Photo by Up Above Records "Some writer said we were a bad Benetton ad," says Key-Kool, a former English major at UCLA and co-founder of Long Beach based hip-hop group the Visionaries, reminiscing about one of the Visionaries' first reviews. "Growing up in the South Bay, I would b-boy, skate, play sports, DJ, go to the beach—that's the Southern California experience. My friends were thugs and AP students."
Perhaps only Ozomatli—or maybe the Village People—have as much multicultural flavor as the Visionaries, six from-around-here guys with a decade of performance, a trio of albums, a fondness for off-center lyrics about hugging their moms and lifetimes of happy cultural schizophrenia between them: Filipino DJ Rhettmatic (member of the World Famous Beat Junkies, as well as the architect behind most of the Visionaries' beats) is from Cerritos (the most ethnically diverse city in the nation, according to the 1990 census), Japanese MC Key-Kool is from Torrance, LMNO is the Caucasian kid who spits fast-paced rhymes about his hometown of Long Beach, 2Mex is a Los Angeles resident whose geeky approach includes rapping a few Weezer lyrics into his songs, Dannu is Filipino by birth but a San Diego resident by choice, and Lord Zen is an African-American cat from the South Bay and a member of Writer's Block with Dannu.
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"I grew up behind the Roadium Swap Meet off Redondo Beach Boulevard," Kool says, remembering the very beginnings of the group. "Steve Yano, this Japanese-American cat, used to sell these tapes made by Dr. Dre that were immaculate four-track mixes. Yano introduced Dr. Dre to Eazy E. N.W.A started right there at the Roadium Swap Meet. There was this article I read that said, 'Is the South Bay the South Bronx of West Coast hip-hop?'"
Kool met LMNO in 1989 after being drafted by gangsta rapper and B-movie actor Ice-T to be members of a hip-hop group called United Nations Committee. They became friends and worked on collaborations throughout the early '90s. The first beginnings of the Visionaries was on Key-Kool and DJ Rhettmatic's 1995 release, Kozmonautz, recognized in the hip-hop history books as the first hip-hop album made by Asian-Americans —and an album that almost disappeared after their distributor filed for bankruptcy. It was also the first release for Kool's Up Above Records, currently located in Long Beach. The song "Visionaries (Stop Acting Scary)" was the first track by the current lineup: "Right from the start, the chemistry was obvious," says Kool. "We all liked each other as people and as MCs. Shortly after Kozmonautz, we began performing together."
Their most recent album, Pangaea, named after the original continent before the tectonic plates shifted, was released last February to considerable acclaim: URB Magazine said, "Merely damn-good tracks are the exception, with fucking great being the norm." It's the best showcase for the group yet, magnifying the rhyme, beat and turntable skills of each member, a rapid, coherent and focused examination of everything from their own music on "DoMakeSayThink" to their relationships with one another on the title track. Besides Rhettmatic (who reminds us why he was a DMC West Coast turntable champ), Pangaea pulled in some of Southern California's most talented beatmakers, like Babu, J-Rocc, Evidence, Life Rexall of the Shape Shifters, Kan Kick, and Madlib's brother OhNo, who used his family DNA to produce a simple yet smooth bass beat for "Good Things." And they still remember where they came from: one weekend this past May, they did a three-day run from New York City through Berkeley to Fullerton, traveling more than 7,000 miles in 48 hours—and arriving 90 minutes early to sign posters for their hometown fans.
Charlie Rose contributed to this article. The Visionaries at the One Year Anniversary of Root Down at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-7022. SAT., 9 P.M. $10. 21+.