Rapper Pigeon John, Driving Home Reporter Taylor-Brittany Ford takes a drive with rapper Pigeon John down the streets of Hawthorne, Calif., the city where he grew up. The artist says Hawthorne was a main source of inspiration for his new album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party.
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Rapper Pigeon John, Driving Home

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Rapper Pigeon John, Driving Home

Rapper Pigeon John, Driving Home

Rapper Pigeon John, Driving Home

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Reporter Taylor-Brittany Ford takes a drive with rapper Pigeon John down the streets of Hawthorne, Calif., the city where he grew up. The artist says Hawthorne was a main source of inspiration for his new album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party.

TONY COX, host:

When you think of rap, do you think of this?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) Push it to the limit! So badly paid. No water, we barely bathe. There better be better days on the way, that's on my daddy's grave. I've been pushing it hard, I've been pushing…

COX: Songs like these may often rank high on the music charts, but it's not the kind of sound rapper Pigeon John is after. His new album release, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party, is more fun than thug. It's got a nostalgic tone that comes off at times as even wholesome.

Taylor-Brittany Ford caught up with the artist in his hometown of Hawthorne, California.

TAYLOR-BRITTANY FORD: Pigeon John raps to beats you could dance to in a posh club, or play tetherball to at summer camp. His lyrics about growing up are very play specific. So for an interview…

Hey. How's it going?

Mr. JOHN: Hello.

FORD: I ask John to give me a tour of his hometown.

(Soundbite of car starting)

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. PIGEON JOHN (Rapper): (Rapping) P-I-G-E-O-N…

Mr. JOHN: We are in Hawthorne, California on Hawthorne Boulevard and Imperial Highway.

FORD: Hawthorne isn't exactly notorious for breeding rappers. Situated walking distance to the ocean, the most well known music group to ever emerge from this city was the Beach Boys.

(Soundbite of song, Good Vibrations)

BEACH BOYS (Musicians): (Singing) Good, good, good, good vibrations. Good, good, good…

FORD: The group had their heyday in the late ‘60s. And driving down Hawthorne's main drag with John, the city's façade feels stuck in that era.

Mr. JOHN: A lot of these stores are still here. It's a lot of mid-level storefronts. I walk the alleys and just, you know, rap.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) Check it. We used to roll through Inglewood bumping the Beasties, Dana Dane on repeat until the tape deck deceased. Me, my brother Carlo, B-Twice(ph) and Earn Burn(ph) singing you must learn. From the same corner…

FORD: John Dust was born in Omaha, Nebraska. The summer before fifth grade he moved with his mother and two siblings to Inglewood, California. Half black, half white, and an avid skateboarder, John felt almost as out of place in Inglewood as he had in the Midwest. So when his mom moved the family to the nearby suburb of Hawthorne, he began to feel a sense of place.

Mr. JOHN: Yeah, Hawthorne from Inglewood was, for my mom, a move up. Like a nicer neighborhood.

FORD: And for John it meant a more diverse group of friends. He continued to hang out with skaters, dressed like he lived in the ‘50s, and got into making hip-hop raps and beats. By the time he was in high school he was already making pause mixes with his DJ friend B-Twice.

Mr. JOHN: It was a dual cassette deck, and we didn't have any equipment so we'd go to the oldies station or the jazz stations on Sundays and stuff and find little loops and just basically record tapes and tapes of hours of music. So every two bars, we would press pause, rewind it, unpress it for two bars, press pause. And we would make three minutes of that loop because we didn't have a beat machine.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) Such is life a stand-up man…

FORD: He began performing as a teenager at the Good Life Café, a health food store in South Central Los Angeles. His friend's mom would call him Pigeon, so he began using it as his MC name on stage. At the Good Life, John was cheered on and booed off stage. And he couldn't get enough of the spotlight.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) You (unintelligible) outside of white picket fences here…

Mr. JOHN: Wanting to be a musician was when I was 17, and that spawned from the Good Life and making little pause mix songs for hours and hours, and I just realized this probably what I should be doing.

FORD: It was also at the Good Life where John rid himself of what he calls a rapper's crutch - the habitual use of words that, once they get past the censors, sound like (bleep), (bleep) and (bleep). John hardly ever swears in his raps to this day.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) …tell the stories again and again about the burning fire that rages within…

Mr. JOHN: But so many raw MCs came out of that area. It's like from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. on Thursday at a health food restaurant, no cussing allowed, no degradation of women. You couldn't say the P word, nothing. But a lot of great MCs came out, and I really believe because they couldn't lean on that stuff.

FORD: He's talking about artists like The Pharcyde, the Black Eyed Peas and Jurassic 5. John performed there with a group of his own called Brainwash Projects, and eventually met up with the Southland hip-hop collective, the L.A. Symphony.

This current record is Pigeon John's fourth solo release with contributions on the album from artists like RJD2, Lyrics Born and J-Live(ph). John's new album is a far cry from his pause mixing days.

Mr. JOHN: Memories.

(Soundbite of laughing)

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) Rock with me through the ways…

Mr. JOHN: Definitely when I wrote this I thought about my old skate days of Hawthorne and Inglewood. We lived in our world. Because most of the skating is, like, you're mostly alone, and you're listening and it's night - and this was before headphones or anything like that - listening to music. It was a lot of fun.

FORD: On Hawthorne Boulevard we pass by a restaurant, and John is quick to point out it was used in Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction. A fan of the director, John adds that Tarantino was also from the South Bay. Both artists use the modest town as a sight of inspiration for their creative work. He points out a faded brown sign to the right.

Mr. JOHN: You ever see Jackie Brown? That was the hotel. She lived in Hawthorne, her character.

FORD: Driving around Tarantino's old film sites listening to John's music in his black Lincoln Navigator feels like driving around a backdrop that is frozen in time. John's music tells the story. It becomes the soundtrack of our ride and a soundtrack to a boy becoming a man.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) The summer never ended. Our skin hit the wind, the young and the splendid. 7-Eleven, heavenly parking lot laughs in the night, grinning…

Mr. JOHN: That's the 7-Eleven, heavenly parking lot laughs in the night I was talking about.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) Yesterday, I just want to tell you. Hoping that you would stay for a little while. It's dark and I can't even see you smile. A cold old man that was once a child. I just want to tell you I miss you.

FORD: You're saying I miss you. Who are you talking to?

Mr. JOHN: When you grow up it's kind of like you have to say goodbye to your youth a little bit. So I kind of wanted to pretend like your youth was an actual person. And it's kind of bittersweet, because you don't know, you know, if it's going to get better in the future. But also, you know, I always think like, damn, fool, that's wild. Because you're working, you know, you're married now and, you know, all that stuff.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

FORD: John is married now, and grown up by his own standards. But his sound remains a work in progress, constantly taking risks and looking for new frontiers in hip-hop.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: (Rapping) It's the end of the world as we know it. It's the end…

Mr. JOHN: Playing it safe for me is chasing the radio, seeing what's hot. Okay, down South is hot, you know, 808 stuff, and trying to sound like someone else and trying to make radio hits that don't sound natural. There's nothing wrong with hits. But if it doesn't sound natural then there's something wrong with hits.

So just giving up that whole rat race and just saying, dude, I just want to do freaking music for my friends in Whittier, California.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: Your eyes, are you crying? It's the end of the world as we know it. It's the end of the world…

FORD: For NPR News, I'm Taylor-Brittany Ford.

COX: The artist's new album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party, hits the store this week.

(Soundbite of song from album, Pigeon John and the Summertime Pool Party)

Mr. JOHN: What up, Jesus? What up (unintelligible) Can I ask you a couple questions about the whole dang clan? Why the walls? Why the death? Why the burning crucifix and the rest? So much drama. So many stars. Did you really hang out at the bars? I thought you did. You look crazy. You ever have a bar fight, Patrick Swayze? No disrespect…

COX: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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