Omar – Longform Biog
The list of Omar’s achievements is a long and storied one. Cast even a glance at the highlights of a career well into its fourth decade – a ‘signature’ hit tune that led on to eight solo albums of unique, evolving sound; collaborations with some of the biggest names in pop music history [Stevie Wonder, Lamont Dozier, Leon Ware, Erykah Badu & a host more]; a catalogue of side-projects more extensive than many artists’ entire working lifetimes; a one-man stage show; an MBE pinned to his chest by Prince Charles – and you could forgive the guy if at any time he showed signs of resting on those laurels.
Far from it.
In fact, 2022 finds Omar emerging from one of his busiest and most productive periods ever. Right now, he’s close to completing work on a brand new studio album, tentatively titled Brighter The Days, that promises to be right up there with his very best. Around that, he’s still trying hard to maintain supplies of the constantly-selling-out vinyl version of his 2020 double-album Omar: The Anthology, having been discovered this pandemic by new generations of music lovers who clearly recognise class when they hear it.
And thirdly, along with two of his long-time musical buddies from the world of jazz, trumpeter Quentin Collins and saxophonist Brandon Allen [otherwise known as QCBA] – he’s currently promoting a brilliant, just released, jazz-leaning live recording of his own music, entitled Live At Last, for Ubuntu Recordings.
Brighter The Days is already sounding amazing. Featuring a sumptuous set of string arrangements by Chris Cameron [George Michael, Stereophonics, Randy Crawford, Tina Turner], plus a trio of tracks recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Surrey – including a fabulous, horn-blasted, sixties-style, hit duet with the Modfather himself, as well a deliciously funky Al Green-flavoured number – it combines that familiar and much-loved Omar soundscape with a range of exciting new musical tangents. And with collaborations from a clutch of other star names [Common, Q-Tip, India.Arie, Pharoahe Monch] either completed or in the pipeline, the buzz is already building ahead of release later this year.
The man is moving ever forward and somehow getting better and better.
Mind, the past is pretty substantial. Here’s a map.
Born October 14, 1968 in London [but raised in Canterbury], Omar hails from a decidedly musical family. His father, Byron Lye-Fook, worked as a studio musician and drummer with reggae don Horace Andy. Omar’s younger brother, the Grammy-winning producer, remixer and DJ known as Scratch Professer, has been making jaws drop since the age of 13, when he stunned the crowd at the 1988 DMC UK Finals with his turntable skills. Samia Lye-Fook, Omar’s sister, is a BRIT School alumna and celebrated vocalist in her own right.
Omar was himself considered a musical prodigy in his youth, at first following a classical path, playing trumpet, piano, bass guitar and percussion. A former principal percussionist of the Kent Youth Orchestra, he later studied at both Guildhall School Of Music in London – who recently awarded him an Honorary Doctorate – and Chetham’s in Manchester.
Omar’s first two singles, Mr Postman  and You & Me , were released on father Bryon’s Kongo label, the latter also the original home for his 1990 debut album – the one containing the track that changed everything, There’s Nothing Like This. The slinky, sexy, Ohio Players-inspired ballad made the then 21-year-old an instant star on the UK soul scene and led Omar to sign with Gilles Peterson’s boutique label Talkin’ Loud, part of Phonogram, in 1991. Both the reissued There’s Nothing Like This album and single rapidly made the UK top 20.
A year later came a second set, Music, a vastly more orchestral and organic affair that highlighted Omar’s maturing as a composer, arranger and vocalist. Aside from the memorable title song, standout tracks included the still widely requested Get To Know You Better and the brilliant duet with former Young Disciple, Carleen Anderson, Who Chooses The Seasons.
Soon thereafter, Omar was snapped up by a second major label, RCA Records, for whom he cut two further albums. Each notched up acres of critical acclaim and introduced him to several of his musical heroes and heroines.
On ‘94’s For Pleasure he worked alongside legendary former Motown producers Leon Ware and Lamont Dozier. The album contains some of Omar’s most enduringly popular songs, such as Saturday, Outside and the Erykah Badu endorsed Little Boy.
For ‘97’s This Is Not A Love Song he travelled to California to collaborate with LA-based producer David Frank [a.k.a. one half of The System], recording a superb cover of The Stranglers’ Golden Brown and duetting with one of his all-time favourite vocalists, Syreeta Wright, on two songs. By this time, the trademark Omar musical core – incorporating elements of soul, jazz, Latin American and Caribbean sounds – had established its creator as one of the standout UK artists of his generation: for many, both at home and abroad, he was seen as ‘The King Of British Neo-Soul’.
As the century turned, Omar moved on again, this time signing up with hip French imprint Naïve Records. In 2001, Omar released his fifth album, Best By Far, a self-produced set on which he allowed his interest in cinematic soundtracks and jazz to shine through. Once again, the star names turned out: the album version of Be Thankful, a re-cut of the 1972 William DeVaughn soul hit, featured Erykah Badu. [She’d been a long-time fan.] MOBO winner Kele Le Roc supplied the strident lead on the anthemic groove, Come On.
Five years further on he cut Sing [If You Want It], a co-production with Scratch Professer that featured contributions from US rapper Common and soul star Angie Stone, plus UK artists Rodney P and Estelle. The project’s headline achievement, however, was the inclusion of the Stevie Wonder duet Feeling You – a major coup for any UK recording artist. Truth is, Stevie had been a fan of Omar’s music since he’d first heard There’s Nothing Like This back in 1992 – the same year he promised to write Omar “his first number one.” A 14-year wait ended when, one day, Stevie called Omar out of the blue to tell him he was in London… and had brought just what he’d promised. One jam session later, the irrepressibly funky and melodic Feeling You, featuring Wonder on vocals and keyboards, was captured for posterity.
Several years then passed, during which time Omar stretched across into acting, developing and performing a successful one-man stage play, Lovesong, in between collaborations with all manner of artists as a much in-demand guest vocalist/co-writer.
And then, in 2012, he received notification that he was to be awarded an MBE ‘for services to the British Music Industry’ – a rare accolade for an artist never overtly focused on commercial or chart success. When it happened, the trip to Buckingham Palace saw Omar collect his MBE from Prince Charles, who told him, “Do drop off a copy of your new album.” “Will do,” promised Omar, who also immediately dedicated said next album “to all my die-hard fans who have always told me to keep on doing what I’m doing.”
The album duly arrived via respected indie label, Freestyle Records in 2013. And what a cracker it turned out to be. In fact, The Man was heralded by many as Omar’s strongest venture thus far, collaborations with keysman Daniel Fridell, Hidden Jazz Quartet and world renown bassist Pino Palladino adding to a collection that further evidenced the artist’s continued determination to evolve and expand his musical base. An upbeat, jazzy revival of There’s Nothing Like This, featuring the aforesaid Pino Palladino, worked a treat.
At the time he told Echoes magazine: “I do feel as if I’m getting better. Each album I’ve done, I’ve tried to do something a little bit different. I have my sound – as soon as you hear it, you know it’s me – but I always try to come up with something new too.”
Omar bridged the gap to his eighth album with an array of side projects: he revived his Lovesong one-man stage play, made weekly appearances on Javon Prince’s BBC TV comedy show, recorded and performed alongside fellow UK soulsters Junior Giscombe, Noel McKoy, Don-E and Leee John as The British Collective, and famously supported Stevie Wonder at 2016’s epic Hyde Park open-air concert.
When Love In Beats, Omar’s finally hit the stores in 2017, it featured a staggering array of guest talent. In one of his final collaborations, US soul legend Leon Ware co-wrote and sang on Gave My Heart, jazz pianist Robert Glasper and rapper Ty both appeared on the soundtracky Vicky’s Tune, and there was vital input elsewhere on the set from Guadeloupe-born singer Jean-Michele Rotin, UK soulstress Natasha Watts, The Floacist and Mayra Andrade. Like the majority of Omar’s work, it was mostly recorded at his own Backyard Studio in South London, once again with the assistance of his brother Scratch Prof.
In a busy 12 months, Omar also recorded, co-wrote and toured with British jazz legend Courtney Pine on his Black Notes From The Deep project.
All of which brings us to 2022 and these final thoughts from Omar himself:
“I have my own sound and I’m very proud of that. And I think, if you listen to The Anthology, you’re not only gonna hear that, but you can hear the evolution too. I still think I’m changing, still growing, still learning all these new and different things. My whole life goes into the music and it’s just a continued blessing.”