Rapper and producer Oh No — born Michael Woodrow Jackson — has many musical connections beyond sharing a first and last name with one of the most famous recording artists of all time. Growing up with famed super-producer Madlib as an older brother, Oh No’s father Otis Jackson performed as a respected soul singer for many years while his uncle Jon Faddis is a Grammy-nominated composer, conductor, musician, and esteemed educator at SUNY Purchase.
As early as five-years-old, Oh No started attending his father’s frequent studio sessions along with Madlib. This constant early exposure to music would prove integral in laying the foundation for his career as a producer. “Our father was real strict about us not clowning around when it came to music,” he told Wax Poetics in a 2007 interview. “There were always cats jamming in the studio, and my father made sure we were always there and well behaved. I was only like five years old then, but I remember funk being played 24–7.”
When his family started bringing instruments home to practice with, it only further cemented Oh No’s fascination with creating new combinations of sounds. “When my parents brought equipment in the house, I was all on it,” he told Above Average Hip Hop in a 2014 interview. “My mother used to have this keyboard, and she used to write music.”
“I’d go in there with the good butter knife, unlock it and have all kinds of beats. I’d have beats off of his records before he could make them.”
Oh No may have loved music from his earliest years, but his appreciation for rap music took a little longer to develop. Luckily, a steady stream of beats from his roommate and older brother Madlib helped him develop a taste for the emerging genre. “I wasn’t even feeling hip-hop at first,” he told Elemental Magazine in a 2004 interview. “I was real young and playing video games, but I started listening to it more because we shared a room and he kept playing it.”
And it wasn’t just any run of the mill type stuff. According to Oh No, Madlib only chose the finest gems for their shared-room soundtracks. “I was exposed to the illest hip-hop,” he told Wax Poetics. “Whether it was Run-DMC, Juice Crew, Rakim, or De La, Madlib played the dopest of the dope. I never heard any garbage.”
When Madlib picked up an SP-12 to advance his own burgeoning music career, Oh No decided to try his hand on the prestigious beat machine in spite of his brother’s protests. “When he started finding out I was making beats on his equipment he got real hot and was like, ‘You can’t go in there no more,’ and started locking his room,” he told Elemental Magazine. “So I’d go in there with the good butter knife, unlock it and have all kinds of beats. I’d have beats off of his records before he could make them.”
“I was only like five years old then, but I remember funk being played 24–7.”
Oh No’s life quickly became consumed by making and studying music, with his house providing an ideal educational setting for the budding artist. “If my brother wasn’t around, I’d be on his sampler,” he told Wax Poetics. “And if he was, I’d be watching and learning. Having my dad’s discipline, my brother’s influence, plus all their records? It was like the best training you could ask for.”
Madlib eventually graduated to an SP-1200, which Oh No also borrowed to construct his own soundscapes. But when his older brother moved out and brought the 1200 with him, it forced him to piece up on his own gear and further evolve his style. “I went and bought an MPC 2000 and started getting my own shit and flipped it different,” he told Elemental Magazine.
Part of flipping it different included applying the lessons of composition Oh No picked up from listening to video game soundtracks. By studying the way video game music was structured, he started to think more about how to best layer his own MPC compositions. “Layers in games, that kind of taught me about doing it on an MPC, with layers and stuff,” he told Red Bull Music Academy in a 2005 interview. “Like Zelda, for instance, if you walked in a dungeon, you’d hear the music playing. But if you played the flute with it at the same time, then it would cut the music and drop the bassline just with the flute, so something different. And I would add that with the old drum machines and stuff, then flip it into the MPC, and it’s like, a grown man’s tool.”
“A few blunts and its on. I mean there’s days when I can make 10–20 beats when I’m in the right mind frame. Usually it’s from the herbals or from me beating a game.”
Though Oh No admitted to spending a lot of time playing video games in several interviews, he also developed an absurd work ethic over the years — often cranking out beats at a pace comparable to Madlib. And in his eyes, video games aren’t detrimental to his music-making. In fact, he believes the creative acts of producing and playing video games work together in tandem. “Games and music go hand in hand,” he told Red Bull Music Academy. “Usually, when you’re playing games, you’re playing music to it or something. And when I make beats, I look at it like when I’m playing a game. I don’t play it just to play it, I play it to beat it, or play it to master it and have fun.”
When you read about his schedule in the early 2000s, it’s difficult to believe Oh No had time for video games at all. Prior to being a full-time musician, he worked long hours with cognitively impaired adults, often pulling eighty hours of work in a single week. Somehow, during these grueling shifts that sometimes went as long as twenty-four and thirty-two hours, he managed to keep up with a rigorous production schedule. “It would be so much that I’d just take a crate of records, unhook all my equipment, take it over there and make beats while everybody was asleep,” he told Elemental Magazine in 2004. “When they would wake up I’d unhook it, put it back in my car, get home and start doing it there until I fall asleep on the floor.”
“When I make beats, I look at it like when I’m playing a game. I don’t play it just to play it, I play it to beat it, or play it to master it and have fun.”
Keeping the same manic work schedule year after year would soon yield incredible results. And as the years progressed, video games remained a central part of his creative process. “I’ve got at least 20 albums worth of instrumentals and a few solo albums,” Oh No told RapReviews.com in a 2006 interview. “A few blunts and it’s on. I mean there’s days when I can make 10–20 beats when I’m in the right mind frame. Usually it’s from the herbals or from me beating a game.”
Oh No’s prolific music-making reached a state of overdrive in 2006 when former Stones Throw general manager and Now-Again Records founder and president Egon started working with oft-sampled composer, songwriter, and pianist Galt MacDermot. With Egon providing Oh No unprecedented access to the legendary creator’s catalog of work, he unleashed a creative firestorm that lead to his 2006 album Exodus Into Unheard Rhythms.
According to Oh No, he cranked out a jaw-dropping 10–12 beats in a single day by sampling nothing but MacDermot. And it didn’t stop there, as he essentially made 2–3 albums worth of instrumentals in a matter of days. “He [Egon] was working with Galt, sent me some of his stuff, and I flipped like 27 beats within three days,” he told RapReviews.com. “He went back to Galt, showed him my stuff, gave us the OK, and the rest is history.” By the time all was said and done, he had 33 MacDermot-sampled beats.
“I would add that with the old drum machines and stuff, then flip it into the MPC, and it’s like, a grown man’s tool.”
A few years later Oh No established the successful duo Gangrene with fellow rapper/producer The Alchemist. In addition to releasing a host of successful EPs and full-length projects, the formation of Gangrene led to Oh No’s lifelong love of video games coming full circle. The group helped score the critically acclaimed soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto V — one of the highest selling video games of all-time. “He [The Alchemist] was working on GTA Chinatown Wars, doing the music for the radio station, so I worked with him on that,” Oh No told Above Average Hip Hop while explaining how the opportunity presented itself. “I did drum work for Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare. From there Rockstar approached us (Alchemist and I) about working on GTA V and creating original soundscapes for each scene in the game. The rest is history.”
Once again, an intense and relentless work ethic seemed to be a part of the duo’s recipe for success, both with group projects and video game scoring. “We’re the same,” Oh No told HipHopDX in a 2009 interview while describing his relationship with The Alchemist. “We just heavily smoke. His whole thing is that it’s no days off; he’s always working. And anyone who knows me knows that all I do is work, non-stop.”
Beyond scoring highly successful games for some of the most popular companies in the industry and playing video games as part of his beat making process, Oh No has also sampled video games on several occasions. “I used to make beats out of video games,” he told Above Average Hip Hop — a process he further dissects in his Red Bull Music Academy interview.
“Having my dad’s discipline, my brother’s influence, plus all their records? It was like the best training you could ask for.”
Though Oh No used the phrase “used to” in his 2014 interview with Above Average Hip Hop, his episode of Mass Appeal’s “Rhythm Roulette” proved that he can still flip video game samples with the greatest of ease. With the episode filmed in celebration of Oh No and The Alchemist’s work on GTA V, the folks at Mass Appeal decided to put an interesting spin on the “Rhythm Roulette” series and have Oh No dig for video game cartridges instead of vinyl. In the episode he takes the Nintendo 64 releases NASCAR 99 and WCW/nWo Revenge and makes an impressive beat out of sounds from the games. The video serves as a compelling example for why producers should expand their sample source horizons if they haven’t already.
Between attending studio sessions with his father, mastering his brothers SP-12 and SP-1200, and eventually graduating to his own samplers and setup, Oh No has proven over that years that he is capable of reinventing himself again and again. From making 33 beats in a matter of days out of Galt MacDermot songs to re-contextualizing video game music into impressive instrumentals, he can effortlessly breathe new life into any sample source.
14 years after dropping his solo debut The Disrupt, Oh No has built a remarkable career that includes a massive cache of raps and production credits, documentary and TV scores for the likes of CBS, Fox, HBO, Cartoon Network, and a growing list of video game score contributions. Wherever his career takes him next, it is likely he will only further expand his already impressive resume.