Mercy Mercy Me
MURS, a card-carrying member of the Cali-centric rap crew Living Legends, just released his third record, titled The End of the Beginning. Meanwhile, a recent bacchanalian binge in the city Bugsy Siegel built almost spelled the beginning of the end of his still-burgeoning career.
"I had a wild night in Vegas," he says. After a night spent prowling the streets and various boudoirs like a hip-hop Caligula, MURS was returning to his suite in the wee hours of the morning when he realized he had an early interview with a writer from Vice magazine. Eschewing sleep, he approached the interview like a smooth hybrid of Hugh Hefner and Freddy "The Hammer" Williamson putting the mack down on Playboy After Dark. Still in player mode, he had more on his mind than just talking about the new record.
"Since it was from Vice magazine, I thought it would be all right to be a little out there," he says. "I propositioned the writer in a joking manner, and she said no, whatever, and that was it."
Or so he thought. Unaware of the writer's esteemed reputation as a feminist punk-rock scribe, the artist did not anticipate the backlash that followed. "A couple of days later, I get a call from my publicist [Kathryn Frazier], and she's yelling at me about propositioning a writer of such stature. She's telling me she's a punk-rock feminist, and how could you treat her like this," he recalls. Even so, he hoped the incident would pass, like a bad hangover.
Unfortunately, it was one of those hangovers that lingered long after the liquid poison had dissipated. Before the issue went to press, the editors at Vice apparently decided to embellish the writer's story, changing her response to MURS's playful advances from a "no" to a "yes."
"She got a severe response from all of her feminist readers," says MURS. "Like, 'Why did you let that a-hole get away with propositioning you, and why would you say yes?' She's mad at Vice, she's talking about lawsuits, so she e-mails them, and they tell her to F off."
Given the looming potential for litigation -- and the sorry state of his relationship with his publicist -- MURS could foresee The End of the Beginning dying a slow, painful death. Fortunately, he has since mended his relationship with Frazier, and a friend of the writer's has informed MURS that she doesn't harbor any ill feelings toward him. "He was like, 'She doesn't think you're an asshole; she thinks you're just a guy,'" he says, laughing. The rapper would like to dispel the notion that he's a misogynist. He points to his collaboration with Slug on Felt: A Tribute to Christina Ricci, as proof positive that his attitude has changed. Many in the indie-rap community view the actress as the feminine ideal for her beauty and intelligence, which are reflected in her maverick film roles. MURS is a guy who, regardless of what others might think of him, always says what's on his mind -- a quality that defines him as much as his moniker, an acronym that stands for Making Underground Raw Shit. These two elements can be found in abundance on The End of the Beginning, put out by rapper El-P's Definitive Jux Records. MURS is the first West Coast artist to come out on the New York-based label, which has assumed deity-like status in the hip-hop underground.
At first the rapper's more traditional, laid-back Cali flow seems to be in stark contrast to the claustrophobic dystopian sounds generated by El-P and his crew of artists -- Aesop Rock, Rjd2, Mr. Lif, and Cannibal Ox. However, what links MURS to these Def Jukies is his commitment to creating music that is a true alternative to the materialistic hip-pop that dominates the airwaves today. Moreover, the addition of the left-coast MC has helped diversify the franchise.
"Not that I'm a big help to Def Jux, but I thought it would be good -- before they got pigeonholed as this weird, abstract avant-garde label -- that I come with my style of rap, which is extremely straightahead," MURS explains. "I thought it would be good for the label because it would add depth. Not only am I from the West Coast, but I'm a whole different style of hip-hop."
A number of producers, both known (Shock G, El-P, Ant) and lesser known (Belief, Oh No, Blockhead), stack the store with jazz, funk, soul and old-school breakbeats, helping MURS define his style. The supporting cast serves him well on tracks like the Belief-produced "Brotherly Love," a song in which the artist addresses his little brother and the other kids in his L.A. neighborhood. "A lot of people make songs directed toward saving the youth, but that's a bunch of crap, because none of these rappers -- Mos Def, Talib Kweli -- they don't know these kids. They're not on a first-name basis with their mother, like I am," says the rapper.
On the first verse of the song, MURS speaks directly to his brother: "Man, you 21 and I still can't believe it, been living on your own/Just hard to conceive/That you on the right track, out pursuing that knowledge/But a few years back, I couldn't see you in college/You was all out crippin', brought a gun in the house/My first thought was to take it, give you one to the mouth/But never that, we been through way too much."
He devotes the second verse to the youngsters living the street life, who he says act like "they're trapped in a rap video." Like Trick Daddy, MURS loves the kids, but he offers this advice: "We got to fight to show the world that our youth are intelligent/So keep it gangsta in your CD changer, not your residence."
"I put the song on the album just for the twenty or so kids that I know who listen to my music -- not because they're into underground hip-hop, but because I'm their big homeboy and I'm from their neighborhood," he says.
In addition to proudly representing his hood, the lyricist calls out the so-called indie purists who claim they represent the elements of hip-hop, even though they have no people of color in their crews. On the blistering "Def Cover," he raps: "You've got no heart, no soul, no funk/So it's 187 on you underground punks."
For the wannabe gangstas and thug rappers, he opens his provocative narrative "The Night Before" with this kernel of insight: "Now some claim gangsta rap's the CNN of the streets/But it's used as an excuse to pretend over beats." The song provides an antidote to thug-poseur posturing by describing in detail the weekly Thursday-night visits by the city's C.R.A.S.H. unit (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) to his neighborhood.
Those who know MURS from his work with the Living Legends or his previous solo albums, 2000's MURS Rules the World and 1997's F'real, have come to expect his whimsical rhymes and a more lighthearted approach to life. They won't be disappointed with this effort. "BT$" -- a clever rewrite of Gang Starr's "B.T.Y." -- is an ode to conspicuous consumption, which has the rapper spending his last dime on Star Wars: Episode 2 action figures and asking El-P to wire him some more dough. (The rapper plans to sell MURS action figures, much like the one that appears on the cover of the record, at his shows. "The same company [Merit International] that did Snoop's doll is going to press mine," he says. "Denver is actually slated to be the first city that they'll be on sale.")
The wacky hijinks continue on "Risky Business," when Humpty Hump and Shock G, from Digital Underground, crash the party while MURS's folks are out of town. According to the artist, working with DU was one of the personal highlights of making the record. MURS met Shock G while living in Tucson and running a record store. "One night [Shock] just wandered into the bar and started playing piano," he recalls. "The guy is amazing; any song you name, he can play it -- every Digital Underground song, every Tupac song. Anyway, I went over to my store and grabbed a couple of records. I got a Digital Underground record that I had just found that day, the first Digital Underground record ever ["Underwater Rhymes" 12-inch], and I wanted him to sign it," he goes on, remembering the dilemma he faced at the time -- whether or not to hand him one of his own CDs. Inevitably, common sense prevailed, and he gave him one of his discs.
"A couple of months later, I got a call from my homeboy who was kicking it with Shock in Tucson, and the next day Shock had told him, 'I met MURS last night, and I should have asked him for his autograph,'" he says. "I was bugging out. The dude gave me his e-mail, I e-mailed him and then he e-mailed me back, and I asked him if he'd do a song, and he's like, 'Yeah I'll do a song,' and he was quoting my album and all my songs, and we finally hooked up and did the song."
The rapper hopes the recognition he has received from his protegés - rightfully earned from the work he's put in over the past decade in the hip-hop underground -- will help put to rest the perception that he is a new artist. "I don't feel that I'm an up-and-coming artist," he says. "This is my debut album for everybody who wasn't familiar. After this, there is no more beginning."
Although his primary focus is the new album, the rapper speaks of ambitious plans for the future. After completing his upcoming tour, he plans to hook up with his original partners Eligh and Scarub -- friends he used to rap with in high school -- and record a new album under their Three Melancholy Gypsies moniker. He is also compiling a DVD containing footage of "all the outlandish stuff that everyone has heard so much about -- me slapping people and dissing Anticon and whoever else." And, as if that weren't enough, another item on the agenda is a book. "If I can get anybody to edit any of the crazy stuff I say," says MURS. "It will feature such things as 'The Trinity of the Black Man: Michael Jackson, Michael Tyson and Michael Jordan.'"
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