Producer Dominic Owen’s journey through hip-hop is an unlikely one, the strange kind of tale that makes you believe anything can happen if you just go for it.
Born and raised in Nottingham, England, Owen developed a passion for hip-hop as it was emerging from New York in the 1980’s. Going out on a limb, the aspiring producer went to Brooklyn where he made some connections through his own Sing-A-Song Record Label.
What followed was probably far beyond the young producers’ wildest dreams: After landing a gig in a recording studio, the emergent Sean Combs heard one of his tracks, commissioned it for Biggie Smalls’ debut album, and the rest is history. While Owen may have seemed a fish out of water to observers, his talent and hard work were recognized by those in the burgeoning rap scene, as evidenced by his work with other notable artists including Jay Z, Rakim and Lil Kim.
Since then, Owen has worked on countless projects from his home studio back in England. His most recent project, a man-meets-machine electronic act called The Love Theme, has been praised by critics and achieved underground success that is continuing to grow. While Owen has worked on many projects over the years, he has always composed under own name.
On Queens, Owen reaches farther back to his days in Brooklyn than on any of his other work in recent memory. The EP showcases his ability to write fat beats with strong hooks, the kind of tracks that bring out the best from MCs fortunate enough to rhyme over them. On Queens, though, there are no such MCs. Allowing the music to take centre stage, Owen’s makes prudent use of vocal samples, not unlike much of the posthumous work of J-Dilla that has resurfaced in recent years.
The EP opens with the anthemic “I Live in the Ghetto,” a fully orchestrated piece with a robust rhythm section, strings and horns that would be at home on one of Kanye’s first albums.
“The Rat” has a darker vibe, with Isaac Hayes-style guitars and Latin rhythms creating a sense of tension that is accentuated by woodwinds and an extended breakdown that strips the tune down to the barest elements before rebuilding to a final climax.
“Back in the Days” slows things down a notch with odd syncopation and an extended spoken-word vocal that is deconstructed and rearranged along with the rest of the song itself. This deconstruction continues into the next track, “1999” which used field recordings and exaggerated delays and reverbs to build an otherworld atmosphere, similar to Dan the Automator’s work on Deltron 3030.
As a bonus, the EP contains an instrumental version of “I Live in the Ghetto,” perhaps to give aspiring MCs the chance to rhyme overtop of beats made by somebody with an impeccable hip hop pedigree. And maybe one of those young MCs will go on to be famous. As Dominic Owen can attest, strange things can, and do, happen.
Andy Smith is a writer, offshore banker, wannabe musician and all-around curmudgeon. He is a director of Permanent Damage Records, a Bermuda-based electronic music label. Andy lives in Toronto, where he graduated from University College at the University of Toronto, and was editor-in-chief of The Gargoyle.