Omar On Life, Love and Being "The Man"

Omar On Life, Love and Being "The Man"
Photo: Tom Dunkley
Now 25 years into his career, Omar Lye-Fook has cultivated a career as a pioneer of UK soul. In retrospect, his single "There Nothing Like This" presaged the "acid jazz" and "neo-soul" movements of the '90s. As a testament to his career, he's outlasted these tags to continue to deliver his own inimitable brand of soul music. Liberally drawing from jazz, Latin, reggae and classical arrangements as well as newer sonic innovations such as house and hip-hop, his unique style has inspired artists like Erykah Badu (who appeared on his 2000 album Best By Far and Common (who featured Omar on his experimental release Electric Circus). Additionally, Omar has worked with legendary songwriters and producers such as Lamont Dozier and Leon Ware, as well as Stevie Wonder, who wrote a song for Omar's last album, 2006's Sing (If You Want It). While he has periodically re-emerged to deliver jaw-dropping singles like "It's So" and Zed Bias collaboration "Dancing," as well as to pick up an MBE for his services to music, Omar's new album The Man marks his official return. Exclaim! caught up with the UK soul legend to reflect on his creative process and career.

In the video for "The Man," it highlights that you have become a family man. What has been the evolution over the past seven years and how is it reflected in the music?
[The song "The Man"] is about the evolution of me as a person, but on the outset I wasn't trying to achieve that. I was just starting a groove and getting the bass line going y'know, and I put all the other stuff on top. And when I put the lyrics to the melody I just kind of thought of it. I never have a concept, I just write words that kind of fit the melody and that's the first thing that came into my head, about things I've done when I was bad and so damn wild and [what I did] in order to change it.
It just seemed to fit when we saw the concept for the video that the director was like "Oh yeah, you should shoot it in Brighton" and I was like "If I shoot it in Brighton maybe I can get my my missus and my girls involved," because I've actually written a song about my family called "Ordinary Day" — that's the last song on the album. That was for them. I didn't write ["The Man"] for them; I just kinda wrote the song and added them to the video. But then when I saw everything together it just made complete sense, y'know, and it is about me evolving as a person, as a musician. This is the next stop, the next step in my musical life basically. This is the seventh album and every time I try and evolve and every time I try and break out the skin and try something different while still being me.

"There's Nothing Like This, is on the album too. And it's been 22 years...
Twenty-three. I wrote that when I was three.

What would be the motivation for re-recording "There's Nothing Like This" for this album at this point?
Originally I wanted to do a 20th anniversary of the song 'cos it's obviously the most well-known song that I've done. And I kind of wanted to re-do it, but as I am now, because I was quite young when I did it and it's quite a simple way that I did it before. So I just wanted to re-do it for the sake of doing it. But I wasn't sure and I tried it in so many different ways… but I just wasn't happy with it. Then one night it just came to me in an epiphany really that I had to change the beat into a Marvin [Gaye] / Donny Hathaway type groove and then change the chords, kinda going up a semitone and down a semitone. It was so simple, it just made complete sense. And then [acclaimed bassist] Pino Palladino called me up and said "Oh man, let's do some writing together." We worked on a previous album. And when I got the vibe to do the new groove, he's supposed to be coming the next day and I'm like "Pino's coming tomorrow, I want to work on this new tune." And then I said "Hold up, like, Pino's coming tomorrow! Who better to play bass and guitar on that track than Mr. Palladino himself?" And he came round and just blessed it and took it to other spaces, y'know what I mean? And that just inspired me to write the string section parts and then add the brass, y'know, just took it other places and I'm just really happy with the new version now.

You've always incorporated a number of different types of music into your style, but I don't think you've incorporated Afrobeat before as you did on "Bully."
"Bully," oh, you're saying that's Afrobeat? I wouldn't have said that. Like "It's So," I was coming from Fela Kuti and I would say "It's So" was Afrobeat more than "Bully." I think "Bully" is more reggae than that you know what I mean? But it's all down to interpretation. You know, like I said when I did "It's So," it got big with the funky house crew, which is a completely different type of sound, y'know what I mean? It went down in a big way with that crowd and that wasn't my intention. I was just coming up with grooves, y'know. "Bully" was… I have no idea where that came from either, it was just the bass line and I added the beat to it and add the drums on that. Things just kinda evolve by themselves you start with one thing, it mushrooms and it just turns into something other. I'm just trying to be there to capture the vibe.

Maybe my confusion from what type of music you're doing stems from the fact you meld them pretty well. You've got R&B, you've got jazz, you've got soul, you've got Latin. You've definitely incorporated strings a lot more over the years as well and classical arrangements and like you said the kind of funky house tracks as well. How do you feel you can do justice to each of these different areas that you touch on?
All those genres are all linked by Africa for a start. Jazz, funk, soul, reggae, Latin. Classical, even. These are all linked. And it's only like a step away, like a half step away from each genre. So to mix them isn't that hard, it's not that difficult. You just put a bit more emphasis on certain beats or certain chords or certain rhythms and arrangements and stuff. I don't know, I just seem to have a certain way to mix all those things. And I really enjoy what I do still. There's a fire in my belly to make something a bit different. Nothing too wildly different so that people can't quite get the concepts. But something that's different enough that I will stand out from the crowd. Because that was always my thing, always my way, is to give you an option you would never have thought of or even attempted and to do it in a way that's gonna capture people's attention.

I think we do kind of know that these genres are linked, but very few musicians have managed to do this as well as you have.
Well I'm blessed to make the effort to try. And I've been doing it for such a long time now that I should be able to do it, y'know [laughs].

So do you consider it a challenge? When you hear new sounds, you've been around so you've seen things like when drum & bass first dropped, when funky house came out, when garage came. When these sounds emerge are you kind of checking "How can I take from this?"
I see what your saying. With jungle — and I stress calling it jungle, cos drum & bass was when it left, when it went to a place where I didn't follow it. But jungle, when it first came out, was exactly the kind of rhythms that I love to hear and how they used to twist up the "Amen" break beat — the way they used to cut that up. It kind of took me back to playing percussion in an orchestra. It's a really kind of the crazy thing that the samba schools in Brazil and stuff like that; it's just hearing the connection.
I'll give you an example: there's a Bulgarian folk singing group Des Voix Bulgares. It's just all women and I've got an album of theirs and there are a couple of songs on there, but if you listen to this song and it must have been sometime in the 15th century , but if you listen to this song it sounds very similar to a lot of jungle grooves out there, so there's so many things that connect and you can put elements of that into the music. I just take little snippets of that and use it in my thing as well. I mean I've made a couple of jungle tunes as well — I haven't really released them or done anything with them cos I leave it to the professionals — but I will still take that influence. I've been to a jungle club and danced from 10 till 6 in the morning and it's that same kind of energy I want to get when someone listens to my music or when I'm playing my music live out or getting it. That's the same kind of vibe just trying to recreate you know.

Some people may have thought the tracks you recently did with Zed Bias might have been the direction you would go with on the album, but it sounds more organic.
Doing the Zed thing was a moment in time when I heard it, cos basically someone put me on to him and said he's got some wicked tunes and stuff and you ought to check it out. When I heard the backing [track] for "Dancing," I just got a vibe for it and I could see exactly how it fit what I did. The same thing with "Special," the other track that we did. But that was a moment in time; the thing is me producing myself. I'm a megalomaniac in that sense — I need to be in control. I pick who I'm working with and writing with and stuff like that. But if I can hear something that I think I get a vibe from I'm gonna go on it as well because I think my voice suits a lot of genres as well. I can do the Latin thing and the dance thing and I hadn't really done the dance thing before. But doing it in the way that Zed put the rhythms together, it just made sense. But with this album I needed to stay true to myself and stay true to the kind of thing for what I'm known for doing.

You obviously take a lot of time working on your music but I find that when it's ready, you seem to handle your business in a different way than a lot of other artists: each project seems to be on a different independent label, they could be in France, they could be anywhere and you don't deal with majors too much.
Not any more.

What are the ingredients that need to be in place for you on the business end? It seems like you know how to read contracts.
No, I would hate to give you the wrong impression that I know how to read contracts [laughs]. I just know people who know how to read contracts and give me the bare bones of it all. The independent angle is purely a self-preservation thing and like you said, I control my art. I control the output. You get a lot less stress from an independent than you would from a major, in terms of what you need to sell; they're very sensitive to the marketplace.
The only setback that I've had in the past is that I picked the wrong independent. You thought it was going to work out and you knew what was going on and then your stuck in the situation and you've got to wait out the contract and then move on. And then another situation when you sign with an independent and then they went bust the week before the release of the album. So then you're stuck in that situation. This situation here now, seems to be the best one. It's kinda like going back to the days of my dad. When I first released stuff, it was with my father's independent label called Kongo Dance. It's great because we have a team of people working the record, which is how we had it back in the day. For Sing (If You Want It), Paul Lucia, my manager, was my record company and my manager and it was like 15 people's jobs in one so it's quite a relief to have a number of people working this album.

Yeah that album I believe was only available on import in Canada. But I think the people who are interested still find your music.
Well, that's the beauty of the internet. It such a direct way to keep tabs on the artists that you like to check out, and the funny thing is, Sing (If You Want It) was 2006. There was no Facebook, or Twitter then. It's crazy how everything has changed. Now people can directly ask me "When is this coming out? Can we get this on vinyl? When's the next gig?" That's a fantastic position to be in because the majors used to be in charge of all that bullshit, the TV, the radio. There was no exposure, no internet, so you had to go to the radio station to be on their playlist and they had the keys to the city basically. It's just fantastic now. In terms of young people now trying to expose their music, they're in this beautiful position of being themselves and not have any control of their output. Obviously there's some bullshit out there, but there's some really great stuff. But people are being more controlled by their heart than what's going on in the charts now: "We've gotta sound like this, or we've got to sound like that." They're making music that they're feeling.

It's funny you say that about Twitter. I think people may have had the impression, because you take a lot of time between projects, that you might be reclusive and be a bit hard to get a hold of.
Exactly. I'm a down-to-earth guy. You want to ask me something and I'm about, then I'm gonna answer you. I am essentially an underground artist, so the love of the people spurs me on. You know, anywhere I step off the plane, I get somebody coming up to me telling me they love what I'm doing and keep doing what I'm doing. Just that one little boost brushes my ego enough I'll keep doing what I love to do because I know someone out there loves music.

Someone who noticed were the people who are involved with giving out MBEs. How did that feel and how surprising was it that this came up for you?
Yeah, it was a shock to be nominated. And then you put that to the side because I never get nominated for any major accolade really. So then when I got the letter that the Prime Minister is asking you to be accepting of this award, I'm like "wow." It's kind of mind-blowing. It's great for my family. My parents and my missus and my kids. Just to get that recognition from a high office is really cool, I think. It's kind of a justification of what I've been doing up until now. Yeah, it's great. And I joined other people like [Soul II Soul's] Jazzie B and [pioneering sound system DJ] Norman Jay. Those guys are part of the same order as well. I'm a member and Jazzie is an officer, so when I see him I salute him 'cos he outranks me.

All of you guys were very influential and in the same circles and I noticed you have other people on the album like [bassist] Stuart Zender, who was in Jamiroquai and would have been influenced by your early stuff or been in the same scene.
We're good friends. We've been hanging out for years. I haven't seen him for the past few years as he's hanging out in Ibiza now, but he's playing on "Ordinary Day," the last track on the album. It's funny, I haven't seen him in years but he's playing on the track, I think he played on it like two or three years ago. Due to the beauty of the internet, I just sent him the thing and he sent it back with the bass line on top.

The MBE was something that happened in the past few years, but I also noticed you had been developing an acting career as well and that you had a one-man show. How did that come about?
Well, you know I did it in school. And then when my twins were born. I just kinda thought, I need another money avenue stream, so why don't I try the acting thing? I didn't do too badly at it before. I mean it's a tough game, trust me . It's hard out there. And especially me starting at the age I'm starting, the look I have as well, the jobs are few and far between. Luckily I've just been signed up by United Agents, which is quite a big agency over here, so hopefully things will go from strength to strength but yeah I was blessed to be in a musical called Been So Long at the Old Vic and we toured with that. I had this one-man play written for me by the same playwright and director, Che Walker, who is a fan of my music and we started writing. Someone told him you should write [Omar] a one-man play and while we were on tour doing this other musical, he was writing away and he said "Check your inbox" when we got back and it was a 19-page monologue. "How the fuck I'm going to do this? I mean the part I had before I was a bartender and I'm there polishing glasses listening to people's problems, maybe I say a couple of lines. I'd never done a 50-minute monologue. But we just developed it, worked it. He started out with one of my songs, "Little Boy" [from For Pleasure] and the scenes mushroomed from there and he'd add a song here and add a song there. So there's like seven or eight songs in the whole piece. But yeah, it sold out three nights at the Bush Theatre, a night at the Brighton dome, just the other day, so it's got legs on the piece. I seem to have a little niche thing going on there, but I'm trying to break out into the TV, the film part of it as well so watch this space.

Yeah, I think the only time we heard you on a TV show was on [comedian Lenny Henry's BBC comedy] Chef.
Yeah, that was just the theme tune; he wouldn't give me a part. That's what I was looking for.

Have you ever considered releasing some of the stuff that you've worked on that never made your albums?
Yeah, I don't make a lot of things and then not use them. I kinda start things and then not finish them. If it's not finished I'm not gonna use them. But there is a lot of stuff. I mean I've been checking stuff I've done on cassettes before I've thought it might be interesting for some people to hear how some songs started originally. And stuff like that. You never know. I'm always going through old DATs. My DAT machine is broken, remember when DATs used to be the new thing? There's a whole bunch of stuff. There's a song that Stevie [Wonder] wrote for me that he wrote before "Feeling You" [from Sing (If You Want It)] but we started with this one. I've got to find that one. I totally forgot about that one. This guy has written me two songs. We could do something with that. So yeah, watch this space.

Does it surprise you the amount of respect you've gotten from your fellow artists?
Yeah, when I hear it, I kinda don't believe it. At the same time I mean I'm kinda like "Did they really say that?" But to work with Stevie Wonder, man. That's just like every cat's dream. That's just a mind-blowing thing. But then I checked how many times I've met the dude throughout the years. I met him when I was like 18, and then 20, and then 22. Through the years we kept bumping into each other, so it was nothing. And yeah, I met Leon Ware before he knew my music and before I really knew his music. We were just two dudes hanging out. It was a fun thing, meeting up with people like that. I hear people on their tour bus they've got my album and they start passing the album around so that's how the word gets around basically. I just feel blessed in a way. There's a lot of people trying to make it and for me to be still making music and for people to still be checking me out is a blessing and I give thanks every day.

The music industry has definitely changed a whole lot since you started.
It's hard man, it's hard. It's not easy and that's for people starting out. I'm blessed that I can pay the bills, feed the kids, put some clothes on them. That's the kind of basic thing that I need to do with the music. I'm really blessed that I can go in my studio and create vibes and not worry about trying to keep with the marketplace because that's not what it should be about. It's my art form, y'know. Art is about expression so that's what I should be able to do.

You do a lot of live shows even though you take long breaks in between records...
Man, I do anything. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, whatever you want. It's serious, y'know. When I started out I was trying to be this serious musician and saying I'm doing gigs with a ten-piece band and a five-piece brass section and percussion and seven singers and that's the only way to do it. You know how much that costs? You know how much you have to pay those people? I was thinking about Boyz II Men, and they had this huge entourage when they're out on tour. I mean that's fine when it's "End of the Road," but when you are doing it a few years later, you can't maintain that thing. You gotta regroup and recalculate if these people are gonna get paid. There's some glitz and glamour but I understand to be in a nice intimate space with a bunch of people and we're grooving that's what it should be about.

On this record it sounds like you kept everything close to home. Pino is a close personal friend, your brother [Scratch Professor] is on this album, Caron Wheeler I assume is a contemporary. Was that the overall vibe on this record?
I kinda have a core number of musicians that I work with and it's one of those things. It was great having those artists, Stevie [Wonder], Angie [Stone], Common and people like that working on your album. But it is a logistical nightmare in terms of the administration, in terms of management and their record labels and all those other things, so I didn't want that headache this time around. I just said, you know what, I'm gonna keep it in-house, I'm gonna produce everything, but I just want to keep everything close to home, Use all the same core musicians I've used on stuff in the past, same engineer that I've used since I was 16, Roy Merchant and have it come out of my studio Back-a-yard. It seems to be to have been the right choice. This album I think for me is the best stuff I've done so far. I'm very pleased with my back catalogue so far and this stuff is no exception.