The best kept secret. Photo by John Gilhooley
The best kept secret. Photo by John Gilhooley

Walk the Line

You can get burgers 24 hours a day and beers till 2 a.m. in Orange County, but this particular night, rappers LMNO and Rahbu were after something stronger: "I had a craving to record and we were in OC and I knew it was a long shot—there's nowhere to record down here," says LMNO, a co-founder of independent hip-hop group the Visionaries, a longtime solo artist, the kind of guy who pops awake in the middle of the night with an instant idea for a song. And Rahbu knew a place: his friend LD's garage. So they made a call and hopped on the freeway, and when they pulled up in one of those Huntington Beach neighborhoods where aerospace warehouses flatten out the skyline, there was a girl stomping across the lawn. At that point, says LMNO, he could tell this was something special: "This is a soldier!" he laughs now. "He just kicked his girlfriend out so we could record. A kid after my own heart!"

That girl is long gone by now, chased away by the first just-for-fun song LMNO recorded with LD that night. But the very next song they did together turned into the lead single for LMNO's 2005 full-length P's and Q's, an impressive bull's-eye on the second try for a then-little-known—and then-too-young-to-even-drink—DJ and hip-hop producer. And that "Industry Revival" single fired even more lightning into a climactic year and a half—death, divorce, doing a song with Dead Prez—for LD and his partner Ariano, a fast-rising and ferociously self-propelled hip-hop duo who've just finished their first-ever full-length in the garage studio they christened the Technicali Tabernacle, after the local hip-hop crew they represent.

"While A&Rs blaze cigars/We out on the street/Makin' beats in the garage," raps Ariano on A Thin Line, an album as much about the state of a craft and a culture as it is about the lives of the guys who wrote it beat by line during determined all-day-and-night recording sessions: "Like building a car while it's driving," says Ariano. And now A Thin Line sweeps fully assembled over the surface streets with obvious and unapologetic passion, every song supercharged with a golden-age gleam on the production—LD found bedrock for his big-beat sound in classic NYC crate-diggers like Lord Finesse, Showbiz and DJ Premier—and a rattled honesty that makes Ariano's lyrics about cash-flush cartoon-character rappers ("When the music stops and reality starts/Most of these rappers have no hearts") and political catastrophe ("I got a gun and clips/But it's only for the president and Congress") as personal and urgent as his lyrics about friends' and family members' deaths from cancer ("You told me you fear less/Because you accepted God's test/But it's hard to digest that you'll be gone/And I'll be on my own").

If it's not a new landmark, Thin Line—reinforced with appearances by hip-hop heavyweights like Chali2Na and Akil from Jurassic 5, 2MEX and Key Kool and LMNO from the Visionaries, Life Rexall from the Shape Shifters, DJ Rhettmatic from the Beat Junkies, and even RBX from the good ol' Dogg Pound—is a precise and powerful new soundtrack for the familiar drive down Beach Boulevard. Hip-hop is a culture in crisis, says Ariano, but all it needs is a mic, a DJ and an MC to bring the heat: "As long as LD's got hands, I got plans to stay cookin'/Walking the streets from OC to Brooklyn!"

*   *   *

When Ariano was one of the few kids at Woodbridge High in Irvine who were into hip-hop, he got the full treatment—obnoxious jocky kids fake beatboxing into his face or asking him if he was a gangster—and it seems like something he never forgot. Besides an immediately engaging humility—the kind that comes from being the kind of kid who doesn't beatbox into other people's faces—he says the title for A Thin Line came out of the categories he felt himself pushed into: "Growing up in the early '90s or late '80s, being in OC, just being a so-called 'white rapper,'" he says now. "It's not that way as much anymore, but even now, you're always kind of put in a box. Like for most people: it's a quick answer, a quick label."

Things move fast, though: when LD was making his way through Mater Dei just a few years ago, a lot of kids listened to hip-hop. Just not good hip-hop, he says: "A lot of kids . . . trying to rap," he remembers politely. But a late-career transfer to Valley Vista continuation school helped him become "seriously dedicated," he says. Since age 9, he'd played the drums, slipping through every kind of half-there band a good young drummer finds: punk bands, rock bands, cover bands, hardcore bands, he says, finishing the list with "crazy screamo shit" and a small smile. Then he heard a needle scribble in a groove: "I would hear it and be like, 'What the hell is that? That noise?'" he says. "And from there, the beats. I always liked soul music—it had so much feeling, and I was into anything with so much feeling. So from there, I played like hip-hop drums—because you could feel them."

Now they're a pair cast for the kind of contrast that looks good in a silent movie: LD the DJ, a slim and fresh-faced 21-year-old just a few years from skimming mixtapes during science class, and Ariano the MC, a 30-year-old single dad with a stack of solo records, an abandoned major-label contract and a set of shoulders that could fill out a linebacker's jersey. They should have been the last guys in the county to cross paths—on the day Ariano was leaning against the wall at a Dre and R. Kelly recording session, LD was probably wondering what sixth grade was going to be like. But they found each other from a homemade beat CD LD passed to Ariano two and a half years ago ("No way this is by some 19-year-old cat from Huntington Beach!" laughs Ariano, remembering) and that started their classic DJ-and-MC collaboration. On "The Price of Freedom," Ariano—a guy who makes sure his collaborators get plenty of lyrical acknowledgment—lets the chorus set the credits: "He speaks with his hands/I speak with the mic."

Honestly, says Ariano, he never notices the age thing until someone brings it up. LD nods with him. For them, it's the chance to finally work as hard as they can—they meet daily in the garage at 9 a.m. to start farming beats and rhymes. They were two high-powered guys—after painfully extricating himself from a major label he calls a "cemetery for artists," Ariano blew through postpartum depression and put out a string of solo albums all by himself—who never found anyone who could really keep up with them until now. And the thing Ariano likes about LD's production—the way he can melt a 20-year-old Cheryl Ladd disco hook into a break sampled live from LD's own drum set—is the same thing that makes A Thin Line more than just a lot of exercise and early mornings: "Honest lyrics over chopped-up beats which have been taken from other beautiful music that is not hip-hop," he says. "You basically meshed 30 years together."

*   *   *

"The last thing I would have expected was a group claiming Huntington Beach," says Key Kool, co-founder of both the hip-hop group Visionaries and the powerhouse hip-hop Long Beach label Up Above, which released LD and Ariano's "Hidden Jewel" single last November. "But they fill in another pocket of cats that want to show that hip-hop is so universal. They're another part of why Southern California is so beautiful—why it's such an exciting place. The lines are never clear in Southern California."

Kool says LMNO is the guy who made sure LD and Ariano crossed his CD player sometime last year. They're real humble but really talented, he says, eager but respectful and patient—you don't find that a lot these days, he says. On the ride out to SXSW last March—in a van full of a good half of Southern California's most famous independent hip-hop personalities—Kool got to overhear a certain kind of backseat chatter that reminded him of the way accomplished jazz guys used to show the new crew the tricks. And at his Up Above showcase in Austin, he was beaming backstage as LD and Ariano hoisted a startled crowd to their tiptoes.

Offstage, shrugs LD, they each have their quirks: "All artists are characters," he says. But onstage is hard work: Ariano steamrolls his stage fright with relentless rehearsals—running through lyrics in the motel room for four hours before a show—and tracks the front-row crowds from face to face, looking for the sulkers or skeptics who need a little extra poke. "If someone's got their head down, I focus on them," he says. "Smile at them—win them over one by one." He's the same big friendly guy onstage as he is off, exaggerated to make sure everyone notices—clapping palms with the little backpacker kids who always squeeze up close to the stage, winging quick salutes to the balcony seats in the back, bouncing on bent legs between the corners to keep every eye following him, and pointing the light back to LD about every other beat: "Look at my DJ killin' it!"

Then LD is up on his toes, riding his sliders with a light-fingered bomb-squad technician's touch. Most rappers sop up all the attention for themselves, says LMNO, but Ariano always makes sure LD gets plenty of fireworks ("All you MCs with no DJs, your town is over!"). Which he deserves: he has an athleticism and precision that are unmistakable to novices and righteously familiar to the established DJs who get the headlines. At a sound check with legendary Beat Junkie Rhettmatic—a guy who does for turntables what Dick Dale did for the guitar, who also produced LD and Ariano's "Hidden Jewel" single—Kool says every person in the venue froze and turned to watch the old master and the young apprentice bat some acrobatics back and forth. That reminds me of me, veteran Visionaries might have thought. LMNO did—time with LD and Ariano is like running with himself from 10 years ago, he laughs.

"For a while, even before meeting them, I was sort of struggling with a level of hope for the future of hip-hop," he says. "Not to be so clichéd! But I was concerned—I love the culture. And when I met LD and Ariano, I was like, 'Wow, there is a future!'"

*   *   *

After he finishes his interview, Ariano has to go pick up his son—do the family thing, he says—and after that, he has to do a track with the Wu-Tang Clan's U-God. Before that came tracks with Dead Prez—who are supposed to hate white people, Ariano laughs. One of the worst things that happened to hip-hop was how it was divided, he says: if you're not hard, you're soft. There's no in between.

"A lot of hip-hop out there isolates people—it's like, 'Look what I'm doing! You're not doing this!'" says Ariano. "It's separation. But I wanna do a song with Paula Cole, Fiona Apple and Ice Cube—because it's just supposed to be music, and that's supposed to be everything. I heard a cat say about music that the whole point is to make other people feel human. It's easy to not talk about stuff, especially with hip-hop—with words, you can just dance around stuff. But I feel like we've got something to say."

He grins a little, leaning back on a stool in the Technicali Tabernacle.

"If I didn't, I'd feel like we were just hustling people!"



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