Sometime in 1994 I purchased a CD version of Chill Rob G’s “Ride the Rhythm” album. To my dismay the CD didn’t work properly. Frustrated, I contacted Wild Pitch Records in New York and told them about my problem. I didn’t really expect a replacement, I hadn’t even included any cash or stamps in my letter, but within weeks I received a copy of “Ride the Rhythm,” which after all at this point was already five years old. As if to show the guy who bothered them about some back catalogue item that Wild Pitch was still on its toes, label representative DJ Eclipse slipped a promo of O.C.’s “Time’s Up” single into the package. As much as I always reserve a special place in my heart for music of times past, “Time’s Up” made me quickly forget about “Ride the Rhythm.”
Like many, I had heard O.C. make his first appearance on Organized Konfusion’s self-titled debut, but to be frank, his performance on “Fudge Pudge” wasn’t impressive enough for the name to stuck. The timing and the circumstances may remind some of Nas, but Nasty had “Halftime” and “Back to the Grill” (1992) to properly introduce himself between “Live at the BBQ” (1991) and “Illmatic” (1994). Unless you had caught him on the rare promo remix of that same “Back to the Grill,” O.C. snuck up on us like a ninja, appearing out of the dark, dishing out deadly blows:
“You lack the minerals and vitamins, irons and the niacin
Fuck who that I offend, rappers sit back, I’m ’bout to begin
’bout foul talk you squawk, never even walked the walk
More less destined to get tested, never been arrested
My album will manifest many things that I saw, did or heard about
or told first hand, never word of mouth
What’s in the future for the fusion in the changer?
Rappers are in danger – who will use wits to be a remainder?
When the missile is aimed to blow you out of the frame
some will keep their limbs and some will be maimed
Perpetratin’, facadin’ what you consider a image
To me this is just a scrimmage
I feel I’m stone, not cause I bop or wear my cap cocked
the more emotion I put into, the harder I rock
Those who pose lyrical but really ain’t true
I feel – (their time’s limited, hardrocks too)”
Exposing the ‘perpetrator’ has been part of the rap repertoire since almost day one, but few songs on the subject have hit the collective nerve so accurately. “Time’s Up” could be considered the final part of a trilogy, chronologically following Main Source’s “Fakin’ the Funk” (1992) and Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean” (1993). And while similar songs often question whether a rapper is as tough as he claims, “Time’s Up” didn’t discuss what makes a gangster real, but what makes a rapper real. Arguably one of hip-hop’s most legendary debut singles, “Time’s Up” should have stopped the entire industry dead in its tracks, and maybe it even did, if only for the briefest of moments. It certainly wasn’t the first, let alone the only manifesto addressing the stale state of a music scene where “everybody’s either crime-related or sexual.” But it was a particularly harsh indictment, coming not from a veteran assuming a snobbish air of seniority and superiorty, but from a newcomer, who outlined with great determination what he considered “real in this field of music.” “Instead of puttin’ braincells to work they abuse it,” he lamented, strongly denouncing “this thing called rappin’ just for dough.” When push came to shove, O.C. knew which way he would go: “I’d rather be broke and have a whole lot of respect.” The no-sell-out stance isn’t always popular and doesn’t always make sense, but it’s part of rap music’s genetic make-up, mirroring the hopes and fears of black America. “Time’s Up” made a moral argument, and as such it weighed heavy. As heavy as Buckwild’s beat, a skeletal but full-sounding track consisting of a distinctive bassline lead, subtle snares and a sparsely administered, sharply snapping guitar lick. The scratched Slick Rick line (not the standard “La-Di-Da-Di” or “The Show” quote) topping it off was all the hook this track ever needed.
After such high-flying promises, there was little room left for compromise. Aptly titled “Creative Control,” the intro to Omar Credle’s full-length debut from the same year told you to “get your ears ready for creative control…” “Cause no one’s gonna tell me to sell out my soul,” O.C. reaffirmed, taking the opportunity to get even with the “sons of bitches who had power to sign me but fronted.” On the following title track, the rapper assures the listener: “But I’m alright now, smooth as the turnpike / cause of my squad, Organized and Serchlite.” The former contributed two beats and some background vocals, while on the business end, MC Serch (formerly of 3rd Bass) was in charge, through his own Serchlite company and his position at Wild Pitch Records. There are no executive production credits for “Word…Life,” Serch is merely credited for art direction, but it’s probably no coincidence that the album shares some similarities with “Illmatic” (which he executive-produced). Both albums were relatively short, had few guest vocals, were released in 1994, were grounded in Queens, NY, and both featured appearances by a parent. Nas’ father played trumpet on “Life’s a Bitch,” while O.C. invited his mother to sing on “Ma Dukes.”
Both albums serve as an example of what is possible when artists exert a substantial degree of creative control. To the recording industry, creative control is a dangerous concept. It is something superstars from Prince to Madonna have fought long, hard battles over. That is not to say that musicians don’t need guidance from time to time, in fact most do, Nas and O.C. themselves certainly did sooner or later, but if record companies, laywers and managers deprive the artist of all creative control, his career is over before it begins, and we’ll never hear his “Illmatic” or his “Word…Life.” But how exactly did O.C. take advantage of the creative control he was offered? “Thoughts are surgin’ like a sub’s emergin’ / some subjects never been touched like a virgin,” he reasoned on the title track, so he went and wrote “Ga Head.” It features a bitter O.C., in the process of throwing barbs at his unfaithful woman, when he suddenly realizes that he lost her not to a another man, but to a woman. To have a rapper admit, “another woman’s been beatin’ my time” without any comical undertone was definitely a first in this macho world that is rap. The same can be said for “Let it Slide” with its message to not let every confrontation end up in a fight to the death. But it’s not just the message that is noteworthy here, it’s the mature execution of the concept, as O.C. infuses his delivery with the corresponding emotions, from the simmering tension to the decision to be the bigger man, all the while still making “Let it Slide” sound like an effective warning to those fiending for beef.
Despite these efforts, O.C. didn’t stray too far from well-trodden territory. The traditional topic of “Constables” forces him to at least come up with an original song title. There’s even a track called “No Main Topic,” which is either inventive or unimaginative, depending on how you look at it. The same goes for “Story.” O.C.’s understated song titles start to make sense once you grasp the idea behind “Ma Dukes.” Mrs. Credle’s silent wails and hums constitute one of the most ingenious singing cameos in hip-hop history. O.C. returns the favor with an unspoken tribute to her, with lyrics speaking of perseverance. By 1994, many rappers had found a more personal, emotional approach to their own biography. They began to reflect on life, death, childhood and relationships without resorting to the format of the cautionary tale or the war story. Case in point – “Born 2 Live,” the album’s second single. Buckwild’s sample choice hints at a stereotypical crossover attempt, but if anything, musically “Born 2 Live” resembles the Nas/Pete Rock collaboration “The World Is Yours” with its steadily grooving, soulful beat and its casually sung hook. Possibly inspired by the death of a close friend he addresses in the third verse, “Born 2 Live” is more than a standard farewell to a dead homie, it’s a parable about life and death.
“As kids you’re overlookin’ death
It didn’t seem important or serious, it just seems curious
It was about wakin’ to a bowl of cereal
Cartoons on Saturdays, karate flicks, and like
ridin’ your skateboard or bicycle
It went as deep as Killa Joe on the corner drinkin’ Ripple
Plus, Puerto-Rican kids on the block were cool
We got along, we all knew right from wrong
By far, we got a dose that life was hard
A Spanish we were close with was killed by a car
Shockin’, Alberto was hit on the block, and
death was spontaneous, his moms was clockin’
him ‘cross the street; he just received an award
for Little League baseball like a hour before
Plus, he didn’t even get to see the summer set in
Dyin’ all young at the age of 7
It opened up my eyes more that the flesh was weak
As a kid thinkin’ shit like that was mad deep”
Lyrically, O.C. came from two major angles. Similarly to Organized Konfusion, he had a straightforward, eloquent side that brought forth songs such as “Constables,” “Ga Head,” “Time’s Up,” “Let it Slide” and “Born 2 Live,” and he had a more intricate, abstract side, embodied by “No Main Topic,” “O-Zone,” “Point O Viewz” and the title track, an excercise in classic East Coast lyricism where O.C. claims to “raise eyes like the sight of a Tec” and engages with the beat in a way probably only a native New Yorker can: “This here beat, you see, I already quizzed it / I gave it a test for the rhyme linguistics.” Battling puts its stamp on “Word…Life” as well. “Mic to mouth is how I track down adversaries,” O.C. offers and creates his own personal space – the O-Zone -, he protects fiercely against anybody who dares to invade: “This is Camp Crystal Lake and I’m Jason.”
While not always believable as a battle rapper, in terms of the rap game O.C. really had said all that needed to be said in “Time’s Up.” But it was on the album where he had to live up to his own words. Which he did, with some success. He helped introduce a new breed of MC’s that left behind the playfulness of the Native Tongues, the anger management of Public Enemy, the controversial ‘attitude’ of N.W.A, the pop sensibility of Heavy D. Even when he was arrogant or angry, he came across level-headed, never blown out of proportion, proceeding with precision, combining fragmentary observations to “Point O Viewz.” Ironically, his austere rhetoric and the serious manner in which he conducted himself today reminds me of the aforementioned Chill Rob G, who just as easily could have come up with couplets such as “Verses serve a purpose like workers / yet there’s clowns makin’ hip-hop a circus” or “Let’s take a trip inside of my thoughts / will I persevere on the mic like sports?” Again reminiscent of Chill Rob (and his respective producer, Mark 45 King), the beautiful thing about this album is that O.C.’s clear artistic vision is shared by producer Buckwild (ably assisted by Organized Konfusion, DJ Ogee and Lord Finesse), who made an equally important debut with “Word…Life.” They both later joined the Diggin’ In The Crates crew, whose ultimate goal was already fully materialized on “Word…Life” – to fight for and to exercise creative control.