Actually, it's taken L'Roneous some effort earning recognition for his brains. During an interview at his record- and book-strewn Western Addition apartment, the brawny rapper recalls his days at Encinal High School in Alameda. "There were a lot of preconceived notions about us," he says of the group of black students in his predominantly white school. "We were the athletes. Of course, I was an athlete, too, but I also wanted to be considered a guy who was very educated." It wasn't that he was trying to straddle two communities, he says, as much as attempting to prove he could excel in unanticipated areas.
Similarly, L'Roneous has consistently embraced lyrical prowess, an aspect of hip hop that generally receives less focus. This has led to criticism that he ignores some of hip hop's basic necessities. Rapping is not just a skill but a bundle of skills -- like patting one's head and rubbing one's belly while riding a unicycle and burping the alphabet. L'Roneous admits that, during his early '90s years with San Francisco crew Last to Serve, he paid more attention to lyrical content than to rap's other elements, such as rhythm and tone.
"We used to practice all those things -- inflection, cadence, all that -- rapping with a band," he says. "But the whole thing was, either you are going to say something or you're going to be a style champ. Like, you can have the best style ever, but if you're not saying anything, it doesn't mean anything."
But his lyrical goals led him to a new, crowd-pleasing vocal delivery anyway. "Eventually I realized that saying something all the time is a style," he says. "Especially trying to say something different every song -- you know, not rhyming "mind' and "time' every track you create. So constantly using different words and building on it all, it bounces off each other. It becomes a style."
Still, record executives remained gun-shy about signing gat-free rappers. So L'Roneous was forced to release Imaginarium, his 1998 collaboration with San Francisco's DJ Zeph, on tiny Ocean Floor Records, a label that offered him little promotional support. While Imaginarium garnered fans and critical acclaim via the Internet, L'Roneous remained virtually unknown in the Bay Area.
That oversight is about to change in a hurry. Emeryville crew Anticon is helping rerelease Imaginarium, and L'Ron has two new collaborations out: Dreamweavers with DJ Elusive and The Director's Cuts, an EP with DJ Wisdom of the KUSF-FM show Beatsauce. With the imminent arrival of a second full-length, Purposefully Powerful, L'Roneous should be in the public eye for months. (Also, DJ Zeph is flirting with the idea of releasing an instrumental version of Imaginarium, to follow up his well-received eponymous solo debut, now on shelves.)
Even with this wealth of new, often uptempo material, the mellow Imaginarium stands out as the perfect showcase for L'Roneous' socially minded wordplay. On "Implosion," his chain reaction of rhymes sets off a deeper credo: "I itemize vital ties/ And write rhymes that light the lies/ And define my confines/ So blind minds can feel the heat." On the short opener "Castaway the Stowaways," L'Ron paints old-school hip hop as a "little wooden vessel" that's now swollen to yacht-size, full of "fakers ... sneaking in." On "No Limitations" L'Ron and guest MC Gennessee of the Noble House Crew rise to each other's lyrical challenges, hucking rhymes as crisp as croutons. And on the aptly titled "L'chemy" L'Ron blends narrative and wordplay at dizzying speed, while still allowing Zeph to pour in trumpet-laden interludes. (The latter song is the album's best shot at a gold single, as New York's DJ Bobbito gave it airplay and put it on a mix tape.)
On these and other tracks, L'Roneous' lyrics both stretch the listener's mind and meld intractably with Zeph's beats. But on a few songs, like the insightful racial history narratives "The R.A.I.N.S." and "In the C.O.R.N.," the beats are less married to the words than an excuse for them. After listening to Imaginarium, skeptics might still respond, "Yes, he's clever and deep -- but can he consistently rock the mike?" In other words, four years after his solo debut, does L'Roneous finally qualify as a style champ?
Certainly, his vocal delivery has evolved into a more beat-based, crowd-friendly flow. Unlike on Imaginarium, which revolves around long verses, much of the new material is chorus-related. "I noticed that when I was doing live shows," L'Roneous says. "You want fans to sing your chorus, and you're like, "Oh, there's no chorus in there. There's no choruses on the whole album. I forgot.' So the live shows are influencing my work."
In fact, L'Roneous is growing so fast, both in skills and reputation, that he feels the only way to really appreciate the breadth of his talent is to see him live. "Everybody I know is a DJ, and they are the best DJs in the world, too, and it's just like, 'Oh, they're not playing my stuff, OK, that's cool,'" L'Roneous laments. "But then, you know, we'll do shows together, and they'll be like, 'Damn, you're dope, dude.'"
DJ Wisdom is one friend now firmly in L'Roneous' camp. He served as producer for The Director's Cuts EP, and the two are currently working on a more intricately crafted LP for 2003. Still, when Wisdom considers what makes L'Ron stand out as a rapper, he mentions the MC's lyrical originality, not his flow. "His subject matter is a little sociopolitical, and if he's going to say something, he's going to word it differently," Wisdom says. "It could be the same thing that everyone else is saying, but he's going to go at it from a different angle."
Similarly, frequent collaborator Gennessee emphasizes L'Ron's ability to rap from the heart, instead of the pocketbook. "Of all the people I work with and all the music I hear around the world, L'Roneous is one of the only people that, when he writes music, he doesn't cater [to the mass market]," Gennessee says. "He's just fully 100 percent ... being original."
So L'Ron's lyrics have substance and originality. But the question lingers: Is he as dope as he is deep?
A resounding answer came on a recent frigid June night, in the sardine-packed nightclub Storyville. Opening for conscious rap icon Aceyalone, L'Roneous silenced his doubters at last. In a set crammed with more hooks than a bait shop, he kept the crowd bouncing to his thought-provoking lyrics, including the chant-along chorus of "They Say" from Dreamweavers: "They say my music ain't to dance to/ I like to think I make my music so, so special/ They say my music's too revealing/ I like to think I make this music just for healing."
"Of course I'm dope," L'Roneous responds to what few skeptics remain. "I'm as dope as you are. Come on, we're all in this together. We're all dope."