Life Is Good

    If you ever go to a Lyrics Born show, be prepared to have fun — or else. Backed by a tight, fonky four-piece band and blessed with an uncommonly forceful stage presence, the 32-year-old rapper Lyrics Born — Tom Shimura to his mama — did everything in his power to get asses moving during a recent show at Manhattan’s Knitting Factory. He demanded audience participation, resorting to the old “Y’all can do better than that!” routine, cajoling all the “too-cool-for-school motherfuckers” who weren’t dancing to get on their feet (“This ain’t the opera, goddamn it!”). Call these gimmicks hoary and even a touch annoying, and I won’t necessarily disagree. But I’ll also note this: by the end of the night, damn near everyone at the Knitting Factory was dancing or singing along to Lyrics Born’s music — even this too-cool-for-school motherfucker. Which, accomplishment-wise, is no mean potatoes.



    The next day, Lyrics Born took in a late lunch at Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side, almost fully recovered from a late New York night that included a drunken stop at the Carnegie Deli for twice-the-size-of-your-head roast beef sandwiches. “(My wife and I) always seem to get completely lit every time we come to New York,” he said while picking at the remains of his roasted potatoes and veggies. “We don’t intend to; it just happens.”

    Later that day he’ll be heading out to Brooklyn to play another show. From there, he’ll leave New York and swing down south for a couple dates, trying to get the word out about his new album, Same !@#$ Different Day (Quannum Projects). It’s a remix album, so you’re allowed to be skeptical. Lyrics Born himself even acknowledged that “so many remix albums are shitty. They’re awful.” Same !@#$, however, is not awful, nor is it a cheap cash-in of LB’s relatively successful (and completely brilliant) previous album, 2003’s Later That Day…(Quannum Projects). It stands on its own as an essential entry in the Lyrics Born oeuvre, thanks mainly to re-recorded (and often completely re-written) vocals, five terrific new songs, and a musical coherence that rivals its predecessor’s.

    Lyrics Born produced nearly every song on Later That Day…, so it’s hardly shocking that its sound was so consistent. But all the songs on the multi-producer Same !@#$ Different Day remain of a piece: namely, brazen Bay Area booty-funk. This sound plays to his strengths. His party-hardy groove on lock, LB is free to air out his deft, assonant flow, and his low growl of a voice sounds mighty good overtop horns and funked-up keyboards. But there are enough musical differences across the board that he’s forced to invent new tricks — or tweak existing ones, as he does on “Shake It Off {Bad Dreams Part II),” a hip-hop/rap/jump blues howler that takes all three ingredients further than the original dared, or “I’m Just Raw,” a cheesily hilarious boast track that quotes Stuart Smalley in the chorus (“…and gosh darn it, people like me!,” LB, you ham, you).

    Same !@#$ Different Day represents a clear progression from Later That Day…; that’s why it’s such an essential entry in the Lyrics Born canon. The DJ Shadow-produced “Over You,” however, isn’t merely progress — it’s something new entirely. Tense, ominous slide guitar shrieks fuel LB’s most dramatic persona-shift: from fun-loving, class-conscious everyman to creepy romantic predator. It’s a song LB acknowledged he never would have attempted were he simply left to his own devices.

    “And that’s the whole point (of doing a remix album),” he said, “because the more songs you do — the older you get — it’s (more) difficult to do new shit all the time. I get really bored easily, and it’s difficult to find yourself in situations where you’re doing things that you haven’t done before. The instant I start feeling really uncomfortable about a song I’m working on, I know I’m on the right track.”

    In other words, Lyrics Born is a man who thrives on challenging himself, on living life to the fullest, blah blah, et cetera. And, yeah, I realize such sentiments may seem corny on the surface. But think beyond the cliché and you’ll hear words to goddamn live by. The obviousness of his exhortation “One life to live and you got to live it right!” doesn’t make it any less rousing, especially when heard in proper context: Same !@#$ Different Day, second track, LB’s voice engulfed in horns, soulful scratching, and a lumpy-funky bass line. Both the conviction of his delivery and the creativity and danceability of his music serve to ennoble and empower his essentially well-worn message, which is simple: Life Is Good.

    Even his very approach to album-making is life-affirming. Lyrics Born’s goal with Later That Day…, he said, was to create “a cohesive listening experience.” To that end, he sequenced that record with equal parts fastidiousness and reverence to the great hip-hop albums he grew up with: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, et cetera. And like Chuck and Cube, LB’s got mad things to say. All his lyrics are informed by his clear-cut sense of right and wrong: honesty and love and loyalty, good; laziness and complacency and buck-passing, bad. When he deploys said morality into the political realm, the results are thrilling. Behold “The Last Trumpet.” The best song on both Later That Day… and Same !@#$ Different Day, “Last Trumpet” is the one where LB and his Latyrx podner Lateef the Truth Speaker rail against U.S. foreign policy, the mainstream media and “those that reign” in a way that the Sean Hannitys of the world would certainly deem “un-American.”

    LB explained his position thusly: “I bought a house about five or six years ago, a fixer-upper — because where I live (in) the Bay Area, it’s as expensive as New York. For an indie rapper to buy a house in the first place is, like, one of my crowning achievements as a human being.”

    LB tinged those last six words with irony: voice slowed down, individual syllables enunciated to the point of absurdity. But the sentiment’s still completely sincere.

    “Of course, I couldn’t afford, like, an MTV crib, so I bought a fixer-upper,” he said. “And, you know, it takes years (to renovate), and you’re never really done. You focus on this area, and then that gets taken care of, and then you focus on the roof, and slowly but surely your house shapes up. But it’s all material, so eventually it all breaks down again. It’s a continuing process of repair and betterment.

    “And, really, that’s how I see America. We’re in a fixer-upper; we’re in a work in progress,” he said. “You constantly have to assess where you’re at and what needs attention and what needs repair. Does that mean I don’t want to live in this fixer-upper? Of course not. I’ve earned it. But it needs work, and the work you put into it is an investment, and you see that investment come back to you when you put that effort in. And that’s exactly how I see America. So if I’m critical of the government or of politics, it’s only because I want to see shit get better.”

    Exactly. Lyrics Born considers himself neither Democrat nor Republican, his very good reasons being that life is short, the truth is complicated, and labels make him squeamish. “When you’re a person of color, particularly in this country, you’ve been called something that you didn’t name yourself forever,” said LB, who’s Asian-American. So, in lieu of a partisan nametag, let’s just settle on “hard worker”; who could argue with that? Before managing to make a career out of this rapping stuff, Lyrics Born — who’s been working odd jobs since age 13 — had been a pizza man, a telemarketer, a dishwasher, a store clerk, “you know, everything,” he said. “All normal shit, all kinds of jobs you have growing up.” And even if his current gig has its unsavory elements — label meetings, meetings with accountants, meetings with bothersome writers — it beats the hell out of washing dishes.

    Mind you, those aforementioned “label meetings” aren’t merely smiley, shake-hands-with-some-suits sessions. LB — along with DJ Shadow, Chief Xcel, the Gift of Gab, Lateef, and hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang — formed Quannum Projects out of the ashes of their previous label, Solesides, in 1997. As befits his live-life-to-the-fullest mentality, LB and the Solesides/Quannum crew simply threw themselves headlong into the business world, learning on the job as a matter of necessity. As LB recalled in a recent SF Weekly article, “I didn’t even know what a mission statement was until our fifth record.”

    Pretty soon, however, he developed his business savvy. It was partially his idea, for example, to market Later That Day…‘s “Callin’ Out” to Bay Area alt-rock radio stations, where it flourished, hitting number one and staying there for five straight weeks. “Callin’ Out” even found its way onto Motorola and Diet Coke commercials. But don’t even think about accusing LB of sellin’ out.

    “When you’re an independent artist, you don’t have the resources to go to commercial radio and your video budgets are about one percent what a major label will spend,” Lyrics Born said in defense of licensing the song. “Why shouldn’t my music be heard? Just because I’m an independent and I can’t afford big business? It evens out the playing field for guys like me to be in commercials like that. Quannum and myself — we always knew we had broader appeal than what the numbers suggested. We just never had the opportunities, you know?”

    Okay, opportunities, I buy that. It’s not like LB ever claimed to be Fugazi or anything. (And yes, I’m aware of the little matter of the 179 documented human rights violations Coke has committed against union-seeking workers in Colombia; and yes, I wish to fuck I hadn’t forgotten to ask Lyrics Born about it.)

    But it’s hard to fault a dude who sincerely believes his life’s mission is helping people feel good about themselves. “I can look around and see people that are unhappy, you know?” he said. “And a lot of them are unhappy because they just don’t have a lot of direction. I just say to myself — I just want to see those people learn, you know? Who they are, what they’re about, what their calling is.”

    So here’s my humble advice, people. Let Lyrics Born’s music into your world; it just might inspire you to live for today. Or maybe you’ll resist his message, you too-cool-for-school motherfucker. Fine. But you’d better at least have the courtesy to get on down like there’s no fucking tomorrow.
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