Gangrene rapper/producer Oh No was given an opportunity that would make any blaxploitation fan foam at the mouth. He was allowed extensive access to the entire vinyl catalog of Rudy Ray Moore, the comedian who created the slick pimp character, Dolemite, in the late 60s.
This obviously provided an exciting yet formidable challenge: he had a pandora’s box of late-nite comedy, sweat-laden funk and back-breaking soul that had previously been stowed away from years of eager hip hop production work. The collection could greatly endow him with musical capabilities, but also needed to be respected.
Ohnomite, the direct result of that challenge, is for the most part standard hip hop, featuring the psychedelic, grime-tinged production and East Coast-style lyricism from an embarrassment of features that one would expect from a proper Gangrene project. The major caveat, however, which hinders this album’s true potential and originality, sadly amounts to an inherent lack of Dolemite.
Now don’t be fooled; the large swath of musical and vocal samples, used for the project do come from that hollowed collection of vinyls that Oh No luckily fingered through for months. Oh No’s beatmaking has distant relation to Funcrusher Plus-era El-P and MF Doom, the sort of production that feels aided more by psychotropic stimulants and frenzied comic book binges more than talent, although he clearly has that. His jumpoff from those influence, his phenomenal ability to incorporate discordant tones like blaring horns and soothing tones like echoed pianos, makes the album at least sonically stellar.
If you only listen to one song on this album, pick “Sound Off” based on the production alone: The organ ripples out as funky guitar jumps in tandem with the marching snare hits, while a marching coordinator grunts “Once again” as the track swells and horns emphatically fill an unknown void in the chorus. Oh No’s trained ear can flip a sample in such a profound way, and place it in the right spot and at the right time for the track to wholly benefit from it. Along with “Sound Off,” the beat on “Time” wins points for originality solely due to the singer’s frantic, overbearing wails and the backup singers just shouting “time!” out of tempo and out of unison. And regarding the neat interludes he dollops between the album’s songs, “Ohnomite Jazz” deserves the most praise for corralling samples into a minute from the world’s best jam session.
And yes, the rhymes are decent. Having the chance to hear Phife Dawg spit a rough but energetic sixteen was more than enough to get me on board, but the ride up to that point never felt half-baked or shoved in. In fact, the best track started it off: “Real Serious” features the Gangrene dream team (Oh No, Evidence, Alchemist) weaving idiosyncratic goodness over a subdued beat.
Yet Ohnomite‘s rhymes have nothing to do with Dolemite, which leaves a deceiving aftertaste. Oh No and the guest rappers he collaborates with have a true grasp of visual imagery: “time is on my side/like I got an Aztec sundial tatted on my ribcage.” This sort of hyperbolic wordplay helps their rhymes cut through the dense beats and also allows each rapper to grab the listener’s attention with the short time they have. Even MF Doom, who has a hard, sloppy delivery but can get pretty rote and bare on the rhymes, manages to spin a decent tale on “3 Dollars.” Their lyrical abilites never connect to Dolemite though; its just the usual case of a producer finding an interesting soundbyte to interpolate into a beat and the MCs running with it. Sure, he does transition quite well into the obligatory nasty song “Touch It” from a comedianne’s rant on sexuality, but quite frankly, without a cohesive theme, its another perfunctory bump-n-grind track the world doesn’t need.
If Oh No can craft intricate, layered spaces of noise for dudes to rhyme over, he could find some way to further celebrate or even relate to the great library of jokes and unknown rarities that Rudy Ray Moore/Dolemite apparently had locked away. It would have been a fantastic opportunity for Oh No to teach whippersnappers like me about the hard-working hustler of the past, and how they worked tirelessly to entertain and wow folks in the midst of institutionalized racism. Or dang, at least throw in some of his jokes in the middle of a song! That would’ve been enough to truly prove that Dolemite, not Oh No, was the focal point of the album’s entire existence.
That being said, the album as it stands is a good album. The marketing may have led me on a bit, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from listening.