What they say…
Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Wu Tang Clan)
There are precious few, if any contemporary UK artists whose creative credentials and influence extend as far and so consistently wide as Omar. Since first breaking through to worldwide renown all the way back in 1991 with his first releases on Gilles Peterson‘s seminal Talkin’ Loud label, and since going on to work with all manner of musical legends including a certain Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Syreeta Wright, Common and Carleen Anderson.
The musical history is renowned – the Lye-Fook family has musical talent embedded deep in its DNA. Omar’s father Byron worked as a studio musician and drummer for many years. Samia Lye-Fook (Omar’s sister) is a highly regarded vocalist in her own right, and a BRIT School alumni. Omar’s younger brother, the Grammy winning producer, remixer and DJ professionally known as Scratch Professor has been making jaws drop since, as a 13 year old, stunning the crowd at the 1988 DMC UK Finals with his turntablist skills – and of course – lets not forget their big brother… Omar.
Omar first came to prominence more than 3 decades ago, when his debut single for indie label Kongo Dance “Mr. Postman” / “You And Me” made him a hot name on London’s underground. It was soon afterwards that the success of his Ohio Players-influenced love ballad, the much celebrated “There’s Nothing Like This”, led to his signing to Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label. Omar released a couple of albums for the Phonogram affiliate during 1992/3, the first a re-working of his Kongo set for the wider audience, the second, “Music”, a vastly more orchestral and organic affair that highlighted Omar’s maturing as a composer, arranger and vocalist.
Thereafter Omar signed to RCA, for whom he cut two further albums that notched up acres of critical acclaim as well as introduced him to several of his musical heroes and heroines. On 1994’s “For Pleasure”, the set that includes such Omar signature songs as “Saturday”, “Outside” and the Erykah Badu favourite “Little Boy”, he worked alongside the legendary former Motown producers Leon Ware and Lamont Dozier. On ‘97’s “This Is Not A Love Song”, largely a collaboration with LA-based producer David Frank, he did a great cover of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” and got to sing with one of his all-time favorite vocalists, Syreeta Wright on two songs, including the sumptuous slowie “Lullaby”.
By 2000, Omar had moved on again, this time signing up with hip French imprint Naïve Records. The following year, now well established as the leading icon of the UK’s resurgent soul movement, Omar released his fifth album, “Best By Far”, a self-produced set on which he allowed his interest in cinematic soundtracks and jazz to rise to the surface. Once again, the star names turned out: on the album version of “Be Thankful”, a re-cut of the William DeVaughn 70s soul hit, it’s Erykah Badu who came good on her promise to work with our man. [On the version released as a single, it was Angie Stone on co-lead.] Meanwhile recent MOBO winner Kele Le Roc supplied the strident lead on the anthemic groove “Come On”, also a single edit.
A former principal percussionist of the Kent Youth Orchestra and later graduate of the Guildhall School Of Music in London, Omar has now been making music for more than 21 years. And while it would be true to say that during that time the high quality of his work has not really been reflected by number of pop hit singles he’s enjoyed, there’s certainly no sign of his being discouraged. “I’m enjoying life so much right now”, he says. “I play with great bands, there’s always new music to make, new styles to blend, new people to reach”.
Omar’s 7th studio album ‘“The Man” was released on June 24th 2013 on Freestyle Records, and received fantastic support from Gilles Peterson, Trevor Nelson, Benji B, as well as Jazz FMs’ Chris Philips and Peter Young, garnering some of the most glowing accolades of his entire career. The buzz generated by the release of the album’s title track, “The Man” confirmed beyond doubt that Omar is very much at the top of his game, with everyone from BBC 6 Music‘s Gilles Peterson, BBC Radio 2‘s Trevor Nelson and Jamie Cullum all giving major support and high praise for the simply magnificent new high point for Omar‘s renowned ability to write devastatingly catchy melodies.
Across the rest of this new album, opener Simplify sets the template, with its luscious and majestic string backed introduction raising the curtain on this deep, hard grooving number. Omar also joins forces with Germany’s Hidden Jazz Quartett on High Heels – growling organ spars with the tough, jagged drumbeat on this tough, funk driven collaboration. Elsewhere, latin textures and rhythms have always been part of Omar‘s far reaching musical vocabulary, and on Come On Speak To Me and Ordinary Day restless south American beats underpin the crisp and fresh melodies.
Soul II Soul’s Caron Wheeler offers her distinctive voice on the duet Treat You, allowing these two legendary voices to unite beautifully. Completing the circle that began all the way back in the early 1990s, Omar has re-recorded his classic love song There’s Nothing Like This, which this time features bass player to the Gods Pino Palladino. The touching sentiment remains undiminished, but the addition of soaring strings, soulful, jazzy horns, a vibrant live and acoustic feel, plus an extended and new arrangement.
2017 saw the release of his next long player “Love In Beats” Omar‘s 8th studio album and was hailed as the most eclectic & varied to date. Somewhat more electronic in its conception and sound than its predecessor, “Love In Beats” incorporates soul, Caribbean rhythms, an undercurrent of funk, with touches of zouk, a jazzy waltz, spoken word and also features collaborations with US soul legend Leon Ware, Blue Note pianist Robert Glasper, rapper Ty, Guadeloupe born singer Jean-Michele Rotin, and UK soultress Natasha Watts, The Floacist and Mayra Andrade, the Cape Verdean born singer who lives and records in Paris.
2017 also saw Omar heavily featured on Courtney Pine’s “Black Notes From The Deep” album This is a musical pairing so wonderful it is hard to believe it didn’t happen years ago, but the end results speak for themselves. The highlights within this album are many – but the exciting and fresh interpretation of Herbie Hancocks‘ “Butterfly” seems destined to be one of the most remarkable.
January 2020 and finally Omar gets a full career spanning ’best of’ album. “The Anthology“ is a 33 track collection from right across the UK don’s career – all the classics, plus deep cuts and archive finds! Features guest appearances from Stevie Wonder, Leon Ware, Erykah Badu, Robert Glasper and Carleen Anderson.
When asked to reflect on his long, successful, critically acclaimed and deeply influential career that shows no signs of slowing up, Omar said “I feel blessed. I try to keep things moving and evolving, and when I finish an album, I always put my heart and soul into it. I’m looking at it from an outsider’s point of view, because I never really see myself making the music. It’s like I’m the vessel and somebody’s controlling what I do, I just happen to be the one that gets the praise for it”.
That modest statement just re-enforces the fact that Omar is simply a one off, a genuinely unique artist. That is a bold claim, but his sound is so immediately identifiable, that you will know you are hearing an Omar track within seconds – and that is the stamp of true originality.