“Iwant to be the voice of L.A.,” says Latin lyrical assassin Omar Cruz, sitting inside a fortified warehouse just east of downtown. His black T-shirt sports a woman’s ass, a classic shot by Latino photographer Estevan Oriol: She’s got the word “West” tatted on one cheek and “Coast” on the other.
This is the compound that holds the infamous Mr. Cartoon’s tattoo shop, its walls lined with photos of his work for hip-hop artists Cypress Hill, Eminem, Method Man, Xzibit and 50 Cent, and actor Danny Trejo. Photographer Oriol also runs his Joker clothing line out of the warehouse. It’s a pop-cultural fortress out here, complete with a garage load of Al Capone gangster-style ranflas — classic cars from the ’30s. (The Los Angeles Gun Club is footsteps away for plenty of ammo to reload.)
Today, the 27-year-old Cruz is wearing jeans and a fresh pair of white Luxury kicks, and he’s spitting rhymes like a full clip — “Give birth to every lyric, every word I speak/I embody every rhythm, I’m the heartbeat of the street.” His forearm ink reads “Lyrical,” and the upper arm features a huge script-style “LA,” engraved with a woman’s face on one side and a sad clown on the other. Mr. Cartoon strikes again.
“Mr. Cartoon and Estevan, they’ve been mentors for a long time,” says Cruz, whose indie label, B.Y.I. (Beyond Your Imagination), recently signed a historic joint venture with Interscope/Geffen. “They understood my struggle, and they’ve helped me along the way. When we decided to pursue this deal, it made sense for them to be involved.” Among other things, Cartoon and Oriol will handle art direction for Cruz’s as-yet-untitled debut LP, due out early next year.
By crafting a deal with Interscope, Cruz has become the first major L.A.-born-and-raised Mexican-American hip-hop act, joining an all-star roster that includes the Black Eyed Peas, Dr. Dre, Marilyn Manson, Mary J. Blige, No Doubt, Snoop Dogg, the Cure and U2.
“I live and breathe hip-hop music — this is my life,” says Cruz, who uses his maternal grandmother’s surname to pay tribute. “I just happen to be Latino and been born to immigrant parents.” Cruz’s Mexican mother and Colombian father met at a Culver City factory, and Cruz was born at Kaiser in Hollywood. The family lived in Culver City during Omar’s early childhood, but most of his teens were spent in South-Central, around West Boulevard and 61st Street. “We were the only Latino family on this block, in a predominantly black neighborhood,” Cruz remembers. They were surrounded by the Rollin’ 60’s Crips gang and one of the biggest Mexican gangs in L.A., Florencia.
“I don’t bang, I’m not a gang member, but my cousins gangbanged [in Culver City Boyz]. I’ve been around it my whole life,” he says matter-of-factly.
On the streets, Culver City Boyz, one of the biggest Westside gangs, are rivals with Venice 13. But in the Mr. Cartoon–Estevan Oriol compound, it’s one big family. A Venice 13 veterano, with a “Venice 13” tatted up front and a huge “South Sider” tat along the back of his shoulders, sits while Cartoon adds the Mexican version of Charlie’s Angels: three huge cholas on his back.
“I feel music saved my life,” Cruz confesses. “Hip-hop gave me a different role to travel. My father always had music in the house, he was always playing cumbias and classical music. My mom would play romanticas, the heavy-organ soulful stuff like Nino Bravo,” he says. Being part of the only Latino family in a black area, Cruz naturally picked up on the neighborhood sounds: “I had a huge ghetto blaster my dad bought me at the Slauson swap meet,” he recalls affectionately. “I remember when N.W.A came out with Straight Outta Compton, and writing down the lyrics to ‘Dopeman.’ I would just sit there and just write songs. That started my penmanship, developing songs and structuring songs.”
While at Culver City High, Cruz took on the name “Blunts LLA” (pronounced “la”), short for “Latin Lyrical Assassin.” He met Mar Vista DJ/producer Javie Lopez and began writing “hood raps,” raps representing his neighborhood, and started performing at spots like the Goodlife/Project Blowed open-mike night, hustlin’ his own CDs.
His break came when Mr. Cartoon tatted 50 Cent and befriended Cent’s DJ, Whoo Kid. Whoo Kid was compiling a sampler CD; he let Blunts LLA spit a freestyle. Cruz used the bangin’ “Here Comes Blunts LLA” as his calling card.
One day in 2004, Cruz was at a car wash in West L.A., trying to move copies of his CD, when he met a young Guatemalteco named Luis “LuLu” Torres, who co-managed Pharrell’s protégés the Clipse. Torres had recently started his own label, B.Y.I., and the two of them hooked up with Torres’ producer, 20-year-old Salvadoran musical genius ROME, to create the B.Y.I. sound: vintage samples like Los Apaches de Usulutan, Los Galos and Rafael, with hard-hitting lyrics.
In 2005, they dropped the mixtape City of Gods, a title inspired by the Brazilian film but more accurately used to describe the turbulent streets of the City of Angels in recent years. “The time is now, Latinos stand up! The trail of blood, sweat and tears begins now let’s march/as we walk through the city of Angels and Gods/We ain’t stoppin’ till we all reach City Hall/Until the world hears our message of equal rights/education, health insurance and the license to drive.” Cruz actually wrote those lyrics — from the prophetic “Step N 2 the Sun Pt. 2 (Libertad!)” — a year before L.A.’s historic immigrant-rights marches. Like Ice Cube predicting the riots, Cruz had his ear to the streets.
Cruz’s fresh new sound on City of Gods led to a bidding war, interest from Jimmy Iovine and Thom Panunzio, and the Interscope/Geffen signing.
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Back at Cartoon’s studio, big ol’ O.G. Lepke, a Mexican Soul Assassin soldier — with “og” inked on one side of his neck and “Skid Rows Finest” on the other — is fresh out of jail, literally, and comes into the shop to tell Cruz that everyone on the inside is showing him love and listening to his jams.
“We haven’t been in a position of power to take care of our own destiny,” Cruz says. “We’ve always depended on someone else to tell us what we’re supposed to be. This is our movement now, and we’re doing our part.”
Cruz recently connected with the No. 1 street DJ in the West, DJ Skee (who works with the Game) and dropped the mixtape The Cruzifixion — 14 bomb beats and .50-caliber lyrics that garnered him the highest rating (“Hood”) in Scratch magazine. It’s his first release through the Interscope/Geffen deal, and despite the “mixtape” tag, it’s really a full album. Cruz’s debut album drops in early 2007 and will feature producers ROME, Javie Lopez, Cool and Dre, Julian Bunetta and Hi Tek. Hip-hop singer Akon and the Aftermath camp will also sit in. “I already talked to Dr. Dre, and he gave me some great advice,” says Cruz. But more than anything, the new album, like all his past work, will feature true sentiments of the L.A. streets.
“On this album, I’m doing a lot of soul-searching. I think what’s missing in hip-hop right now is those life stories. Where’s the soul?”