In driving to pick up O.C.—he of the glasscutter voice, seminal Word…Life and Jewelz albums, and membership with archetypal rap collective Diggin’ in the Crates—I was reminded of the words of another iconic Brooklynite: “I come scoop you in that coupe, sittin’ on deuce-zeroes.” Very different context, naturally, but similar logistics. My head swirled during the trip: how best to couch this, how to balance D.I.T.C.’s vestigial clout and current appeal.

Then it occurred to me: allow the truth to be its own preface. D.I.T.C. has had a volatile history: brushes with the law; the slaying of rising superstar MC Big L; rifts amongst the remaining members. “Like Lord Finesse always said,” O.C. would reflect, “we’re all Alphas. And when you get that many chefs in the kitchen, there are bound to be problems. Shit, I didn’t see Finesse for three years prior to making [2016’s] Sessions album. It really bothered me when I went to Sean Price’s wake. When I arrived, everybody said Finesse had just left. So on top of feeling like it’s déjà vu—with Diggin’ and Big L—I didn’t want to see ‘Nesse on these terms. That woke me up. I was like, ‘Yo, I gotta let this shit go. I don’t care who apologizes to who because this could’ve been me or you. I don’t wanna go out like that. So I apologized; I don’t care who was wrong or right.”

So the story is about growth, personal and artistic. D.I.T.C. still has the power to captivate in the now while retaining rights to the past: “Some consultants recently told us that D.I.T.C. is a multimillion dollar brand,” O.C. would remark. “That surprised even us.” But commas and zeroes don’t accurately author D.I.T.C.’s legacy—a legacy that lives in the hearts and minds of listeners who, for the past quarter century, have held its projects and members up as benchmarks. Count this author among those refusing to let go. Note the insert, an art piece that hangs on my wall. It’s a mockup of a Helly Hansen jacket emblazoned with Big L’s classic single “Put It On.”

But growth can only be called growth if it’s perpetual, a lesson artists and fans alike struggle with: “A lot of people still want that 1994 shit,” O.C. would growl. “So it’s like, ‘Keep listening to that album. You’ll get exactly what you want.’ But people don’t understand. Nobody’s the same person they were 20 years ago. I can’t possibly make the same kinds of records. I wouldn’t try to. But that’s what has my drive so high right now; I’m feeling like I’m back in ‘91 or ‘92, grinding in my mom’s basement. When I had to take the train everywhere. I do the same thing now. It could be three in the morning and I’m coming back from Showbiz’s studio uptown. I’ll take the train, smelling the stinky-ass piss and seeing all the homeless people. All that shit is fuel for me. It gives me something to talk about.”

As it turned out, it gave O.C. and me plenty to talk about, too.

Fresh off his successful solo album Same Moon Same Sun (1st Phase), the veteran rapper discusses all things D.I.T.C.—from the birth of the collective to its current status, and the legacy of Big L.

Let me get this out of the way early: my MySpace name back in the day was Big_L_RIP.

O.C.: Wow. MySpace.

Yeah. Figured I’d lock in my credibility with that one. Moving on…

O.C.: [laughs]

Most heads know the Big L genesis story: how he accosted Lord Finesse while he was record shopping in Harlem, spit for him, and basically two weeks later appeared on the “Yes You May” remix. Tell us a story that only you know.

O.C.: After the Jewelz album came out, “Dangerous” was popping. This was the first time I got real radio play—despite having no ads, no video, no nothing. Fat Joe was on my ass about doing a video, like “Yo, that record could go.” Fast forward, Showbiz told me and L to meet him at this crib he had around the corner from Harlem Hospital. We walked in. and he gave me and L separately two bags; like two bags each. He’s like, “Yo, y’all gonna do an album together.” L was like, “For this, dogs? Shit, you got any more?” We started laughing. Show bagged us up and gave us some bread—quite a few g’s, just to start—just for the idea. We knew it wasn’t no free money; Show really had a vision about us doing an album together.

Which obviously never materialized…

O.C.: Yeah. The first record we did was called “Get Yours.” Diamond D got added to it later, when it appeared on the Black Mask soundtrack. That was the only record we ended up recording for that album; he got murdered right after.

Here’s something that has always confused me about L: rap is one genre in particular that deifies the dead. Even still, L hovers in this nebulous space; he’s beloved by an underground sect, but you can’t ask the average fan about him, whereas you can ask the average fan about much lesser MCs. What was Big L like?

O.C.: Quiet on the surface, but a beast when you pushed him. For instance: Showbiz would be randomly in his hood somewhere, spittin’. He would call L and wake him up, wherever he was at: “Yo, I got $500 for you, hop in a cab and come uptown real quick.” L would get out the cab, yawning, like, “What up dog?”—real cocky and dismissive. And he would shut down a whole cypher. L was not normal. He had rhymes upon rhymes upon rhymes. He was so genius that he had specific shit for people that he never met. I feel like when he went on the radio with Jay-Z, his whole shit changed. He found his pocket and it was scary. He scared a lot of dudes.

What about his creative process?

O.C.: Fluid, man. Constant and fluid. Like, I heard the inception of “Ebonics” on the road, touring for Jewelz. We was in Europe, on Spirit Airlines or some shit. He’s like, “Yo, dogs, check this out: When I’m lifted I’m high, with new clothes on I’m fly, cars is whips and sneakers is kicks…” and I’m like, “Ok, what comes next? He said, “That’s it.” I was like, “Get the fuck away from me, man. You woke me up for that shit?” And he’d do that shit all day. That’s how his mind worked. I took it for granted at the time. But now I look back on it and just shake my head.

Speaking of looking back, how does his death sit with you now, especially since D.I.T.C. has been getting a lot of recent burn: Fat Joe’s success, the Sessions album, and your solo stuff?

O.C.: Think about it like this: Me and L toured before he got murdered. After we came home, we always spoke, but I didn’t physically see him after that tour. And I’ve always regretted that, even though it was something that couldn’t be helped. I had to let go—not in the sense of forgetting about him, but I don’t want to celebrate his death. There’s enough of that. I’m not putting up pictures and shit anymore on the anniversary of his death. People ask me “Yo, you not doing that?” Who the fuck is you to ask me that? This was my peoples. And I’m not explaining it anymore, either.

That’s why I did the record “Real Life” Parts 1&2. I held on to this shit because it really happened in those streets that night. I was pissed at him because he didn’t show up to the studio—not realizing he was laid out. I think Show took it the hardest because he and Fat Joe actually went down and seen him: his boots sticking out of the bloody sheet. But Show and Joe both packed it away, because they’re not emotional dudes; they’re not going to show their feelings. But if I’m dealing with it from a distance, imagine how they’ve dealt with it? Imagine how people deal with things like that in general, man. It’s everyday. Then they got L’s brother Lee as soon as he came home: Finesse sat with Lee in an IHOP that day and he got murdered that night. Then L’s mom died. That’s not just tragedy; that whole family basically disappeared.

That disconnect is another of rap’s unsettling nuances: how the subject matter can be genuine pain to the artist and nothing but a clever line to a listener. So let’s reminisce on better things. How did D.I.T.C. come together?

O.C.: Diggin’ got a backwards-ass story: we came out as individuals, and then came together. As opposed to coming out as a group and then branching off, D.I.T.C. was always a production company prior. But I’m happy things happened that way; we didn’t want to be another Wu-Tang Clan.

Walk us through the specifics.

O.C.: Our history is so weeble-wobble, it’s crazy. I don’t even remember meeting some of these dudes. It was just like, all of a sudden everybody was around and we were crewed. I have to make up some lies about how I met dudes [laughs]. Initially, it was Diamond D, Showbiz, Lord Finesse, and unofficial members like Kid Capri and DJ Premier, because Show taught Preem how to use the SP12 [E-mu SP-1200 sampler] and the 950 [Akai S950 sampler]. There was another unofficial-but official-member of DITC; his name is Ogee, and he produced on my debut album.

But here’s the longer version: in 1991, I went on the first Source Tour with Organized Konfusion, because I had just done “Fudge Pudge.” It was me, Roxanne Shante, Biz Markie, The Almighty RSO, and MC Serch. Serch kept asking me if I was part of Organized Konfusion, but I think he was just fishing. Sidenote: I don’t give Serch enough credit, man. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here—me or Nas. Period. He gave me a career. He gave Nas a career. A lot of people are eating because of MC Serch.

Anyway, Finesse had to leave the tour to do the Trespass soundtrack because he was signed with Rhyme Syndicate. So Ice-T flew him out, and he came back with Buckwild for a few dates. That’s how we three met. That’s how my relationship with Diggin’ started. And that’s where the D.I.T.C. history starts. After the Source Tour, me and Buck started doing demos. It wasn’t no, “Yo, you wanna get down with us?” I went uptown to Buck’s crib and we just started doing demos, early Word…Life shit. We had three, four versions of records like “O-Zone.” Buck is the unsung hero of Diggin’; he got like 50 plaques in our studio—the most of anyone. But Word…Life was his coming out party.

I didn’t meet anybody else until I got the album deal on Wild Pitch. I hadn’t met Big L, Fat Joe or Diamond D. I hadn’t met Show or A.G. yet, but they were already together. Finesse had put Show & A.G. together. That was some crazy shit; Finesse and A.G. had gone to different high schools. Somehow Finesse heard that A.G. was the nicest in his high school. A.G. heard Finesse was the nicest at his high school. This is a time when people used to go up to each other’s high school and battle. So ‘Ness and A. got busy. Sidebar, they battled DMX too. But that’s another story.

Big L, you know about: once Finesse heard him, he was like “I gotta let Show and Diamond hear him.” This kid is in high school and, next thing you know, L got a deal on Columbia. And Show and Finesse are the executive producers of his album. It’s just crazy, man. I love this life: you never know how things are gonna unfold. How destiny plays a path.

Fat Joe happened because Diamond D is a genius. He seen something in Joe. Sidenote: the only person I never been around too much is Diamond. Diamond never even produced a record for me and I just realized that recently. Man, he never did a solo joint for me. But Diamond is Diamond, and he is the O.G. of the crew. And I don’t mean in age, but in stature. He can’t do nothing wrong for me; it’s nothing but respect.

So, back to Joe: he was in the streets, wilin’, and Diamond was like, “Yo, you need to get into this music shit.” Diamond just saw something in him. But Joe wasn’t hearing it right away, because his brothers and his mans was still in the streets. Then he started going to Finesse’s shows. From his mouth, it quickly became “Finesse, you’re the best rapper” at that time. But really it hit home when he realized, “Oh shit, you can make a living off this? Like this shit is possible?” It became what he wanted to do. But Joe said from jump “I want to be a star, I wanted this.” He created that. He wanted super stardom from day one.

That never bothered you?

O.C.: That actually helped us.

You figured it elevated the crew.

O.C.: Yeah. Because none of us can run from that D.I.T.C. brand. Not even him. I don’t care what he did with Terror Squad or Remy Ma; he’s always tagged with D.I.T.C. Every question from this magazine to the nondescript magazine that you’ve never heard of that did an interview with him, always ask him about D.I.T.C. He can never escape that. None of us. So it’s all love.

Here’s the funny thing, though. Before Joe dropped “All The Way Up,” there was talks of a D.I.T.C. tour. And people’s fronting on the bread. Fast forward a year after that shit went Platinum, and people like, “Yo, ‘Ness. Can we still work on that?” And Finesse is like, “You know the prices went up, right?” On top of that, the billing has to be Fat Joe featuring D.I.T.C. now. And It’s supposed to be like that. I’d be happy to take his scraps.

Even still, I feel like it’s my time to wear the D.I.T.C. brand on my back. I’m doing what Sean P did for Boot Camp. Everybody in D.I.T.C. has had the chance to lead: Finesse, Diamond, Show & AG. I feel like it’s my time now. That’s why I’m following up [Same Moon Same Sun] “1st Phase” with “2nd Phase: Road to Perdition.” There’s an appetite out there. I know it sounds insensitive, but Big L brought worth to the brand by dying. Nobody asked for that. That sounds ugly, but it’s the truth; the ugly truth. So I actually call us “D.I.T.C. Immortals” now. I tag everything D.I.T.C. Immortals. We didn’t know what we was. We just was making music. But this shit is special, man. You can’t talk to the dead. So I’m gonna keep creating as long as I keep breathing.

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