You don’t expect to hear synth pop on 56th Street in South Central. It’s known as the neighborhood that begat the sawed-off gangsta raps of Schoolboy Q and Ice Cube — walking distance from where the riots first started. Boyz N’ the Hood territory, not Boys Don’t Cry.
But that perception was always narrow. The neighborhood is now two-thirds Latino, and many residents have long worshipped the trinity of Morrissey, Depeche Mode and The Cure. It was only a matter of time before those tastes spawned a singular local talent.
Meet Autumn in June — a South Central–raised Mexican-American fusionist in his early 20s, whose sound shatters obsolete stereotypes and captures the forever changing face of the city. Consider him a one-man genre: gothic gangsta pop.
“The homies are super gangbangers. I started making songs they’d call cheesy because I’m talking about love,” Autumn in June says, inside his back house converted into a two-room apartment and studio. (He declines to give his real name, in an attempt to keep his street and music endeavors from intersecting.) “We grew up on gangster rap, and they’re like, ‘You’re out of place, bro. You’re off-season.’ They started calling me ‘Autumn in June.’”
If you saw Autumn walking down the street, you wouldn’t expect him to be the balladeer behind angelic dance-pop love letters to Alice Glass, lead singer of Crystal Castles. He wears a black T-shirt, black pants, Nike dunks and two long braids dyed blond. Tattoos cover his thin frame: the phrase “Young Forever,” a zombie pinup girl, a guardian angel and Yoshi from the Mario Brothers.
His next single, “High, or Whatever ...” opens with him pleading, “Baby ... I want your love.” But lest you think his songs are exclusively sentimental, watch the video for “Heroin Kidz.” Its scenes are seamy enough for Harmony Korine, filled with nudity, guns and twisted bags of white powder ready for sale.
It’s also real — the result of spur-of-the-moment access to a video camera and street pharmaceuticals. “My homie was actually getting ready to sell it, so I took out the camera and shot footage,” Autumn in June says. “I needed it to be real. It’s not the kind of thing you can fake.”
He says he’s witnessed heroin’s ravages up close. “I used to hang with a little crew where it got pretty intense. One of the kids almost died right in front of us.”
The contrast between the graphic imagery and the euphoric sound makes the music that much more compelling. Despite the grim narrative, Autumn in June’s vocals are delicate, and his synthesizers are rave-fluorescent. The latter makes sense, considering he spent some of his teenage years selling pills at EDM festivals, gradually becoming a fan of electronic pop itself.
But the Santee High graduate was raised on gangsta rap. The son of Mexican immigrants first started producing hip-hop and rhyming several years ago, and he says he even made unreleased songs for Suga Free and Kurupt.
His first rap crew dissolved not long after one of his partners was murdered in a gang-related shooting, coming home after basketball practice. Before he died, the friend had brought Autumn to a trap house that doubled as a studio, where the dealers occasionally rapped.
His sound started to veer left, and Autumn in June eventually wore out his welcome at the drug spot. A wearying season of hustling left him with $10,000, enough to purchase equipment for a home studio. It’s still a one-man-operation. He sings, plays every instrument, produces and engineers. Autumn says an EP is imminent, and even his gangbanger homies have started to come around on the music.
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“I never really had any doubt about this path,” he says. “I used to doubt my friends would like it, but it’s ultimately for me. It’s some honest shit. It makes you think twice when your homies are like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ You wonder, ‘Am I just being lame?’ But ultimately, you can’t give a fuck what other people think.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.