“I Didn’t Need to Rap About Guns, I Killed Them With Intellect:” The Making of O.C.’s Word Life

Thomas Hobbs speaks with the Diggin' in the Crates member about his excellent debut solo album, 25 years and change later.
By    January 14, 2020

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When O.C. was growing up, his mother made him read until his eyes were sore. Sometimes the young Omar Credle cried in protest, but this proved futile. The books just kept on coming and coming. But by raising her son on a steady diet of classic American novels and the occasional Rakim tape, Mrs. Credle instilled in him the idea that every great writer must be a great reader too, and that to create something of substance, you must first learn from the greats. 

It goes to explain why the Brooklyn rapper’s 1994 debut Word… Life arrived so fully-formed. The classic rap record was the result of an artist spending years observing his peers, honing his craft, and working out a way to rap that would make people unable to turn away. As soon as those first bars on the ferocious “Time’s Up” hit, you knew this was something unique.

“You lack the minerals and vitamins, irons and niacin / fuck, who did I offend? Rappers sit back, I’m about to begin.” 

An act of defiance against a gangsta rap scene weighted too heavily on reckless bravado, O.C. scientifically dissected studio thugs with a level of sophistication that felt alien compared to many of his peers. On Word… Life, O.C. comes off like an old head atop young shoulders, breaking down what it’s like to grow up in Bushwick, Brooklyn with a clarity that makes you visualize every word. He sounded less like someone in their early twenties and more like a world-weary war veteran, whose eyes had seen too much — an old soul desperate to impart some wisdom. 

On the vivid “Born 2 Live,” O.C. reflected on a time where his only worries were watching cartoons and waking up to a big bowl of Lucky Charms. Yet just as the track’s breezy nostalgia makes you feel warm and secure, the rapper unexpectedly plunges you into darkness, as he powerfully reflects on a seven-year-old friend whose life was snatched away. Although the record’s 13 tracks may have primarily been designed to showcase a combative, technical style of rapping less weighted on drugs and violence, they’re also about illustrating how the innocence of youth is rarely afforded to black kids in America’s inner cities, who are so often forced to grow up a lot faster than white children. 

“Constables” is about crooked cops who shoot first and ask questions later, and there’s an eerie prescience hearing a young Credle spit bars like “You won’t asphyxiate me in a chokehold,” especially when you consider what happened to Eric Garner at the hands of an NYPD police officer twenty years later. On the “Outro,” he complains that rising pollution is messing with the minds of black women, a line that could just as easily be describing the dangerously burning planet that young people have inherited today. These are timeless themes that ensure Word… Life remains a timeless album.

While a lot of rappers in the mid-90s simplistically threatened to shoot their enemies on wax, O.C. used his debut to compare their aura to plexi-glass. He doesn’t mock them for not being well connected in the street, but for being scared to use intelligence. For underground rap fans, already tiring of the gangsta rap clichés that were starting to define hip hop culture in the mid-90s, the O.C.’s music represented a radical shift, his steady stream of coruscating bars making them snatch for the rewind button.  

“Rappers were talking that tough shit in their music, but I didn’t want to do that because it would have been far too easy,” the now 48-year-old artist tells me, while sitting in a London hotel room surrounded by room service junk food. “I guess I knew I wanted to kill them with intellect instead. With the Word… Life album I wanted to make being able to tear someone apart with just words and intelligence, rather than knives and guns, feel like the coolest thing in the world.”

Later in the evening, O.C. will join long-time friend Pharoahe Monch for a guest slot at his Internal Affairs anniversary show in Brixton, but right now, on this typically grey and wet November’s afternoon in the big Smoke, he’s happy to travel back to 1994 and talk me through an album many still consider to be one of rap’s most lyrical records. — Thomas Hobbs

There’s an obvious intellectualism that underpins the lyrics on Word…Life. How much would you say your childhood brought that out in you, particularly as you transitioned into adulthood?

O.C.: I guess people always like to assume rappers come from broken families, but I grew up in a happy, two parent household. It made me fortunate, as it meant my parents had the time to make sure I was exposed to culture in a way a lot of my friends probably weren’t. I was always taught to enunciate and talk properly. My mom would tell me that I’ll never be a good writer unless I read first, so she’d make me read until I cried. We were part of this thing called Reading is Fundamental and would get all of these books delivered. One week I was reading Steinbeck, the next L. Ron Hubbard or Dr. Seuss. I became an avid reader. I think that was reflected in the kind of language you saw me using as a rapper. I didn’t have to work as hard to rap multisyllabic words on beat, it was just natural because my diet growing up was classic American novels and, like, listening to Rakim.

Can you remember when you were first exposed to hip-hop? What made you make that step up from wanting to be a writer to wanting to be a rapper?

O.C.:It started from living in Brooklyn as a kid. We would have these park jams and everybody would come out. I was mesmerized by the turntables; we’re talking around 7 or 8 years of age, and it just seemed like magic to me how they actually worked! The Beatminers were from Bushwick too, and they owned a house right across the street. Walt and DJ Evil Dee would bring all their equipment out into the park for a block party. Buckshot was there too, we were all kids, so we didn’t really know each other yet. I would watch the emcees and they were still secondary to the DJs – I guess I wanted to find a way to become the main event and take the rapping to the next level!

When I began hearing KRS and Rakim, I just couldn’t stop listening, and I knew I wanted to be a rapper like they were. Years later, when I moved to Queens, I lived next to Pharoahe Monch and we became friends. Me, Pharoahe and Prince would just spend all day rapping. It was real formative. They put me on “Fudge Pudge” on the Organized Konfusion album and this pushed me to go do something on my own. I didn’t get a lot of love from other rappers because they could already hear I was a threat to them. It was only really Lord Finesse who was there from the beginning to the end. He really inspired me to go do it on my own.

When that time came and you put out Word… Life, what would you say the record’s intent was? I sense you wanted to push rap in a different direction from the gangster shit that was dominating the airwaves… Like, your music is hard, but the message also feels a lot more sophisticated too…

O.C.: Rap just got so far away from the elements, man. There were rappers from New York in 93-94 talking that tough talk, but we all knew they weren’t really tough guys. N.W.A. ushered in this whole new thing of studio thugs and label using artists getting shot as a marketing gimmick, but I wanted to create a different kind of energy. You only live once, so it felt silly to be putting out that kind of energy into the world! People knew that me and the DITC crew were real street dudes, but it was more important we really lived that shit out in the streets and not in the booth. They had to be two separate things. For me, admitting to selling drugs was embarrassing. Why would you want to admit to killing your own people? With the Word… Life album I wanted to make being able to tear someone apart with just words and intelligence, rather than knives and guns, feel like the coolest thing in the world.

At times, the production almost sounds like it could be you rapping over outtakes from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew sessions. These were really raw dark jazz loops you were rapping over… Was that just an extension of Tribe’s Low End Theory and wanting to take that jazz rap sound even further?

O.C.: To an extent, sure. Q-Tip is a different motherfucker, man, and he inspired all of us. I am a 70’s baby too, so I guess that nostalgia comes from going to places like Central Park and Prospect Park, and seeing so many great artists perform. Back then you could see Miles Davis, the Average White Band, Chakha Khan, Earth, Wind and Fire perform for free in the parks, and it was a whole different time. They were like rock stars to me. I guess seeing those guys perform stuck with me and influenced the sound I wanted for my own album.

From hanging out with Prince Po, he was playing a lot of the Weather Report’s shit, because he sampled a few of their songs for the Organized Konfusion’ record. Po was fuckin’ with jazz heavily and playing me all that music so Word…Life became a natural extension of that sound. I wanted to rap like a saxophone, or if Weather Report actually had an emcee as a member. I remember that was real important to me!

It was really bold opening an album, which was distributed by a major label [FYI: Word… Life came out on MC Serch’s Wild Pitch Records, which was distributed by EMI], with a song [“Creative Control”] where you talk about never selling your soul and being fearful of the snakes at labels. That must have taken a lot of balls… maybe it was self-sabotage in a way?

O.C.: When you’re young, you’re fearless too. I felt like, when I think about it now, once you sign to a label, you become a slave to the system. My perception was I am not making music strictly for the radio and that is why I am not selling out. Once you sign, you lose your control completely, and I never wanted that for myself.  I had to make it clear from the jump. If had I blown up, maybe my music would been watered down. The way things worked out meant I got to stay true to the album’s mission statement, and that’s a beautiful thing.

It’s a very nostalgic album too. For me, songs like “Born to Live” and “Point of Views” sound like New York in the summer, but from the perspective of a child in the process of losing their innocence. Was that the intention?

O.C.: I felt like black kids might not have the same security as the kind of upbringing suburban white kids experience, but we make do with our resources and somehow manage to have just as much fun as those kids with all the money. This meant we never really thought about being poor. All you really got to worry about when you’re a child is cereal in the morning and watching cartoons. As kids, we don’t dwell on racism, so those songs are all about that purity.

But you also show how that purity can be snatched away. The record transitions from this child-like happiness to these dark twists and you being hassled by the police on “Constables.” It’s important you showed that journey, right?

O.C.: Definitely. Kids in the hood have to grow up quicker than anybody else. Long before Trayvon or Eric Garner, we were being shot, pulled over and choked out by dirty cops. Before I had a record deal, I drove a Benz, so I was always being pulled over. We weren’t breaking any laws, but the police saw us more as clichés than human beings. That KRS sample, “Police be clocking me,” was just a way of life for us. If you drove a nice car and you were black, you were automatically seen as a drug dealer. Just our existence offended people back in the 1990s, and it’s the same thing today. I wanted to rap about things that I knew would still be going on in the future, and it felt like racism or pollution were things that were only going to get worse and worse. It was important that I was making timeless music.

Talk me through “Time’s Up”… your hunger is palpable. It almost sounds like you’re directing that track at your worst enemy.

O.C.: Most people don’t know that “Time’s Up” was originally a Pharoahe Monch beat. This kid called Prestige, who ended up becoming one of Puff’s Hitmen, played the beat to Pharoahe, but he’s so laid back that he just threw it to the side. It really resonated with me so I stole the CD. I knew I was destined to rap on it, so I took it by force. With that song, it wasn’t about anyone in particular, it was more just directed at the whole rap scene, period. When you’d say rapper, people automatically would think he had to come from a bad life, he sold drugs, shifted guns, called women bitches and hoes. That shit was so ugh to me. It was my chance to kill them with intellect, and do it differently.

I just remember working so hard on all of the songs, not just “Time’s Up.” We couldn’t afford lots of studio time, so I had to come to the studio ready to bust. Finesse pushed me to take everything further too. He wanted every bar to sound perfect, as if it came directly from the mouth of a black God. Finesse pushed me and taught me how to be the best I could be as a vocalist. When we were making “Ga Head,” I remember there was this 36-hour session where I kept re-laying vocals over and over, and Finesse was editing the beat. But I think that dedication is why the record still holds up so well. It was worth it!

Wasn’t Nas originally slated to appear as a guest, too? Or is that just an urban legend?

O.C.: Nah it’s true. Buckwild had this beat called “Mega Hard,” which had a Nas sample that was like: “I walk around mega hard, like whatever, god.” The beat was next level and the song would have been crazy; you’re talking about me and Nas on the same track in ’94, it would have made history! For whatever reason it didn’t happen, but it doesn’t upset me. Having Nas on Word…Life might have detracted the focus off of me. The album had no guests other than Pharoahe on the “Let It Slide” hook, because it was all about showing the world who O.C. was. Me and Nas were both managed by MC Serch so I guess there was a friendly competition between us. Nas definitely pushed me. I heard Illmatic before it came out and went to a session where I saw Large Professor remake the “[It] Ain’t Hard To Tell” beat about 15 times. That was crazy. It was such powerful music that I knew I had to go even harder. Nas kept me on point.

Would getting Big L on Word…Life have been too early in your friendship? What did you learn from working with L?

O.C.: Yeah, we really got to know each other a lot better later on. When I made Jewelz, we toured Europe together. He wrote “Ebonics” while we were touring. I just remember being on the plane and every time I fell asleep L would wake me to run a line past me that he had literally just written. We’d been on the road for a month and I was tired as shit, but he just kept on creating. It was genius, and he was so enthusiastic about his craft. I tell people if he lived, he would be in Hov’s position right now; he was destined for that! I say that ’cause he knew how to evolve his image. I saw the “Devil’s Son” era transition into the “Flamboyant” era. L used to tell me he had all these different stylistic changes planned out for later in his career. I knew he was destined to become a superstar. He was a bad motherfucker, man. I’ve honestly never seen someone so dedicated to their craft, and I’ve met a lot of rappers.

Word…Life obviously found a big audience among hip hop purists, but wasn’t the commercial success that Illmatic was. Did that ever bother you?

O.C.: For years I beat myself up about not selling more. I felt like I knocked it out the park with Word… Life and it deserved to go Gold or Platinum. In my mind, I felt like I wasn’t being recognized properly. It was like, damn what the fuck have I got to do? But I’ve made peace with it now. Look, I am that boxer that nobody wants to spar with. Rappers know that I will embarrass them and that kind of respect is more important to me. If I talked that gangster shit back in the day and had just rapped like everybody else on the radio, then you wouldn’t be here interviewing me right now. I’m 48 and still performing shows in Europe, isn’t that beautiful? The music I made will outlive my body, and that’s because it tapped into something that was different.

Do you think there’s enough of that point of difference embedded in modern rap? And what do you make of the melodic trap sound that dominates right now?

O.C.: What rap scene? I don’t see much rapping happening in New York anymore. It’s more singing. I love Fred the Godson, Roc Marciano, Westside Gunn, man, I don’t even acknowledge Tekashi 6ix9ine, even though he grew up in Bushwick, too. But those guys don’t get enough support from the radio! The problem with New York rap is everyone wants to sound like everywhere but New York City. They want to follow the south too much. It’s why I like Griselda or Dave East, or fucking Joey Badass and the Flatbush Zombies; they’re not ashamed of where they come from. But rap is still such a new art form and I believe things will shift back around and the culture will change. I come from an era where not sounding like anyone else was the most important thing. To sound like another emcee was a crime punishable by death. I honestly hope we return to that… It would be great.

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