In Part 1 of this interview, Lyrics Born described his new album Real People, his creative process, and what it was like to record in New Orleans. In Part 2, LB goes in even deeper on working in the studio with Galactic, the Bay Area-NoLa connection, his own quirky fashion sense (acid-washed denim, yo!) and musical evolution, and how cycles come back around. If you’re reading this today (May 15), don’t miss your chance to see LB perform tracks off the new album tonight at SF’s Independent.
Oakulture: tell me a little bit about the songwriting process on Real People. What did you draw inspiration from, other than the culture of New Orleans?
Lyrics Born: Right, ok, I wanted to do an album that was really earthy… I thought there was plenty in hip-hop about… I don’t know, we sort of took a narcissistic turn in hip-hop. I just didn’t really feel like that was realistic for everybody. It’s really great in a lot of ways… when you’re in an industry, in a culture that is constantly beating you down, it’s important to be able to say, I’m the best. And that’s why hip-hop was always so awesome to me, because people had no qualms about talking about how great they were. But to people that were unfamiliar with the culture, they don’t realize, we’re a group of outsiders. We’re being told every day that we don’t have rights. We’re being told every day that our opinion doesn’t matter. We’re being told every day we dress funny, we talk funny, we look funny. So, y’know, it’s important to answer that. With sort of an LL Cool J/Kanye, no fuck you, I’m the best. Its like positive reinforcement. I get that part. But like all other things, it became pervasive. And then it’s just kinda like, whoa. Ok. I don’t think we’re actually addressing who we really are as human beings. It’s not really a well-rounded view of who we are. If we’re all talking about us and what we own and what we spend and what we wear, that doesn’t… because I know the reality of what it’s like to be an artist.
Oakulture: Right, if there’s no other context for it.
Lyrics Born: Right, if you’re still having problems still keeping the lights on and this, that, and a third, I think that is what Real People’s about. In my case, it’s about coming to this country at a very early age, even situations like “Holy Matrimony,” [which is about] marriage, adulthood; “Around the Bend” is kinda hitting that stage in your life where you feel like you’re finally getting a piece of the American Dream, and then there’s also the more trivial aspects of daily life, like in confidence, people being chatty, and it’s off the cuff. And then there’s just a lot of stuff there, like “WTF,” I’m kind of talking about how the world has changed, post-Recession America. There’s also like the good-time release, and the celebration of each other, things like “All Hail the Queen” or “Rock Away.” We have to keep in mind, for me, the music at its best is also fun. It’s a fun experience.
Oakulture: It sounds like you’re having fun on the record.
Lyrics Born: I am. I’m having a ball, because I really felt like this soundscape, this musical environment is perfect for me right now. It’s perfect for me. And just, for me as an artist and a performer, one of the things which gets me high is seeing people having a good time. I’m doing my job when people are having a good time. That’s one aspect of what I do.
Oakulture: Is there an advantage to making a record with so much live music, when you translate that to live performance?
Lyrics Born: Yeah. There is an advantage, because it has that electricity. It has that feel. And it translates easily. People make mistakes, musicians might play a wrong note , but it’s human. And in that context, it’s much more forgiving. And it’s natural. It translates differently. But still, if you go to a club and someone throws on some trap, and you feel that bass, there’s nothing that can replicate that. That’s what special to me about trap. What’s special about live music, about what I do, is these are human beings who are working together to play this music. It’s a group, team effort. It’s that synergy and that electricity when people mesh. And hopefully, you get a feeling from that.
Oakulture: It’s also a very sort of uptempo, active sound. I’ve talked to Boots [Riley] in the past and he doesn’t perform anything, hardly anything, from the first two Coup records. Because the tempos are so slow, they were made for how people were listening to the music at the time, which was riding around in the car. and then, he gets to the point where he has a live band, he’s performing live, and you need uptempo stuff. You can’t play that slow stuff with a live band.
Lyrics Born: Right. It’s true. You’re talking kinda era-specific things. But you’re also talking contextual things. That was made for riding around. Music has changed. His career has changed. All of our careers have changed. I would be lying to you now if I said that what I do isn’t much more live-based. I’ve always spent a lot of time on the road, but now, it’s mandatory. So I have to make music that goes over well live. My longevity, my livelihood as an artist is dependent upon me performing in front of people. So these things have to translate well live.
“The thing that’s interesting about both the Bay and New Orleans is, they’re both these crazy, unique, places. When you talk about the Bay Area, there’s the Bay Area, and then there’s California. There’s New Orleans, and then there’s Louisiana. That’s something that those two cities really have in common.” -Lyrics Born
Oakulture: And then there’s the other thing too, of being a Bay Area artist, which sort of stereotypes you as being a regional dude. But at the same time, throughout your whole career, you’ve built these bridges, and you’ve built these fanbases in all these different places which has allowed you to get outside the Bay. It seems like that’s somewhat attributable to, or a factor of, your longevity.
Lyrics Born: Yeah, I would agree. I would say so. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I never made mob music. I never made hyphy. I never did that. It doesn’t mean I didn’t play the shit out of it in my car or in my house. As much as I love those artists, it’s not my lane. It’s not what I do. I remember when hyphy was huge and I was working with 40, I was working with Fab, and I was working with so and so. People would ask me, because hyphy became a national phenomenon, so, LB, are you gonna make a hyphy album? I said, naw, I make Lyrics Born albums. I may work with these guys, I may incorporate some of that into what I do, which I did. But im not just gonna drop everything and move on to this sound and move on to that sound. I make Lyrics Born albums. Whatever that means. That’s what I do.
Oakulture: I think it’s been hard for Bay Area artists in the post-hyphy era, people are sort of like, what is our sound? What should we be gravitating toward? The idea that you have to have a regional sound, but then that becomes something that can also play you out, when it no longer becomes the flavor of the month. But on the other hand, someone like you, you have an eclectic sensibility in how you approach it, and that gives you a broader base to draw from. So you end up not getting played out. You can’t say, LB, we left him back in the hyphy era.
Lyrics Born: Right. Well, you know, the other thing I know though, just from being a record collector and a longtime music fan is that everything comes back around. Everything cycles. I wouldn’t be surprised if four or five years from now, suddenly there’s a hyphy resurgence. Like these sort of hyphy-infused kind of tracks. You already see it now, with 90s hip-hop and what Joey Bada$$ is doing, a lot of what Action Bronson is doing and so forth. And even in fashion too. I see, man, a lot of kids rocking 90s gear. Tommy Hilfiger jackets, Karl Kani, all the things that we used to wear. So you see it, it all comes back around.
Oakulture: I saw a kid with like an old-school North Face Mountain Light parka. And I was like, they don’t even make those anymore!
Lyrics Born: No, they don’t. You have to seek it out. I see kids wearing Cross Colors now. Which hasn’t been made in fifteen years. Look at me, I’m wearing a 90s rayon shirt with an 80s acid wash jacket. All the shit comes back around. What I mean to say is that everything has value. You may be at a point in popular culture where it has less value, but everything comes back around.
Oakulture: Right. But the point that I was trying to make was, by being eclectic, by saying, I’m in my lane right here, but then I’m open to all this other stuff, you sort of avoid the typecast. And it also means, from a music listener level, there’s sort of numerous on-ramps to that LB lane.
Lyrics Born: Yeah. Very well put, Eric Arnold. I agree. It’s like, the minute you start closing yourself off, and say, that’s not my thing, that’s fine. I don’t like everything I hear, but there are movements which can add value to what I do. By incorporating that, I in turn add value to the overall landscape as well. Just because I may not like a certain artist or I may not be into a certain song or whatever, when I hear things that HBK does, or I hear things that Chance the Rapper is doing, or G-Eazy, or Joey Bada$$, A$AP Rocky, there’s certain things that they do, that’s like, wow, why didn’t I think of that. That’s dope. How can I kind of adapt that to what I’m doing, in a context that works for me. Everything from techniques, rap technique to their look to just their aesthetic, whatever it may be, lyrical, visual, musical, whatever.
Oakulture: I was gonna ask you, lyrically, what are you doing now that wouldn’t have occurred to you back in the early 90s?
Lyrics Born: What am I doing now? I’m definitely more open. We came up in an era, a lot of what we were doing was a reaction to what was happening at that time. We don’t like this shit. We don’t like the direction that hip-hop is going. Even though we were in the Golden Era of hip-hop, who knew that then? It was a reaction to what we perceived as the commercialization of hip-hop. I’m nowhere near as intolerant of those things as I was then… When I look at myself now as an artist I see myself as a person that’s open to all kinds of stuff… I just remember those early… back when we were first starting, in the early 90, I would sit there at the college radio station, KDVS. I would literally play every fucking record that was in that library. Iron Butterfly or Jon Secada or the Turtles or Junie Morrison, just anything. I would play it all. I was trying to educate myself. And I think that gave me the basis. I learned the fundamentals of being open to music. When you’re a record collector and you’re surrounded by that broad array of music from different eras, you can kind of see all these trends that happened with these artists’ careers, and the way the music was changing… I learned to accept the fact that careers have peaks and valleys, artists go through style changes, public taste changes… So, that’s what it is. I really feel like, at the end of the day, I have to work on myself to be open. You have to discipline yourself to be open minded. You have to discipline yourself to seek out inspiration…
Oakulture: So, with Real People, did you write lyrics first? Or did the music come first? How did that part of the creative process work?
Lyrics Born: I went down to New Orleans, I did two sessions there. It was a great experience for me. The first session, I went down, I rented a cottage in uptown New Orleans, like two blocks from the Maple Leaf, where Rebirth [Brass Band] plays every week. I stayed there a week, I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a computer, I had nothing. I would write in the daytime, from like 10 am to 2pm every day. Then the guys from Galactic, they would pick me up and take me to the studio, and I would be in the studio from three till about 11 every day. And they were working on demos, they were working on music. I’d sit there and we’d record ideas. So, the first session, I did that for like a week. We knocked out probably about seven or eight demos. They were like, ok, this is a good start. And then I went home, I finished the songs, they finished the music, on their end, they had all the musicians come in. I mostly finished off all the vocals here, and then I came back for another very short session to New Orleans. We sort of finalized the direction, and then we did the same thing: I finished off the songs here, they finished off the songs there, and boom! It was done. It was like as organic process as you can have in the modern era.
Oakulture: That’s really rare, because nowadays, people aren’t even on the same continent sometimes when they’re collaborating.
Lyrics Born: Right. It’s unusual these days for me to be in the same studio with producers.
Oakulture: How do you think that translated on record?
Lyrics Born: I think it makes a huge difference. I’m a huge proponent of, maybe I’m old-school, but I truly believe in the two people or the group of people who are working on a record together being in the same room. I think that’s one of the benefits of coming up in my era, that my generation experienced.
I remember when we did a song with El-P, we had to fly his ass out here. Because at that time, there was no, I couldn’t send him files. When I was on tour, we worked in his bedroom in New York. Then to finish up the song, we flew him out. I mean, you had to be in the same room together. The producer had an actual role. The producer actually produced, they coached vocals… now it’s, a producer these days is essentially someone who composed the track. There’s no real in-studio hands-on production, with the artist these days. Sadly. You can hear it in the music…
Oakulture: It’s like digital vs. analog. Certain things you can only get with analog. And then you have people in the digital age who are like, we’re going to recreate that analog sound, so they sample a squeaky record.
Lyrics Born: Right. Absolutely right. And I could see, being in the studio with [Galactic], how much I was accustomed to being left to my own devices. Cause when we started recording the demos, I just went in and started doing it. And that was the first time in a long time someone said to me, you know, the shit you’re doing is not working. We need to try this differently. It’s just not working. LB, I think you need to try a different approach. I was just doing what I do! And without someone saying that, those songs wouldn’t have become what they did. Some of the tracks that I wrote to on this album, I didn’t like at first. I didn’t see it. When I would get in there, they would be like, no, gotta do this one man. You’re gonna kill this one. You gotta do this. “Chest Wide Open” was like that, which is gonna be the next single, which is the one people like. I heard that beat, I was like, I don’t hear anything over this. They were like, dude trust me. We’re gonna get David Shaw on this record, he’s gonna sing the hook. Just trust us, just do it. And that turst was there. And I did it. And it turned out to be a great fuckin’ song.
Oakulture: You were a one-man band.
Lyrics Born: Yes.
Oakulture: You produced every record you’ve done [until now].
Lyrics Born: Yes.
Oakulture: So on this one, you broke out of your comfort zone, and went into NoLa voodoo mode…
Lyrics Born: Yeah. That’s a good point. They could do an album like this better than I ever could. And I had done it my way, fifteen years. I needed to get out of my comfort zone. I needed to hand over the reigns. I needed someone to say, you know what, you’ve done it your way, let’s try it this way. I feel like, without having been in that situation, I don’t get beyond my limitations. It’s a healthy thing for artists. You have to have that trust. You have to make yourself vulnerable in those types of situations, otherwise you risk not growing.
Oakulture: What’s interesting about Real People is, it sounds more like a New Orleans record than it does a Bay Area record.
Lyrics Born: It should. But I don’t know that I’ve ever made Bay Area records, that were in line with what you were hearing from the Bay Area at a given time. Like I said, I make Lyrics Born records. Certainly, I’m from the Bay Area, everybody knows that. I don’t think my story could have happened anywhere else. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m tied to a regional sound.
Oakulture: So with making a record in New Orleans, you strengthen this connection between the Bay and Louisiana and New Orleans. You think about the Pointer Sisters recording with Allen Toussaint.
Lyrics Born: The thing that’s interesting about both the Bay and New Orleans is, they’re both these crazy, unique, places. When you talk about the Bay Area, there’s the Bay Area, and then there’s California. There’s New Orleans, and then there’s Louisiana. That’s something that those two cities really have in common. They’re both, especially me growing up in Berkeley, Berkeley in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, it was crazy. I’m kind of used to that kind of craziness. Some old lady dressed in velvet blowing bubbles on the street. And everybody knows her. Im sort of used to that. Im used to having this oddball cast of characters around me at all times as part of the human landscape. I come from that … so when I go to a place like New Orleans, I’m like, perfect!
And it gets in your blood, too. There’s a reason people go down there for school and they don’t leave. In the 90s, I remember seeing how the culture of the Bay Area really drove this influx of people who were coming to the Bay, because they wanted to be around this music and they wanted to be around culture and free thought and politics. It kind of took on a life of its own.
Oakulture: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would that be?
Lyrics Born: versatile.
Real People is out now on Mobile Home Recordings.