When producer and MC Thavius Beck arrived in LA as a 16-year-old kid, he stepped off the bus (just like Axl in “Welcome to the Jungle”) and got a ride with a father he barely knew to a street he’d heard about only in Menace 2 Society. And on the way to his new home, he even got to drive through Skid Row.
“It was pretty much a mindfuck, to be honest,” he says now, laughing. “Like, ‘Oh, shit, I heard about Crenshaw!’”
But as he cruises comfortably past 30 years old, he describes himself as basically an Angeleno. He spent years behind a counter at Amoeba Records—a true sign of absorption into local music—and after years solo and in local groups such as Global Phlowtations and the crushing duo LabWaste, he has a discography that marks him as one of LA’s most uncompromising hip-hop artists.
This year saw the release of his third solo album, Dialogue,on Mush, an ultra-dense, ultra-digital album that sounds like the future hip-hop expected would be here by 2010. Beck combines the overcranked aesthetic of the Bomb Squad with the intensity of a band like Suicide, and you can hear the pixels crack and squelch between gunshots and sirens and Beck’s fearless lyrics about the personal and political. Although he has worked with Nas, Trent Reznor, Saul Williams and most recently Nocando (for Jimmy the Lock)—plus scoring part of the new Suicide Girls horror movie—he also has something of a reputation as a committed iconoclast. Not that he’s exactly buying into that.
“Certain words lose their meaning when they’re thrown out to anybody,” he says. “I’ve been called a genius a few times, which is absolutely absurd. ‘Iconoclast’ is very flattering, but I don’t know. I try not to pigeonhole myself. I’m not to the point where I have an image and aura around me and people wanna imitate the thing I trailblazed—it’s not like that! It’s a nice exaggeration.”
He already has another left-turn project in the works: a collaboration with once-lost-but-now-found MC Blackbird, originally from the ambitious hip-hop crew Darkleaf, that he says attaches aggressive punk spirit to “sleazy” uptempo dance beats. Besides that, he hopes to finish new songs for LabWaste, a partnership with rapper/producer Subtitle that’s one of the signature outfits in LA. And besides that, he’s driving around listening to a lot of classical music on the radio. Even though he’s actually certified to teach people how to make beats—thanks to the nice folks at Ableton—he doesn’t put much time into listening to hip-hop or electronic music, he says. Instead, it’s Jean-Luc Ponty, Faust and Mahavishnu Orchestra.
“You know, it’s weird. I’ve never really been a big music fan,” he says. “The people I’m into, it’s not because of their music—it’s more how they go about what they do. I respect the route they’ve taken. I love progressive, jazz, alternative rock stuff—stuff that tries to do something different.
“For motivation, I look to my friends who are still doing shit and being progressive,” he continues. “Daedelus is one of my favorite examples: He did what he’s done without latching on to a crew or a clique. All his accolades are based on him being himself. If I do something out of my personality, I can’t sleep well. It’s gonna be out forever—long after I’m dead—and it doesn’t represent who I am. It’s something I take seriously. Music is therapeutic to me.”
That’s where he gets astringent songs such as Dialogue’s “Sometimes . . .,” with a beat that suddenly shifts from cheerful to fearful as Beck cracks into an unsparing self-examination: “29 years and I still don’t get it. . . . Music and not too much else to my credit,” he raps. But immediate follow-up “Pressure” answers that sentiment with determination and resolve: “Live your life with some purpose/Otherwise this shit is worthless. . . . Even the pressure is precious.”
“You can’t get discouraged,” he says. “I could say 1,000 negative things, but what’s the point? I could say 1,000 positive things to cancel them out. Before I did the record, I did feel really down. But you can’t expect to get what the next man gets because you’re not the next man. That goes back to why I couldn’t see myself making booty-bass dance shit I didn’t believe in—music is truly an extension of who I am as a person.”
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Thavius Beck, presented by Big Audio, with Remo and Ghetto at the Basement Lounge, 149 Linden Ave., Long Beach; www.basementloungelb.com. Thurs., April 22, 9 p.m. Free before 9:45 p.m., $5 after. 21+.
This article appeared in print as "Classic Beats: Hip-hop iconoclast Thavius Beck collaborates with Nas, listens to Faust."