Dreamville emcee Omen (born Damon Coleman) has been a pillar in his label’s now-impervious structure since its inception in 2007. Throughout his time on J. Cole’s much-celebrated imprint, Omen, 36, has cultivated respect that goes beyond his music. But like all artists, Omen’s journey hasn't been without hardship.
Case in point: in 2015, Omen released his debut album Elephant Eyes. Unfortunately, the project has since been removed from all major streaming providers due to sample clearance issues.
“It was a weird feeling [when the album was removed]. Like, do I have bad karma? Is someone out to get me?” Omen tells me, expressing frustration over the project being disappeared at such a pivotal moment in his career.
Over the past four years, Omen has shifted his focus away from Elephant Eyes and onto his forthcoming body of work, which, he says, displays his growth as an emcee and as a man over that period of time.
During his set at April’s Dreamville Fest in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Chicago native previewed some of his forthcoming material. “I’m a hungry dog, I run faster,” he raps on an unreleased and untitled record, showcasing heavy experimentation with new sounds.
The record is one of many conceived during January’s much-ballyhooed Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions—an opportunity Omen didn't take for granted. “I did a song with Buddy that I performed at Dreamville Fest,” he says. “That song would’ve never happened [without the sessions].”
Following the sessions, Omen has spent the intervening months meticulously formulating his next steps, which included formally signing a recording contract with Dreamville’s parent label, Interscope.
“I’m in a good place,” Omen says.
DJBooth’s full interview with Omen, edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You’ve been making music for most of your life. But when did your interest in music begin?
Omen: Really early on. Music is very big in my family. My dad was a singer in Motown. He was the lead singer in a group called 21st Century. My mom is an aspiring singer, and my stepdad is a bassist, vocalist, and guitarist. I was playing piano since I was very young. I took it for granted. I wanted to be in the NBA. Even in high school, I was in a rap group, but I didn’t take it seriously. It wasn’t until college I realized I wasn’t going to the NBA, so I had to figure out what I wanted to do. I had a moment like, “What do I really have a passion for? Maybe I should pursue this.”
Once I realized basketball wasn’t it, I put in my 10,000 hours. I became obsessed. I was always working. The Kanye, five beats a day, three summers type of thing. My whole life was dedicated to that. I wasn’t even going to class because that’s all I was thinking about.
You met Cole online. Was this around the same time you started to take a career in music more seriously?
I was on the blogs in high school just ‘cause I was a nerd and I was into that. More specifically a rap nerd. We were fans of this artist named Canibus, and we were just like on the fan site. Even [Dreamville producer] Elite was on there. We had text battles and audio battles. It was a bunch of artists on there sharing their work.
We became fans of each other’s work. We would talk on Instant Messenger. Cole was like 15 and I was 17 at the time. He ended up going to St. Johns and I had family in New York so we met in real life and I was like, “Okay you’re not a weirdo like this not no catfish.” We actually bonded as friends.
After that things took off a lot more. One day he told me he had a meeting with JAY-Z and I was like, “Oh dope.” I didn’t really know what would happen. Then it became was it is now: Dreamville. We were always working but then we made it into a business relationship.
After meeting Cole, you toured with Drake and Rihanna. How important were those opportunities in amassing your core group of fans?
It was important but it wasn’t on my mind. I’m just that kind of person. I want to be kind to people. It’s like someone asked me yesterday, “You ever get annoyed?” because there were a lot of people asking to take pictures. I replied, “Not really because I remember when no one asked.” I remember working a job I hated walking home like, “Man what’s going on with my life?”
Those tours were life-changing. Especially during the first tour. I was working three jobs in New York. During this time, The Badness is out. I got songs out and the internet is talking about it, but I’m working three jobs. It’s tough. While I’m working these jobs I would get off at like 7 PM, then I would go to the studio with Cole and I might get out at 3 AM, having to get back to work at 6 AM. So it was a crazy grind.
[Cole] called me one day like, “Man I’m doing this tour and I want you to come.” I was excited but I was like, “I mean, what am I going to do about my job? Once the tour’s over, what’s going to happen?” He said, “You don’t have to work no more, just trust me.” So we did the first tour and I came home and it wasn’t like I had a bunch of money, but that experience was so good. I could really see myself doing this. It gave me a different drive. Even though I was still broke I knew it was possible now. It gave me a different motivation and the broke days weren’t as bad.
Thankfully I did go on more tours. The tour where Drake was with us he was really cool. He’s a great guy. I didn’t really perform during the Rihanna tour. I was on that tour working on Afraid of Heights. Those were the building blocks of right now. They were the first steps in getting real recognition. When Enchanted and The Badness came out it was a moment because it wasn’t just my friends saying I was good. It was the world saying, “Yo, who is this guy?” It gave me a lot of confidence. A sense that I had something the people wanted to hear.
And then came Elephant Eyes. What was it like compiling material for that album?
It was a process. The album that did come out was the third version. I had done two whole albums that never came out that were supposed to be Elephant Eyes. I’m really, really picky but even more than me, Dreamville, Ib [Hamad], and Cole are equally picky or even more picky than me. I would be playing these songs like, “I think this is the album” and they would be like: “This is fire, but I think you could do more.”
That reminds me of the Love & Hip Hop skit Dreamville posted on YouTube.
That was a joke, but it was based on real feelings. Like when is this album coming out type of feelings. Obviously, it worked out for the best. I was proud of Elephant Eyes. It’s good vibes but it didn’t come from that place. It came from a darker place. I had put out Afraid of Heights and done those tours as you said. Had Kendrick and Cole on the album. I was thinking like, “Oh I’m out of here, an easy win.” I put the album out and the internet was kinda checking for it but my actual real life didn’t change at all. I was still in my Grandma’s house. I would go out and no one knew or cared about the album.
I was like, “Damn how is this possible? I have Kendrick Lamar and Cole on the album.” I was also just touring. Who else in Chicago been doing these things? This was before Instagram and Twitter were big and so because I wasn’t sharing, people didn’t believe it. In my head, I’ve been doing these life-changing things and no one really knows. It was a weird feeling. Doing everything right but not reaching the goals. I felt low but what I told myself was that you can’t sit here and feel sorry for yourself.
This is a beautiful album to me and because I was so at peace with it, it resonated with everyone. Which, then, I would get hit with a curveball. It got taken down. That threw me for a loop because I went through that low period and got myself out of it, made this album and then it was taken.
It was really because my business wasn’t right. We were putting Elephant Eyes out on a hope that we would be okay. Just putting it out there and then taking care of the business later. Elephant Eyes was doing so well that it popped up on people’s radar. Usually, if you don’t clear a sample it’s like, “Oh, they’ll sue me when I go Gold or Platinum so they can get a lot of money.” But it was [removed] immediately because it was making noise. I address a lot of that on the new album. I talk about what’s been happening in the last few years just to give people an update. I had a whole lot of life changes I wasn’t tweeting about.
What about the ROTD Sessions, how did that experience help?
That was intense. It was crazy because the first two Revenge of the Dreamers albums was just us kinda trying to make songs on our own and then emailing them to make a compilation. It always felt like a compilation rather than an album. There would always be talk we should make this into a real album. Then they hit us one day to come to Atlanta for a specific time period. That was it and we just showed up. They didn’t tell us anything further. We get there and we see these golden tickets going to every one. We were like “Wait, all these people are coming?” Usually, it’s just us. The first couple of days we were out of our comfort zones because we have a certain chemistry. It’s a lot of us now, like nine of us, and even that takes time.
There were maybe 10 to 15 rooms and each room was packed with people. There were no rules. Usually in a studio session if you like something you ask, “Hey this is dope, can I get on it?” But there was no asking. If the beat is playing and you wanna get on it you better write right now and be on it. It took some adjusting for me to be like, “Oh I gotta be more aggressive.” It was an amazing experience.
It felt good because it sharpened us and made us all focused. Even the relationships with those artists and producers. Some of them are my friends now and we make music together. They didn’t really allow us to work with each other as much because they knew we were comfortable with each other. So they wouldn’t have Elite in a room with Ari Lennox.
I’m excited for [ROTD3] to come out. It was 130-something songs made. I don’t know what will make the album because like I said, they are even pickier than me. I do know that they plan to put out most of the music regardless of whether or not it don’t make it on the album. I’m excited about that because that’s really going to be my reintroduction to people.
You have a track, “Big Shadows,” where you spit, “Do I focus on the rose or just on the black thorns.” Are you focusing more on the roses now or the black thorns?
Depends on the day. I’m generally a positive person. I wouldn’t say I’m religious, but I’m definitely a spiritual person. My family is really like that, too. I’m into the Law of Attraction and big on you receive the energy you put out. That line really came from me just talking to myself. It’s two ways to see things. You could focus on the rose or the thorns that come with it. That’s just like a metaphor for life in any instance. Even with my album getting taken down, I could look at it negatively and be sad and down, or I could say this is an opportunity to tell people what’s really going on.
It’s like when I was working those three jobs in New York, I remember coming home from the studio with Cole and he could see I was in a bad mood. He was like, “Man what’s going on?” and I said I was stressing. It was a lot. He said, “Yeah I feel you but this is a part of your story.”
That stuck with me because everything you go through is really a part of your story. It’s not the ending, but a detail that’s gonna make it even better for other people. Sometimes I think about if I would have made it the way I wanted to make it as a rapper years ago. I wouldn’t even have a story to tell. I would have made it with nothing to say.
The goal is to have a positive impact on the next person and inspire them. Even if it’s just for a moment. Even if you’re walking home from a job you hate and you hear this song and it brightens your day, and takes you out of your reality for a second. You always have the option to choose how you look at something.