The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a work of art in itself. In a land of glitz, the museum’s beauty stands out. Chris Burden’s Urban Light has cast iron street lamps adorning the city as Angelenos stroll and ride bicycles along the sidewalk. The museum (LACMA) boasts that it is “the largest art museum in the western United States,” and it has twenty acres in Los Angeles to support this. Inside, visitors can peruse ancient artwork from Japan, pieces by Frida Kahlo and nearly everything in between. The splendor present is often celebrated as a cultural treasure in the city of Angels. On this evening in May, LACMA opens its doors to Hip Hop. The first to walk in is L.A.’s own, Murs.
As co-curator of LACMA’s Through the Mic series, Murs is opening this door as an opportunity. Hip Hop has often been undervalued by traditional art critics but on this evening, Hip Hop has a place in this esteemed, prestigious art-filled home. The home is one Murs has admitted to running to when he’d skip school as a youth, a home where he’s found inspiration to write through the years. With Through the Mic, Murs is opening the door for Los Angeles Hip Hop to be showcased in a manner that commands respect from the art world while also showing critics of the culture what they’ve often overlooked. This isn’t the first time Hip Hop has been given a platform in this manner but it’s an important step for the culture in Los Angeles. It’s a step Murs has taken, understanding the statement being made.
“I really believe there was ignorance on the part of high society. ‘White Lines’ came out and they were talking about what was really going on. N.W.A. came out and that scared them,” Murs told HipHopDX’s Omar Burgess early in the evening. “I think with Fab Five Freddy and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, Hip Hop was this cool weird thing. But then, when the ghetto really had a voice and started talking about what was really going on, it made high society feel like, ‘That’s not really happening. They’re exaggerating’ or ‘I can’t relate.’ It just takes time. It took time to heal it. It’s just a natural progression for it to come back.”
Tonight, it’s back, at least at LACMA.
Before he takes the stage, the spotlight is already on him. Reclining, relaxed, Murs sits in front of cameras before the show. He has a confident grin as he prepares to talk about a variety of topics. He settles in. During this interview, Murs talks about his younger days, ditching school to visit the museum and experiencing growth along his longtime friends and 3MG collaborators Scarub and Eligh (The 3 Melancholy Gypsies). He also discusses the topic of homosexuality, his support for family and friends, Rock the Bells and how Hip Hop is growing up.
HipHopDX: You’ve mentioned ditching school as a kid to come here. What were some of your greatest memories here at LACMA as a kid and how does being here tonight bring those memories back?
Murs: Being in this very building is my most fond memory. Just seeing a painting ignited something in me. From there, I got into Anime, Japanese culture, Akira and all of these things. But in this building was the first Japanese art I encountered aside from Robotech. It made me want to go to Japan and I eventually did. Now, coming here brings it full circle. Me, Eligh and Scarub used to come so us performing here, I literally can’t believe it. I’m not going to believe it until I look at it on the Internet, probably.
DX: You mention Eligh and Scarub. Can you talk a little bit about seeing their individual growth, as well as your own, from being high school kids freestyling together nearby to performing here at LACMA in front of the beautiful lights?
Murs: I think as a dynamic, they’ve always been the best rappers and I’ve always sucked compared to them. They’ve always made me become better. They’re still just as great as they ever were. Now, when we do songs, like we were at rehearsal, I was like, “Oh, my God! I sucked so bad and you guys have been so good for 20 years. You guys have been great rappers for 20 years. I’ve had to improve.” I can’t rap fast. I don’t care how good Kendrick Lamar sounds, Bizzy Bone, or Eligh or Scarub. I can’t do it and I love it. It still pisses me off. There’s been growth in all of us. Scarub’s a great father. Eligh has conquered a heroin addiction and come out on top. For us to back together to do this and for us to all still be alive and have valid music careers is amazing.
DX: You were asked about same-sex marriage and you brought out “Animal Style,” which was a strong statement track. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired the song [about a same-sex teen couple]?
Murs: I just feel it’s our responsibility today to make art that makes people feel uncomfortable. Nothing makes rappers feel more uncomfortable than homosexuality. Nothing. Nothing in the world. I think that it was time for someone to push the envelope so I made that song. I don’t know. I have cousins that are gay and their fathers are insanely homophobic to the point where I don’t even know how we’re related. But it’s obvious, you know, my cousin’s gay but he can’t come to the family reunion with his boyfriend because my great aunt would probably have a heart attack. To me, you gotta let the old generation do what they do out of respect but it’s time for us to start making changes. My cousin hasn’t come out and my friends who are out say you can’t call them out. You don’t call somebody out. So, I thought after I made this song, they could say, “Hey Nick, you made this song? That’s crazy.” I thought maybe they would feel like they could have somebody to talk to. I’ll be damned if my cousin or someone – one of these people on the Internet that’s committed suicide or is being bullied or something – feels like they can’t talk to anybody. It was more for my friends and family who are in the closet, living alternative lifestyles, who may not know that they have support.
DX: It probably makes it more genuine because it comes from that place.
DX: But then you end it the way you end it. That makes an even more powerful statement to people [lyrics provided below].
“Shot him right between the eyes
Then turned it on himself ‘cause he refused to live a lie
Suicide was against his beliefs
But he knew it was the only way they’d ever find peace.”
Murs: Yeah, to me, that’s the dumbest thing because someone is just being themselves and you make them feel so bad about being themselves that they don’t want to live. That’s the worst thing you can do to anyone. Yeah, that’s why I ended it like that.
DX: You’ve talked a little bit about not hogging the spotlight in this Through the Mic series. It made me think of what you’ve done with Paid Dues. I recall you once said, “I could’ve done the Nas and screamed ‘Hip Hop is dead,’ but I gathered resources and I did something instead.” You used some different words.
Murs: Yeah, I like that.
DX: How did that mentality allow you to say, “Hip Hop can be seen as art” and send a statement with this?
Murs: I just feel like it’s my responsibility to exploit every opportunity. Like with Paid Dues, I met Chang [Weisberg] and I used that as an opportunity to bring everybody that was with me to become more visible. When we started Paid Dues, no one cared about independent Hip Hop. It was me, Atmosphere, Def Jux, Hieroglyphics. So what? There was no Mac Miller. There was no Kendrick Lamar. Independent was stupid. Touring was stupid. People told me there was no money in touring, before 360 deals. Our live show was ten times better than anybody that was signed. I’ll still put any one to shame on a major label. So, we were out there earning our respect, paying our dues on the road with these Punk bands in these crappy clubs. Chang gave me an opportunity so I took it. I brought my crew with me. It’s the same thing here. When we started, the first person I thought of was Medusa. I wanted her on Paid Dues this year but I think if I could pick someone to represent Los Angeles Hip Hop on stage in front of people who may not like Hip Hop at all, she’s the one, Freestyle Fellowship and things that could challenge peoples’ perception of what Los Angeles Hip Hop is.
DX: Speaking of Los Angeles Hip Hop, you also dropped “Eazy E” [on Love & Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation]. On the song, you rhyme:
“Growing up, they said the west had no lyricists.
Can you imagine growing up hearing this?
So I took my Hip Hop serious.”
How does it feel to provide a platform now to showcase that?
Murs: It feels great, man. It also feels great not to do it alone. I feel like I was alone. It was me, maybe Xzibit, Alkaholiks. See, I don’t consider myself full-on Backpack Rap. I kinda grew up in the hood a little bit. You know? That’s why when I met the Black Hippy kids like four years ago, I was like, “You guys are the ones. You are the ones. This is it. You guys have this whole city.” They encompass everything that L.A. could be. They’re great lyricists, great performers, they’re articulate, nice guys and knuckle heads all at the same time. I just hope it extends into the streets because there’s Bloods and Crips in their camp and I think that’s what’s prevented L.A. from progressing more than anything, more than New York hating on us or whoever they think is hating on us, it’s us. Gang stuff really keeps a lot of really talented people either incarcerated or separated. People like Black Hippy coming together or Casey [Veggies] or Dom [Kennedy], is promoting that you can be Black and still be a lyricist and intelligent from Los Angeles. That was hard to say.
DX: Speaking of all of the artists you’re talking about, many are on the bill for Rock the Bells. Some have celebrated the fact that there are more mainstream artists on the bill this year while some have been hating on that since the lineup was announced. Either way, there seems to be growth in the festival. What can you say about the lineup and how diverse it is?
Murs: It’s crazy. I recently learned of how seriously White people take red headed people, somewhere like in Australia. “Gingers!” There’s all these jokes and it all just showed me that human beings will find ways to separate themselves and bicker amongst each other no matter what. Here’s this island in the middle of the ocean. They’re all White. They pushed all the Aborigines ‘til they’re nonexistent. Now they’re gonna have problems with other people who are White. This girl started crying to me about how rude people were to her. To equate that to Rock the Bells, I have friends, prominent Hip Hop producers, like, “What’s wrong with Rock the Bells?” I’m like, “What’s wrong with it? Be an adult, yo.” Rock fans don’t do that. Red Hot Chili Peppers could be on with Radiohead, two very different bands. [Radiohead’s] Thom Yorke doesn’t go and punch [Red Hot Chili Peppers’] Anthony Kiedis in the mouth. Radiohead fans don’t say, “Yo! Coachella’s selling out!” Hip Hop is bigger. We’re growing up, yo. Grow the F up, for real. Missy Elliot, Salt-N-Pepa, Black Hippy, Immortal Technique, Atmosphere, 2 Chainz! My wife and I listen to all of those people and I’m happy to see them all. If there’s something you don’t like on the stage, turn your head and you’ll see something you really like. At all times, there’ll be something you’ll like at Rock the Bells. It’s unifying Hip Hop. That’s what needs to happen. Everybody says, “We don’t want another east coast/west coast beef.” So what’s it gonna be now, mainstream/indie beef? That’s what they’re building up.It’s just silly. It’s mainly the indie, positive backpack heads that are talking crap. As soon as you say, “F this guy,” you’ve stepped out of your so-called positive lifestyle. Like, when it was directed at Odd Future, I was like, “These are kids.” Mac Miller’s a kid, yo. What is he supposed to talk about? I’m like, “Get out of here, man!” It’s really sad. And if I could step out of my positive, that’s what makes me angry. Pay your money and come have a good time. Grow up. None of the Rock fans said, “Coachella sold out! They have Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre!” They had more grounds than anyone to dis them, like, “This is a misogynist, violent music. We don’t want it at our festival!” Because Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t have songs called “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” excuse me. But they welcomed it with open arms. Here we are talking about the same thing. I don’t care…I’ve seen Immortal Technique do the same things that you see 2 Chainz do. They’re not very different. But there’s all this dissention and negativity. It saddens me. It’s sickening.
LACMA’s Through the Mic series will take place every third Thursday of every month from May to October of 2012. The next installment of the series will include Dumbfoundead and Medusa.
Photography by Andres Vasquez.