This is the story of O -- Lil' O, to be exact. On a Friday morning, Lil' O, the street and studio persona of 20-year-old Houstonian Ore Magnus-Lawson, tears into the parking lot of a West Houston pool hall in a black Honda Accord. Sauntering into the vacant establishment, he sits his small, buff body down at a table to discuss the philosophy, the method, the Pandora's Box, if you will, of what makes Lil' O who he is today.
"It's a lot of things that makes Lil' O Lil' O, you know what I'm sayin'," he explains. "The streets made Lil' O. The way my family raised me made Lil' O. I've been to college -- college made Lil' O. What makes Lil' O is that I done seen a lot of different aspects of life."
As you may have guessed, Lil' O is a rapper, a rapper with tendencies toward truth, realism and referring to himself in the third person. His sobering, astute diligence as a performer so impressed the folks at MCA that the major label scooped him up and sent him off to work on his debut CD, My Struggle, My Hustle. The finished product bears the easygoing, '80s-reminiscent rap/hip-hop stamp of an impressive Gulf Coast production cast that includes Pimp C (Master P), Crazy C (Scarface) and Grizz (Geto Boys). It also features appearances by Willie D, UGK, DJ Screw, Houston girl-group sensation Destiny's Child and the late Fat Pat. My Struggle, My Hustle was scheduled to be in stores as early as last July, but the label moved the date back to February of '98. Now, it seems, the disc's release has been "indefinitely postponed." MCA offers no explanation for the delay, only the promise that it will be available before the year is out.
"My album is very descriptive," Lil' O says of his perpetually on-hold debut. "When you listen to my songs, I'm taking you to where I was, you get what I'm sayin'?"
Like many hip-hop performers before him, Lil' O loathes being pigeonholed. "People categorize me as a street rapper," he explains. "But if you really listen to me, I'm giving you two options. I'm not a person who just raps about it's all bad. I'm going to give you the good and the bad, and I'm gonna let you weigh your options."
Lil' O has been sampling the good and bad America has to offer ever since his family moved to southwest Houston from Nigeria when he was a baby. At the tender age of 16, Lil' O became a card-carrying member of the playas' club, dealing in illegal narcotics as a wholesaler, who, in his own words, "sold drugs to drug dealers to sell to drug fiends."
"I was wild at that time," he adds. "With that life came money, came women, came the clothes. To a kid that's 15 -- being picked up in Benzes and BMWs, having the baddest women and shopping every day -- it drew you in."
Back then, it appeared that no one could touch the Lil' one, even when the end was dangerously near. "It seemed it would last forever," he recalls. "But when people started dying, and friends start dying around you -- when your friends start getting locked up for life -- stuff starts sinking in."
For Lil' O, the turning point came in the winter of 1993. Out on bond for a drug charge, he was arrested again for aggravated possession. After he swallowed an ounce of crack cocaine to keep it from the police, his lungs collapsed and he sank into a coma.
"The doctors had already told my family that I was gonna die," Lil' O says. "I didn't know what was going on."
Much to the surprise of everyone, he came to: "What really messed me up was that my ankle was handcuffed to the bed. When I looked down, I'm on my deathbed, and I'm handcuffed; that's not a good feeling."
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After he recuperated, Lil' O was sent to prison, where the system gave him two options: Either rot in jail or get it together and go to college. Needless to say, he chose the latter, and with the government's financial help he was off to New Orleans to attend Xavier University. While dividing his life between Louisiana and Texas, he caught the ear of MCA A&R rep and hip-hop writer Bilal Allah, who happened to be in Houston working on an article for Rap Pages. The rest took care of itself.
On probation from a ten-year sentence, Lil' O transferred to the University of Houston last fall to be close to his family. "You can't take life for granted," he says. "Anything in life, you gotta get while you can."
To ensure that he has all his bases covered in that department, Lil' O has formed a spinoff act, the Bar None Click, and is setting up his own production company. So though he's still a young pup in the music business, he's growing up fast. But as for the business of life, you could say that he's aged prematurely.
"I've seen the ghetto. I've seen the suburbs. I've been to jail. I've been to college," he says. "Lil' O is focused. He knows exactly what he wants in life, because he's seen a lot of things. And that's what makes Lil' O, you know what I'm sayin'?