The first thing you remember is the voice: that low, molasses-slow baritone that stretches into a long, humid Cajun drawl. Imagine that voice requesting a Mac Dre and a Main Source song. That voice asking to give a shout-out to a mythic crew called the Han Bodda Han Posse (proper spelling never confirmed), which definitively places that voice as yes, Bay Area. Finally, that voice giving you the name of the obscure sample the Geto Boys flipped for “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me.” And thereby winning the fifth on-air contest you’ve had in five weeks.
Something had to be done about that voice.
“Man, stop calling already,” you tell the voice. “You’re disqualified. You can’t win every time. Somebody else has to have a chance.” And then the laugh—that high-pitched semi-automatic ratatat, heh-heh-heh-heh-heh!
“Just come by the studio and hang out,” you say, ‘cause you’re thinking it’s actually a bit lonely broadcasting an after-midnight radio show into the darkness of the floodplain from Vacaville to Folsom prisons and all the suburban homes in between, and plus, who is this fool anyway?
So the second thing you remember is the dude showing up to claim his Grand Daddy I.U. single: NorthFace jacket, oversized white T, Girbaud jeans hanging past plaid boxers, Air Maxes. Wait. This dude is Japanese? With curly Sicilian hair? Walking with a John Wayne horse-lope swagger? Everything about him was outside the box. This dude was born to break molds and move people.
Since then, that dude, now b/k/a Lyrics Born, has released 9 albums, 8 mixtapes, done countless guest tracks and collaborations, and become one of the most successful touring acts in the rap game. He’s done it all indie. Some of that has been by default—the culture industry is still reluctant can and sell entertainers who look like LB. But his success has been all by design.
Tom Shimura was one of a star-crossed group of freshmen who arrived at the University of California, Davis in the fall of 1990, including the artists who would come to be known as DJ Shadow and Chief Xcel. I was lucky enough to be the college radio guy, and so I fell in with a crew (dubbed SoleSides after an Art Farmer song) that expanded to include the Gift of Gab, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Mack B-Dog, the filmmaker Joseph Patel, and others.
He had come up in Berkeley, California in the 1980s, where the stereotype was still of patchouli hippies passing out flowers and acid, but where the reality was kids burning police cars during annual spring riots, demonstrators in shantytowns protesting South African apartheid, crackheads and dealers all across the southwest side, and as he recalls it, “homeless guys fluent in 20 languages, blowing bubbles on the corner, painted in polka dots.”
Hip-hop was the new Bay Area counterculture. We knew because the hippies hated it. But it was inescapable. On weekends, graffiti crews did battle on middle-school walls two blocks from police headquarters. Telegraph Avenue was jammed with cars pumping trunk- smashing 808 bass tones. Ciphers of rappers, b-boys, and b-girls clogged the corner at Durant. Shimura learned all the words to “Rapper’s Delight” in the schoolyard before he heard the song on the radio.
It was the sound of the future, and he was already living in that future. Here was a hapa kid obsessed with Ninjaman and Shabba Ranks, 808s and slapback basslines, with an Italian- Jewish mom, whose best friend was Muslim and Jewish and Black. It gets no more polycultural than this. “When you’d go to parties, everyone was there,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel like what I was doing was that unusual.”
But after his first record, “Send Them”—which, in an adjectivally hysterical press release, I called “a fat Latin-ragga stomper”—he took to the stage like he had been born to be there, commanding shows with mic-ripping skills honed in raging late-night freestyle ciphers with the crew, and exuding audience-pleasing charisma, capping it all off with a wide winning smile, like “You didn’t know, right? Well, now you do.” That’s when he realized that who he was and what he was doing was a little different from the norm.
“Freestyle Fellowship and Hiero were coming out, so there was a lot of emphasis on originality, dominance, competition, and finding your own voice,” he said. “Maybe that’s where it comes from. I always feel like I have to get beyond my own limitations. Growth is mandatory.”
In those early years, he tested out different identities. He was Asia Born, then Lyrx Born. Maybe it didn’t make sense at the time to highlight the Asian thing when folks didn’t get it. He didn’t want to be counted out. And just like that first time he appeared in Freeborn Hall at the KDVS studios, he was too dope, too ultramagnetic, had too much to give to the people. On early records like “Balcony Beach” and “Lady Don’t Tek No,” you can hear him become Lyrics Born with the help of the two who would become his closest and most important collaborators in the coming years—his soon-to-be wife Joyo Velarde and his rap partner Lateef the Truth Speaker. Not incidentally, both records also presented nuanced portrayals of desire, dignity, and equality, all themes that he would develop through his career. The expansive humanity in LB’s music comes from his basic insistence that relationships be shown in all their beauty and complications, deeper than a handful of words some use for gender or race.
With his first solo album, “Later That Day...”, LB powerfully found his voice. He captured the perfect balance between his avant-gardist concern for exploration and his populist desire to rock the crowd. Loosely a concept album, “Later That Day...” is about an everyday guy trying to make it through tensions with work, friends, and lovers, and finding some moments of clarity, humor, and happiness. “Later That Day...” also crystallized LB’s distinctive sound— melodic downtempo and propulsive minimalist funk, full of clean lines, tight rhythms, and bright hooks. It became one of the biggest indie records of the era, and he found himself rocking sold-out houses around the globe, including a hat trick of Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Coachella all in a single year.
LB executes his projects in groups, working out a particular set of musical and conceptual ideas until they have reached their logical end. So “Same Shit, Different Day” and “Overnite Encore” completed a cycle in which he had begun with sample-based production and moved to working with DJs and bands. On “Everywhere At Once” and “As U Were”, LB drew deeper on early 80s Black radio for inspiration—One Way, Dazz Band, Teena Marie—and expanded the collaborations.
Over the years, he has appeared on dozens of tracks with hundreds of artists and taken up production duties for bands like Poets of Rhythm and Galactic. He calls himself a “serial collaborator,” but that is a typically modest way of putting it. His peers want to be in the studio with him not only because of his skill and work ethic. They trust him to make good things happen. Maybe it’s because of the way LB sees the world—success is about being true to yourself and to your relationships. Take care of that and you find lots of people moving in your time to your song.
LB says his songs are about “perseverance, surviving, turning the corner.” They are about “real people”, about love for the underdog. It’s axiomatic to him that even if someone is counted out, it never means they’re down for the count. It’s the classic American story. And in that sense, LB gets the last laugh after my (and a whole lot of other folks’) early disqualification of him: he won and he gave lots of other folks a chance to share in his triumph.
All you have to do now is drop the needle, and get free.
Matt Thompson - MET Artists: email@example.com