Before he agreed to produce the debut full-length for her hip-hop act Wheelchair Sports Camp, Kalyn Heffernan was in awe of Ikey Owens. When the Grammy-winning former keyboardist for Mars Volta wasn't touring the world as an integral member of Jack White’s band, he was holed up in studios in Heffernan's hometown of Denver or his hometown of Long Beach, helping the next generation of self-proclaimed musical weirdos expand their sonic boundaries.
One of the bands Owens mentored was Denver’s Rubedo, whose hurricane of a drummer, Gregg Ziemba, had become the main beat supplier to the pint-sized Heffernan’s mic assaults.
“Rubedo’s always been my favorite band and I had seen Ikey and knew he was a regular in town,” says Heffernan, who was born with a rare brittle-bone disorder and has been spitting high-pitched venom from her wheelchair for nearly a decade. “After [Rubedo’s 2013 Owens-produced record] Love Is the Answer was done, I was like, ‘Yo, I can hear myself rapping on some of that shit.’ I immediately emailed him and said I’d love to collaborate in the future.”
Within hours, Owens replied to her email, telling her the respect was mutual — she’d always reminded him of the formidable ’90s rhymer Bahamadia. He asked what she wanted to do and when she wanted to do it, and by April 2014 Heffernan and her band were in the studio with Owens, recording over two whirlwind weekends what would become No Big Deal, 10 songs (and one bonus track) of jazzy freakouts and stripped-down beats that combine hip-hop baps and stand-up bass slaps with Heffernan’s rapid-fire lyrical threads.
“I have a harder time calling myself a producer after what he did with us,” she says. “He spoke to all the musicians in their language and that’s something I wouldn’t have been able to do. What he did was really encapsulate a mood and create a whole record. We were so fucking lucky it was all ready and in the mixing phase when he passed.”
Owens died in October 2014 while on tour with Jack White in Mexico. He had recently moved from Long Beach to Nashville to become a permanent part of White’s crew, and his passing left a gaping hole in the Long Beach music scene, as well as in the lives of those around the world who knew him as more than just a famous hired gun.
No Big Deal was one of the last few albums Owens produced before his death, and even though he'd already been paid for the entire project upfront, Heffernan scrounged up some more money to see his vision through to its completion.
She sent the tracks to Owens’ longtime friend Antoine Arvizu at the Compound Studio in Signal Hill — which since it opened in 2003 had become Owens’ home studio, the place he brought the artists he really believed in. Arvizu mixed and mastered No Big Deal, which finally saw a proper release (digitally on Sage Francis’ Strange Famous label) last year.
“Going from encouraging Ikey to be a producer to watching him have this success and be that producer someone can look up to and have that conviction giving it his stamp, his character, was amazing,” Arvizu says. “I dare say that No Big Deal has more Ikey than any other record we did. It sounds like an Ikey Owens record and she allowed it to. Kalyn was like, ‘You do your thing and I’ll rap over it.’ She had total honor and respect for it.”
Since the album’s release, Wheelchair Sports Camp have gone on several self-funded tours. Last year they played in Long Beach at the former Owens haunt of Que Sera, where they’re booked again this Sunday with rapper 2Mex, another Owens collaborator (the two made experimental hip-hop madness as Look Daggers) who lost his left leg to diabetes last year.
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“He’s a gimp now, too!” Heffernan says, excitedly.
Wheelchair Sports Camp also play Low End Theory next Wednesday, a milestone that Heffernan says is bittersweet. The upstairs room at the Airliner, where Low End Theory is held, is not accessible to people in wheelchairs, putting Heffernan — who is used to being carried when necessary and says she has only started viewing herself as a disabled artist in the last year — in an awkward position.
“This is literally the first show that I’ve felt that kind of guilt,” she says. “I’ve been dying to play Low End Theory. It’s a staple of the scene and so much shit has come out of there, but nobody disabled can ever go to that. It puts me in this weird place as an artist and as an advocate. But what makes a bigger deal, me boycotting these places or me playing upstairs and talking shit onstage?”