[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Speak!'s stage name is a command. If it weren't for rap, he could find an alternate calling as a cable news pundit, sleazy televangelist or fútbol comentarista. If there's a subject on which he lacks an opinion, just give him a few seconds to prepare.
Here's the abridged list of subjects covered in our 90-minute conversation: Neil Sedaka, Motown, English soccer, Andre Agassi's hair plugs, and that time he was on acid at Coachella and almost fought A$AP Rocky.
The half-Jewish, half-Mexican rapper looks like a cross between Jesus and Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, talks with the swaggering villainy of pro wrestling legend Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and writes singularly absurd and imagistic punch lines about having sex while wearing a Bluetooth.
“Whether I'm making music or walking to the store to get milk, I do it with confidence,” he says in the lavishly appointed three-bedroom apartment that he shares in a Beverly Hills-adjacent neighborhood. There are flatscreen TVs, strewn Xbox games and a dog named Gucci, the Leisure Pup.
Speak! is wearing a thrift-shop Russian hockey jersey, plaid shorts and dappled Diamond Supply socks.
“I have memorable lines that the kids scream at the shows, but they all come super quick,” Speak!, 26, says. “Bam … bam … bam … like Mike Tyson storming out in the first round to hit you with a big hook.”
Speak!'s most famous lines were mouthed by Kreayshawn. He wrote her lone hit, “Gucci Gucci,” which triggered a million-dollar deal (for her) and a battle over publishing (for him).
“It was a bummer, but that's what lawyers are for,” he shrugs.
The Moreno Valley-raised artist eventually won his royalties and drew interest from major labels and marquee artists.
He worked with Juicy J and Timbaland. Atlantic Records recruited him to write for Plies and B.o.B. Universal offered a solo artist deal. It ended with a refrigerator thrown out the window of a five-star New York hotel.
“They asked me to perform in a big room filled with interns and executives,” Speak! says, referring to a series of events in 2011. “It was a setup, but I wasn't going to say no. In between songs, I'd talk shit, like, 'Don't clap for me. … I know how good I am. I've been good since I was 16. I have a song on the charts.' ”
The set bowled over Universal Republic president Avery Lipman, who offered him a contract.
“I asked if he had a plan what to do with me and he had no real answer,” Speak! says. “He said I gave off a sense of danger that reminded him of Amy Winehouse and The Geto Boys. I didn't want to hear that. I wanted the guarantee of freedom to create.”
Frustration mounting, he returned to the Empire CLS Hotel and drank the entire minibar. Then he hurled it out a four-story window. Shortly thereafter, he blew off the next day of meetings to return to L.A.
While he harbors no regrets, he admits that he could have used the money to help out his parents and fund his “wacky schemes.”
But the decision to avoid major-label purgatory might have been the wisest move. Since the release of his debut mixtape, 2011's Inside Out Boy, Speak! has built a cult. After a recent Shlohmo show at the Music Box, I watched a crowd of post-adolescent males swarm him as though he'd just headlined. His Big Cartel page regularly sells out of his self-designed T-shirts. And at the end of the summer, he's releasing his debut commercial album, Gnarly Davidson vs. the Marlboro Man, for Alpha Pup, the label of Low End Theory co-founder Daddy Kev.
“Kids come to my shows now, and I'm getting publishing money. I'm not super wealthy by any means, but I'm no longer the starving artist,” Speak! says. “All those clever lines from 'Gucci Gucci' exist in my own songs. It wasn't a fluke. I'm not just a rapper. I know how to write songs.”