The serious hip-hop fan has found him- or herself in a bit of a quandary over the past few years. The music left the street behind, went corporate, abandoned its roots as a form of protest, and essentially became the soundtrack for an imagined lifestyle involving bling, gats and girls in bikinis riding in limos. So what to do if you were looking for hip-hop of substance?
Well, just as every other form of pop music ebbs and flows, so too is hip-hop suffering an identity crisis on the surface, while down in the relative underground, some serious artists are doing legitimate and exciting work. Lyrics Born, the San Francisco-based hip-hop visionary who makes his way to Soundlab at 9 p.m. Monday, is one of those artists.
Some background on the man formerly known as Tom Shimura.
His stuff is best approached with the understanding that he comes from a bit of a movement. Fifteen years ago, Shimura, as a freshman at the University of California, befriended a few other students, who would soon come to be known as Blackalicious, DJ Shadow and Lateef the Truth-Speaker. Together, they formed Solesides, an independent label dedicated to getting the message of its founders out of their heads and onto the streets. Solesides eventually became the Quannum label; by this point, DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow" was already up and out, and had become an underground sensation.
Shimura, who was born in Tokyo and raised in Berkeley, did his initial work under the moniker Asia Born and worked closely with Lateef on a number of projects. Like all Solesides/Quannum output, his music was marked by its dissimilarities to the harsh and often crass hip-hop of the late '90s. Warm, laid-back, groove-centric and seriously devoted to the hip-swaying complexities of old-school funk, this segment of the California sound was far more adventurous and frankly intelligent than much of its East Coast counterpart's output.
In a sense, this ambitious blending of soulful styles was just what the doctor ordered for music lovers who wouldn't normally consider themselves hip-hop fans. The raps were and are smart and agile; the MCs could sing as well as they rhymed. There can be no question that an artist like Beck comes from a similar artistic gene pool, as do current visionaries in the hip-hop world like Common and Outkast, and to a lesser extent, Kanye West.
Shimura morphed from Asia Born into Lyrics Born, and his debut under that name, "Later That Day," was hailed as a masterpiece upon its release earlier this decade. Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed "dean of rock critics," was one of many who eagerly embraced "Later That Day's" charms. He oozed praise for the record and the artist who created it in the Village Voice, noting that the music seemed "committed to continuity, meaning committed to change." This didn't seem hyperbolic if you'd heard the album.
"Later That Day" ended up selling some 120,000 copies worldwide, which is incredibly impressive for an independent release in any genre.
Still, the record seems like a brilliant warm-up act when you consider the explosive genius of its follow-up, the freshly released "Same !@#$ Different Day," which is sure to be hailed as one of the strongest hip-hop releases of the decade. The movement of which Lyrics Born is a serious progenitor can be traced back to the work of KRS One, who, along with Public Enemy's Chuck D and Flavor Flav and the members of Run DMC, is a primary architect of groundbreaking hip-hop. KRS, who Lyrics Born has made plain is his idol, brought political and social commentary to the music, but he also brought a far less boastful, considered approach to his work, a fact reflected in his soulful phrasing and warm tones. Lyrics Born has followed in the man's footsteps, and KRS completes the circle with his "Pack Up Remix" on "Same !@#$ Different Day," which also features Dilated Peoples.
With his co-producer and artistic soul mate, Jumbo, Shimura has created a masterpiece here, a record that allows no missteps and quite easily makes mince meat of the competition, both in terms of its abilities to make compelling collage art and its creator's ability to rap with virtuosity and sing with grit and heart. It flows with grace and conviction, from start to finish, and most importantly, it presents itself as music, not simply studio trickery with crass commercial intentions.
Note, too, that DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing . . .," now considered a classic of the form Shimura had a major hand in creating, has received a "Deluxe Edition" reissue from the Island/Chronicleslabel, replete with an extra disc's worth of bonus material. It still sounds way ahead of its time.
Lyrics Born's appearance at Soundlab, 110 Pearl St., starts at 9 a.m. Monday. Pigeon John will share the bill. Those 18 and over will be admitted. Tickets are available now for $10, $13 day of the show. Check www.bigorbitgallery.com.