Lyrics Born is in town tonight, playing Exit/In with Skins and Needles. The other day I had the distinct pleasure of talking with the man himself, one of my all-time favorite MCs and — no surprise — a really smart and articulate guy in conversation. It was clear from the beginning that Lyrics Born wasn't quite like other rappers. First of all, dude could actually hold a note, and knew his way around melodies as well as rhymes. He was a pioneer in what people sometimes refer to as "em-singing," and his songs have always felt funky and organic. For his latest, As U Were, he's gone into a territory that's part pop, part funk and part hip-hop. "I really felt like, I was sort of bored, and just ... felt like I had said everything I could possibly say, at least in the way I'd been saying it," he says. "I thought maybe I could just hit refresh on my browser."
More on the new album:
As far as the content and the subject matter ... it was a turning point for me ... in the sense that I was now officially an OG in the gang. I had been through a lot of the things that older artists had always talked to me about, that I never thought would happen to me.And in my personal life, a lot of things were happening that were both exciting and challenging. ... I was no longer that 18-year-old rapping in the basement, or that 20-year-old making his first 12-inch. I felt like I had grown up. I wanted to make music but in a different way than I had in the past.
[ ... ]
You play this for people who don't know who I am, and they say, 'Wow, this is not really hip-hop.' I think historically, even for myself, coming up as an artist ... even hip-hop people would say, 'This is not a hip-hop album.' In the past, that would really upset me but at the same time I realized I was pushing it. I was pushing the envelope so hard, I couldn't expect to fit in. And I think all those things that maybe I got criticized for, all those things people considered hindrances — or maybe even I considered hindrances — they ended up becoming assets.
On the whole check-a-box-in-your-iTunes way of defining music by genres and tidy terminology:
[From the beginning], my goal was to be the most versatile guy in the game. Whether that means I'm writing, producing, rapping, em-singing, arranging ... in a variety of different styles. I never wanted to exist in just one genre. I mean, I just felt like the music — especially hip-hop — there were so many more places we could take it, that it wasn't doing when I started making [records]. And even now, I just feel like there's so much more that could still be done with this music. And just like any other music in history, as time goes on, hip-hop morphs, it changes ... y'know, there's different styles, different things.
You know, like rock 'n' roll: If you say "rock" to somebody, it means a million different things. I mean, it's metal, it's rockabilly ... it's alternative, it's punk — you know what I'm saying? There's a million kinds of rock, so it's really hard to get people to agree on what rock is. And I think that's what has happened to hip-hop. I think fortunately, we're at a point in history where it means so many things to so many people, and even more to me — and I'm trying to push it even further than that. That's always sort of been what I try to do.
Sometimes I get lucky, other times I don't quite hit the mark. But overall, I seem to be doing OK.
On diversifying, and making a living in the new music industry:
If you look at all the most successful artists ... I think you're hard-pressed to find one that all they do is make music and do tours. They all have their hands in a lot of different things, for better or for worse ... from real estate to restaurants ... owning barber shops ... to or alcohol ... or cell phones. Everybody, it seems like these days, is multitasking. I don't know if that's a function of the economy. I don't know if that's a function of people seeing opportunities that their celebrity provides them with, whether large or small, but I see that.
At the same time, I see the average American is working harder than they ever have, basically for a wage that hasn't really changed, given the rate of inflation. And I see the average American taking on multiple jobs. ... I sort of feel like we're all independent artists now, at some level. ... I used to feel as though ... the music business is an incredibly tough business ... there's no health insurance provided ... there's no disability — you are on your own. And when I started, that was in very stark contrast to the job my grandfather had for 50 years, and when he retired he got a pension and benefits for the rest of his life. You know, those kinds of jobs still kind of existed when I started, but now they don't, really, you know what I mean? So now we're all out there in the trenches, fighting for our health insurance, fighting for our wages, you know what I mean? Fighting for stability.
I mean, I think I'm probably in one of the most unstable, unpredictable businesses that there is, and I've had the same job for 18 years. In that respect, I'm pretty lucky. But maybe I have diversified, and partook in other things just besides making records and hopping onstage. I think that these days, if you really want to survive and make an impression, and be who you are destined to be, I just don't know that you can do it without exploring a little bit.
On the Internet, and its effect on artists and the music business:
Illegal downloading has ultimately crippled this business — crippled the music industry. I'm kind of at the stage now where I'm like, 'It is what it is,' you know five, 10 years ago, the argument was that the industry did it to themselves. ... Yes, OK. True. But that's over now. Here we are now, and I'm looking at genius artists out there who are literally starving — you know? — and who've had to get day jobs, where they once were living, functioning thriving artists making music. And I think the loss is, we can't hear from these guys that much anymore. They simply can't get a deal. Or they can't earn enough off record sales to fund their own albums. And that's real unfortunate.
I guess ... but ... dealing with the here and now, I can look around and say, "Who is profiting?'" Someone's always making something. ... The Internet service providers are making a killing. There's more music out there than ever. There's no shortage of music. There's no shortage of any kind of content. If you ask me, so a cable company is advertising faster and faster speeds, faster and faster downloads, they know damn well it's not because people want to get their email faster than they have been, you know what I mean? They know damn well it's because there's all that content flying around.
More and more bandwidth is being devoted to this, and I just feel like, I don't care how you get your music. If you download it illegally, whatever ... what you do in the privacy of your own home is your business. I can't stop you. My whole thing is, maybe we need to turn this whole industry into Netflix — you pay a flat fee every month. Or even better, the ISPs carve out a portion of your bill that you're already paying, proportionate to the amount of bandwidth we all feel is being used to download and share content illegally, and y'know, shoot that to the artists and the labels, and this business would be healed overnight. ... That's sort of my take on the whole thing.
But it's not all bad.
On the flip side, though, it's an incredibly exciting time in music. I love the pace at which it moves. I love the fact that it moves so fast, I love the fact that anyone has access to anything. Whereas that was a big problem with the music industry in the past. I couldn't even make a record unless I had half a million dollars. I couldn't make a video unless I had at least $50,000. And to me, that's kind of exclusionary, you know what I mean?
I think it's great that someone like Lil B — here's this guy with no record deal who can upload ... videos and songs and mixtapes, and just get this whole legion of fans and sell out shows around the country without a label. If you're savvy enough, and you have the drive, I mean, you can still make anything happen. It's just a lot of us came up in an era where we were sort of used to having a lot of things done for us.
But I think one of the places where I've been fortunate is I've been an independent artist my whole career, so I've always had to have the drive. I never had a choice, you know? When you're an independent artist, every day is sink or swim, to a certain extent. You know, at the end of the day, it's on you. It's on your shoulders. That's how it's always been, as an independent artist ... like I said, we're all independent artists at this point. ...
I see Diddy, and Jay-Z and Kanye, they are doing things now that only indie artists were doing five, six years ago: leaking their own material, bootlegging their own stuff, essentially, for the public, [because] the labels are moving too slow. Making their own deals. Doing distribution deals. I came up doing this sort of stuff, so I'm sort of used to it.
As for tonight's show, the answer is short and sweet: "It's just a party, man."