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Champion Birdwatchers

Pigeon John’s voice sounds watery over his cell phone. It doesn’t help that he’s squashed into the booth of a pizza parlor with the rest of indie hip-hop crew L.A. Symphony, enjoying a hearty repast before a show tonight in San Diego. Is scarfing down a large pie really the best thing before rocking the mike? “I’ve noticed that when we just meet at the venue and go onstage right away, we’re not clicking as good,” says Pigeon (a.k.a. John Dunkin). “That’s why now we kick it beforehand so we’re all on the same page.”

It’s worth noting that L.A. Symphony, at eight members strong (Pigeon, bTwice, Sharlok Poems, Joey the Jerk, Flynn, Uno Mas, CookBook and J-Beits), released their sophomore album, Call It What You Want, without splintering into a zillion side projects — they can’t afford to. As much theater ensemble as beat farmers, the members depend on one another. “We’re always trying different routines, using ourselves as props, simple eye candy so that even if it’s us all in sync just lifting an index finger, it looks fresh. We’re actually trying to distract people from our music. People’s attention spans are short enough as it is.”

Along with Jurassic 5 and Freestyle Fellowship, L.A. Symphony cut their teeth at Leimert Park’s Good Life Café on Thursday’s open-mike night back in the day. “I developed a thicker skin, since you learn real fast what you can and can’t do,” says Pigeon. “They’d yell, ‘Pass the mike!’ if they didn’t like what you were doing or if you cussed. But if you blew it up, they’d laugh and scream.” The Good Life discipline soon gave way to Project Blowed, the label/club associated with indie-rap darling Aceyalone. “They had less rules, you could cuss, and so it was like there was no one to check them anymore — instead of using [the open-mike session] to grow, they were using it to claim they were ‘Kings of the Underground.’”

L.A. Symphony’s profanity-free good-vibin’ is where the similarities with other rappers ends. Take the Broadway pageantry of “Champion Birdwatchers.” There’s nothing in hip-hop like this musical spoof, which sees each of the MCs sabotage each other’s efforts to woo the neighborhood honey — but she ain’t having it: “Look — y’all are some busters/First of all you stank and you need some new clothes/This is Fox Hills mall to the fullest.” “I wanted it to be like a game-show-type setup,” says Pigeon, “where the theme is the same as that one Tom and Jerry cartoon, you know where all those cats are lined up on the fence, serenading the girl cat? We’re no good at getting the ladies, but we’re pros at watching them.”

From the sample-icious medley of hometown ode “L.A.” to the funk-lite swing of “Very Expensive” to the bass-snare boom-bap of lead single “Broken Tape Decks” and the brassed-off Latin groove of “Authentic,” there are simply too many flavas in Call It What You Want’s sonic grab bag to list here. That’s what happens when you farm out production duties to the disparate likes of Mario C. of Beastie Boys fame, Black Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am and the golden Prince Paul. But let’s not overemphasize the name-brand knob-twiddlers, because the inspiration stays in-house: “We always go to J-Beits when we need a hook. He’s an encyclopedia of styles.”

While L.A. Symphony were kicking about for a recording deal, there was no dearth of interest from major-
labeldom, but the group decided to go with the unproven Squint Entertainment. The tiny Nashville-based label’s only positive was breaking pop band Sixpence None the Richer, and it had never signed a hip-hop act. “It was a hard decision, but the sense we had was, ‘Hey, they’re not gonna drop us if we don’t sell 100,000 copies our first week, because they believe in us.’ They were up-front on what they knew about hip-hop, and if there was something they didn’t understand, they would hire someone who did.”

As with their business associates, the Symphony have a knack for building an instant rapport with audiences — the mass of swaying bodies and bobbing heads at Santa Monica’s Temple Bar recently confirmed that. Why just the other day, the band’s publicist called Pigeon up to say that Call It What You Want’s lyrics helped him with relationship problems he was having. There’s no envy-creating bling-bling here — just a big slice of regular-guy lives.

“Urban radio doesn’t like you if you don’t have a track about drugs, cars or booty,” Pigeon says wearily. “We’re not saying all that stuff isn’t real or isn’t art, it’s just that it doesn’t have anything to do with our lives. Doing laundry, going to movies, hanging out in bookstores — that’s the stuff that’s important to us, and the music reflects it.”

L.A. SYMPHONY Call It What You Want | (Squint)


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