First things first: Murs is better than your favorite rapper, and he knows it. While the glory continues to fall on overamplified rap clichés like The Game (whose microphone I’d just bet goes to 11), Murs is L.A.’s truest representative in America’s hip-hop congress. Blessed with a husky, authoritative flow, he’s still a couple years shy of 30, but his conversational raps bleed with a wry wisdom well beyond his years. (“.?.?. You say I’m backpack ’cause I don’t have a gat/Man, I just love life and I’m dealing with the facts/I’m young, I’m gifted, I’m beautiful, I’m black.”)
Second: Murs has much cooler shoes than you or your favorite rapper. On a sun-soaked afternoon outside Sky’s Tacos on Pico — in the heart of Murs’ beloved Mid-City streets — he’s sporting an extra-fresh pair of U.K. import Adidas kicks emblazoned with graphics from the ’80s sci-fi classic Tron. His hair explodes in a mass of thick dreadlocks, and it’s a rare moment when he’s not wearing an ear-to-ear grin. Murs is a genuine L.A. native who can reference Venice skate legends like Jay Adams as quickly as he’ll mention old-school rap heroes Mystic Journeymen. He first discovered hip-hop on KDAY AM — “I knew I wanted to rap [from the time] I bought the Fat Boys’ Crushin’ on cassette in 1987” — and his immense hometown pride is never far from the surface.
“When I was growing up smoking weed back in ’90, ’91, people called me ‘white boy’ and ‘stoner,’?” he laughs, recalling his early years in Mid-City, an area roughly bordered by avenues Western, Fairfax, Olympic and Jefferson. “But after Dr. Dre’s album ?The Chronic came out, those same people started buying weed from me. But I’ve always been like that. I try to be cool with everybody. I’m not one of these rappers that need all of the attention. I grew up with a great mom that showed me love. I don’t need a diamond chain to feel special.”
Sipping on sweet lemonade and picking at a shrimp burrito, he’s contemplative about how much — and how little — hip-hop has changed in the 15 years since then.
“Platinum rappers aren’t talking about anything anymore. I was listening to Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album the other day, and there’s all kind of knowledge on there for the people. Jay-Z might say something on one bar in one song. That’s not enough,” he stresses. “That’s why my next album is going to be message driven. All black kids are hearing on the radio is to go get a car, get some rims and a gun. That’s not good.”
Originally coming to prominence as part of L.A.’s Living Legends rap crew, Murs saw his profile rise upon the release of 2004’s Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition (Definitive Jux). Bucking the trend of working with numerous producers, Murs made 3:16 alone with DJ 9th Wonder (of North Carolina collective Little Brother), who was already respected in the hip-hop underground for his use of deep-rooted classic soul tracks.
The pair are back at it with ’06’s Murray’s Revenge (Record Collection), thick with superior hip-hop narratives that find common ground between Ice Cube and El-P. 9th Wonder is still mining rare R&B (including ’70s lover man William Bell) to produce tunes that thump with a timelessness rare in current rap — something closer in feel to ’60s Motown. Murs sounds as relaxed talking about a day at the barbershop as he does riffing on female race issues, which he does eloquently on “Dark Skinned White Girls.” (“Now she likes the Smiths, the Cure/Really into Morrissey/Heavy on the rock never fooled with the Jodeci .?.?./Rejected by the black not accepted by the white world/And this is dedicated to them dark-skinned white girls.”)
But with all of the accolades, he still feels like something’s missing. “I don’t have Murs fans,” he says matter-of-factly. “I have a lot of Atmosphere, Aesop Rock and Sage Francis fans that also like what I do. I’m respected, but it’s not like I’m their main guy. I’m not cool with that anymore.”
He’s keenly aware of the role race plays in hip-hop, as in life, but doesn’t sweat the irony of his place in a predominantly white indie scene.
“People like to get into that,” he says grimly. “Maybe you should ask Beck what it’s like to play to mostly white audiences while naming his album after Cholo slang,” he jokes, referencing Mr. Hanson’s Guero. “I just want to reach as many people as possible. I really do just want to be your favorite rapper!
“I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’m really good at performing,” he says, shrugging. “Mr. Lif might have a tighter technical show, but if the sound goes out, I can still rock the party. I can talk to the crowd and make them laugh. Nobody in rap is doing that, including people I admire, like Brother Ali.”
Still raw from a “shitty” tour in support of Murray’s Revenge that he cancelled in the middle (“I just lost interest,” he says), Murs is adamant that he’s hit a glass ceiling in the indie rap underground. And he’s prepared to drastically change his game to transcend the indie niche.
“People have always told me that the best way to sell records is to tour, which is a lie. Record companies don’t want to hear it, and a lot of people disagree with me, but until you hit the right market, you could tour until you’re blue in the face and it won’t make a difference.
“[Now] I’ll do Coachella and Rock the Bells, places where I can make some new fans. If I can win over a tent of 3,000 white people at Coachella, imagine what I could do in front of that many black people. I want to be respected as the best rapper in Los Angeles, period. Still, I’ll always be that strange kid with the weird hair that I was when I was 14 years old and riding Roller Blades past the crack spot.”
Murs isn’t just talking yang. He now shares management with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Tyrese Gibson, and gets props from L.A. power movers like Cypress Hill’s B-Real. To further prove his point, Murs is already working on the follow-up to the self-produced movie Walk Like a Man, a gritty drama about a young rapper trying to break into the rap game.
He’s also planning his next album — which he terms “my definitive statement.” And he’s not concerned with indie cred now, if he ever was: “I want to do a song with Kid Rock [on my next album] so bad. He’s one of my favorite artists.” But Murs reserves his highest praise for perhaps the least likely of L.A. brethren. “I really want to work with [Black Eyed Peas leader] Will.i.am more than anybody,” he gushes. “He’s one of my idols. No one believes me, but that’s the realest dude in hip-hop. He grew up in the projects, and he’s still wearing the same thrift-store clothes that we was wearing back in 1991, freestyling outside of David Faustino’s club. He’s been L.A. hip-hop forever.
“I’ve seen him do so much, and I’m so proud of him,” Murs says warmly. “It’s because of artists like him that I can never give up.”
If that’s not California Love, nothing is.