LACMA's first hip-hop series "Through the Mic" is in full swing, presenting performances by some of L.A.'s finest hip hop artists, all hand picked by rapper Murs. Thursday night, legendary female freestyler Medusa, and Korean-American rap upstart Dumbfoundead took the stage, but before they did Artbound met up with the hip hop heads for a sort of rappers' roundtable in LACMA's Directors Lounge.
Murs, Dumbfounded, and Medusa reminisced on Leimert Park freestyle haven Project Blowed, discussed growing up around L.A. and explored why hip hop has so few female rappers.
Tewksbury: Let's talk about where you grew up and how that influenced how you make music.
Murs: Man, I've bounced all over the place, I was born in Mid-city and then moved to North Hollywood and then to Lynnwood, then moved to Covina, then moved back to Mid-city. How'd I learn to rap? Through all the moving around and the drama I've been through, it's been on constant. And learning to rap, I learned to rap by emulating what I heard, like [radio station] KDAY, you know, just being a part of the scene, just imitating what I heard on the radio and putting my name and stuff when I was six and seven and then making up my own words. Me moving around a lot made music the one constant. No matter where I went, there was always hip-hop; that's what made me close to it, I think.
Medusa: You know I'm not an L.A. born-and-raised-kind-of-girl. I was born in L.A. but I was raised in Pomona. During that time in the 80s, what was hot was break dancing and pop-lockin' so I started in hip-hop pop-lockin and it was with a crew called The Groove-atrons. And we used to ditch school the last two periods to go to L.A. to battle the pop-lockers out here, so that's how I got a taste of L.A. And you know, back in the day when you were a pop-locker, you couldn't just be a pop-locker, like you know, my boy Lawrence, he pop-locked and he did Michael Jackson impersonations. He was always battling Scorpio at all the gigs so we would go from that to "Who's rappin' now? You wanna rhyme? You wanna try to rhyme?" So I would always try to write rhymes. I wanted to be an emcee and a pop-locker. So you know the first few rhymes that I wrote were like "Eh." It was ok, it was following the school of Rapper's Delight and Curtis Blow and Melle Mel, you know what I mean? But as I got a little older and indoctrinated into hip-hop, I spent a little more time listening to rhymes and comparing them to the soul music I would listen to. That's kind of how my fusion came about, I think, mixing hip-hop and Aretha Franklin sound or an Isley Brothers sound or Sly and Family Stone, the Labelles. That's what really raised me.
Coming out to L.A. has been my adult life. I did a little bit of jail time and as soon as I got out of jail, I went straight to The Good Life Café, and that's when I was introduced to a different way of eating, a different way of appreciating my womanhood, a different way of appreciating hip-hop altogether, and being able to spit without cussing, you know? So L.A. raised me to being the emcee I am, but as far as hip-hop, it was pop-lockin. And I don't rap. Sometimes I do, especially when I'm mackin' - that's a reincarnated attitude of your pimpin' past, rappin.' Hip-hop is human beings harboring opinions on politics and propaganda. You feel me? Sometimes I try to mix them together, but they're two different personalities in me, two different identities: one of them is pimpish, mackish, spitting; and the other one is very conscious and concerned and you know? That's how I got into it.
Dumbfoundead: I was actually born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and I came to America when I was three years old, my parents immigrated here. I've been in Koreatown all my life. The first street I lived on was in Koreatown, Mariposa and 5th or something. I just been there growing up and my first experience hearing rap, was I remember my dad worked next to an electronics store in downtown L.A. and there was always boom boxes playing Power 106 and shit like that. That was my first experience with that and then I only started rapping when I was like 14. I would go to house parties and just rapped cause girls like it and I would get free weed and free beer and shit - so that's why I rapped.
I remember I just freestyled I never wrote anything and at 15, it was Freshman year in High School, and my friend took me to Project Blowed, and that was the first time even going past Washington on Vermont, on Western. I remember one time my dad dropped me off to Project Blowed and he had never driven past Washington, and he was like "Where the fuck you taking me right now?" It was great. It was definitely a trip.
Medusa: Yea, Project Blowed was the spin-off from The Good Life. It was the young heads that were tired of being controlled and censored. They were like, "We're gonna start our own thing!" It was weird cause you'd go over there the first few times and they were just playing dominos and drinkin, and then it kinda started getting poppin. Hip-hop heads would start showing up, pop-lockers and breakers would show up, the emcees really started to get into it. I think that's when they really started droppin the whole dominos and drinkin thing. It was like, "Ok, now. Now we got a Project Blowed." And you know, all the youngsters that used to listen to that style, that Good Life style, Freestyle Fellowship, Volume 10, you know, they were there. That real rapid, spitting thing that you hear in hip-hop was originated in Project Blowed. And Project Blowed brought a lot to the table that's not recognized right now.
Dumbfoundead: It was crazy, I got exposed to South Central, and that was the first time ever going into that area. You know, I hung out a lot in Latino areas like Echo Park and areas like that. I went there and I thought I was the shit until I stuck my head in the cipher and was like "Whoa, this is the standard of freestylers and stuff." So that's when I really started admiring all the cats there, just freestylin there. I was a really late bloomer when it came to writing and studio stuff, I didn't start writing until I was 17 or 18. When I was 14, I played at Luna Sol Café and its funny 'cause I live in that apartment now, that that café was in, Asbury building. I live in that building. And the crazy thing about that building -- this has nothing to do with the story -- I was watching "Car Wash," the original "Car Wash" the other day, the opening scene is from the top of that building and the car wash is on 6th street. and Rampart where that whole thing was shot, and I was tripping, "I'm like, that's my building right there!" Luna Soul was my first ever show.
Murs: The real question is, "What were you doing watchin' Car Wash?"
Dumbfoundead: I ain't gonna lie, I looked in the cabinet and there was just a limited amount of DVDs. Ha.
Anyway, I grew up around Latinos and stuff, and even though I grew up in Koreatown, I was never involved in like the Koreatown shit like Kareokes and Soju and shit like that. I was more from just the area. I hung out with Latino kids and black kids. And the first time I went to South Central, my friend took me there, and I got really addicted to Project Blowed and every Thursday I would go. They had a whip and I remember one week they weren't gonna go and I took my Razor scooter from Vermont and 3rd and went all the way to 43rd in my razor scooter. And I was there until 3 in the morning and the ride back was crazy as hell.
Medusa: That's sketchy, baby.
Tewksbury: Can you tell us more about your mom coming here?
Dumbfoundead: Oh yea, my mom literally came through the Mexican border through coyotes and stuff, like an Asian woman coming through that process was crazy. I was three, and my sister was one, so she took these two babies through the Mexican border through the desert and stuff.
Medusa: Wow, your momma's a G.
Tewksbury: Speaking of mommas. Let's talk about female emcees, I mean, why aren't there really prominent ones in pop music right now?
Medusa: You know, female emcees, we'll have one and that one will run for like two years, and then they're gone. It's weird and I think there is a slight misogynistic energy that they want to keep. Because if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and when you start bringing a feminine energy into it, it gives another choice and maybe the mind frame of the youth. They don't want to change that choice. If a woman steps into it, its gonna make you think a little different just like a conversation with your dad compared to your mom, you know what I'm saying. So if you bring them both to the table, you're fully nurtured. You only bring one to the table, you're missing the completion of the family.
Murs: "Power the P" is the vibe. Never released by a major label, I know all the words to it. There is till not a female emcee that has made a song that good. Period. And empowering. And there's "Ladies First" by Queen Latifah, that was before that, and there's "Power to the P," and after that, there's nothing empowering. Cause its sensual, its sexual, but its not as trashy as some of the stuff.
And those were the girls I fell in love with. I was like, "Wow, she's so hot, but she has so much clothes on."
Medusa: When a lot of people go to hip-hop they're looking for something different, you're looking for something new, something original. You get tired of hearing the same thing. Yea, I like raunch in the strip club, whatever, but in my personal surroundings, in my home, in my car, I'm trying to listen to something else, where the females I can listen to? I wanna relate to something. Dudes wanna hear sensuality from women but at the same time they want to hear thought provoking testimony. And we're not getting that, and I don't think its fair, and I think that's the reason why.
Dumbfoundead: You know, honestly there hasn't been a real male advocate for female rappers, that's probably one thing. And I think there kind of embarrassed to do it too.
Murs: I tried that, then I got scolded. I made some statements about it cause I felt strongly when I started working Rock the Bells, I was like, "Yo, we gotta do more," so like last year Paid Dues, we had two or three and this year we have five to six female emcees, in some form on every stage, but I don't want to make it a thing where it's a gimmick. But when I said I was gonna do this, I made a whole statement about what I felt, you know. Then someone was like, "You can't even speak on it cause you're not a woman," I was like "Alright, I won't advocate for it cause I'm not a woman." Maybe its like how I feel when white people say, " The black community needs..." You know, I've been arguing with [a white guy] who's in my crew and he's telling me, "This gangsta rap is bad for the community," I'm like "this is not even your community, bro. Shut the fuck up!"
And so when she said that, I was kind of like, alright. Well I didn't say I'm not gonna help out any females, but I'll stop speaking on it. I don't know your experience, I can judge it from the outside but all of my job is to do is when I have something at the museum, make sure that I invite you. When I have a stage like Paid Dues, makes sure I invite [female rappers].
Dumbfounded: The crazy thing with that whole thing is there hasn't been crazy advancements in the female rap community thing. The thing is, the fact that it would be a gimmick to have half of the artists be female, it would be funny cause that's the planet.
Murs: For some reason it feels like girls sing, boys rap. And even if you want to be the most successful female rapper, you have to sing a little bit. Whether it be Lauren or Nikki Minaj, they're more successful than Foxy Brown or Lil Kim cause they sing some.
Medusa: That's cause it seems more acceptable that a woman would sing than a woman would rap. And that's like, I make it a point to allow my yin and yang to be on stage at the same time cause I feel like an emcee's emcee, I'm gonna choke you out with the mic cord but at the same time, I'm gonna give you some blessings for you to walk away with in your life. That's a hard balance to work out. And there's not a lot of female rappers that I even like. If I see a gang of female rappers and you all sound the same and all have the same timbre in your voice, and it starts to become annoying. But if you've found that timbre and you've found that goddess voice, you can change up and you're style is liquid and you can flip that too, plus your content, I'm gonna give it to you. But there's not a lot of those. But a lot of times I'm not just gonna give it to you cause you're a female rapper, I'm gonna give it to you cause you're a quality emcee. And if you're stepping out there and you're just sounding like you're walking through the daisies like a lot of these cute little female emcees, I'm not really fuckin wit you.
Murs: And I didn't think I consciously did it when I was putting this altogether but now that I look at who's comin up and who's been here so far, 90% of the people performing have some type of a connection to the Good Life project. And if you even radiate further out like supposedly Ice Cube took a lot from Volume 10 with Gorillas in the Mist - I don't want to get into the politics of that, I love them both. Skee-lo, Pharcyde, Snoop Dogg, Korrupt, you can't have LA hip-hop without Good Life. And a lot of that goes to the Good Life owners and B. Hall. I was on Crenshaw/Earls and I saw B. hall the other day and she's still active and trying to do things in the community and she started it for kids to have a place to do something positive. There were fights though.
Dumbfoundead: I seen a lot of fights on that corner, knives and guns being pulled out and stuff.
Murs: It's always been home. It changed my life. It saved my life. As bad as that was, there was a whole lot worse going on. I felt a whole lot safer going to the Good Life than some of my friends were going to Hollywood Athletic Club, and that's where people were getting shot. I mean if I went with people from my neighborhood, and I'm not a gangbanger but if they're fighting, I'm standing next to a guy they think they've seen befre. I've had that happen so many times, like "Ain't you with so-and-so?" And I'm like, "I live next door to him but..."
Medusa: Bloods and Crips and in-betweens and whatever.
Murs: Yeah, and we were the alternative people, we all live around this, but we found culture where we come from.
Dumbfoundead: For me going to Project Blowed, it was one of the few spots where Asian cats could hang out at 12 midnight in South Central like that, just on the corner. I was probably one of three Asians, at my time, going there. It wasn't like weird for me to really be there, it was kinda cool. It was just a rappin' thing, if you could spit, you could spit. And there was cats always there and cats were always filming, mad cats were filming and shit.
Murs: And before that era, this is where I learned Medusa's songs that have never been recorded. And my friends would take a little recorder, and if I got grounded, or put on punishment - I couldn't go - my homeboys would come to school on Friday be like, "[this guy] said this" And I'd be like, "WHOOAAAA."
To this day I remember [a rapper] got up there and said something like "Good Morning everybody, I got bullets in my cereal. Blah you're all dead!" You had to have character, he said that in 1992 and I still remember it in 2012. And it was never recorded, it was never a hit. I couldn't tell you what the beat sounded like, I can remember the freestyles. They probably don't remember what they said, I think that culture is kind of gone, cause kids can just go to YouTube and say, "He said exactly this" and they don't put it in their heart, it's like here I put some of that ...
Dumbfoundead: That's the crazy thing, I remember seeing so many cats film during that time, but I never seen the fucking footage.
Murs: There's some kid, really nerdy somewhere, who has everything.
Tewksbury: I think that's very interesting about kids now where everything is online, you can just go online and find this stuff, but when you guys were starting it's the whole process of saving this stuff, making the stuff, listening late at night...
Murs: They don't value...I hate to be an old man, but I feel like they don't, they probably don't value it. [They're like] If I lose it, I'll just go back and download it again." There's no protecting, there's no, "You're never borrowing this. You can come to my house and listen to it and I'll make you a copy but you can never take this out of my room."
Dumbfounded: Everybody I know with a tape collection is stingy as fuck, like they don't share that shit.
Medusa: I gave Slant Eyes one of his first shows, I'll never forget it, it's crazy cause they were all nervous, off to the side...But as soon as they got on stage it was like, "Uhhh Uhhh" I was like, "Oh, shit! You all were nerds like a hot minute ago..."
Murs: That's crazy cause Med, you gave Slant his first show and now he's Snoop's manager, brand manager, vice president of Doggystyle Records.
Dumbfoundead: Slant is the OG Asian rapper out of Project Blowed.
Murs: Now he's Ted Chung. And you don't cross Ted Chung in the music industry cause Snoop will never scratch your back again.
Tewksbury: How has hip hop changed from the early days?
Murs: Back then, someone like Slant got really popular, I think, not that he wasn't talented, but Slant had a car, Slant had a four track, Slant had an eight track. Whoever had the gear became cool. You would have to go deep in the hood, 83rd and Main. I wasn't going there. So you had to find someone in your neighborhood who had some type of recording equipment. I made friends with the Jewish kid in West L.A. because his parents had money and bought him 4-track, and we became the best friends, and I learned a lot about Jewish culture and how to take the bus to West L.A., cause you had to find the equipment.
Dumbfounded: I caught the digital age, that shit sounds hard as fuck...
Tewksbury: I was really interested in the way you talked about how you gotta go to the Jewish kids house to get his gear, that's also a cross-cultural thing - all of you can speak to that: hip-hop, in some way, crossed cultures
Murs: If you talk to KRS-1, he said, no religion, no government, nothing has been able to bring this many around the world together other than hip-hop. There's divisions within hip-hop but God, Jesus, for whatever reason, Jesus doesn't bring people together like hip-hop, no offense. But you can get gay people, straight people, Christian people, Muslim people, a Christian rapper, whether some will it admit, probably some gay rappers at the festival. Odd Future, Dip Set, Living Legends, Heiroglyphics, DJ Quick, gangbangers, dope dealers, pimps, everything and we're all having a good time. We'll all love the same Snoop Dogg song. We can all agree that Eminem is dope in some way, Jay-z is dope, Rakim is dope, doesn't matter what walk of life you been, its crazy, but it's the one thing, not coca-cola, not basketball, not soccer...
Medusa: Maybe weed...
Murs: And reggae did it before that, so maybe it is the weed.