In Southern California's vibrant underground hip-hop scene, Vel the Wonder's unassuming aura stands out. She's not one to dash across every corner of a stage in hyping the crowd or be backed by a boisterous entourage. The 28-year old rhymer from Baldwin Park lets her deft monotone delivery do all the talking over relaxed boom bap beats, gaining respect from hip-hop heads with every song along the way.
Vel's down-to-earth demeanor about her life as a rapper these days owes, in part, to how unlikely the path seemed, even with growing up in a musical family where classic '90s hip-hop proved to be a ubiquitous soundtrack. "I had no desire to make music," she says of her younger days. Her father used to DJ with a party crew back in the day, but had to sell his equipment when he helped bring her into the world. "He always says that it came back to him through me."
Without even having an established stage name, Vel's life changed one shoot in 2012. A half-dozen women ready to showcase their rhymes assembled on a rooftop overlooking Los Angeles for The Cypher Effect YouTube series. Vel barely had a few incomplete verses uploaded on Soundcloud when she stepped before the cameras and introduced the world to her soothingly consistent delivery reminiscent of Bahamadia and Guru.
Before stepping to the mic, Vel's first love was graffiti. It proved to be a portal into rap music. She learned how to freestyle while rolling with a crew back in the day. Friends set up a makeshift studio in a closet where Vel recorded her first bars when she just turned 22. She liked what she heard, but still never thought rapping would become a definitive part of her creative life.
Around the same time, Vel appeared on the viral episode of The Cypher Effect, producers started hitting her up through Soundcloud. With an online audience wanting to hear more, Manifest approached her about doing an album and the two worked on her debut that became Laced With Pearls in 2014. "It wasn't difficult at all," Vel says of the creative process for the album. "It was very fluid, natural and organic. The response that I get for that album, to this day, blows my mind." Hip-hop heads compared Laced With Pearls with Below the Heavens by Blu & Exile, which only happens to be one of her all-time favorite albums.
Vel took her act on the road, an experience that sharpened the independent artist's business acumen. While on tour with Locally Grown Collective, an OC based hip-hop group, she planted the seeds of her next musical journey, a brave departure from what fans came to expect. Vel always held a love for crooners like Mary J. Blige and Amy Winehouse. She kept humming tunes from the late British singer's debut Frank while traveling when a mutual friend suggested she make an album showcasing her vocals with Locally Grown Collective producer 4th Beats. They all laughed at the thought. But after the tour ended, the idea became a serious one.
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The first couple test tracks showed potential with Vel's breathy vocals finding a space for vulnerable storytelling through 4th Beats relaxed soundscapes. The duo decided to go all the way with the effort dubbed Melotonics but Vel second guessed herself at the finish line. "I was actually more afraid to release that project than I was with 'Laced With Pearls,'" she says. They dropped Melotonics a year ago last December and it only pleased fans who hadn't heard a full-length Vel the Wonder album in three years.
While recording Melotonics with engineer Louden, Vel began writing hip-hop songs that provided an escape from the emotional excavations. "Depending on my attitude, I'd show up and be in a different mood that wasn't so soft and sultry," she says. "We didn't realize it at the time, but that was the beginning of us working on a new album." After taking an artistic risk with Melotonics, she rewarded loyal fans with the more lighthearted Joyride this summer.
Her wondrous journey through the underground continues on Saturday when she headlines the Fourth Annual Womyn in Hip-Hop Gathering, a showcase of all the culture's elements. "From all the women doing their thing, I know that generations to come are going to take it by storm, " Vel says. "I'm having the time of my life right now."
Vel the Wonder performs with Bonnie Blue, Sista Eyerie at the Fourth Annual Womyn in Hip-Hop Gathering at Makara Center for the Arts, 811 N. Main St., Santa Ana. Sat., 6 p.m. $10. All ages.