Hailing from Santa Monica and Venice, locally grown rappers Ray Wright, Manu Li and Serk Spliff have spent the last four years garnering a devoted local following as Warm Brew. Rejecting the outdated but still practiced tradition of hawking of CDs on the Venice boardwalk, they released several promising projects digitally and performed dozens of hometown shows.
“We’re not the only people [rapping in our neighborhood], but we’re by far the best,” Li says. “If people want to take that as disrespect, then do it better than us.”
It’s midday on a Monday in late December and Li has arrived early for lunch at Gilbert’s El Indio, a decades-old Mexican restaurant revered by Santa Monica natives. Wright, Spliff and Al B Smoov, a rising L.A. producer who doubles as the seventh or possibly 11th Warm Brew DJ (they can’t keep track), saunter in minutes late and admittedly stoned. The staff greets them all with hugs, handshakes, and smiles.
The warm reception has more to do with long-standing personal relationships than it does with their rap careers or recent signing with the Other People’s Money Company (OPM), the independent imprint of L.A. rapper Dom Kennedy. Still, with the Jan. 13 release of their OPM debut, Ghetto Beach Boyz, Warm Brew hopes their wave will break beyond the Westside.
“After we drop this album we’ll get a chance to see who really wants to see us more,” Wright explains. “Right now we’re growing and growing, getting more fans.”
Once seated and satiated by chips and salsa, the three early twentysomethings banter about college bowl games. It’s hilarious, but also an attempt to calm understandably raw nerves. Though they’re excited for Ghetto Beach Boyz, Spliff says “anxious” is a better word.
So the oceanfront compatriots have done their best to stay busy since completing the album – recording, throwing a barbecue/concert at Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s prestigious “30 Days in L.A.” series, and opening for Kennedy at a handful shows in and around L.A.
Warm Brew keep Kennedy’s music in rotation, but shared formative influences range from golden era groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul to G-funk triumvirate 213. The former accounts for their attention to craft as well as their willingness to indulge in the comic and eccentric. The latter is essentially the birthright of all rap groups bred adjacent to the Pacific, informing both their sun-soaked, groove-filled production and Wright’s vocal delivery. With each release, he’s honed his ability to shuttle seamlessly between Nate Dogg-like croons and the rhythmic double-time of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
“I’m just waiting until I get paid so I can get Alicia Keys to teach me how to sing,” Wright jokes.
He and Li met in middle school and began recording rough demos during their freshman year at Santa Monica High School. Spliff didn’t rap then, but was immediately brought into the fold. Even when Li left for Malibu High, they remained inseparable, bonding over a list of interests that still surface in their music today: music, sports, women, the beach, weed, and brews of varying temperatures.
After graduating in 2008, Li and Spliff remained local while Wright left to play football at the University of San Diego. When his scholarship fell through a year later, he purchased an amp and microphones. The rest is a blur of kush clouds and broken bottles: The three friends decided on the Warm Brew moniker, recorded a few songs, and began wreaking havoc at college house parties up and down PCH.
“We were fighting or fucking after every show,” Spliff says, smiling.
Warm Brew continued to record intermittently through 2012, but working day jobs stoned, hung over, and exhausted from weekend shows eventually proved unsustainable. In recording 2013’s The Ride, they made a concerted effort to eliminate all distractions. Album single and still potent smoker’s anthem “Wanna Get High” caught the attention of Dom Kennedy and led to their deal at OPM.
“I believe in the music that they make and their lyrics and their message,” Kennedy says of his decision to sign Warm Brew. “They’re a real group… They’re going to bring more fans to OPM than maybe I ever do, hopefully.”
The product of over a year’s worth of recording, Ghetto Beach Boyz is Warm Brew’s best album to date, featuring solid guest appearances (Brainfeeder’s Azizi Gibson) and forward thinking beats by producers like Swiff D (Schoolboy Q’s “Studio”) and Smoov, who produced sub-rattling single “Can Ya Blame Me”.
Throughout the album, Wright, Li, and Spliff have managed to rework the reverence of previous efforts into something original. It’s self-aware but lighthearted, a contemporary ride through their environment that keeps one eye on the rearview. Sand is made wet by waves and spilt beer; names are tagged in Old English font.
When Warm Brew leave the restaurant, there’s talk of a party later that night. You get the sense that no lingering nerves will prevent them from attending. They might even celebrate the album Li believes the universe wanted them to make. “For Warm Brew and where we come from, [this album] had to be done. It was destiny.”