Interview: Lyrics Born

Rapper, producer, and founder of Quannum Projects, Lyrics Born is a bay area legend. Having been a career musician for the last 23 years, you wouldn’t think there were a lot of firsts left for him. But early this month, Lyrics Born released his first album where he did no production. It was also his first album recorded in New Orleans. Lyrics Born was nice enough to sit down with us and discuss his new album, Real People along with his long history with New Orleans.

Your new album, Real People was recorded in New Orleans. When was your first time visiting New Orleans?

The first time was in ’91. As a record collector, I went down to do some buying. At that time it was really really crazy. This was back before the demise of the used record store and obviously way before Katrina. I was just in my late teens and an aspiring crate-digger and producer. Just being exposed to all that music at that time was pretty amazing.

Was there a specific record store you went down there to visit?

I was just going to all the used record stores like Record Runs, Skippy White’s, and Peaches. I remember going to Peaches and Mia X was working there. I don’t know if you know who Mia X is but she went on to become a No Limit artist. This is back when Mystikal was called Mystikal Mike. I remember picking up a newspaper and it was like “Mystikal Mike: new album coming soon!” It was like the early days of Bounce and Ricky B and realy obscure stuff now.

So when did you decide that you’d like to come back to New Orleans and ultimately record an album there?

After that trip, I think for one reason or another I returned once a year. Obviously in the mid and late 90s is when I started touring and New Orleans was always a stop. Its such a special place; it really gets in your blood. Its hard to explain but its so different than any other place in the world. It might be the first and last true American music town.

This is my eighth album and I really wanted to do something funky and organic and soulful. For me the challenge is always “what do I do that I haven’t done before?” and maybe more so “what do I do that no one else has done before?” I had worked with Rob and Ben before on the Galactic albums. I had toured with them and we always had a great relationship. What we had done in the past had always been a great fit and I loved what they did with Trombone Shorty’s album and the Revivalist’s albums. So for the first time, I enlisted producers to take over the entire album. Its the first time I didn’t do any production but if I want to make a New Orleans funk record there really is nobody better. I mean those guys are way more qualified than I am.

That was it, I mean 2008 and ’10 I did two kind of electrofunk records with Everywhere at Once and As U Were. They were both very 80s inspired. In 2012 and ’13 we did the Latyrx EP and the Latyrx second album which is kind of experimental, ultra-lyrical, conceptual hip hop. I just wanted to clear my pallet and do something that was really organic and an accurate representation of who I was not only as a person but as an artist.

So recording down in New Orleans, how were the recording sessions different than what you were used to?

It was different because I was totally out of my comfort zone. Its been awhile since I’ve recorded a lot of material outside of the bay area. I usually just do all of my recordings here so it had been awhile since I had been in someone else’s studio and taking directions. Ultimately, I think it was really really good for me. I had done so much on my own that I really needed somebody to push me out of my own limitations.

Its really a product of modern music making, especially hip hop. Everything is done pretty much through file sharing. Emailing tracks and vocals and emailing back and forth. I have the benefit of coming from the era where the producer and the artist were actually in the same room together. But it had been a long, long time since I had made records like that, being in the room with producers or in the room with the musicians. It was an awesome experience.

Its funny cause when I was in the room trying to do the things I had always done, Rob and Ben were like “ehh…its not really working. Lets try it differently. You think you can do it differently?” That was the first anyone told me that in a long, long time.

So you ended up working with a lot of artists on the album. Was it Rob and Ben bringing people in or people that you reached out to?

It was both. Obviously they’re career musicians who have lived in New Orleans for the past 20 years; its a very close knit musical community. Some of the guests I know just from playing festivals or being on the same bills over the years. Some of the guys I didn’t know but Rob and Ben knew just from being in New Orleans. It was like “this track is 75% finished. Who would sound great on this track?” Or I would have written a singing part that wasn’t meant for me, it was for another voice, so we would go down the list and see who we knew that would sound great for the part. It was really cool how everyone came to bat for me. Some of the guys that are on this album are really legendary like Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Trombone Shorty and Ivan Neville. I mean the Neville Brothers are New Orleans’ legends, you know?

Yeah. I was going to ask if there was anyone you worked with that you were in awe of?

Honestly, I love Ivan’s voice. I knew him for a while from touring and playing festivals and I’ve always loved the way he sang. The Nevilles are like the royal family down there. It was cool to work with not only career musicians but multi-generational career musicians. When I was talking to Al Jaffe, the leader of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he would say so-and-so is a fourth generation musician in New Orleans. And that really means something in that town. There is a certain level of respect and honor that comes along with that. You don’t hear that in other cities.

In a lot of ways it does remind me a lot of the bay area because it is so different politically and culturally. It’s like there is New Orleans and then there is Louisiana just like there is the bay area and then there is California. The sort of off-center weirdness, randomness, I get it just because I grew up in Berkeley which is sort of a social experiment in itself.

How does the bay area and New Orleans compare?

They’re extremely different. While the bay area has its own sound, I don’t consider it a music town anymore. Sadly in the late 90s and 2000s there was a mass exodus of artists. Everybody just got priced out. But in New Orleans, Katrina couldn’t even stop people from coming back. The music is just so woven into the culture that I hope it will always be like that.

Obviously from going to New Orleans as a teenage and going yearly, you’ve seen the damage from Katrina. How do you see the city doing at this point?

Yeah, I was there just before and right after Katrina and then at least once a year ever since. There is still a lot that needs to be done. Obviously I’m looking at it as an outsider but I’m so impressed with the resiliency and the strength of the people. To come and to rebuild, not only physically but to rebuild your lives, it’s really inspiring.

So you’re on tour now but its concentrated to the West coast. Are there plans for a bigger tour?

Yeah, in the fall.

How do you think the record is going to translate live?

I think it’s going to translate better than most of the albums I’ve done in my career. I’m already seeing it. People are already responding so well to the new stuff. Its been awesome to see that. It just has such a live, funky vibe to it. Just seeing people vibe to it immediately before the album was even released. So people hearing it for the first time and seeing how they respond to it has been amazing. I told my manager that I have never made a record before where upon first impression people are vibing to it so strongly live. I’m really lucky man. This is the only job I’ve ever had. I’ve been in music 23 years now and to have people still reacting so positively, it is really a blessing. I can’t be anything but thankful.

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