By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Hayward's Motion Man, known to his parents as Paul Laster, multitasks in a major way. During a recent Sunday morning interview at his home, Motion flips among nine channels of wide-screen NFL action, shouting at all of them and occasionally flopping onto his condo's carpet. At the same time, he holds separate conversations with me, his two brothers, and his girlfriend, serves a five-course breakfast and several rounds of beer, and proffers a cylinder of toothpicks the instant I begin to sneak a pinkie into my teeth. Either this guy's acting the ultimate fan and host -- as engaged as he is uniquely engaging -- or he's attempting a lot of busywork to shut out the voices in his head.
Probably he's doing both. As he shows on his brilliant new album, Clearing the Field, Motion Man zigzags between approximating a wide range of rappers' styles and speaking in a host of oddball personas, infusing them all with wit, wordplay, and eccentric flair. By choosing an approach that's all over the place, the aptly named 31-year-old MC accomplishes the rarest of hip hop feats: He sounds original.
Motion Man's beginnings go back a ways. As the youngest of three brothers growing up in a loving but strict Baptist household in the East Bay, Laster developed an early love of records. "There was always music in the house, from Michael Jackson to jazz, and I just fell in love with it," he recalls. "I remember coming home from church to my grandfather's and taping KPOO there, because I was staying in Fremont then, and we couldn't get it at home." During this same period, he killed time producing elaborate scenarios with his G.I. Joe action figures or creating aliases for himself. "I used to go into the mall and tell people my name was Sebastian Smith," he says.
As a teenager, shortly after his brother Aaron introduced him to Oakland rapper Too $hort, Laster took the name Motion and began to break dance and DJ. Both activities would have a big impact on his eventual rap style. Not only did he learn how to recombine what he heard and saw, but he developed a kinetic, slightly mad performance personality.
In 1989, a 19-year-old Motion moved to New Jersey to DJ and dance for hip hop act Zero Tolerance. At the same time, he earned a reputation for recording whimsical freestyle raps on his answering machine, often prompting callers to leave only laughter and quick hang-ups. Soon, his friends began encouraging him to take a larger role within Zero Tolerance. "They'd be like, 'Hey, man, you're over here dancing in the corner, and what you're doing is better than what they're doing over there [at center stage]. So why don't you go do it over there?' Or I'd tell them, 'I don't rap,' and they'd say, 'Say what you want, Motion, but your answering machine sounds better than the records on the radio.'"
Zero Tolerance broke up in the early '90s, and Motion moved back west and kept rapping, while also working as a Federal Express courier. In 1998, producer KutMasta Kurt introduced Motion to Kool Keith, and the three joined forces on "Sly We Fly," a track from Keith's first solo album, Sex Styles, on which Motion and Keith remade themselves in the guise of perverted, club-bound superheroes.
Recognizing a kindred spirit, Keith asked Motion to contribute other personalities to his albums. On 1999's Black Elvis, Motion played the role of Spanish-rapping pimp/playa Clifton Santiago, a comedic character that Motion created in high school, based on a black uncle figure and certain Latinos he knew in Hayward.
After returning as one of the "brothers from the Housing Authority" on 2000's Kool Keith LP Dr. Dooom, Motion finally shared top billing with Keith as one of the Masters of Illusion on their 2001 eponymous CD. The duo's reputation for outrageous characters -- sexual deviants, sinister government officials, comical superheroes, and all -- was solidified.
Because Motion and Keith have the same producer and a similar penchant for playful personas and silly wordplay, they're often compared. But Motion's voice is higher and more nasal than Keith's, and his flow is more varied and liquid. Where Keith raps in a tone like he's yelling at an enemy's window -- his words half shouted, half sneered -- Motion either drawls or sings his syllables, often holding notes and switching up rhyme schemes.
Also, Motion frequently imitates other artists. On Clearing the Field's "Straight Flowin' on 'Em," he briefly style-checks the cockeyed mumble of Biz Markie, an old-schooler who later joins Motion in person on the buoyant track "Hold Up." For the crisp, jangly "Call the National Guard 2," Motion channels Biggie Smalls, borrowing Notorious B.I.G.'s line "Kick in the door, drinkin' the 4-0." During "Beotches," after a first verse as Clifton Santiago, Motion spends three minutes as Too $hort, replicating everything from his Cali accent to his strictly metered flow to his comically pornographic lyrics.
Without a Ph.D. in OGs it can be tricky to tell who he's riffing on. But Motion insists, "When I imitate someone else, I usually bring it evident. Like when I did 'Come On Y'All,' I took the Kool G Rap style, and I just rapped like him. And when I did the Master Ace [imitation on the same track], I took it from 'The Ace Is Wild.' A lot of that stuff, old-school hip hop heads are gonna know right away."