Tom Shimura may get fervent enthusiasm from audiences over the world, but he can still enjoy a quiet lunch in his hometown of Berkeley without being assailed by paparazzi. Dressed stylishly but not ostentatiously in a tilted baseball cap and track jacket at brewpub Jupiter, he could easily be just another Cal student, instead of one of the Bay Area's most celebrated performers.
If you were looking for a short description of Shimura's more famous alter ego, Lyrics Born, this oughta do it: high-performance, low-key. Shimura always rises to the occasion onstage, whether he's appearing in front of tens of thousands in a massive stadium or for a couple hundred at a small club. But offstage, he doesn't draw attention to himself. Unlike many rappers, he doesn't roll with an entourage, and if you see the half-Japanese, half-Italian performer chilling at a local bar, club, or cafe, he's fairly incognito.
From his humble beginnings as MC Asia Born through his membership in the groundbreaking Solesides crew to his current status as a big-time party rocker, happily married guy, and indie-rap mogul, Shimura has maintained his integrity and individual identity. In doing so, he stands out in a crowd of act-alike, sound-alike rapper peers.
Other MCs harbored major-label rap dreams, but Shimura chose the do-it-yourself route. There were times he struggled, but what he calls his "scrappy, roll-up-your-sleeves" mentality ultimately worked to his advantage. He isn't too proud to pop into Amoeba to make sure his album is stocked, or to personally hand you a flyer for a club where he's appearing. With a music industry downturn causing nervousness among artists and labels alike, Shimura has been able to achieve success by carving out his own niche and controlling his own destiny. "Because I've been independent my whole career, it kinda prepared me for this economy," he says.
Shimura, who lives in El Cerrito, credits much of his uniqueness to having spent his formative years in the Bay Area. "I don't know that my story would have happened anywhere else," he says. "I owe a lot to the Bay. Without a doubt, it shaped my worldview."
In 2005's "The Bay," Shimura paid tribute to the region, a place "where the people are intelligent, articulate, eloquent/Artistic, hard-working, and diligent/Both progressive and politically spirited/Definitely in possession of an ill-itant element/We hella independent."
Growing up in Berkeley, where "the hills aren't that far from the 'hood," Shimura says multiculturalism was everywhere he looked. It wasn't until he attended UC Davis that he realized things were a little different elsewhere. He was no longer surrounded by people of varied ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. "It's like, 'This shit is weird,'" he recalls thinking.
In the Bay Area, he says, "We're so far ahead of the curve." The region's forward-thinking attitude translates to the local music scene. There's never been just one Bay Area sound, even within genres, and local hip-hop has bounced all over the stylistic map, from trip-hop to turf rap and everything in between. Appropriately, Shimura's sound reflects a wide range of influences: He says it's "funk-infused, rock-infused, rap-infused, reggae-infused, R&B-infused."
Yet Shimura isn't just a canny chameleon. His secret weapon is his voice, a gruff, inimitable presence that conveys irritation and alliteration, sarcasm and syntax, buoyancy and assonance, joy and pain. Over the years, he's displayed a remarkable range, from the angst-filled emo of "Balcony Beach" to the pseudo-crooning of "I Changed My Mind" to the uplifting funk manifesto "Callin' Out" and the relationship-musing of the recent single (and surprise KMEL hit) "Differences."
The fact that he's been able to achieve commercial airplay on his own terms isn't lost on Shimura. "I do stuff that's left of center, but I do stuff that makes [mainstream] radio better," he says. He feels vindicated knowing his career has outlasted many of the detractors who said an Asian-American MC had no place in hip-hop, or who claimed his alternative leanings weren't hard-core enough to make an impact in the rap world. "All the things we were criticized for ... have become assets," he says, attributing his longevity to "perseverance and vision."
Despite — or maybe because of — Shimura's fierce individuality, he has transcended rap's limitations. Few artists can match his versatility, and the fact that he records and tours with a live band may be equally responsible for his widespread appeal. Having a backing unit that can lay down a steamy funk riff, kick into full-on rawk mode, bust into a Kingstonian skank, or improvise during call-and-response segments gives him an advantage over the MCs who perform over canned backing tracks.
It helps that Shimura is an experienced showman. From Oakland to Auckland, he's earned a reputation as a surefire crowd-pleaser. A regular on the festival circuit, he's been able to go places less distinctive hip-hop acts can't. He's played Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Earthdance as well as numerous overseas concerts like Australia's Good Vibrations, where he was this year's host. With live shows becoming increasingly important economically to artists in light of slumping sales, Shimura displayed remarkable foresight by putting so much emphasis on performance. At the end of the day, he says, "it's not about how many records you sell. It's about how many tickets you sell."
Shimura's relentless commitment to touring — he's been known to play 200 shows a year — helped keep him afloat during the so-called drought of the late '90s and early '00s. During that period, most local rap acts signed to major labels were unceremoniously dropped, and many underground artists fell completely off. But since Shimura was a core member of the artist-owned Quannum Projects label, he had no problem seeing an actual release date for his 2003 solo debut, Later That Day (he has since signed to "major indie" Anti-, home of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and the Coup).
During that drought, Shimura actually expanded his fan base, especially internationally. In 2000, "I Changed My Mind" made him a star in England (thanks to a remix by the Stereo MC's), and he's become so beloved by Australian crowds that he recorded his 2005 live album Overnight Encore in Sydney and Melbourne. "I love playing shows," he says. "I need to see people having a good time."
It's been four years since Shimura's signature tune "Callin' Out" broke through the mainstream ceiling, first by claiming the number one spot on Live 105, then by being featured in a Diet Coke commercial. Since then, Lyrics Born is no longer strictly underground. His music has been featured on numerous film, TV, and videogame soundtracks, yet instead of stacking his follow-up with big-name features, he chose to work with a talented crew of mostly local musicians, including his wife, singer Joyo Velarde; vocalists C. Holiday, Myron Glasper, and Baby Jaymes; horn player Adam Theis; keyboardist Kat Ouano; and his longtime coconspirators, bassist Uriah Duffy and guitarist B'nai Rebelfront. Chali 2na, the album's best-known guest, is an old friend who first collaborated with Shimura on Quannum's Spectrum compilation in 1999.
The resulting effort, Everywhere at Once, was released in April. Picking up where "Callin' Out" left off, it delves deeper into funk as a musical and stylistic base. For all the braggadocious bravado of party-hearty tracks like "Hott 2 Deff," "I'm a Phreak," and "I Like It, I Love It," the album delivers poignancy on "Whispers," a heartfelt dedication to Shimura's best friend, the late Mack B-Dog. Likewise, "Is It the Skin I'm In?" is an autobiographical account of overcoming racial stereotypes: "Let me tell you how I came up in the game/A little child, half-beige, half-cream/They called me everything except for my name," he recalls. These two tracks add emotional gravitas, yet the album's overall mood is upbeat and positive. Shimura says he wanted to celebrate finally getting to a good place after so many years of struggling: "At the end of the day, I wanted to have fun."
Though he's in a comfortable position careerwise, Shimura isn't one to rest on his laurels. His work ethic won't let him. Whether cameoing on songs with Tommy Guerrero, J-Boogie, and Galactic, producing Velarde's album, or reuniting with his extended Quannum fam, he stays busy. On "Ill Vacation," a track from the Mighty Underdogs' upcoming album Dropping Science Fiction, he joins Gift of Gab and Lateef in a rapid-fire lyrical throwdown that captures the heat of the early Solesides battle ciphers. "As far as MCs go, I came up in a crew of beasts," he casually explains, and it's apparent his speed-rapping skills haven't diminished with age.
What has changed is Shimura's sense of security and accomplishment. He's less curmudgeonly, and has seemingly taken the advice he offered on 2003's "Stop Complainin'." "It's just perspective," he says. "At this stage of my career, I realize what's a major pitfall and what's just ups and downs."
Longevity has given Shimura that perspective, but talent brought him there in the first place. He's become no less a Bay Area ambassador than E-40, and, as one of the pioneers of alt.rap, he qualifies as both a symbol of independence and a musical maverick. "I definitely feel like I'm going against the grain," he says. Fifteen years into his career, it's clear that he wouldn't have it any other way.
2008 Music Awards