"You don’t ever talk to me like that!” a voice screams.
“We’re supposed to be able to talk,” a quieter one counters.
“Get the fuck out my house! Get the fuck out my car!”
A door slams, the beat kicks in, and Versis starts telling his story.
Recorded three years ago, the fight that opens the track “Rain on a Sunday” happened after the rapper’s older brother conned him into picking him up in Santa Barbara. It ends with the disaster depicted on Versis’ sophomore album, this month’s jazzy, elegant Copeæsthetic.
“He faked an emergency that required me to come and get him,” says Versis, 24. “While I was driving home, he reached into the backseat to grab a Bacardí Limón. I threw it out the window. I have pretty strong intuition and started taping audio. Something told me I wouldn’t see him for a long time.”
Older brother furiously rained punches on younger brother. The car swerved and sideswiped several others on the 101. They barely escaped with their lives. After they finally arrived in Pasadena, they wouldn’t speak for another two years.
Shortly thereafter, Versis’ older brother was arrested and imprisoned for hitting a man with a car. It was the most serious infraction in a life marked by stints in juvenile hall, substance abuse and bipolar disorder that often went untreated. He’s slated for release in 2018.
“My brother did a lot of crazy shit but was innocent of that,” Versis says at a café in Hollywood. The lanky Pico-Union resident wears all black: letterman’s jacket, jeans and a hat, with tufts of hair sticking out.
“He was actually in Santa Barbara at the same time he supposedly struck the other man,” he continues. “Watching his struggles made me realize that I had to express myself through music, so as not to become self-destructive.”
Judging from his temperament, you’d never guess the hardships that the Blair High graduate has been forced to confront. He’s calm, affable and upbeat — an experimental and eclectic artist devoid of the pretension and self-absorption that usually accompanies those adjectives. He’s one of the best young musicians in L.A. but lacks the ego to make such a pronouncement.
He was raised all over the Southland: Westchester, Santa Monica, Inglewood, Orange County, Pasadena. Versis’ father, an immigrant musician from Sierra Leone, has been homeless for much of the last quarter-century. During one of his stints living with his family, he taught his son the piano. Versis later learned the accordion, clarinet and djembe. He self-produced more than half of his new record.
After a fight, his mother kicked Versis out during his early adolescence. That was when his older half-brother, living in Pasadena, took him in. By his late teen years, Versis had made a name for himself in local rap circles, releasing a celebrated debut, 2010’s Illcandescent, and collaborating with beat scene legend Dibiase.
But the ensuing turmoil of the last half-decade led to the lengthy gap between records.
“I wasn’t sure of myself musically and as a person,” Versis says. “I’m not one of those people who just raps all day. I had to learn to be confident and trust myself.”
The result is one of the most assured, graceful and subtle works to emerge from L.A. this year. It’s the rare, perfect rainy-day rap record, both melancholy and uplifting — ideal for anyone who loved A Tribe Called Quest and Blu in his noir-rap phase.
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“I had to learn forgiveness and how to work through issues,” Versis says. "Despite all the crazy things that happened, I’m still here and optimistic. As long as you’re still alive, you kinda have to believe that shit will get better.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.