A Different Take on Hip-hop

News & Politics

It’s rare for any musician to leap into the mainstream and cause a whirlpool in the currents without a multi-million dollar safety vest. It’s rare for any musician to have a number one hit for eight weeks on a popular radio station without payola. It’s even more rare if that station, San Francisco’s Live105, has a rock format while the musician, Lyrics Born, is a rapper on an independent label.

But that’s what Lyrics Born does -- he defies the odds. You might have heard him on the Diet Coke ad with Adrien Brody where bubbles bounce to his funky “Callin’ Out.” Or, if you’re from overseas, you might have heard it on a Motorolla ad. If you watch HBO, you might have heard his songs playing on “Entourage” and “Six Feet Under.” Or you might be familiar with his Quannum Projects crew. Or maybe you’ve caught the buzz from his latest release, “Same !@#$ Different Day.” By this point, you should have heard of him.

“I always knew that my music could compete with all these other artists out there that have millions of dollars behind them,” says Lyrics Born with affirmation. “It was just the question of getting the opportunity. I knew if we were able to meet that, it would even out the playing field for guys like me.”

The thing is, there aren’t many guys like him.

His unique sound and approach to music has garnered him crossover success with the alternative rock crowd. His new single “I’m Just Raw” gets more spins in his Bay Area home on rock stations than rap stations. This year, he was one of two rap acts at alternative-rock station Live105’s annual music festival. He and his Quannum crewmates have a distribution deal with Epitaph, a primarily punk label now venturing into the hip-hop arena.

This was not the initial goal. It was through a radio DJ with an ear for talent that Lyrics Born got caught in the alt-rock scene. “Callin’ Out,” his first hit off of 2003’s “Later That Day,” was taken to the urban market first, but received a minimal response. Party Ben, a DJ at Live105 played the song voluntarily on a late-night program for new music. The song ended up receiving so many requests during the day that it wound up being the number one song on the station for eight weeks.

“We didn’t market it [as rock]. You make the records. You put them on shelves. You have no control over who gravitates towards them,” explains the gravelly-voiced emcee/singer/producer/businessman. “That just shows the scope that hip-hop has -- it goes with anything; it’s so universal.”

Tokyo-born and Berkeley-raised Tom Shimura AKA Lyrics Born began rapping in ’87. At age 10, he knew that he would be a preacher of the hip-hop faith. After high school, he went to the University of California Davis where he met up with DJ Shadow, Lateef (with whom he formed Latyrx), Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel (Blackalicious), author Jeff Chang, and sultry songstress and future wife Joyo Velarde to form Solesides, which later became Quannum.

After shopping demos to no avail, the Quannum crew started their independent hustle in ’93. 12 years later, Lyrics Born remains innovative, constantly experimenting with his music.

“It’s a great feeling to know that I haven’t hit a ceiling at this stage in my career and that it continues to grow and I continue to grow,” says the vocally-animated artist. “I try to keep it interesting for myself and for the listener. I’m the type of person that gets bored really easily so I need to have new challenges and cover new ground.”

Incorporating hip-hop, jazz, funk, soul and reggae both vocally and musically, it took the perfectionist six years to make his solo debut “Later That Day,” producing and performing the album on his own (with the exception of one guest producer and two guest artists). For indie standards, the record was a success, selling over 100,000 copies and counting.

“Same !@#$ Different Day,” which is moving units at a faster rate than “Later That Day,” is a complete reconstruction of the debut. With five new songs and new renditions of previous songs, Lyrics Born collaborated with a diverse variety of producers and artists; “Same !@#$ Different Day” just might just be the only album that features both E-40 and Lyrics Born’s idol KRS-One.

“I have to work with all kinds of artists if I’m gonna be able to get beyond my own limitations,” asserts Lyrics Born. “I love throwing people for a loop on my records and just putting combinations together that are gonna turn heads.”

Guaranteed to turn heads like a screwdriver is his live performance. Most live rap shows consist of an emcee, a DJ, and a “hypeman” (the rapper-who-couldn’t-quite-be who moves around the stage trying to look cool and feel important while barking annoyingly at the audience in an effort to get the crowd “hype”). The Lyrics Born live experience consists of the MC and a full band, making him one of the few rappers with a band. There he goes bringing innovation to the hip-hop scene again.

Lyrics Born also treats his business the same as his music -- constantly pushing forward. Aside from being a co-founder of Quannum Projects, he runs Mobile Home, his own label within a label on which his albums were released. Currently, he’s producing his wife Joyo Velarde’s album and executive producing So-Cal artist and LA Symphony member Pigeon John’s next album, both to be released on Mobile Home.

As Lyrics Born puts it, “All that ever motivates me is to find new ways to stay inspired and find new ways of doing things."

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