There Are So Many of Us

A Decade of Oldominion

There Are So Many of Us

Illustration by Barfly

Local hiphop supercrew Oldominion (they boast 30-plus members) came into shape in 1999. This was an important year for hiphop. It marked the end of a transition that began in 1997 with the release of Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus—this transition involved two points, the mainstream and the underground, and the movement of hiphop innovation from the former to the latter. By 1999, the separation between commercial and independent hiphop was complete. Rappers around the country became something like ronins in feudal Japan—masterless samurai. Corporate record labels wanted nothing to do with battle skills and the cult of DMC. It was now not about how well you spit but how many times you have been hit by bullets. Oldominion emerged at this dark, label-less time. Ronins from every corner of the United States, they somehow ended up in the Northwest, somehow settled in Seattle and Portland, somehow established a common mood and program.

"You know it's really weird, because in Oldominion three people are originally from Portland, two from Seattle, and the rest are from everywhere else," says Onry Ozzborn, one of the original members of the collective. "Bishop is from Philadelphia, Anaxagorus is from Atlanta, JFK is from Virginia, Azrael is from New York, Syndel is from Kelso, and Toni Hill is from Georgia."

Not only did they come from everywhere, but they seemed to come to the Pacific Northwest with no real intention to stay. The Northwest was not at the time a hot hiphop destination, a region that label-less rappers and producers marked as a place to go and make a name. "You know, Barfly, he is [in Seattle] because of Smoke. They became friends over the internet, back in '99. And Smoke invited him to come up for a visit. Barfly did. He hung around for a couple weeks and never went back. And it's crazy, because that's exactly what happened to me. I was playing college baseball in Arizona and took a break, came up to hang out with Sleep, 'cause me and Sleep grew up in New Mexico. I paid him a visit for two weeks and never went back. I quit college and everything, and focused on music. I had been writing rhymes since 1988, and I decided this is what I wanted to do in Seattle," Onry continues.

After settling in this city, Onry formed Oracle's Creed with Sleep, a rapper, and Pale Soul, a producer/rapper. In 1997, Oracle's Creed connected with a Portland-based crew called the FrontLine—Destro, NyQwil, and Snafu. That connection led to the formation of the Six, which eventually expanded into Concentration Camp. In 1998, Rochester A.P., a member of Concentration Camp, came up with the idea of calling the ever-growing collective Oldominion. "We just wanted a different name," explains Onry. "I mean, Concentration Camp was a clever play on words, but it did not capture the spiritual aspect of the music. We were MCs who would talk about and express feelings that you weren't supposed to in rap—spiritual things. And Oldominion meant the way the spirit or spiritual played a bigger role in the daily life of ancient times."

Two years after establishing their permanent name in 1999, Oldominion released One, a masterpiece of underground hiphop. The record is to local hiphop what Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was to the national hiphop of its moment. What matches Oldominion's debut to Wu's is that both plug many rappers into an alternate world where they are unified by a consistent sound and themes. One is like a collective hallucination by various rappers (male and female, of every color and background). Syndel opens the album in total isolation. The sound is dark; its beat is heatless, stark, and widely spaced. There is almost no ornamentation, no melodies or sweetness. It is a rapper (with a hurt in her voice that recalls Roxanne Shante) and a beat—a voice in a room with no windows and air that is dusty and barely digital. Her life is the only one in that dead space. But track after track, more rappers appear and vanish. Some are worried about the state of their soul, others are angry about the state of the world, others have very bad things on their minds. And the music is the point where gothic cinema meets Northwest noir—serial killers, suicides, sunless days. Weirdly enough, One was recorded in sunny New Mexico, Sleep and Onry's former state. It is a Northwest album made in exile.

"Since we are from the rainy part of the world, the beats on [One] kind of came out dark," states Pale Soul. "It wasn't even an intentional drive, like, 'We are going to be dark; we are going to sound this way.' It was what we gravitated to in the process of producing our sound." That sound has dominated a series of projects produced this decade by the members of Oldominion. It's there on Onry's three solo albums (Alone, The Grey Area, In Between); and his first album with JFK and Rob Castro, Grayskul's Deadlivers; and also his collaboration with Barfly, Norman's Polarity. It's found on tracks by Siren's Echo (Sydel and Toni Hill), instrumentals by Mr. Hill, and two solo records by Sleep.

Though the collective developed the dark, gothic aesthetic, the members of Oldominion are not confined by it. For example, Barfly's work with the Saturday Knights sounds nothing like One or Deadlivers. And the same is true with Boom Bap Project, which has Oldominion's Destro as a principal member.

"There are so many of us, there are so many of us," warn the rappers on Oldominion's brilliant throwdown "Secret Wars" off of Deadlivers. One gets the sense that the exact number of MCs and producers in this collective is unknown. Stranger still, it has been suggested that some rappers and producers think they are not a part of the crew when in fact they are. "You know Nite Owls is Hill and me," says Barfly, "but we had added Larry [Mizell Jr., a writer for this paper] shortly after we formed. But we tease Larry, because he thinks he's not a member of Oldominion. But a part of a rapper's probationary period is denying they are a part of Oldominion. You go through a year of acting like you're not, and then you give in and you become one of us." recommended

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Comments (22) RSS

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Bless you, Charles. This is fantastic. Thanks for filling us in on the Oldominion mystery, which eludes many hip-hop neos and leaves masterpieces for them to find in the Seattle underground. Bravo!
Posted by Chris Estey on January 28, 2009 at 5:06 PM · Report this
who gives a shit about fucking hip-hop?

it fucking sucks, so does rap. it's fucking embarrassing when people like it. come on, we've been pretending for decades it's legitimate music.
only morons actually like it, like country and metal. music for stupid people.
Posted by harold on January 29, 2009 at 8:09 AM · Report this
Oldominion is the reason I first listened to Seattle hip hop, and it's one of the biggest reasons I continue. #1 hip hop crew in the NW, hands down.
Posted by Maude on January 29, 2009 at 9:37 AM · Report this
Way to go Charles! Very well put together interview and article. You're now a member of Oldominion too!!

One Love KING!!
-Pale Soul
Posted by Pale Soul on January 29, 2009 at 9:44 AM · Report this
harold, i have argued that it is precisely hiphop's illegitimacy that makes it great. i have gone far as to say it may not even be music, or what we define as music. the pleasures of hiphop are not musical pleasures.
Posted by mudede on January 29, 2009 at 9:48 AM · Report this
sounds like you should go back to Bainbridge Island and your chamber music collection, you closed-minded fucknozzle.
Posted by Dirtytime on January 29, 2009 at 10:08 AM · Report this
not you, Mudede. that was meant for harold.
Posted by Dirtytime on January 29, 2009 at 10:09 AM · Report this
Keep hating hater! That's exactly what keeps Hip Hop a perpetual force! Ya fucknozzle! You can Hate, and hate some more, and then really hate us, but in the end, You only hate yourself! And don't use any theoretical College jargen on me either, you only make yourself look like an idiot. Instead of spreading hate, why don't you just let a good thing be a good thing. Or do you need to feed off of peoples sorrow to make yourself feel better? At any rate, I encourage you to continue your crusade of Rap bashing, cuz for the most part, I agree, but as for a cat just tryna do his thing and make his way in the world, More power to ya, and God bless your life!

-Pale Soul
Posted by Pale Soul on January 29, 2009 at 12:10 PM · Report this
I think that it is very close- minded to say that underground hiphop is not music. There are two main kinds of hiphop, the kind you hear on the radio, then the kind that has huge amount of poetry and meaning behind it. I love all kinds of music. Music is art and for someone to say that it is not is an idiot.
Posted by Digital Starflower on January 29, 2009 at 12:30 PM · Report this
Oldominions music is art in it's finest form. Thank you for this article.
Posted by Digital Starflower on January 29, 2009 at 12:36 PM · Report this
digital flower, i love hiphop but i really want to rethink its practices and programs. one way of doing that is to break with our ordinary understanding of music production and think about hiphop as more about information. information theory might explain hiphop better than music theory.
Posted by mudede on January 29, 2009 at 3:48 PM · Report this
i gotta say king and they deserve all the respect they have earned through the years.they are a big influence on my life as a person.they might not know it but i have been following them since "ONE" and everything else.i have been lucky enough to have met and became friends with most of the members.when i was down on my luck sleep offered me a spot on his couch.i soaked it up being around all these guys i looked up to while i was doin my own music.i learned so much from being around them.they showed how to be humble myself,stage presence,even the little things like counting bars.since then i have gone on tour and never looked back ended up in PHX AZ.anyways if any of you "OWLS" is reading this i just wanna say thank you for changing my life and showing me the right way to do things.big up to oldominion..ten years it really seems like yesterday.
Posted by runamuk on January 29, 2009 at 5:27 PM · Report this
Harold is a troll! uh… duh. example: if I were to say "Jesus hates hip hop"
Posted by Pinkyfingerin on January 29, 2009 at 6:49 PM · Report this
Remember when Bishop's homophobic ass tossed boom bap's salad?
Posted by whoo hah on January 30, 2009 at 8:49 AM · Report this
I'm sure whatever music harold listens to is bursting with intellect.
Posted by Todd on January 30, 2009 at 12:03 PM · Report this
All I know is that I love their music. They represent for the northwest with original style. I can listen to their cd's over and over. Everyone just needs to fuckin' realize that's real music not the bullshit on the radio.
Posted by whitney on January 30, 2009 at 12:25 PM · Report this
Does any one reading this have a copy of "One"? Mine was destroyed back in '02 and i have been crusading to get a new one since. Please Help!
Posted by Kelteasy206 on January 31, 2009 at 6:49 PM · Report this
Nice show last night guys! I wish I could have stayed later but this job gets me up at 4am on a Sunday, promptly killing all late night festivities. It was really good to see everyone together on stage again. 10 years of heaven and hell through verse- keep it coming strong past 2010 and beyond!
Posted by Lisa on February 1, 2009 at 6:56 AM · Report this
what!!?? no shootings??
Posted by boomboom on February 1, 2009 at 10:23 AM · Report this

Posted by BRANDON COTREL on February 2, 2009 at 12:10 PM · Report this

Posted by cory aka FREAK on February 2, 2009 at 12:12 PM · Report this
Ol dominion......superceding the boundries of music since 1999.
Posted by tremor (Oldominion) on February 12, 2009 at 10:58 AM · Report this

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