Lyrics Born: Going with the flow
by Halee Hastad
photo by Scott La Rockwell
Tsutomu Shimura, stage name Lyrics Born, has been making music longer than some of us have been alive. At 45, Shimura is preparing to debut his tenth self-produced album, Quite A Life, this month. It’s something of a culmination of the decades he’s spent in an industry and genre that has demanded his flexibility, ingenuity and acceptance of change with it’s ever-evolving fads, technologies and diversity.
Born in Japan, Shimura moved to Berkeley, California in the 2nd grade where he first heard “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, and got his first taste of what would become an insatiable appetite for hip-hop. To not just be a listener, he said, but to be a dedicated participant.
He attended Berkeley High and continued to write rhymes and work on music as often as possible into his years of college at U.C. Davis. It was there that he became involved at the radio station and met other students who were also DJs and MCs. Their shared interest caught fire and together Shimura, Josh Davis (DJ Shadow), Stan Green (8th Wonder), the duo Blackalicious, and Jeff Chang (DJ Zen) created the underground hip-hop label Solesides in 1991.
“We were all stranded in this college town so we weren’t necessarily immersed in any entertainment hubs,” Shimura said. “So we made our own records because we didn’t have any other options if we wanted our music to be heard.”
It was a grassroots climb for these guys in the sense that they would all come together at the radio station or in a dorm and pour their time and resources into making music, then sell it out of a trunk with the intention set on being heard more-so than making money. And, Shimura said, in principle, many parts of his process have stayed the same in the decades that have followed. It’s the technology and diversity of the industry and genre that’s changed.
Shimura debuted his first commercial release in 1993, when he was still a teenager. He remembers this as a competitive time, he said. Not so much in the sense of who could become the most well-known, but instead they were competing for who could be the most creative, who could make the most unique rhymes.
“So much ground was being broken at that time and the bar was so high regarding quality and ingenuity,” he said.
This sweet-spot in the timeline of hip-hop lasted a decade or so, as Shimura remembers. And then the early 2000’s hit. This is the time of what he calls the “quantum leap” of hip-hop. Instead of guys like Jurassic 5 and The Pharcyde selling thousands of albums, there were artists like Snoop Dogg and Notorious B.I.G. selling millions of records. Shimura recalls this as a time when hip-hop diversified rapidly – where it was now being seen on TV and heard on the radio in a way it never had been before. The landscape had broadened, the audience multiplied and the variety expanded.
Through it all, Shimura stayed true to making what he thought was the most genuine and unique rhymes he had to give, and it was working well for him. He has played, really, no less than 100 shows a year for the last couple of decades and remained steadfast in his DIY methods. The Recession of the late-2000s hurt many independent musicians, but Shimura came out stronger than ever. For him, he had learned over time the survival skills necessary to remain strong in a time of so much uncertainty
“I am very lucky and fortunate to have come out on the other side still on my feet and in a creative place,” he said.
Now, as everything becomes digital, as analytics reign supreme and metrics take the forefront, Shimura continues with his go with the flow mentality. Over the last 25 years he has continued to play multiple shows a week with no airplay and all independent of a label.
Shimura considers himself a student of hip-hop. It’s this wisdom that keeps him steady creating while remaining open to a variety of influences and inspirations. Soul and funk play a huge part in his sounds and essences, as the quirky, rebellious and opinionated style of his work breeds it distinctively old-school and at the same time relevant and timeless.
Quite A Life is the first of Shimura’s work to take more than 18-months to produce. In fact, it took two years total, and is a sound documentary piece of his experiences, both musically and personally, to date. His wife had been going through health issues during the time, and he was between contracts, deals, agents, managers, everything. These circumstances made for some very dark moments alongside some bright ones on the album, he said.
And he did it as much for him as he did for those who will be listening and may be able to relate. Shimura believes that an album should be a snapshot of what’s happening in an artist’s life at the moment you’re making it, he said. Quite A Life is exactly that. “Can’t Lose My Joy” details the time when his wife was first diagnosed, while “Don’t Quit Your Daydream” is about his career and what it took to make it where he is now.
This is an artist who has navigated countless trials and tribulations in the name of his passion. He has overcome decades of change and transformation to come out on top as one of the leading independent hip-hop artists both then and now. It’s part talent, dedication, and mentality.
“Life happens and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said.
See Lyrics Born with All Star Opera at the Wild Buffalo Sept. 23. Tickets and more information available at wildbuffalo.net/event/lyrics-born-3/. Follow his social media for updates.