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."