The Block Beat multimedia series is a collaboration with The TRiiBE that roots Chicago musicians in places and neighborhoods that matter to them.
"You a hooper?" asks the boy, cocking his head. He's one of several kids at Nat King Cole Park in Chatham, and they all seem to have similar questions about what Damon Coleman is doing there. A half-melted popsicle in the boy's hand drips onto the court and his shoes, but he doesn't seem to notice.
Coleman is six foot four, so it's easy to see why he might look like a ballplayer. But in his SB Dunk High Dog Walkers, camo pants, and Dreamville sweatshirt, he's hardly dressed for the court. He's 37, and though he moved back to Chicago a few years ago, this is the first time he's been to Cole Park in ages. He looks down at the kid and shakes his head, smiling. "Naw," he says. "I used to be."
These days, Coleman explains, he's a rapper and producer, and he goes by Omen. Since 2015, he's been signed to Dreamville Records, the label founded by his longtime friend J. Cole.
Except for his production on "BMO," a single from Ari Lennox's new Shea Butter Baby, fans haven't heard from Omen for almost four years—not since December 2015, when he contributed fan favorites "48 Laws" and "Caged Bird" to the Dreamville label compilation Revenge of the Dreamers II. But last month Dreamville gave fans their first taste of the long-awaited follow-up Revenge of the Dreamers III: the rapid-fire "Down Bad," featuring Earthgang, J. Cole, Bas, J.I.D, and Young Nudy, plus the mellow, melodic "Got Me," with Lennox, Ty Dolla Sign, Dreezy, and Omen. The album's release date was just announced as Friday, July 5, and this week two more songs dropped: "Lambo Truck" (with Cozz, Reason, and Childish Major) and "Costa Rica" (whose long list of credits includes Guapdad 4000, Reese LaFlare, Smokepurpp, Buddy, and Ski Mask the Slump God).
Omen put the ball down years ago, but in a way he's still playing the game. When Dreamville put out the first Revenge of the Dreamers in 2014, it included two songs he'd written and produced: "Motion Picture" and "Henny Flow" testify to his artistry as an introspective lyricist and versatile producer. And even then, Omen was no rookie: he already had the mixtapes Delayed (2010) and Afraid of Heights (2011) and the EP A Glorious Cool (2012) under his belt.
The 2015 studio album Elephant Eyes, Omen's official debut with Dreamville, was snatched from streaming services due to sample-clearance issues. "It definitely affected me and changed me, you know, because it was like—my trajectory, I felt, after working so hard and putting so much in, was headed upward," he explains. "I felt blindsided."
Since then, Omen has been hard at work on his second album, not yet titled, which he hopes to release later this year. But first comes ROTD III. "That will be my reintroduction into the world," he says.
- Omen at Nat King Cole Park
The music industry, like any game, has rules. And natural talent will only get you so far—greatness demands dedication. In grammar school, at Nat King Cole Park, Omen learned how to play. Cole Park has two courts—one for children and one for serious ballplayers.
"So on the big court, it was a privilege to even get on that court," he says. "And you had to basically win so you can stay on." For Omen, who hasn't yet achieved the star status of labelmate J. Cole, the parallels to the industry couldn't be more clear.
The sky promises rain on this muggy afternoon, but the rules of Cole Park still reign. The teenagers are playing 21 on the big court, and the younger kids are shooting around on the smaller one.
Since Cole Park opened in 1967, many legends have graced those courts. Derrick Rose played on them in the early 2000s, back when the annual Cole Park Classic tournament and clinic was still happening. Rumor has it even Michael Jordan passed through.
"I heard Quentin Richardson was up here one time," Omen says. "But I never witnessed anybody playing—I just would hear stories."
- Omen first started going to Cole Park in grammar school, and it’s still a magnet for kids who need a place to play basketball.
Omen grew up in Chatham in the 80s with musicians for parents. His father sang for a 70s R&B group called the 21st Century that had formed in Chicago. In 1974, they had a minor hit single, "Remember the Rain?" Omen's mother was an aspiring singer, and his stepfather not only sang but also played piano, bass, and guitar. "Creativity was big in my family," Omen remembers. "Just naturally I was surrounded by it."
Omen started playing piano very young, but music wasn't a priority for him yet. He had hoop dreams. In grammar school, after class he'd head straight to Cole Park, where he and his friends would get on the court and hoop.
The park taught him important lessons. "A sense of camaraderie—I feel like I got that from being here," Omen says. As part of the tight-knit Dreamville roster, he knows that the ability to collaborate is essential.
While in high school at Kenwood Academy, Omen started a rap group with friends called Area 51, but he didn't take it seriously. He still wanted to be like Mike.
"So obviously, Jordan was my favorite, favorite player, but I didn't feel like I played like him," he says. "I felt more like a Penny Hardaway or like Allen Iverson." For an artist in Omen's position, those are symbolic choices: though he's not as successful as some of the other Dreamers, he's had an undeniable impact on the label.
One thing Omen did have in common with Jordan, though, was a fiercely competitive nature. "I was mellow until someone started talking," he says. He recalls one particular game of five-on-five at Cole Park: "I get on a fast break, and basically I dunked on this guy who was just talking crazy," he remembers. "He actually went to high school with me. He never forgot that, and the people that was there never forgot that."
Omen kept playing until his sophomore year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in creative writing. It was then that he came to terms with a hard truth: he wasn't going to the NBA.
- Omen hasn’t forgotten that the road to Dreamville Records took him through Cole Park.
"I think I had the desire and I had some of the talent, but the other ingredient is basically the work ethic," Omen says. Back then, he says, his mentality was "childlike." He failed to understand that chasing a dream isn't always fun. "All of the things that I'm using now, in this career, is what I had to learn."
The decision to stop playing basketball would shape the rest of Omen's life. He immediately dedicated himself to music, a passion he realized had been there from the start, hidden in the background. "So I really look at basketball as almost like a blessing. It's like a reminder," he says. "You gave up once before. Now you've got something really tangible, something you've been working hard at—something you enjoy. Don't take it for granted."
In 2004, as a senior at UIUC, Omen performed as part of the Cotton Club, an annual Black variety show in Champaign. After five years spent juggling the desire to make art and the need to pay bills, he appeared on "The Badness," a track from J. Cole's 2009 debut mixtape, The Warm Up. He'd moved to New York and was working closely with Cole, and his own career started to warm up too. It was the culmination of a friendship that had begun Omen's sophomore year at Kenwood: back then Cole was still living in North Carolina, and the two high-schoolers, both fans of Jamaican-born rapper Canibus, met on a fansite.
Omen has been involved with Dreamville Records since its inception in 2007, but it wasn't until the release of Elephant Eyes that he officially became part of its roster. This year, he formally signed with Interscope, Dreamville's parent label and distributor. He's also featured in Revenge: A Dreamville Film, a documentary about the January 2019 sessions for ROTD III that dropped Tuesday, July 2.
Omen is now a full-time rapper and producer, but he remembers working three jobs at once in 2010, early in his New York years—the Gap, a tennis club, and a telemarketing call center. He also hasn't forgotten that the road to Dreamville took him through Cole Park. After a hiatus of almost four years, he has the ball back in his court. ROTD III and his long-awaited second solo album will give him the chance to cement his position in the game. His previous work with Dreamville has earned him admission to the big court; now he has to show the world that he deserves to stay on.
"The biggest influence Cole Park probably had on me is just giving me a lot of fight, you know? A lot of integrity. I think a lot of the qualities that Chicago is known for in general, I learned them at this park," Omen says. "I learned how to deal with real life out here." v