Om Hip Hop puts real life back on the dance floor
"Crazy be the knowledge of self." If you're into conscious hip-hop, you might expect such an interpersonal refrain as this intro to Black Spade's "Good Crazy" on his intricately self-produced debut, To Serve with Love, out last month on Om Hip Hop, an imprint of San Francisco's Om Records. Still, there's something new going on here, something hot that snags your mind and your kicks and refuses to let go.
Maybe it's Spade's technique. The rapper otherwise known as Veto Money easily shifts between samples from every genre imaginable, funked-out click tracks, alien blips reminiscent of delightfully geeky hip-hop producers such as Styrofoam, and choruses that sound like he's singing to you personally. His tight flows simulate a head bobbing up and down and grinning by pushing syllables into full beats, with rhymes and emphases hitting on downbeats instead of more typical upbeat syncopation.
Or maybe it's just a simple sense of freedom. Remember when freedom was fun? Om Hip Hop is doing for the experimental hip-hop community what they've become known for worldwide in the electronic music world: finding talented musicians who could be superstars but are more interested in the music than in superficial fame, connecting them with other mavericks, and giving them free reign to rock the house. It's the hip-hop version of what the Los Angeles CityBeat has dubbed Om's effective "anti-superstar-DJ music policy."
"I've never worked on a project I didn't believe in 100 percent," said Jonathan McDonald, speaking in Om's SoMa headquarters, surrounded by countless promo discs and magazines. McDonald, who started out as an intern at Om while he was working as the hip-hop buyer at Amoeba Music, is now in charge of A&R and publicity for Om Hip Hop. He was psyched two years ago when Om founder Chris Smith decided to create and devote resources to the new imprint. Hip-hop was integral to Smith's original vision for Om in 1995, said McDonald. "But when dance culture really took off in the city, Om followed," he said. The phenomenal success of Mark Farina's Mushroom Jazz Vol. 1 (1996) still Om's bestselling record outplayed early hip-hop projects such as People Under the Stairs.
With a stage name that plays on race, death, and the name of a '70s New York street gang, Black Spade easily shifts between social critique ("Head Busters fightin' security at the Mono / Should I sell dope or slave at McDonald's?") and romanticism ("Excuse me miss, I know we're fighting / But what is that smell? It's so exciting"). Yet another Om Hip Hop artist, Crown City Rockers' Raashan Ahmad, who now resides in Oakland, expands this sense of storytelling on The Push, which will be out in May. Considering everything from his mother's battle with cancer to the birth of his son, Ahmad's liquid lyricism takes us on a striking emotional ride, with stops for inspiration ("The linguist synonymous with soul power") and praise ("Hip-hop saved my life"). "I wanted to show all sides of hip-hop and all sides of me," said Ahmad, on the phone from Los Angeles. By offering unprecedented support, Om let him create an album that even shows his "insecurities," he said. "Everything they said they'd do, they've done. They gave me complete creative freedom."
In June, Om will release the One's Superpsychosexy. McDonald hopes that the Spade and Ahmad discs will help prep listeners for the Charlotte, N.C., artist's "left field" sound, which includes hypnotic production and elastic, naughty-and-nice soul vocals. The One, né Geoffrey Edwards, would probably think of this pre-exposure as foreplay. "Superpsychosexy is music to make babies to. No, scratch that it's music to practice making babies to!" he said with a laugh, on the phone from his home. The One's father is a minister. From a young age, his family was encouraged to create on multiple instruments, and on tracks such as "Drippin," and "Milkshake Thick," he summons some very hot demons.
The mixture of local and global artists has played a major role in Om Records' success. Their Bay Area talent includes Zeph and Azeem; Zion I and the Grouch; and J Boogie's Dubtronic Science, which has a new full-length coming later this year. Om has also formed a partnership with imeem, a San Francisco social networking site based around music, which McDonald believes will be a "driving force in new media."
It's a perfect match. Om Hip Hop is all about community and shows no signs of slowing down. Colossus's West Oaktown (2005), the first Om Hip Hop release, presented original funky tracks alongside hip-hop remixes, so you could feel the DJ at work. Om's "Spring Sessions" show at the Mezzanine is bound to see some healthy human remixing, live and in the house. *
With Supreme Beings of Leisure, Turntables on the Hudson, Samantha James, and J Boogie's Dubtronic Science
Fri/18, 10 p.m., $15
444 Jessie, SF