When I first heard Emmanuel Ricketts — aka Def Sound — rap, “The streets where they grew us at mirrored scenes for Miramax,” it felt like a camera zoom, directly into the world of his South Central L.A. upbringing — I say “South Central L.A.” at Def's express request. “‘South LA’ is the rebrand,” he told me.
And he speaks truth: In 2003, the Los Angeles City Council renamed the community, a renovated image for an area which saw violent uprisings in 1965 and 1992.
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But for many, like Def, those riotous events are inextricably linked to the culture, and therefore the art, that’s come from South Central. From N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre and Eazy-E to contemporary giants Kendrick Lamar and the late Nipsey Hussle — and in countless films like Menace 2 Society — gangsta rap has owned the community’s narrative.
This makes sense.
Rap, historically, is a genre obsessed with authenticity. Of course there are fiction-spitting upstarts like Odd Future who blur lines, but overall the premium on autobiography is high in hip-hop. Over my years interviewing rappers, I’ve spent time with both the self-mythologizing and the real.
Sitting with Def in the Greenway Court Theatre, where he spent countless hours orating his truth in the form of spoken word, all I felt from Def was the real.
Def’s slant is conscious and aspirational. It’s not the typical fare coming from his neighborhood. As the son of hardworking immigrants, raised in the church as a light-seeking vegan, Emmanuel respected but eschewed the truth of gangsta rap. It took a fateful visit to Da Poetry Club, a hugely influential spoken word series hosted at the Greenway Court Theatre in the Fairfax District, to spur his own hip-hop genesis.
When I asked him about the influence of people like N.W.A. and Nipsey Hussle on his art, he laid it out straight:
“I respected (gangsta rap) so much, that’s why I didn’t want to do it.”
Later on our Skyline Stage, he put it in his flow: “I wasn’t banging gats, I wasn’t banging that,” he rhymed with Miramax, with his makeshift jazz-fusion band bringing the track’s ebullient funk to life.
It isn’t easy to make “conscious rap that bumps,” Def told me. And he’s right: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Dilated Peoples (whose Rakaa Iriscience is one of Def’s mentors) are exceptional examples. But with “12th Ave,” Def Sound is in the zone.
This entry in our Music Diaries is for anyone who is struggling to find their voice, when the voices all around don’t resonate. It’s an episode for those who are looking for flowers growing in the cracks of the concrete. Thanks to Def for showing up, and for presenting — as he likes to say — a "different side to his soil."