wax Poetics

From the Lab

The Story of Om Hip-Hop

published online
Originally published in Digital Content
By Dean Van Nguyen

The Om Hip-Hop roster via the <i>Om Hip-Hop Volume One</i> compilation.
The Om Hip-Hop roster via the Om Hip-Hop Volume One compilation.

    The disintegration of independent hip-hop’s most potent labels is rued to this day. As the Bad Boy stars and the Murder, Inc. crew blazed an incredibly successful era of hook-heavy rhymes and stylish beats from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, a new order formed in the underground. Idiosyncratic organizations built their own rap-game Derinkuyu. This was a world where scratch records were currency, rappers sold rhymes like dimes, and Cannibal Ox held a high council position.

    The story is sadly familiar. The already tenuous structures of these labels—among them Fondle ’Em, Definitive Jux, and Rawkus—collapsed under a multitude of pressures: illegal downloads, bad business decisions, and owners turning to other interests when the cost of doing business simply became too high. During a turbulent period for the music business, these organizations were just too beautiful to blossom for more than a few years. And still they hit heights few saw before or will see again.

    Eager to enter the same sphere was San Francisco–based label Om Records. Founded by Chris Smith in 1995, Om was primarily known for its house, electronica, and downtempo music, but by the mid-2000s, the company was ready to make rap one of its core pillars. Inspired by the local ingenuity of Future Primitive Sound and Solesides (which later filtered into Quannum), and collectives like the famous Hieroglyphics crew, Om formally announced its intent to capture a corner of the market by establishing a fresh imprint, Om Hip-Hop.

    Prior to this new initiative, Om had found success with the likes of DJ Mark Farina, Soulstice, and King Kooba. The company navigated the post-Napster crunch—a chasm that ruptured its biggest local competitor, Naked Music—by licensing songs to juggernaut TV shows like Sex and the City, Grey’s Anatomy, and Six Feet Under, as well as commercials and video games. (Bear in mind, this was when licensing was extremely uncool—“selling out.” Now, it’s deemed an important revenue stream. You could call Om visionaries in this respect.)

    A 2006 profile by the SF Gate describes the walls of Om’s South Park, San Francisco, offices decorated with the covers of over one hundred releases, an expansive vista.

    Rap had always been a part of that vision. Om’s inaugural release was actually a hip-hop compilation. The Groove Active Collection opens with the Roots’ “Good Music,” its title acting as a declaration of the label’s intent. Included are well-known numbers like A Tribe Called Quest’s “Steve Biko (Stir It Up),” mixed with tasty picks like early Blackalicious and DJ Shadow cuts. That the record closes with Telefunken and the Unknown Giants accidentally predicts the future—Telefunken would later go by the name Azeem, of Zeph & Azeem, stars of Om Hip-Hop.

    Then came Om’s Deep Concentration series. These releases showcase turntablism in what was a golden era for scratch records. The first Deep Concentration project dropped in 1997—featuring Cut Chemist, Prince Paul, the X-Men, Lyrics Born & Lateef, Peanut Butter Wolf, among others—and led to three additional volumes, a few national tours, and a singles-only imprint called Deep Con that released 12-inches by underground groups such as Mission (later known as Crown City Rockers), Maspyke, and Mass Influence.

    The fourth and final Deep Concentration compilation dropped in 2003. Following the dissolution of the Deep Con brand, hip-hop appeared low on Om’s list of priorities. Los Angeles duo People Under the Stairs were at this point the only true hip-hop act on the label. But Gunnar Hissam, vice president of marketing, remained eager to keep Om in the rap realm. He just needed somebody with vision to help plot the course.

    Enter Jonathan McDonald. Then in his mid-twenties, McDonald went from being an intern at Om to marshalling the launch of Om Hip-Hop. He was already deep in the Bay Area rap scene, promoting shows at the legendary DNA Lounge in San Francisco as a member of On the Corner Productions. As Om Hip-Hop’s A&R man, he became the chief driver of the initiative.

    Setting the tone for Om Hip-Hop was Colossus’s 2005 album West Oaktown, a daring suite that grabbed the baton from Guru’s Jazzmatazz series and Madlib’s Shades of Blue by overtly amalgamating jazz and hip-hop. Colossus was the project of Charlie Tate, a towering Englishman who DJed alongside Hissam at Kingman’s Lucky Lounge in Oakland. Tate recorded the album in the city before having to jump on a flight back to London due to visa issues. Adrift in the U.K., he cooked up some fresh remixes and delivered them straight to the label.

    Everything that they were doing at the time had an underground vibe, and it was very experimental. J Boogie

    Om Hip-Hop releases had little uniformity but, looking back, some threads did run through its catalog. This was music that tended to focus on the core tenets of golden age rap: sample-based beat-making, deep-thinking lyricism, soulful grooves. Bucking trends might have been the aim, but a lot of the music could have comfortably slid onto playlists alongside the era’s popular backpack rap being made by stars like Kanye West, Common, and Lupe Fiasco at the time. At Om Hip-Hop, gangster or mafioso rap themes were mostly eschewed.

    “If we heard something and had that feeling like goose bumps, hair standing up on your arms like, ‘Oh my God, that’s what we were looking for,’” explains Gunnar Hissam. “It wasn’t necessarily that we were looking for backpack hip-hop or boom-bap shit, but I think that’s what we come from as far as what kind of shit we like, and obviously the sample-based hip-hop, the classic era that People Under the Stairs were all about, was where we were coming from.

    “But that doesn’t mean we weren’t experimental,” Hissam clarifies. He points to Black Spade, a rapper who forged an odd concoction of electronic music, jazz, R&B, and adult contemporary. His sound was fully explored on the 2008 album To Serve with Love, released on Om Hip-Hop. “The Black Spade stuff was very experimental-sounding,” says Hissam. “I think it went over people’s heads at the time.”

    “Everything that they were doing at the time had an underground vibe, and it was very experimental,” adds long-time Om artist and San Francisco native J Boogie, who shuffled over to Om Hip-Hop from the main label upon its foundation, releasing music as J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science. “They wanted things to be unique, special, and underground, and everything Om Hip-Hop did sounded different than what was happening in the hip-hop mainstream during that era.”

    While Bay Area energy was a distinguishing factor in forging Om Hip-Hop’s ethos, artists weren’t solely sourced locally. There was no centralized recording depot or blueprint of how Om wanted the records they put out to be produced.

    Out of Waco, Texas, Strange Fruit Project had built a following by dropping two albums independently before linking up with Om. The result of the union was the 2006 album The Healing. With sample-based production, a thoughtful approach to the writing, and guests like Erykah Badu and 9th Wonder, it’s a time capsule of mid-2000s rap.

    “While in the process of building those first two albums, we were building relationships with really influential people, artist-wise,” says Strange Fruit Project’s Symbolyc One, who served as Executive Producer and chief beatmaker on the record, which was recorded at his house in Waco. “From Little Brother, 9th Wonder, Jake One, Vitamin D, and all these individuals. So we were like, ‘Man, for this third album, let’s really go all in and use all our relationships.’ Because they genuinely wanted to work with us as well, just being fans of the group. So we really put everything into that album and people wanted to be a part of it.”

    As far as Om was concerned, Strange Fruit Project was a group they wanted to work with no matter what. “They loved our sound, they didn’t want to change anything,” says Symbolyc One. “Basically, it was an easy fit because we had our own lane, and they wanted us to bring that to what they were presenting as a brand label.

    “One of our main things was creative control. Once they said they just want us to be us and do what we did, we felt like it was a great fit.”

    Whatever singular ethos there was to Om Hip-Hop’s catalog can probably be found in the compilations Om Hip-Hop Volume 1 (which featured artwork inspired by the burned-in-wood design of the Wailers’ 1973 record Burnin’) and Om Hip-Hop Volume 2. Everyone who captured the imagination of McDonald, Hissam, and the team are accounted for, as both sets offer a taste of J Boogie’s rap-Latin-jazz mix, Zion I and the Grouch’s easy-to-imagine-on-the-radio jams, the knock-around rhymes of E da Boss. Not to mention singer the One (not to be confused with People Under the Stair’s member Thes One), whose ghostly funky brand of hip-hop soul made him one of the most distinct artists to sign to the label. “He was a tripped-out guy,” says J Boogie. “He had that unique, off-sounding voice that was different. Yeah, I remember, he was the One.”

    One of the biggest names to release music on the Om Hip-Hop was Ladybug Mecca, one-third of Digable Planets. The connection happened when McDonald booked the group for a reunion show at the DNA Lounge. (Interesting fact: the poster art that McDonald designed for the show would later appear on the cover of the group’s compilation album, Beyond the Spectrum: The Creamy Spy Chronicles, which came out on Blue Note.) Through this relationship, McDonald struck a deal with Ladybug to release a Kenny Dope remix of “Dogg Star” featuring Raheem DeVaughn, plus a bunch of house mixes (the original appeared on her album Trip the Light Fantastic, released on the label Nu Paradigm). The '90s rap star also performed at an Om Hip-Hop show at the Mezzanine in San Francisco. “She’s royalty in our minds,” says Hissam.

    In 2008, People Under the Stairs, one of Om’s early hip-hop pathfinders, dropped a compilation titled The Om Years, an epic double-disc release that put forward the huge body of work the duo recorded on the label. The following year, they returned to the main Om label for new album Carried Away. After a great run, the group disbanded in 2019. Sadly, Double K passed away earlier this year.

    For four short years, Om Hip-Hop distinguished itself. But you only can run from the realities of operating an independent rap label for so long. Om quietly stopped releasing music through the imprint around the end of the 2000s. The reasoning is a familiar tale.

    “One of the things was financially it was a challenge,” explains Hissam. “It’s not the most commercially viable thing to do because of the samples. You can’t just go and license music to movies and stuff and television and that, because it’s loaded with samples, so it’s very tricky to make the kind of shit that we like and do it where it’s actually able to support the artist and the staff financially.”

    “Two thousand nine was the year when streaming really started to get a foothold in the U.S.,” adds J Boogie. “That closing of the decade is really when Spotify hit the U.S. market. That was the beginning of a shift in the music industry for independent labels. The end of that era, the 2000s, everything was changing at that time.”

    Om is still around. The company navigated the 2010s largely by staying true to its electronic music roots, putting out records by Groove Armada, Body Language, Dirty Vegas, and others. Hissam is still there too, and last July he oversaw the release of a twenty-fifth-anniversary compilation that gathered some of Om’s greatest moments. “The little San Francisco label has grown into a breeding ground for underground talent, producing some of the greatest in the electronic, house, downtempo, and hip-hop world,” read the accompanying notes.

    Gauging a legacy is a tricky thing. Om Hip-Hop had no breakout hits that invaded the cultural zeitgeist you can point to, and though their sound was often daring—nobody seems to know what happened to the One, but his fiery soul predicted artists like Miguel—it’s impossible to say whether these songs have direct descendents.

    Yet the small noise it did create still echoes. Most of its artists dispersed to other small labels and continued to be active. Symbolyc One went on to work on era-defining records like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, Beyoncé’s 4, Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, and Drake’s More Life. He acknowledges his short period with Om was important in his development.

    “I credit those times to me being the producer that I am. Because of that, I learned so much, I was able to grow a lot and learn a lot, and just be around a lot of people to learn from. That era really shaped me as a producer.”

    Om’s mission has seen the label capture multiple sides of San Francisco. Om Hip-Hop ensured one small side of the city was lovingly captured. We still have music to remind us of a fiefdom that emerged in S.F. that’s otherwise scantily documented. If the city had something to say, Om was there to capture it coherently.

    “The coolest thing about Om for me personally, the music on Om the label really showcased the diversity of culture that was here in the Bay Area at the time,” says J Boogie. “I think its ability to focus on multiple genres, from lounge and downtempo, to R&B records, to future soul with Soulstice, and doing really poppy house with Kaskade, and classic dance music from Derrick Carter, and doing the whole Deep Concentration thing and Om Hip-Hop breaking off, it represented an era and culture that was here in San Francisco.

    “San Francisco is seven square miles. Everything is compressed. There was some roll over from the house music scene into the hip-hop scene and the hip-hop scene into the reggae scene... And for Om Hip-Hop, its legacy really was embracing the unique underground and artists who had something to say and had a unique sound that didn’t fit into any other hip-hop stereotype at that time.”