Santa Monica is beautiful. With its sandy beaches and historic pier, plus Venice Beach within touching distance, it’s a natural tourist destination as well as a hot spot for locals looking to skate, surf, run and/or swim. Simultaneously, the vibe is one of extreme sports and punk rock. It’s not traditionally a home to hip-hop, but Warm Brew have been looking to change that.
It’s been three years since the trio were last featured in L.A. Weekly, but it’s been an eventful three years. Background first: Serk Spliff, Manu Li and Ray Wright have been friends for 15 years, having met when they were 14. They started rapping together for fun in 2009, and Warm Brew came to be soon thereafter.
“We grew up on the ’90s hip-hop, where it was really groove-oriented or collective-oriented, and we were trying to do stuff like that,” Spliff says. “We grew up listening to all the groups, like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, all of them. We really wanted to make our version of that. People just liked us together. There was something palpable about the three of us together.”
That’s absolutely true: While all three men are clearly gifted and razor-sharp MCs, the sum is certainly greater than the parts. Magic happens when they’re bouncing off of one another. And again, this is all happening from their Santa Monica base. They know they’re unusual, and they relish that fact. Not being a hard rock/punk band, or performers of roots music, makes them stand out, and they’re using that to their advantage.
“We enjoy that aspect of being from a place where it’s not really known but there’s a culture for it,” Spliff says. “I would say that skate culture and hip-hop culture are pretty synonymous, especially these days. Just the fact that we are the ones that invented skateboarding, it’s a counterculture thing that we wanted to further. Hip-hop is much more than people on a stage — the West Coast had this gangster thing to it. We want to show that there are some other aspects to it. Don’t fuck with us, because we’ve got some gangster shit in us. But we wanted to show what we’re about — our side of the city that we see. It’s not always bad, it’s not always good, it is what it is.”
The Warm Brew guys don’t consider themselves a political band. Rather, the intelligent lyrics deal with everyday life — things the band members deal with on a street level. That said, they pride themselves with being current, keeping up with what’s going on, big-picture.
“We’re really adamant about being educated,” Spliff says. “Just being a human being, you must be educated at something. We’re not political rappers, it’s not driving us, but we’re not afraid to say ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ if we’ve got to. I’m from an immigrant family, so fuck that guy.”
That’s who they are — the self-proclaimed Ghetto Beach Boyz. Warm Brew are successfully navigating a sea, an ocean even, of new age weirdness, paleo diets and acoustic street performers. They’ve embraced much of the culture that makes Santa Monica unique but hammered a piece of themselves in there. In doing so, they became the first rap group signed to then-fledgling Red Bull Records.
“It was one of those things that happened really naturally,” Spliff says. “Neither one of us was trying to force the envelope. It really began with a placement we got when we were younger, and our A&R at Red Bull has had an eye on us since. He was part of the whole Beastie Boys camp, so I think he understood what we were trying to do and what we are still trying to do. He understands the group dynamic in hip-hop. It comes back to how synonymous the two cultures are. Red Bull is known for extreme sports. Us being from the Westside, we know people who do all these things. We know people who skate, surf, we all know people who dabble in a lot of different things. It was already so solidified by the time we got there.”
The group also has a deep connection with Dom Kennedy; the rapper practically mentored Warm Brew, something the guys remain grateful for. Spliff says that while Los Angeles is a big place, the rap scene is surprisingly small, particularly on the Westside, so it was inevitable that they’d cross paths.
“We also went to the same high school,” he says. “Our manager kind of grew up with Dom, and it was just a small family thing. He just kept an eye on us for a little while, and then when he finally heard ‘Wanna Get High’ and saw the video, which was shot by one of his close people, it was just one of those things where the relationship just formed. We could see how genuine he is, and he could see how genuine we were, and just how we’re willing to work hard to make this happen.”
Warm Brew put out the Ghetto Beach Boyz album in 2015, and then the Diagnosis EP the following year. They’re currently in the latter stages of recording a new album and, literally as we were writing this piece, they dropped a new track on Soundcloud called “Same Page.” It’s a chill, lush track that hints at great things for the new album. Before it drops, Warm Brew play the Roxy, and Spliff is relishing a return to the Sunset Strip.
“There’s something magical about the Roxy, and I’ve always felt that way,” he says. “We did our first show there a few years back, I think we were 22 years old. The energy there was great, and then we did it again for our album release a few years ago, which went over really well. There’s just something great about the Roxy. I’m a huge fan of The Doors, and I remember someone telling me that Jim Morrison would go off into this room and do his own little thing. I adopted that as my thing to do at the Roxy. It’s a staple place of L.A., and if you perform there it’s a notch in your belt.”
Spliff says he’s cut off his dreadlocks especially for this show, so we have that to look forward to. There will also be a whole lot of new tunes, at a show that he says has a “backyard barbecue” feel. The three men will be up there having a blast, because they simply love performing together. That’s what it’s all about for them.
“Ray’s about to have a son, so me and Manu are about to be uncles,” he says. “That’s gonna be a good time. Honestly, we’ll just continue to grow as men and artists, and keep our friendship as close as possible. As long as we’re friends, the music is always gonna be great. That’s the most important thing.”
Warm Brew plays with Sham1016 and Amirsaynothing at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the Roxy.