Lyrics Born refers to his personal style of emceeing as em-singing, a term that signifies his early interest in the lilting style of Jamaican dancehall and the melodic flow of artists like the Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship. As co-founder of the Bay Area's influential Quannum Projects collective, the artist whose birth certificate reads Tsutomu Shimura has helped redefine hip-hop preconceptions in a variety of ways, from his insistence on touring with an actual band these past seven years to the very fact of his existence as a Japanese-American rap artist.
And with last October's release of As U Were, Lyrics Born has taken his sound another step forward. Several of the tracks carry with them trace elements of the electro-funk pioneered by Afrika Bambaataa and Cameo, as well as the less conspicuous influence of remix artists like Coldcut and MARRS. Longtime collaborators like Lateef and Gift of Gab also show up in the mix, but it's the addition of left-field contributors like Stanton Moore, Francis and the Lights, and Sam Sparro that the artist credits with bringing a different perspective to the project.
As articulate in conversation as he is on record, Lyrics Born spoke with us about the power of Bambaataa, the perils of prescription drugs, and the ongoing evolution of a hip-hop innovator.
Indy: New tracks like "Pushed Aside/Pulled Apart," "Kontrol Phreak," "Oh Baby" and "We Live by the Beat" all have sections that remind me of Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force. Was he one of the artists who inspired you to get into hip-hop?
Lyrics Born: Oh man, absolutely. I mean, you can't really be a hip-hop artist and not be inspired by him, you know what I mean? I think that, for me at least, this album pays homage to an era, a genre, and a style that is not really explored that much in hip-hop. And I think that sonically, this album is not so much about my hip-hop influences, so much as it is about the music that influenced hip-hop.
When I was making this album, I didn't want to do another sample-based, '70s-inspired, boom-bap record. That's not what I wanted to do, only because I felt like I had done all that already, you know? I just wanted to take what I was doing in a different direction.
Indy: Yeah, Bambaataa didn't actually rap that much, did he? It was more of a chanting style, which had this real forceful directness to it.
LB: You know, it's interesting you say that, because with songs like "We Live by the Beat," there's definitely some of that about it, you know, where it wasn't necessarily about the rapper that's rapping. It was more about the vibe of the song, the overall message that was being conveyed, and the journey that the song takes you on.
And I think when you listen to [Bambaataa's] "Planet Rock" — or you listen to a lot of the songs from that era, like "White Horse" or "Double Dutch Bus" or "Set It Off" — they're just sort of epic. It's not so much a rap then a chorus, then a rap, then a chorus, then a rap, and then the song is over. And that's not really what this album is about.
You know, some songs follow that format, but for the most part I definitely wanted to go off the grid. I don't know, I just didn't feel like it was necessary for me to rap my head off for 12 songs straight. People have heard me do that. And maybe some people like that, you know, but for me as an artist and as a producer, I needed to forward my craft, and I think this is how that happens.
Indy: I wanted to ask about the song "Pills." What specifically inspired that?
LB: Well, I grew up in the crack era. I grew up in the '80s, and I just watched all the neighborhoods around me transform and be devastated by drugs. And the public and police response was basically like, just arrest everybody. Let's throw everybody in jail. And I just felt like now that we're in a whole new era where you have prescription drug abuse being so prevalent, it just bothered me that as many people are dying, if not more, and more lives are being affected. And yet there is no public outcry. There is no war on prescription drugs.
Indy: Which drugs are you referring to?
LB: Oh, you know, just things like Oxycontin or various other legal opiates. It's just mind-boggling to me, and I think it's because I have so much firsthand experience with death from drugs. And how a lot of people just get hooked unknowingly, from something as simple as a root canal. Or they have a headache, and a lot of times the first inclination for the doctor is to just prescribe them something that is super-highly concentrated and addictive. So they unwittingly partake because they trust what they got from their doctor. And I've seen these things spiral out of control.
I mean, my best friend died from prescription drug abuse. My neighbor died from prescription drug abuse. We see all the celebrities that die monthly from these things, and that doesn't even take into account how many deaths there are nationally from people who don't make headlines.
Indy: You started Quannum Projects in the Bay Area, which has always seemed more interested in breaking down cultural barriers than, say, Des Moines, Iowa. But there's a lyric on your previous album [2008's Everywhere at Once]: "A Japanese rapper, that'll be the day / That's what my teacher told me, back in the 12th grade." Is that true, and is that something you ran into a lot when you were starting out?
LB: It's 100 percent true, and ...
Indy: So what was this teacher's name?
LB: I'm not gonna say that.
Indy: You don't want to call him out?
LB: No, I'm not gonna say because, to be honest with you, he got in a lot of trouble for saying that.
But I don't think that I could have made the music that I make, coming from anywhere else. Because of the cultural makeup of the Bay Area, it wasn't unusual to have a guy like me, you know, that was out there doing their thing.
I didn't realize how unusual it was until I started touring, like nationally and abroad. And then I was like, wow, what I grew up with is not the norm.