Anderson .Paak's Long, Hard Road to Fame Was Worth the Wait
Anderson .Paak's circuitious path to success took 13 years, included a period of homelessness and was far from a sure thing.
Photo by Danny Liao / Location courtesy the Line Hotel
Anderson .Paak is missing. At least that's what his manager, Adrian Miller, tells the sold-out crowd at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, which responds with a collective gasp and a shower of catcalls.
"This is not cool," Miller says, looking around anxiously, "but I bullshit you not when I tell you I cannot find Anderson .Paak."
For a second there, he has the crowd going; then Paak rushes in from the wings with two security guards in hot pursuit. As he leaps onto the stage and his DJ plays some dramatic chase-scene music, it quickly becomes clear that the whole thing is a prank. This is the biggest headlining hometown gig Paak has played, coming right on the heels of a show-stealing performance at the BET Awards the previous night, and he isn't about to miss it.
It's a ballsy way to start any show, let alone one with such luminaries as Dave Chappelle, Diddy and The Roots in attendance. (Later, Miller confirms via text that the whole routine was Paak's idea: "Man I'm glad it was just a pretend thing.") But it works. When Paak hollers, "What the fuck is up, L.A.?" the crowd, already on its feet, responds with a roar. He's got their undivided attention.
His band, the Free Nationals, launches into a brand-new, unreleased track, a boom-bap party-starter called "Bubblin'," and Paak is off to the races, rapping, singing and spinning across the stage like a windup toy, flashing a smile bright enough to light up the back row and practically levitating out of his bright green workboots. Half a song into the set, it's already obvious why Anderson .Paak (the period, he says, is "to remind myself about detail and work ethic") is one of 2016's breakout stars.
To many fans, it probably seems as though the 30-year-old Oxnard native came out of nowhere, anointed by several memorable guest turns on Dr. Dre's Compton, released last August. Since then he's been named to XXL's "Freshman Class," brought down the house at Coachella (with guest appearances by Dre, T.I. and Kendrick Lamar) and, most important, released Malibu, the most accomplished and critically acclaimed album of his career.
But Paak's path to success followed a more circuitous route — one that took 13 years, included a period of homelessness and was far from a sure thing. At one point, he even decided to quit music altogether. That he stuck it out and eventually triumphed is a testament not only to his talent and drive but also to L.A.'s close-knit underground R&B and hip-hop community, which recognized that talent early on and conspired to help him get over.
"It's a family that's connected through art and committed to that art," says Jimetta Rose, an R&B singer-songwriter who has worked with Paak for years and often booked him to play her Nappy Thursdays night at Little Temple (now the Virgil). "It's a beautiful scene in L.A. It really is a renaissance happening, and I'm just so happy to see Anderson soar."
A few days before the BET Awards and the Ace Hotel, Paak looks more like he's crashing than soaring. He's sitting on a quiet back patio at the Line hotel in Koreatown, not far from where he lives with his wife and 5-year-old son, nursing a cup of coffee and looking drowsy behind round, tinted glasses. Since the January release of Malibu, he's been on the road almost nonstop.
He suppresses a yawn as he talks about growing up in Oxnard and Ventura, the elder of two children born to an interracial couple. His mother is from Seoul, South Korea; "my pops is black, from Philadelphia."
He's probably told this part of the story a thousand times over the past year. The media seems endlessly fascinated that an artist who can rap with so much swagger and sing like Curtis Mayfield grew up amid the strawberry farms and sleepy beachside suburbs of Ventura County. Paak's music, as soulful, deeply personal and full of joy and struggle as any Marvin Gaye record, rebukes the old coded, racist classification of hip-hop and R&B as "urban." He raps about driving up PCH with the top down, and when he sings "Mama was a farmer" (on Malibu's autobiographical opening track, "The Bird"), he's not being metaphorical.
Of course, it wasn't all beaches and strawberries. "Childhood was a little bit of everything," Paak says, fiddling with his coffee cup. "There was luxury; there was poverty. There was happy times; there was extreme difficulties. There was a lot of craziness."
The worst of it came early, when the boy born Brandon Park Anderson was about 7 years old. After his father was discharged from the Navy for smoking marijuana, his drinking and drug habits spiraled out of control. The last time Anderson saw his father, "He was on top of my mom, there's blood all over the street, he's telling us to get back in the house." His mother survived the attack, and his father spent the next 14 years in prison. He died before Paak got to see him again.
His mother remarried and built what had started as a roadside farm stand into a major business, selling strawberries to restaurants and grocery stores. "We went from small apartments to big, six-bedroom mansions," he recalls. "My mom was just working, working, working. She was hardly ever home."
Anderson and his little sister were left to entertain themselves. By age 12, he had picked up the drums, and by high school, he had discovered a talent for rapping. Calling himself Breezy, after a childhood nickname, he circulated a demo tape that got him some meetings with prospective labels and managers.
"I was taking trips to Atlanta and meeting different people, getting some cool looks." But even at 17, he was unwilling to compromise his identity. He was more into Jay-Z, Kanye West and Just Blaze, but in 2003, everyone was looking for the next Ying Yang Twins.
"I thought I was gonna be next on Roc-A-Fella. That was my whole thing. And they wanted me to make Lil Jon crunk stuff." Rather than pursue a deal any further, he walked away. "I just wasn't into people telling me, 'Can you do stuff like that?' I didn't want to be that guy that was just chasing sounds."
Back home, more family troubles had arisen. His mother's business had grown so much that she had purchased her own strawberry fields, but her timing was unlucky. "El Niño hit and just destroyed everything," Paak says. She and Paak's stepfather went to prison for tax evasion. The big, six-bedroom house went into foreclosure. He and his sister moved around, staying with family and friends until they could graduate.
Desolate, parentless and essentially homeless, Paak quit making music. "I didn't want to do shit. I just wanted to get a job, get some stability. I was sick of bouncing around everywhere." He sold his MPC and turntables, got a job at an assisted-living facility and moved into a friend's garage. The rap career of Breezy would have to wait.
Miller, Paak's manager, interrupts the interview to bring his client some clothes from an earlier photo shoot. Paak is still wearing his last outfit from the shoot, which basically makes him look like the world's most stylish punk rocker: black biker jacket, artfully ripped black-and-plaid bondage pants, John Varvatos sneakers that probably cost more than his first drum kit.
He swaps one black T-shirt for another, a faded number with a classic logo from seminal California punk band The Cramps. Miller proffers another pair of high-end sneakers, but Paak eyes them reluctantly. "I got too many shoes," he says. He accepts them anyway.
The Cramps T-shirt and ripped pants are from Paak's own wardrobe. He went through a punk phase while he was living in that friend's garage, and even briefly played drums in some "heavier rock" bands.
"I loved it," he says of the punk scene. The yawns have faded; maybe the coffee's kicking in, or maybe this topic just brightens him up more than recounting his turbulent family history. "I thought it had so much in common with hip-hop, how it was a genre just based on being a rebel and being yourself ... and not giving a fuck."
He says suburbia, rather than isolating him, actually exposed him to different sounds, which you can hear all over Malibu, a record that fleshes out its hip-hop and R&B bones with traces of psychedelic rock, jazz and electronic music. The latter is a more recent interest; he attended the Hard Summer Festival, where he'll perform this weekend, "I wanna say like two years ago. I was high as fuck and just danced my ass off.
"After my parents went down, straight away from that I wanted to find other things," says Paak, who was raised on soul, funk and gospel and played drums in his church band. "That's when I started listening to more punk and Beatles and alternative rock bands. I got to delve out and get weird a little bit."
Photo by Danny Liao / Location courtesy the Line Hotel
Punk rock lured him back into music, as did a girlfriend who would, briefly, become his first wife. "Soon as I married the girl, I was about to divorce her," he admits now. "I just wanted some stability. She was encouraging toward me singing and getting back into music. So I am grateful to have gone through that, 'cause she helped me get back into it."
At 21, Paak and his new wife moved to Los Angeles, where he started taking drumming classes at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, with the goal of learning to read music and maybe landing some work as a session drummer. He also had begun singing, writing his own songs and using a new stage name: Breezy Lovejoy.
The Lovejoy moniker, he hoped, would make him sound more "dramatic or, like, romantic. You know, something for the ladies." He grins. "I thought it was something that made it a little more star-studded."
With fellow students, he formed a hip-hop/soul collective called Block Cheddar. To promote themselves, they pressed 15,000 copies of a mixtape called The Cold Tapes and passed them out all over town. "It was all Coldplay songs for some reason," he remembers. "That was our common thread, what we all liked. We just remixed them and did them all soulfully." Perhaps not surprisingly, The Cold Tapes did not put Block Cheddar on the map.
After a brief touring gig with rock singer-songwriter Mandi Perkins in the summer of 2009, playing drums in her band and serving as an opening act, Paak found himself back at home and "just moping around," feeling that his career had stalled. He was still making music with Block Cheddar but wasn't happy with the material.
"I kind of put my career in the hands of them for some reason," Paak says. "I was thinking that it would just work out some way." In 2010, he finally quit the group.
Then his new girlfriend and future second wife, a Korean vocal student he had met at Musicians Institute, got pregnant. "I was like, what am I gonna do? I had nothin' going. So that's when I started trimming weed and selling it."
Jose Rios, future guitarist for the Free Nationals, first met Anderson .Paak in a cloud of marijuana smoke. They were in the parking structure of an apartment building in Hollywood, and Paak had been hot-boxing. He opened the car door and flashed his thousand-watt smile through the smoke. "Hey, I'm Breeze. I heard about you."
Rios had recently moved up from his hometown of San Diego to study guitar at the Musicians Institute, where he had already made a name for himself as a versatile, in-demand player. Rios was less familiar with Paak's skills, but he liked him immediately. "He was just a happy dude," Rios recalls.
Photo by Danny Liao / Location courtesy the Line Hotel
Together with another student, keyboardist Ron Avant, they began gigging around town as a trio. But the drink tickets and occasional door cut weren't paying the rent.
"I remember there was a time when it would be me, Breezy and his lady in one room," Rios says. It's a few days after the Ace Hotel show, and he's back on the road with Paak and the Free Nationals, calling from somewhere in the South of France. "We don't have any money," he remembers thinking. "This music shit is just not cutting it."
So when Rios, who also had a child on the way, got a call from an old grade school friend offering him and Paak a job on a pot farm in Santa Barbara, they jumped at the chance. Soon they were making $250 to $300 per pound, working in the fields and trimming buds. But it was still wasn't enough to support a wife and newborn child — so they began skimming product and selling it on the side.
"They put us in the house — like the trap house, where all the product came," Paak says. "We were the only ones dumb enough to just stay in there and watch over it. There was thousands of pounds in there. We coulda got robbed, killed, anything. Eventually we were like, 'Fuck, let's take a little bit. We're the ones taking all the risk.' So we took a few pounds here and there and nobody'd bat an eye."
As sketchy as it sounds, Rios remembers this period fondly. "We had money in our pockets," he says. "We were able to continue the dream. We could still make music, and we were able to put some food on the table."
At the height of it, Paak says he was pulling down five grand a week. "And as soon as I'd get it, I just spent it." When the work dried up, Paak found himself "back to square one. No money. And now I had a family."
Worse, he had no place to live. Paak has two older half-sisters from his mother's first marriage, and his whole family had been staying with one of them in Ventura while he worked on the farm. Now, she kicked them out. "I was going around buying all these clothes and doing all this shit, so she was like, 'Well if you're gonna stay here, you're gonna pay rent.' And then I couldn't pay it anymore, and that was that."
But becoming a father had given him a newfound sense of purpose. He was more determined than ever to make the music thing work, and with his wife's support, they moved back to L.A. and began couch-surfing, while he played more gigs around town as Breezy Lovejoy.
By now he had made a lot of friends in the L.A. music scene, who helped the struggling young musician out with gigs, studio time, crash space or all three. Foremost among them were Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead, Shafiq Husayn of the hip-hop collective Sa-Ra Creative Partners, and writer-promoter-DJ Norman Mayers, who booked hip-hop, soul and R&B nights at a small club in East Hollywood called Little Temple. The Free Nationals played all over town, but at Little Temple they became a sort of unofficial house band, backing up indie rap and soul artists like Shafiq, Yahzarah and The Foreign Exchange, sometimes learning as many as 30 new songs for one show.
"It was awesome," Paak says of the scene at Little Temple. "We got to play for some really cool, talented singers. And we just developed and got so tight as a unit."
Paak's introduction to Little Temple came through Jimetta Rose, who met Rios at a hip-hop event in Leimert Park and, after playing a few gigs with the Free Nationals, invited them to come down and play her monthly Nappy Thursday events. She also helped connect Paak with Husayn, who made Paak part of his Dove Society arts collective and briefly put the young musician up at his house in Eagle Rock.
"It was fun," Rose says of Little Temple's heyday. "It's just so organic, the family vibe that was happening and is still happening in L.A." Though Little Temple is gone now, and Nappy Thursdays with it, she says the community that scene built remains strong. "It's a family that's connected through art and committed to that art."
Mayers died earlier this year, but another of his partners at Little Temple, Aaron "DJ Destroyer" Paar, remembers being blown away after seeing Breezy Lovejoy play his first gig there in 2010. He was especially impressed at the young rapper-singer's effect on the ladies. "He had that kind of Barry White, Tom Jones charisma," Paar remembers. "I was looking around the room and all the women were totally transfixed."
He also had a killer live band, which by then included Rios, Avant and the latest Free National, bassist Kelsey Gonzalez. "He was playing with Miguel at the time," Rios says of Gonzalez. "We kinda looked up to him 'cause he was on what we considered to be a big gig with a signed artist. But he was very adamant about the fact that he wanted to be a part of something different, something special. And he saw that in us."
Paak had never stopped playing drums, but it was around this time that he really started coming into his own as a guy who could drum and do vocals at the same time. At first he was reluctant to multitask, but circumstances forced him to run with it. "In my head, I was like, this is too much. Nobody wants to see this. It doesn't even look cool. I was only doing it because we couldn't find anybody else that was up to our standards." There also was an economic incentive: "We didn't have to split with another head. The less people, the more money we could make."
Photo by Danny Liao / Location courtesy the Line Hotel
To this day, Paak spends about half of every Free Nationals set at his drum kit — and for the record, he looks cool as hell doing it. He now enjoys the fact that it's one of his trademarks. "It brings the level of the show to another place. I see people light up when they see me go to the kit."
His skills as a drummer also eventually helped him get his family off of couches and into an apartment. In 2012, he landed a well-paid gig playing drums for former American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart, then went back out as Dumbfoundead's drummer and opening act. But by the time he returned from those tours, Paak was once again feeling restless.
"When I got back, I was pretty much over the Breezy Lovejoy thing. I wanted more." He came up with the name Anderson .Paak as a variation of his birth name, based on a story he remembered about how, when his mother was adopted by an American family, they had misspelled Park as Paak on the papers. "It just [had] a little more class and timelessness to it."
It was also around this time, with the help of a new manager he had met through Dumbfoundead, Brian Lee, that he threw himself into songwriting and studio time as he never had before. As Breezy Lovejoy, he had been prolific, releasing two full-length projects, O.B.E. Vol. 1 and Lovejoy, in 2012 alone. But now, with financial support from Lee, Paak locked himself away in the studio for "a good six to eight months" and just made tracks — many of which later turned up on Malibu.
Although he and Lee eventually parted ways, Paak still describes him as a "mentor" and a huge influence on the success he's had since. "He was all about work ethic and 'How much do you want it?' And I never had anyone in my corner who was like that."
Ever since emerging from his "incubation phase," Paak has been on fire.
In late 2013, he released a clever covers EP called Cover Art that flipped the script on old so-called "race records," in which white rock and pop artists rerecorded black rhythm & blues records, usually with greater commercial success. His D'Angelo-meets-Mayfield take on "Seven Nation Army" somehow manages to have more swagger than The White Stripes' original.
Cover Art was released by another of Paak's growing army of supporters in the L.A. music scene: Low End Theory co-founder (and occasional L.A. Weekly contributor) Nocando, who put the EP out on his Hellfyre Club label. "He was the most hardworking, humble, talented and positive person that I met in music in Los Angeles," Nocando writes via email. "He is now a source of inspiration and pride for me."
In 2014, Paak hooked up with producer Callum Connor, then calling himself Lo_Def, taking the bus up to Connor's studio in North Hollywood to record the bulk of his second studio album, Venice, a collection of synth-heavy bangers that included the first track to bring him national attention, "Drugs."
"His sound was real radio-ready," Paak says of Connor, who is now DJ/keyboardist for the Free Nationals. On tracks like "Drugs," with its trap beats and cascading synths, "It was fun to just crank the Auto-Tune up and shout all this crazy shit."
Paak credits much of this latest phase to Miller, who became the rising star's new manager in 2013. When the two men met, through another hip-hop act Miller briefly worked with, "I was ready to go," Paak says. "I had a whole game plan; I just didn't know anybody."
Miller was ready, too. An industry veteran who helped discover and develop artists from The Pharcyde to Coolio to Flo Rida, Miller went all in on Anderson .Paak, even selling his house in Woodland Hills to finance his new client's career, according to an interview he gave Forbes earlier this year.
Miller got Paak a meeting with Dr. Dre's attorney, hoping he would also represent the young artist. At the end of the meeting, "I told Dre's attorney, 'I think you should introduce Anderson's music to Dre,'" Miller says. "And he laughed at me. He's just like, 'Dre's not signing any artists.' And I said, 'OK. We gonna see.'"
Much has been made of Paak's star-making guest vocals on six of Compton's 16 tracks. But how he capitalized on the opportunity has been just as impressive. When Dre called him into the studio, more than half of Malibu was already completed; some of the material dated back to his woodshedding days with Brian Lee, three years earlier. But immediately, Paak realized how many doors his Compton work would now open.
"Just the access I had — it was like my coming-out party," he says. "Everybody that I've always wanted to do shit with is at my fingertips now."
Within weeks of Compton's release, he used a tour stop in Raleigh to do a recording session with legendary North Carolina hip-hop producer 9th Wonder. "I think we did about four or five songs," says frequent 9th collaborator Rapsody, who was in the studio that night and contributed a scathing guest verse to "Without You," a deceptively smooth, dysfunctional love song. "We might talk about a vibe, and he'd go in there and just kill it. It was just dope to see him work and just see that natural, raw talent. He's a genius."
Paak also landed Madlib and BJ the Chicago Kid for "The Waters" and, in a last-minute coup, Rawkus Records legend Hi-Tek, who provided a stuttering groove for album highlight "Come Down," the track he performed at the BET Awards. "That was the very last one I did, a couple days before mastering," Paak says. "I just kept recording. People were getting pissed off. 'We're mastering the album. Stop adding songs!'"
The extra effort was worth it. Anderson .Paak had already released some very good music, but Malibu is a huge leap forward. The older tracks featuring the Free Nationals flow seamlessly into luminous productions by DJ Khalil and Kaytranada that feel both modern and old-school, anchored by pulsating bass lines and jazzy keys. Stylistically, it recalls the work of Paak's friend and occasional collaborator Kendrick Lamar, but it also carries echoes of Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, DJ Premier, Low End Theory and Bobby Womack. It took a long time for Breezy to blossom into Anderson .Paak, but the many influences he picked up along the way make for a heady brew.
Independently released on Paak's own OBE imprint ("OBE" stands for "Out of Body Experience") and label partners Steel Wool, Art Club and Empire, Malibu arrived quietly in January, peaking at No. 79 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart. But its profile has been steadily rising ever since, bolstered by rave reviews and a growing circle of influential fans — including a certain tech billionaire. Two weeks after Malibu's release, Paak announced that he had signed to Dr. Dre's Aftermath label.
He's not slowing down, either. Last month, he announced via Twitter that the debut full-length album from NxWorries, his collaboration with producer Knxwledge, is completed and will come out on Stones Throw later this year. The pair had last year with "Suede," a seductive track from their debut EP. "It's my best work," Paak tweeted of the completed album, "yall not ready!" Miller confirms that the album will be called Yes Lawd, a recurring interjection on "Suede."
Paak sees himself not as an outlier or upstart but as part of a community of singers and rappers, in L.A. and beyond, who are bringing an adventurous sensibility to hip-hop and R&B that hasn't been heard since the glory days of OutKast and Lauryn Hill. He cites one of his favorite artists, Frank Ocean, as an example.
"When I heard Nostalgia, [Ultra], I was like, 'Damn, dude, it's happening.' I know we're all influenced by R&B, but this is now the new wave of people that grew up on groups like Jodeci and traditional R&B shit ... [and] that were also really into Radiohead and Beck and Nirvana and shit like that. And I know that they're pulling from all these different bands as well.
"And I feel like these are all my peers," he continues. "We're all around the same age. And that's the energy now. All my peers, they have the most influence, whether it's a Frank Ocean or a Drake, J. Cole, Kendrick — these are all people who are 30 or close to it, that are around my age. I just feel like I had a late start. I took a harder route."
Rose, who continues to make her own genre-defying music and has an album coming out later this year produced by future-soul godmother Georgia Anne Muldrow, sees Paak as an heir apparent to a long tradition of enlightened African-American music and culture that, over the past year, has seen some heavy losses.
"We're losing stellar beings," she says, referring to the recent passings of such luminaries as Prince, Muhammad Ali, Phife Dawg and P.M. Dawn's Prince Be. "And I see Anderson as the next generation of that. I just can't wait to see him grow into that. To watch that is gonna be great."
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