Eras of Influence: 2000-2004 – L.A. Symphony

This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. You can read my previous installment on Outkast, covering the years 1997-2000.

***

By the year 2000, hip hop had fully infiltrated the furthest reaches of suburban America. Even my rural hometown in Kansas, for better or for worse. With the release of The Slim Shady LP in 1999, followed by The Marshall Mathers LP a year later, Eminem had become not only one of the biggest stars on the planet, but a celebrated figure in my own high school (and probably every other high school for that matter). 

As someone who had spent the previous years immersing himself in hip hop culture, you might think I would be over the moon about this new found adoption from my classmates. Not at all. Not even a little.

There were certainly great byproducts of rap music stepping into the national limelight, not the least of which was the disruption of popular music tastes coming out of the 90s, which had been predominantly driven by white artists. Yes, Eminem dominated the airwaves, but new pockets of the country began blossoming their own sounds. The emergence of Nelly and the St. Lunatics as a voice for hip hop in the Midwest gave me particular delight, as did the arrival of a new wave of producers that begin shaping the sound of the new decade, namely the Neptunes and a new, then-unknown producer named Kanye West (more on him in a later installment).

Nevertheless, hip hop’s transition into the popular discussion sent me on a path to discover something new. Ironically, my discovery resembled something that was driven to pay homage to its past and was staunchly dedicated to its roots. Something underground.

***

In my late high school years, those early internet communities I had stumbled into began to grow and evolve. As rap made its way into top 40 radio, I became introduced to an entire portion of the genre that had been bubbling just beneath the surface all along. It was through MSN chats and online forums that I became introduced to names like Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde, Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, and more.

You can buy or stream Composition No. 1 on Apple Music.

But the biggest revelation, and the one that sent me tumbling headlong into a new community defined by shell-toe Adidas sneakers and beat up backpacks, came in the form of L.A. Symphony, a hip hop collective born out of the burgeoning West Coast underground scene.

Sometime around 1999 or 2000 – I can’t pinpoint the specific date from my memory – a friend of mine wanted me to hear something. He was a subscriber of the long-defunct alt music mag 7ball, which came wrapped in plastic bimonthly with a mix CD of new artists. This particular installment contained the track “San Diego” from the group’s debut album, Composition No. 1. I was immediately obsessed.

Fortunately for me, it didn’t take long to find people online who felt the same. That debut sent ripples through the West Coast underground, attracting the attention of major labels who were hungry for new hip hop acts. Like many underground collectives of the era, L.A. Symphony was sizeable in number – anywhere from eight to nine members at any given time. The core of the group was composed of Flynn Adam Atkins, Joey the Jerk, The Eternals (Cookbook and Uno Mas), Halieyoos Fishermen (Sharlok Poems, JBeits, and Trendi MC), and Brainwash Projects (Pigeon John and bTwice).

It was the latter duo that performed “San Diego”, and to my luck, they had released their own album a year prior that I also purchased and began obsessing over (The Rise and Fall of Brainwash Projects). Each member or duo brought their own flavor and personality to the group, creating a long tail of interest. Over the coming years, as each released their own solo albums in addition to the group material, I would gobble them up, play them relentlessly, and display their CD jewel cases in a line across a shelf in my room.

Part of what made L.A. Symphony (and underground hip hop as a whole) so intriguing, aside from the unique sound, was its purpose. At the time, the terms “underground” and “socially conscious” were nearly interchangeable. As I began experiencing my own social and political awakening during my exit from high school into college, this music was speaking my language. As corny as it sounds, it was almost like having a whole other avenue for education in my life. And I consumed as much of it as time would allow.

Conscious hip hop at the time thematically ran the gamut from social, racial, and economic issues to more philosophical topics like faith and religion. Each artist or group would bring their own perspective to the table, creating a community that felt bonded by its desire to learn and grow together. L.A. Symphony added a unique element of humor and lightheartedness that set the group apart. They wanted you to think, but weren’t afraid to crack a joke in the next verse and make you laugh.

The music led me to want to know more about the people creating it. During these years, I would scour the web for any morsel of information I could find; mainly interviews that would shed more light on the thoughts, views, and motivations of the artists I loved. But when my own curiosity couldn’t be quelled, I found a new way to keep the conversation going.

***

During my final two years of high school, I was given the opportunity to host a show on a local radio station in my town (an hours-long weekend hip hop show that I somehow sold the owner of the station on). I also began pitching article ideas to various websites I frequented, and shockingly, was given compensation to write said articles. 

I had no formal training in broadcasting or journalism, yet somehow, I was suddenly interviewing my favorite artists, asking them for answers to questions that I couldn’t find elsewhere. And they actually told me stuff. And people actually listened and read what I was saying. It’s the kind of rush that somehow still propels me to do the same all these years later.

L.A. Symphony was at the epicenter during this time. I can’t count from memory how many interviews I did with various members of the group during those years, but it was more than was likely necessary. For a fleeting moment, the group’s ship actually did arrive in the form of a record deal with Squint Entertainment, resulting in a 19-track album titled Call it What You Want, featuring production from likes of Prince Paul and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Sadly, in one of the most well-worn stories of the era, Squint was acquired by Warner Music Group, which shelved the album prior to its release. Although leaks scattered across the internet, one of the most anticipated albums in underground hip hop history never saw the light of day.

L.A. Symphony re-grouped and independently released Baloney in 2002, an incredibly unsung record that ended up producing an unexpected hit when “King Kong” was featured on a Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game. While home from college in the summer of 2003, I interviewed Pigeon John by phone in anticipation of his sophomore solo album, Pigeon John is Dating Your Sister. Near the end of the conversation, I prodded for some updates about L.A. Symphony. After a couple of ambiguous answers, he finally caved. JBeits, bTwice, and himself had all left the group. L.A. Symphony as we had all known it was no more.

It was the first big story I ever got to break. It was also deflating and the moment that marked the beginning of my next musical transition. The core remaining members of the group carried on, releasing two more full-length albums on Gotee Records. In the summer of 2004, I caught a live performance in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before being invited out to dinner after the show with the group. The high school kid that had pestered them with interviews and broken news of their semi-breakup was now dining alongside them at a TGI Fridays in the middle of Oklahoma. Maybe not quite as exciting as William Miller’s journey in “Almost Famous”, but it still somehow felt stranger than fiction. I can’t think anything that could’ve brought this period of my life more full-circle.

By now, I was halfway into my college experience, full of new friends and, of course, new sounds. Hip hop remained a passion, but for the first time in my life, I felt fully accepted into a real life community of friends that wasn’t based solely on the web. And these friends listened to some cool music. By that summer of 2004, I was sporting a checkered backpack covered in patches of my new favorite pop punk bands: MxPx, Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, The Ataris. 

I dove headfirst with my new friends down that new path of guitar-driven, angsty-lyric-filled music that had taken over Warped Tour and was about to break through on MTV. A sound that was about to literally be screamed from the rooftops by a passionate new influx of fans into “the scene.” And I was about to discover the band, my unquestionably favorite band, that would shape everything about the way I thought about and experienced music thereafter.

Second Tier: Clipse, MxPx, Deepspace5, St. Lunatics, Linkin Park

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: L.A. Symphony – You Still on Earth?

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When Los Angeles hip hop supergroup L.A. Symphony dropped their classic debut album, Composition #1, just over 15 years ago, a seismic shift was already taking place in hip hop. Following in the footsteps of De La Soul and The Pharcyde, the members of the Symph were at the forefront of a new pack of hip hop acts blurring the lines between underground and mainstream rap.

Two years later, the group had a record deal with Warner Bros. and was fresh out of the studio with tracks produced by the likes of will.i.am and Prince Paul. However, the album that promised to be their breakthrough, Call It What You Want, never saw the light of day.

Within three years, the group’s members dropped from eight to five, and after a smattering of indie releases, the band vanished after the appropriately titled Disappear Here in 2005. Various members of L.A. Symphony have continued releasing solo material in the time since (the most notable of which is Pigeon John), but for all intents and purposes, one of the most promising hip hop acts in recent memory was finished.

Until now. An album that literally no one expected, You Still on Earth? finds the core eight members (Uno Mas, CookBook, Sareem Poems, Flynn, Joey the Jerk, Pigeon John, bTwice, J-Beits) of L.A. Symphony reunited once more. Once you shake off the nostalgia trip, You Still on Earth? proves to be one of the best hip hop releases of 2014.

Perhaps what makes this release so refreshing, aside from the initial shock of hearing those eight distinct voices on tape together once more, is how pressure-free the project feels. For a group that spent most of its existence on the cusp of a mainstream explosion, the Symph’s music was riddled with stress and burden, save for their debut. With nothing to prove and no expectations to meet, You Still on Earth? feels free and unrestricted.

Opening track “Phoenix” finds the group effortlessly taking turns at the mic atop a beat of swirling synthesizers and crashing drums. When Flynn remarks, “And just like that, L.A. Symphony is back” on the track’s chorus, you can feel the collective smirk. There’s no weak link to be found here – everyone sounds on point, even after all this time.

Across the album’s 16 tracks there is no one thesis – topics range from past reflection to addiction to romantic love to general braggadocio. If you had to pick one underlying current that seems to course through the album, it would be one of defiance. Whether the feeling be directed at the “haters” or “non-believers,” there’s certainly an air of brashness. The whole record seems to ask, “Don’t you know who we are?”

Various members shine during moments of bravado, such as CookBook on “We Out There” as he drops the line, “If you a meth addict, then I’m a science teacher / Slinging crack music, we supply the ether”. Later, on the same track, Pigeon John rhymes, “In a minute, I’ma get up in it, record store tenant / They might as well rent it out to denounce it / And that’s me and my crew, God bless you / Like a hot shoe, mashing down Melrose in a John Deere”.

The album is full of both loud, in-your-face songs like the distortion-laced “Shut it Up” as well as more peaceful and reflective tracks like the beautiful “Nightfall”. The most sobering moment comes in the form of “Dope”, a track featuring J-Beits, bTwice and Pigeon John in which all three share a peek inside their struggle with addiction. On the second verse, bTwice spits, “And I ain’t leaving / Dopamine spike reveals the kingdom is alive and breathing / Unaware of my inherent freedom / Accelerated perception got me feeling like I did prior to conception / But the bubble pops and life is a pair of dice tossed / A glimpse of paradise lost”.

“My Lady” feels like an old school Symph track and features an insanely catchy hook, courtesy of Pigeon John, as the members show love to some special women in their lives. Closer “In L.A.” is a sick throwback track with a chill-inducing sample from “California Dreamin’”. On the song, the members reflect on the band’s beginnings, hopes and dreams. It’s a treat for all of the group’s longtime fans and a reminder that this collective possesses a ridiculous amount of talent from top to bottom.

There are a few swings and misses on the album, but they’re few and far between. “Another Level” sounds like an idea that seemed funny in the studio but falls flat on the record. “Space Boots” is odd minimalist track that isn’t bad, but just doesn’t quite fit in with its surroundings.

All in all, You Still on Earth? is everything that any fan of L.A. Symphony could hope for – not just a return, but a return in fine form. In fact, it’s so good that it makes you start wondering all over again about what could have been. But that’s impossible to say. What we do know is that L.A. Symphony has delivered a career’s worth of classic material, and then some. You Still on Earth? just adds to the legend.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Review: Pigeon John – Encino Man

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Los Angeles rapper Pigeon John is at the point in his career where pressure is minimal. Over the course of the past 16 years, John has been making a name for himself amongst the hip hop underground as a part of various groups and projects, but now, six full length albums into his solo career, he’s proven himself an innovative artist and remarkable solo performer.

Pigeon John is a veteran to the rap game – a man who takes his time in between releases, isn’t afraid to experiment and knows how to stay fresh, even while paying respect to the genre’s past. This mixture of new and old, fresh yet familiar, is what makes his newest album, Encino Man, such a joy.

In truth, Encino Man is the logical progression from John’s 2010 album Dragon Slayer – an album with clear pop sensibility that landed his songs everywhere from popular television shows to Volkswagen and Taco Bell commercials.

Like Dragon Slayer, Encino Man is produced by Hervé Salters. The two work together so well at this point, that it’s hard to imagine their pairing ever eliciting a flop. The album is chock full of throwback pop sounds, weird instrumentation, distorted bass lines and plenty of danceable moments. It’s an old-school pop album living in the present day indie hip hop scene.

Album opener and single “Champaign On My Shoes” is a bumping, fuzzy track about relationship travails, much akin to “Money Back Guarantee” from Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party. “All the Roads” is a light, but heavily confessional track that mirrors Dragon Slayer’s “Before We’re Gone”. “Oh Yeah” and “Ready to Go” are upbeat pop numbers that harken back to “The Bomb” and are surely just as infectious.

Even as John uses his more recent successes to expand his sound while retaining his identity, he’s also willing to reach back much further. “It’s On Tonight” featuring Sareem Poems is a flashback to their L.A. Symphony days, sounding like it was pulled straight from The End is Now or Call it What You Want. It also features some of the dopest verses of John’s career.

Likewise, “Go Shopping”, another L.A. Symphony reunion track featuring Great Jason, goes hard with an 80s influence. “Boomerang” and “I Believe It” move at a slower pace with minimalist production, but they’re sure to have you singing along.

Subject matter hits on the usual suspects – girls, a dash of self-doubt, personal struggles, and managing to have a good time amidst all of it. According to John, Encino Man was influenced by in part by the aftermath of divorce, and although the pain is still present, it’s clear that this version of Pigeon John is the most confident that he’s ever been.

Above all else, this is what sets Encino Man apart from John’s past work. Even with all of the nods to the past and the continuation of an already established sound, Encino Man sounds new simply because John himself sounds new. Having gripped to a persona laced with self-deprecation, self-doubt and self-loathing, this new confidence and self-assurance marks a sheer turn and its impact on John’s sound is evident.

This 2014 version of Pigeon John truly sounds happy to be himself. Even when the beats are a little bit too goofy, even when the one-liners are a little bit too cheesy, he’s able to pull it off with the poise of a veteran. Encino Man is truly a fun record and an album that showcases the ever-continual growth of one of underground hip hop’s true trendsetters.

4/5

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

It’s All Dead Podcast Episode: 005 – Interview with Pigeon John

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On the latest installment of the official It’s All Dead Podcast, Los Angeles rapper Pigeon John drops by to talk to Kiel about his new album Encino Man, how being a father has impacted his music, what he envisions for the future of hip hop, and how persistence and hard work have payed big dividends in his journey through the underground hip hop scene. Take a listen!

Subscribe to our podcast here.

Also, be sure to pre-order Encino Man before it drops on April 29!

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Pigeon John releases “Champagne on my Shoes” music video

pigeonJohn

Are you a fan of good hip hop? Or maybe puppets? If so, Pigeon John’s new “Champagne on my Shoes” music video has it all. Directed by Sapient, the video is sure to brighten your day and make you dance. Check it out below:

If you like what you hear, get ready – Pigeon John’s new album Encino Man is coming on April 29. In addition, you can catch him on his current tour – dates below:

March 14 Chicago, IL @ Aragon Ballroom
March 15 Milwaukee, WI @ The Rave
March 16 Detroit, MI @ St. Andrews Hall
March 18 Cambridge, MA @ Middle East
March 19 New York, NY @ Highline
March 20 Philadelphia, PA @ Barbary
March 21 Springfield, VA @ Empire
March 22 Greensboro, NC @ Greene Street
March 23 Atlanta, GA @ Masquerade
March 25 Orlando, FL @ The Social
March 28 Austin, TX @ Parish
March 29 Dallas, TX @ House of Blues
March 30 Houston, TX @ House of Blues
April 1 Albuquerque, NM @ Launch Pad
April 2 Phoenix, AZ @ Club Red
April 3 San Diego, CA @ Porter’s
April 4 West Hollywood, CA @ Roxy
April 5 Pomona, CA @ Glasshouse

Posted by Kiel Hauck

Pigeon John to release Encino Man on April 29

pigeonJohn

Los Angeles-based rapper Pigeon John has announced the upcoming release of his new album Encino Man, which is due April 29 on Megaforce Records. The album is a follow-up to 2010’s acclaimed Dragon Slayer and his fifth proper full-length release.

In conjunction with the announcement, he has also released the first to tracks from the album, “Oh Yeah” and “Champagne On My Shoes”, which man be heard below:

“Oh Yeah”

“Champagne On My Shoes”

Below is the album art for Encino Man:

pigeonjohn_encinoman

For full release details of the new album, including upcoming tour dates, you can go to HipHopDX.

Posted by Kiel Hauck