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What journeyman rapper Murs learned from gangstas, Tech N9ne, and Blake Shelton

Study Sessions



Murs isn't easily intimidated. The South Central L.A.-raised rapper once refused to hand over his wallet to two Bloods armed with 9mms simply because he didn't want to go to the DMV to get a new license. "You can kill me,” he told the two gang members. “That was where I drew the line," says Murs, who came away body and license unscathed. "I think the confidence just confused them a little bit."

The industrious 36-year-old rapper may have grown up in South Central, but unlike so many of his hip-hop peers, he escaped it via underground hip-hop, not gangsta rap. In high school, Murs formed 3 Melancholy Gypsys, with high school mates Scarub and Eligh. Later the trio joined Living Legends, arguably the most successful West Coast independent hip-hop crew of that time. By the early 2000s, he was on indie powerhouse label Def Jux, and as he turned 30, he'd graduated to the majors — in this case, Warner Brothers, releasing Murs for President in 2008.

But Murs' major label run didn't last. While so many other rappers today are thug wannabes or disco-hall MCs, he's an everyman artist who raps about real life. Yes, he can drop science like Black Thought or Disposable Heroes-era Michael Franti, but Murs typically sidesteps the soapbox. Guns and gangsters appear, but they're just a subplot. For him, the fascination with gangsta rap comes down to authenticity. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line his fellow rappers confused "authenticity" with being authentic. They became obsessed with creating Scarface-esque personas and living gangsta-like lifestyles, failing to understand that Anthony Hopkins didn't have to eat someone's face to be convincing as Hannibal Lecter.

"We love authenticity — black, white, red. You can connect to it. If some black kids would give country music a chance, they'd find some songs they could really connect to," he says. "Watching The Voice, I connect with Blake Shelton. I think he's an authentic person. I don't relate to what he's gone through or what's his lifestyle, but I get it."

But as Credence's John Fogerty proved, it's not necessary to have lived it to sing it. Murs just wishes all the gangsta rappers would admit, "'I'm just acting,' because they go to such lengths to say, 'I'm making it real.'"

"The brilliance of N.W.A. was that no one was saying this 30 years ago. My mother told me, 'Nobody wants to hear that. They'll never go anywhere.' They were really being revolutionary, and now everybody's been riding their coattails for the last 30 years," he says, drawing an important distinction with today's gangstas. "They weren't taking themselves super seriously, and that's, to me, the key."

Since Murs' major label moment six years ago, he's been wandering a bit. He's always done plenty of collaborations. There were four albums and a couple EPs with Atmosphere under the name Felt and five discs with 9th Wonder, but the pace has picked up as of late. The last three years have featured albums with Terrace Martin (2011's Melrose) and Fashawn (2012's This Generation), tracks with Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar, and a rock album, The Ghetto is Tryna Kill Me, with Bad Brains bassist Darryl Jenifer under the name the White Mandingos and an EP called Whole Wheat Bread.

He's also been traveling from label to label. In 2011 he released, Love & Rockets: The Transformation for Damon Dash's BLUROC label. The Fashawn album came out on rising New York-indie Duck Down Music and the Mandingos album on Fat Beats Records. In February, he announced that he'd found a home with Tech N9ne's label, Strange Music.

A few years ago Mur left L.A. for Tucson, and recently he became a father, adopting an infant and a teenager. He's entering a new phase in his life and sees Strange Music as a place he can settle in. "I'm happy with my new home and surroundings. They have a great work ethic and are just very straightforward businessmen. I couldn't have picked a better match as far as decent family men, hardworking and very supportive of art," he says. He's also preparing for the second volume of his Love & Rockets trilogy, The Declaration.

"Strange Music is my home. That's settled. I have a home and kids. So that's pretty settled, so I think The Declaration is about who I am and who we are. And I think after 40 years, hip-hop is also ready to make that declarative statement that it's here to stay," Murs says. "A lot of people inside and outside the culture treat [rap] like it's a hustle — like, 'I don't' know how long rap is going to be around,' and trying to 'get the money I can and get out.'"

Murs on the other hand is down for the commitment. Since moving to Arizona several years ago, he's spent more time with his label Murs 316. He's attempting to bridge the gap between music magazine and record label, curating a variety of rap artists.

"I kind of want label 316 to be a monthly thing, so every month we put out a new artist. It's not necessarily what they sound like, it's about their work ethic," offers the prodigious rapper. "I just want to put our artists that are hard working and give them like a glorified co-sign. That's what I'm trying to build. Every month if you want some good music to listen to, here's the label, and I promise you it will be authentic."

Murs will make his Strange Music debut this summer with Mursday, written in collaboration with Strange Music labelmates, ¡MAYDAY! The release brings to a close the collaborative part of his career.

"I intend for that to be my last collaboration. I've been trying to close all my doors and get it all out because with The Declaration, hopefully, that's me being able to focus on me as an artist for once," he says. "I collaborate a lot to learn from people. I'm not tired of studying, but I think I studied enough."

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