Walk the Line

Straight outta cartoon country: Hip-hop reality starts with LD and Ariano

You can get burgers 24 hours a day and beers till 2 a.m. in Orange County, but this particular night, rappers LMNO and Rahbu were after something stronger: "I had a craving to record and we were in OC and I knew it was a long shot—there's nowhere to record down here," says LMNO, a co-founder of independent hip-hop group the Visionaries, a longtime solo artist, the kind of guy who pops awake in the middle of the night with an instant idea for a song. And Rahbu knew a place: his friend LD's garage. So they made a call and hopped on the freeway, and when they pulled up in one of those Huntington Beach neighborhoods where aerospace warehouses flatten out the skyline, there was a girl stomping across the lawn. At that point, says LMNO, he could tell this was something special: "This is a soldier!" he laughs now. "He just kicked his girlfriend out so we could record. A kid after my own heart!"

That girl is long gone by now, chased away by the first just-for-fun song LMNO recorded with LD that night. But the very next song they did together turned into the lead single for LMNO's 2005 full-length P's and Q's, an impressive bull's-eye on the second try for a then-little-known—and then-too-young-to-even-drink—DJ and hip-hop producer. And that "Industry Revival" single fired even more lightning into a climactic year and a half—death, divorce, doing a song with Dead Prez—for LD and his partner Ariano, a fast-rising and ferociously self-propelled hip-hop duo who've just finished their first-ever full-length in the garage studio they christened the Technicali Tabernacle, after the local hip-hop crew they represent.

"While A&Rs blaze cigars/We out on the street/Makin' beats in the garage," raps Ariano on A Thin Line, an album as much about the state of a craft and a culture as it is about the lives of the guys who wrote it beat by line during determined all-day-and-night recording sessions: "Like building a car while it's driving," says Ariano. And now A Thin Line sweeps fully assembled over the surface streets with obvious and unapologetic passion, every song supercharged with a golden-age gleam on the production—LD found bedrock for his big-beat sound in classic NYC crate-diggers like Lord Finesse, Showbiz and DJ Premier—and a rattled honesty that makes Ariano's lyrics about cash-flush cartoon-character rappers ("When the music stops and reality starts/Most of these rappers have no hearts") and political catastrophe ("I got a gun and clips/But it's only for the president and Congress") as personal and urgent as his lyrics about friends' and family members' deaths from cancer ("You told me you fear less/Because you accepted God's test/But it's hard to digest that you'll be gone/And I'll be on my own").

The best kept secret. Photo by John Gilhooley
The best kept secret. Photo by John Gilhooley

If it's not a new landmark, Thin Line—reinforced with appearances by hip-hop heavyweights like Chali2Na and Akil from Jurassic 5, 2MEX and Key Kool and LMNO from the Visionaries, Life Rexall from the Shape Shifters, DJ Rhettmatic from the Beat Junkies, and even RBX from the good ol' Dogg Pound—is a precise and powerful new soundtrack for the familiar drive down Beach Boulevard. Hip-hop is a culture in crisis, says Ariano, but all it needs is a mic, a DJ and an MC to bring the heat: "As long as LD's got hands, I got plans to stay cookin'/Walking the streets from OC to Brooklyn!"

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When Ariano was one of the few kids at Woodbridge High in Irvine who were into hip-hop, he got the full treatment—obnoxious jocky kids fake beatboxing into his face or asking him if he was a gangster—and it seems like something he never forgot. Besides an immediately engaging humility—the kind that comes from being the kind of kid who doesn't beatbox into other people's faces—he says the title for A Thin Line came out of the categories he felt himself pushed into: "Growing up in the early '90s or late '80s, being in OC, just being a so-called 'white rapper,'" he says now. "It's not that way as much anymore, but even now, you're always kind of put in a box. Like for most people: it's a quick answer, a quick label."

Things move fast, though: when LD was making his way through Mater Dei just a few years ago, a lot of kids listened to hip-hop. Just not good hip-hop, he says: "A lot of kids . . . trying to rap," he remembers politely. But a late-career transfer to Valley Vista continuation school helped him become "seriously dedicated," he says. Since age 9, he'd played the drums, slipping through every kind of half-there band a good young drummer finds: punk bands, rock bands, cover bands, hardcore bands, he says, finishing the list with "crazy screamo shit" and a small smile. Then he heard a needle scribble in a groove: "I would hear it and be like, 'What the hell is that? That noise?'" he says. "And from there, the beats. I always liked soul music—it had so much feeling, and I was into anything with so much feeling. So from there, I played like hip-hop drums—because you could feel them."

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