Designated by many as the father of British neo-soul (though his impact extends to U.S. shores as well), singer/songwriter/producer Omar began as one of the U.K.'s most promising R&B hopefuls with his early-'90s international hit "There's Nothing Like This." Unintentionally avoiding pop stardom, he chose never to compromise his artistic credibility, and because of that, people like India.Arie, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone, Gilles Peterson, and his biggest idol, Stevie Wonder, are all personal fans (with the prior three naming him an influence). Although he gets thrown into the R&B category, Omar has no real definitive boundaries. In interesting new ways with each album, he has molded soul and urban music to fit his wide variety of influences, including ragga, hip-hop, funk, jazz-pop, rock, and Latin/Caribbean dance. Despite his lack of chart success, his original techniques have garnered him a strong legion of followers in the U.K. and a devoted fan base in diverse regions across the world.
Born October 14, 1968, in London but raised in Canterbury, Omar Lye-Fook couldn't escape the call to music even if he'd tried. His father, Byron Lye-Fook, was a studio musician and drummer who worked with reggae greats Bob Marley and Horace Andy, as well as the Rolling Stones. At age five, Omar was already learning how to play the drums. During his grade school years, he completed formal training in piano, trumpet/coronet, and other percussion instruments, but he also taught himself to play the bass, emulating Level 42 guitarist Mark King. As a part of various brass, jazz, and percussion ensembles, the young prodigy performed in Italy, Brazil, and the U.S. before turning 15 years old. By the time he was a student at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music in London, he was too tempted to pursue a professional career and left after one year. Recording for his father's Kongo label, Omar debuted in 1985 with the single "Mr. Postman" at age 16. With Kongo following up with a series of buzz-worthy white labels throughout the late '80s, Omar's favorable reception continued to grow because of his classic yet updated soul approach -- years before neo-soul became an acknowledged subgenre.
"There's Nothing Like This" first broke out in 1990. It peaked in the U.K.'s Top 20 the following year and remained on top of the R&B and dance charts for several weeks. This was at a time when acid jazz and house were the dominant urban forms in Britain. The soulful ballad got Omar signed to pioneering disc jockey Gilles Peterson's Talkin' Loud imprint. He recorded the albums There's Nothing Like This (1990), which was compiled from his earlier Kongo recordings, and Music (1992), a more mature outing, both in terms of his musicianship and singing. (On some of these earlier recordings, he is credited as Omar Hammer, derived from his stepfather's last name.) For his following two albums, For Pleasure (1994) and This Is Not a Love Song (1997), he moved on to major-label RCA. The former had him in the studio with ex-Motown songwriters and producers Leon Ware and Lamont Dozier, who were both fans of his music. But on the latter album, keyboardist/producer David Frank (Chaka Khan, Phil Collins, Christina Aguilera, and his own group, the System) took the reins of the album's direction.
Omar never received the type of promotion he'd expected when joining RCA's roster, and so he parted ways with the label, finding himself on the French-based Naïve Records. Citing influences of soundtrack compositions and Latin jazz, he had much more personal space to work with on the 2000 effort Best by Far, indulging in his signature string and horn arrangements. However, a long period of inactivity ensued following the 2000 recording, although he did appear on U.S. rapper Common's Electric Circus LP in 2004. During that time, Omar constructed his own studio and established the record label Blunt Music. At this point in his career, he felt more independent than ever before, and with extreme satisfaction, he released his sixth studio album, Sing (If You Want It), in 2006. Both U.S. (Common, Angie Stone) and U.K. artists (Rodney P, Estelle) paid homage to Omar, recording guest vocals for the album, but his crowning achievement was the Stevie Wonder duet "Feeling You," a song that Wonder had evidently promised him 15 years earlier. Omar's brother, hip-hop/reggae producer Scratch Professor, also contributed, offering more drum-kicking rhythms for the dancefloor. At the end of the year, the Urban Music Awards, which acknowledge urban music artists around the globe, finally gave Omar its long overdue praise, bestowing upon him the Best Neo-Soul Act and Outstanding Achievement Awards. A lengthy break from music followed. He got involved with acting, and in 2012, his recording career was acknowledged once more when he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire. The next year, he released The Man on the Shanachie label with guest appearances from Caron Wheeler and Pino Palladino. Love in Beats, featuring soul legend Leon Ware on highlight "Gave My Heart," followed on the Freestyle label in 2017. ~ Cyril Cordor
BORNOctober 14, 1968