We’ll never begrudge a rapper moving beyond the cheap sensationalism of bitches, banging and bling, but we also don’t need a loquacious, underemployed PBS viewer schooling us on life’s finer points, as is the custom of many so-called “conscious rappers.”
While The Grouch isn’t above dropping a little science, his manner’s more lighthearted and self-aware. You can hear it on “I Used To Be a Vegan,” which pokes gentle fun at health-food trends and our wavering will.
“It’s something I’m aware of and that I pay attention to when I’m making music. I like to speak on real topics and serious issues, but I don’t want it to be like that all the time. I want there to be some sort of playful balance,” The Grouch says from his Hawaii home. “I’m not a gangsta and I can’t play that role, so I’m just really being me because that’s part of my character, you know? I find humor in a lot of this life that we live, and I just want to include it in my music.”
The Grouch settled in Hawaii a couple years ago after spending most of his life in the Bay Area. He grew up in Oakland and was inspired by early area icons like Digital Underground, Too Short and MC Hammer. He came of age in the ’90s Bay Area cassette culture, the DIY spirit of which inspired a slew of talented like-minded artists such as Murs, Sunspot Jonz (aka BFAP) and Eligh, who’ve made music together in various formations, including the appropriately named Living Legends.
They’d hang out on campuses and in parks in regular locations at certain times, selling their tapes like their own roving retail store. Their success inspired other crews, like Hieroglyphics and Hobo Junction, to forsake the majors as well.
“It was like a store. You could kind of like walk down a block or two and get hit up by different kinds of music,” he recalls. “We would set up little boomboxes to listen to the music and then they could walk to the guy next to us and listen to his music on some headphones. It was a cool time.”
It inspired a hard-working, self-reliant attitude that’s allowed them to cultivate strong underground followings. Over the last 16 years, he’s released more than 30 albums as a solo artist or with others. His latest is Heroes in the Healing of the Nation, recorded with the group Zion-I (MC Zumbi and DJ AmpLive). It’s sort of the follow-up to their 2006 collaboration, Heroes in the City of Dope.
“Healing of the Nation was just trying to bring more positive music to the people. We felt like they needed it really bad when we made that album,” he says. “We’re trying to uplift people and get them thinking and knowing that they’re powerful individuals, even though they might feel defeated by the system. Or feel like they can’t achieve their dreams. We’re trying to turn that idea around and let people know that they are divine spirits and we all have power inside of us. If we harness it we can make a lot of things happen.”
As part of the accompanying tour, they invited community activist and outreach organizations to speak and put up booths to help raise money and consciousnesses. For this, his fifth annual “How the Grouch Stole Christmas” tour, he won’t be doing anything as extensive, but will be soliciting gifts for Toys for Tots and canned goods for local food banks. He’ll be joined by Zion-I and his old buddy Eligh, who just last month released Therapy at 3.
Though he’s living in Hawaii now, The Grouch still feels a kinship with Oakland, and the Occupy Wall Street protesters there.
“I’m proud to see people standing up and recognizing that things are not right and recognizing that they had a voice,” he says.