight, but like his music, maintained a quiet coolness that feels out of step with the times in the best way possible.
This Tuesday, O.C.’s first solo album in seven years, Trophies released. The effort fully-produced by Apollo Brown, an under-sung beat butcher from Michigan with a knack for making songs cry with his carvings of samples. The result lives up to one of the most ear-catching releases this year, especially for lovers of Rap wisdom and soulful beats.
Speaking with HipHopDX for the first time in several years, the site wanted to honor O.C. as the icon he has been for nearly 20 years. We stroll down memory lane, getting to know the man behind the verses. Mush as he’s also known explains his friendships with Dame Dash and Jay-Z going back to the early 1990s, his love/hate relationship with his biggest hit, and how he hears old souls in younger emcees such as Kendrick Lamar and Rasheed Chappell.
What makes O.C. so great at what he does? He tells it on Trophies-closer “Fantastic” : “Take away the music, listen to my accapellas / My shit is art, with textures, depth and colors in it / Love and pain combined with real feelings / Highs and lows so vivid it’ll touch ya spirit.” The same is true of his thoughts off the mic.
HipHopDX: You have a line on Trophies talking about the present state of fan-dom in Hip Hop, “The weak you accept as your heroes.” Who are some of your heroes, in and out of music?
O.C.: Some of my heroes…yo, I gotta say my mom and dad. They went through a lot of bullshit. They did all they could do for me and my siblings and gave us the best life, and it rubbed off. Out of my immediate [family], my parents are my heroes. Both of them, my moms and my pops. They take me for the good, the bad, the whatever. They always let me know, “Just keep doin’ you. Everything don’t shine right away. If it don’t, it still don’t make you less of a man.”
DX: On the musical side… your style is so unique. With a lot of emcees, you can hear their influences. I really can’t with you in content or presentation. Prior to your appearance on Organized Konfusion’s “Fudge Pudge” Who really influenced your style?
O.C.: First and foremost, I gotta say Slick Rick. Slick Rick is a big influence on me because of the way he put together a concept [as] a song. He put a song together just as you would [hear on an artist like] The Delfonics or The Temptations. That’s saying a lot! This dude epitomized what songwriting is as opposed to being an emcee or a rapper. You’ve [also] got Rakim. Rakim is probably the father to a lot of our style, as far as the smooth, slow-flow, gettin’ across what you’re sayin’ clearly. [He had] rhythms and cadences. And probably LL [Cool J]. A lot of people don’t give LL his credit; that man right there is another big influence.
O.C. Explains Avoiding Big Label Contracts To Preserve Creative Control
DX: Rick Ross said it, “I built it ground up, you bought it renovated.” An interesting thing about you is that even with Jewelz being on Payday, all of your projects have been on start-up or small labels. Wild Pitch, Jcor, Hiero Emporium, Inebriated Beats, Nature Sounds, now this with Mello Music Group. I know you made “Creative Control,” but how important is it for you to be on a small, dedicated team that lets you make art?
O.C.: You answered the question. [Chuckles] With smaller labels, you’ve got a grip on what you want to do. They’re not telling you what they expect. They’re takin’ on a project based on what you put out in the atmosphere. I’ll explain that a lil’ more, simplified: with Wild Pitch [Records], it was a [MC] Serch thing. Serch took me for who I was. It wasn’t about trying to make a radio record. It wasn’t about trying to make a [commercial] record. [Word…Life] sold 100,000 [units] with no promotion – no promo and two videos. That says a lot, for [1994 when you had Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G., Illmatic by Nas and Lethal Injection by Ice Cube]. That said a lot! I knew I had somethin’ when I did that. Later on down the line, moving along a few years later to Payday [Records] with the Jewelz record, I always had my creative control. No disrespect to Def Jam [Records] or any of those cats, but they would’ve asked something from me that I couldn’t deliver, or didn’t want to deliver just because of my control over what I write and how I pick my music. That’s basically it in a nutshell.
DX: Certainly, guys like Oddisee and Declaime have been releasing albums for some time. But you’re the first emcee on Mello Music Group that really comes from that era that they try to recreate. What attracted you to do Trophies with Apollo Brown?
O.C.: Apollo [Brown]. Yo, prior to that, I’d heard of Mello Music [Group], I’d seen it on the web, but to be honest, I never paid attention – not ’cause I wasn’t not trying to pay attention to ’em, but this shit is so flooded with rhymin’ bullshit. Mixtapes. People presentin’ themselves with mixtapes as albums. “This is just the pre-album to my album,” and it’s the same thing when you get to their album – no step-up in levels. For me, Apollo and Michael [Tolle], the guy who owns Mello Music, they asked me if I wanted to do a project with them. It’s really a work-for-hire. But when I heard Apollo’s music, it just brought me back. Nostalgia. And this dude sent me 30-somethin’ beats! Who does that these days?
DX: You mentioned over-saturation. You’ve always treated yourself as a commodity. You don’t do mixtapes. Tell me about your conscious decision to do that…
O.C. The perfect example of that is Nas. You member the whole second coming of Nas. I don’t think people really appreciate the situation of what this dude has done for the game. It goes to the respect factor with generations. This generation right now…a lot of them respect money, power and radio-play. Illmatic had radio-play, but it was probably his least-selling album. I don’t think people get the gist of…when [Big Daddy] Kane and them came out, we studied, we took notes and we learned from them. Even before that…I’m a ’70s baby, so I was listening to ’70s music when I was a kid – Soul, Rock, everything. My moms and pops played it in the crib. Not to sound like no hater, but I don’t think these younger cats respect what I do. There’s a few, a chosen few. They don’t respect what I do because it don’t translate into numbers in their mind. Now Nas sold records. You’ve got dudes [in comment sections] being real disrespectful, “Aw, he’s washed up. He’s old.” Y’all serious, man? Y’all can’t be serious! The reason him and [Jay-Z and Andre 3000] put out records few and far between is they calculate what they jump on. We had a lot of emcees in the ’90s. So if you picked up somebody’s album, that made you go home and say, “I’ma write some shit.” I don’t get that now, not from a lot of the younger cats. I get it from Kendrick [Lamar], I get it from a few. But for the most part, I don’t get that feeling. So I have to go back and listen to old stuff. Or I have to listen to [Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 or Rasheed Chappell’s Future Before Nostalgia] and be like, “Damn, shorty’s spittin’!” These dudes give me a nostalgia, and they’re now. At the same time, I’m still here. I’m not gonna nowhere till I’m ready to go. Jay said it. “Everybody gotta fall off, but that shit ain’t goin’ for me.” When I feel like it’s time for me to stop, or I’m doin’ some wack shit, I’ll stop.
DX: And yet, as a storyteller, your verses rarely date themselves with specific references.
O.C.: I watch a lot of movies, so I’m built on concept. Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, LL, Rakim, Chuck D, all these dudes taught us how to build on concept. I said it on “Prove Me Wrong” : “Sub-par ain’t part of my rapport / The blood Gods are fiendin’ for a taste of my allure / For O.C. addicts, sorry for the wait, tie off your arm / Here’s another dose, a few years withdrawl.” I want people to think about that. I’m not sayin’ it just to make it sound slick. I want it to sound slick, but I want you to be like, “Oh! That’s some shit right there.” Rewind it.
O.C. Explains Recording Trophies With Apollo Brown In Less Than A Week
DX: You and Apollo made it a point to record this album in a studio together, despite living in different states. That’s expensive and it’s uncommon lately. Was that to uphold the classic formula?
O.C.: Actually, it was inexpensive – minus the trip of me going out to Detroit. And that wasn’t even expensive. Yo, Apollo wasn’t havin’ it. He was like, “If we can’t record together, I don’t want to do it.” [Laughs] He’s a throwback, but he’s now. When I got the music I sat in my car every night for a month and half last summer listenin’ to the music. I ripped up a few pages and books, started over. Then I came to an idea and I presented it to Apollo, just talkin’ about life and shit. We was talkin’ about the [O.J. Simpson] situation and how he was that dude when he was younger, [winning] the Heisman [Award] and the accolades, the all-Americam superstar. Like, yo, you can get all the trophies and awards on the planet, but when they’re ready to take it away from you, they gone take it. When I sat in the car and wrote, it came to me. I was writing two or three songs a day once I caught my zone. It took me two weeks to write the album. Two weeks. So I went out to Detroit. I was out there for five days, but I told Apollo when he picked me up at the airport, “Yo, I’ma record like 12 songs this evening.” He looked at me crazy. He wasn’t used to that. I had my book in front of me. I basically had everything memorized. I’m goin’ through song after song. We’re on the fifth song and he was like, “Whoa. Whoa. Stop.” I’m like, “Sup?” He was like, “Yo dogs, I apologize.” We laughed. “We got here at two. It’s six o’clock and you’re on your eight or ninth song. Slow down.” He’s [teasing me]. I came to work; I knocked the album out in two days. I recorded an extra song that Thursday, and I left that Saturday.
DX: Like Tupac.
O.C.: Yeah! I get my Tupac on! Word up.
DX: On “We The People” you rap, “Tryin’ to take my own advice from the rhymes I write.” Can you tell me a time you did that?
O.C.: I can’t specifically point to a life situation, but by me sayin’ “tryin’ to take my own advice from the rhymes I write” is basically me bein’ a human. People look at recording artists as perfection. We’re human being first, a man first. I make mistakes like you, or anybody else walkin’ past me. Nobody’s perfect. I lie. We all do the same things, but there’s certain extremes to things that I don’t do. That’s what I really meant in a nutshell.
O.C. Touches On Deep Friendship With Dame Dash, Roc-A-Fella
DX: On the album, you say, “Dame gave me advice to keep lawyers on retainer.” Last year Murs had told me about your relationship with Dame Dash. I know you had some ties to the Roc but never had an apparent business relationship. So tell me about the history there…
O.C.: It goes back to me and my man Ogee used to hang out with Jay and his cousin B-High. We used to go to this spot, Maria Davis “Mad Wednesday’s” every week and meet up. Mind you, those dudes got me hooked on Remy [Martin] and cranberry [juice] when I used to drink. Dark liquor. Me and Ogee used to meet Jay and B-High every Wednesday and get our drink on and just chill. As Jay was comin’ up in the ranks, we always kept a cool relationship; it wasn’t about records. When we see each other [we have nice conversations]. As he got more out of the light of just bein’ in regular clubs in New York and shit like that, I seen less of him. With Dame [Dash] and Jay and [Kareem “Biggs” Burke], it was never, ever no sideways shit with me – even at their peak. Jay did a chorus for me [on Bon Appetit’s “Bonafide”] when he came off the Hard Knock Life Tour. Do you know how much this dude was worth, as far as charging for verses or havin’ his voice on a record? At the time they had the biggest tour since Fresh Fest. Come on, man. We always kept it cool. I hadn’t seen Dame for a while up until he moved around my way. This is just one of his spots, but we neighbors now. I see him every week.
I seen him and Murs one day. I looked at Murs, but he cut his dreads off, so I didn’t recognize him right off the rip. But then we spoke. He was a real laid back dude. We befriended each other. He told me he was a fan, and I told him I’m a fan of his grind and his “H-U-S-T-L-E” and he asked me if I wanted to a record. Dame’s like “Y’all should do a record.” Dame’s a businessman even when he’s just talkin’. [Chuckles] Ski [Beatz] is my neighbor too. I told Murs I’m with it. He got me the record. I listened to it, went up around the corner in Ski’s crib, recorded it, made it happen [as “Life And Time” from Love & Rockets, Volume 1].
Anything Dame asks of me, I’ll do it. Vice versa. If I asked Dame for a half a million dollars, Dame would get it to me. He’ll find a way for me to get that. Just because I never tried to use them. I always had my own and held my own when they seen me.
DX: “Fantastic” is autobiographical. You look back at the last 18, 20 years. What prompted you to tell your story right now?
O.C.: Actually, that was Apollo’s concept. He had the beat already. He was like, “Yo, I envision you tellin’ your history from Word…Life up to this point.” It was a no-brainer. That was one of the last beats he sent me. When I heard that beat, I got it. He didn’t have to explain it to me.
I just did an actual breakdown of my albums from ’94 all to the way to the present. It was easy for me.
DX: What would you say is the proudest verse of your career?
O.C.: Wow. That’s crazy. It sounds so cliche, but “Time’s Up,” second verse. I never liked the record, but I get it now. “Speaking in tongues / About what you done / But you never did it / Admit it / You bit it / The next man gained platinum / Behind it / I find it ironic / I researched and analyzed / Most write about stuff they fantasize…” Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah! I get it now. Actually, I was ahead of myself with that. It’s prevalent to this day.
DX: That might be favorite Hip Hop record of all-time. Interestingly enough, you told me back in 2004 that you’re sick of talking about that record, being asked to perform that record. At this point, when you say you finally get it. Do you look at it differently now?
O.C.: I still don’t like the record. [Laughs] But I get it! I feel like I have better records than “Time’s Up” in the sense of better put-together records. If you listen to my voice on that as opposed to other songs you can tell I was younger. I can tell, anyway, differences. I felt I had better records. “My World”…I had a lot of records that I felt was better than “Time’s Up.” I gotta thank Serch for bangin’ me on the head to put that out. If it wasn’t for him, that record would… [I] would have a different story. Serch is the rhyme and reason behind who I am today.
DX: You mentioned your love of movies. I love the book and the film, Clockers. What did it mean to you to be on “Return Of The Crooklyn Dodgers” for the film’s soundtrack? Especially since the film is supposed to be set in your hometown of Brooklyn.
O.C.: I think Bill Stephney and Hank Shocklee was involved at EMI at the time. Spike Lee basically chose [DJ Premier] to do the second installment of “Crooklyn Dodgers.” So they coulda chose anybody from Brooklyn. They coulda chose to do it again with [Masta] Ace, [Memphis] Bleek, Jay, Jeru [Da Damaja], Buckshot. It would’ve probably come out just as bangin’ as the first one did. But come on, man! You got Hank Shockless and Bill Stephney noticing what I do? Are you serious, Bomb Squad? Wow!
Preme told me later that Spike asked for these people. Spike asked for me? Get the fuck outta here. He listens to me? It all boils back to the “Time’s Up” thing. I get it now. A lot of people know the record. They might not know the name or get the face, but they know the record. They know what the record stands for and stood for when it came out.
Spike let us do what we do. For him to choose me and Chubb [Rock] and ‘Ru, that was unheard of.
DX: The movie opens with it…
O.C.: Exactly! We shot the video in the projects where they shot the movie. Spike did the video. He treated us well, man. That, right there, in my mind, that’s when I felt like my worth in the game meant something. That record is another big part of my legacy. It comes on today, people go crazy. Young and old.
DX: I saw D.I.T.C. perform at SOBs in 2003 and it was one of the best concerts I ever saw. I know you toured with Hieroglyphics a few years ago. Is there any chance Trophies will bring O.C. & Apollo Brown to towns near our readers?
O.C.: Of course. We’re already gettin’ [offers]. I’m a lil’ shocked at this feedback on [“Prove Me Wrong”] which Preme leaked. He had a big part in that too; people listen to Premier. I love Preme to death. It’s reinventing or reintroducing me to a different and younger audience. It’s reintroducing me to the game again. I’m lettin’ people know you ain’t need 20,000 features to do an album and have it be a decent record.
And I performs my ass off, by myself or with [D.I.T.C.]. That’s what’s missing in the game. Me, I’ma change that. I’m not gonna be that cliche ’90s artists tryin’ to make records and not comin’ with it. Nah, that’s not me, man. I’m bigger than that. Me and Apollo gonna tour heavy with this record. I feel it in my bones.