Back in 1995, Bay Area rap was at the big-ballin’ peak of the mobb music craze, LA was chronically gripped in a G-funk indo smoke haze, Atlanta was enjoying its Southernplayalistic days, and NYC was entering a shiny-suit phase. There was no frame of reference for two lyrical emcees experimenting with the tonality and resonance of rhyme patterns.
This was uncharted territory.
The pairing of Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truthspeaker into Latyrx was ‘an accident,’ LB recalls. Both emcees were solo artists, but when LB heard the pre-Endtroducing DJ Shadow beat which would become Latyrx’ eponymous debut single, his reaction was, ‘Oh my God, I gotta get on this.’
‘Latyrx’ was a syllabic tour de force which began with two dissonant voices — one gruff and bassy, the other higher-pitched and trebly, both hella fluid — it transmogrified into a harmonic convergence of doubled verses simultaneously assaulting eardrums. Undeniably, it was great… but weird. ‘It was ill,’ Lateef recalls. ‘We really felt like we had something unlike anyone else had done,’ he adds.
Latyrx’ first and thusfar, only, full-length, 1997’s Latyrx: the Album, ‘set the tone for what Solesides and Quannum would do,’ LB recalls, while 1998’s Muzappers Mixes EP spawned one of the only feminist-affirming club bangers in hip-hop history, ‘Lady Don’t Tek No.’
Though Latyrx never officially broke up, after Muzappers, both members followed their chosen paths to considerable solo success. Yet no matter how much acclaim each attained individually, the notion of someday making another Latyrx record was always present. ‘It’s probably the number one thing I got asked about in my career,’ LB says.
14 years (!) after the release of Latyrx: the Album, LB and Lateef have finally answered the prayers of long-starved fans who have begged, pleaded and, by now, tweeted about the possibilities of a reunion. An impromptu Latyrx set at a 2010 Jazz Mafia concert at San Francisco’s Mezzanine led to an appearance at 2011’s Outside Lands festival, Google’s Summer Concert Series (they were the first hip-hop act to perform) and a last minute appearance as part of HITRECORD At The Movies — a unique film and music traveling showcase curated and hosted by actor and artist Joseph Gordon-Levitt. More shows, new songs including ‘Hardship Enterprise’, which appears on Lateef’s solo debut, Firewire, a mixtape (to be called Latyrical Madness Vol. 1) and, possibly, a new album.
What Latyrx brings to the table is a technical difficulty level rare these days in hip-hop and matched only by a few groups in the genre’s entire history: Run-DMC, Jurassic 5, Blackstar, Freestyle Fellowship. Their challenging, intricate back-and forth arrangements evoke a lyrical version of bebop, with layer upon layer of rhythmic syncopation and vocal patterning constantly pushing the envelope.
‘We have a good chemistry and it’s kind of unique,’ Lateef says. ‘We step up each others’ game content, and both of us push each other in the originality department.’
‘What we’ve talked about is very simply, picking up where we left off,’ LB explains. The return of Latyrx stands as Very Good News for true hip-hop fans, lyrical aficionados, boom-bap beatniks, urban bohemians, wee tots in Reeboks, and Muzappers of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages.The rhythms of hip-hop provide a placemat for nervously melodic splendor and a melting pot of genres. What are we to call this compellingly oddball mélange of rock, rap, jazz, reggae, and other influences, all in sway to some of the most mirthfully self-conscious streams of consciousness you’ve ever heard? We could call it attention-deficit-disorder rock. Or maybe we should just call it Forrest Day, the Bay-area bandleader who’s releasing his self-titled full-length debut on the Ninth Street Opus label.
Cohorts include guitarist Terrell Liedstrand, a bandmate of Day’s since they were both 15, and bassist John Sankey, another high school buddy. Keyboard player Nick Wyner also came on board when the band was founded in 2006, and Jasper Skydecker joined up as their first full-time drummer a year later. When they went into the studio together for the first time, it was with several years of live performances under their belts and a chemistry that Day wanted to capture—and ever-so-slightly digitally tamper with.
‘We hit analog tape with everything, but then dumped it into ProTools to manipulate it there,’ says Day, who produced the album himself. ‘So a lot of it is like a big marriage between actual performance and then, in editing, turning some of the songs into loops—though it doesn’t really sound like it, because it’s so analog-sounding.’ Day also points out that ‘there’s not a sample on the record. We brought in real violin players, who were in the room with real saxophones.’
Day’s amusingly confessional songwriting dabbles in social commentary about corporate greed (‘Hoarders’) and our overmedicated society (‘Meds’), among other concerns. But he returns again and again to everyday struggles common to itinerant musicians and non-musicians alike: bad bosses, lost jobs, debt collectors, and the girlfriend as muse or unwitting patron of the arts. There’s an elaborate work ethic apparent in these meticulously crafted tunes that would seem to put the lie to lyrics that talk about being dreamy, uncertain, and aimless. What we have on this striking debut, then, is a collection of incredibly focused anthems for an unfocused generation.
Says Day: ‘A lot of the music has this kind of laughing-at-life type of feel—a tragicomic attitude.’ The songs tend toward the distinctly autobiographical, starting with the opening ‘Sleepwalk,’ which is ‘about my interesting night habits,’ he says. ‘I’m one of those crazy adults that still sleepwalks. I’ll wake up in great pain in different areas of the house.’ These night terrors are ‘very disorienting and horrific’—and also, he admits, for the purposes of the song, at least, ‘pretty damn funny.’ The most upbeat number is ‘Baby Shoe,’ a song instigated by a euphoric moment of dancing Day and his then-girlfriend did at a gas station stop. The most frustrated one may be ‘Assholes,’ an I-would-take-this-job-and-shove-it-if-I-hadn’t-already-been-fired anthem. ‘Meds’ was born ‘from the idea that so many people have given up on themselves and the power of their own mind to do things instead of the power of the pill. Pharmaceutical companies have encouraged us to give up a sense of responsibility,’ he says—before getting off the soapbox and adding with a chuckle: ‘At the same time, I smoke weed, so it’s not all this serious message.’ Then there’s ‘Everybody’s Fucking With My Mind.’ ‘That song,’ he patiently explains, ‘is about how everybody’s fucking with my mind.’
There is a considerable strain of mirth running through the songs on Forrest Day, but also a strangely inspiring mixture of self-empowerment and self-confessed insanity. ‘Life isn’t one-sided,’ Day says. ‘It’s nice to be able to share more than one emotion. The last song, ‘It’s Just Me,’ is the epitome of that tragicomic feel. The verses are about the everyday things—debt collectors, not having a job, your girlfriend’s the breadwinner, mooching off her—and I deliver it pretty dryly, like I’m telling the news. But then the chorus has more feeling behind it.’ As he sings: ‘Got a song in my heart/My head’s a balloon.’
Easy descriptions of Forrest Day’s rangy sound defy longtime fans as well as newcomers. ‘I’ve heard everything, really,’ Day says. ‘I get ‘theatrical,’ I get ‘rock,’ I get Sublime, I get ‘rap-rock’…’ He’s not about to embrace this last tag, even though the music has its recitative moments. ‘Some of the stuff, I describe it almost more like jazz scat,’ he explains. It may be telling that the biggest influences of Day’s youth were early Jay-Z and Frank Sinatra. ‘Every once in a while someone says they can hear the jazz in my voice, even on a song that’s not necessarily jazz-influenced. I do think Frank is in there somewhere.’
If those influences sound slightly conflicted, imagine Day growing up obsessed, like so many of his peers, with hip-hop… while also being a teenaged sax maniac, devoted to an instrument that doesn’t get a lot of use on hip-hop records. Or even rock ones, anymore. ‘I’ve been in love with the saxophone since I was really young,’ he says. ‘I was a little kid in the ’80s, and that’s when they had all those big, sweeping sax solos in pop music. I remember listening to the sax solos on, like, Billy Ocean,’ he laughs. ‘But I also grew up on jazz and loved Stan Getz.’ When his attention inevitably moved on to punk and hip-hop, Day developed an affinity for spending hours in the studio creating beats, but he never put down his reedy first love.
Day financed the recording of this eponymous debut himself. Unfortunately, having stretched his credit to the max, he didn’t have any left over to actually do a master-grade mix. That quandary led, in a serendipitous way, to his signing with Ninth Street Opus. Trying to think of a patron who could put up the money to finish the project, he went through the cards in his wallet, and found one he’d picked up at South by Southwest a year earlier: Wayne Skeen, the CEO of Ninth Street Opus. ‘I was looking at his card like, Opus Music Ventures? What the hell is this? And it ended up being the answer to my prayers, even though I don’t pray.’ He didn’t realize he was random-dialing a label chief, who would not only want to invest in album completion but sign the band to a recording contract.
A few years back, Day had a split musical personality as he was fronting two separate Bay-area bands. By himself, he had recorded an EP of largely electronic, even-keeled hip-hop in 2006, and soon thereafter he formed a band under his own name to play that solo music live. His other outlet was a punk band called Sitting Duck, ‘where I was just a screamer, and I released the craziest energy and got all my anger out.’ The twain needed to meet. When he finally was forced to make a choice between the two groups—because he had no voice left after the punk shows to do any other types of gigs—he chose Forrest Day, i.e., the band that bore his own moniker. But he also became determined to migrate some of the defunct group’s manic qualities into the Forrest Day group’s more moderate hip-hop ethos, ‘and that’s when the band got really good. Even though we’re not a punk band, there’s a big element of punk energy in our show.’
‘I’ve heard myself described as an ‘everyman’ before,’ Day allows. ‘I just think I go out on stage with no bullshit. I’m a musician and a songwriter first, and to the extent I’m a ‘performer,’ that just happens because that’s me up on stage under bright lights with a microphone. If I’m not in a good mood, then I don’t pretend to be, though I give my all at every show. Some shows, I might be a little bit madder, so the rock songs are just more aggressive. Or if I’m in a great mood and I’ve been drinking Patron, then the hip-hoppier type songs are more awesome and the dancing is really fun. That’s the good thing about being in a diverse band: you don’t have to feel the same goddamn thing every night. When I play shows, it’s to share what I’m thinking or feeling through music. We’re not there to be monkeys or clowns, we’re there to be who we are.’ Which, as it turns out, is a pretty interesting bunch of guys.
The Live Band:Music Director/APD LIVE 105, San Francisco. Radio show host of SUBSONIC & SOUNDCHECK. Co-founder & resident DJ @ club POPSCENE SF.