What I’m Listening To is a series where we talk to exciting artists and musicians and get a five-song slice of their current playlist.
Bru Lei remembers singing to Michael Jackson, Queen, and Prince as a kid. It wasn’t until third grade he saw hip-hop on TV. At that time, his uncle Marvin had a studio where he recorded musicians from all sorts of genres including rap. [Uncle Marvin] also would judge local talent shows in Cleveland, where they lived. “It was cool to see that at a young age,” says Lei, who is now a rapper and this month’s WILT playlist curator.
Lei started as a solo artist, before joining the first of many professional rap groups, Spitball. The band was signed in 2001 by the Detroit label who put out Eminem’s first LP before he got big. The band was helmed by producer DJ Przm. “He had control of the creative process and on the business side of things he handled most of the group’s movement. The beats would be made and if he saw a good fit for you Przm would include you on the song. I felt a lot of pressure to record sometimes because Przm attracted a ton of talented people. I learned a lot and I started writing 10 times more than I previously did.” Aside from featuring on a few songs, Lei would only record and perform with Spitball. “I would get offered shows but I didn’t have enough solo material because all the solo stuff I did before meeting DJ Przm was outdated.”
Eventually, Lei felt constrained and branched out, recording with two artists from different groups. They formed a “supergroup of sorts” called Who’s Who? and recorded two mixtapes. Then Lei started working with Amos Famous who produced with him under the name DangerZone. Together they created both artist’s first music videos, along with an LP and EP with singles Lei still performs today.
Meanwhile, DJ Przm wasn’t doing so well. Despite his enlarged heart, he was determined to move to California. And he while there waiting for a transplant, he would need a caretaker. “I was going through a lot of things and I needed a positive change in my life. He begged me over and over to move to Oakland with him. When I made up my mind he said, ‘fly into Sacramento, we’ll live there for a month and move.'” But after a year and a half of living in California, Przm was not able to get a transplant and he passed away on June 10th, 2007. “He tricked me [into moving] but overall I’m glad he did… He was my big brother not by blood, but [in that way] the universe puts people in your life.”
Lei stayed in Sacramento and went through several bands including Bum Shelter, Soul Melodic, Hard Candy, T.P.R (The People’s Revolution), and Secret Recipe which just released an album last year. He worked with Century Got BARS to release a tribute album to A Tribe Called Quest called Midtown Marauders which just celebrated its five year anniversary. Additionally, he wrote songs (produced by Just Luv) for the soundtrack of the movie Crazy Hair.
Now, however, Lei is a solo artist again. He says he works best with just a producer. “It’s cool to be apart of something like a group, crew, or collective but it’s difficult to stay on the same page with intent, motives, and schedules. Whether people passed away or lost their passion what always seem to remain was me wanting to create more.”
As a soloist, he has just released a new album, Selfie. During production, he wore multiple hats, booking and paying for the studio time and keeping control over the creative aspects. “I could have picked numerous producers to contribute to the album but I went with one to help capture a feel-good sound that would make the album reflect a positive emotion from start to finish. …I came up with all the titles. I picked who would be featured on the album and where they would be placed. I actually took a picture of myself in the Nevada desert and used that for the cover. I also drew a picture of myself, but when it came down to it I chose to use the picture I took mainly because before this album I didn’t have my face on any album I was on or put out myself.”
He even made a point not to swear on the album. “People play music around their kids all the time. Children absorb lyrics like the sponges they are. I play all ages shows from time to time and I have to bleep out words, but the kids find the original music without the bleeps… I think people use cuss words for filler half the time. The other half I think adds emotion, and in today’s society, it seems to be catchy.” Though he’s not sure how much it changed the way he wrote his lyrics, he says it did help him not just “say the easiest thing possible.” It also helped that on the eighteen songs he wrote for the Crazy Hair soundtrack, he only swore once.
So what is rapper Bru Lei listening to? Let’s find out.
Mystic-‘Prodigy from Mobb Deep’-“The beat is nurturing to my soul. It reminds me of ayahuasca. Early in his career, he was way more thugged out and he released this just before he passed away. It’s almost as he knew. Takes my mental to a place far in the galaxy where reality still exist.”
Jay Electonica-‘Exhibit C’- “This song as soon as the drums drop my head nod non-stop. So much realness and hunger in his voice and lyrics. This song gives me hope that it’s not over till you quit. One of my favorite lines is ‘It’s quite amazing how you rhyme like you do, and you shine like you grew up in a shrine in Peru.'”
Elzhi-‘Memory Lane’-“He took a classic and made another classic. That’s not easy but the nostalgia hits me in the gut. He’s from Detroit so it reminds me of that time period we were signed out there and all the trips out there for an electronic music festival and just kicking it. Beile Isle was a spot we would just post up by the water across from Canada, me, Przm, Eclypse, and Metro. He doesn’t mention it but I can’t think of Detroit without thinking of Coney Island Chilli. This song is like chili sticking to my ribs unlike a lot of watered down bubble gum stuff I hear way too much.”
Blu & Exile-‘Dancing in the Rain’-“Stress can get the best of me sometimes and this song is a reflection of an artist taking that and depression for inspiration, that inspires me! You can be walking down the street and it can start raining and mess up your shoes and clothes, but it’s just shoes and clothes. You can let the rain get you down but the rain is so essential to life. ‘Dancing in the Rain’ is therapeutic.”
ebar-‘CloudyDaze[bonus]’-“Ebar is a young producer from North Carolina who I met some years back in Sacramento and he comes out here every summer. It’s been awesome to see him and his comrades growth. This is like golden era meets the future music. I love it.”
Bru Lei will be playing the Blue Lamp on June 27th with his long time friend from Columbus, Blueprint. The show will be starting at 8 pm and tickets are $10-$15. Learn more here.
Lei likes to play his future plans close to the chest. “I don’t really like to talk about future plans or anything until they are finalized and even then I like to just announce things somewhat right before they happen, unless it’s a show. I love magic and mystery and this world is full of both. I will say it’s gonna be hot this summer, but we all know that.” You can find out more about Lei on Instagram and Facebook.
Words: Katta Hules.