Novelty has nothing to do with it. Even if being an Asian rapper didn't make him an anomaly in an industry dominated by young African-American men, Lyrics Born would still be in a league of his own. The 35-year-old MC/producer, who is half-Japanese, half-Italian/American, stands out not so much for his ethnicity but for his knack for creating music that defies contemporary trends.
With a nod to old-school R&B and hip-hop, Lyrics Born's music has been lauded as a departure from the chart-toppers of today. While — not unlike his peers — Lyrics Born seasons his rhymes with a few witticisms about his skills and a tale or two about the ladies, he seems to make a special effort to bypass most of hip-hop's tried-and-true trends, a tactic that has garnered him critical acclaim and elevated him from an underground niche rapper to an international contender.
His new album, Everywhere at Once (Anti, 2008), is a ballsy blend of genres, including hip-hop, pop, rock, R&B, reggaeton and funk. From one song to the next, Lyrics Born digs into a different bag of tricks and comes out with something that is unlike anything else in popular music today. The riskiness of such an undertaking is not lost on Lyrics Born, but it is somewhat consistent with the artist and the man he's been from the start.
IT ALL STARTED WHEN…
Born Tom Shimura in Tokyo, Japan, Lyrics Born (formerly known as Asia Born) has been a child of hip-hop since its early days. Growing up first in Salt Lake City and later in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lyrics Born says he was about 5 years old when he began to indulge his interest in music. “I knew from a very early age that I definitely wanted to be some kind of entertainer,” he says, “but it wasn't until I was a few years older that I realized that [a rapper] was the type of performer I wanted to be. When I first heard Sugar Hill Gang, I was like, ‘Oh, you mean I don't have to take guitar lessons; I don't have to take piano lessons; I don't have to take singing lessons? This is for me.'' It was really that simple.”
It was that mentality that has raised the ire of hip-hop critics who view the art form as a shortcut to the music industry and a poor substitute for traditional music skills. But Lyrics Born scoffs at such criticism. “I think just because it's self-taught, that doesn't invalidate it,” he offers. “In the '20s and '30s, they weren't teaching jazz in school, and I don't hear people saying that about jazz musicians anymore.” But he hastens to add, “Of course, I'm not dissing music. I'm the first person to tell you that I wish I could read and write music, but it doesn't take the place of me knowing how to rap.”
As a child, Lyrics Born didn't have to look far to find support for his creative endeavors. His father was a novelist, his aunt was a singer and his mother had what he calls “an artistic flair.” Translation: Pursuing a career in the arts was not frowned upon in the least. “My father was probably my biggest influence,” he says, “because I could see what it took — sometimes staying up all night to get things done. When a lot of my friends' parents were getting up, going to work at 6 a.m., he was just going to bed.”
Just as Lyrics Born's creative pursuits were encouraged at home, he also found a nurturing environment outside his front door. Growing up in Berkeley, he says he was surrounded by a “wealth of revolutionary ideas” and a “wealth of musical talent that has always gone against the grain.” “I just think it's kind of in our blood,” he says. “People from the Bay Area are very independent and the area is very diverse, so it's not really that unusual for a Japanese rapper to come out of the Bay Area.” He stresses that because there was essentially no music industry in his backyard, many artists started their own record labels. “That gave Bay Area artists a certain kind of hustle,” he notes.
When Lyrics Born migrated to Davis, Calif. — a city located about 15 miles west of Sacramento — to attend the University of California-Davis, he hooked up with a like-minded ensemble of hip-hop heads (DJ Shadow, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Blackalicious members Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel) to form SoleSides Records and Quannum Projects. “We came up together doing this,” he recalls. “We listened to the records that other artists were making, and we tried to outdo each other and outdo everybody else. That's how we raised ourselves, and that still carries over to this day.”
TWO (OR MORE) PLACES AT ONCE
On Everywhere at Once, his second solo offering, Lyrics Born is definitely all over the place, shamelessly indulging his many musical influences and tastes and somehow finding a way to meld them together. “I definitely wanted to pursue a lot of different styles on this album,” he says. “The title Everywhere at Once is kinda where I was coming from musically. I knew it was gonna be all over the place, and I knew I was gonna explore a broader range of topics and emotions on this album than I had in the past. Production-wise, I knew I was gonna do it differently than I had done in the past. I just wanted to take it further than I had ever done before, and as I listened to what all my peers were doing, I wanted to take it further than what I heard other people doing, as well.”
The influence of Lyrics Born's musical heroes is also everywhere. “I was referencing so much music when I made this album because I was really trying to connect in specific ways,” he explains. “I was listening to everything from Curtis Mayfield to The B-52's to Devo to New Edition to Timbaland to the Black Eyed Peas to old-school hip-hop like Jungle Brothers. I was just trying to tie it all together.”
Tying a variety of mismatched pieces together into one uniform sound wasn't an easy task for Lyrics Born. “I was aware of the fact that a lot of people, particularly recently, are trying to tie in all their influences and tie in a lot of music, which I think is great,” he observes. “I think the number-one challenge is, how do you bring all these styles together and still make it cohesive and make it a good, solid listen all the way through? I think the key to that is really in the sequencing. One has to follow the other one in a way that feels right. When you play live, you have to put all these songs together that you've done over your entire career, and you've got to string them together in a way that makes the show make sense, so I just bring that logic to the album-making process.”
By daring to be everywhere at once, Lyrics Born assumes what many artists and label executives dare not assume: The audience is not one-dimensional; listeners can actually listen to and appreciate songs that are drastically different from one another — all in one sitting. “I've been waiting for this day,” he enthuses. “People are so varied in their tastes, and they're not afraid to express it anymore because of the way everybody listens to music and because of the way everybody acquires their music. It's not coming from any one source anymore. People are getting information everywhere, and that sort of ties in to the theme of the album. I think it's a great time in a lot of ways. I think it's a very challenging time, a very difficult time for music, but I still do feel that it's very exciting at the same time because we are everywhere at once.”
Lyrics Born is the first to admit that he faced challenges while recording Everywhere at Once, the most prominent of which was using live instrumentation. His debut solo release, the 2003 Later That Day… (Quannum), which spawned the hit “Callin' Out,” was largely sample-based. “Back then, it was me all alone with thousands of records and an MPC, but on this album, I barely touched the MPC. We did everything in Pro Tools, and it was using all live instruments. We looped instruments and we looped the musicians, but I wasn't lifting any samples.” Instead, he says, he brought in an array of artists, musicians and producers, among them Poets of Rhythm and Joyo Velarde, as well as Jurassic 5's Chali 2na and producer/singer/musician RJD2. “It was interesting because a lot of the technology has changed from the time I did my last album,” he says. “I was using a lot of synths, a lot more drum sounds. It was just a brand-new experience in a lot of ways.”
With 18 solid tracks, the set is about as diverse as they come, each song creating a vibe and an energy all its own. Lyrics Born says his favorites are the single “I Like It, I Love It,” the Devo-inspired “Do U Buy It?” and the introspective “Is It the Skin I'm In?”
“‘I Like It, I Love It'' is a real supercharged Lyrics Born song,” he says. “When I hear it, it's a sound that I'm very comfortable with. ‘Do U Buy It?'' is the exact opposite. It's something new that I've never done before. It's funny to me. When I listen to that song, I kinda laugh a little bit. As for ‘Skin I'm In,'' I'm not sure if — from an Asian-American perspective — there are too many songs like that.”
Lyrics Born says by far the most challenging song for him to record was the emotional “Whispers,” which recounts the story of a close friend's death. “It was really hard to write the song because that's your best friend,” he says. “But once I kinda got over the emotional hump and decided that I was indeed going to do this, it kinda wrote itself.”
Musically speaking, Lyrics Born says he brought in “every musician I know” for “Whispers.” “It's got horns, it's got strings, it's got vocalists. It was a very difficult song to pull off. That's one of my favorite songs on the album, but I never listen to it.”
Even though Lyrics Born puts a lot of thought into his content and the sound of his music, he says he doesn't overthink the recording process itself. “I just get in there and do it,” he says. “On this album, the method was very different. When I'm working on a song, I don't like a lot of people in the studio. I only like to be in there with the engineer or maybe the musician or group of musicians that I'm working with that day. In the early stages of the song, I don't like a lot of people in there because I'm a performer by nature, and if I get a lot of people in there, I'll start trying to perform for them and I just can't get anything done. And when you're first working on a song, you need to get the idea out without being self-conscious about people being in there even if they're not being critical about it.”
Another difference, he says, is that this time around, he already had lyrics written before he had the music. “In the past, I may have gotten the track first and then I would write to it, but on this album I had a lot of the songs written before I even had music, and I think I had an idea of where I wanted the music to go. ‘Top Shelf'' is a good example of that. I had that song written for a year, a year and a half, and I just couldn't get the music right, so I started asking a bunch of producers I know if they had something that would fit.”
Everywhere at Once takes listeners on a scenic tour along the back streets of Lyrics Born's creativity. It's ambitious and pleasantly topsy-turvy — sometimes a bumpy ride, sometimes soothing and relaxing. But it's not for passengers who like straightaways with no tricky curves or unexpected stops and starts. It's an adventurous offering from an adventurous and memorable artist. Novelty notwithstanding.
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE
Engineer Mike Cresswell discusses a few key aspects of collaborating with Lyrics Born on Everywhere at Once.
Was it tougher to mix using live takes as opposed to pretreated samples? Do you have a particular signal chain that you're most happy with when recording live musicians?
The bulk of my experience comes from recording live musicians, so I don't view it as tougher at all. I think it's tougher to mix soft synths and the like. As far as recording chains go, I have my own defaults I refer to for different situations, but these days I'm kind of at the mercy of what gear is available and the environment I'm in. Plus, I get bored using the same old thing every time; I like to try new stuff and just go purely on gut instinct. Also, gear usually reacts differently in every situation, so I try not to get stuck in set ways. On this project, however, most things were shaped in the mix. As long as it sounds all right to Tom going down, we can deal with it in the mix.
There's a nice, wide stereo field on Everywhere at Once. Do you have a particular methodology for getting the bass nice and beefy, the snares crisp, the kick thumping/thick and such a nice chime and clarity to things like guitar?
You have to listen to how every little detail affects everything else. Things that help me are listening at low levels on small speakers and getting everything up in the mix pretty quickly. I use these cheap Roland MA-8 speakers. They were sold as “multimedia” speakers and are no longer in production. I tend to get lost in a mix when listening to normal speakers like Genelecs, KRKs, Dynaudios, etc., for too long. Reducing the overall frequency response helps me focus on getting a proper balance. It's like standing too close to a painting; you need to take a step back to get the whole picture.
What's your theory on panning? There is some interesting automated panning on “Top Shelf.”
More and more, I subscribe to the hard-left, center, hard-right approach, then using effects to pull it in toward center if need be. It gives a much more layered sound, plus it turns out a lot wider and creates more space for the lead vocal in the middle. Tom loves autopanning, so on “Top Shelf,” I used Waves MondoMod plug-in on several tracks for some autopanning sweeps, usually set to the factory default setting. Then in tandem with that, I will do some manual panning of certain tracks.
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple G5 computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 3 system
Akai MPC3000 sampling workstation
Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables
Technics SL-1200 turntables
Synths, software and plug-ins
Access Virus soft synth
Hohner Clavinet D6
Korg Legacy Collection soft synths, MicroKorg synth/vocoder
McDSP Synthesizer One soft synth
Native Instruments Absynth soft synth
Propellerhead Reason software
Rhodes 88 Stage Piano
Roland Juno-106 synth
Waves MondoMod plug-in
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
dbx 160X compressor/limiter
Empirical Labs Distressor EL-8X
Klaus Heine?modified U 87 mic
(2) Neve 1073 preamps
Roland Space Echo RE-201
sE Gemini mic
Smart Research C1 Dual/Stereo Compressor
Speck Electronics ASC EQ
SSL G383 stereo preamp/EQ
(2) Tube-Tech PE 1C EQ
Universal Audio 6176 preamp/compressor/limiter
Genelec 1030A monitors
KRK RP-10S Rokit powered subwoofer