LYRICS BORN: CALLING OUT

As a hip-hop mainstay and leading voice for progressive music of all kinds, Bay Area-based Quannum Projects has been pumping out some of the most cutting-edge urban music for over a decade. Started as a collaboration between several talented friends brought together by a common love for hip-hop culture, Quannum’s roster includes influential artists like DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lifesavas, and legendary underground duo Latyrx.

As one half of Latyrx (along with Lateef the Truth Speaker), Lyrics Born was one of the original architects of the Quannum phenomenon since its inception. Recently LB took a step up and released his own solo project, the bombastic, fantastically diverse Later That Day. Sporting LB’s raucous, singsong flow and a host of live musicians and vocalists, Later is a hip-hop tour de force that gives a nod to the old school while skipping to the head of the class. After a successful tour in support of the album, Lyrics Born took some time to talk with JamBase about his solo work, his musical influences, the current condition of hip-hop, and the state of the world today.


Lyrics Born + Lateef The Truth Speaker
= Latryx
Photo courtesy of solesides.com
Kayceman: I wanted to start by going back to 1990 at University of California where you linked up with your crew. Do you think that was a coincidence or some type of destiny that such an instrumental group of people were all at the same place at the same time?

LB: I definitely think it was destiny. It's just too much. It kind of made me stop believing in coincidence, you know what I mean? It was definitely meant to be. When you look at how it was and how it is now, it altered all of our lives so drastically and dramatically.

Kayceman: What led y’all to change the name from Solesides to Quannum?

LB: Well, one of the original members of Solesides left, DJ Zen. And he was such a huge part of what it was that we had created that it really didn’t feel right to any of us to move on with the name without him. So we kinda felt like we had to change the name just so we could sort of move on without Jeff, move into a different era.

Quannulm ProjectsKayceman: And why Quannum?

LB: Well the word quantum, Chief Xcel came up with it, it means transference of energy from one source to another, which is what we were doing. But we didn’t want it to sound like the company, so we changed it to Quannum.

Cool. What was the first record that blew your mind?

I would have to say The Message, Melle Mel.

And what was the last record to do that?

Oh man that’s tough. That’s hard man… you’d have to give me some more time on that.

No problem. Moving to Later That Day, it's obviously somewhat of a concept album. Can you tell me what the overall goal or original idea for it was?

Later That DayWhat I was trying to do was make an album that was challenging, yet extremely entertaining. That had its very emotional moments, but also had its very kind of lighthearted moments. And basically I was trying to convey a spectrum of feelings and attitudes, and subject matter. And that's hard to do these days - it's difficult. It's difficult because it's hard to make an album interesting and entertaining these days when there's only one guy on the whole thing. I knew that I wanted to do a lot of different types of songs in terms of… a lot of different deliveries and a lot of different styles. I knew I wanted the album to have a lot of variety. Then knowing that the challenge is, how do I make an entire album like that and have it be cohesive from song to song? The only way I could think about doing that was if I tried to come up with a concept. I came up with Later That Day because I wanted the album to have progression, and be able to have this kind of variety throughout and be able to tie it all in. I figured well, if you think about your life, the concept of "a day" in your life, from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep... At least in the case of my album, it starts late last night with "Bad Dreams" and then it ends late tonight with "The Outro." If you think about how you feel throughout the course of a day, what your mind is focused on, your emotions change depending on what your activities are throughout the day. Obviously the daylight changes, it comes and it goes, so things can change throughout the day and yet it's still part of this cycle. So I don't know if I quite hit it on the head, but that's what I tried to do.

And what was the production process like for that album?

Hello/One SessionIt varied. Most of the time I would start out with a sample. I'd start off the way I've always made music, but I think how it differed here was that I worked with a lot of live musicians. I worked with the Poets of Rhythm, I worked with Tommy Guerrero, I worked with a lot of singers on this one. Not too many producers, but I definitely worked with a lot of musicians. That is generally how things got going, I would start with the sample… because I figure I'm a hip-hop producer at heart, the school that I came from and the style that I like the most comes from digging, digging for records. So that's where most things started from, not everything, but songs like "Hello" and "One Session" were done almost entirely with musicians, but for the most part I would start off with the sample and get as far as I could with samples and the sampler and then fill in the blanks with the musicians.

And what kind of gear do you use when you’re producing?

ProTools, and I have a few keyboards, I have my MPC, some outboard gear. I do most everything at home and produce 90% at my home studio and mix elsewhere.

Ego Trip
Ego Trip's Book of Rap Lists
Did you have anything to do with the cover design, which is absolutely amazing?

Yeah, right on, I totally did. I told Brent Rollins, who's an absolute genius, he did a lot of the Quanum stuff in the past, he did Spectrum and Solesides, all the Blackalicious stuff, all the Latyrx stuff, he did both Ego Trip books. Basically the concept that I wanted was that it had to be lively, there had to be a lot of different kinds of people just like there are a lot of different kinds of songs on the album. And if you open it up it starts in the daytime and ends in the night, that was the whole concept. Hopefully it matches the music. It’s life really, throughout the day.

Seeing as how Later That Day hits on so many areas of music, I’d like to name a few genres and if you could respond with a musician or band that has been particularly influential to you from that genre. Rock?


Lyrics Born & Joyo Velarde in Boulder
Photo courtesy of solesides.com
Led Zeppelin.

Funk?

James Brown.

Jazz?

Miles Davis.

Reggae?

Bob Marley.

Hip-hop?

Ohhh shit, there's too many.

I can't argue with that. Now at the beginning of the album, in "Bad Dreams," there's a voice that says, "They said I'd never learn to be anything I wanted to be." Is that reference to your own life?

Absolutely.

Who in particular?

Oh shit. Not really family. But I've had teachers tell me, "What the hell? A Japanese rapper, that'll be the day.” Oh yeah, I heard that quite a bit growing up.

On "Cold Call," the "You’re an asshole" part--to me that screams Frank Zappa. Have you ever considered that?

You know, not even necessarily with "Cold Call," but from time to time people have told me--I've never really listened to Frank Zappa to be honest--but from time to time people have told me that it reminds them of that.

Yeah just that kinda comic relief shit screams that to me. Also on "Nightro" you have the sample, "You have done a magnificent job by staying at home to record and produce your album, this could be an inspiration," etc… Again, is that a reference to anything or anyone in particular?

Well I did the album almost entirely at home.

So just commenting on that...

It's just funny how you find these samples and they work.


Joyo Velarde :: Quannum Tour 2004
Photo by Kris Bugbee
courtesy of solesides.com
Have you done anything to develop your breath control, and ability to go so hard for so long?

Absolutely.

Just on your own, or did you go to a teacher or anything?

Well Joyo Velarde helped me out a lot. She’s a trained singer, and she taught me how to breathe.

It seems kind of rare; I don’t see that in a lot of hip-hop artists.

Well, like I said, I grew up listening to like Boogie Down Productions and I would see these guys perform and they would go for hours, RUN D.M.C. and so forth. These days it's coming back a little bit I guess. But the focus is not really on touring and concerts for a lot of hip-hop artists these days. So I'm just glad I grew up in the era that I did.

So am I.

You take a look around and you see people like Buju [Banton], The Roots, these guys can really go. And I need to be seen in that light, so every time we do a show, or do a concert I'm really pushing it.

And how do you go about preparing for a tour?

We usually do some rehearsals before we go out.

Just get together and tighten it up?

Yeah, just tighten it up a little bit and get on the road. But it's different, a lot of times we have a loose structure of what we are going to do. But depending on if we've been to that city before, or depending on what the crowd is like you kinda have to read them and see what they would be into and what they're not. Or what would work better than the other, and you make adjustments just prior, or during the show based on how you’re feeling and how the crowd is interacting with you.


Photo by Orlando Diaz
courtesy of solesides.com
Have you seen a live show recently that has really blown you away?

Wow… I liked the last Blackalicious show I saw, that was really incredible. You know I've been on the road so much my damn self I haven't seen a lot. I'm on the road a lot, like seven or eight months a year, and when I get home the last place I'm trying to be is at the club.

I feel that. Now I work for JamBase which is sort of a rock-based website - you know, mostly white kids who are just learning about hip-hop (if we’re lucky) - and I’m curious how you feel about that audience embracing your music.

Well you know, I love it. As a musician you want as many people as possible to embrace your music. I would love to have equal amounts of everybody in the world coming to the shows and embracing the music. I think it's just a beautiful thing when you're out there playing--and I'm still kinda stunned that people will actually pay me to play. It's pretty amazing, and that it keeps growing, I love it.

So I would assume that you would have interest in performing for that demographic at summer festivals?

Absolutely. I really think the true test of the artist and performer is to be able to win over and connect with any crowd.

I couldn’t agree more.

And I think very few artists are able to do that. You know Prince can do it, James Brown can do it, Jurassic 5 can do that. If you connect with all these people and all you're doing is just being you, that's an amazing statement.

Do you think hip-hop is politically active enough?

I think it is, but I think the stuff that really has a voice is not heard in the mainstream. A lot of people refer to hip-hop's golden age of being socially conscious and political was like the Public Enemy era. And I think there are exponentially more records available now than there was back then. So I don't know that the ratio or amount has decreased, I just think that there is a lot of other stuff out there also. So just to give a simple example, if ten records came out in '92 and eight of them were political or socially aware, now there are 100 records in 2004 and maybe still maybe 20 of them, the same percentage and the same eight are still there, but now there are a hundred other people talking as well, other topics. So it's there but the difference between then and now is that Public Enemy was the biggest group that there was at the time, and Dead Prez is not, unfortunately. So it's just different. It's all there, and it's all necessary, I just think that there needs to be more balance in the mainstream. Hip-hop is more diverse, and more un-definable than it ever has been, but I think that needs to be reflected in the mainstream.


Quannum World Tour 2004
Photo courtesy of solesides.com
And how do you feel about the politics of the day?

Well I think in a lot of ways I think the country is pretty screwed up right now. I think rich and poor is becoming more and more polarized. And this was always there, but I think there is too much emphasis right now on acquisition of wealth and not so much put no actually being truly healthy human beings. And I see this more than I've seen in recent years. And maybe it's because I'm an adult now and these things become more obvious to me, but I just don't think we are putting emphasis on the right things in this country.

Definitely, bombs instead of schools.

Yeah, to me that is just a travesty. To be spending that much money. But you know politics is a business, and I see our power structure using the ultimate business model right now. They are going to war to acquire new investments. They are using other people's money, namely the taxpayer's money, and other people's children to go fight the battle. None of their children are out there with guns in their hands--that's a business model. You use other people's money and other people's labor to get what you want. And I think that is unfortunate, it just sends the wrong message. What does that say when you are spending billions of dollars to go steal somebody's oil?

And you look on the street and there are homeless people and schools with 50 kids in a classroom that's falling apart.

It's just terrible. And the government really shows its ass when it does shit like that. It really shows you where the priorities are.

Perhaps you just answered this, but what could America use more of?

I think we just need a little bit more compassion, and some focus on actually making the country better.

And less of?

Greed.

And moving back to you a little bit, what do you think your greatest strengths and weaknesses are?

I think my greatest strengths are my resilience, my persistence, and my individuality. I think my greatest weakness is that I am perfectionist and sometimes these things take too long. I can become very obsessive over music.

Which in some ways can be a strength sometimes as well. What do you think is most important to mental and spiritual health?

Just awareness. Being aware of yourself externally and internally. Being aware of what's going on around you, and just being in tune.

Could you say who has been the biggest influence on you musically and otherwise?

You know that is so difficult because you take cues from so many artists at different points in your life, you know what I mean? I would say any time I’m getting ready to make a record I always listen to a few artists just to check in with them. Those artists are Bob Marley, James Brown, Buju--older Buju--just to make sure I'm still doing the right thing.

And how about personally, outside of music?

My fiancé, my family, just to make sure that I'm still who I always was. And my peers. I just love going out and observing.

Are you still as close with you crew as you were when you started?

Yeah. I mean we’ve grown up, we’re not 17 anymore, but definitely.

Can you name an experience in your life that has been monumental in shaping where you’ve been and come from?

Musically I think when I was in the photographer B Plus's basement; B Plus is a guy who shot a lot of stuff. I was in his basement one time about ten years ago and I was sitting there having a conversation with a drummer named JMD from L.A., the guy played on like the Pharcyde records and the Freestyle Fellowship records and so forth. And I told him, "Look, I have all these things I want to do musically, with rap, I want to make rap songs that are rock influenced, reggae influenced. I want to talk about this I want to do that. But I just don’t know how to go about doing it all, get it all going. Where do I start?" And quite simply he said, "Look, just do it all." And since that day on that's all I've ever done. I've never censored myself. If there was something I wanted to do I just did it. Whether it fell into the genre or not, whether it was easy to categorize or not, I just went in and did it. I think that was a real turning point for me, because that spoke to me, and not just musically. Why shouldn't you go out and try everything you ever wanted to do in life, why shouldn't you just do it all?

Do you have a favorite book or two?

I really like Forces In Motion. It documents a tour of Anthony Braxton, who's a jazz musician. A really interesting book.

How about if you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?

My father. I'd like to be able to talk to him. Curtis Mayfield. And Bob Marley.

If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?

I'd make the wrongs right.

Hmm, I like that. How about if you could change something in hip-hop?

I'd make the wrongs right.

OK, you're on the desert island, what five albums do you take with you?

Ooooh. Mine, I'd take Later That Day. Best Of Sade. I would take Kind of Blue, Miles Davis. And Catch a Fire, Bob Marley.

And last question for you my friend, where would you like to see yourself in 20 years?

Still doing what I'm doing. Still making music.

The Kayceman
JamBase | San Francisco
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