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Don't Try to Pigeonhole Asian-American MC and Badass Hip-Hop Bandleader Lyrics Born

The Northern California funk master talks about his new album, NOLA, and reimagining the role of the MC as the bandleader in the style of James Brown or George Clinton.
May 16, 2015, 3:17pm

Photo courtesy of Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born got his start rolling with the Northern California crew known as Solesides (later Quanuum Projects). In the mid-90s, while fellow members DJ Shadow and Blackalicious were setting the bar for instrumental hip-hop and conscious rap respectively, Born and partner Lateef the Truthspeaker made wordy, experimental rap with serious knock under the name Latyrx. Over time, LB developed a signature sound that paired his lilting flow with organic funk beats, realizing its potential in the early 2000’s with bump-filled crossover singles like “I Changed My Mind” and “Callin Out”.

As his career continued, Lyrics Born’s live show and touring band became more central to his ethos. Hip-hop has a fraught relationship with live bands. When hip-hop became a national phenomenon, it repeatedly faced criticism for not actually being music. There were no instruments, just some dudes talking over other people's records. It was a stupid, somewhat racist thing to think, but it had staying power. Even as hip-hop enters middle age, there are lots of people who think any rap act with a band is better because they make "real music" (and, conversely, a lot of rappers who feel a need to put a fine point on how their technique or personnel make them more "musical" than their peers).

But LB managed to sidestep all this baggage by reimagining the role of the MC as the bandleader, in the style of James Brown or George Clinton. In the studio, he is the producer and arranger. In concert, he is not just the lead vocalist, he's also the stage director. His raps are important, but his leadership is crucial. He basically just ignores the technological blip between funk and hip-hop, effectively retconning the dumbass question of whether rap is actually music out of existence.

For his fourth album, Real People, Lyrics Born teams up with New Orleans funk-jazz heroes Galactic. It's a natural fit, as NOLA's sprawling music scene never saw much need for genre boundaries. No strangers to hip-hop themselves, Galactic's 2007 From the Corner to the Block paired the band with the likes of Boots Riley and Juvenile.

Noisey: What drew you to New Orleans?
Lyrics Born: It's a very special town … it's probably the first and last true music town in the United States. It's not unusual to see these crazy multicultural bands. New Orleans is so multicultural; not a lot of Asians, but multicultural for sure. I'm not going to paint a picture of some kind of utopian situation but it's like … can you play? Okay, let's go. I’m not the type of rapper that all I do is get in the studio. If there's some music going on, if there's some music on stage somewhere, I'm going to get on stage, whether it's with other rappers, with DJ's, with musicians, I don't care. I made a lot of friends down there and every time i'd go and the Galactic guys were in town, they'd take me to the spots. We'd go to The Maple Leaf and watch Rebirth Brass Band or The Soul Rebels.

Did you reach out to any bounce artists for the album?
We're getting some remixes done with some bounce guys. But I'd just come off two very drum machine-y albums so I just wanted to do something more organic and cohesive at least for the main album.

Your album comes at a time when funk is back on the pop charts, thanks to artist like Bruno Mars and Pharrell.
It's funny you say that, I can't tell you how many people, when that Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars song came out—and to be clear, I fucking love that song—I can't tell you how many tweets and texts I got that were like, "Hey man did you do this song?" because they heard "Coulda Woulda Shoulda" or "Control Freak" or "Lady Don't Tek No".

Sometimes I wish I would have made some of these records later in my career so I could be a part of the wave, but it is what it is. But it's definitely back, with Daft Punk working with Nile Rodgers and Dam Funk getting more attention. Tuxedo—Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One’s project—and Chromeo who's one of my favorite groups. It does bother me at times that people don't mention my name in there because I have tried so hard and for long but, it's good.

As a rapper not only are you usually working with different producers but even those producers are bringing different sounds from the different bands they sample. Do you think you are scratching that itch by switching up your bands?
I think so… from a really early age I really wanted to work with musicians and work with bands … as dope as it is to work with DJ's and drummers live—and I still do—there's limitations to either form. When I was a kid and I would go see like, Shabba Ranks backed by bands, you would never expect that! But when you see them work with bands, you see all the things that were possible. I didn't feel like I was going to be able to grow if I couldn't work in any format.

Leading a band is a skill in and of itself. How long did it take you to feel comfortable doing that?
It took a long time. I would say it probably started in the late 90s when I ventured out to Germany and started working with the Poets of Rhythm, who I later signed to Quannum. I learned so much from those guys—how to put sounds together, how to create records with live music. Everything I was doing up to that point was sample-based. But I always had this vision that even if I was making sample-based music, I wanted it to sound like a band. When you listen to records like "Burnt Pride" or "Balcony Beach" off the first Latyrx album, or even "Calling Out", I really wanted it to sound like it was a band playing that.

How has hip-hop changed for Asian-Americans in your two decades in the game?
Well to be honest, it hasn't changed that much. There's more of us for sure, but I'm still sitting here 20 years later and there's still only a handful of guys out there that are doing it on a professional full-time basis. But by the same token i'm happy to see what I am seeing. When I was coming up, there was nobody. There was producers and DJs for sure, but there were only really a few rappers or vocalists or musicians. I still don't know if there's a single Asian-American solo artist that's won a Grammy.

Across all categories?
I could be wrong, but as far as Asian-Americans … a lot of times when I say there were more Asian-American directors or actors winning awards and so forth, everyone goes "what about Ang Lee?" Well he's not Asian-American! People don't really get that distinction outside the group. But it's changing … I love seeing what Dumbfounded is doing, what The Bangerz are doing, what Far East Movement are doing. Even though what we all do is different. Which it should be, in my opinion … it should be as diverse as we are as a group.

It's weird to lump them together in the first place.
Right! We're so different among ourselves … only when we come to America are we one thing! But when I was growing up there were literally zero images of Asian-Americans in print, TV, movies, pop culture … and if they were, they were so ridiculous and stereotyped with those accents, I was like who the fuck are these people?

How do you decide how much to assert your status as an Asian-American in your music?
As necessary. My experience will always be my experience, it will always shape my art. I do have songs like "Skin I'm In" on Everywhere At Once. I do address it specifically, but at the end of the day, I don't know if I'm watering my plants or if I'm watering plants as an Asian-American. Certain things I just do as a human being. Ultimately that's what we're going for: first acknowledgement, then acceptance. Let's get ourselves seen as part of the landscape, then let's just all be us.

Skinny Friedman is bouncing on Twitter.