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Weekly preview: Lyrics Born

Bay Area rapper and podcaster performs at Jack London Revue on Friday.

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Bay Area rapper and podcaster Lyrics Born.
Bay Area rapper and podcaster Lyrics Born.

Much of the talk about artists surviving the pandemic had to do with the loss of income they were facing due to not being able to play live or tour. And rightfully so. Underpinning all of that, though, were concerns about their mental health as, like so many of us, they were forced to forego regular contact with friends and loved ones. 

Bay Area rapper Lyrics Born, born Tsutomu Shimura, certainly reckoned with this as he sheltered at home and his creative and social life came to a halt. Navigating Zoom and FaceTime, he started reaching out to close collaborators and acquaintances for quick check-ins that soon became long, free-ranging chats. “Everybody was so starved for human interaction and contact,” Shimura said. “A lot of these folks I would call my friends, but I would only see them in passing backstage at a festival or some airport, but we would never really have the opportunity for conversation.” 

Last year, Shimura decided to share some of these discussions with his 20,000+ Instagram followers, hosting regular online chats under the name Mobile Homies, featuring everyone from Lateef the Truthspeaker (his longtime partner in the group Latyrx) and Bootie Brown of The Pharcyde to actor Randall Park and journalist Kimmy Yam.

This project promptly evolved into a podcast and the new Lyrics Born album, Mobile Homies Vol. 1. Making great use of his vast contacts list, Shimura called upon many of his IG guests and a bevy of legendary producers (Dan The Automator, Prince Paul) and rappers (Rakaa of Dilated Peoples, Blackalicious) to make contributions. It’s a packed and varied album but a cohesive one, with Lyrics Born directing the lyrical focus on topical issues like the rise in anti-Asian violence, our ego-driven culture, and our collective craving for community.

“These songs all stemmed from those conversations,” Shimura says. “I think that’s what makes this album so special. I felt like if those conversations could make a successful podcast, they could certainly make a successful album series.” 

If any one song on Mobile Homies hits harder than the rest, it is “Anti,” a track recorded with producer Cutso. Lyrics Born tackles the significant rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community in America, spurred on by, as he raps, “a vile legacy of intolerance” sparked by an unnamed former President. As laid back Shimura sounds on “Anti,” his lyrics are forceful and stinging. 

“It’s not like we had to dig really deep for the material or search my soul to come up with the inspiration,” Shimura says. “At the time when the violence was really spiking about a year ago, a lot of my non-Asian friends would call me and be like, ‘Hey man, when did all this anti-Asian violence start?’ I was like, ‘Shit, 300 years ago.’ When you look like me and your last name ends in a vowel, it never goes away.” 

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The tone of defiance on “Anti” and throughout Mobile Homies has really been a part of Lyrics Born work since he made his first recorded appearance under the name Asia Born on a split single with DJ Shadow back in 1993. Since then, Shimura has carved out an impressive career with over a dozen albums under his belt, guest shots on records by UNKLE and R.L. Burnside, and the respect of his peers in the Bay Area and beyond. It’s a legacy he never really gave much thought to until 2016 when he was putting together his greatest hits album Now Look What You’ve Done

“At that point, I was finally able to take a deep breath and really revel in what I had done,” Shimura said. “As a practice, I just don’t do that, but from that point on, I would think about it and cherish it. I recognize and I see its value much more now.” 

Lyrics Born performs at Jack London Revue (529 SW 4th Ave, Portland) on Friday April 22 at 9:30 pm. $20. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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