Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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Hiero Day 2016: Strength in Numbers

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Return of the Backpack Rapper: Del the Funky Homosapien rocks Hiero’s headline set.

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years of Hiero Day already.  Originally a day-long hip-hop block party held on San Pablo St. in Oakland, the event has gotten bigger every year – in terms of both attendance and prominence – while relocating to an industrial section of West Oakland, where it now commands several city blocks and three stages worth of live music and DJs.

The members of Hieroglyphics — Oakland’s OG hip-hop pioneers, and one of the few still-active crews hailing from the early ‘90s Golden Age  — have stated on the record they started Hiero Day because it was difficult for them to book shows in their hometown (despite the fact they’ve toured all over the country for decades and their shows have never been associated with violence.) There may be some truth to that, but Hiero Day is about so much more than its eponymous founders. True, they close every show with a full crew performance, but the event has already become a cultural institution, a celebration of real hip hop which draws a multigenerational audience to hear both emerging and veteran artists.

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But Hiero Day is not just a concert, it’s a ritual of sorts – an affirmation that hip-hop culture not only still exists, but is still vital and vibrant. One might even go so far to say the day is imbued with spiritual significance; the level of appreciation from both performers and attendees is that high. Even with crowds which now number upwards of 20,000 folks, Hiero Day is overall a super-chill event whose vibe is surprisingly low-key, considering its magnitude

2016’s edition of Hiero Day may have been the best yet.  Advance tickets were available for the quite-affordable price of $19.93, and day-of tickets were a still-reasonable $40. Compare that to the price of any corporate music festival put on by a major concert promoter, and you’ll see quite a difference. We won’t name names here, but some of the larger festivals charge one hundred dollars or more for a one-day ticket for shows which might feature just one or two hip-hop/rap acts amidst a bucketload of indie rock or EDM acts. Even the few national rap fest tours which still exist can’t surpass Hiero Day’s lineup; the most-comparable event in recent memory was probably the on-hiatus Paid Dues Festival. But even that event, which did offer a showcase for underground/indie/alternative/true school hip-hop, didn’t have the grassroots flavor of a 100% artist-produced show which made no concessions whatsoever to corporatism.

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Lockmith freestyles during Just Blaze’s set

There were 43 pre-announced artists, groups, or DJs on the Hiero Day bill – which calls into question one media outlet’s assertion last year that the show was more of a self-serving platform for Hiero and veteran acts than a showcase for up-and-coming artists. That just sounds ridiculous, since roughly two-thirds of the total stage time this year was allotted to newer acts with younger followings. The actual number of performers was actually a bit higher than what was announced, to boot. For instance during Just Blaze’s DJ set, he called up Del the Funky Homosapien, Locksmith, Ras Kass, and Planet Asia to do freestyles. That’s what you call more of what you’re funkin’ for.

That said, for both Hiero fans and hip-hop OGs, it was hard to pass up the allure of the main, “Infinity,” stage for sheer hip-hop flavor. Impressively, the stage featured a solid five-hour block of quality artists leading up to Hieroglyphics closing set: Paris, X Clan, Lyrics Born, Murs, Just Blaze, Invisibl Skratch Picklz, and Too Short. Other stages were graced by the likes of Juvenile, Dilated Peoples, Blu & Exile, the Grouch, Nef the Pharaoh, Rocky Rivera and others;  however, going from stage to stage required an adventurous spirit and a willingness to navigate between crowds of considerable density and brave the late-summer sun. By late afternoon, the crowd swelled to the point where it was quite dense with bodies. Oakulture made one foray out to the “Third Eye” stage, and briefly caught a bit of Blu & Exile’s set, but quickly returned to the Infinity stage in time to catch another Bay Area legend, Lyrics Born. Add to the fact that the Infinity stage offered the best photo opps for candid backstage shots, and it was pretty much a no-brainer to post up there.

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Dan the Automator and Dante Ross

The question remains: Where else are you going to see legendary A&R Dante Ross cold chillin’ with legendary producer Dan the Automator, or such local notables as Hip Hop TV’s Shawn Granberry, Boots Riley, Mystic, Davey D, Chuy Gomez, Bijan Kazemi, DJ D-Sharp, Purple Pam the Funkstress, Councilmember Abel Guillen, and the occasional member of Hiero? Needless to say, many conversations were had, and much game was chopped.

It was difficult to feel too salty about missing Cash Money mainstay Juvenile or LA rhyme-spitters Dilated Peoples, because the Infinity stage was crack-a-lackin all day. Paris got the crowd pumped up with his Black Panther-inspired message rap; the self-proclaimed “hard truth soldier” played new material from his recent album Pistol Politics, but it was the 1990 “conscious yet hardcore” hit “Break the Grip of Shame – which samples both Malcolm X and Public Enemy – that  got the crowd to raise their fists in the Black Power salute. Shout out to DJ True Justice, by the way, who flawlessly recreated Mad Mike’s  frantic scratch solo.

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Still breaking the grip of shame: Paris

It was the pre-mainstream gangsta, pre-mumble rap era all over again when Brother J came out next to play some X Clan classics. Can we just say here that Brother J is one of the most underrated yet crucial emcees of all time? Back in the so-called Afrocentric era, he was no less inspirational and influential than Chuck D or KRS-One — some forget X Clan sold hundreds of thousands of records —  yet has been nearly forgotten as time has advanced. Listening to opuses like “Grand Verbalizer, What Time is It” played live, however, made J’s contribution to hip-hop readily apparent.

By the same token, you can’t front on Lyrics Born, who has amassed a formidable catalog of crowd-pleasing jammy-jams to go along with his crowd-pleasing persona and inimitable rhyming and singing skills. One of the defining artists of alternative hip-hop, LB’s originality shone through yet again on songs like “Don’t Change,” “Lady Don’t Tek No,” and “I Changed My Mind.”

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The inimitable Lyrics Born

It was also good to see that the Invisibl Skratch Picklz are back to playing live sets. Some people might remember how they burst on the scene in the early 90s, with amazing demonstrations of turntable techniques framed around band aesthetics. If they’re somewhat less jaw-dropping in their current incarnation of Shortkut, D-Styles, and Q Bert, it’s only because their innovations have been widely imitated by subsequent generations of turntablists. But anyway, they symbolized the original icons of hip-hop—the DJs—and stayed true to their ethos, with each member rocking a single turntable.

The best performance of the day, however, may have been Too Short’s. The pioneer of Oakland rap as well as independent hip-hop, Short’s predilection for nasty lyrics has overshadowed his undeniable skill as a live performer, as well as his penchant for dropping nuggets of wisdom into his material. He also has quite an affinity for funk, a primary influence on much of his classic material. Short was a commanding presence at Hiero Day, soaking up the proceedings with the air of an emcee claiming his cultural authenticity in a city he basically built from the ground up. And did we mention the man’s got classics? From “Blow the Whistle” to “Gettin’ It,” he played a nice selection of his catalog, rocking the crowd but barely breaking a sweat. (By the way, when was the last time anyone saw Too Short AND X Clan at the same show? Probably the 90s, when diverse bills within hip-hop shows were commonplace.)

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Gettin’ It: Too Short

It doesn’t really get any more “Oakland” in terms of hip-hop than following Too Short with Hieroglyphics. Taken together, the two have defined The Town’s hip-hop culture for three decades.  Both keep making new music, but it’s their respective track records which place them among the greats of all time.

At this point, we’re not even sure what can be said about Hiero which hasn’t already been said over the years.  Some might argue they’ve stayed relevant because they’ve continually reinvented themselves, but one could just as easily say the opposite as well: that in actuality they’ve stayed true to the style they had back in 1992, when they first appeared on the B-side of a Del record. What is undisputed is that they’ve somehow managed to continue to attract a younger audience while also maintaining appeal to longtime listeners. That creates an interesting audience dynamic which seems somewhat universal: Hiero fans cross all racial/ethnic, age, economic and class lines, a diverse bunch united by their love of hip-hop.

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Roll call: Del, Phesto and Tajai

Though Hiero didn’t do a full set, it’s always great to see a whole crew performance by them, especially because their catalog is so thick, they can pull out deep cuts at any time. While Del, the crew’s founder, perhaps gives off the most “star vibes,” sleeping on any member of the group’s lyrical skills or stage acumen would be a huge mistake. There’s not a single member of Hiero, except for maybe producer Domino and DJ Toure, who isn’’t an excellent rhymer. And they’ve all been rocking stages for so long, they’re unlikely to be fazed by much. As dope as Del is, any of the other members – Casual, Phesto, Tajai, Opio, A-Plus and Pep Love – are capable of captivating with intricate wordplay and devastatingly rhythmic tonal patterns. They are quite literally a throwback to another era, when skill and originality were cultural values. As usual, they closed their set with the anthemic Souls of Mischief hit “93 til’ Infinity,” gently bringing to an end a day which reveled in the most positive aspects hip-hop – and Oakland – have to offer. What more can be said? Not much, except there are only 360 or so days until next year’s Hiero Day.


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The Born Supremacy: Lyrics Born’s Galactic Funk Mafia Revue

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

Live music review/ Lyrics Born/October 9, 2015/ New Parish

When it comes to live rap performers, audience expectations tend to be on the low side. One can probably count the list of stellar live emcees with both hands. That number might drop in half if you throw in the caveat: must be able to rock with live musicians. It may come as no surprise to diligent Bay Area hip-hop fans that Lyrics Born’s recent blowout show at the New Parish exceeded expectations. What’s eye-opening, though, is just by how much.

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LB, as he’s often abbreviated, has always followed the beat of his own drummer.  (Read the Oakulture Q&A here and here.) Emerging way back in the early 90s as an original member of the Solesides (later Quannum) collective, the Berkeley High/Skyline alum went from alternative hip-hop pioneer to eccentric experimentalist to funky radio hitmaker to international sensation to cagey OG veteran status in the course of, oh, almost 25 years. Mixing tongue-twisting colloquialisms and an appreciation for both quirky individuality and funky, phat grooves, he’s ripped more guest appearances and collabs than you can shake a rhythm stick at, in addition to producing a solid catalog which includes four studio albums, two Latyrx full-lengths (with Lateef the Truthspeaker), a couple of remix albums and EPs, several mix tapes, a live album, and a few compilation albums. But as deep as his recorded history is, he’s straight-up supreme when it comes to live shows with live musicians, with whom he’s been working with since the early 2000s.

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LB released his latest album, Real People, a few months back, but hadn’t done an East Bay date until his rendezvous at the Parish last Friday night.  Wait, it gets better. Not only had LB never previously appeared at the venue, but his special guests included members of New Orleans funksters Galactic and Bay area jazzbeaux Jazz Mafia, along with musical director (and former Whitesnake bassist) Uriah Duffy, and his Latyrx spar Lateef. If that’s not a recipe for an amazing musical evening, we don’t know what is, and the show was even better in practice than it sounds on paper, er, computer monitor or mobile screen.

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Let’s just get this out front: the new album has some bangers on it, and benefits from the collaborative association with Galactic, with whom LB recorded with in New Orleans. But songs that just sounded ok on the studio disc were absolute monsters in a live context.  That’s all LB, right there: if you like his studio recordings, you’ll absolutely love his live stuff.

Oct 10 2015 136The set list contained a blend of old and new, but newer stuff like “Chest Wide Open,” “$ir Racha,” “Rockaway” and “All Hail the Queen” never struggled to keep pace with more familiar material like “Do That There,” “Top Shelf,” or “Hott 2 Deff”, and in many instances accelerated the evening’s intensity.  Another major factor in the live goodness is LB’s wife and background vocalist, Joyo Velarde. They’re just so comfortable together on stage there were no real moments of uncertainty during the 24-song set. It was more like, ‘we got this,’ throughout the entire evening. Thankfully, Joyo not only took a solo turn on “Unwind Yourself,” but also supplied the “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo” backgrounds which take 2003’s “Bad Dreams” –one of LB’s signature tracks–into the ethereal.

Joyo Velarde

Joyo Velarde

LB’s confidence was such that his biggest hit, “Callin’ Out,” was rather casually tossed off during the last quarter of his set; the five-song encore included a James Brown cover, two new songs, and two fairly obscure yet sublime tunes: the 2013 Latryx single “Exclamation Point” and “Coulda Shoulda Woulda,” from 2010’s As U Were. It’s a given that the ‘Message’-esque bassline of “Lady Don’t Tekno” still causes convulsions after more than 20 years, but then the idea to lay the James Brown/Fred Wesley classic “The Payback” under the naughty yet urbane “I’m a Phreak” was unforeseen yet very welcomed.

Oct 10 2015 159What makes Lyrics Born so good? As was the case with the Blackalicious show at the Fillmore awhile back, he just puts on a master class in emceeing. His flows are beyond stupid fresh, and his refusal to embrace stereotypical rap cliches is always refreshing. But more to the point, besides displaying incredible technical prowess on the vocals, he adds the charismatic stage presence of a seasoned performer who is impeccable when in his element, as well as an enviable rapport with his band members which lends itself to seamless musical communication. On this evening, they appeared to be one of the best bands on the planet, locked tight into seemingly endless grooves which somehow didn’t lack for elasticity.


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The OakQ&A: Lyrics Born (Part 2)

Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.


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The OakQ&A: Lyrics Born (Part 1)

Hip-hop's David Byrne: Lyrics Born

Hip-hop’s David Byrne: Lyrics Born

There’s a very short list of Bay Area hip-hop artists active in the mythologized year of 1993 who are still releasing quality new material in 2015. 1993’s “Send Them” – the first appearance on wax of the dude y’all know as Lyrics Born (then named Asia Born) is a long way from 2015’s “Rock Rock Away,” from LB’s fresh-off-the-presses album, Real People.

It’s mind-blowing, in fact, to realize both songs were made by the same artist, although upon close inspection, one can hear traces of what LB has evolved into in his 20+plus year career on his very first recording: never lacking for confidence or at a loss for words, on “Send Them,” LB displays a fast delivery over a DJ Shadow beat built around a looped sample.  But “Rock Rock Away” shows a polished, veteran rapper who has matured into his voice and become comfortable with both live musicians and a more conventional song structure.

Real People represents the latest evolution of LB, a pioneer of what has been termed alternative hip-hop, and an artist who has continually rebooted his musical persona with every release. Like a gemstone with many facets, LB has never been content to make the same album twice. A core member of the Solesides/Quannum collective, he’s explored the outer regions of experimental hip-hop as a member of the duo Latyrx, contributed to albums by labelmates Blackalicious, and released an impressive catalog of solo records which have delved into influences ranging from the neo-funk of his 2003 breakthrough album Later That Day, to old-school R&B/soul leanings of 2008’s Everywhere at Once and the electro-boogie bounce of 2010’s As U Were.

On his new album, he drew inspiration from the musical culture of New Orleans, where he recorded with old friends Galactic. That would seem like a huge stylistic leap for almost any other emcee, but for LB, it makes perfect sense. We wouldn’t think twice about an R&B, rock, or country artist soaking up NoLa flavor, but the idea of a Bay Area rapper doing it seems cringe-worthy, until we remember that a) LB was one of the first emcees in the region to work with live musicians; and b) N’Awlins is the source of many of the musical forms he has invoked over the years.

Recently, LB sat down with Oakulture’s Eric Arnold for what ended up being a long-ass interview. So long, in fact, that it must be presented in two parts. In the initial segment, LB—who plays May 15 at the Independent; tickets are here—discusses his opinions on the hip-hop artform, his evolution as an artist, his creative process, and why he chose New Orleans to record his new album. Stay tuned for Part Two, which further explores the making of Real People (and promises much more witty banter). (Editor’s note: Part Two is here.)

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Oakulture: Feelings about the state of hip-hop? Is it in a good place?

Lyrics Born: That question is so hard for me to answer now. At this point there’s generational differences in hip–hop listeners, there’s stylistic differences in hip–hop listeners, there’s independent vs. major label, that gap is wider than ever now. If you’re asking me, it’s probably the most diverse that it’s ever been. That goes without saying, because of all those factors that I just mentioned.  On the other hand, it’s probably the most intense than its ever been if you are an artist. Your output has to be high, your album cycles, if you do albums, they’re much shorter, the quote-unquote traditional press major label machine, even as an independent, is a lot different now. I think you need to be prepared these days as an artist who wears many many many many hats.  How’s the music? I think the music sounds very immediate to my ears. And that’s all I can say. It sounds like people are making music in the moment. Its good and bad, depending on what you’re into. I like sort of the stream of consciousness, off the cuff, let’s make it, put it on Soundcloud, not think about it too much. I like that aspect. But I also like classic recordings. That’s just a different way of recording music, in my experience. I like it both ways. For me, for my generation of artists, yes, it’s about gaining new fans, but it’s also about really being tight with the fans that you’ve developed, in my case over the past 20+ years. I’m not necessarily–at this stage in my career—looking for a platinum hit. Im just looking to connect with my fans each and every single time I make a record. It’s just different. My career aspirations now are not necessarily to be #1 at radio, as they once were. I wanna continue to make good music for the people that support me. It’s just me and them at this point.

LB aka Sir Racha

LB aka Sir Racha

Oakulture: The new record is NOT a very immediate record. You obviously took some time to craft it and make it a very musical record, as opposed to, let’s throw on some Fruity Loops and make a trap hit in ten minutes.

Lyrics Born: There’s nothing wrong with that. I can do that too. 2010, As U Were was kind of an electro-boogie, electro-funk-inspired album, Latyrx’s second album was a very diverse, very experimental hip-hop album. This album, I got all that out of my system,  I wanted to go back to something really funky and organic, and music and very live-sounding. To me, there’s no other place to do that in the world at this point, than perhaps the first and last music town, which is New Orleans. You talk about resiliency, I mean, Katrina couldn’t stop New Orleans. One of the biggest natural and human disasters in American history, and yet, there New Orleans is, still with its sound. The musicians all came back, for the most part. Most of the locals came back… and that to me is really inspiring, to believe in your culture so much that you will return to a place that’s just been decimated. It really speaks to the fortitude of the music and the strength of the culture… for me as a lifelong musician that still wants to learn, where else do I go?

This is my 8th album. I’ve done well over 125 guest features. I’ve done literally what, 1200-1500 gigs in my life,  but I still want to grow, and I still want to learn things as an artist. Where else do you do that, but in a city that’s playing music 24 hours a day? What city can you really say that about? That there’s live music happening… that has a native indigenous sound to it. Where else can you say you can see this seven days a week?

Oakulture:  Let me just pull this back for a second. When you get into the process of a new album, do you feel it’s necessary to reinvent yourself with every album, or is it, here’s another side to me that I haven’t fully explored yet?

Lyrics Born: It’s that. The second part. But ultimately, to people’s ears, it ends up sounding like oh he’s reinventing himself again. He’s rebranding. But really, when I make an album, I’m like, what have I not done yet? That’s really it, what haven’t I done yet?

Oakulture: Balkan.

Lyrics Born: (laughs).  Right. Klezmer? That’s next.

Oakulture:  It’s interesting, too, because you’ve positioned yourself to be able to do that, from a very long time ago. You didn’t place yourself in a box. Do your attribute your longevity to that?

Lyrics Born: Yeah, of course. You know Karen Dere, from Giant Peach? She told me I was the ‘David Byrne of hip-hop.’ And then I kind of thought about David Byrne’s career and I could see where she would say that. Maybe, maybe. For better or worse, this is the path that I’m on. Until I decide to stop…

Oakulture: Especially looking at Bay Area hip-hop, where there’s now sort of a division between eras. There’s really only a few artists which have transcended stylistic limitations and been active in every era. I’m thinking about you, and I’m thinking about Boots from the Coup. You guys are two guys who have not done the same album over and over again.

LB in deep concentration

LB in deep concentration

Lyrics Born: For better or for worse… and I think for a lot of people, some people wish I would keep doing Latyrx albums or Later That Day or Everywhere At Once. But I think, honestly, Real People is the closest I’ve gotten to revisiting Later That Day and some of the earlier Lyrics Born stuff. Even though it’s definitely not the same. But it’s probably the closest I’ve done, because it is so organic feeling. In that sense… you talk about Boots, you talk about me, I feel like it is our cast in life to be artists, whether I got a million dollars in the bank or five dollars in the bank. That’s just how I’m wired, and I accept that. I accept it’s gonna be difficult at times. I also accept that it’s going to be very fulfilling at times. I don’t know, I look at a lot of artists, and I don’t know that there’s a lot of artists who have very long careers doing the same thing over and over again. You have to grow.  Even if you’re just growing with in your lane… you don’t necessarily have to make albums with different genres every time, but you do have to grow.

Oakulture: That’s really interesting when we get to hip-hop and start looking at that as a genre, because there’s sort of this unspoken rule that you have to stop doing hip-hop once you get around that 40 year-old mark. When, actually, you might just be reaching your peak—as a lyricist, as a writer, as a stage performer, you have all this experience that you didn’t have when you were 20 or 25.

“When I make an album, I’m like, what have I not done yet? That’s really it, what haven’t I done yet?” -Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born: Right. I think that’s psychological. I think the whole, I’m gonna go X amount of years and then quit. I think that’s all psychological. I remember when we first started, we would read interviews with like the Pharcyde and I would think to myself… because at that time, in the 90s, hip-hop was still a pretty young artform. It was only about 15-20 (years old). It was growing pretty fast, but it was still a pretty young artform. Because it was so young, and because it changed so fast, you didn’t see a lot of artists with multiple albums. Artists at that time would kind of top out at around two or three albums.

But, see, me, being a record collector, being a guy that’s making sample-based music, I would see records by John Coltrane, this guy had 15-20 albums. 30 albums, y’know.  I would see these reggae singers with 40,50,60, who knows?… but you see Miles making 2-3 albums in a year. And hip-hop is a genre that has more commercial viability then those genres did at that time. Why not? Why can’t I? Someone like Art Tatum or Lou Donaldson, one of these jazz guys, they’re making records in their 70s. why cant I if I choose to do so? I’m not speaking to how much they sold or how commercially successful those artists were, but it’s right there… So, that changed my idea, and then when I started to hear guys say, oh I’m gonna quit at 40, how’s that gonna look? That’s all psychological. It looks how you want it to look. Certainly when you hit 60, 70, it becomes physically difficult, you might have other priorities in life, your body changes, but … as long as I have that spark and that desire, I’m gonna keep going.

Real People is out now on Mobile Home Recordings. For more info, visit the Lyrics Born website.