In the wave of L.A.’s concurrent funk, jazz and hip-hop revivals, fortune has favored Renaissance men — the Dâm-Funks, Thundercats and Kamasi Washingtons of the world who transcend the fluid membranes of genre classification. It was a point well taken by Anthony Cruz, a singer-songwriter from Long Beach who moonlights as hip-hop producer L’s. His latest project, Funkfornia, released under his production alias, stands among 2017’s funkiest rap albums.
“I was sitting back and looking at the climate of L.A. music,” Cruz says. “Live funk had returned to all of it. When you think Cali, when you think L.A., when you think Long Beach, you think funk. I wanted to present the experience of growing up in this atmosphere, and now seeing the return of authenticity to the West Coast sound.”
Although much of Cruz’s earlier production work had been rooted in the sample-based tradition of Long Beach G-funk, his experience as a studio rat and performing in bands helped engender a seamless stylistic transition. Funkfornia bursts with thick grooves and upbeat melodies, its live instrumentation further animated by slick engineering.
Cruz considers the opening track, "Foreign," an infectious anthem with percussion reminiscent of DJ Quik’s, emblematic of the collaborative spirit that imbued Funkfornia as a whole. The genesis was a recording session with rapper Techniec, a longtime collaborator. “I was jammin’ with Techniec, and he’s like, ‘Hey, let’s do some funk,’” Cruz recalls. “I was like, ‘If I’m gonna do a funk song with you, I’m gonna do a real funk song with you, like a Teena Maria record, like a Rick James record.’ He was like, ‘A’ight, let’s go.’"
“I knew right away I wanted to go big,” Cruz says. “To date, that’s the biggest production I’ve put on. There’s so many people involved in that record: other producers, keyboard players, both known and unknown. Dae One is on there, 80EIHT, my drummer Freddie GI. I got a synth bass and a live bass. There’s 112 tracks on that one record. It was intentional; I knew it was overkill, but I wanted to show all my producer friends how much greater things sound when you have multiple people involved who are trying to push the sound forward. So I hand-picked who I wanted to be a part of it.”
The team effort had been inspired by a serendipitous trip to a beat showcase earlier last year. “They had all the celebrity producers, and the one thing they kept telling the new producers was, ‘Hey, you need to work with each other,’” Cruz remembers. “That resonated with me — I wanted to open the door to see where we could take this monster of a record. I went from studio to studio. Josef Leimberg, who’d played on a lot of Kendrick Lamar’s stuff, played live horns. Then I reached out to one of my boys from Russia, Sin2, to run a few vocals back through his talkbox. That record had so much free-flowing spirit involved.”
The linchpin was a chance encounter with a rap legend. “I went to go put some more keys on it, and AMG just happened to be in the studio hanging out,” Cruz laughs. “He starts singing the hook. He’s like, ‘Hey, put the mic on in the booth!’ The record just kind of created itself as I opened up to having more people involved.”
Chemistry is key to Funkfornia’s many highlights. On "City Boy Swag," Cruz and fellow vocalist GB conjure a summer sunset with their layered harmonies. Peedro and Dove Shack veteran Bo-Roc evoke Eddie Kendricks on the cockeyed “Still Don’t,” and the album also includes appearances from Blu, Monalisa, RBX and Tray Dee. L’s flashes versatility with variations in tempo, as on the lush instrumental number “L’s Vibe” and the somber “Extreme Conditions.”
Perhaps the unlikeliest appearance comes from Ricky Harris, the Long Beach actor whose characters appeared in infamous skits from classic albums by Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Tha Dogg Pound. Harris, who died in December, contributed a performance to Funkfornia in character as DJ EZ Dicc, the horny late-night DJ at fictional radio station W-Ballz.
“We shared an office together,” Cruz says of the late actor. “I’d be working on my solo album upstairs, he’d be downstairs in his office working on movie stuff. He and Techniec were hoping to do a W-Ballz album; they had a bunch of good songs recorded with a lot of people, and I had some of the interludes hanging around. So when me and Tech finished the “Funkd It Up” record, this old skit just fit perfectly. It took me back to the days of the Murder Was the Case soundtrack. I wanted to give him light and show support — as a producer, I gotta put other people up.”
As Cruz continues to record material solo and with his band Los Vibes, he’s keeping his production alias for his rap discography. “Initially I kept them more separated,” Cruz says. “I was more limited as a producer, and as an artist. When I started making beats, I bought a keyboard and learned to sample. Every beat I would do, I would loop a sample over and over, so much that they’d call me Loops — that’s what 'L’s' stands for."
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“In the beginning it was easier to keep them separate because they were almost nothing like each other,” he says of his two musical projects. But the music he makes as L's has "become this crazy mixture of everything I’ve ever listened to — it’s the sum total of me trying to be a G-funk producer, an indie head and a hip-hop head while being open-minded as an artist.”
For now, he’s focused on his live show and film work, after working on the scores for the documentary Manchild and the horror feature 5150. “Whatever my platform is, be it making beats, performing onstage or working on film, my goal is to connect with you and just relate to you,” he says.
But regardless of the name on the marquee, L’s presence is evident in all of Cruz’s music. “Hip-hop has always been a part of everything I do,” he says. “No matter what it is I’m working on, it’s gonna have that hip-hop twist.”
L's Funkfornia is out now.