LEX’s LEX is More EP premieres today on Balanced Breakfast, and I got to ask LEX’s Alex Liu a bit about herself and her work. The EP features modern and minimalist instrumentation, as well as sharply witted and confessional lyrics. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’d recommend taking a listen before reading the interview. Then taking another listen. Then giving LEX your money. Enjoy LEX is More!
How did you get started constructing rhymes? Did you study poetry at UC Berkeley? Were you always into writing?
I’ve been writing since I was 10, but until about 8 months ago my primary form was prose. I wrote a lot of short stories, fan fiction, bite-sized memoirs and unfinished epic novels, but not as much poetry. Learning how to construct rhymes happened sporadically across my creative life rather than within a concentrated time period. I’d write a poem or two for a class assignment, a Weird Al-inspired song parody for fun, and a few disjointed lines for a potential original song. Of course, I listened to plenty of hip-hop growing up, and when the time came for me to write my first rap song – in eighth grade English class – I’d already internalized certain rhyme schemes and conventions just from hearing them over and over. So most of my lyrical skill comes from listening.
I didn’t study poetry at Berkeley. I do wish I had more training in it. I’m always in awe of what spoken word artists do, and many of my favorite emcees started off as poets. Recently I went to see two of them, Watsky and Chinaka Hodge, at a joint book reading in the Mission. I loved the way they combined evocative language, syllabic technique, and crystal-clear delivery. That’s what I aspire to.
How do you feel the Bay Area as a home as well as a music scene has affected you creatively and overall?
My friend and fellow East Bay musician Doctor Striker told me that LA is a great place to be big, but the Bay Area is the best place to get big. I couldn’t agree more. If I were in LA as an up-and-coming rapper, I’d have to fight tooth and nail against others just to be able to perform anywhere. In the Bay Area, the music scene is incredibly supportive… I’m privileged to know many brilliant artists here in the Bay who have influenced my performance, my writing, and my work ethic. They’re smart, talented, driven, and headed for big things. I’m in the midst of giants.
I feel like one of the more obvious questions would be how your ethnicity has affected your experience in the rap world, but I imagine you’ve already explained that to the point of exhaustion. If there’s anything you’d like to say in that regard, or how your experience inspired songs like “Alive,” feel free to lay in down here.
It’s interesting. I think I’ve actually managed to spin it the right way and benefit from it. I admit I capitalize on outperforming extremely low expectations and making skeptical audience members think, “Oh, you were way better than I thought you were going to be.” When I get on stage, people have no idea what to expect, and when I rap, they’re impressed; it’s that simple. There’s a ton of black guys and white guys doing rap, but when you fit neither of those categories, your brand becomes that much easier to differentiate.
People do ‘flip their shit at a rapper with my ethnicity’, but mostly in a positive way. Barring one microaggressive experience with a hip-hop promoter, I haven’t faced much discrimination, and being in the Bay probably has a lot to do with it. Rather than putting me down because of how I look, people tend to give me the benefit of the doubt, let my performance speak for itself, and embrace my unconventional look, sound, and approach to rap. There is a systemic lack of representation for women and Asian Americans in music, but I’m lucky to be somewhere where it’s not as big of a barrier.
Who are your musical influences? Any shout outs on the EP I’m not cool enough to recognize?
Ha! I think you got most of them. I referenced some of my influences in the commentary tracks on the deluxe version of my EP. I’ll share some of them here.
The Twitter style rhyme scheme throughout “L.E.X.” was directly influenced by the song Shooter by clipping. I listened to that song and decided to write my own song based on pun-based rhymes. I took the flow of the hook, “Why you fuckin with the L.E.X.” from a different hook by clipping’s lead rapper Daveed Diggs, off his debut album Small Things to a Giant. I saw clipping recently at Starline Social Club in Oakland, and it was rad.
The “Uhh” in the hook of “Glasses” was inspired by one of my favorite indie artists AKA George, who uses similar ad-libs in his music. The song as a whole is a sonic sibling to Ugly Faces by Watsky, which has a similar flow and vibe and is also in C minor.
“A lot of truth is said in jest” (from “L.E.X.”) and “sing for the moment, freeze it and own it” (from “Alive”) are both Eminem references from his album The Eminem Show, one of my all-time favorite albums.
I’m told I sound like Eminem and Watsky, but I’m also a huge fan of industrial, hard rock/heavy metal, numetal, and electronic music. It’s not so apparent in this EP but will feature more in future releases.
When I heard the opening notes of “Undateable” I had to pause to make sure my music wasn’t on shuffle. The other 3 songs on LEX Is More begin with a beat and some bass, but this one has a much more melody-driven instrumentation. What can you tell me about the writing/production process for the song?
“Undateable” is a personal song, almost the rap equivalent of a power ballad, and most certainly an anthem, so I wanted the music to sound lyrical and fit well with a storytelling style.
I wrote the first verse back in Fall 2015, way before I officially started LEX in July 2016. It got put on the sidelines, and after I began writing as LEX, I came up with the melody and chord progression separately as a compositional exercise. It sat in my computer for a while when I realized I didn’t know what to do with it.
One day, in an effort to finish some old work, that first verse resurfaced from the depths, and I finished the last two verses. This is why it feels like time has passed between the first and second verse. After that was done, I realized the music I’d previously composed was a perfect fit for the lyrics. A boom-bap beat wouldn’t have worked for something like this, so I’m glad it was in my arsenal.
Throughout the songs there is a threading idea of nerdiness, both as a source of pride and a source of alienation. At the same time, there are references to geek-cultural media like Pokemon (“Articuno – Ice Beam.”) and Space Team. Do you consider yourself more of a nerd or a geek, and are these two sides of you ever in conflict about this?
Pokemon and Spaceteam are actually two of the very few video games I’ve played. I think I identify more as a nerd than a geek: I’m not as much of a gamer and not as familiar with old-school American geek culture like Star Wars and Star Trek, since I grew up overseas. It’s funny because the genre of nerdcore rap, which I loosely associate with my music, would be better described as “geek-core”. The community throws regular shows at video game cons like PAX and MAGFest, and produce a lot of content heavily influenced by gaming culture, and I personally don’t feel as close to that culture. But there is crossover: for example, Berkeley-born MC Lars describes himself as nerdcore but also specializes in lit-hop, which is a combination of hip-hop and traditional literature. That’s closer to my aesthetic, since I’m more of a bookworm and science nerd. I like big words, psychology (I reference the marshmallow experiment in “Alive”), philosophy, and biology. Contrary to the stereotype, I don’t like math.
There’s not much conflict. I express myself the way I would usually without worrying about what specific niche I’d fit. The nerdcore hip-hop community has reacted positively to my work, and so have more traditional hip-hop artists, musicians outside the hip-hop genre, and non-musicians. My goal is to be genuine and relatable, and I think it’s working.