Aug 16, 2007 - 12:35 PM
Murs hangs out back stage at Paid Dues, an annual indie hip hop festival organized by the Living Legends emcee
Murs, the charismatic member of Living Legends and festival organizer, saunters onto the stage clad in electric blue Citgo racing coveralls peppered with patches bearing the names of various racing sponsors. He looks completely serene under the bright stage lights, and is undaunted by the sea of faces, cheers and weed smoke before him.
He grasps the microphone and greets the crowd. After a few moments of banter, Murs introduces Luckiam, a Living Legends co-founder and member of the highly esteemed Bay Area duo Mystik Journeymen. Lucky enters the stage and Murs makes his exit, as the crowd claps, hoots and hollers in anticipation of Luckyiam's set.
In the near future…
I am backstage fiddling with my photographer's camera. After four hours of asking, waiting and chain smoking, I will have Murs' attention for at least 30 minutes. He walks into the room, still dressed in his Citgo coveralls, introduces himself, and takes a seat. Mildly embarrassed and caught totally off guard, I set down the camera, gather my wits, and plunge vocal cords-first into an amicable conversation four hours in the making.
Me: So your new album is coming out soon, right?
Murs: Yes sir.
Me: Murs for President?
Murs: Yes sir.
Me: And the concept behind Murs for President is that you believe that you should be the spokesman for hip-hop?
Murs: Yeah, that's it.
Me: Why do you think that you are the best candidate for being the spokesman for hip-hop?
Murs: Because I am probably the fifth smartest rapper I know, and I know a lot of rappers. Out of those, I'm the only Black one, so I'm the smartest Black rapper I know. I feel that I am intelligent, articulate and well versed in both worlds, both street culture and backpack culture. Both sides of hip-hop.
Me: You started out super-independent, selling tapes out of your backpack and whatnot, and now you are signed to Warner. What changes have taken place in hip-hop, good and bad, during that span of time that you have been in the game?
Murs: Good things are, well we have seen the growth of the independent rap scene. Negative things...honestly as we sit in this venue you can see the rise of Clear Channel, you know what I mean? They have monopolized what we hear and what we see, from billboards to live venues to radio. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, but that's how life is. That, you know, the monopolizing of our airwaves added to the strength of the independent scene. So it's like tit-for-tat, so it's all good you know? So now you have a bunch of independent rappers doing a show at a Clear Channel venue. Both of us can't exist without the other.
Meanwhile, two hours earlier…
Luckyiam ends his set with a moving song pertaining to the trials of raising a child while constantly on tour. To start the song off, he asks the crowd to sing the 'ABC' song for his daughter. The crowd cooperates, as a sample of a little girl's voice is played, intertwining with the voices from the audience. After several verses, Luckyiam descends into the song, producing a melancholy ambiance in the venue.
Luckyiam's exits the stage, and Murs reappears. After a brief exchange of badinage, Murs calls his former Def Jux label mates Hanger 18 to the stage.
The New York based duo Alaska and Windnbreeze unleash a verbal assault similar to a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb detonated over a continent soused in nitroglycerin. During each interlude, self-deprecating humor and ribald anecdotes keep the crowd completely engaged. Alaska asks, “Are there any Pollacks in the house?” Around seven hands shoot up in the audience. “Well, there are more than four of us, so we can probably change a light bulb,” he replies.
Now, back to the interview (in the near future)…
Murs: The shift of focus from the West Coast to the South (is another major change that has happened in hip-hop). The East Coast will always have some type of stage, because they love themselves that much. They'll never count them out. But I was just reading XXL, and out of ten years...they picked the top five albums from the past ten years, and only two of those were west coast albums.
Murs: Yeah. So we've seen the decline of the popularity of West Coast rap.
Me: As far as the emergence of the South as a stronghold when it comes to rap music...most major hip-hop albums that have come out of the South have not been on independent labels. And, with (several) exceptions, you don't see a lot of conscious rap, in my opinion at least, and from what I have been exposed to, coming out of the south, and out of mainstream hip-hop in general. Do you think that that has been highly detrimental to hip-hop, just having people signing to major labels, and possibly perpetuating stereotypes about African American men and women? What do you think about that? Would you agree?
Murs: I definitely agree. I think it has been detrimental. We could create theories on why it is the way it is...you know...conspiracies about the white man against Black communities, or it could be that there are just a lot of ignorant motherfuckers out there that want to make music, and there are a lot of ignorant mother fuckers that want to hear music. There's not that many conscious people, you know what I mean? I think a lot of more conscious Black youth, we went off into other types of music...and kinda tuned out. And these guys don't know that there could be a Public Enemy. Like the girl I was dating, she thought Ice Cube was “We Be Clubbin'” and that was it. I was like – wow – you know?
Me: No Death Certificate, no Americas Most…?
Murs: No. She didn't know. I played Death Certificate 'cause she is a real conscious young lady, she was getting into Islam, and I was like, “This is what got me into Islam” and she was like “Ice Cube was a Muslim?” And I realized, you know, no one sings in this day and age about AIDS. We had all kinda songs about jimmy hats. We were dancing, but they were sliding little things in about safe sex. If you look at how the statistics have gone out of control, and how many more people have fallen victim to different sexually transmitted diseases, you can see the decline of it being mentioned in music, when it should be the opposite. The more people get these diseases, the more people should talk about it. And the ones contracting them are the main ones in the club getting crunk, and listening to all the ignorant music. It's crazy...I don't know where to start, but it has hurt the Black community, its hurt America in general, you know what I mean? Because when we export this shit, the Japanese people, when their kids start getting crunk and smoking reefer and being irresponsible, they blame it on the Americans. And they look at us, like we are pieces of shit, a culture gone crazy. And that's how the French look at us. As you travel the world, you're just like, “Wow, this is who represents me?” 'Cause I'm a Black American, and if they didn't stereotype me, then I'm a Black American rapper, so I have to be “this.”
Back at the show (about one hour, 30 minutes earlier)…
Hangar 18 make a quick plug for their upcoming album Sweep the Leg, repeating the release date at least a dozen times in a humorous display of shameless self promotion, then leave the stage. Murs enters, and hypes the crowd for Blueprint, a Columbus, Ohio emcee whose motions on the stage are minimal, and contrast his sonorous voice.
“So fuck hip-hop, I'm easy listenin',” Blueprint exclaims as the crowd waves their hands and bob their heads to the beat of “Boom Box,” a song that inverts and jeers many common themes in contemporary hip-hop music.
The interview continues (back to the near future)…
Me: What do you think about the increase of Caucasian Americans listening to hip hop, really getting into hip-hop? One of the first things I noticed as the show really started kickn' off is that pretty much the crowd here is predominantly white, predominantly young whites. Like mid 20's, early 20's and whatnot. What are your opinions on white American becoming the people that financially enable hip-hop to exist?
Murs: I think that's the way it is. But I think that if you want to branch outside your community, and you want it to be a financially viable art form or entity, it has to be supported by white people because they are the majority of people in America, you know what I mean? It's just the way it is. I don't see anything wrong with it. But it's America, it's predominantly white…I don't know the exact demographics…
Me: I'm not sure, but I think it's like 50 percent white, about 13 percent black. I think the next largest ethnic demographic would be Hispanics. I'm pretty sure it's still like, 40 to 50 percent white.
Murs: See, I think what we make is music for intellectuals, and there is a small intellectual community, but I think it directly reflects the demographics of the majority. There are more white people, so there's going to be more white intellectuals than there are black intellectuals. And our type of music appeals to the intellectual crowd – the coffee shop kids, the punk rock kids, the rebels. And that's a minority within society, and within that minority, minorities are an even smaller minority. I see your Joy Division shirt, and there are very few people our age. Well, I'm assuming that you are my age...
Me: I'm 28.
Murs: Yeah, I'm 29, so I don't know too many Black kids that are into Joy Division, but I don't know that many kids that are into Joy Division period. You are not going to find as many Black kids (into Joy Division), 'cause there aren't as many Black kids period. So I stopped blaming it on color a long time ago. But also, what Atmosphere is talking about, what Cage is talking about, what Sage Francis is talking about is more relevant to them than it is to a Black kid. Now why these kids like what I do, I have no idea. I think they relate to someone being honest, you know? The more and more I go to shows, like when the Felt set goes on, you see me and Atmosphere going back and forth, and my songs are about guns – but not the normal way – but I'm talkin' about guys I grew up with and stuff that I've been through. That relates to nothing any of the people…(or at least) the first fifty people (in the crowd) can relate to. I'm looking at some white girl mouth some shit back to me and I'm thinking, “She has no idea what she's talking about.” But I think they relate to the honesty, emotion and feeling behind it.
Me: Do you see a bright light at the end of the tunnel as far as the decline of West Coast hip-hop? Because, when I went through one of my slumps, not listening to a lot of Hip Hop, one thing that got me back into it was Freestyle Fellowship. And then they kinda lost appeal with me as their careers progressed. Do you see any resurgence of good underground LA hip-hop?
Murs: I think that it has always been there. I think that Freestyle Fellowship, their influence—there are a bunch of guys in the LA underground that sound like that. I think the change in that, I don't know if I am allowed to say this, is me. And now you see more kids coming out. I think it kinda started with Xzibit, where someone has skills, but he's not Freestyle Fellowship, but he's not Snoop Dog; he's kinda in the middle. But the bigger he got, the more he leaned towards the gangster rap side. So I'm trying to walk that line, trying to progress as someone who's in the middle. And I think that is the new sound of the underground right now. I see a lot of groups coming up behind me, and they won't admit it, but I know they all sound like me. No one was talkin' about what I'm talking about before me, you know? And really before Xzibit. Either you were using metaphors or you were doing gangster rap. There really was no reality rap. To me, reality lies between Souls of Mischief and the Dogg Pound. If you mix those two, I think you get reality rap. And that's all I do, I tell people what happened yesterday, or today, or something interesting that happens. I try to make it a little more interesting...
Meanwhile, one hour earlier…
Blueprint's set ends with “Drugs, Sex, Alcohol, Rock and Roll,” a song that presents anecdotes detailing the experiences of people living with addition. He leaves the stage on a serious note, as Murs enters and quickly introduces his fellow Living Legends Grouch and Eligh. The crowd goes bananas as Grouch and Eligh lackadaisically flow over beats supplied by DJ Fresh. The highlight – “Artsy” – a jab at pretentiousness in all its human manifestations. “You ain't artsyer than me, 'cause you read a lotta books, and don't watch T.V.” Damn straight.
There seems to be a two-to-one blunt to person ratio in the pit. I feel as if I am in an aquarium, filled with liquefied THC. Hands wave to the beat, and people line up for overpriced alcohol as the Grouch and Eligh whip the crowd into hedonistic abandon.
And then I asked Murs (45 minutes later)…
Me: Do you have any other Felt albums dedicated to specific women coming up? You did one with Lisa Bonet and then…
Murs: The first one was Christina Ricci.
Me: That's right…are there any of those on the horizon?
Murs: Only the Felt records will be dedicated to a woman. So there's another Felt record and we definitely have a woman in mind already.
Me: Paris Hilton?
Murs: You have to be an actress that was respected at one point, kinda like Christina Ricci. She kinda pulled herself out of the spotlight, and Lisa Bonet kinda pulled herself out of the spotlight. We're into A-list actresses that became B-list actresses.
Me: Okay, I'm going to be trying to wrap my head around that one all night, trying to figure out who it is. On your new album, there is a song called “Dreadlocks” that's produced by Rick Rock. It's a bit…some people have gone as far as to say it's borderline Hyphy.
Murs: I hope it's all the way Hyphy. Thats all I listen to, kinda like if you work at McDonalds, you don't eat McDonalds. I don't really listen to indie rap. I didn't grow up on it. I grew up on gangster rap, and the new evolution of that is Hyphy up here, you know? I love E-40, and I love Too $hort. So first thing I did...You know, signing to Warner was like having your dad give you all the toys you wanted. Like, “Who do you want to work with?” and I was like, “serious?” So I was like, “Okay, I want to make a Hyphy song.” So I called up Rick Rock, sent him an email, and said, “This is what I want to do.” I wanted to do a dreadlocks song. I gave him the idea, I didn't just let him give me a beat and say I'm gonna do a Hyphy song about dreadlocks. I felt like dreadlocks are a part of Hyphy culture, but like we were saying, no one is telling these kids what dreadlocks are about. No one is telling them where it comes from. So if I can get Rick Rock to do a beat, and let all these kids – 'cause there's all kinda kids with gold teeth, who sell crack, with dreadlocks – and they have never heard of Haile Selassie, or they've never heard of Marcus Garvey...
Me: Or the Mau Mau...
Murs: Yeah, there's so much. So I just try to incorporate a little bit of positivity and peace and love and knowledge into something that they are already doing, which is a Hyphy beat. People hear the beat first anyway, so it's my trick. This is what I listen to, this is what I like, but let me do my version of it.
Me: So you're being a bit subversive, basically, by making a song with, I guess you could say a poppy beat, and slippin' in conscious lyrical content.
Murs: Yeah. And I wasn't trying. It's not a song from the album. Honestly, it fits nowhere on the album. Out of the 60 songs I did, I did two Hyphy songs. That one and one other one that no one will probably ever hear. You know, doing 60 songs...me doing songs with Kwame, Showbiz and AG...I've been all around the world...with Nitty, the guy who did “It's Goin' Down.” I've did songs with everybody. “Dreadlocks” was something that got bought by John Madden (EA Sports), and I didn't want the first time people heard it to be on a video game, so I was like, “We might as well leak it,” and then my boy Big Von at KMEL, he wanted to play it, so why not let it go. But it's definitely no reflection of anything else on the album. And I don't like to say that, 'cause I don't care. I don't want to apologize. That's why I haven't made a blog about it. If you want to hate me for it, go ahead and hate me. You know, 9th Wonder did most of the album. It's nothing like that, but I'd like to hear what people say, and how they react. People are saying that I sold out, but in all honesty, I'd make more money staying independent than signing to Warner Bros.
Murs: Yes. Major labels are having a hard time selling music...Artists already had a hard time getting paid before. Now that they aren't selling any records, you can forget about royalties. They're never coming, you know what I mean? So I didn't sign this record deal to make money, or to sell out. I signed it because I felt like that's what being a commercial artist is. It would be a commercial for me and all my friends. While I'm doing my Paid Dues tour, if I happen to get a hit on the radio, all its going to do is attract more attention to Sage Francis or Cage because that's who I'm on tour with, you know what I mean? They're going to see my name on the Paid Dues tour, and maybe this will help balance out the game. Because right now it's really heavy on streets, and guns, and crack. What I think is better now are the little dance tunes that come out, “Lip Gloss” and what have you. Those are a lot more harmless than “go kill somebody, go shoot somebody.” It’s shifting and hopefully I can help balance it out a little more.
Me: Another question I wanted to ask you has to do with something I think I saw on your Myspace page. You state that hip-hop doesn't sell albums anymore, it sells ring tones. Can you explain that comment.
Murs: The ring tone is the epitome of a quick sell. And rap has been – for so many years – about selling crack that it's eventually become that. Like junk. You get high on it, it's your ring tone for three weeks, and then you're done with it. You get high on crack, you're high for three hours, or I don't know, however long it takes, then you're done with it. It's all real disposable. You have all these people claiming to be crack salesmen, and that's how they look at it. How can I make the best hit, I'll get the hottest producer, I'll do this, I'll do this...the hottest hook, and then boom! And it's short lived. No one is creating albums, no one is creating music anymore. There are very few Black musicians, you know what I mean? Everyone's writing with a monetary goal in mind, not creating timeless art. There are very few Black artists on the whole, whether it be visual art...The only fine artist black people have is Basquiat…Then there's graffiti that's starting to get recognized, but it's the white kids and the Latino kids that are getting recognized. So it's kinda like Black people and art are at odds right now....
Me: And the thing that pisses me off is that it hasn't always been that way. It seems to me, especially during the Harlem Renaissance, you had Black poets, Black authors, Black musicians, Black painters, Black sculptors, Black this and Black that, all interacting with each other, working with each other, and creating an artistic community. And I personally don't really see that many predominantly African American artistic movements or artistic communities existing here or in any other state that I've been in. I find that very just, not disheartening, but it makes me want to fuckin' jump up and try to do something. But I'm just one man, and this isn't my interview, so I'm going to stop talking.
Me: I can’t think of anything else dude. You have any questions for me?
Murs: Naw, but you have nice tattoos.
Me: Thank you.
Gretchen (the photographer): Where'd you get your suit?
Murs: Where? eBay.
Gretchen: Really? It's hot. I like it.
Murs: Thank you. I just got into NASCAR. I can't watch any races, so I figured I'll wear this everyday.
The interview ends, but the show (30 minutes in the past) continues…
The Grouch and Eligh leave the crowd in a state of sheer elation. They wave, plug upcoming projects, then leave the stage. Murs enters. He grabs the mike and introduces the next emcee, Mr. Lif to the audience.
A mass, draped in a black velvet cape, moves swiftly onto the stage. From beneath a shimmering hood falls thick dreadlocks, at least a decade in the making. He pulls back the hood, and displays his face to a crowd nearing hysteria. And the set has not even started.
Mr. Lif proceeds to deliver an energetic, explosive performance, accompanied by his fellow Perceptionist Akrobatik. They are all over the stage, unleashing a verbal avalanche into their microphones. The set ends, and a brief interlude follows. The audience swaggers out of the auditorium, covered in sweat and reeking of weed and overpriced booze. The smokers smoke, the pissers piss, and after several minutes, they march back into the pit, refreshed and ready to be entertained.
Murs introduces Cage, a former Eastern Conference emcee now signed to Def Jux. His former label mate Yak Balls acts as his back up and hype man, jumping up and down, and punctuating the end of every several verses with a hay maker punch through the reefer smoke still lingering in the air. The set is frenzied. They race from one end of the stage to the other, captivating the crowd with their mix of cerebral profanity and sheer wit.
The set ends, and Murs again enters the stage to introduce Brother Ali. What happened next on the stage, I do not know, due to the Murs interview you just read. After the interview, I smoked a cigarette, then left the venue because I was hungry and needed a beer. If you did stay for the rest of the show, feel free to email me and tell me how it went.
James Monroe Adams IV is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in San Francisco. James comes from a long line of despots, clergymen, numbers-runners, and long-haul truckers and produces content for Oh Dang! when he is not riding horses across the plains of Mozambique or getting hammered in the streets of San Francisco.
Gretchen Robinette is a freelance photographer who shoots 300-500 photos a day. Double Espressos and Red Bull are her fuel. Photography is her life until the day she dies, and in her grave will be her body and her Canon.