Lyrics Born has some passionate fans. Last year, the Berkeley rapper released his greatest hits album, a strange move for someone who is the textbook definition of left-of-center DIY indie rapper. What’s even weirder is that he funded the project via Kickstarter, meaning fans paid money—a total of $21,911—so he could compile songs from his existing catalog for this release. Let that sink in for a moment.
What might explain the fans’ exuberance is how fervently the emcee has throughout his 20-plus year career included them in the creative process. For this greatest hits record, officially titled Now Look What You’ve Done, Lyrics Born! Greatest Hits, he took to social media to ask them what songs should be on it, scrapping some songs he would have included in favor of their choices. (“I make the songs, but the fans make them hits,” he says.)
As an indie artist, this greatest hits album has been a true milestone. A couple of years ago, he would have thought that the idea of doing this was a corny, major-label-style money grab. But he came around to thinking that it made sense for him to show new fans—and remind old fans—of everything he’s accomplished.
“I was just thinking to myself, you know, I’ve got a lot of music out there,” says Lyrics Born, aka Tsutomu Shimura, over the phone. “There’s a generational change happening all the time in music. I’m getting to the point where I could probably be one of these new artist’s fathers. If there was ever time to do it, it was now.”
Analyzing Shimura’s entire career, it isn’t as odd as it first seemed that he’s focusing on his hits. Younger Lyrics Born fans might not realize it, but his national success came off the back of the unlikely 2003 hit “Calling Out.” At the time of its release, he’d been taking the song, which was released off an indie label he co-owned called Quannum, to different hip-hop/R&B stations in the Bay Area. They all ignored it. It was SF alt-rock station Live 105 that started spinning the track. According to a 2004 East Bay Express article, it was the most requested song for four weeks straight. Shimura never reached out to anyone at Live 105.
“Here we were beating our heads against the wall to get it on urban rap radio, and the No. 3 rock station in the country takes this record and starts playing it. Suddenly it’s number one, along with Green Day,” Shimura says.
Shimura had the skills to take the success of “Calling Out” and make a career out of it. He’s built a career around several successful solo albums, and two with Latyrx, his duo with Lateef the Truthspeaker.
Listening to the greatest hits album, it’s surprising how well it works as a single work of art. Shimura’s distinctive sing-songy voice, bouncy funky beats and conscious verses keep the songs grounded. As Shimura’s career advanced, he used less samples, and opted for live instrumentation more often than not. On 2015’s Real People, he even flew out to work with New Orleans musicians, absorbing their sound.
Part of what makes this greatest hits record so special for Shimura is all the feedback he’s gotten from fans. When I asked him what are some songs he would have included were he not considering the fan’s feedback, he responded right away with “Whispers” from his 2008 album Everywhere At Once.
“It’s probably the best song I’ve ever written,” Shimura says. “I can’t even listen to it, it’s so personal. But that’s not a chart topper. Again, that’s the difference between making a greatest hits album and an anthology.”
Whether or not these songs would have all been his picks, he heard many stories from fans about how important they had been to them in their lives. How could he not include these songs? That was the whole point of putting this project together.
“When you get to a certain stage in your career, I’m putting my songs out, I have no idea how they affect people. I don’t get to participate in that,” Shimura says. “When I’d hear some of these stories, it’s like wow, I am actually helping people, even if it’s some small way.”
INFO: 9 p.m., March 3, Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $15/adv, $20/door. 479-1854.