Instep talks to hardcore Pindi boy Osama Karamat Ali Shah about why he became a rapper, his journey from Florida to Pakistan, the decision to pursue medicine and what separates him from other rappers of his generation.
Rap music in Pakistan is growing at such rapid speed that it is almost surprising. But, from languages to cities to personal stories, rap in Pakistan has a narrative behind it.
One particularly strong case is that of Osama Karamat Ali Shah, better known as Osama Com Laude (OCL). Recently in Karachi, we first met at an editorial shoot for Instep where Osama was being a complete sport – despite being out of his element. But my memory of Osama as an artist comes from the Mad Decent Block Party in Pakistan that was held last February and Osama, playing in a show that also featured the likes of SNKM, Major Lazer, Chrome Sparks, Valentino Khan, Shamoon Ismail, Lyari Underground and several others, managed to hold his own and had the crowd with him.
The early years: the birth of No Front
The editorial shoot aside, while researching Osama to speak to him at a later date again, I came across ‘The Balance’ – one of Osama’s first tracks.
The video apparently got flak for promoting suicide but upon watching it, I, at least believe that it was not a promotion but rather a showcase of trying to find balance and getting so lost that, just for a moment, suicide seems like an option. It was more like an effort to understand what can go through someone’s head when attempting something of such magnitude.
“That was one of my first solo songs; I had a bunch of solos after that,” confirms OCL. The track was followed by several others until Osama disappeared from the scene and then of course returned.
His music is good, but why a rapper, I ask him. People have different ways of letting out their creativity from poetry to writing to singing – why rap music? Especially at a time when the genre was not blowing up like it is now.
“I kind of grew up on pop music,” OCL begins to explain. “If you remember, in the late nineties, hip-hop was there but especially in America pop was big and that was when MTV used to show music and not reality shows.
“My older sister listened to pop music with Bollywood music so I was always pulled towards melodies and singing and that kind of thing,” he continues. “But I didn’t have anyone to guide me into that kind of thing. In actuality, I wanted to become a singer like the Backstreet Boys.”
But the era of pop was soon going to change and it did as Eminem came onto the scene with ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and an 11-year-old Osama recorded on a stereo (the good old analog days) on a cassette the songs he wanted to hear. Then came Nelly. “Rap was dominated in the east and the west, Nelly was from the mid-west, which is considered like a village in comparison in America,” says OCL. “Everyone at the time was doing like this hardcore and in-your-face kinda thing; Nelly was about melodies and was singing and rapping so I credit those two as my biggest influences.”
The early years were followed by the formation with his best friends – Devin aka The Beast and Mike aka Myca C – of a group called No Front. Back then, Osama had a different musical alias.
“We were mixing songs with our verses and our main thing was developing a style, how to be on beat, have rhythm and melody.”
When graduating from high school in 2005, the three best friends doing remixes as well as solo stuff got serious. I had a 4.0 GPA and No Front decided to get serious. “Mike became Mighty Mike and Devin became The Devastator and the timing was right because The Transformers film had just come out.” And the 4.0 GPA kid, an A-grade student Osama didn’t know what to do with his stage-name. So he took his ‘summa cum laude’ – the highest distinction you get from High School – into the stage name: Osama Com Laude.
OCL is clear that he doesn’t want to lose his roots and where he comes from, which begs the question, where does the Pakistani-American rapper come from?
Having shifted to Orlando, Florida, when he was four or five years old, OCL maintains that No Front is still technically together. “Because of distance and adult responsibilities, but when I was there in 2016, we did some stuff together and were on the same page, maybe because of the childhood thing that we grew up together. It’s something that’s going to be there for life.”
From No Front to Pindi’s OCL
“One fine day, my mother says, ‘why don’t you become a doctor’,” recounts OCL about his segue from No Front to medicine. “I’m an 18-year-old kid, oblivious to everything and I think okay maybe I’ll get to explore life a little bit and enjoy growing up by myself.”
He admits that given just how expensive education is in the United States, coming to Pakistan to study medicine was, for one thing, a financial decision. For another, his American High School education allowed him to join a medical college in Pakistan right away as opposed to the USA where there are a bunch of things like pre-med to go through before enrolling in medicine.
While in Pakistan, Osama decided to pursue music on the side because he was never someone to just sit still and only study. But he informed his band members (No Front) and told them that if this works, “I’ll pull you guys up with me, like 50 Cent did with G-Unit.”
It began with a series of performances in 2008 and some OCL tracks ending up on radio. “In 2009, Ali Zafar came to perform at my college (R.M.C.) and I asked him – I remixed your song a couple of years ago, it is up on your MySpace page – would you mind it if I perform it with you? He said sure, let’s do a sound check and if it sounds cool, we can do it. We ended up performing. That got the buzz going.”
OCL followed it up with the collaborative ‘Desi Thumka’ and a series of singles including ‘Pakistani’ that earned more than 100k hits within a week on YouTube, went viral and was trending on a North American channel called Jadu TV.
As OCL saw it then – he wasn’t hitting the market – and decided to take a musical hiatus and fully invest himself in medicine. “I got that done and after that I came back with ‘Baghdad’ and ‘Chaklala Scheming’.”
A Pindi boy through and through, OCL says that these recent singles have been in the pipeline for years. “Being an independent artist, it is really not easy. So you have to get everything on your own; fund your own video. At the end of the day, when you put your product out, the feedback is usually worth it.”
In 2019, OCL is releasing his new single, ‘Dil’ on Valentine’s Day. “I’ve always been about the masses; English is a niche audience. I’m confident ‘Dil’ will do that. I’ll put out the video a month later.”
I ask Osama that in order to make it to mainstream, you have to hustle – in terms of movies, acting, live shows, good projects.
“My older brother said your music is not doing as well so do what Will Smith did, like he did movies and use that as a platform for your music. I was like, Will Smith is not a bad guy to look up to. So, I’ll continue to release singles. I work with a core team in Pakistan; Mrkle is my main man when it comes to recording, mixing and mastering. Huz Kai is my dude for production and fresh sound. He produced ‘Sunshine, ‘Baghdad’ and the upcoming ‘Dil’. For video, I’m doing ‘Dil’ with Meiraj Haq with whom I also did the video for ‘Chaklala Scheming’. I’ll keep working with them and do singles and do an album when I have the proper backing behind it.”
Breaking into mainstream
Since the editorial shoot in Instep, says OCL, people have gotten in touch with him from the entertainment industry at large. “A lot of big names gave their support. It didn’t surprise me. Everybody knows who you are. It’s just that our industry is such that acknowledgment isn’t public. A lot of feedback and support came. You should know your own limits and according to that, I’m not surprised. And now that I have the platform, I’m not going to waste it – whether it comes in the form of movies, acting, TV,” says OCL.
“The rap market in Pakistan will grow, particularly with Gully Boy coming out and I really want to take everything to the mainstream, be it movies, songs, TV. What I can do is hit that mainstream, get that shine of the country on the rap and hip hop community.”
In addition to being a melodious rapper, OCL and his buddies in America – each with their own expertise – have launched Alphaholics. OCL has founded the Pakistani chapter of the American fitness brand with core team members The OG and Talal Kazmi.
“We trained together and want to be the best versions of ourselves. My buddy, Josh, came up with the name Alphaholics. But Alpha, in this context, means maximizing your potential and we wanted to launch it as a brand. We had the logo done and everything but because I was here and the guys were there, we weren’t able to do it properly. What ended up happening is that last year I came on board for these boot camps that are happening across Pakistan. I told Josh and Devin that we have a client list here so let me launch it here. We’re doing two back to back classes in Pindi. We’re training people to be ready for anything. Our thing is to get the blue collar middle class community in Pakistan healthy from what they eat to speaking positive to making the best of everything. We will launch it on social media pretty soon. I want this to go worldwide.”
Before concluding, OCL explains, “Back home when guys make it out of the ghetto or the hood, like ‘when they make it’ they always pull up those close to them; like Kevin Hart, whose buddies are doing his PR or one thing or another. So, I’m adamant to get to a point where I can pull up people and whoever deserves it – with me.”