To the pedestrian listener, rap music can be difficult to follow. And why not? Take a typical rap song. In the forefront you’ve got a bunch of guys shouting rhymes that seem to be made up of random words. Even worse, it’s all in what seem to be secret “street code," and the words are said too fast to be individually audible anyway. On top of all that, the producer took this unintelligible burst of profanity, and superimposed it over a beat that’s so loud the bass is distorted; forget deriving any message from it. To people outside the rap circle, it probably just sounds like a big mass of words and bass.
Enter Latyrx (pronounced “la-teer-iks"), the only group to unabashedly manifest that idea in a song, with fantastic results. The track that opens Latyrx’s The Album
is titled ‘Latyrx." This tune features both Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker, the two fantastic MCs that make up the group, rapping completely independent rhymes at the same time
. Slapped over a slow-boiling DJ Shadow beat, this double rhyme is confusion at its finest. Even when I focus on one rhymer, I find the existence of the other flow to be enough to throw me off, and it’s incredibly intriguing. The placement of the words and music is absolutely flawless. Shadow’s beat is about as mesmerizing as you’ll find in rap, full of mystical samples that swell beneath the winding wordplay. After the first unison verse, there’s a sputtering cut-up of some Lateef lyrics, and then Lyrics Born delivers a strange verse all by his lonesome. He puts on this incredibly straight voice, and his verse sounds robotic but also flowing in its delivery. Lateef takes a verse of his own, and so ends one of my very favorite rap songs of all time.
But let’s back way up and define what exactly we’re talking about before we go on and describe the rest of it musically. Lateef The Truth Speaker (Lateef Daumont) and Lyrics Born (Tom Shimura) met in the early 1990s in Davis, California. Back then, several like-minded radio-DJs working for KDVS, the radio station out of University of California-Davis, got together and formed their own crew, The SoleSides. Among these innovative proponents of hip-hop lifestyle were Lateef and Lyrics Born (then known as Asia Born).
Back in 1993, before Blackalicious were Blackalicious, and when ‘Endtroducing" was just a twinkle in DJ Shadow’s eye, Asia Born released the first single from the SoleSides collective, entitled “Send Them." This seminal release set the stage for great things from Mr. Shimura, and planted the first seed for the crew’s reputation to blossom. Of course, the best was still to come.
1996 is a big year in the history of alternative rap music. Two of the biggest producers in modern rap today released breakthrough efforts, Dan the Automator lent his services to Kool Keith on Dr. Octagon
, and DJ Shadow dropped Endtroducing
. One more big hip-hop event happened in this big year when the re-named Lyrics Born teamed up with friend Lateef (who had also recorded some solo material) to mix their personalities and their names into the ultimate hip-hop alloy. Latyrx was born.
The duo spent a year performing and recording. In 1997, The Album
was finally released, much to the delight of fans of 1996’s eponymous release, which at that point was B-Side to a solo Lateef single. Unfortunately, such fans were few and far-between, as this so-called “SoleSides" crew hardly had a reputation at the time. It also didn’t help that distribution was incredibly poor. The album seemed to constantly be out of print. Those able to obtain a copy were certainly satisfied though, and today we can look back on it with a more informed state of mind. With the success of Blackalicious and DJ Shadow in recent years, it’s not hard for fans of rap music to find their way to this classic recording.
This album is something of a mixed bag. After the incredibly unique opener, the album only lets up a tiny bit on innovation, and it maintains its very unique character. Seven of the tracks here were produced by rapper Lyrics Born (a self-proclaimed “half producer"), and DJ Shadow turns in three more contributions throughout the album, and a Chief Xcel beat propels two standout tracks. There is an old (‘94) live track recorded at that now famous radio station, and there is even a track that is nothing but freestyle rhyming. The songs mostly alternate between Lyrics Born tunes and Lateef tunes, but there are also a few where each contributes a verse. Needless to say, a lot of different sounds are covered in the albums 47 minute running time.
This album is incredibly strong all the way through, but there are some obvious highlights. The first highlight after the opener is “Say That," a Lyrics Born production which happens to be the second track. Its glitchy electronics on top of funky drums and bass create a wild backdrop for these egocentric lyrics. The lyrics are relatively low in the mix, which I really like. This is basically the way it works for the album, it’s almost as if the lyrics are secondary to the overall flow of the track. Lateef takes the first verse, and Lyrics Born follows. You get a good idea of the two MCs’ styles with this track, since it was sort of ambiguous the fist tune. They both have very unique styles. Lyrics Born uses his scratchy voice to sort of half-sing/half-rap, adding a melodic touch that is really fresh. Lateef also partakes in some melodic flows, but he’s generally got a harder edge and a more conventionaly delivery. Both of the MCs are forces to be reckoned with at the mic, possessing impressive skill at both writing lyrics and flows and freestyling. The song fades out with those familiar beeps and blips.
”Balcony Beach," the next highlight on the album, is most interesting for its use of Joyo Velarde’s voice. This woman, who would later marry Lyrics Born, has a silky alto that goes really well with this cool rap ballad. LB’s verses are subdued and introspective, and his beat is sparse but effective. This track, which seems to musically represent the images of water that can be found in the CD’s booklet, is a nice change up after the intense weirdness of the first track, and the pyrotechnics of the two immediately preceding it.
By throwing together a Lyrics Born rhyme and a Lateef one, Latyrx created one of the catchiest tunes on the whole album. “The Muzapper's Mix: Aim for the Flickering Flame/Rankin' No. 1" is a rap medley featuring two of the best choruses on the album, and a danceable beat filled with cymbal crashes and fuzzy bass. The rapid-fire lyricism and irresistible flows make this a true highlight.
The next track, another highlight, is “Bad News". It starts with some jazzy piano that continues as Lateef comes in to spit rhymes. It’s an amazingly good beat from Chief Xcel of Blackalicious fame. Lateef’s verses explain dangers of rumors and generally “talking ****." The beat is just so incredibly good.
The next highlight on the album is “Burnt Pride," which comes after a half-minute burst-of-funk interlude. It’s dynamic, and Lyrics Born’s gruff vocals are exposed by the bumping beat that drops out suddenly here and there. This almost 7 minute long rap epic is a real chance for LB to stretch out over his dirty drums, bass, organ, and guitar. The last minute or so are devoted to groove, and there’s even some scratching. A street-funk treat.
The final track is very appropriately titled. “Burning Hot in Cali on a Saturday Night" certainly does burn. Featuring a guitar-heavy funk groove from Chief Xcel that has that distinct Blackalicious sound, and verses from Lateef, Lyrics Born, and guest Gift of Gab (Xcel’s partner in Blackalicious crime), this is a fantastic way to end the album. All three verse sounds complete and well developed, even though they have to cram a lot into a relatively short span. This song basically sums up the astounding skills of the two MCs that make up Latyrx, and it also shows how much promise the Blackalicious duo had even in ‘96.
As I said, all of the songs here are high quality. Even though I excluded seven of the tracks, they’re all worth hearing. The album should be heard in its entirety. Of course, if you’re looking to download key tracks just to see if you like it, the ones I reviewed are your best bets.
I think this is a fantastic rap album, and a true classic. By mixing their distinct personalities, Lyrics Born and Lateef The Truth Speaker were able to define the SoleSides sound and create some of the most forward-thinking rap music of the 1990s.