Photo by Jamie Soja
Jazz and funk share similar qualities, anchored by musicianship and the notion of utilizing musical space. Longtime Bay Area rapper Tom Shimura, known by his handle, Lyrics Born, overtly highlights this connection in his songs and live shows.
LB’s crew, Quannum, has producers of astounding influence and musicality; his live performances are internationally celebrated for their exuberance.
“My perspective on jazz and funk, especially from a hip-hop background, is that it’s the musicianship, plain and simple,” he says, relating his own output to his performance August 9 at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. “All I listened to when I was younger was music that was sampled and programmed. When I started to dig deeper and actually listen to what was being sampled, the jazz and funk aspects, of course, stand out. There is a concept of togetherness, cooperation, exploration and defiance. There’s also a rebelliousness to both.”
Lyrics Born emerged from a stable of college kids in the 1990s at UC Davis who went on to make some of the most adventurous and colorful hip-hop the Bay Area has ever produced.
Collectively known as Solesides (currently branded as Quannum, both a crew and functioning label) they shared a college radio show, dorm-room music equipment, and unyielding drive. They recorded songs together but their rep snowballed after branching out as individual artists and sub-groups. Key members, after all, include DJ Shadow, Blackalicious and Latyrx, of which Lyrics Born is a member with Lateef the Truthspeaker.
“It’s pretty amazing to think we were just all in a dorm room together and that’s all it took for us to turn this into successful careers,” Shimura says. “We’re all very fortunate. I look back now and I’ve been making records longer than I haven’t.”
There’s a certain sense of kismet to their intertwining histories, all of which are underscored by the Bay Area. LB is pictured on the cover of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, a gamechanging, instrumental record that transcended hip-hop, and where Shadow’s legacy will forever stem from.
Blackalicious’ wonderful Melodica EP was recorded and engineered by Dan the Automator, another Bay resident turned successful producer. And the catalyst for Solesides’ initial foray was DJ Zen, now most widely known as Jeff Chang, author of perhaps the most vivid and telling book ever written on hip-hop, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop.
Hometown pride is especially poignant on songs like “The Bay” where LB rhymes: “We hold a certain love for our own, known as Bay-love. But if push comes to shove we won’t hesitate to raise-up.”
“I didn’t really see the way I grew up as unique until I left,” he says.
“Once I toured the world and other cities and came back, I really saw how special a place this was. I mean, growing up as an aspiring Japanese rapper wasn’t a big deal at all,” says LB, who started his career as Asia Born.
“I grew up seeing Japanese producers, African American rock bands, Filipino DJs, and everyone just doing their thing, so to me it wasn’t unusual,” LB says. “It’s this concoction of climate, culture, politics, art, and music; it’s a perfect storm of progression.”
Regarding the South Bay, LB is more of a native tongue than a native son. “Oh man, San Jose has the best Vietnamese food. You could put on a blindfold and point to a Pho place and it will be better than 99 percent of any place anywhere else. Forget about it. One thing I know I’m gonna do when I go to San Jose, I have to go eat.”
Another South Bay tie-in is his recent work with hometown heroes, The Bangerz. For the duo’s latest EP, Latryx used beats produced by the crew who, as comparatively younger rap cats, were understandably thrilled.
Says a humbled Cutso: “Working with LB was surreal at first, because this is someone I grew up listening to. It was also kind of intimidating, in a way, because he worked a lot with DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, two of my favorite producers. When Lateef jumped into the sessions, it was like a dream come true.”
LB’s take on the experience working with the Bangerz is equally positive: “Man, those Bangerz tracks are some of my proudest recent recordings,” he says.
Lyrics Born headlines this year’s Summer Fest on Friday, lending his gravelly voiced rhymes to the energy of a James Brown show—complete with a live backing band and backup singers.
“The show is more of a fusion of rap, funk, and jazz,” he says. “We do both James Brown songs as well as mine but it’s more paying homage and mixing things up rather than a straight tribute set. Anyone who is a student of hip-hop recognizes that James Brown was the trunk of the tree. And when you think about it in retrospect, it was just perfect for Rap music; same groove, repeated over and over. Sparse yet visceral, simple and sophisticated.”