In breakout smash hit Sorry To Bother You, one of the most talked-about films of the summer, a black telemarketer living in Oakland finds a magic key that lets him speak like a white man. This opens his world to boundless opportunities.
It may be a dark fantasy, but the telemarketing firm that it’s based on really exists, and it’s next door, in Berkeley. The film’s director, Boots Riley, worked there, as did a handful of the East Bay’s prominent artists of color, all of whom had yet to achieve success. Besides Riley, Gift of Gab of Blackalicious and Headnodic worked the phones. Longtime Bay Area MC Lyrics Born (née Tsutomu Shimura) did as well.
“For people of color, Dave Chappelle said it best: ‘You have the voice that you speak to with your homies, and then you have the job interview voice,’” Lyrics Born said in a recent call from his Berkeley home. “You definitely put on your job interview voice.”
Lyrics Born, who even wrote a song called “Cold Call” years ago about the experience, came up in the same arts scene as Boots Riley. The two have recorded, shared managers and toured together. Riley, who Lyrics Born said has been writing screenplays for years, offered him the part of a game show contestant in his film.
Lyrics Born, an Asian American, has been an integral part of the Bay Area hip-hop community for 25 years. As he approaches the release of his 10th studio album, Quite A Life, he has reflected on how he helped forge the path for Asian Americans while being plagued with reductive labels and stereotypes.
“There was really no precedent for Asian Americans in show business—period—let alone [in] music,” he said. “So it was really difficult to say, ‘Let’s just focus on the music, the work, the art.’”
At first, he tried to avoid the “Asian American rapper” label. These days, Lyrics Born acknowledges that his ethnicity set him apart in the genre. He uses it bring attention to his journey and light to the need for more Asian American faces in hip-hop.
Quite A Life, out September 14, will give Lyrics Born more solo records than any other Asian American solo rappers. The artist, who’s also been dabbling more in acting and also has a role in Ali Wong’s forthcoming film Always Be My Maybe, was eccastic to work with an all-Asian American cast for the first time.
“We just have so much to offer to pop culture and world culture,” he said. “I am very proud and very happy to just be a part of this wave right now.”
RIFF: With so many years in the music business have you changed how you approach your creative process, or has it stayed consistent since your first album?
Lyrics Born: It’s become harder in a certain way. Quite a Life will be my 10th album. When you’ve done that many, and all the mixtapes on top of that, and all the guest features, it gets harder to figure out what I’m going to do next. … Every time I sit down to write an album, it’s like, “Well, what do I do now that I haven’t already done?” This is the eternal burning question for me year after year: How do I keep it interesting for myself and my audience? What can I do every year and every album that is going to be challenging for me, and take me and the listener to new places?
You will be the first Asian-American solo rapper with 10 albums. Is that important to you, or do you try not to make the connection between being a hip-hop artist and an Asian American?
Lyrics Born: I think it is super important. Early on, it was really really difficult … because when I started to get a little [success] when I first started out in the early, mid-‘90s, I would see things like “He’s pretty good for an Asian guy,” or “He’s the Asian rapper,” and that really bothered me. … I was the only one. There was really no precedent for Asian Americans in show business, period, let alone music. So it was really difficult to say “Let’s just focus on the music, the work, the art.” I didn’t want to be singled out for that. So that was really difficult for the first five or six years, and then I settled in and continued to make albums, but I continued to see how difficult it was in other ways. I feel like, now, I do want people to see that and I do want people to know that this is a big deal and we do need more representation and it hasn’t been easy to get to this point.
A lot of the things that a lot of other artists take for granted, I’ve had to fight tooth and nail for. You know, sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the 50s as an Asian American artist but I have the internet (laughs). I just feel as though I was in an industry where I was totally on an island for decades, and its changing now, thank God. When you see people like Ali Wong, Randall Park or the early things that Margaret Cho did, and you see TV shows and comedians and movie stars and all-Asian casts. Mind you, I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager and I never saw that until now. So it is important, because we just have so much to offer to pop culture and world culture. I am very proud and very happy to just be a part of this wave right now.
Do you have close relationships with other Asian or Asian-American hip-hop artists, like Rich Brian?
Lyrics Born: Absolutely. The Far East Movement guys are some of my best friends. I really love [the band] YEAR OF THE OX, I love what dumbfoundead is doing, I think Awkwafina is brilliant. Dan the Automator has been a great friend of mine. I made my first record in his mother’s basement. I just finished a movie with Randall Park and Ali Wong and Keanu Reeves, and they’re all close friends of mine. They’ve just given me a lot of respect which is amazing. At the end of the day, I’m a very grateful person and it really has been quite a life. On paper, I should have never succeeded, given the landscape out there for decades, given the obstacles I’ve faced. But I did and somehow there was always a distribution deal for me or somebody wanting me to write a song for them or be on their album.
Tell me more about the Netflix film you did with Ali Wong. [Shimura plays a musician in a band with Randall Park] What was that experience like?
Lyrics Born: I had just come off of shooting Sorry to Bother You, the Boots Riley movie. I’ve known Boots for years and toured with him, and we’ve known each other for a long time. … Literally the day I started mastering Quite A Life, we got the call and they were like, “We want you to come down and read for a part in the movie.” … It’s a rom-com and Ali and Randall are the two leads. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been on a set that is almost entirely an Asian cast.. All the Netflix people were great to work with, the producers were fantastic, it was just a very good vibe on set. I’ve been on some sets where the vibe is just awful… Ali is such a genius. I’m blown away by how many comedians are unfunny and she just shines, she’s just hilarious, just brilliant. I really do feel like she’s one of the standup greats of our time. She’s been working so hard for so many years but when you meet her she’s just a totally down-to-earth person. She’s from the Bay Area like myself, so we share a lot of cultural references.
How did you get to work with Aloe Blacc, Galactic and Gift of Gab on the new record?
Lyrics Born: Gab I’ve known forever because we were in the same crew. We started Quannum Projects together back in the ‘90s and we’re still friends. We still record on each other’s records. … He calls me up if he’s got a verse for me. I just do it. There’s rarely any money involved; we’re friends who record together. With Aloe, I’ve known him for a long time, but when I first met Aloe he was a rapper. I’ve just watched his career blossom over the last 10 years or so.. He’s one of the top five songwriters I’ve ever worked with. I talked to him over the phone about the song, and he’s a really busy guy so I wasn’t even sure that he was going to be able to do it. It’s called “Can’t Lose My Joy” and it’s the last song I recorded; the album was basically done except for this song. I told him that I wanted to write it about the period in my life where my wife, Joy, had cancer.
Not a lot of people did know, until now, that we were even going through that. My wife is also in the band; she’s a singer. We were dealing with all of this while my career was taking off and I was starting to get no. 1 songs and we’re touring the world, playing Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, you name it. We’re playing them all while we’re dealing with chemotherapy and deductibles. It was a really difficult period and it was very bittersweet. [Black] just sat there and he listened and he said, “Look, I know this is a big deal for you, I know this is hard, I know this is your 10th album. I’m just going to record it. Don’t worry about anything. Don’t worry about payment, I’m just going to shoot it back to you.” I got it back a week later as you hear it on the song, that’s how it sounds. … I hadn’t even written my verses yet because the subject matter was just so daunting. I knew that I had to do it, I kind of had an idea of how I wanted to approach the song, but I just didn’t want to deal with it because it was just so heavy.
Was your wife involved in the writing process for that song?
Lyrics Born: No. Matter of fact, she was the last person to hear it. She didn’t hear it until after the album was actually mastered. … I wanted her to hear it 100-percent finished. Sometimes as artists we get these moments where we’re able to write these signature songs and they sort of dwarf everything else that you’ve written in your career. If you’re lucky you’ll write enough of them to amount to a greatest hits album or something. Some of them don’t even make it that far, but they’re the ones you’re most proud of and they define who you are as an artist. Whether that song ends up going platinum or not, that’s how I look at that song. It’s probably in the top two or top three songs I’ve done so far in my life.
Follow writer Piper Westrom at Twitter.com/plwestrom.