Lateef and Lyrics Born on Latyrx’s Early Years

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Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history.

In the Hall of Game that is Bay Area hip-hop, independent collectives loom large. Along with Hieroglyphics and Living Legends, the fiercely creative, multicultural group Solesides helped define a certain only-in-the-Bay sensibility. With groundbreaking artists like DJ Shadow and Blackalicious, the crew added a new, abstracted dimension to Bay Area hip-hop.

One of its most dizzying groups was Latyrx. Above, watch Latyrx’s Lateef and Lyrics Born discuss Solesides’ early formation at UC Davis, its transformation into Quannum and its high-profile successes as a diverse Bay Area collective — as well as their enduring respect for their Bay Area colleagues and each other.

Select questions from the interview, edited for length and clarity:

In your own words, what makes Bay Area hip-hop special?

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Lateef: The Bay Area has always been a hodgepodge of a lot of different cultures and communities. And you see a reflection of that in Bay Area hip-hop in a way that you don’t in a lot of the other parts of the country. So here you have early, early on, contributing, folks of all different cultures. You got the Invisibl Skratch Piklz, which have been holding down the Bay for a long time. Obviously you have Too Short, Del, MC Hammer. Those three styles right there. Too Short is as gangster and pimp shit as it gets. MC Hammer, who’s the blueprint for what Puff Daddy did — just the idea that you could take over the world with your music, and it didn’t matter that you were from the Bay Area. That’s part of the Bay Area identity. Musically, Del, just extreme creativity. I sound the way that I do because of Del. And Richie Rich. I sound the way I do because of all of those people.

Lateef the Truthspeaker onstage at KQED. (Alain McLaughlin)

One thing we find in Bay Area hip-hop is this rich tradition of the independent hustle. You came together in the 1990s at this incredible scene around KDVS, the radio station at UC Davis, and became a major part of this lineage of independent collectives. Can you tell people a little bit about that?

Lyrics Born: You can’t really talk about music, in particular hip-hop, in the Bay Area without talking about this independent spirit. And then the label and music movement that spawned from that. You just have this intersectionality of free thought and politics and culture and history. You have all these dynamics that kind of converge. We have this very special culture. And the other thing that I think is notable is that we’re not in New York. We’re not in LA. So when we started Quannum and Solesides, it wasn’t because we wanted to set the world on fire as executives. Nobody else would put our music out! We had no choice. If we didn’t put it out, nobody else would.

Right out of the gate, Solesides and Latyrx reflected that multiculturalism of the Bay Area. Lyrics Born, you’re Japanese-American. Born in Tokyo, raised in Berkeley. And Lateef, you’re half Black, half Puerto Rican, some Algerian. How would you say your personal identity has come through in your music?

Lyrics Born: The interesting thing about the Bay Area, and particularly Solesides and Quannum in the early ’90s, is that it’s kind of a case study in how multicultural groups can really succeed. We had probably the most diverse group collective of professional musicians, successful professional musicians, maybe in the history of music. Right? Period. Black, white, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Algerian, Puerto Rican. Every single food group was represented.

Lyrics Born onstage at KQED. (Alain McLaughlin)

Lateef: I’m going to add to this question of cultural diversity, and I’m just going to point out that, you know, one of the things that I was always impressed by with Lyrics Born, from the first time that I met him, was his originality. Even when we were really young, he found his voice very early, and it didn’t sound like anybody else’s voice.

But here’s the thing about him, that I think people don’t really realize, is that as far as Asian American males in music, Lyrics Born is like, the most successful pioneer. I consider myself to be revolutionary and, you know, on the edge and all that. But I’m supporting someone who is arguably more … there’s a quality to what Lyrics Born has been able to do that you can’t replicate. I don’t really care who you are. You can only be the first person to step on the moon. Only one person gets to do that! You know what I mean? And it’s like outside of Don Ho, this guy’s got the most records.

So when you talk about diversity, that’s true in a lot of ways for the Bay Area, and a lot of artists from here. But also for this man in particular.

Watch the whole interview above.