— by Joseph Patel, with reporting by Mark Bella
Fans who yearn for hip-hop that's more than just boasts about bling, that's more about funk than funds, have been warming up to Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born.
Born in Tokyo and raised in Berkeley, California, the 31-year-old Lyrics Born (a.k.a. Tom Shimura) makes the kind of robust, freewheeling hip-hop that followers of Outkast and Jurassic 5 will find appealing.
On his debut album, Later That Day, two things distinguish Lyrics Born from most hip-hop MCs. First is his colloquial, sing-song vocal style, demonstrated on his first single, "Callin' Out," a rap delivery that finds him singing his lyrics as much as rapping them. Second are his beats — which are carefully crafted from years of pillaging rare soul, funk and rock records, many of which wouldn't be considered "proper" hip-hop beats.
"That's always been my philosophy," Lyrics Born said, "try to create harmony with things that maybe aren't supposed to work together."
Lyrics Born's career started when he and some college friends started a label, SoleSides Records, in 1992. One of those founders was DJ Shadow, who in 1996 became internationally known as a revolutionary sample-based hip-hop composer. That year the label changed its name to Quannum, and in the years since it has become popular because of another founding act, the rap duo Blackalicious.
"We started out in a living room, having meetings on butcher paper with crayons, with just a stack of records and, you know, a turntable. We've been together so long that it really means a lot to me when Blackalicious or DJ Shadow or Dan the Automator rings bells [with people]."
Even though Later That Day is technically Lyrics Born's solo debut, it isn't his first time on record. In 1996 he recorded as half of the group Latyrx with fellow Quannum rapper Lateef the Truth Speaker. And in 1999 the entire Quannum collective released a compilation album, Quannum Spectrum. Lyrics Born's song from that album, "I Changed My Mind," was made into a heralded animated video by the U.K. production team Shynola (Queens of the Stone Age, Junior Senior).
Of course, the one thing some people focus on when they actually see Lyrics Born in person is his ethnicity. While he once wore that very obviously on his sleeve — donning the moniker Asia Born early in his career — he has since chosen to objectively weigh its relevance in relation to his craft.
"It means everything and it means nothing at the same time," he said. "It means everything because when I was coming up, there were very few of us out there. And when you're a child you want to be able to look somewhere for validation."
But, he added, "At the end of the day, I'm just making music like the next guy does. If the music's not good, it doesn't matter what I look like — I'm outta here."
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