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."
Motion says he works tributes into his music for the sake of longtime rap fans and for the MCs themselves. Partially he's trying to coax laughs from old-school alums. Like Red Foxx and Richard Pryor on the albums Motion's parents used to keep hidden in the cupboard, he likes speaking in the voices of those he considers cool. But more than this, Motion explains, "The reason I do it is because I don't get around enough to actually walk up to rappers and say, 'Hey, I like what you're doing.' So basically on my record, what I do is I shake their hands through music."
What with all his personas, tributes, and plain clowning, trying to find the real Motion is like peeling off the layers of a San Franciscan in wintertime. (When asked point-blank who he really is, he replies in a nasal voice, "I'm Larry Johnson, black activist," then bursts out laughing.) Not surprisingly, even Motion Man himself turns out to be a character. The cover of Clearing the Field displays an MM action figure, complete with bald head, thin mustache, all-black get-up, and shell-toe Adidas sneakers. (The doll was made from a ceramic cast of Motion's head; KutMasta Kurt had one made as well.) The first track off the LP is a skit advertising the doll, recommending that listeners make it perform Motion's real and imagined life activities: "Make Motion ... act the fool at the club! Break dance! ... Moonwalk and Jazzercise -- that's right, Jazzercise! ...Watch football! Barbecue!"
Much of Motion's inspiration comes from the music made by his producer, KutMasta Kurt. From the video game-y syncopation of "Clearing the Field" to the smooth "Play Dough" to the old-school sounds of "Come On Y'All" and "Beotches," the MC marries his flow to Kurt's wide-ranging beats.
"Motion can bring new life to any style," Kurt says via phone from Los Angeles. Even though Motion is capable of imitating others, Kurt believes no one can imitate him. "His vocal tone is like no one you ever heard, and his personality on the mike is unique. [As a whole,] he doesn't sound like anybody." The sum total of Motion's role-playing is not a derivative style, Kurt implies, but the opposite: Motion doesn't suffer from a lack of identity; he displays a surplus of it.
Above all, Motion's style is refreshing, clearing away the cobwebs of rap's history with fire-hose barrages of pure creativity. Having paid his dues for over a decade, Motion Man shows he's confident enough to gently clown hip hop's roots. Or maybe he just can't stop himself.