What’s going on
One-time Davis resident Lyrics Born unleashes one of this year’s finest discs, hip-hop or otherwise
Sometimes you know a record’s a classic the first time your ears drink it in. So it is with the deeply funky Later That Day…, the long-playing solo debut of Lyrics Born. The CD, released earlier this month by the Bay Area indie label Quannum Projects, comes encased in a gorgeous double-gatefold Digipak-style package—which should win some award for art direction, it’s so beautifully done.
But it’s the music inside that seals the deal. The long, loping tracks on Later That Day… tool noisily down sonic boulevards like a tricked-out American-made land yacht from the 1970s, with loops of funked-up guitar licks, clattering clavinets, popping bass lines and cooing female vocals, courtesy of Joyo Velarde, jumping out of the mix like aftermarket chrome on a cherried-out Caddy.
Its sonic architect is hip-hop and textural funk producer Lyrics Born, who came into this world in Japan as Tom Shimura in 1972, grew up in Berkeley, went to college at the University of California, Davis, and now lives in El Cerrito, just north of Berkeley. Back when Lyrics Born lived in Davis, from 1990 to ’96, he was known as Asia Born. With Davis native DJ Shadow, Sacramentan Chief Xcel (now of Blackalicious) and five other principals, he helped found SoleSides in the early 1990s, the influential hip-hop collective that eventually morphed into Quannum Projects.
“At that time, Davis was a lot different than it is now; it was very remote and far away from what I considered to be home,” Lyrics Born recalled. “It was hip-hop that really drew us together at the college radio station, KDVS—that’s where we all met. Jeff Chang [now a Bay Area journalist] introduced us all, and he was the one who proposed that we pool our money together and make our first record. It just continued from there.”
Lyrics Born called it fate that a group of talented people with a love for mixing beats, samples and spoken word would find each other at a school known for science and agriculture, along with shaggy-dog guitar-rock bands; but the loose format at KDVS provided a seedbed for their experiments. “We would mix and freestyle, just rap in the booth and check out records at the radio station, ’round the clock, really,” he said.
The SoleSides collective hit global consciousness in 1996, when DJ Shadow’s album Endtroducing… was released, to near-universal critical acclaim, by the British label Mo’Wax through London/PolyGram Records. Lyrics Born had moved back to the East Bay by then, and the following spring, Quannum released The Album by Latryx, a collaboration involving Lyrics Born and rapper Lateef the Truthspeaker.
Quannum Spectrum: The Elements, a collaborative CD from the label’s artists, came out in 1999, and Lyrics Born has been touring constantly behind it ever since —which is why Later That Day… had long been a work in progress. Lyrics Born had been much more active on Quannum’s business side, A&R-ing various projects, but he scaled back in recent years to finish his own disc, which he recorded mostly at home or while on tour in Germany.
All told, it took Lyrics Born two years total to build the tracks, due to his painstaking methodology. “I’m a vinyl junkie,” he admitted. “So usually it starts with just sampling, or maybe I hear a melody in my head. And then I try to construct the rhythm track and the backing track. And this is the way I usually work: Once I get that together, then I come up with a melody for the vocals, and I just take it from there.”
When Lyrics Born sings, his voice evokes Barry White’s basso profundo, with a sharper timbre reminiscent of Spearhead vocalist Michael Franti. And like Franti, Lyrics Born has an affinity for funk-driven poets of the 1970s—Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, even Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On—though Lyrics Born seems less overtly political than Franti. But such tracks as “Stop Complaining” and the apocalyptic “The Last Trumpet,” featuring Lateef, resonate with the mindsets of folks who are too preoccupied with making the rent to get their bling on.
It’s one hell of a debut. Literally.