Q&A: Lyrics Born On Greatest Hits, Independent Music, And The End

In celebration of his ninth album, Now Look What You’ve Done, Lyrics Born! Greatest Hits, Lyrics Born took the time to speak with us about greatest hits albums, independent music, and what’s next.

This interview took place on April 15, 2016. Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity, space, and Siya rambling. 

Ben: Let’s get going, man. How you doing today?

Lyrics Born (LB): I’m doing well, man. Thank you. Today my album came out so it’s been a little hectic.

Ben: So with 25 years in the industry… What made now the right time for that greatest hits?

LB: You know…  It was just time, man. There was just so much music and so much time had gone by that I just felt like with, [this being] the 9th album, it was time. To be honest with you, I probably could have done one a little earlier and I probably should have. But it was just felt like the right time. I felt like I had done so many different kinds of albums too that it would just make more sense to a do a greatest hits album at this point.

Ben: Well that’s something I actually wanted to ask you about, because, going through your discography, each album has a very distinct sound. You play with multiple genres, jumping from funk and Motown influence to even some southwestern in there. What did you learn about your own music when you started listening and recollecting all these tracks for a greatest hits?

LB: I think that’s a really great question. For myself, it’s kind of a trip putting this all together because I’m always just so focused on tomorrow – what’s the next gig, what’s the album going to sound like, what’s the next song going to be about – and it wasn’t until I sat down and was actually forced to actually go through all these songs and forced to comb through my past, which I’m just not in the habit of doing, that I realized it was really dope man. It was really cool to see. I think one of the moments that made it so special was when I announced that I was going to do this, the flood of social media response of what songs should be on the track list, from the fans. That was really amazing. That was touching. And also admittedly, we picked from their suggestions…

Ben: Oh really, you took that social media response into account?

LB: Oh yeah! I mean, the fans basically put this track listing together.

Siya: No lie?!

LB: Yeah, which to me it should be that way…

Siya: After all, it’s a greatest hits. It’s a fan thing. Not what you think?

LB: Right, exactly! I mean, I right the songs, I record them, I put them out. But honestly it’s the fans that make them quote, unquote “hits”. You know what I mean? Once I put them out I have no control over who likes it, who hears it, who doesn’t. The fans are the ones who actually turn them into hits. So basically, whatever fans unanimously saying this song should be on there that song should be on there, that’s what we ended up putting on the album. And it was kind of difficult. It got a little heated!

Ben: (laughter)

LB: There were some fans that were like, “IF YOU DON’T PUT THAT SONG ON THERE, I’LL NEVER LISTEN TO YOU AGAIN!”

Ben: (laughter)

Siya: Okay, okay, okay. Let me interrupt here and I know Ben is a lot more organized than I am.

LB: Yeah…

Siya: When you say the argument happened between the fans, right, do you feel that was A.) the conversations that were online and in social media? Or was that just a vibe you get as an artist that’s constantly traveling, and you’re out on the road, and you feel the fan’s vibes, and you know this album is coming out, they know that it’s coming out, and they’re putting it together with you and for you… Where you getting that debate from more, on the road, or you getting it from online?

LB: All those things. Definitely when we announced the final track listing, I definitely got an “Ohhhh, why didn’t you put the so and so song on there? You’re going to fuck it up!”

All: (laughter)

Siya: Right! Because they know better right?

LB: That’s the thing though. That’s what makes it so difficult. And also when you have the kind of catalog that has the depth, thankfully, humbly speaking, the depth that mine has (it’s difficult). It’s the same for all people. Some of my favorite artists’ songs are not necessary their biggest sellers or got the most airplay. For whatever reason, certain songs have certain significance and meaning to you in your life. It was great to see the outpour. Because sometimes I’m so caught up with recording, and promoting, and touring…  It’s hard to describe. You kind of end up being in this bubble, and for people to start calling out your songs – no pun intended –

Ben: (laughter)

LB: – it really means a lot. It’s like wow, people are really listening, and they’re still listening… 25 years later! It’s really a blessing. I’m really fortunate.

Ben: Was there anything near and dear to your heart that didn’t make the cut? Either there wasn’t that demand for it, or it just couldn’t fit?

LB: Well, yeah. The thing that I had to distinguish was that there’s a difference between a greatest hits album and an anthology. You know what I mean?

Ben: Yeah.

LB: So I kind of had to look at it in two ways. Quite a few people suggested, “Maybe you should put ‘Whispers’ on there.” Which is from my album, Everywhere At Once. To me, it’s probably the best song I’ve ever written. But it’s not a quote/unquote “hit”.  So that, were I to do an anthology, probably would have been on there, but if you’re talking about 16 songs, or whatever it is, that define your career in terms of hits, you have to narrow it down. You have to ruthlessly prioritize. But luckily, like I said, the fans spoke. This is what they wanted, man. So this is what I do.

Siya: I’ve always wondered that about artists who are putting together greatest hits albums. Because for all the artists I’ve seen live – because that’s how I judge music the most when they’re preforming – even if they have not put together a greatest hits album yet, they’re for the most part performing their most popular songs.

LB: Right.

Siya: At that point, when you’re putting together that kind of act, either an anthology or just cutting that type of collection together, are you looking to say “this is my best work so far to my old fans” or “this is my best work so far to my new fans who have not discovered me yet”? Who’s more important to you?

LB: You know, it’s all important, man. I think it’s most important to be as accurate as you can.

Siya: Accurate?

LB: Well, 25 years’ worth of music… that means these nine albums. What in these nine albums are hits? But I do have to be honest, I do think about it in terms of, okay after I’m gone, there’s going to be this album on the shelves. When I stop making records, whenever that is, or, God forbid, when I’m no longer on this planet – somebody is going to come across this album, somebody will hopefully discover me and discover my music and they’re going to want a place to start.

Siya: Oh so you’re looking like this is really the time capsule?

LB: In a way. Yeah, in a way. And I think in the same way that people don’t necessarily know where to begin. If you’re an artist like me and you’ve got that many albums it’s like “where do I begin”? Well the best place to begin, with any artist that you’re coming into contact with for the first time, in my opinion, is the greatest hits album. I’m not comparing myself in any way to Bob Marley…


Photo credit: Mark Austin Heim at Maximum Flavor Media

LB: …right. [His greatest hits] is so well put together and so representative of who he is, and it’s such a great starting point for anybody who wants to learn about Bob Marley. I think that’s one of the greatest, greatest hits albums of all time. And if my record can serve for my career and me as an artist in the same way that, that served for him as a starting point, a reference point, and like you said, a time capsule, then I think we’ve probably done a good job.

Ben: This all ties together to something I’ve been wondering about. You mention in your liner notes thoughts about licensing music.

LB: Yeah.

Ben: My introduction to your work was through that Adrian Brody, Diet Coke commercial, with “Callin’ Out” in the background.

LB: Right.

Ben: You had a really, what I think is a realistic take on licensing music as a necessity, and a way of introducing artists.

LB: Well yeah, it’s just like you said, that was your introduction. Quite honestly, I think it was a lot of people’s introduction to who I was and what I do. I’m an independent artist. It was crazy in the 90s, when all of my people, literally every single of one them, were getting signed to major labels. From Dilated Peoples to Souls of Mischief, I’m talking about my friends here, Casual, Jurassic 5, Shadow, Blackalicious, Pharcyde… these are all my friends, right? Every single one got signed to a major label, and some of them got resigned and resigned. But that was not me. That was not my reality. I’ve been independent my entire career. So my advances were always miniscule compared to those guys. And so I really never had the big advances or the big promo budgets or the big tour support or promotional campaigns.

Siya: Was that by choice?

LB: No. No, definitely not. I never had those things. But what I did have, what I was fortunate and blessed to have, was a lot of companies and movies and tv and video games that wanted to use my music for their own campaigns. And that has been one of the biggest blessings of my entire career, and it continues to this day.

Ben: That’s amazing.

Siya: Speaking to alternatives, there’s something very particular that I think applies to really, strictly to Cali artists. And southern artists have figured out a way to do it in a very different way, whether they’re selling out (of) their trunk or whatnot. As far defining the culture, defining the music, and the art of what it means to do music, whether it’s in the Bay with Mac Dre, or whether it’s down where you’re from in Berkeley, with today’s age and the Lil B’s, there’s very distinct identities with those artists…

LB: Right.

Siya: …and I need to understand, what is it that makes the underground scene so special that kids growing up in Cali and the people enjoying music in Cali, will pinpoint you, will pinpoint Lil B, will pinpoint  YG, as the neighborhood superstars just as much they will pinpoint Game, or just as much as they will pinpoint Kendrick Lamar, or E40. What’s so special about the underground scene in the west coast?

LB: That’s a good point, man. I think when you talk about Mac Dre, or you talk about Lil B, or myself, or E40, one of the things I’m hearing you saying is that these artists have very strong identities.

Siya: And they’re not (necessarily) strong, mainstream artists. But they’re very special to Cali folks which makes them very special to folks who care about Cali culture, whether that’s in the Bay or it’s down south in LA and San Diego.

LB: Well particularly for us in the Bay Area, it’s very different than the LA area. We grow up here with absolutely no entertainment industry whatsoever. So it’s not like… where are you guys located?

Ben: I’m in Seattle, he’s in Chicago.

LB: Okay, right. So if you’re talking about LA, Universal is located in LA. Interscope is located in LA. Epic is located in LA. We don’t have that here. We have nothing. So the artists develop their own identities here, independent of the rest of the world, almost.  A lot of times I feel like we might as well be out on an island somewhere. The artists have to find ways to sell and distribute, and market their own music independent of the rest of the industry at large.

Siya: Perfect! I’m glad you said that.

LB: Well it’s no coincidence that every single artist that ever came out the Bay Area has at least started or finished their career on an independent label. From Mac Dre with Thizz to E40 with Sick Wid It, Too Short…

Siya: Nickatina

LB: …Nickatina, Too Short with Dangerous Music, Lyrics Born with Quannum, Lil B with what he was doing and is doing on the internet right now, G-Easy, same thing. There’s not a single artist that ever came out of the Bay that at one point in their career hasn’t been independent. You can’t say that about LA artists. And I’m not knocking them at all! I wish it was like that here.

Siya: So you wish you had the same access as LA artists, essentially is what you’re saying?

LB: Absolutely. Because we’re not more or less talented than anyone else. The industry is just not here. We’re able to be kind of quirky because we’re not expecting to be on radio tomorrow. The culture is just different.

Ben: Well, Lyrics Born, we really appreciate you taking the time. One last question to wrap it up. With 25 years down, what’s the next 25 years in the future got for you?

LB: I think I’m going to do one more album, man. To put me at ten.

Ben: Ten even? Then…

LB: Yeah, I’m going to do one more album, that’ll put me at ten, and then I think I’m done.

Siya: And you know you’re done after ten albums?

LB: Yeah. I mean, this one is my ninth, Now Look What You’ve Done, the one that came out today.

Siya: Wait, have you said this anywhere else? Because I’m pretty sure me and Ben do some extensive research. Have you mentioned this anywhere else that you’re going to do one more album and that’s it, you’re done?

LB: Not really. No.

Ben: Wow.


Siya: I refuse to believe that’s your last album.

LB: Well, I’ve got one more, man. I’ve got one more, then we’ll see what I do after that. But, in my mind, this is how I see it now.

Siya: Alright my brother, appreciate the time.

Ben: Lyrics Born, congratulations on the greatest hits.

LB: Absolutely. Thank you, fellas. I appreciate it, man.

Photo credit: Mark Austin Heim at Maximum Flavor Media
Photo credit: Mark Austin Heim at Maximum Flavor Media

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