The first thing you remember is the voice: that low, molasses-slow baritone that stretches into a long, humid Cajun drawl. Imagine that voice requesting a Mac Dre and a Main Source song. That voice asking to give a shout-out to a mythic crew called the Han Bodda Han Posse (proper spelling never confirmed), which definitively places that voice as yes, Bay Area. Finally, that voice giving you the name of the obscure sample the Geto Boys flipped for "My Mind's Playing Tricks On Me." And thereby winning the fifth on-air contest you've had in five weeks.
Something had to be done about that voice. "Man, stop calling already," you tell the voice. "You're disqualified. You can't win every time. Somebody else has to have a chance." And then the laugh--that high-pitched semi- automatic ratatat, heh-heh-heh-heh-heh! "Just come by the studio and hang out," you say, 'cause you're thinking it's actually a bit lonely broadcasting an after-midnight radio show into the darkness of the floodplain from Vacaville to Folsom prisons and all the suburban homes in between, and plus, who is this fool anyway? So the second thing you remember is the dude showing up to claim his Grand Daddy I.U. single: NorthFace jacket, oversized white T, Girbaud jeans hanging past plaid boxers, Air Maxes. Wait. This dude is Japanese? With curly Sicilian hair? Walking with a John Wayne horse-lope swagger? Everything about him was outside the box. This dude was born to break molds and move people.
Since then, that dude, now b/k/a Lyrics Born, has released 9 albums, 8 mixtapes, done countless guest tracks and collaborations, and become one of the most successful touring acts in the rap game. He's done it all indie. Some of that has been by default--the culture industry is still reluctant can and sell entertainers who look like LB. But his success has been all by design.
Tom Shimura was one of a star-crossed group of freshmen who arrived at the University of California, Davis in the fall of 1990, including the artists who would come to be known as DJ Shadow and Chief Xcel. I was lucky enough to be the college radio guy, and so I fell in with a crew (dubbed SoleSides after an Art Farmer song) that expanded to include the Gift of Gab, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Mack B-Dog, the filmmaker Joseph Patel, and others. He had come up in Berkeley, California in the 1980s, where the stereotype was still of patchouli hippies passing out flowers and acid, but where the reality was kids burning police cars during annual spring riots, demonstrators in shantytowns protesting South African apartheid, crackheads and dealers all across the southwest side, and as he recalls it, "homeless guys fluent in 20 languages, blowing bubbles on the corner, painted in polka dots." Hip-hop was the new Bay Area counterculture. We knew because the hippies hated it. But it was inescapable.
On weekends, graffiti crews did battle on middle-school walls two blocks from police headquarters. Telegraph Avenue was jammed with cars pumping trunk- smashing 808 bass tones. Ciphers of rappers, b-boys, and b-girls clogged the corner at Durant. Shimura learned all the words to "Rapper's Delight" in the schoolyard before he heard the song on the radio. It was the sound of the future, and he was already living in that future.