Photo by Gregory BojorquezBetween a tangled garland of five freeways—the 57, 105, 91, 5 and 605—is the space where LA and OC bleed together. "It's in the middle of nowhere, but it's in the middle of everywhere," says rapper AWOL One, describing his home territory with the type of understated, think-about-it-a-second-time wisdom that marks his best lyrics. "Right here is the same as any other little area."
Seated in the living room of the La Habra apartment he shares with his family, AWOL One (a.k.a. "Awolrus") is the picture of normalcy, of everywhere/nowhere. He has just vacuumed. He's looking forward to his 7-year-old daughter's softball game. This weekend, he's gonna check out Harry Potter with his fiance's young son. He's Mr. Mom, seemingly far from the man who has authored such troubled lines as "Don't be afraid to admit your downfalls/We all got 'em/And I think that I got 'em all" and "I get drunk/And make beautiful things ugly" and "I'm a master blaster disaster disorder."
And so, with one eye trained on the muted Wave Twisters video on the TV, with the river sound of passing traffic seeping through the kitchen window, he explains how he got here. How Tony Martin—27, husky-bodied and dusky-voiced—became AWOL One, a rising underground rap star who, on the day I find him, has been given the treatment on hiphophunks.com ("AWOL has a very nice, deep voice. His music has a unique sound, and he tells personal stories in his songs. Click on the hearts for a closer look . . . but don't touch, this guy is taken!"). AWOL One's Souldoubt (created with producer Daddy Kev) is a beguiling, bizarre and bottomlessly imaginative concept record. It's one of the year's best albums, a weird mix of pathos and sci-fi, of humor and depression, a collection of stabs at stability in a disturbed world.
"It gets crazy sometimes," he says, looking out the window. "Sometimes it's chill. You'll see cholos kicking it right here—you go down the street, there's some cats skating there. Real diverse. I definitely gotta hustle to keep this spot. I just want to be stable. My family, we were always moving. I went to three high schools. I was born in Montebello, grew up around Whittier, Norwalk—this side of things. I got four half-brothers. My pops, he's a crazy dude—working all the time, not really keeping a job but always finding one and trying to make it happen real quick. Pretty much all the high schools I went to, there was always gang activity—gangs throwing rocks at the bus, people fighting in class. I dropped out of that to party. Me and the homies, man—we used to have sick-ass fry parties. I was doing pretty much every drug you can think of in high school days. You're just being young, hanging out with older cats, partying it up. But my dad always taught me, 'All right, just have a job, provide for yourself—that's how it goes down.'
"So when I was 16, I was already working. I did surveys at the mall, talked to some girls: 'Hey, uh . . . what kind of shampoo do you use? Are you between the age of 17 and 35?' Got some phone numbers. I worked at a Taco Bell, a hardware store, three different pizza spots. I was washing dishes, listening to the radio. I had the fucking stoner jobs. You have time to think about other shit. But I never had anybody helping me out financially. It's always me and my girl. I've definitely had a hard time. And I'm still young. And we've all felt like that, you know. That's why [the music] relates to people 'cause it sorta touches on something. It's always generated from shit that's around me."
AWOL's rapping style—a melodic, rhyming flow that verges on singing—is uniquely musical, perhaps reflecting his father's musicianship ("My dad plays guitar. He has like 10 cuts, and he's been doin' 'em ever since I was a kid. So you know once everybody's partying, you're gonna hear it.") as much as it does his own diverse record collection ("I got Diamond D next to Soft Cell, Jungle Brothers next to the Cure, GWAR next to A Tribe Called Quest.").
Whatever its inspiration, AWOL's style is one that not everyone picks up on—nor are they meant to. "Most people will never get it. But that doesn't matter. It's always been like, 'Who the fuck is actually gonna listen to this song?' I think that's why it took so long to catch on 'cause it's so 'What is this?' But at the same time, I am an MC. I've been doing this like 10 years. It took a long time to build it. But I always got some kind of reaction every time I grabbed the mic somewhere. That's what keeps you going. It's like, 'What? People actually like what the hell I'm talking about?'
"My brain is so sporadic. So much random shit. When I was a kid, I was absorbing all kinds of cartoons and TV and movies and propaganda. The other day, we were cleaning up some stuff, and I found all kinds of Thundercats shit. I'd totally forgot about that. And right when I seen it, I was like, 'Ohhhh, yeah . . . '"
Souldoubt—one rapper, one producer, one album concept, one-word song topics—was a conscious effort to cut down on the "sporadic."
"There's just so much random stuff out there. We were just like, 'We gotta do a concept record,' rather than one dude going around [to other producers and MCs], getting all these different vibes from people and shit. That's not a complete feel, a full vibe. It started like that, and then it just developed.
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"What I'm gonna try to keep doing is just to keep it on a [single] vibe. The next record with Kev is called Number 3 on the Phone—'cause number 3 on the phone has the letters DEF. We got these phone things we're gonna do that's gonna interchange between the songs. It's not just random shit; it's a whole vibe. Even Speakerface [a long-aborning collaboration between AWOL and producers Mike Nardone and Kutmasta Kurt that's due next year] is a vibe."
AWOL arrived in New York on Sept. 10 for a set of shows. "We landed, and the next morning was when it happened, probably like 30 blocks away. The person that we were staying with turned on the TV and just started crying. We went out there, and we saw all the smoke and everything. We were inside, glued to the TV, going, 'Is this happening?' That night, we were all watching TV, and it said the Mass was gonna be held at 666 E. Babylon! We were like, 'Oh, my God! This is the end of the world, right now; we're watching it on TV!' What a coincidence. . . . "
After a few days, "I wanted to go home. I thought this was just the beginning. And I thought if I was gonna die, I want to die with my family. So three of us got on a Greyhound to get back to LA. It took three days. I read magazines; I wrote rhymes. I had so much quiet time to myself. Figured out a lot of shit."
Home with the family: back to normal, back to stable. Back to shows with the crew AWOL has been part of for years, the Shapeshifters. "For Halloween, we did this show at the Galaxy [Concert Theatre]. Three hundred people in costume! It was a mad party. I think the devil was there that night. He was dressed as . . . the devil." AWOL shrugs. Chuckles. Wonders . . .