Lyrics Born + Con Brio

The first thing you remember is the voice: that low, molasses-slow baritone that stretches into a long, humid Cajun drawl. Imagine that voice requesting a Mac Dre and a Main Source song. That voice asking to give a shout-out to a mythic crew called the Han Bodda Han Posse (proper spelling never confirmed), which definitively places that voice as yes, Bay Area. Finally, that voice giving you the name of the obscure sample the Geto Boys flipped for “My Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me.” And thereby winning the fifth on-air contest you’ve had in five weeks.

Something had to be done about that voice.

“Man, stop calling already,” you tell the voice. “You’re disqualified. You can’t win every time. Somebody else has to have a chance.” And then the laugh—that high-pitched semi-automatic ratatat, heh-heh-heh-heh-heh!

“Just come by the studio and hang out,” you say, ‘cause you’re thinking it’s actually a bit lonely broadcasting an after-midnight radio show into the darkness of the floodplain from Vacaville to Folsom prisons and all the suburban homes in between, and plus, who is this fool anyway?

So the second thing you remember is the dude showing up to claim his Grand Daddy I.U. single: NorthFace jacket, oversized white T, Girbaud jeans hanging past plaid boxers, Air Maxes. Wait. This dude is Japanese? With curly Sicilian hair? Walking with a John Wayne horse-lope swagger? Everything about him was outside the box. This dude was born to break molds and move people.
Since then, that dude, now b/k/a Lyrics Born, has released 9 albums, 8 mixtapes, done countless guest tracks and collaborations, and become one of the most successful touring acts in the rap game. He’s done it all indie. Some of that has been by default—the culture industry is still reluctant can and sell entertainers who look like LB. But his success has been all by design.

Tom Shimura was one of a star-crossed group of freshmen who arrived at the University of California, Davis in the fall of 1990, including the artists who would come to be known as DJ Shadow and Chief Xcel. I was lucky enough to be the college radio guy, and so I fell in with a crew (dubbed SoleSides after an Art Farmer song) that expanded to include the Gift of Gab, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Mack B-Dog, the filmmaker Joseph Patel, and others.

He had come up in Berkeley, California in the 1980s, where the stereotype was still of patchouli hippies passing out flowers and acid, but where the reality was kids burning police cars during annual spring riots, demonstrators in shantytowns protesting South African apartheid, crackheads and dealers all across the southwest side, and as he recalls it, “homeless guys fluent in 20 languages, blowing bubbles on the corner, painted in polka dots.”

Hip-hop was the new Bay Area counterculture. We knew because the hippies hated it. But it was inescapable. On weekends, graffiti crews did battle on middle-school walls two blocks from police headquarters. Telegraph Avenue was jammed with cars pumping trunk-smashing 808 bass tones. Ciphers of rappers, b-boys, and b-girls clogged the corner at Durant. Shimura learned all the words to “Rapper’s Delight” in the schoolyard before he heard the song on the radio.

It was the sound of the future, and he was already living in that future. Here was a hapa kid obsessed with Ninjaman and Shabba Ranks, 808s and slapback basslines, with an Italian-Jewish mom, whose best friend was Muslim and Jewish and Black. It gets no more polycultural than this. “When you’d go to parties, everyone was there,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel like what I was doing was that unusual.”

But after his first record, “Send Them”—which, in an adjectivally hysterical press release, I called “a fat Latin-ragga stomper”—he took to the stage like he had been born to be there, commanding shows with mic-ripping skills honed in raging late-night freestyle ciphers with the crew, and exuding audience-pleasing charisma, capping it all off with a wide winning smile, like “You didn’t know, right? Well, now you do.” That’s when he realized that who he was and what he was doing was a little different from the norm.
“Freestyle Fellowship and Hiero were coming out, so there was a lot of emphasis on originality, dominance, competition, and finding your own voice,” he said. “Maybe that’s where it comes from. I always feel like I have to get beyond my own limitations. Growth is mandatory.”

In those early years, he tested out different identities. He was Asia Born, then Lyrx Born. Maybe it didn’t make sense at the time to highlight the Asian thing when folks didn’t get it. He didn’t want to be counted out. And just like that first time he appeared in Freeborn Hall at the KDVS studios, he was too dope, too ultramagnetic, had too much to give to the people.
On early records like “Balcony Beach” and “Lady Don’t Tek No,” you can hear him become Lyrics Born with the help of the two who would become his closest and most important collaborators in the coming years—his soon-to-be wife Joyo Velarde and his rap partner Lateef the Truth Speaker. Not incidentally, both records also presented nuanced portrayals of desire, dignity, and equality, all themes that he would develop through his career. The expansive humanity in LB’s music comes from his basic insistence that relationships be shown in all their beauty and complications, deeper than a handful of words some use for gender or race.
With his first solo album, “Later That Day…”, LB powerfully found his voice. He captured the perfect balance between his avant-gardist concern for exploration and his populist desire to rock the crowd. Loosely a concept album, “Later That Day…” is about an everyday guy trying to make it through tensions with work, friends, and lovers, and finding some moments of clarity, humor, and happiness. “Later That Day…” also crystallized LB’s distinctive sound—melodic downtempo and propulsive minimalist funk, full of clean lines, tight rhythms, and bright hooks. It became one of the biggest indie records of the era, and he found himself rocking sold-out houses around the globe, including a hat trick of Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Coachella all in a single year.

LB executes his projects in groups, working out a particular set of musical and conceptual ideas until they have reached their logical end. So “Same Shit, Different Day” and “Overnite Encore” completed a cycle in which he had begun with sample-based production and moved to working with DJs and bands. On “Everywhere At Once” and “As U Were”, LB drew deeper on early 80s Black radio for inspiration—One Way, Dazz Band, Teena Marie—and expanded the collaborations.

Over the years, he has appeared on dozens of tracks with hundreds of artists and taken up production duties for bands like Poets of Rhythm and Galactic. He calls himself a “serial collaborator,” but that is a typically modest way of putting it. His peers want to be in the studio with him not only because of his skill and work ethic. They trust him to make good things happen. Maybe it’s because of the way LB sees the world—success is about being true to yourself and to your relationships. Take care of that and you find lots of people moving in your time to your song.

LB says his songs are about “perseverance, surviving, turning the corner.” They are about “real people”, about love for the underdog. It’s axiomatic to him that even if someone is counted out, it never means they’re down for the count. It’s the classic American story. And in that sense, LB gets the last laugh after my (and a whole lot of other folks’) early disqualification of him: he won and he gave lots of other folks a chance to share in his triumph.4

All you have to do now is drop the needle, and get free.

The night before Con Brio headed into the studio to record their first full-length album, 23-year-old Ziek McCarter had a dream. In it, the singer received a visit from his father, an Army veteran who died at the hands of East Texas police in 2011. His father delivered an invitation: Come with me to paradise.

McCarter woke up with a song in his bones. “It was one of the most spiritual moments of my life,” he recalls. It was up to him, he knew, to rise above injustice, and to perform in a way that lifted up those around him as well. To make Con Brio’s music a place of serenity, compassion -- even euphoria -- right here on earth.

Paradise, which saw the San Francisco band teaming with legendary producer Mario Caldato Jr. (Beastie Boys, Beck, Seu Jorge), is the result: a declaration of independence you can dance to; an assertion of what can happen when the human spirit is truly free.

Formed in 2013, Con Brio is the offspring of seven musicians with diverse backgrounds but a shared love for the vibrant Bay Area funk and psychedelic-soul sound pioneered by groups like Sly & the Family Stone.

By 2015, when the band self-produced their debut EP, Kiss the Sun, Con Brio had already become a West Coast institution on the strength of their magnetic live show, with McCarter’s swiveling hips, splits and backflips earning him frequent comparisons to a young Michael Jackson or James Brown.

After a busy 2015 spent touring the U.S. and Europe, playing alongside veterans Galactic and Fishbone, and racking up critical acclaim on proving grounds like Austin City Limits -- where PopMatters declared Con Brio “the best new live band in America” -- they headed home to parlay their momentum, chemistry and tight live sound into a full-length record.

In an era when much has been made of the “death of the album,” there’s no question that Paradise, released internationally in summer 2016, is a fully-formed journey -- a trip made all the more immersive by Caldato’s raw, live style of production. “We tried to create a narrative in the studio, in the same way that we segue between songs live,” explains McCarter of the record’s arc.

From the first primal wail of Benjamin Andrews’ electric guitar on the title track -- Paradise is bookended by intro and outro versions -- the album tells a story about modern life through its contradictions: “Liftoff” speaks of an urge to fly, to transcend the day-to-day with a starry, bird’s-eye view. “Hard Times” brings us crashing back to earth with the struggles of city life, inequality, and a fractured society desperate for healing. “Money” is a revolution, a rejection of societal pressure to equate success with a paycheck and abandon one’s dreams in the process.

“Free & Brave,” the band’s most overtly political anthem, is also arguably its most infectious. Over a driving R&B groove courtesy of veteran rhythm section Jonathan Kirchner and Andrew Laubacher (bass and drums), McCarter name-checks Trayvon Martin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Clearly inspired by his own personal relationship with police brutality, the song is equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful.

“‘Free & Brave’ is in part a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, but it was also created to serve as a reminder -- to myself and to whoever finds joy in that song -- that there is a light there. We don’t have to get bogged down, we don’t have to feel helpless,” says McCarter. “We might not see it on a daily basis, but we are still ‘the land of the free and home of the brave’...I still take pride in that, in what pieces of joy and happiness we can create here with our actions.”

Of course, songs about love and passion remain Con Brio’s native tongue. (At a recent Australian festival in which the band shared a bill with D’Angelo, one journalist told McCarter his sex appeal had eclipsed that of his longtime idol. McCarter continues to have no comment.) So it’s a refreshing surprise that the strongest love song on Paradise, in fact, is “Honey,” a sweet, spacious and vulnerable tune that allows the band’s horn section, Brendan Liu and Marcus Stephens, to shine. Though the band’s built a reputation on sonic bravado, it’s choices like these -- moments in which the music’s power flows from its subtlety -- that truly highlight where Con Brio is going.

As for where they’re literally going: The second half of 2016 will see Con Brio embarking on an ambitious international touring schedule, including stops at the lion’s share of major American music festivals (Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Summerfest and San Francisco’s own Outside Lands); Fuji Rock, Japan’s largest annual music event; Montreal Jazz Fest, the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, the Netherlands; London; Paris; and more.

Which is not to say they’re intimidated. After performing most of these songs live throughout the past year, the team is running on adrenaline, and they’re thrilled to finally put this record in people’s hands. To bring old fans along for the journey, to help new fans lose themselves in a beat or a message. To spread music that, hopefully, shakes away the daily grind -- and nurtures listeners’ dreams about what their version of paradise on earth might look like, even for the duration of a song.

Ziek McCarter already knows what his looks like, because Con Brio’s building it. And from where he’s sitting, they’re well past ready for liftoff.

“We don’t want to walk, we don’t want to drive,” he says with a laugh. “We want to fly. We want to levitate.”

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