Burlington rapper OC from NC takes his verses to the nation
The North Carolina Travel and Tourism Board ought to slide Octavious Taylor a stack of cash for promoting the state.
The Burlington-based rapper OC from NC is Taylor’s alter ego. OC from NC has North Carolina pride. It’s baked into his name. New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Houston and Los Angeles all have their signature hip-hop styles and regional aesthetics. North Carolina hasn’t quite left its stamp on the national hip-hop scene in the same way. OC from NC is writing verses, releasing records, and, this spring in particular, taking his sound out on the road nationally with a mind to represent North Carolina. “I plan to be the reason — the way people speak on Atlanta or New Orleans — I want to be the reason people say, ‘Nah, like those guys in North Carolina,” says OC. “I don’t even want you to question it — it’s OC from NC.”
That might sound like a bold declaration of purpose, but a strong sense of confidence is central to hip-hop, and it’s one of the qualities that drew OC, who is in fact a modest man, to the genre at an early age. Listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Nas and Wu Tang Clan gave OC a sense of what serious and ambitious hiphop sounded like. As a teenager, a growing comfort with his own verbal agility and improvisational creativity made him think emulating his idols was possible. And he was unimpressed by the aspiring rappers among his school peers.
“I started collecting people’s music. I hit about 13 and I was like ‘I could probably do this. I’m way slicker than most people I know,'” says OC.
There are different ways of getting inspiration. One can be inspired by hearing and seeing the work of the greats.
Likewise — and maybe this is something that gets talked about less often — one can be inspired by the substandard work of others. If you see novices and hacks gaining success, it’s maybe a nudge to give it a try even if you know you’ve got room for improvement.
“I became more aware at the beginning of high school and people are trying to freestyle and rap — there’s a hundred people in a circle, and I was like ‘oh, shit, none of them are doing this well,” says OC.
OK, but thinking that lots of other people and would-be rappers suck doesn’t mean that you don’t suck. And OC knew this.
“You can only say to your friends five or six times that you’re better than everyone else,” he says. Then you have to show everybody what you’ve got.
From there OC started making home recordings. He describes them as “recorded on a computer microphone, terrible sounding. But it was cool. We all liked it.
Then, in his 20s, working at a call center in Greensboro he ran into some like-minded hip-hop buffs, some of whom were producing beats and records. That’s how OC paired up with B Squared, a frequent collaborator. The two would make tracks in real time, with B Squared grabbing and looping beats, layering in samples and OC rapping over the music as it emerged.
“A lot of people would stop by after work and kick it with us, play a little music, have a good time,” says OC. But word spread about the music being made, and what started out as an informal gettogether among friends and co-workers soon turned into a gathering place for hip-hop fans.
“After a few months I started realizing, some of these people I didn’t actually know,” says OC.
By this point OC was a little older and he found that his self-confidence about rapping had increased, making it easier to take the music out to the public. And when OC started getting exposed to North Carolina hip-hop artists like Little Brother and 9th Wonder, he realized that others were making related music nearby and he could too.
Some people find the thrusting braggadocio of hip-hop to be off-putting, but there’s something to be said for honest swagger in a world that seems aimed to crush you. Not to mention that the confidence is a corrective to the false humility that pervades other parts of popular culture. There’s a strain of celebrity culture — on talk shows and magazines — where megastars bend over backward to convince us that they’re regular people, just like us. Meanwhile we know they’re not. You have to have talent and drive to succeed, for the most part, and there’s something healthy about embracing that.
“I don’t want to listen to a rapper who tells me he’s pretty good,” says OC. “Being humble is one thing — and I’m definitely a humble person, but when it comes to hiphop, it’s not cool to not be confident.”
OC is 31. He’s got kids and a family and a day job. (He sells medical equipment. His boss is a fan of his extracurricular hip-hop output.) He’s got an even-keeled vibe that comes through in his verses. His voice is low and just slightly gruff, but not bottomed-out in a put on of burliness. He has an unhurried looseness to his phrasing, never over-stuffing his lines, but managing to flip phrases and explore subtleties of meaning and implication. He collaborates primarily with B Squared, who produces the tracks and assembles beats. The source material is diverse and playful, with snippets of easy-listening bossa-nova grooves getting layered over more assertive beats on tracks like “Good Times,” or loops of retro soul lines with wailing sax and smooth backing vocals.
In conversation, OC conveys the sense that much contemporary club music exists in a fallen state. He’s not a big fan of trap, the hip-hop subgenre that’s crept into a lot of pop radio hits, with AutoTuned vocals and hyperspeed programmed hi-hat patterns. OC pays attention to the fact that some hip-hop is timeless and some isn’t. We spoke just days after the death of Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. And OC mentioned that he’d never really stopped listening to “The Low End Theory,” one of that group’s great albums from 25 years ago, and a classic of the genre. OC wants to make music with a long shelf life.
“I want to trick you with the word play, rather than just hear it over the beat,” says OC. “I think it’s making music that’s deep, more of a puzzle rather than making it paper, throw-way.” !