Last December, Lyrics Born’s Moe’s Alley performance culminated in a powerful cover of Blackalicious’ “Swan Lake.” It was more than just a shout-out to the NorCal alt-hip-hop duo; it was a goodbye. Timothy Parker, aka Gift of Gab, one half of Blackalicious, passed away a few months earlier after years of battling kidney problems. The rapper was known for his tongue-twisting “Alphabet Aerobics,” a verbal marathon of 26 verses, each focusing on a letter from the alphabet.
“I don’t think I ever made a single album without [Parker] on it—or there were very few,” says Tom Shimura, aka Lyrics Born. “We toured the world together; we recorded together. It was a huge loss. One of the things I noticed after he passed was how much influence he had on everything I did, and the countless hours of conversations we had about life and art. We talked about everything.”
About 30 years ago, Shimura and Parker began what would become a cooperative of indie hip-hop notables while attending UC Davis. Lyrics Born and Blackalicious came into being, and other future stars—including DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, Dan the Automator and Lateef the Truthspeaker—were also around. At the time, the likes of N.W.A. and Tupac were massive. But this underground Bay Area collective of DJs and MCs began making hip-hop that was the antithesis; they were writing rhymes that were far removed from the violent vignettes burdened with drugs, murder, gang life and misogyny of gangster rap. This enclave of talent, who started making albums under the names SoleSides or the Quannum Project—now, Solesides and Quannum are record labels—cultivate a more positive brand of hip-hop, influenced by outfits like A Tribe Called Quest, the Native Tongues and Jungle Brothers.
Shimura’s Lyrics Born moniker was cemented as one of the underground hip-hop world’s bonafide MCs with 2003’s Later That Day, which featured the Japan native’s load of funk samples and innovative rhyme schemes spat in his trademark husky bass voice that sounds like he smokes three packs of Newports per day. Along with Shimura’s wordplay that blends pop culture, humor and politics—“Well abracadabra I saddled up a camel/Traveled the Sahara and the avenues of Casablanca/Ran into Aladdin and family snackin’ on an Abba-Zabba … Samantha, Vanity, Miss Japan, Canada and Bananarama in the back of an Acura”—his encyclopedic musical knowledge has attracted a dedicated fanbase and a growing roster of special guests, including Michael Franti, Boots Riley and Zack de la Rocha.
Beyond being the first Japanese American MC to release 10 studio records and perform at major music festivals like Coachella, Shimura’s success signifies something far more powerful—he represents the freedom to do what he wants on his terms.
“The [music] industry is where I faced challenges,” Shimura says. “When I’d go to the corporate offices, the agencies, the management companies, the record labels, the distributors, the advertising and marketing departments, I’d never see a single Asian.”
When the suits said “no,” the Tokyo-born MC simply made records using his own labels, which have released a trove of hip-hop classics by all Shimura’s buddies and then some.
“Hip-hop has given [Asian Americans] a voice,” he says. “We could be ourselves and say what we wanted to say and feel empowered. We could tell our story. I think representation matters. The impact I’ve had on Asian Americans has given me a lot of satisfaction, because I didn’t have that. To be able to carve that out in history has been special and fulfilling, especially doing something that I 100 percent believe in and love and have a spiritual connection with. I’ve worked hard to get here.”
It’s been 30 years since Lyrics Born came on the scene, a milestone that means a great deal to Shimura.
“I’m grateful to have been able to live this life and make a good living out of it and do something that I thoroughly enjoy and keep coming up with new ideas,” he says. “I have poured my life into this.”
On Nov. 11, LB’s new full-length record, Vision Board, hits the streets. While making the album in New Orleans, Shimura found out about Gab’s passing just as he was in the middle of recording “Alligator Boots.”
“I rewrote quite a bit of it on the spot and gave him a shout,” he says. “I tried to write something I thought he would appreciate; something imaginative and way out there—he always liked those songs best.”
Lyrics Born with Mak Nova performs Saturday, Oct. 8, at 9pm. Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $22/$27 plus fees. moesalley.com.