‘Quite a life’

Berkeley rapper Lyrics Born celebrates 25 years of making music

Tsutomu Shimura, aka Lyrics Born, and his crew.

Tsutomu Shimura, aka Lyrics Born, and his crew.

photo courtesy of Lyrics Born

Lyrics Born performs Sunday, Nov. 18. Mezzanine bar opens at 7 p.m.; show 8 p.m. Calvin Black opens.
Tickets: $20
Sierra Nevada Big Room1075 E. 20th St.

Tsutomu Shimura felt like he fit into the Bay Area’s diverse hip-hop scene when he was coming up as a young rapper in the early 1990s. Performing and recording under the name Lyrics Born, he mixed it up with underground greats and garnered acclaim for his intricate, raspily rapped verses. He never felt like he stood out for being Asian-American.

It wasn’t until he started touring nationally that he detected a difference in the way he was viewed by audiences and the media.

“I started seeing myself written about in national publications, and that’s when I started to see that what I was doing was being perceived as unusual,” Shimura said. “And I definitely had some experiences. For 10 or 15 years, if I walked into a record company’s office, or showed up for an acting audition or a booking agency, I was the only Asian-American in the building except for maybe the interns.”

In the early aughts, his longtime friends and underground labelmates Blackalicious and DJ Shadow scored major-label record deals, but he did not. It was a bitter pill to swallow.

“Even though we sold similar numbers of albums, all of our quote-unquote stats were the same as independent artists, they went on to sign major labels,” he said. “I was told I was too hard to market, because I was Asian-American.

“I’m not happy that happened,” he continued. “But at least they told me, so I knew what I had to deal with.”

He’s been an independent artist ever since, releasing music through the hip-hop collective Quannum Projects out of San Francisco. And he’s been remarkably successful, becoming the first Asian-American solo rapper to perform at Lollapalooza and Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, and to release a greatest hits record.

Shimura is celebrating his 25th year in the music business with a national tour, including his upcoming show at Sierra Nevada Big Room. He’s also re-releasing his earlier albums and making new music videos for old songs, such as the funky-fresh 2003 track “Callin’ Out.” And he cruised past another landmark in September, when he dropped his 10th album, Quite a Life.

“I’m commemorating 2018 with new releases and old releases,” he said. “For any artist—let alone a career independent artist—once you start hitting double digits in the amount of albums you’ve released, you really do appreciate how far you’ve come.”

With a catalogue of more than 200 songs, Shimura acknowledges there’s a risk of retreading the same ground. “The more songs you make, the more you try to venture into uncharted territory, creatively, and the more difficult it becomes,” he said. “How do you not repeat yourself? I think that’s one of the challenges of being a veteran artist. How do you keep it interesting for yourself and your audience?”

But he considers his own life a replenishing wellspring of inspiration. Quite a Life finds Shimura exploring subjects that are close to home, such as his wife’s battle with cancer and underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry.

“I’m just very lucky that year after year, album after album, I always felt like I had something new to say,” he said. “If I didn’t have more to say, I probably would have slowed down or not kept going. I’ve been very lucky to stay inspired.”