"People seem to like it a lot."
“People seem to like it a lot.” The shrug is audible even over the phone when Murs, still the people’s champion of Los Angeles hip-hop, is asked about his continuing collaboration with equally legendary North Carolina producer and DJ 9th Wonder. Stuck in a car during a depressingly common logjam of a traffic jam on the notorious 405 Freeway with his new wife, Murs is as blunt and pointedly direct as he is on record.
“I think when I work with anybody, my ability to be flexible is what helps make things work,” he muses. “When it comes to 9th, I pretty much just let him run the whole show. That’s why it works with us. I’m one of the few rappers out here secure enough to relinquish some control in the studio. I mean, I’m still a total control freak. I’m just not as bad as the rest of them.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Murs wins by surrendering. This is hip-hop on Sun Tzou as opposed to Robert Greene and Joost Elffers. Over the course of “Murs 3:16” and “Murray’s Revenge,” Murs and 9th Wonder crafted two of the most enduring hip-hop albums of the last decade. Packed with warm, soulful tracks and the inimitable wisdom of Murs, it’s a complex collaboration that’s unusual to say the least. Together again for the third time, on “Fornever,” Murs tries to explain just why it works.
“I let 9th pick the beats. I don’t listen to what he brings me and then choose which ones to rap over. He hands me and beat and a lot of times tells me what the song is about, like ‘Asian Girl,’ he relates in relation to one of the thornier songs on “Fornever,” a no-holds-barred exaltation of the charms of women from the Far East. “He’s gotten even more insane with it. But he doesn’t stop me from writing about whatever I want to write about. He’s the producer, so I trust his judgment the same way he trusts me with the rhymes. We have to have that trust, because we definitely don’t understand each other,” he adds without a hint of humor or irony. “I’m into beats at all. I don’t care how rare the sample is or how you put the track together. Whatever. Just do your thing and I’ll do mine and we’re all good.”
Then again, Murs always has been hip-hop’s voice of common sense. At the same time, he still stands as one of the most daring and fearless rappers in the game. Like his now-notorious interview on Shade 45 internet radio show “Lip Service” with porn star Roxie Reynolds that informs “Vicki Veil,” the tale of dating an adult actress which Murs calls “my wife’s least favorite song on the record.
“I’m always kind of out of control, so when I got next to porn star in a studio, I went for it. Back in the day, I would watch ‘Luke’s Peep Show,’” he explains in reference to 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell’s variety show from the ‘90s. “All these rappers that would talk a big sex game on record would go on there and wimp out next to real porn star. So when I got the opportunity with Roxy, I went for it. She got naked, sat on my face and everything.”
One of the unforeseen side effects of the on-air hook-up is how it’s opened up the Murs fanbase to a whole new contingency. “I’ll get these 45-year-old guys approaching me at the airport just to say hi. It’s hilarious. I’ve dated a couple of porn stars, and they’re just regular girls. The experience wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But with those girls, you should really know better. Don’t be surprised when you’re fucked over by a porn star. That is their job,” he laughs. “When I heard that beat, it just said ‘Vicky Vail’ to me. 9th thought I was crazy, but you know. Whatever.”
Murs is just warming up. Talk of porn stars swings back around to the aforementioned “Asian Girl.”
“The idea was to make ‘3:16’ on steroids,” he stresses over the sound of traffic in the background. We brought him out to L.A. to record for the first time. Maybe that’s what got to him. There’s a little more g-funk in his east coast beats this time.”
In classic Murs style, “Fornever” finds him covering customary territory, like the delicate balance of love relationships (“Let Me Talk”) next to more topical matters, exemplified on the incendiary “Cigarettes and Liquor.”
“I had quit smoking for five years, and just recently started up again,” he admits. “Smoking is one of those things that really bond people across all boundaries. That’s why in the intro I used epithets for a bunch of different races, for the shock value. But really, the idea is that regardless of who you are, you’re going to die just like me. It’s the great equalizer. I also like to put shit in there that I need to hear. This way I have to sing about how I need to quit smoking every night on tour.”
A defining feature of “Fornever” is the panorama of guest rappers that appear alongside Murs on the tracks. Dogg Pound veteran Kurupt, stone-cold pimpin’ Suga Free and L.A. Latino OG Jacken from Psycho Realm are just some of the names on the list.
“On the song ‘The Problem Is…’, I had (Snoop Dogg associate) Uncle Chucc come in do the hook, which he knocked out in like ten minutes. 9th Wonder was amazed. I really want to do a whole album with Jack from Psycho Realm. We need to build love between the African-American and Latino communities especially here in L.A. Plus we have Latinos on the west coast that can really rap! I like to show that to the world. There’s so much more to Los Angeles than backpack rap and tired gangstas.”
Ultimately, it’s all about Los Angeles for Murs. Even with one of the leading lights of the east coast rocking the beats, Murs is the definition of a true L.A. homeboy.
“Back in 1997 when I first went to New York, I was just straight serving rappers and nobody wanted to believe I was from Los Angeles,” he laughs. “They were like, ‘You don’t sound like Warren G!’ That’s why I love having Kurupt on the album. There was a time he was living in New York, just on the street battling the most hardcore motherfuckers you can imagine the kind of dudes that might try to punch you in the face for serving you on the mic.”
“It’s time for me to step up and represent,” he says finally. “We all come from different angles out here. When I took Suga Free to New York for the first time, dudes like El-P and Aesop Rock were dying, like ‘Why haven’t we ever heard this guy before?’ We got it out here for real. And more than anything, I just want it to count. Not saying it’s a 5-mic classic or anything, but I like to think that this album counts. 9th and I made a real west coast hip-hop album. 9th is the ultimate southern and east coast hip-hop head, so if he’s down with it, it must be cool, you know? If this guy that does not get me at all—he’s definitely not into my shit, like Vampire Weekend or whatever—if he can feel me at all, then hopefully we have something that everyone can love.”