Hip-hop’s traditional East-West paradigm served the palate of the rap universe for much of the ’90s. Having been at the forefront of hip-hop dominating Billboard and SoundScan through consecutive hits pumped out by Death Row, the cultural domination the West Coast held over the genre had to eventually end. After the release of Chronic 2001, the public recognized that we were now dealing with an industry no longer infatuated with the excessively violent, hedonistic, ultra-masculine gangster rap and platinum records that came to represent West Coast artists. That, along with media-driven deaths of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. left a stain on Los Angeles’s hip-hop marketability.
What followed next in LA was a whole new generation of artists who created a regional resurgence within the hip-hop community. Acts like Blu, U-N-I, Pac Division, and Dom Kennedy diversified and changed the contemporary sound of what we initially envisioned rap music in city of angels to be. A connection with the shoe and fashion culture of LA – as well as a more focused approach to social commentary in an Internet-using generation – remodeled the listening ears of youth across the country who still equated the music coming out of the West Coast to NWA and Dr. Dre.
Since his early days as a member of the pivotal group U-N-I touring around the world, Inglewood’s Thurz has been shaping where hip-hop has been moving, showcasing the versatility of Los Angeles’s artistry. Thurz centered his critically acclaimed live music-driven solo debut, LA Riot, in 2011, around the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King beating, which, in and of itself, changed the path of the city. Since then, he has teamed up with the ever-present Red Bull to release the more mature and well-received Designer EP, featuring guest appearances by BJ the Chicago Kid, Tiffany Gouche, and Overdoz – as well as production by DJ Dahi and Battlecat. We got the chance to chat with Thurz about his progression as an artist in LA, his conscious effort to move away from sampled material, shifting from mixtape to online, his upcoming album Blood on the Canvas, and recognizing the father role music has had on his life as a parent.
SENAY KENFE: Walking through the streets of Long Beach right now with arguably one of the most influential artists in the “New West” in the last decade or so. Thurz, how you doing?
THURZ: I’m good, man. Chilling.
We were talking earlier about the Rams coming to Inglewood, how do you feel about that? Being your hometown.
Man, I’m not even a football guy, but when the Rams get here I’m going to definitely be tuned in and finally have a football team to root for, some game to go to, so it’s a good thing for the city, man.
It’s very interesting to be doing this interview today because, I have to say, being a local and LA native of Long Beach, there’s a period where you, Pac Div, Dom, and a couple other cats are kind of forerunners of this new interest in West Coast music. What would you say about that?
That’s pretty accurate. I’d say, maybe, you, I, Pac Div, and Blue more so than – I’d even say – yeah, those are the main three. Then, you do have the Dom there. Yeah, we definitely the forerunners of a lot of the movement today. And that shit’s growing rapidly, man, there’s a lot of talent out here and people are focusing on what’s coming out from here. It’s just so easy to have a voice and be heard. Movements are started every day.
I remember seeing you and your former group, which we’ll talk about, performing a very regional hit, “Kream,” at a Dunk Exchange. Talk about the time that you spent with U-NI for people that don’t know.
A lot of time went into that, I was doing internships while I was at LMU… I was at Rhino and I was at Capitol, so I was doing a lot of ground work to understand the music industry for what it was at that time and how I can implement into my own career and the career of my group. So I was just taking different relationships and taking different ideas, as far as press releases and press kits, and putting that together for us. Like getting photo shoots done and just trying to make sure we’re on top of our game and able to stay on top of this ever-evolving industry.
The biggest thing I took is that visuals play a big role. So with doing U-N-I, we had our friend, Mister [Tomas] Whitmore, he did the video.
Shout out to him. He did a couple of your videos, he did “Beautiful Day.”
Yeah, he’s a genius, man. That’s what really took off for us, “A Beautiful Day.” And we did that video, shot it in Inglewood, right down the street where we was recording at; 81th and 5th. MTV premiered it. We actually launched it on our YouTube first, and then, at 3,000 views, MTV saw it and got behind it, they premiered it, Cipha Sounds, played it right after this Lupe performance. And I just remember waking up before I was about to go to work – I was working as a stat analyst trying to do the music thing along with having a full time job.
That morning it premiered, I was just geeked. I was trying to figure out how to record it, this was before the DVR. [Laughs] But that was a big moment for us. Then we ended up doing the MTV VMA Breakout Artist and won that. So it was just a constant movement, constant positive progression for that group at that time. It was a dope experience, man. I learned a lot, met a lot of people, and it just kept pushing me to want to further my artistry. That’s why we’re here today.
Before it was like you guys had the visuals – you guys had to be out there in the street pushing music – now, it’s more like, “I have a Twitter and here’s my one song.” Then the label.
You know what, I say the foot action that we put into passing out CDs and all that, I think, is still necessary as far as getting out and doing shows and meeting fans. Those numbers that you see on different peoples’ accounts who have 100,000 people following them or whatever, those are real numbers because they’re out working and performing. The only way to build up a fan base, today, is to be constantly doing shows in different regions and touching people.
That’s one thing I can take from passing out those CDs around Melrose and all around LA – that we were person to person, interacting with new fans. So, that definitely played a role in building the name up. I see people using that theory, to an extent, today.
“MUSIC IS SUPPOSED TO BE AUTHENTIC, IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE DIFFERENT… IT’S SUPPOSED TO FIT YOU.”
You referenced earlier that you went to LMU. Talk about how – you’re a business major?
Yeah, I was a finance major. Business finance.
Talk about how coming from a business background has helped you in the music industry.
I’d say having a business background with doing U-N-I – we established an LLC and I forgot what it was called. It’s basically my first attempt at using all this different business knowledge from school, trying to apply it. It was really, mainly accounting shit that I was doing. Trying to write off certain things we were buying and do our taxes. But, that was still all fucked up because [Laughs] I couldn’t even focus on all that, I was doing it all by myself and writing all these songs and just trying to stay current with fashion. I was just lost.
That was my first attempt at using business knowledge. It would’ve been effective had I had more help, but now I’m doing it more correctly. That knowledge is applied, it’s definitely necessary in helping me form how I conduct myself as a business. I am the business of whatever I’m utilizing as far as shoes or any type of apparel. It’s simple, just writing it off and forecast how to spend your future finances, what to invest in, how to make your dollar back; simple stuff.
[Can you talk about] relevance of your L.A. Riot album in terms of what’s going on right now?
…So with the LA Riot project, it really stemmed from me being pissed off that I broke away from this group. A lot of time went into that, we were one song away from really blowing up – Fuck! I’m like, “Damn, I put in all this work.” I devoted a lot of these songs and I feel like a lot of my hard work was being overlooked with how this is just going to be disseminated and this group is going to be no more.
So, I was just searching for new inspiration and meeting up with Mister Whitmore, who was researching the LA riots at the time. I was like, “Damn, that was a crazy period, I remember that.” So we just had a conversation about it and we both started researching. Then, it kind of turned into us doing this project about the LA riots. I was like, “Damn, we can’t talk about this without doing a song dedicated to Rodney King.” His whole beating being caught on film.
…I went and did the research about Rodney King, from the beginning to the end, and I created that song and that really served as the foundation for this project. And with that, we went and did all these different interviews around 74th and Budlong, around Florence and Normandie, anywhere the riots were breaking out… I interviewed one of the LA four – [Gary Williams]… he’s on the beginning of “FTP” on L.A. Riot.
He gave his full experience of dealing with police officers, the disconnect between LAPD and the community, and we still kind of see that disconnect throughout the nation. With Mike Brown, we see the disconnect where this white officer feels it’s okay for him to fire and take the life of a black male. Gary Williams gave me his experience with dealing with LAPD officers. He was gang-affiliated so sometimes they’d pick him up, take him to an opposing hood, drop him off there, sometimes they’ll strip you of your clothes and leave you there so you have to get back to your neighborhood naked… It was just building agony or building rage between the community and officers; this whole LAPD department.
…I didn’t even expect the project to be what it was, it kind of just started with a conversation from Mister Whitmore and me being inspired by doing these different interviews and creating these different songs and it just turned into this L.A. Riot project. Where I’m connecting my mind state to this historical events. It served as a big project thing paying homage to the city and showcasing what race relations were in LA during the ‘90s. And it’s still relevant today because we do see what’s happening now, we see Ferguson, we see all the killings, all the massacres, all these slayings of black males around the States. It’s just crazy that that is still relevant, we should be progressing as a human race.
That came out in 2011, so describe moving forward from that album to where we are now with the Designer EP.
So I still have to call L.A. Riot designer music – I like to call that music “designer music” because just from anything that inspires me, any part of my experiences that helped me grow as a human, I’m taking these experiences and I’m tailor cutting it, because it’s going to be an item that nobody else can make. Music is supposed to be authentic, it’s supposed to be different, it’s supposed to be those tailor fit jeans, designer shirts, whatever you’re rocking. It’s supposed to fit you. So I made it to fit myself and fit whoever is listening, whoever wants to be in my state of mind. So it’s all designer music.
L.A. Riot was the beginning of me finding that genre of music for myself. With Designer EP, I was in a lighter state of mind. I was just barbecuing, having fun, growing different musical relationships – that’s how I have the band now. All that music is just representing the good time I was having at that time. With “21,” I was reflecting back to me being in Vegas, when I was 21, driving down the strip with my homies and getting at all these chicks and having fun; really whiling out. These are all real songs. Everything is based off of a different experience. I wanted to make people move and be able to have a good time. L.A. Riot was more introspective and more rock driven – I had the Tom Morello influence type of guitars on there. Aaron Harris produced a lot on there, DJ Khalil produced on there, THX. I’m just trying to grow as an artist, keep pushing the envelope, and it’s all essentially black music. Even the name designer –
Describe what black music is to you. Because me and Simone – people always talk to her about her music like, “You’re a jazz singer, tell us about the music.” And she was saying, “I don’t make jazz music, I make black classical music.”
Designer music – I’m a black male, I share similar experiences to people of color. And that’s not to say that people who are white or Hispanic can’t enjoy it because we’re all humans at the end of the day, we’re going to have similar situations that we can relate on. But where the world is today, race is a big issue. So I make songs that kind of are geared to people who live in a similar lifestyle as me.
“A LOT OF HIP-HOP IS NOT BEING MADE JUST TO BE – IT’S JUST MADE TO BE MICROWAVEABLE FAST FOOD.”
…Black music, black music. I feel like all the greats give you the black experience and you can hear the layers of musicianship that go into it to create a sound that sounds like nothing else. It’s the spirit of the music. If you go back to George Clinton, whether it’s Parliament Funkadelic or if it’s P-Funk, you get a black experience out of there. “Chocolate City,” he’s talking about the White House and talking about painting the White House black and all that. That inspires me.
You go to Outkast – that’s my favorite group because Andre, specifically, gives you his experience – he gives you experience in all of his verses. It’s intelligent and it’s transparent and that’s – I don’t want to be like them, but I strive to be as potent as somebody like a 3000 in my own way.
To contribute to the culture.
Right. Because we need that. As black [people] we don’t have – our leaders are stripped, our leaders are assassinated. You can lead through music, you don’t have to be a political figure, you can have a message in your music that’s going to touch somebody and influence them to strive for something better in their life. If I can do that through a song or through a project, that’s tight.
Who are the artists that inspire you?
Stevie Wonder. Incredible. Songs in the Key of Life, I think that’s one of the greatest pieces of music put together ever. Bob Marley, just seeing his transition before he died and the music he was able to give the world. It was so pure, you feel the spirit in the music. George Clinton is a genius, spirit is in the music. Those are people who inspire me. Michael Jackson inspires me, I think he’s great; the greatest entertainer. James Brown, [Andre] 3000, Nas, Ice Cube… Predator – his offerings, alone, are some of the best of hip-hop. You can put Death Certificate there with Illmatic. You can put that against anything, that shit is powerful, that was right around ’92, ’91.
He foretold it.
Yeah, he did foretell it. “How to Survive in South Central,” “My Summer Vacation,” “Black Korea,” that album is crazy, that shit is mind blowing. He’s top five for me just because of that catalog right there.
Those are some of the main people that inspire me because not too many people can be in that bubble for me. To where they can impact culture, be potent, and have the musical layers that I look for. Like Stankonia, they were pushing sounds on music, man. I look for a dope message, something that gives me an experience I can relate to, and I don’t want to hear the same boom bap shit, I want to hear people pushing the limits. I want to be entertained on all levels.
[Can you] describe you being more mature as an artist and recognizing the music that inspired you when you were an impressionable teen and witnessing how the music now inspires people –
Well, coming up in high school, Black Star was huge for me. Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, that’s another great album, that’s a top 5 album for me rap-wise. The Roots Illadelph Halflife, that was very impressionable for me.
It was just great to be a hip-hop fan coming up in the ’90s and going into high school. Music meant more to me than what it does now because everything is so geared to the party right now. Not to say I don’t like to party, but a lot of hip-hop is not being made just to be – it’s just made to be microwavable fast food.
Describe that contrast between what a lot of people would say is the fast food effect going down in hip-hop today. Not to say –
Yeah, there’s always been fast food.
But more than ever.
Yeah, more than ever now. Shit man, fast food is really just copy paste. Copy, paste, hit the club. That’s the bulk of what hip-hop is right now. People want to differentiate rap and hip-hop, but hip-hop is all of this shit. It is the party, it’s everything.
Always has been.
Yeah, always has been, but there’s no differentiation of rap and hip-hop. Hip-hop is everything that embodies the culture. Even Iggy Izalea. [Laughs] Whether she believes it or not, she’s hip-hop. She has the responsibility of being a hip-hop artist.
Not to put you on the spot, but have you been paying attention to the whole Q-Tip posting on [Iggy Azalea’s Twitter]. How do you feel about that? That conversation, in terms of – not in terms of what’re white peoples’ position within hip-hop, but in terms of what many people see as commodification of the culture. And that it’s stripping it away from its black roots. How do you feel about that? I know it’s a big one.
[Laughs] Damn. It’s very American. [Laughs] It’s very American. America is the main country that will strip something and commodify it and make it sellable. It’s the culture of commerce, that’s what America is. And for her to be relevant today, it’s American, it’s not really thought provoking; it is what it is… I will say this: Just from knowing that she doesn’t write her own shit, it’s hard to call her an artist… And that’s cool if you’re involved in the creation of your art. A lot of the best art is from a communal standpoint, it’s community music at the end of the day.
But speak up on why in hip-hop there’s such a heavy emphasis on authenticity. Particularly about the creative process that goes within the music.
I’d say mainly because hip-hop is non-musician driven. It’s more hardware driven to where you have sample-based music. So I think it takes less people to create hip-hop, so I think that’s why authenticity is really held in high regard in hip-hop; because it takes less people than your Earth, Wind, and Fire type record. Or your Ashford and Simpson, that’s where you have people who specialize on bass, people who specialize on guitar, keys, you know. I think that’s really why.
So within your previous releases there was an emphasis on more sample-based production. Particularly, you collabed a lot with Ro Blvd. So describe going from that to your new Designer EP.
L.A. Riot has two songs that have samples on them and Ro did both of those. Everything else was live.
Talk about that movement that you went through.
I gotta take it back to the whole “Beautiful Day” thing. So with us getting on MTV and doing “Beautiful Day,” they were going to run our song on this commercial, but it couldn’t have any samples on there. So that’s kind of where we ran into our first issue with sampling.
Then there was a little lawsuit situation by Michael Henderson who wrote “My Starship.” Off of the free release – that song, “My Life,” was on this DVD we put out. We actually replayed it to strip the sample away and even change the production of it, but I guess he still saw it in a movie, came after us, and we had to settle to that. So after that situation I was like, “Yo, man, I don’t really want to fuck with samples too much anymore.” …I was like, “I don’t know man, I’m not trying to fuck with these samples, I don’t really want to get sued.”
…Then, on every other project I’m like, “Yo, no samples,” because we can create something iller. It’s cool to listen to this shit and be inspired by it, but we can create something they are creating. They just drew that shit up, being in the studio and having ideas, so we can do the same thing. And we have better technology, we have better sounding shit, so let’s kill what they’re doing. They’re our competitors, that’s how I look at it now, I try to be better than all the OGs and be on the next planet right now.
The track that Aaron Harris did, “Right Now,” which is how you started the album – I thought that was a very poignant intro to the album. Because you said, “I wouldn’t rap if I knew where my dad was.” You want to talk about why you chose to start it out like that?
It’s a statement that’s kind of posing more of a question. I feel like the father role in a family is so important – speaking as a father. I was just thinking, “Damn, would I still be pursuing music had my father been in my life?” Because from what my mother tells me, I never met him, he was a med student at USC. So had he been there – a lot of kids grow up wanting to be like their father; a lot of males want to be like their dad. So I may have pursued something different.
That’s why I started off like that because I grew up listening to nothing but music. I grew up wanting to rap since I was in 1st grade, 2nd grade, trying to dress like Criss Cross, having two radios, trying to rap to instrumental, trying to record myself on the radio. So you just never know what the influence is going to be that’s going to shift your life.
So that statement is a real statement, but it’s more of a question too. So that’s how I chose to start it off like that. The Designer EP is supposed to give people a taste of what I’m reaching for, Blood on the Canvas. Musicality-wise and just being open and just trying to make great songs on each record.
And Designer EP is going to be introducing us to your full length album, which is Blood on the Canvas. You want to talk about that?
Yeah, just reaching for greatness, man. Just trying to have a lot of fun and continue to build a community of musicians that I’ve been building up over the years and going into a DJ Khalil again this week; we’re going to be creating some great shit. Going up with J.LBS, THX, DJ Dahi, the same suspects man. Rocky. The usual suspects that you see me rocking with the past year or two; Ro Blvd. Just going to make some fun shit and push the envelope continually.
So the Designer EP came out through – it was a collaborative effort between you and Red Bull. Talk about your relationship with Red Bull; specifically to Red Bull Sound Select.
Sound Select is an artist development program, they really aim to break music and search for the most authentic and original sounding music in different regions of the US. They’re expanding internationally now, so it’s a great program to be a part of, man. They really use their resources to help independent artists and really try to get me on a platform to break out.
So they really helped me out with my Designer EP, put me at Conway Studios to finish it up, and that’s my favorite studio. The scenery in there is crazy.
The history in there.
Yeah. So kudos to Sound Select, Red Bull, giving me wings and shit. [Laughs] …It’s a great situation. I’m fortunate to even be rocking with them.
What do you feel like you want your legacy to be in terms of music?
I feel like… that’s a heavy one. [Laughs] It’s easy to say I want to be like this person or that person, but I don’t want to answer like that. But I want to be able to use my music to be the soundtrack – whether it’s one song or a project – to be the soundtrack to every race of people. And use that platform to give back to the community and uplift people of color for sure. Empower the community, really. Stevie Wonder’s doing a great job with that… his body of work. I just hope to do it on a move massive level like Eminem did with Shade 45, I’d hope to be able to contribute on the biggest platform possible and uplift the whole community.