Music News

The Birdman

Aw man, I love challenges like that!"

It's a Sunday morning, and Pigeon John is piloting his tour van toward Memphis, Tennessee, and gleefully recalling his gig two nights earlier — a South by Southwest Festival showcase during which he and his threepiece backing band opened for such disparate acts as indie rockers the Polyphonic Spree, jam band moe., and country-pop singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile. Not exactly a hip-hop crowd. Estimating that 95 percent of the audience had no clue who he was, the friendly indie hip-hop darling says getting that type of audience to go bonkers — which they did — by the end of his set is the main reason he performs in the first place.

"It's cool when it's people that know all the material and stuff, but when it's a brand new experience for them and you kill it, man, that's a dope feeling. It goes down like that, I'm high for the rest of the night. Pow!"

That's why, over the course of his decade-long music-making career, the early-30-something, L.A.-based rapper has not only hit the road with fellow members of the hip-hop underground such as Lyrics Born, RJD2, and Busdriver but he frequently links up with artists outside of that sphere, including Hasidic reggae star Matisyahu and quirky indie-popsters Of Montreal, his current tourmates.

Born John Dust in Omaha, Nebraska, Pigeon John spent much of his youth learning how to adapt. When he was in kindergarten, his mother moved the family to the Inglewood section of Los Angeles. A mixed-race child, he says he felt "too black for Omaha and too white for Inglewood" yet managed to find solace in two things: music and skateboarding. Though already exposed to the likes of Run D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys by the time he hit his early teens, he clearly remembers the first time hip-hop grabbed him.

"We were skating over by the Fox Hills Mall and there was this fine girl, and she was playing [De La Soul's] 'Jenifa Taught Me,' and that song does not sound like hip-hop. Especially in 1989, it was not normal at all, it was like, you couldn't say it was hip-hop, rock, alt-rock, country, swing, electro, whatever. You couldn't name it, and that freakin' scared me. I was like, 'What is this?' Not 'Who is this?' but 'What is this?' And she turned around and said De La Soul, and I fell in love, with her and the motherfreakin' music, bro.

"And another thing," he continues, "I had no money to buy that stuff, so the music was so dear to me. Like, I remember hearing the first [A] Tribe [Called Quest] album on the floor of my bathroom because the person downstairs had it. And that's when music got really serious for me."

In the early '90s, Pigeon John — named so because his friend's mom told him he "looked like a pigeon" — worked up the nerve to start hanging out at open-mic nights at L.A.'s Good Life Café, the famed launching pad for such hip-hop icons as the Pharcyde, Jurassic 5, Freestyle Fellowship, Dilated Peoples, and dozens more. Abiding by the Good Life's strict no-cursing rule (a discipline he's continued both on recordings and in conversation), PJ worked to prove his skills in front of the notoriously tough crowd, one that would jeer you if you sucked (kind of like Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater) or, worse, ignore you completely.

Eventually, he fell in with the acclaimed hip-hop collective LA Symphony, then formed Brainwash Projects. The latter outfit broke up in 1999 on the eve of its first national jaunt yet decided to honor its commitment to tour, a choice Pigeon John says was the best career move he's ever made. "I saw America like that for the first time, saw all these different places and scenes, and I was sellin' merch and came back with a little money, and it blew my mind as far as like, dude, I can actually live off of music. That was the big turning point."

Embarking on a solo career, Pigeon John has turned out four albums since 2001, his latest being Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party. Living up to its title, the disc is breezy, lighthearted, and wacky, like a Prince Paul-type production, with a handful of skits and interludes weaving through its 16 tracks. PJ's got a smooth, easygoing flow that's somewhere between Mos Def and Q-Tip; the beats snap simple and satisfying, like a three-point shot hitting nothing but net; and the textures veer between Native Tongues jazz-soul sampling, Fishbone-style alt-funk, and kaleidoscopic psych pop.

On the tune "Do the Pigeon," he spells out his mission while rapping, "All these dudes telling lies for the fame and wealth/I'd rather kick back and just be myself." He's also the type of MC who can kick rhymes about Phil Collins, Ping-Pong, and Boogie Down Productions in the same stanza. Self-deprecating to the hilt, he typically casts himself as the nerdy underdog. Such a shtick in the wrong hands can be annoying and cheesy, but Pigeon John comes off genuinely funny. Like on the song "Freaks! Freaks!" when he plays off of lyrics from the Beastie Boys' "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn" to goof on his own status: "Like a lemon to a lime, a lime to a lemon/Underground hip-hop equals no women/Except for a Slug show/So you know where the Pigeon go."

Though he's firmly in the underground for now, Pigeon John's profile is rising, thanks to the deal he recently inked with Quannum Projects — the Northern California label famously founded by DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, and Lateef the Truth- speaker — after impressing Lyrics Born night after night on tour a couple of years ago. "It's been dope," Pigeon John enthuses. "I'm like, this is freakin' fresh, and it hasn't even been a year yet! More opportunities and tours and a lot of doors opening up... it's just been faster, and more, because of Quannum."

Still, even if it's certain to become less and less of a challenge to win over crowds, he insists he'll never grow complacent, saying that he continues to approach every gig like he's got something to prove, like he's back at those open-mic nights from all those years ago.

"They're like ghosts, those people from the Good Life. Those eyes are still in the audience looking at me, making sure I don't ever get dull."

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Michael Alan Goldberg