Happy 20th Anniversary to O.C.’s second studio album Jewelz, originally released August 19, 1997.
Trying to pick a standout album from the Diggin’ in the Crates Crew is no easy task, even for the most astute ‘90s hip-hop aficionado. Among your list of choices, you have either of Lord Finesse’s first two LPs that set the tone for the entire all-star collective, Diamond D’s 1992 debut Stunts, Blunts & Hip-Hop (which is considered a classic by many), and the emcee/producer duo Showbiz & A.G.’s critically acclaimed inaugural album, 1992’s Runaway Slave.
Amongst the crew’s litany of hits that made them a staple for authentic East Coast Hip-Hop, no serious argument of the super-collective’s finest work would exclude Big L’s grim 1995 street portrait Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous or fail to mention Fat Joe’s sophomore banger Jealous One’s Envy released the same year.
With all the notoriety, along with loaning out their talents as hit men for hire, D.I.T.C. studios’ walls are covered with more plaques than wall paper, as they’ve earned over two decades of praise and accolades within the industry.
Perhaps the group’s unlikeliest member to become the standard bearer of these “Men of Respect” arose after he dropped back-to-back LPs showcasing an unblemished aptitude for incisive lyricism. Originally debuting on Organized Konfusion’s “Fudge Pudge” back in 1991, Omar Credle drew enough industry buzz to not only secure a record deal with famed hip-hop label Wild Pitch Records, but also to make the power move of becoming an official D.I.T.C. member. Linking up with fellow crew member Buckwild, O.C. would go on to record one of the sleeper albums of 1994 with his dynamic debut Word…Life, alongside the breakthrough first efforts by Nas, the Notorious B.I.G., Method Man, and Jeru the Damaja.
Widely known for placing an expiration date on subpar and phony rappers of that time, with the underground battle anthem, “Time’s Up,” O.C. built a small cult following, amongst an audience that appreciated his sharp wordplay.
As his fellow D.I.T.C. comrades Fat Joe and Big L rose in prominence, O.C. remained steady, offering reliable 16-bar verses to memorable joints like “Return of Crooklyn Dodgers” for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 1995 film Clockers, Lord Finesse’s “Brainstorm” from his third LP The Awakening (1996), and another Buckwild collaboration, “What I Represent” featured on the America is Dying Slowly compilation, a 1996 charity album designed to raise AIDS awareness primarily in black communities.
Heading into his sophomore LP, which can make or break an artist especially during the highly competitive days of the mid ‘90s, O.C. surprised the industry with the unsung gem of 1997. Although it may not have “shook up” the world with album sales, Jewelz eclipsed O.C.’s solid freshman project, and staked its rightful claim within ongoing debates surrounding the strongest sophomore albums by a solo rap artist.
With assists from some of the biggest names in the game, Jewelz takes its place as one of the few flawlessly produced full-length albums of all-time. Gang Starr’s beat wizard DJ Premier carried the heaviest of the album’s workload, offering four tracks, along with mixing and song introductions that set the overall musical tone for the album.
Showing his versatility, Premo specifically tailored beats to O.C.’s smooth delivery. Though not as jazzy as his signature work with partner Guru, “My World” opens the LP with a sigh of relief as O.C. shares “hazy like asthma / bizarre, disaster / Stress almost held me down from bein' a master / The pastor, preacher, poet, a teacher, it's been so long like Monifah.” Picking up where Word…Life left off, O.C. proves to be one of the most capable practitioners of the art form of emceeing, who studied the all-time greats including Rakim, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, and the D.O.C..
While “Time’s Up” can be considered a rapper’s tutorial as O fired off “It's the principle of it, I get a rush when I bust / Some dope lines I wrote that maybe somebody'll quote / That's what I consider real, in this field of music / Instead of puttin' brain cells to work they abuse it / Non-conceptual, non-exceptional / Everybody's either crime-related or sexual,” lead single “Far From Yours” finds the professor continuing his lecture series. On the reunion with his class of ’94 alumni, Buckwild, O.C. allows the nearly hypnotizing sample of Quincy Jones’ ”Tomorrow”—with R&B vocalist Yvette Michele singing the hook to the same rhythm as the young Tevin Campbell on the original—to provide the perfect soundscape to flex his lyrical superiority with bars like, “You may never find a MC well-orchestrated like a symphony / Some'll go down in history, some in infamy / The infamy will be somewhat a mystery / As long as my name O.C. live on through infinity / My identity, will ring bells in all facilities / From fans to enemies, I'm the antidote and remedy.”
Ever the stalwart emcee, O.C.’s sophomore offering features many of the expected cameos, including his longtime associates Organized Konfusion, while adding a double dose of the original rap bully, Freddie Foxxx a.k.a. Bumpy Knuckles. Foxxx’s menacing baritone blesses the LP, both times over DJ Premier’s production while trading bars on “Win the G” and “M.U.G.”
The big surprise of the album was Beatminerz’ Mr. Waltz departure from the sinister drum patterns over obscure funk and reggae samples that helped establish the Brooklyn based Boot Camp Clik sound just a few years earlier. On "Dangerous," the well-played “Daisy Lady” sample from 7th Wonder helps the two rhymesmiths Big L and O.C. return the art back to the essence, as they rock the party sounding as if they were live at “The Fever” circa 1984. The seesaw effect of the punchline king and skilled wordsmith sadly is the only collaboration of its kind between the two crew members, but stands on its own merits when compared to the likes of Biggie and Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” or any of Nas and AZ’s friendly verse exchanges.
The producers of the LP appeared to be embroiled in their own competition, constructing musical scores for O.C.’s vivid street sagas. Mr. Walt provided another impressive display of chemistry with his fellow Bushwick, Brooklyn native for his episode of erotica “Stronjay.”
Adding the finishing touches to their crew members’ certified masterpiece, Showbiz and Lord Finesse stepped up big time with what one could only imagine were exclusive loans for a D.I.T.C. member. Showbiz’s “Crow” is a cleverly composed, nighttime speaker-blower, that’s as eerie as RZA or MF Doom could have ever imagined. Leaving what in my opinion is the crown jewel of the Lord Finesse war-chest: the title song produced by the “Funky Man” sealed the envelope as the message went out that D.I.T.C. was a group of veterans, highly skilled in their respective crafts, and were as relevant as any group, crew or label roster.
After O.C. made a name for himself with the unforgettable underground debut Word…Life in ’94, he planted his flag as an industry mainstay with Jewelz. And although he may not have pushed comparable units relative to hip-hop’s commercial heavyweights, the quality of his second coming matches—if not supersedes—nearly all of his contemporaries.