Illustration by Walton Dale
Catching Lyrics Born at home wasn’t easy. As a touring musician he’s on the road half of the time, performing with his eponymous five-piece hip-hop band. Between gigs he’s in the Bay Area, juggling multiple roles at Quannum Projects (formerly Solesides), the independent hip-hop record company he co-founded in 1992 with partners DJ Shadow and Blackalicious.
So what’s the secret to staying sane while living in a van and sleeping everywhere except your own bed? LB was kind enough to break it down for us while on tour promoting his latest release, Same !@#$ Different Day.
Theme: How much time do you spend on the road?
Lyrics Born: Anywhere from…shit, it depends. Generally half the year. I’m rarely home for more than two weeks at a time. Unless I’m working on an album, then it’s maybe three weeks.
And your duties for Quannum are more than those of just an artist, right?
I do A&R and executive-produce projects. I’m part of the partnership that guides the business. Obviously I’m not there every day, but I’m one of the five guys that keep it on track.
Would you prefer to have major label support?
Independent or major, doesn’t matter to me. All I care about is making the kind of records I wanna make.
But beyond the creative aspects, are you at a significant promotional disadvantage by being on an independent label, or do you feel that your records are finding their way to their audience?
That’s always a challenge on an independent label, not having the resources that a major label has. But the flip side is, just because a major label has the resources doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to get behind [your project]. I’ve seen a lot of my friends go through [that kind of thing].
We don’t get the huge advance or marketing budget that major label artists get, but it’s just a matter of what kind of music you make, and how you want to live your life. Right now I’m probably selling more records than a lot of [major label] guys in my category. I might even be earning more! I’m blessed in that regard.
I’ve been in the game so long that people know who I am and what I’m about, and they buy my records without the huge marketing budget…luckily!
Seems like independent artists see money on the back end whereas major label artists might get a record deal with an advance—but that’s all the money they’re ever going to see.
It depends. I mean, that’s not unusual. Major label artists or independent artists, if you’re not going gold or platinum, you’re going to make most of your money elsewhere: shows, merchandise, music licensing.
Speaking of which, I noticed that your song “Callin’ Out” was used in a Diet Coke commercial. How did that work out for you?
They contacted us and asked us if they could use the song. Quannum has a good licensing department.
Are there samples in that song that you had to pay for?
Oh yeah! [The payments were] fuckin’ [significant].
Are you hip to the new court rulings about sampling?
No, what happened?
A federal appeals court ruled against N.W.A. regarding their use of a Funkadelic sample in their song “100 Miles And Runnin’.” The three-note sample had been pitched down and stretched over sixteen bars—it wasn’t big enough to violate previous standards—but the court set a new precedent, saying that any use of a sample is a violation of copyright law, regardless of size.
I think if you’re sampling really high-profile stuff like that, your chances of getting caught are greater. Sampling in general has become such a no-no these days. You really only hear indie groups sampling anymore…except for, like, Kanye [West] and of course he’s paying for it.
Have you been using live musicians more than you did in the past?
I am. Since the sampling issues with “Callin’ Out” I’ve been using live musicians a lot more. Even [when I’m using samples] I’m just getting them replayed. I love sampling but if you get the right musicians in the studio, you have a lot more control over how everything sounds in the end.
Do you have a lot of techniques to make things sound grimy?
Oh yeah! There’s a whole generation of engineers out there who have been raised on hip-hop so they know how things should sound. All these sound design companies have come out with things to make recordings sound like vinyl, like samples.
What would be the ultimate Lyrics Born musical project or collaboration?
Clyde Stubblefield on drums, Bootsy Collins on bass, Jimmy Hendrix on guitar, Jackie Mitoo on keys, Dean Fraser on saxophone with Luciano, Curtis Mayfield, and Minnie Riperton on vocals, and me on the mic!
Name your Top Five Most Slept-On MCs.
Pigeon John, Ahmad, Diverse, Frontline, and Vursatyl of the Lifesavas. (Vursatyl will be mad that I said people sleep on him!)
Do you write much/work on music while you’re on tour?
I try to write a lot on the road. I bring an Mbox (computer interface) and a laptop but, more than anything else, I try to write lyrics.
Name five essential items that have to be in your bag when you hit the road.
My iPod, a notebook, my digital camera, something to read, and my laptop.
I know eating healthy is almost impossible when touring. What do you eat when you’re traveling?
It’s a struggle, man. I try to eat well but it’s not easy on the road. Food is provided at the shows but in between I’ve eaten a lot of McDonald’s. You know who has good, dependable food? Cracker Barrel. You can usually go there and get a decent meal.
Any run-ins with the law on the road?
Not that I want to discuss!
Any serious accidents or breakdowns?
In Sweden I was driving the van and we spun out; I didn’t know much about driving in no snow! It was a blessing no one got hurt. I definitely don’t drive high anymore after that!
Do you still do much driving?
Yeah, once or twice a week. I like it, especially the long drives. I get to listen to music and be in my own head.
Name five pieces of music that you can usually depend on to keep you awake at the wheel.
Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Sade, Muro Mix Tapes, and my shit! I get so deep into the music that it keeps my mind occupied so I don’t get sleepy.
Where’s the weirdest place you’ve slept while touring?
The floor in the hallway outside of my homey’s apartment in Santa Monica. That was like twelve years ago.
Is there any truth to the rumor you intend to grow your hair out, get it permed, and rock a pimped out ‘fro?
I tried that. The shit did not work! I just looked like an ex-con.
Do you expect to be touring in five years?
I hope so. I want to do this for as long as I can. If they offer me a spot in Vegas, I’m there! Seriously. I love performing.