Mensa Rapper Chino XL Breaks It Down For Us
A 38-year-old Jersey-born rap veteran who is a verified member of MENSA, Chino XL has called L.A. his home for a decade and a half. Chino's has built a loyal following since his 1996 debut Here to Save You All from stacking oft-referential multisyllabic rhymes ("travelin' through my abdomen/unravelin' at the speed of a javelin" from 2001's "Nunca") and his gift for vivid storytelling with a pitch-black sense of humor ("I roll with killers who spent more time in the pen than ink" from 2001's "That Would Be Me"). Featured for his "Wordsmith" lyrics in one of the most critically quoted passages of 2011's The Yale Anthology of Rap, Chino looks to expand the legacy of his lyrics, this time touching on subjects including his daughter's cancer and his own suicide attempt, with his new album RICANstruction: The Black Rosary, out today on Viper Records.
We spoke to Chino to find out what makes one of the smartest minds in rap tick.
You identify as a Los Angeles MC, but you're originally from New Jersey. How different has it been being based in L.A.?
I feel like there's more space, metaphorically, because there's space physically. Whenever Jesus was tempted or looking for clarity, He went to the desert. You can really wrangle the writing muses here. I've lived in Jersey, and there's inspiration there, but inspiration is more accessible out here because it's quieter. I did my last album with no outside stimulus, like a complete deprivation tank, with my mind turning in on itself. I kind of dig that. Also, the Latino communities have embraced me so wholeheartedly that they've made me work much harder to rep them in hip-hop.
You have a knack for referencing current pop culture events. How do you discern whether something will date your material?
As I get better, I start everything with the end. When I'm crafting an eight-bar stanza, inside of that I try to make the references as timeless as possible. If you make a reference of something "here today, gone tomorrow," it really dates your work.
Have you ever not put a rhyme on a record for fear it might be too esoteric?
Constantly. On this album, I had a reference to [serial-killing pig farmer] Robert "Willie" Pickton. I heard it a few times and I felt, eh, nobody really knows who this guy is, but sometimes you'll still go with it. I listen the minutia of music. For instance, in Springsteen's "Nebraska," there's a part that says, "Policeman, don't pull me over," so I dug deeper and found out it was about [serial killer Charles Starkweather]. I listen to [experimental art-rocker] Scott Walker, and he has a song where he says, "Jesse, can you hear me?" and the chords are "Nothing But a Hound Dog" inverted because it's supposed to be the way Elvis talked to his dead twin brother. Once in a while, I want to throw stuff in my music that's complex so that when somebody figures it out, it opens another labyrinth.
Do you recall your first punchline that got a huge reaction live?
When I first started rhyming as a kid, it was more about the alliterations than the punchlines. As far as punchlines go, I do remember Aceyalone took me to [West Coast hip-hop underground mecca] the Good Life Cafe on one of my first trips to L.A. and said if I could get respect there, then I really got chops. That was the first time I remember having an arsenal of punchlines and it really came together.
Your new album deals with your daughter's cancer and your suicide attempt. When approaching personal subjects, is your writing process different?
I think that [it's] very, very crucial that I can be followed. I don't try to challenge the listener as much as I open up my arms and say, "Walk with me." I like making the story unfold, the twists and turns and a good reveal, but it is different. There are things I find so difficult to communicate in my own personal life, that I find easier to communicate through my work. There are some things on here that I was born to make. I felt completely exhausted when I was done with it and I wasn't sure what I was going to do next. There are records on there that you can only make once.
Along with rapping, you've also made a name in the acting world as a regular on Reno 911 as well as in movies like Alex and Emma. Do you find your music and acting ever intersect?
I think of myself as an underground obscurity, as far as music goes, and I've never booked a role because I rapped. I'll get to the set, and the other actors are fully aware of [my] work, and I'm like, OK. The one thing where they intersect, for me, is they both start with literature. Everyone sits around and reads a script. Sometimes I feel in hip-hop, and in music in general, the value of the writing is so underappreciated, and in movies and TV, everyone knows that it all starts with the writing.
Chino XL's RICANstruction: The Black Rosary is out today.
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