Kicking brittle leaves and Gauloise butts, I walked into the Champs-Elysees' Virgin Megastore looking for European hip-hop. Instead, I ran smack dab into Portland, Ore. hip-hop artist Ohmega Watts.
There he was. Slumped, in Paris, in Sir Richard Branson's Vegas-hotel-sized music emporium, on the ground next to a crate full of records. Looking off into the distance, Watts didn't notice me noticing him.
That's because I wasn't looking at him. I was looking at his image on a massive advertisement for his critically acclaimed, full-length solo debut, The Find. Stunned to see Northwest hip-hop so prominently displayed, I shelled out Euros, bought the CD and stepped back onto the most beautiful avenue in the world.
Headphones on, I nodded my head to Portland rap through the Paris night, swollen with Northwest pride as gritty samples, cracking drums and enlightened rhymes gave me the hip-hop warm fuzzies all the way back to my rented room.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hese days, Ohmega Watts' reputation precedes him. At home and overseas, The Find got raves in mainstream and alternative press.
As my Paris sighting attests, San Francisco's Ubiquity Records pushed the hell out of Watts' album in 2005. Most independent American rap albums don't make it to European shelves. Ubiquity expanded his reach through worldwide distribution and press contacts galore.
Rolling Stone called The Find "hip-hop everyone -- not just fans of the genre -- can enjoy," and that's apt. The album is comfort food cooked from sampled vinyl. Record-groove pops and scratches cover it with soft nostalgia. Meat-and-potatoes arrangements and witty, socially conscious lyrics profess a love for old-school hip-hop, the life of the party, and life itself. Mainstream and underground rap magazines (The Source, Elemental) had a field day, lavishing The Find's torch-carrying traditionalism with praise.
Some rappers study hip-hop history after the fact, but Ohmega grew up in it. Like hip-hop itself, the relocation of Watts' parents from Jamaica to New York City landed their son at rap's Ground Zero. Knee-deep in Golden Era hip-hop, young Watts soaked up soulful sounds from artists like Pete Rock, KRS-One, and A Tribe Called Quest. After college in Florida, he moved to Portland, joined a (still active) area rap crew called Lightheaded and made heartfelt odes to the hip-hop he lived through.
Lightheaded introduced Spokane to Ohmega Watts at The B-Side, downtown's well-loved, now-defunct hip-hop venue. The group's aesthetic was and is like The Find: true-school beats and rhymes that revolve around love and hope. (Lightheaded = headed for light, get it?) Watts still records and tours with Lightheaded, but his new album, Watts Happening (release date: Oct. 9), is a stylistic departure from the group as well as The Find.
Watts and Lightheaded are known for authentic-sounding rap music, but also for embracing Christianity.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & pirituality remains an important part of Ohmega Watts' sound. Spirituality, he says via e-mail, "comes out through my words, my convictions, and in the message in the music, and some of the songs I write. I don't hide what's in my heart." It's life-affirming music, and Watts Happening satisfies on more levels than its predecessors.
"One thing for sure that's different [from The Find] is that on Watts Happening, I wanted to share more about me, and things in my life, past and present," says Watts. "'The Find served as an introduction, and Watts Happening is me in action, development, and growth, and the listener is along for the ride, and getting to know more about what makes me tick, you could say."
Lyrically, Watts' style revolves around testifying to personal struggles (faith, social unrest and the process of making art are favorite topics), but the new album shows unprecedented intimacy. He still takes himself for subject matter, but explains his life and soul with fresh focus and uncommon clarity.
"[On Watts Happening] I wanted to also expand showing more of my music influences and abilities as an expanding, growing producer," he says, and it's obvious. The album flaunts a fully orchestral grasp on creating harmony between samples, as well as an affinity for Latin sounds. (Watts also does production work for Tita Lima, a soul singer from Sao Paulo, Brazil). But compared to The Find's heartwarming nostalgia, an overall sonic update is noticeable.
A new set of contemporary influences crops up: the dusted charm of Detroit producer Jay Dee (R.I.P.) in bold, staggering drums and feather-soft vibraphone loops; Madlib (L.A. producer and Jay Dee collaborator) in Watts' more abstract employment of obscure samples; emcee/producer MF DOOM (underground rap royalty, Jay Dee and Madlib collaborator) through ancient cartoon samples and a new lyrical fondness for clipped phrasing. The new beats are mood-studies, and all hit their marks -- alternately airy or claustrophobic, organically calm or synthetically frenetic. Watts is working with sounds in more expressive ways than ever before.
In its beats and in its rhymes, Watts' new album hangs with any rap released this year, mainstream or underground. Watts Happening is a portrait of the artist as a soul-seeker who asserts that realistic, hard-fought, day-at-a-time faith is the heart of it all.
Ohmega Watts makes world-class music, but you don't have to take my word for it. You don't even have to go to Paris.
The Inlander Showcase presents Ohmega Watts with Qwel, DJ Dallas Jackson and DJ Parafyn at Raw Sushi on Friday, Oct. 5, at 8 pm. $8. Call 747-0556