Thurz on Reinventing Himself, U-N-I's Break-Up, and Why West Coast Hip Hop Hasn't Gone Mainstream (Yet)
In "Los Angeles," the first single from Inglewood rapper Thurz's debut solo project, L.A. Riot-- out yesterday --a girl chirps, "To me, L.A. means home, sunny skies, and happy people." But in Thurz's next verse, he flips the city over to examine its underbelly, "Cats would raise a gun before they raise a kid/I guess we forefathers of warfare, bullets go platinum every year."
A couple of years ago, as one half of U-N-I, the easygoing, colorful duo who led the early charge of the independent "New West," Thurz was promoting the same fun-in-the-sun travel brochure. The video for "Beautiful Day" captures a much more idyllic day than Ice Cube's--kids hula hoop in the street, a pretty girl hands out cups of Kool-Aid, and the guys ride off into a white-bright sky.
But rumors of U-N-I dissolving finally were confirmed in June, and on L.A. Riot Thurz, 26, has gone beneath the shiny surface of the city to find inspiration in its dark, not-so-distant past. Though his tone has completely changed, the foreshadowing was always there: U-N-I's videos and lyrics were sunny, but constantly referenced the late '80s and early '90s, the era that saw dark clouds roll in over the West Coast. Call U-N-I the calm before Thurz's storm.
Ahead of the album's release, Thurz talked to us about what happened to U-N-I, how recruiting fans to add their memories of L.A. to the single "Los Angeles" led to the Riot project, and why the spirit of 1992 is so important to him:
LA WEEKLY: How did the idea to have locals contribute to the single "Los Angeles" come about?
Ro Blvd made that beat, and he wanted me to spazz on the record. And I heard it, but I thought it was so dope I didn't just wanna rap on it. So the idea hit me to incorporate my fans. If I was gonna be stepping out as a solo artist, I needed to get the fans behind me. So I posted on Twitter and Facebook, "Hit me up and leave a one-sentence statement about what Los Angeles means to you on my voicemail." I got hundreds of replies, and that's not only how that track came about, but what really sparked the whole L.A. Riot project.
In the manifesto you write about Riot, you say, "I riot because I haven't felt the same love and attachment for an album since Redman's Muddy Waters.
I was in 8th grade, and it changed my perception of music. My brother and I always watched Rap City. Redman's "Pick It Up" video got us raving and ranting about how dope he was. I bought the album on tape and bumped it religiously. I love everything about it--his persona, the lyrics, the beats. That album really motivated me to take it the next step. There are a few albums I'm really attached to, and that's one of 'em.
What are the other ones?
That was a major album, the one that pushed me into this career. But other albums are inspirational--Illmatic, Illadelph Halflife, Mos Def's Black on Both Sides ... The Score by The Fugees was a staple. Those were the core albums that shaped my vision on music.
I do love a lot of West Coast music as well. Doggystyle, Dogg Food by DPG. Death Certificate was a big inspiration for this album as well.
Speaking of the West Coast, for the past few years it seems like the whole country has been watching it, but it still hasn't quite broken through. What's it gonna take?
I feel like every artist that's really popping right now has a big cosign behind them. Big Sean had the Kanye cosign, Kid Cudi had the Kanye cosign ... all these artists outside of L.A. have other major artists backing them. Luckily, Dr. Dre is starting to cosign acts NOW, but there hasn't been anybody to pull anyone up from the West Coast. I don't wanna say forefathers, but the people who've had long tenures in hip hop--for them to reach out and support this new movement? That would probably really kick it off more.
I know people outside of the country are looking at L.A.--Japan, Norway--they're all hip to it. Everybody is watching, but it hasn't kicked off on a mainstream level. I don't even know if necessarily a cosign that's needed. Maybe the West Coast needs a corporation to really push it. We're at the tipping point; we just need that catalyst to push it over.
Yeah, cause even with J. Cole's talent and Jay Z behind him, he's not there, either.
J. Cole, all he needs is that--I don't wanna say radio hit, but he does need something that's gonna make people wanna dance. Kanye has records that make people want to dance. It's really just the right record, the artist that can work on that level. Cole can rap his ass off. But it's really about that record that's gonna get people who don't even fuck with hip hop to dance. I don't wanna say it's gotta be an electro song or something, but just that one record that hits people like that.
What about your radio marketability?
I think "The Killers" would work, but I really wanted to build an organic movement with strong visuals that you probabaly wouldn't see any artist without any major backing putting out. I wanted to build something very artistic on every level. I do have records I believe could push me over, but I wanted to start from the ground and capture everyone's heart before I come out with a single that's on the radio. I wanted to be seen in a light no one had ever seen me in before. I think I've accomplished that so far.
So even though it's a fulfilled destiny to have Black Thought on your record (the single "Riot"), it's also kinda sad. U-N-I is inspired by The Roots' Illadelph Halflife, but U-N-I is no more. What happened?
Basically, it was a difference in work ethic, difference in desire. I wrote a lot of U-N-I's records, and I had visions for where I wanted those to go. When you're not in the studio together, building these concepts together, you kinda veer in different directions. So, creative differences and work ethic differences. I don't really party too much, I go out every now and then, but I'd rather be creating or spending time with my loved ones. That was where the difference came with U-N-I.
Why didn't you go public with the split? A lot of people weren't sure if this were an Outkast or a Little Brother situation.
Well, I was getting asked the question every day, so put out the record "Prayer" to address. I kinda did go public, but I just didn't want to make a big scene. I just wanted people who were listening and in tune to hear the record and say, "Oh, that's what happened."
As of now, we're not doing anything. I'm really comfortable with the music I've been creating. I'm on my third project now--I'm recording for two or three different projects right now. I've been working with Royal Flush, from Stankonia Studios, more stuff with DJ Khalil, and getting closer to kicking in phase two of L.A. Riot. We wanna write for the 20th anniversary of the riots.
So you were pretty young during the riots. What do you even remember?
I remember when it kicked off, we were driving frm my grandmother's house on 55th and Central, taking Slauson west. We hit Normandie. I just remember a line of police in riot gear across the southeast corner of Normandie and Florence, and on the other side an angry mob--I don't wanna say mob, but upset black folks from the community. We were trying to get back home. Lucikily we made it through, and later we saw that same intersection on the news, and my mom's car got shown in some of the footage!
I was fascinated. A 7-year-old couldn't comprehend all the racial tension, the reasons for everything--he just sees upset people, anger. With age, you're able to go back and say, damn this is part of my city, my history, and this project pays homage to that. It's not a historical project, but we did enough research to represent it well.
It's a big piece of me, always. When we started the Nine Two Crew, we took the spirit of these rioters, the spirit of '92 and used it to spark this riot digitally, aurally, and visually. Breaking out as a solo artist, I had to make that kinda noise.
"L.A. Riot" is now available on iTunes.
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