Pigeon John looks almost nervous. But not for long. A slight guy dressed simply in jeans and a plaid button-down shirt, the longtime L.A. rapper steps to the microphone on a balmy summer night. The venue, Safari Sam’s, is a converted strip club, and it kind of shows: Red velvet lines the walls, and the remnant of a stripper pole stands in a darkened corner. The setting is oddly appropriate — the exotic dancers of yore replaced by a mob of aspiring microphone fiends on the maiden Scribble Jam Tour. From far and wide, rappers have descended on Sam’s with a vengeance, talking shop and slinging CDs in the parking lot between turns onstage before the all-out rap battle that concludes each event.
The crowd curiously eyes Pigeon John’s band — an unassuming bunch including a drummer, a guitarist/keyboardist and a DJ. But the curiosity turns to involvement; soon John’s self-effacing sense of humor and catchy, melodic tunes, mostly from his new Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party on Quannum, have pulled people in from the parking lot and closer to the stage. The draw is partly the stage electricity, partly the songs, with their deft juxtapositions of the funny and the poignant.
John’s not afraid to make light of hard times and bleak situations. “This one,” he explains cheerfully, “is about the time I woke up to find an eviction notice on my front door!” He tosses a curve ball: “This next one is for all of the gay brothers in the house. Put your hands up!” (He’s straight, recently married to his longtime girlfriend.) The audience just look at him, not sure if they should laugh, boo or throw something. He introduces “Do the Pigeon” as a new dance he made up that morning in the shower, then launches his body into a spastic whirlwind of clapping arms and bugged-out eyes, like the cartoon character Ren of Ren & Stimpy come to life — hip-hop in Technicolor. One vignette features a booming voice-over demanding he get off the stage. “What am I doing here?” he laments. “No one wants to hear from a 43-year-old rapper.” Everyone’s laughing now, including fellow L.A. underground rapper Busdriver and Beat Junkies DJ Rhettmatic. “That was good, but a little disturbing,” says one friend at set’s end. “He’s funny, but the songs are kind of . . . heavy.”
Told of my friend’s response, Pigeon John throws his head back and laughs. “I love that. Going back to my early days, the only way I really stood out and got people’s attention was to encompass my music in a happy vibe, even though there are deeper meanings to the songs,” he says, sitting on the front patio of downtown’s Standard Hotel, smoking a cigarette and sporting a tiny pin emblazoned with an image of Hank Williams. “I like contradictions. I love really happy songs that are terrifying. Simon and Garfunkel are great at it, and the Beach Boys are the best. I’m a big fan of movies as well, and Wes Anderson is phenomenal at doing that. On the surface, his films like The Royal Tenenbaums seem like comedy, but then there’s suicide, divorce and stuff. He finds a way to case it in a candy-coated shell. That’s the way I do rap music. The kind of hip-hop I’m most into is hardcore like early Mobb Deep. But when I try to make straight-ahead hardcore rap, it comes out totally different and kind of weird. It’s not really my purpose, but I just can’t help it,” he shrugs.
Contradiction comes fast and furious for this happily conflicted rapper. When he was a mixed-race kid in an all-white area of the Midwest, his mother was young, maybe too young, and dealing with demons of her own.
“I was born in Omaha, and then moved to L.A. in, like, kindergarten. There was a lot of moving,” he remembers. ?“My mom was only 23, and we never stayed in one place for too long. I was very used to having her wake my brother, sister and me up in the middle of the night; we’d lay a sheet down in the living room, throw all of our clothes in there, ?tie it up and go. We didn’t realize it was to skip rent and stuff like that.
“Being in Nebraska in the ’80s, there weren’t a lot of black people,” he sighs. “I had a couple of friends, but it was mostly an onslaught of the N word, very terrible things for a kid to deal with. When I moved to Inglewood, it was the total opposite. I was the sore thumb once again. But that’s when I really discovered music, particularly rap.”
Going from being the only black kid in Nebraska to the lightest in predominantly black Inglewood, young Pigeon John escaped to the same refuge so many other tortured souls seek out in desperate times: the radio. “All of that turmoil eventually had a lot of influence on my music, which was filtered through listening to the original KDAY as a child. They played UTFO, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys, but they also played Madonna, Human League, Oingo Boingo — it was the bomb,” he smiles wistfully. “In that era, everything was mixed together. So when I started writing music, what came out sounded very ’80s. I can’t escape melodies and harmonies. I even get a little annoyed at myself, like, ‘Why can’t you just rap?’ ”
First getting on at L.A.’s legendary Good Life Café in the early ’90s, John busted his ass to find his own voice. “The first time I got onstage, I thought I was fresh,” he laughs, “and there was no reaction whatsoever. I went back every week for three years just to get people to pay attention, let alone be impressed.”
Now he’s toured across the country more times than he can count, releasing well-received independent albums (like the affecting emo-hop of Pigeon John Is Dating Your Sister) and creating an audience for his genuinely colorblind brand of boom-bap. He’s now signed with the influential heavyweight indie label Quannum, which will take his show to Europe and Australia after an American tour alongside Busdriver.
“It’s been a sloppy, slow process,” he muses with a grin. “But looking back, it all seems very natural.”
For his new album, John uses that lifetime of experience to create arguably his best work. The rugged “One for the Money” finds him holding his own on the microphone alongside the awesome Rhymesayers rapper Brother Ali (no small feat), but those insistent pop hooks are never far from the fore; Mr. Hansen would be happy to pen something as peppy as “Brand New Day,” while “Money Back Guarantee” taps a sample of the Pixies’ “Hey” to ignite the chorus.
“I listen to all music through a hip-hop mind; everything is loops. But I’ve always loved the Pixies and wanted to do something with that song. My hope,” John stresses, “is to go back to where there are no lines, where it’s just music. Someone like Beck is amazing at it. What he makes is just good music that everybody can enjoy. That’s my goal.”
Pigeon John plays the Temple Bar, Tues., Sept. 12.