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An exclusive interview with Omar de Fati

07.16.08 | Emblog | In hip hop, detroit of

Listen to this witness of the early stages of Detroit hip hop!


A 10 questions interview with Omar de Fati.

I have the chance to be currently in touch with a man from Detroit, Omar de Fati, who has experienced the early stages of Detroit hip hop. Back in the days of the hip hop shop, Omar tells it like it actually is. He kindly accepted to respond to my interview questions. If you are curious to know more about Detroit history, Detroit rap, Eminem and other white Detroit emcees, 8 Mile and the contemporary local hip hop scene, Omar’s answers will give you more insight about what you always wanted to know about Detroit hip hop.

1.Omar, you live in Detroit. You have witnessed the early stages of hip hop on the local scene. Can you tell us a few words about yourself?

I grew up in Detroit, essentially all my life. I moved from Adrian, Mi, where I was adopted, to Detroit in 1970 at 11 months old. We moved to Fenkell Ave. & Ilene then. After two years living off Fenkell Ave. my family moved to 12th Street & Davidson Ave. From there I attended Glazer Elementary, Longfellow Middle, & Central High, schools. I was never a music lover before I heard rap music. I didn’t like funk, Motown, or the precursors to house & techno (Kraftwerk (sp), etc.) or anything (despite this, I played a relatively great sax). In or around 1983 I was introduced to rap music, but I had already been breakdancing for a year or longer. Although I’ve grown to love other types of music, including my second musical love–Heavy Metal, rap has consistently been my favorite.

2.How would you define Detroit’s local scene as it was in the 80’s and 90’s?

Most well-known local acts seemed more like knock-offs of more popular acts. I remember Kaos and Maestro reminded me of a Public Enemy Clone, Awesome Dre reminded me of a solo N.W.A clone with a little L.L. Cool J flavor, & I thought K-Stone was doing the same thing as EPMD & the other early New York ‘grimey’ acts. Don’t take this in a negative way. I mentioned this three acts, however, I liked (and still do) all of them. I’m sure Detroit wasn’t much unlike other cities outside of New York, with the exception of Florida cities & the West Coast who had their trendsetters in Two Live Crew & Ice T/N.W.A. Some other better known acts from that early era were Detroit’s Most Wanted, AWOL, Smiley (ala MC Lyte), Ameer the Merciless (Ala Special Ed/Rakim, Ameer was, in my opinion, the best of all the Detroit locals during that time. I believe to this day his song ‘A Day Without A Rhyme’ is a Hip Hop classic, overall. And I still listen to it several times a week. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to follow his career, or even to find out how or if it ended.) Oh, I remember Prince Vince and the Hip Hop Force too. *smiles* These are all late 80’s to early 90’s era groups. In the mid-90’s, so many different experimental styles began to develop in Detroit, it’s difficult to discuss in a written format. So I’m basically talking mid to late 80s here. In two main ways Detroit’s Hip Hop ’scene’ struggled for an identity in two ways: 1) What type of music represents Detroit; and, 2) How to get the music to listeners. Detroit was being influenced by every single style of rap between the late 80s & early 90s. During 1987, while in a juvenile camp I housed this guy’s ‘Criminal Minded’ cassette. Later, during the 90s, this same guy argues with me that Treach from Naughty by Nature is a better rapper than KRS–while wearing a Heavy D T-Shirt. This is of course anecdotal. The point is, Detroiters had no collective identity as a Hip Hop scene. Detroit’s Hip Hop scene also had no infrastructure. The one media that could have (and in my opinion tried) made the biggest difference was the dance show called ‘The Scene’. Then later, the spin-off dance show, appropriately named, ‘The New Dance Show’ often granted access to their audience to local artists. Unfortunately, ‘The New Dance Show’ primarily played dance mixes & national R&B. So to make this long story end shortly, I’d define Detroit’s scene during those years as a ‘perpetual infancy’. In the greater scheme of Hip Hop, Detroit is no longer an infant. I’d say it’s finally…a rowdy-ass young adult. The problem is, how do you define local? I remember thinking how cool it must be to be an underground artist in New York. To get mad love in New York, but not necessarily anywhere else. I think most artists would be happy with it, & so would I. Well, now there *are* artists like that from Detroit. There were also Nationally known artists from Detroit (setting aside the obvious Em reference since he was an aberration by both race & pure talent) who are essentially better known in other states than here.

3. Was it very different from the underground scene we know now in Detroit?

Absolutely. As different as an infant can be from eh… let’s say a young adult *smiles*. It was essentially a rarity to know someone who rapped & even more rare to know someone who rapped well. Nowadays, every hood has a few people who could rock a mic whenever. More of Detroit & Metro-Detroit is Hip Hop. Even our R&B tastes are being filtered through Hip Hop. Clubs playing various rap artists were once bumping ‘Boing Boom Tschack’. Before…you were a little bit different if you liked rap music. Now, if you don’t like rap music, you’re insane. If you don’t know Dice, Big Herk, or Detroit’s Most Wanted, you can’t say you’re a Detroit rap fan (loving Kid Rock, Esham, & Eminem isn’t enough). One looming difference is the world is watching Detroit from the corner of its eye…*expecting* something big. Before, Detroit was simply a place Luke Skywalker or Ice T could do a show & hang out with some real niggas.

4. Which artists have your full respect on the local scene and why?

First of all Big Herk. I respect him for several reasons. The biggest reason is I knew him personally when he started into Hip Hop. I didn’t know him well, but we were in middle school together & a little high school. We knew of each other, but I knew of him more…well, because he’s Big Herk & I’m just…well…me. He’s the only Detroit rapper I’ve known outside of the ‘rap scene’, & he has, in a manner of speaking ‘made it’ because he was doing something he love without any real example of success. So I’m happy for his success & because of the following reasons, I wish him even greater success. Big Herk is a good lyricist. I don’t mean someone who can just bang out a few bars, but he’ll say shit that’ll make you say damn… The way he rhymes forces me to create a visual sequence whose continuity is never upset by a break in his lyrical concept. Some rappers will get me picturing their words, then they flip the script & we’re somewhere else. But the mark of a lyrical architect is the continuity & fluid expression. Herk has that. And when I say fluid, I don’t mean soft, I mean he rhymes effortlessly–& still hard. Thirdly, but not lastly, Big Herk has in one way or another defined ‘how’ a genre of Detroit rappers would rap. And everyone needs to be shown. Hell, we needed to be shown how to rap at all, and especially which style to use. Big Herk’s mechanics & syntax weren’t new to me. I prided myself on being a good rapper, so I could appreciate the things he did in a bar. Still, Big Herk’s greatest accomplishment & contribution to Detroit’s scene, in my opinion, is content. He showed a genre of Detroit rappers ‘what’ to rap about. And I’m prepared to argue this point whenever. ’nuff said. Currently, I’m feeling Dan Sykes from Nu-Tez. I’m working on nearly all expectations here, but I think this kid is something special. I haven’t quite given it time for me to determine exactly why I like him, it’s more or less a gut feeling here. So aside from Eminem, these two are both number ones & all others are number two or lower. *smiles* I just want to point out I have a healthy respect for anyone, especially Detroit artists, who ply their trade & work their craft. There are too many to list so I picked two I thought would make great reading. Ironically, the only reason I mention this last point is because I respect so many Detroit artists. note: I typically give love to any group or artist who takes the time to rep Detroit directly in a song. I love that! And because of it, I have to add: I-mac for their song ‘Rep The D’. I love this song & it’s a classic among ‘repping the D’ songs.

5. Do you think that Eminem has influenced hip hop history and that he has influenced the local scene in some way?

Yes I do. I believe Eminem’s role in general Hip Hop is still underestimated. His influence on local rap, across the nation, cannot be measured. Even though Eminem was following a beaten path, his success convinced a wide range of people to try that path. And I’m just talking professionally here. Stylistically…he can be heard in any number of rappers’ styles. I don’t know if it’s because he’s used so much of good Hip Hop in his own style, or rappers use him in theirs. Think about it…exactly who came up with the idea to say ‘Fuck You!’? Was it him or Hip Hop? The best thing I can say here (and save time too) is Em’s grandest influence has been on Hip Hop in general. I don’t think he’s changed up the local scene rappers so much because local acts are anchored into themselves; the way good artists should be. That’s kinda of the draw about their diversity. His success has facilitated needed attention that’ll later result in a healthier Hip Hop infrastructure here in Detroit.

6. According to you, does 8 Mile reflect the reality of Detroit in the 90’s? Backstab is talking about an exaggeration and some untrue facts. What is your point?

Like all movies, I have to say it doesn’t reflect the ‘reality’ of Detroit, per se, as I’ve witnessed it. But…it’s not so far off that you’ll have to call the movie bullshit. Plus, nobody knows how Em witnessed his life, so I wouldn’t speak on whether it was accurate according to Em. I can say this…the movie was a close enough semblance that if I take you back in time you won’t be surprised by the difference. It’s not apples and oranges being compared. As far as the racial divide goes, I’d say the movie is pretty accurate. Sure it was tough for white rappers, but it’s tough today too. It’s tough for girl rappers. If you’re not a street hardened black male, being a rapper seems quite a long shot. HOWEVER, there were quite a few white rappers getting props at the Rhythm Kitchen (the make shift ‘club’ represented in the movie as Chin Tiki). I remember a white female rapper holding it down on open mic. The ‘race’ thing was like everything else…some people made it a point about your race, some didn’t. In my experience, the crowds at the Kitchen were more Hip Hoppers & thugs having a good time. Nobody was into ‘killing the white boy’. The ‘look’ of Detroit protrayed in the movie is typical of some lower income areas in Detroit, but not indicative of Detroit’s condition overall. The few scenes of Mack Ave….well…let’s just say the producers picked an Ave. long known for being trashy looking. Sure there are some blurred facts in the movie, but it’s a movie, not a documentary. I don’t remember any non-facts being more non-factual than those in ‘Beatstreet’ or ‘Menace to Society’. 8 Mile was a great movie, a classic soundtrack, & is an example of Em riding ‘this’ Hip Hop thing until the wheels fall off. And I don’t mind him doing it. I’d be willing to argue any blantant misreprentations in the movie–for instance, wouldn’t it be blantant if *no* white person ever blessed a mic in Detroit, but in the movie they did? Of course, whites blessed the mics back then & still do today.

7. Many people seem to ignore it, but racial tensions are part of the Detroit history. How difficult was it for a white emcee to get some recognition from the local scene in the 90’s?

With reference to what I’ve said above, I don’t think it was hard for white rappers. I think it was hard for rappers period, & more hard for rappers who sucked. And let’s be honest, a larger percentage of white rappers back then sucked. They just weren’t plugged into the ‘Urban’ of it all. Nowadays, Hip Hop has taken the ‘Urban’ from the inner-city & dropped it off at the Suburban’s door. As a result, white boys (and girls) are showing their asses on the mic like pros & their skill. Like it should be.

8. According to you, what makes the Detroit hip hop scene so particular and why is Detroit city so inspirational to many artists from different backgrounds?

In some circles, Detroit has always caught flack for being an adopter of fashion & culture. And it’s true. Detroit’s trends typically come from other areas of the nation–East Coast, Southern Mid-West, Southern states, West Coast, even Chi-town. Detroit’s proximity to these areas account for this peculiar culture. Detroit is probably the best one-city example of general Hip Hop. To drive home this opinion, just yesterday, a Romanian guy I’ve known called me to ask for his Romanian rap CD back. Then he asked if I wanted to attend a Romanian rap show in Hamtramck (a small city inside Detroit) this month. Detroit literally has it all. We will never be known for “a” sound or style. Detroit’s rap scene *is* Hip Hop Jr. This is why I also think Detroit will continue to inspire people from different backgrounds in Hip Hop. When someone can understand how Hip Hop in general inspires someone *living* the culture, they’ll understand the role Detroit plays for a diverse audience & artists–just on a smaller, defined scale.

9. According to you, what are the qualities necessary to make a good emcee?

In short…don’t suck. More seriously, it’s all in the environment’s context. If you’re on stage I expect different qualities for you to be good. And again different ones in a studio, in a freestyle cipher, on a mic at a party, etc. I could list 100 things for each context & still not be half there. If I must say something about what makes a good emcee, but write less than 100 words for each context, but more than just ‘don’t suck’, I’ll say *be* an artist. Maybe rapping isn’t the *art* for you, but punk rock is. Rappers who use rap to express themselves artistically are typically good emcees. As an appreciator of good rap, I’ll find something about a rapper who is expressing themselves artistically. This doesn’t mean every artist in another genre of music should grab a mic & try to hold it down. Rap must also *be* the art for you. Some people who look cool in a sports car look stupid in a pickup. Some people who are otherwise good artists look stupid trying to rap. Now, if you mean ‘emcee’ as in *only* on stage ‘emcee’–well, the only good one is KRS. *smiles* All others are number two or lower.

10. If you could choose to promote an artist or local group from Detroit right now and make him or them famous, who would it be?

Right this minute? I’d pick Nu-Tez or I-Mac. — Omar de Fati

Copyright© by Isabelle Esling
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» Food for your soul: vibe with Detroit soul singer Q Harper