By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Down there -- out there -- between a tangled garland of six freeways -- the 57, 105, 91, 5 and 605 -- is the space where L.A. and O.C. bleed together: a terrain of bluebloods and cholos, soccer fields and drive-through milk depots, cow-stickered Dodge wide-bodies and Harvest Christian Fellowship--branded SUVs. An endless one-story sprawl of shabby box homes and steakhouses, Masonic lodges and softball fields, Venturi strips and Pentecostal churches. It‘s Dick Nixon America, currently being overrun by edge city Levittown developments: corporate apartment complexes replacing the unmoving motor-home parks, ”La Habra Woods“ housing replacing La Habra woods. Lots of smog. Lots of flat.
”It’s in the middle of nowhere, but it‘s in the middle of everywhere,“ says rapper AWOL One, describing his home territory, reeling off the type of understated, think-about-it-a-second-time wisdom that marks his best lyrics. ”Right here is same as any other little area.“
Seated here in the living room of the La Habra apartment he shares with his family, AWOL is the picture of normalcy, of everywherenowhere. He’s just vacuumed. He‘s looking forward to his 7-year-old daughter’s softball game. This weekend, he‘s gonna check out Harry Potter with his fiancee’s young son. He‘s Mister Mom, seemingly far from the man who’s authored troubled lines like ”Don‘t be afraid to admit your downfallswe all got ’emand I think that I got ‘em all“ and ”I get drunkand make beautiful things ugly.“ ”I’m a master blaster disaster disorder.“
And so with one eye trained on the muted Wave Twisters video running on the TV, with the riversound of passing traffic leaking through the kitchen window, he explains how he got here. How Tony Martin -- 27, husky-bodied and dusky-voiced -- became AWOL One, a rising underground rap star who, on the day I find him at home, has been given the treatment on hiphophunks.com (”AWOL has a very nice, deep voice. His music has a unique sound and he tells personal stories in his songs. Click on the hearts for a closer look . . . but don‘t touch, this guy is taken!“). AWOL One (a.k.a. ”Awolrus“), whose beguiling, bizarre and bottomlessly imaginative concept record Souldoubt (created with producer Daddy Kev) is one of the year’s best albums, a weird mix of pathos and sci-fi, of humor and depression, a collection of stabs at stability in a disturbed world.
”It gets crazy sometimes,“ he says, looking out the window. ”Sometimes it‘s chill. You’ll see cholos kicking it right here -- you go down the street, there‘s some cats skating there. Real diverse. I definitely gotta hustle to keep this spot. I just want to be stable. My family, we were always moving. I went to three high schools. I was born in Montebello, grew up around Whittier, Norwalk -- this side of things. I got four half-brothers. My pops, he’s a crazy dude -- working all the time, not really keeping a job but always finding one and trying to make it happen real quick. Pretty much all the high schools I went to, there was always gang activity -- gangs throwing rocks at the bus, people fighting in class. I dropped out of that to party. Me and the homies, man -- we used to have sick-ass fry parties. I was doing pretty much every drug you can think of in high school days. You‘re just being young, hanging out with older cats, partying it up. But my dad always taught me, ’All right, just have a job, provide for yourself -- that‘s how it goes down.’
“So when I was 16 I was already working. I did surveys at the mall, talked to some girls: ‘Hey, uh . . . what kind of shampoo do you use? Are you between the age of 17 and 35?’ Got some phone numbers. I worked at a Taco Bell, a hardware store, three different pizza spots. I was washing dishes, listening to the radio. I had the fucking stoner jobs. You have time to think about other shit. But I never had anybody helping me out financially. It‘s always me and my girl. I’ve definitely had a hard time. And I‘m still young. And we’ve all felt like that, you know. That‘s why [the music] relates to people, ’cause it sorta touches on something. It‘s always generated from shit that’s around me.”
AWOL‘s rapping style -- a melodic, rhyming flow that verges on singing -- is uniquely musical, perhaps reflecting his father’s musicianship (“My dad plays guitar. He has like 10 cuts, and he‘s been doin’ ‘em ever since I was a kid. So you know once everybody’s partying, you‘re gonna hear it”) as much as it does his diverse record collection (“I got Diamond D next to Soft Cell, Jungle Brothers next to the Cure, GWAR next to Tribe Called Quest”). Whatever its initial inspiration, AWOL’s style is one that not everyone picks up on -- nor are they meant to.
“Most people will never get it. But that doesn‘t matter. It’s always been like, ‘Who the fuck is actually gonna listen to this song?’ I think that‘s why it took so long to catch on, ’cause it‘s so ’What is this?‘ But at the same time, I am an MC. I’ve been doing this like 10 years. It took a long time to build it. But I always got some kind of reaction, every time I grabbed the mic somewhere. That‘s what keeps you going. It’s like, ‘What? People actually like what the hell I’m talking about?‘