By Daniel Kohn
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A mixture of luck, fate, a CD and a hand-me-down book coalesced to bring peace and personal responsibility to local rapper Taylor Smith. They formed the backbone of this once-troubled Newport Beach 25-year-old's positive hip-hop message, which is poignantly evident on his new album, Stay Grateful.
"The whole basis of Stay Grateful is being able to give back to someone else what someone has given to me," Smith explains. "I'm saying, 'Look, this is what I've been through; you're not alone. People go through this, and it's part of life.'"
At age 13, Smith played in a pop-punk band called Simple Minds. They gigged for a few years, got some radio play, and sold out a bunch of OC venues. When he was 16, the members all went their separate ways. Smith went on to do a solo project using his guitar and computer. Then an acquaintance gave him a burned CD.
"He said I really had to listen to it, that it was rap, but that it had a really good message," Smith recalls. "I never saw the guy again; he went off to rehab and just sort of disappeared, but I was left with this CD. So I put it in, and the first song was Sage Francis' 'Makeshift Patriot.' At that moment, hearing that style of conscious, underground hip-hop, I realized that people were using music as a medium to express themselves and also relate a message to people for a good cause."
Around that time, Smith was working through his own demons. He had gotten into heavy drugs, had been kicked out of his house, and was hanging out with some shady people.
"I was doing a lot of meth and heroin. I was running drugs for people, holding guns and running with gangs," he says. "I ended up stealing a car and got caught."
Just before going to jail, Smith received a book from a friend of a friend, who explained that it had been given to her, that she was really inspired by it, and she thought that he, too, would get some inspiration from it.
"So I had this book, Ishmael, that had been tattered and torn and passed through, like, 20 people. I read it, and it played a really big part in my spiritual awakening," Smith says. "The author, Daniel Quinn, is someone I really admire. He continues to propagate a good message through his books."
After coming off three years of drug use and going to jail for six weeks, Smith knew he had to change.
"I had always known the drug thing wasn't for me," he says. "I had always felt out of place. I had everything, and I threw it all away."
Just six months after his release, Smith was offered a job with the OC software and web-development company liveBooks. Its owners, Matt Bailey and Michael Costuros, helped Smith along in his final transformation. Soon after starting with liveBooks, Smith began making beats, writing lyrics and recording raps.
In addition to the personal inspiration that Smith has taken from his Buddhist bosses and their positive, eco-friendly company focus, he uses his job as a tool to disseminate his message to the masses.
"I can't justify asking someone to pay $10 for something that I feel they wouldn't benefit from," Smith explains about his free-CD and -show policy. "My job enables me to do what I'm doing. Making a comfortable living enables me to play shows for free and to give out my CDs for free. It aligns more with my goals as a musician and the way I think."
Essentially, Smith has come full circle. From his song "Young Again," which skillfully chronicles his story, to "Stay Grateful," he's working to help others learn through his life lessons.
"Just giving back: That's the shit I live off. Just knowing that I was able to do for someone else what someone's done for me—returning the favor," Smith says, smiling. "Give a priceless gift to someone, enable them to grow from it, then pass it on to someone else."
Taylor Smith performs with Eyedea & Abilities, Ivan Ives, and the Nucc at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 463-0204; www.knittingfactory.com. Thurs., Dec. 6, 8 p.m. $15. All ages. For more information, visit www.staygrateful.com.