Photo by Quentin Curtat, courtesy of Warm Brew
Main streets in Santa Monica and Venice are paved with yoga mats. There’s a turf war in the area—between Snapchat and Tinder. The Westside, which has long been a refuge for creative types in search of sea breezes and creamsicle sunsets, is changing. Santa Monica, with the exception of rent-controlled sliver Pico, is traditionally well-heeled and white; Venice, the “Slum by the Sea,” once attracted nodding donkeys to its oil-rich beaches and nodding bohemians to its cheap rents. An influx of bourgeois attractions has begun to lessen those distinctions.
Documenting that change is Warm Brew, a rare rap group from a side of the city whose musical output historically skews almost exclusively toward rock (e.g. The Doors, Suicidal Tendencies). As a result, Warm Brew’s Serk Spliff, Ray Wright, and Manu Li are essentially alone in their musical representation of people of color in Venice and “SaMo.” Their position as Westside storytellers wasn’t earned only by attrition but by more than a decade of minimum wage jobs, no wage labors of love, and cash-in-hand backyard shows.
“We’re giving people a perspective that they’ve never seen before. People think it’s a paradise, where niggas like us don’t live,” says Serk. “We’ve the voice of the people, like, ‘We still exist’–”
“–we’re the voice of the voiceless,” Manu Li offers.
Photo by Quentin Curtat, courtesy of Warm Brew
Before there was Warm Brew, there was just Manu Li and Ray Wright, middle school friends making primitive songs on the former’s Macbook. During a “Hell Week” football practice the summer before their freshman years at Santa Monica High School, Serk joined the fold, a kindred spirit not in gridiron prowess, but in love of music. Still, they were less rap group than a group of teens eager to partake in extracurricular mischief. It wasn’t until Wright quit the football team at the University of San Diego that Warm Brew truly began to take shape.
“The idea of it really started to form the summer [Ray] came back, because that’s when it was like ‘We’re just gonna go [to the studio] all the fucking time,” says Serk. “We didn’t have shit to do except hang out all day. We’d freestyle, or listen to music, or just talk about our dreams.”
With Wright back beachside, he joined his best friends in their seemingly oppositional, twinned pursuits: working minimum wage jobs and recording music. When they weren’t selling sporting goods or ice cream, they were in the studio or treading patches of grass and dirt at backyard shows, slowly amassing a coastal fanbase. Eventually, fellow Samohi alumnus and friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend Dom Kennedy heard “Wanna Get High” from the group’s 2013 album The Ride, and invited them to the studio. The result was one of their standout tracks, “Hold On To Her,” which cemented their roles in Kennedy’s OpM (Other People’s Money) collective. With his blessing, the group’s third album, Ghetto Beach Boyz, was recorded entirely in his studio.
On July 15, Red Bull Records issued Diagnosis, the label’s first foray into rap. At only six songs, it’s a brief introduction to the group’s oeuvre for those who may have missed out on their independent releases, of which there are almost no physical copies. Their sound—contemporary, crepuscular G-funk—draws heavily from the LA gangster rap canon. But they’re not gangbangers, and G-funk’s “Golden Era” ended during their adolescence, so there’s more to their sound, too. Like most 20-somethings born in big cities, they were raised listening to a bit of everything; their interplay is borrowed from 213, their smart-assed tales of struggle and uplift from the Native Tongues, and their aspiration of being the only band that matters from The Clash. Diagnosis maintained the group’s momentum, and, importantly, proved to their energy drink-peddling patrons that their hometown support was very, very real.
On August 6, they sold out West Hollywood’s 500-capacity Roxy, with more fans left wanting and scheming on the neon-lit curbside. For many of the Westside’s longtime black and brown residents, Warm Brew are the artists who best express the community’s joys, hopes, and anxieties. Those who have been able to stay in their homes have seen neighbors leave and local business shuttered to be replaced by the expansion of multi-billion dollar tech companies and their bushy-tailed employees. A façade of laidback corporate benevolence has begun to obscure the lives of the Westside’s poor and working classes: Troubled schools, skyrocketing rents, and latent segregation are facts, but so too are unbeatable sunsets, temperate weather, and neighborhoods which never fell into the same lamentable state as many others below the 10 Freeway.
Warm Brew at the Roxy / Photo by Will Azcona, courtesy of Warm Brew
“No one’s tapped into this shit,” says Serk. “We’re the ‘Ghetto Beach Boyz,’ but we do the same shit that niggas do in South Central. It’s just [that] we live by the beach. There’s no difference. We provide the good-time aspect—even when we’re talking about the most introspective shit in the world, it’s still like ‘Yo, life ain’t that fuckin bad!’ and that’s what the Westside teaches niggas: No matter how bad anything is, you live by the beach.”
“So much shit happened [to me] before I moved to Santa Monica,” adds Manu Li. “I came out here because my mom was being abused and we moved to a shelter out here. I was in Long Beach, South Central, and Canoga Park for about a year. Coming out here was very different to me. It could’ve been worse [than the Westside]—I’ve seen worse. It’s a blessing. I’ve been in Section 8, needed assistance, on some ghetto shit, but it’s so beautiful. It could be so much worse. My dad’s from Nigeria. I could be in Africa, rubbing sticks together to make a fire.”
In conversation, on record, and onstage, Warm Brew’s dynamic is remarkably kinetic. There’s almost physical predetermination to their roles. On record, Ray Wright, the former college wide receiver, is the group’s most dominant presence, a sweet-voiced combination of Doggs Nate and Snoop, but in person he has a removed, kingly beneficence. Serk, an outstanding high school soccer player, is the group’s Eazy-E, a jocular former hypeman with a sticky flow who, unlike the late N.W.A. svengali, gets his loose curls from his Nicaraguan matronage instead of Soul Glo. The smallest is Manu Li, a Phife Dawg-sized and Phife Dawg-attitudinal non-athlete, an onstage cannonball whose pitched-up rapping is in equal turns ribald and thoughtful.
“[Our dynamic] kind of just goes,” Wright says over the hisses of beer cans being opened. “Once you do something for a certain amount of time, it’s just natural. We all sound different, we all are different, we all look different. Our dynamic is… organic. You can quote that!”
“Quotables!,” exclaims Manu Li, part mockingly.
“It’s easy. It’s effortless,” adds Serk. “The way we act onstage, the way we act in the studio, it’s the same way [we act] if we’re not doing music. People think this Warm Brew shit is just music. It really is the way we live our lives: the three of us together, just bullshitting.”
Their bullshitting—a modest way of describing a burgeoning rap career—works. Functioning as a de facto high school reunion, their show at The Roxy was possibly the happiest, most convivial assemblage of rap fans ever. Daps, yo-what’s-up’s, and surreptitious joints were shared. Serk’s mother greeted her son’s friends warmly, a proud mom like any other. Here, far from the cold shadow of Silicon Beach, was the idealized Westside: a kaleidoscope of many races bouncing in support of experiences inaccessible to tech interlopers.
Torii MacAdams is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.