[Interview] Omen talks “Elephant Eyes,” Chicago’s South Side, and Common’s influence on him

J.Cole What Dreams May Come Tour 2014 @ London Music Hall

Interview by: Martin Bauman

It’s been a promising start to 2014 for Chicago’s Omen. After announcing Dreamville’s newly-signed deal with Interscope and contributing two cuts to The Revenge of the Dreamers mixtape, the emcee/producer (otherwise known as Damon Coleman) is gearing up to release his next project, Elephant Eyes. We caught up with Omen to talk about the upcoming release, his thoughts on Chicago’s South Side, Common’s influence on him, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: I want to begin by getting into a couple influential albums in your lifetime. Let’s begin with one of my favourites as well, Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Black Star. Tell me about your experience with this album.

Omen: I heard that in a time when I had already kinda been on Nas, and Common, and Jay – all the staples – but that came at a point where I was kind of searching for something new, because I had played those albums to death. It was just so refreshing to hear; it was just unique; Mos had his own style, Talib had his own style, and I was at a time in my life where I was searching for truth and trying to figure out the world, and I felt like they had the answers – even if they didn’t, it felt like that.

I think a lot of people go through periods of their life in music where you’re searching for something and you feel like these artists are speaking exactly what you feel. I remember specifically hearing “Thieves in the Night,” Mos Def’s verse on that was just so amazing to me – Kweli’s verse is dope too, but Mos’s verse was one of my favourite verses ever. It was speaking so much truth that I was just listening to it like, this guy’s so deep. I just remember that was an amazing time.

I actually just [rewatched] Dave Chappelle’s Block Party the other day and re-got all of those feelings. I was just thinking, man, I wish they could do this again one day with the new crop of artists. But yeah, that was just an amazing album. Then, of course, came Black on Both Sides, Reflection Eternal, Quality, New Danger… all of those albums came after that and were just amazing. We were just talking about this on the bus, when is the resurgence of that sound gonna come? I don’t even know how you know I was listening to that album, but that was an amazing album.

TCUS: What about The Roots’ Illadelph Halflife? Tell me about that album’s influence on you.

Omen: I actually got on that late. The Roots album that I was really loving was Things Fall Apart. It was the same kinda time in my life where I was searching for something new, and that was an amazing album – I used to play that album so much. I was late on The Roots, so I’m listening to Black Thought, I’m listening to Malik, Questlove, all of them, and because of that album, it made me want to go back and hear everything else they did.

Some people that were older than me were telling me, “oh, you gotta hear Illadelph Halflife,” so I went back and was just blown away. You know what it was? Even with the Black Star album… I grew up listening to Tribe – my uncle was a deejay, so he used to play all of these older artists that I wasn’t up on. He’d put me onto Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest, and I naturally kind of fell in love with the jazzy hip-hop.

I think The Roots, Black Star, and Common… all of that was like the resurgence of that jazzy sound, and The Roots were doing it the best, so that Illadelph Halflife was just another staple album for me, because not only was the music incredible, but the raps – I mean, Black Thought was going in on every single verse. It wasn’t just about punchlines or flow, he had the best delivery at the time – he probably still does to this day, at least live. Black Thought’s one of the best performers.

And that was just a period of my life where I was studying. I was studying everyone: Black Thought, Mos, Kweli, Nas, Common, Dilla… I was in study mode – I still study to this day, but this was when I was really trying to figure out, what makes these people good? What makes these people better than everybody else? There was a particular song I used to play so much on that album – I can’t remember the name of it, because it wasn’t a single. It was like “Sessions”… something with an ‘S’ [editor’s note: “Section”]. Anyway, that was an amazing album.

TCUS: I’m glad you brought up Common, because the last album I want to ask you about before we get into your own music and backstory is one of his. Being that you’re from the South Side of Chicago, tell me about the significance of Common’s Resurrection to you.

Omen: Other than Illmatic and probably It Was Written, I’ve never played any album more than Resurrection. I used to literally play that album every day, all day. I remember riding the train in Chicago and even when I moved to New York, playing that all day on repeat, just trying to study and figure out [what he was saying]. Because there was so much [content to digest].

J.Cole What Dreams May Come Tour 2014 @ London Music Hall

Common doesn’t get a lot of credit – he gets credit, but not the credit he deserves, for real. I feel like most of the Common fans now, they know him from Be and the Kanye albums after Be – and those are all dope albums – but for me at least, his heyday was Resurrection and One Day It’ll All Make Sense. Those albums were pivotal for me, because Resurrection especially introduced me to wordplay.

I knew about flow, and punchlines, and storytelling, but Common was doing what I think a lot of people appreciate Lupe for now, which is the extended metaphor. It’s not just one line; it’s like the entire verse is a metaphor, or half the verse. He was doing that on Resurrection, and I was just listening to it like, how is he writing this? How is [it that] every single line is a metaphor but it still makes sense as one whole verse?

To this day, I can listen to that album and get something new from it. It’s the same thing; it was the jazzy hip-hop – it was No I.D. [and Ynot] that that whole album. I just remember hearing that album, and for me, it was pivotal because, like you said, this was another guy from the South Side of Chicago. Chicago didn’t have that many mainstream artists, so when we got somebody that was good, it was like, I’m riding with him.

And Chicago, at least at that time – it’s still kinda segregated – but you had your South Side Chicago people and your West Side Chicago people. The North Siders didn’t get any respect, unfortunately. I was [from the] South Side, and we always looked at the West Siders as wild – that was Crucial Conflict, Do or Die, and Twista; they rapped fast, so it was a different kind of style, whereas Common, in my young mind, was more real hip-hop, because he was rapping a certain way. He was real to me.

Later I grew to appreciate all of them, but it felt like for the first time, I was listening to somebody that was like me, going through the same the same things I was going through. He had a song called “Book of Life” where he just talked about getting older as a guy, and his confusion [with the world] – the same thing I was talking about earlier, he was talking about in this song.

I think it was, for me, like if somebody was from New York and they heard Jay or Nas mentioning street corner names. I can listen to Nas and appreciate him, and to this day, Nas is my favourite, but it’s different when somebody’s saying street names from your block or your neighbourhood, or stories that you know happened on the news. It was just more relatable; it was close to home. For sure, Common and Nas were my biggest influences to this day, rap-wise.

TCUS: One thing people may not know about you is your family’s musical history. What can you tell me about 21st Century?

Omen: Oh wow! That’s amazing. 21st Century was my dad’s [group] – my dad was a singer. He still sings; he’s an incredible singer, one of the best singers I’ve ever heard – not because he’s my father. He was signed to a Motown group called 21st Century. Actually, they changed their name from 21st Century to 21st Creation, but he was the lead singer. He sounded just like Michael Jackson – you know, just a throwback child heartthrob.

J.Cole What Dreams May Come Tour 2014 @ London Music Hall

You had all those groups back then: the Jackson 5, the Sylvers… some other ones I’m forgetting, but they all had a similar sound at the time, and [21st Century] was another group like that. They were known for this one big hit called “Remember the Rain” — it’s been sampled so many times in hip-hop. I think that’s where a lot of my passion for the music came from, even if we didn’t grow up together. We have a good relationship, but him and my mom weren’t together.

My mom sang – she didn’t really pursue it, but she could sing – my stepdad is a guitarist, bassist, pianist, and singer, I’ve got six photographers [and] a video producer… there’s all types of creativity in my family, so all of that surrounded me and influenced me. I played piano and I’d write here and there, but I didn’t take music seriously until late; I really had my hoop dreams, like every other black guy in Chicago [laughs]. I was a tall guy, and I could play. I was ignoring music for some reason.

I remember one day, I finally started realizing, I really like writing. Writing turned into, I’m tired of getting beats from other people; I want to learn how to make my own beats. It just developed into a passion that I’d never had for anything else, and I credit that to my family. Whether it was a direct [impact], or subliminal or not, I don’t think I would be as passionate about it if I didn’t have that background of my father or my mom playing Jackson 5, the Beatles, and Prince, or my stepdad playing Sting and Joni Mitchell… all these different types of music in my household that inspired me. It started with 21st Century.

TCUS: So when was it that you finally got serious about music? High school? College?

Omen: It was actually [in] college. I was late. I was writing in high school – I was actually in a rap group called Area 51, because I was from a neighbourhood called Hyde Park, and we all lived on 51st Street. And at the time, I was a huge Canibus fan. I was such a diehard Canibus fan, like, I was just a nerd for Canibus. He was the greatest to me, and all of [us] in the group felt the same way. Canibus used to talk about a lot of science and extraterrestrial things, so we just thought it was perfect: Area 51. It’s such a corny name, but we thought it was perfect.

It was me, Napalm, Illman, Crisis, and J-Wall… five of my boys. We all just used to sit around writing. We had a little boom box; we didn’t have a mic, but you could record into the boombox speakers, so we had to lie down and rap into the boombox [laughs]. It’s extra ghetto, but it was just fun for us, freestyling around the house or after school.

That’s how I really started developing a passion for it without even knowing. It was just fun for me, like, if I wasn’t hooping, I was probably doing that or playing video games. That’s where it started for me. Later, when people started telling me, “yo, you’re actually good,” on the Canibus forums online – where I actually met Cole – people were praising me. These aren’t even audio battles; these are like text battles, but I was getting praised so much that I started thinking, maybe I might actually be good.

J.Cole What Dreams May Come Tour 2014 @ London Music Hall

I started recording and my friends were like, “yo!” because I never really had ‘yes’ men around me. All my friends were always real with me, like, “nah, you shouldn’t do that. That sucks,” or “that’s actually dope!” So once I started hearing them say, “yo, that’s actually fire! You can really rap,” I [began to] take it a lot more seriously.

And at the same time, my passion for basketball started going farther down, I think because I realized, damn, I’m not finna go to the NBA. Reality started to hit me. I had to look at things like, okay, what else do you really like? And I had to really come to face [the fact that] yo, I really like music. I’ve been playing piano all this time; I’ve been writing songs; why don’t I try to see if I can actually do this for real? So it hit me a little late, but I had kinda been doing it the whole time without knowing.

TCUS: Production-wise then, did you start on the piano, or what was your first taste of producing?

Omen: I had piano lessons in high school. It’s weird, I never thought about this until recently, how fortunate I was that we had a piano in my house. How many families have a piano in their house? At least where I’m from, you don’t have no piano in your house. But we had [one] in my house because, like I said, my stepdad was a musician. So when I had these lessons in high school, I could come home and practise [for] like two hours a day, fingering and scales… I was really into it.

J.Cole What Dreams May Come Tour 2014 @ London Music Hall

“We didn’t have a mic, but you could record into the boombox speakers, so we had to lie down and rap into the boombox.”

But I wasn’t even aware that, like, you have to really be into something if you’re gonna come home and practise something for two hours a day on your own. Anyway, I would say it started with that, and then later, when I started taking music more seriously and got tired of stealing beats off the internet, but I didn’t have my beats on my own… this is the type of person I am: I don’t like asking people for anything, so I was like, I need to learn how to make beats.

So basically, I hit my boy Voli – who’s an amazing artist himself – he was using Fruity Loops at the time, so I hit him up like, “yo, you gotta teach me how to use this!” I had tried plenty of times, but it just looked too confusing. So he taught me a few tips over the phone, and I spent like a whole summer, kinda like Kanye said, making five beats a day for three summers. I did that – I was staying up ’til 7 a.m. to go to sleep until 11 and make beats.

I was obsessed. I was just obsessed with learning how to make beats, so I started on Fruity Loops and was on that for years, just learning, what makes this a good drum sound? What makes this a good drum pattern? [I was studying] Pete Rock, studying Dilla, studying the Neptunes, Timbaland, Dre… studying all these amazing producers and learning, okay, how did they get the bass to sound like this? How did they get the keys to do this? All the little things that people don’t even notice – and at first, it kinda messed me up, because once you start learning, you start listening to music differently. I was hearing songs on the radio that I would’ve normally liked, but [I was like], oh, I don’t like that snare drum, or I don’t like that hi-hat. It kinda ruined music for me at first, and I had to get over that, like, look, just enjoy the music.

“I spent like a whole summer, kinda like Kanye said, making five beats a day for three summers. I did that – I was staying up ’til 7 a.m. to go to sleep until 11 and make beats.”

So it started with Fruity Loops – and I was on that for a long time; that was kinda like my stomping ground for learning – and later I got on Logic, and now I use Reaper. To me, it doesn’t really matter what you use, it’s just how you use it. I think 9th Wonder showed that with Fruity Loops, all the classics he made with that.

TCUS: Being that you’re from Chicago – and the South Side in particular – what’s your take on the term Chiraq?

Omen: I get why people say it: it’s a fun, popular thing to say. I personally don’t really like the term. It’s a reality there; it is murder and crime, and as bad as people think Chicago is today, it was way worse when I was a kid. This is actually better. As terrible as it is, this is way better than when I was growing up, if you look at the statistics. They actually just did a report: they said Chicago’s murder rate is down the most it’s ever been since the 1960s or something, yet Chicago’s getting known for murder all the time, so that just shows you how bad it actually was.

I get why [people say it], but I think saying that, it just kinda perpetuates that “this is what it is,” instead of what it could be. It could be better than this; it could be more. I don’t know, I’ve got mixed feelings. I see why people say it, and I probably would’ve said it too if I was in high school, but [being] a little older now, I feel like we can say something better. We can focus on what it could be instead of what it is. That’s how I feel.

TCUS: I had a very similar conversation with another Chicago artist about this, Add-2, and he was saying what needs to be changed is that the family structure needs to come back, the community structure needs to come back, and there needs to be jobs created for people. What do you think is missing, or what do you see as the solution?

Omen: Yeah, I know Add-2. He’s dope. Pshh… If I had [the solution], I wouldn’t be rapping, I would be a politician or a community organizer. But one thing I do notice – and this is just from me going to college – when I was in college, everything was available to me: I had a gymnasium, we had rec centres, we had a library, we had amenities. We had all these different options, whereas back in Chicago, I had the playground and the liquor store. Those were my only options.

What’s a kid gonna do when he goes outside? Once you get grown, you’re not going to the swings or the slide, so what do you do? It’s like, okay, I’mma get in the streets, because there’s really nothing to do. If you’re not a good basketball player – which everybody can’t be – and you don’t play baseball, you’re gonna find trouble, because that’s all that’s available to you.

“If you stick a little 14 year old kid in the ghetto, and all he can do is go to the liquor store or the [basketball] court, he’s gonna find trouble – ain’t nothing for him to do!”

I think really, it’s just about providing options for the community. I did a little panel with this school called DePaul in Chicago, and I was telling the students, “yo, there were people that lived in the neighbourhood that didn’t have any access to the campus amenities. They couldn’t go to that gymnasium; they couldn’t go to the library; they couldn’t go to those restaurants; they couldn’t go to the hospital to get the college health care. They couldn’t get any of that, but it’s in Chicago in their neighbourhood. There’s something wrong with that; there’s something a little twisted about that to me.

I just think it’s [about] providing options to people. If you stick a little 14 year old kid in the ghetto, and all he can do is go to the liquor store or the [basketball] court, he’s gonna find trouble – ain’t nothing for him to do! I just think it’s about people developing a better standard, demanding that we have certain things in the neighbourhood: if they’ve got organic apples and health food stores, why do we have McDonald’s on every corner?

It’s about demanding a different standard for your neighbourhood. I think it starts with that. I don’t know if that’s the answer or solution; like I said, if I really had the solution, I wouldn’t be a rapper, I would be something a little more effective, but I think it starts with that, for sure.

TCUS: This is a tweet of yours: “Fun Fact: I also stayed at Muhammad’s crib.” This would be the infamous former student home of J. Cole in Jamaica, Queens. Is there truth to this?

Omen: [Laughs] That’s definitely true. So many people have stayed at Muhammad’s crib. Muhammad’s crib is legendary. When I first moved to New York, this was maybe in like ’09, when Cole first got his deal. I first stayed in Harlem – I was staying with my girl at the time – and then I eventually moved out.

I think Cole had just moved out, and then I moved into Muhammad’s crib. That’s just the spot that everybody has gone to when you needed a spot to stay in. I feel like almost everybody in Dreamville at one point has stayed at Muhammad’s crib, and he just held us down. That’s a cool little story; Muhammad’s the man.

TCUS: Speaking about J. Cole, I want to ask you about a line from your verse on “Enchanted,” a verse that got a lot of Cole fans acquainted with you. You rap, “I think my foolish pride may become my suicide.” Tell me about this line.

Omen: It’s just a personal anecdote about who I am. Like I said earlier, I don’t like to ask anybody for anything, [and] sometimes you need to ask people for things. Sometimes it’s [okay] to ask for help, but I’m so prideful sometimes that I’m like, I’ll find a way to do it myself. I really think that’s a Chicago mentality – we’re always on guard. The way we grew up, you’ve gotta always be wary of your environment, like, is this person trying to harm me? Does this person think I’m in a gang?

I think that puts up a certain wall, and a certain sense pride – a foolish pride – that you don’t always need to have. It can lead to your downfall. That’s really what that line meant: sometimes I can be too prideful. I actually play more off that line in my upcoming project, Elephant Eyes. Really, I just thought it sounded cool, but it was also truthful.

TCUS: I think it’s interesting that you mention pride as leading to your downfall. I had a conversation with a rapper from Canada by the name of Shad, and he was saying that two of the greatest evils to him are fear and pride. One of the other things you talked about on Afraid of Heights is struggling with the fear of success. Can you elaborate on that?

Omen: Yeah. I think it’s not something you normally think about, because you think, of course, everybody wants success. I think everybody does want to be successful, but sometimes you have a fear of your own potential. You have a fear of, uh oh, I’m getting everything I wanted, now what? Can I handle it? Can I sustain it? It’s almost like if somebody makes a record, they say, “oh, I’ve gotta make another one. I’ve gotta keep the people satisfied.”

I think that a lot of Afraid of Heights was about that: sometimes you know you’re talented, you know you’re worthy, but there’s still something inside of you that holds you back from attaining it, and it’s really fear of everything you think that comes with that success. It can be a loss of privacy, or people with bad intentions around you. There’s a lot of different factors that can come into play, but [with] fear of success… I was really into that at the time, because I felt like nobody ever touched on that, not in a big way. Personally, I don’t think I have that [fear] anymore, but a couple years ago I felt that.

TCUS: Tell me about the significance of this quote to you: “Keep your eyes open to all possibilities. Don’t think that things are supposed to happen one way.”

Omen: My mom is, like, super positive – the most positive person in the world. She’s always saying things like that to me, but I took it to mean that once you try to say, “it has to happen this way,” you place yourself in a box, and you limit yourself from other ways it could possibly happen that you’re not even thinking about. If you say, “I gotta put out an album, and it’s gotta be classic. It’s gotta go number one. That’s how I want my career to go,” and it doesn’t happen that way, then what? Then you’re kinda crushed, instead of you saying, “I want to have an incredible career.”

I’m really into the universe and things lining up, and all of that, so if you just say something more general, like, “I want to have an incredible career, and I want my album to be incredible; I want it to inspire and affect people,” you don’t know the path that it’ll take to happen like that. You’re allowing yourself the leeway, and you’re allowing yourself the opportunity for more things to to you, instead of you saying, “it has to happen this way,” and if it doesn’t, then it blinds you from seeing all the other ways it could happen.

TCUS: Before we wrap things up, you mentioned your upcoming album Elephant Eyes earlier. What can you tell me about it so far?

Omen: It’s pretty much done – like, 95 percent done – there’s just some small tweaks to be made, putting a piano here, or strings here, or background vocals here. It’s really pretty much done, and I’m just really proud of it. I definitely feel like it’s a step up from everything I’ve done, from production-wise, to writing-wise, to flow-wise, to the concepts… the storytelling is a lot better. And that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Afraid of Heights or A Glorious Cool, but I just think [Elephant Eyes] shows a lot of growth.

Even delivery-wise, [for instance], a song like “Enchanted” or “Mama Told Me” — which I love — at that time, I felt like I had to scream or holler to show emotion. To me, it’s almost like a bad actor: when he’s angry, he’s like, “agghhh!” You don’t have to do that. You can really just show you’re angry through conviction and emotion, and through delivering lines a certain way, so I think even my delivery has grown.

And just the reactions I’ve gotten from people around me, I’ve never gotten these reactions. I’m excited to put that out and just really touch the people with that. I don’t have a specific date – I kinda have a date in mind, but I already put one out in the past and I don’t wanna do that again – but it’s coming soon, for sure.

Follow Omen on Twitter (@Omen) and Instagram (@omen773).