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Dwayne Omarr, shot at REV Studios, Los Angeles
Dwayne Omarr, shot at REV Studios, Los AngelesPhotography Jake Michaels

Holy Funk: Dwayne Omarr

Three decades after he unsuccessfully tried to turn the pop charts on to Bible bass, the Crown Prince of Electro Funk has returned to raise hell with his vocoder. And Aphex Twin is backing him all the way

Taken from the March 2011 issue of Dazed:

Royal funk protocol dictates that when you speak to Dwayne Omarr, the fabled Crown Prince of Electro Funk, you must gratuitously pepper your conversation with the f-word as often as possible. For not a minute goes by when this man isn’t thinking about freaking the funk. To those in the know, Omarr is as much of a musical pioneer as Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Roger Troutman and James Brown. Unfortunately, most folk have never heard of him. Having once teetered on the verge of 80s chart superstardom, Omarr has spent the majority of the last 25 years in the funk wilderness, when he should have been lording it up in the electro pop Hall of Fame with Mantronix and Egyptian Lover. Even worse, he’s had to stand by and watch as modern R’n’B jokers use his beloved tools – the 808 drum machine, synth-bass and vocoder – to commit unforgivable crimes against music. But now, having signed with Aphex Twin’s Rephlex record label, the Crown Prince is back from exile and keen to reclaim his throne.

“I’m listening to artists now, like T-Pain, and they’re abusing what we started,” his funkiness says from inside his Californian castle. “That’s why in the late 80s we laid off the vocoder and voice box for a minute. We let it breathe, and then planned to come back and hit it again. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’d kill T-Pain in a vocoder battle. Murder him! And the bass-synth? When they originally created that sound and put it in my hands, I felt like I was born with it. I’m just funky by nature!”

God may have made him funky, but when Omarr was born in 1966 there wasn’t a bass-synth or vocoder in sight. It wasn’t until he was 12 that he first started making music when his mother’s uncle, a guitarist for BB King, gave him a harmonica. He quickly graduated to the bass guitar, which his father bought him from a local pawn shop. “When I was a kid, the bass always stuck out in a song. It spoke to me. It had a language of its own. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know the name of a song but I could hum the bassline. I recall my mother asking me, ‘Why did you pick up the bass rather than the guitar or the saxophone?’ It was just that basslines in general – whether it was synthesised bass or upright bass – told a story to me.”

“Artists now are abusing what we started. I’d kill T-Pain in a vocoder battle. Murder him!” – Dwayne Omarr

He also dabbled in a bit of tuba. But as anyone who has ever tried to wring some funk out of its twisted heap of pipes will tell you, the chances of making sweet music with it are pretty slim. Omarr, however, embraced the challenge: “I was a little bored with the tuba’s sound,” he recalls. “So one year I brought in a wireless microphone and hooked it up to a Cry Baby wah-wah pedal, and stuck it inside. So I was playing ‘Pomp And Circumstance’ with a wah wah tuba! Everybody wanted to play it after that. I suppose you could have called me the Jimi Hendrix of the tuba.”

His natural musical dexterity didn’t go unnoticed, and when he was 14 he appeared on the NBC TV show, Super Kids, which led to a meeting with Prince Charles Alexander of Prince Charles And The City Beat Band fame. Omarr’s parents hired Prince Charles to mentor him, and they travelled to New York to record “Bush Beat” for Slyck. In 1982, Omarr was introduced to Maurice Starr, a music impresario who made his name creating the boy bands New Edition and New Kids On The Block.

Impressed by Omarr’s mastery of the bottom end, together they started kicking out the jams and his signature sound – an uptempo mix of 808 beats, vocoded vocals, synth strings and big electro basslines –  started bubbling to the surface. Around his 18th birthday, the young producer was bestowed with the title the Crown Prince of Electro Funk. “I wasn’t really confident in my vocal ability at the time, so I would relate the melodies and the actual tones I had in my head to the vocoder, and sometimes I would use a voice box. That way I could play it exactly as I heard it in my head. What separated me from everyone else was that I could actually play and understand melodies, while other guys just knew how to hold one key down and rap through the vocoder. They couldn’t make it talk like Roger Troutman or me. So I became the Crown Prince because of that and the fact that I paid homage to those that came before me. I mean, if they want to call me King, you know, I’ll put the crown on, but I’m cool with Crown Prince.”

Success came quickly for the young funkateer, with his Zappaesque feel-good debut single “This Party’s Jam Packed” becoming a club hit. He then hooked up with Boston’s first rap star, Rusty “The Toe Jammer” Pendleton – a teen DJ who scratched with his feet – to produce “Breakdown New York Style” for his group The Sure Shot 3. Life was good, and the royal coffers began to sag with swag. 

“I would finance my projects with the funds I would be getting from doing production on other projects and sometimes I would do anywhere from four to six songs a day. I bought my mum her first condo when I was 21, and I went to live in the Bahamas for a while. I skipped the “going to college” section of life and went straight to the “let’s get some money” section.

My dad was an upholsterer and he loved what he did, but what he would clear in a year, a lot of times I would clear in a month – all by the time I was 21.” His distinctive sound created so much heat that Critique Records offered Omarr his own album deal. In 1985 he released his funk opus – Holy Rock, an album that showcased his love of the Lord, electro-rock and, in hindsight, questionable fashion sense. On the cover he wore a pink suit with a mirrored shoulder pad, gold crucifix earring and an afro mullet drenched with so much Soul Glow that people were warned not to smoke within a mile of the photo studio. But even though it contained the early techno anthem “Save the Children”, it transpired that the world at large wasn’t ready for a religious electro-funk odyssey, and the album bombed. 

Holy Rock was definitely ahead of its time,” its 45-year-old creator says now. “I hear a lot of my riffs on other records from the Holy Rock album. They’ll probably never give me credit for it, but that’s okay, someone had to step out and do it first. I think anybody that tried to create a hybrid like that back in that era would have probably had the same result. I got banned on a lot of American radio stations because it was too demonic for the religious community and too religious for the secular community. Prince also had Holly Rock out when I released Holy Rock. If it was today, I would do exactly the same thing because one thing that I didn’t do was become a clone of somebody else. I remained true to who I am. I’m still getting requests and folks still consider that album a collector’s item. It’s selling on eBay for $100.”

Undeterred by Holy Rock’s lacklustre reception, in 1986 Omarr flew down to Miami and produced the single “Mr Gigolo” for his protégés, Omarr’s Girls. He didn’t have to look too far for lyrical inspiration. “My main reason for going to parties was to primarily find a cute girl that I liked and then leave the party,” he recalls, ironically a few days after discovering that his dad fathered 31 children. “I wouldn’t even stay at the party. I’d be there for 20 minutes. Maybe not even that. They had already been seduced by my music before they even met me. I’m still dodging them now… but I had to put that crown down when I became a family man. My wife don’t play. If I ever stepped out on her it would be a wrap. I had many girlfriends simultaneously up until I met her, but these days I’ve had to hang up the G.”

“My main reason for going to parties was to primarily find a cute girl that I liked and then leave the party. I wouldn’t even stay at the party. I’d be there for 20 minutes” – Dwayne Omarr

Omarr spent the rest of the 80s cooking up hot funk for Luke Skywalker of 2 Live Crew, New Edition’s Ralph Tresvant, Betty Wright, and, most notably R’n’B singer Suave, who had a huge hit with a remake of “My Girl”. Five years later Suave was sentenced to life in prison after torching a crack house and killing a drug addict. 

After touring with the Arsenio Hall farewell show in 1991, Omarr went underground, turning his hand to ghost-writing and building up a successful music consultancy firm as grunge took hold of the charts and electro-pop morphed into rave. Then, one night in 1999, his life took a disastrous twist. “I dozed off on the way to LAX airport and hit a telephone pole. They don’t bend. The car folded up on me like an accordion and crushed my leg. That same weekend, my wife was in hospital giving birth to my daughter. So she’s in one hospital, I’m at another, and we had just moved out of our house but not yet moved into our new one, so basically I was laid up in the hospital with a crushed leg, unable to be with my wife and new baby and homeless – even though I had $700,000 in the bank. It was crazy.” 

Doctors advised him that it was best to amputate his leg but Omarr refused, turning to his Bible for pain relief instead. After months in a wheelchair, he started to learn how to walk again with a cane.

“One day, I was at a meeting, and I left my cane there,” he remembers. “I had a nice one with a gold handle like Ronald Isley. I believe it was the Spirit of God that said, ‘If you can walk away from it you don’t need it any more.’ I haven’t walked with a cane or a limp since. No one would ever know my leg was crushed unless they saw the scar.” 

Around the same time, thousands of miles across the Atlantic, Grant Wilson-Claridge, the co-owner of Rephlex Records, was stumbling upon the Crown Prince’s golden grooves for the first time. “I first heard ‘Jam Packed’ back in 2000,” Aphex Twin’s right hand man recalls. “I grew up listening to Prince, George Clinton and Egyptian Lover so, being quite a spotter, I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it and I also couldn’t believe how few people knew of Dwayne’s tracks. To me, he’s like James Brown’s younger brother getting recruited into Underground Resistance. He always attempts to refresh and exceed his musical boundaries. When I found out that he was still making music I thought more people could probably do with hearing it. Me and my partner have a lot of respect for this dude.”

After more than 20 years away from the limelight, Omarr is relishing the chance of exposing his music to a new generation of bass cadets with the release of Multi Funk, a collection of his classic tracks alongside some new cuts. Sadly, his taste in fuchsia fashion has remained a thing of the past. 

“I don’t even know where the pink suit is!” the Crown Prince laughs. “But it’s an honour to be coming back. Everything goes full circle and the good thing about it is that it gives kids an opportunity to see where some of their favourite artists like Snoop got their sounds from. They’ll be able to have a little history lesson and discover the contribution that was made by myself and others like me. Once upon a time I regretted not becoming a pop star, but now I don’t because what I gained in experience you can’t trade for a few years of jumping in front of the camera. I prefer the route I’ve taken even though it wasn’t my intended one. I’ve basically been self-employed since I was 13. A lot of these artists who had their ‘big breaks’ were discarded as soon as the record companies had used them. Now they’re broke, and I’m not. Haha.”