There is no inkling of insecurity or stage fright when 23-year-old rapper Rhys Langston is in his element. Whether it's at Low End Theory, a spoken-word gathering in Leimert Park or his own backyard, Langston executes his words and music with a confidence and ease that cannot be taught. “I don’t know where he gets it,” says his actress turned farmers market manager mother, Marie-Alise Recasner de Marco, shaking her head. “I was never like that.”
Glimmers of this self-assured person existed in Langston as a 13-year-old when he was a student in my eighth-grade geometry class for advanced scholars at a high-achieving magnet school. But Rhys Langston Podell, which is how he showed up in the roll books, didn’t see himself as an experimental rapper at that point. Instead, his already 6-foot-plus frame was appropriated by basketball and his remaining free time by formal visual art training. He wasn't vocal about his myriad gifts. If anything, he maintained an unassuming and gentle presence, getting along with everyone and keeping his head down.
Toward the end of high school, after giving up basketball, and throughout his college years at Wesleyan University, where he switched from art to American studies, Langston’s conscious poet voice started to take shape. Coming back to Los Angeles during breaks, Langston exercised his talents by performing his growing repertoire of material at local venues. His close friends and entire family — including his mother and actor-writer-director father, Rick Podell — would turn out every time. I was usually there, too, taking a big group photo at the end, struggling to get the entire clan into the frame.
Every so often I would get a text from Rhys, asking if he could stop by. During these gab sessions, our inner music nerds would be on overdrive, as he explained sampling records on his mother's old turntable, using the sounds as seeds for beats. At the same time, his poetry was flowing and his artwork developing, all of his creative outlets feeding into and off of one another.
“I want to work with ideas and figure out the mediums as I go along,” he says almost a year since graduating from Wesleyan, sitting at the dining table of his mother’s home in Windsor Hills, his hair in two puffball pigtails, his hands flecked with color from working on his latest painting. “My main instrument and purpose is a vocalist that uses rap. I try and do things musically but at the base of that, the words are the fixture because they create the rhythm."
The best angle from which to enter Langston’s bedroom/studio is through the jack-and-jill bathroom he shares with his composer stepfather Wolfram de Marco’s scoring studio. You're greeted with vintage instruments, tangled cables, countless paintings leaning against walls, closets and chairs, all products of Langston’s tumbling imagination. A collection of maps from video games covers an entire wall. It is here that Langston’s releases over the last few years were developed: Full Frontal Incumbent: An Incongruous Mixtape and its prelude, “Future Suite”; his first EP, iambs in blue; and the mini-album from his alter ego, The Chocolate Davis Sessions Volume I.
"For me, writing is knowing what not to write, what to omit and when to be reinforcing," says Langston, who raps over his own crackly, wonderfully lo-fi beats, as well of those of local producer Lxmongrab and members of the WYSF art collective. "I’ve been discarding a lot of things lately because I have been searching for a new level of gravity that may not even be there. Oftentimes I don’t know what a song is about until afterward. But I am so picky and pay so much attention to detail that even if I may not understand immediately, I can trust that when the meaning is revealed to me, I can say, ‘That’s why I was following that chain.’"
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The song "Reflections for a Fly-by-Night" is one such example. Langston mixed down its 25 tracks 14 times, the last instance after the mastering engineering had started his part of the process. Still, after listening to the mastered version, Langston could recognize the disparity between this song and others on Full Frontal Incumbent. Even later, the self-doubt he was feeling while creating the song became apparent to him, magnified by its lyrics: "Compartmentalized actions towards others' hearts/Cope by hiding it in art."
“I’m not assuming I’m saying anything new,” he says as he rubs ointment on his latest tattoo, which is of the mysterious figure adorning the cover of Full Frontal Incumbent. It joins a multitude of tattoos Langston either designed himself or in collaboration with other artists. “The only thing I can purport to be original is my experience. It’s the sum of many parts, but the racial component is the most obvious. For someone like me, who is mixed black and white ... in the past, I could have passed for white and gotten certain economic and sociopolitical benefits from that. Now, because the terms on which a person of color has their life dictated by systems they don’t control, it’s not as clear as it was before. The rhetoric for the place of a person who clearly straddles a line is knowing you can be both, but that there is still a subjugated person from one side. There hasn’t really been a language developed for where someone like me fits in."
Langston is trying to create that language, and hopes to change hip-hop itself in the process. "In terms of the evolution of rap, when someone can have the form not dictate the content — like using a cadence a popular rapper uses and talking about something in the manner of a beat poet, which is what I’ve been trying to a lot lately — people don’t even think that could exist, because it hasn’t. But it’s such a radical thought that it’s simple.”