By Bob Ruggiero
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By Peter Gerstenzang
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By Harley Oliver Brown
Om'Mas Keith remembers the first time he met Ol' Dirty Bastard.
It was the mid-'90s. ODB was at the height of his success. Keith, a 19-year-old punkass kid music producer, found himself in a recording session at the Music Palace, a premiere music facility out on Long Island, with 88-Keys (yes, that 88-Keys) as his assistant. He recalls: "Dirty rolled in with an entourage of 15 to 20, from top-level A&Rs and executives to street-level thugs. And their women." The crew was, per Keith, "indulging in all the devices associated with rock 'n' roll." Operative word there? Devices.
"When he met me, I looked him right in the face, shook his hand, and I said, 'Peace,'" Keith remembers. At that "record-scratch moment," ODB narrowed his eyes. "[Dirty] looked at me like I was crazy—for like two seconds—and then he was like 'Oh, that's the god right there. He greeted me with the universal greeting: 'Peace.' What can I say to that but peace?' " ODB went on to get "wild" that night, and they recorded "Dirt Dog," which eventually appeared on Dirt's Nigga Please.
The producer chuckles as he tells this story. It's one of the many tales he's gathered over the past two decades, a time during which the 36-year-old has quietly become an influential force in the music industry. On Sunday, he'll attend the Grammys with two nominations as a producer and engineer for Frank Ocean's channel ORANGE. Keith also just released his debut album City Pulse online, for free. His influence on Ocean is apparent: Both records offer stitched-together, smoothed-out r&b that illustrates emotion in a tangible way. Keith candidly chats over the phone from his Hollywood recording studio, but the story of Om'Mas Keith isn't a West Coast one: It starts—and probably will end—in New York City.
Born on January 20, 1976, at St. John's Hospital in Brooklyn, Keith grew up in Hollis, Queens, an "enclave" of the "most amazing musicians." The son of a jazz guitarist, he ran around with the children of Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. His mother called him a "magical jazz baby." Then, around the age of 15, he met one of his heroes: Jam Master Jay, the groundbreaking, influential DJ of Run DMC. Keith squeaked his way under Jay's wing and became his "young ace." He saw "how a soon-to-be-inducted-to-the-Rock-and-Roll-Hall-of-Fame-peon conducts his business at home." He made a beat for Ultramagnetic MCs. They loved it, flew him to L.A., and he got picked up at the airport by a Bentley Continental driven by Ice-T. The group recorded music at Ice-T's famous Crackhouse studio over three weeks, where he met Shafiq Husayn (with whom he'd later form the hip-hop group Sa-Ra). The first night in Los Angeles, he slept on rapper Kool Keith's floor without a blanket near a stack of very expensive pornos that reached the ceiling.
"Three weeks of the biggest mind-fuck ever," Keith recalls. "[Ice-T] was my first multimillionaire. Jay was rich to me, but we were in Queens. This was L.A."
That whirlwind gave Keith a taste of the life he could one day live, and he went back to New York with success fresh on the brain. He pushed more with Jay, ODB, Busta Rhymes. He traveled to Houston to work with famous Suave House producer Tony Draper. He moved back east, made beats, worked for an ad firm, but again felt the tug of the west, and went back to L.A.
It was a smart move. He partnered with Shafiq and Taz Arnold, forming Sa-Ra and racking up production credits for the likes of Jurassic 5 and Pharoahe Monch. Kanye West signed them to G.O.O.D. Music, and Keith has been sought after ever since.
In 2009, through his intern Michael Uzowuru, he met a little hip-hop collective called Odd Future and a dude named Frank Ocean. The two developed a relationship that would eventually lead to Keith's work on channel ORANGE. Keith was thrilled and, in another smart move, threw himself into the work with Ocean, putting his solo project on hold.
"Frank's understanding of what a producer does is true to what it really is, that a producer ensures the physical manifestation of intellectual property," Keith says. "However we arrive at the final goal, whether it be by me playing instruments, adding things, adding insight, talking to Frank, or supervising every single occurrence of his voice on the record: This is producing on the high level. This is my opportunity to produce on the Quincy Jones level."
In the wake of ORANGE's success and critical acclaim, his opportunities to work at Q's level continue. He's assisting with rapper Azealia Banks's forthcoming record and Ocean's next album, and is in talks with Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt for their joint debut—all while readying for the response to City Pulse.
"All I wanted to do when I started this game was make great music and create and have an outlet," he says. "But they chose me. All these kids, everybody chose me. So when someone does that, you have to really say to yourself: 'I have to be the best I can be for them, to ensure that the final result is what's in their head.' That's what's being a service provider. That's Om'Mas Keith at your service."