Andre Martel fits your idea of a rapper. He was born in South Central. His video for "Shaq-Fu" features a silver Lamborghini Diablo (which he doesn't own), and he gesticulates in a sufficiently rapperly fashion.
Andre Martel doesn't fit your idea of a rapper. He was raised Andres Garcia, by parents who came to the United States illegally from Michoacán. He grew up in L.A.'s suburbs and now lives in Glassell Park. During the week, he supervises a clothing warehouse in downtown L.A.
In the mid-'80s, before Martel was born, his parents fled rural, poverty-stricken Michoacán in search of economic opportunity. Like thousands of others, they settled in Los Angeles and went about succeeding in quintessentially immigrant fashion.
"My parents were always working," Martel explains, seated next to his bespectacled girlfriend, a painter, in a restaurant named for his parents' home state. "My mom used to clean houses when I was really young, and my dad worked at a factory, sometimes a double shift — day and night. Eventually my mom managed to get her GED and went to hair-cutting school. They were able to open up a salon for her. They have a lot of accomplishments for a couple who came here not knowing English."
As Martel's family thrived in Los Angeles, other relatives from Michoacán made their way to the neighborhood. It was Martel's "crazy-ass cousins" who introduced him to rap music. One cousin owned a promotional VHS copy of Tim Dog's "Fuck Compton"; another functioned as a more illegal version of the Columbia House record club.
"I used to go over to [my cousin's] house, and he'd have stacks of CDs he'd taken from cars," Martel remembers. "He'd say, 'Take whatever you want and burn me a copy.'"
In 2001, when he was 14 years old, Martel's family moved from South Central to Covina, a middle-class suburb in the San Gabriel Valley. For their teen son, it was a culture shock. "I went from only seeing Mexican and black people to only seeing white people. It was fucking insane — I had never experienced outright racism until I moved to a white neighborhood. People would say shit like 'beaner.' It was weird to experience."
To escape the boredom of life in Covina, Martel immersed himself in backyard punk shows. It was at one of these raucous gatherings that Martel met Froskees, also known as Jeff Aldape, bassist for powerviolence band ACxDC. The two eventually bonded over their mutual love of rap, punk, anime and obscure video games.
"The SGV [punk] scene was a lot different than the L.A. scene," Aldape says. "Typically, in L.A., the punk scene is different [from place to place]. In one place they'd be powerviolence, in another they'd be more punk or street punk. In SGV, it was all just kind of weird, it was pretty mixed."
Their friendship turned into a partnership when Aldape showed up at Martel's house and saw Fruity Loops, the often-bootlegged music-production tool favored by many rap producers, on Martel's computer. "I had no idea what it was. I just started fucking around with it. I started making beats, and he wanted to rap," Aldape says. "When we started, we would watch cyberpunk anime and play games on [Sega] Genesis, and whenever I'd make music, I'd kind of want it to have that feel."
The duo became Shadowrunners, named for characters from the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun. The nerdy gamer reference was authentic, not ironic — Martel and Aldape obsessed over cyberpunk anime the same way they obsessed over obscure punk 7-inches.
Over the course of Shadowrunners' five-year existence, Martel learned how to rap (Martel, describing his early rapping: "It sucked") and Aldape went from clicking a mouse at random to producing music worthy of attention. Their third release, a 2013 self-titled album, was the fullest realization of their sound, as Martel's deep voice unleashed a litany of absurd pop culture references over Aldape's colorful instrumentals.
When ACxDC began to gain momentum, Aldape's time was stretched thin. Martel's solo debut, 2014's His Majesty Obscured, featured only four collaborations between the friends. In Aldape's place, Martel gathered a menagerie of beatmakers, including rising L.A. rap producer Karman, the Sad Boys' Yung Gud from Sweden and Pluto Brady, a teenage producer from Rochester, New York.
"I feel like a lot of people get in a mode where they wanna do stuff that sounds like everything else," Martel says. "I try to seek out people that produce or rap in a way that's more unique, [to] make it more interesting for myself."
Part of what makes Martel unique is the way in which he represents his status as a first-generation Mexican-American. His Chicano heritage is neither covert nor a crutch. "I want to make [being Chicano] a factor in my music, but I feel like a lot of Mexican rappers made it too much of a factor. It kind of became a trap. I get it, it was the culture before, but it's not like that in L.A. anymore. Motherfuckers don't ride lowriders anymore; fools don't wear Dickies like that anymore."
Martel's full-time job at the clothing warehouse, though less time-consuming than his previous gig as a video game tester, keeps his release schedule slow. But he's not complaining. "Anytime I start to think how hard things are for myself, I think about my mom having to clean houses," he says. "Or my dad telling me stories about when they first crossed [the border] and came across dead bodies in the desert, people who starved to death or died from hypothermia."
His parents support his rap career and encourage him to treat it as a business. So that's what he does, supplementing his income with clothing company Nature World, co-owned by friend and fellow rapper Antwon. On the music side, he has an upcoming EP, Perfect Statues, and another in the works with DJ Two Stacks.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"I'm trying to keep it moving," he says of his various projects, "but life's an obstacle."