Murs Dons His Superhero Cape on ‘Captain California’ Album
California has been one of the most storied locales in hip-hop over the last three decades and continues to be a dominant force in the genre in 2017, but the state is under new management, with rapper Murs declaring himself as its resident superhero on his latest studio album, Captain California. The new long player is yet another quality offering from the underground legend. His first release since 2015, when he linked with producer 9th Wonder for their collaborative album, Brighter Daze, the Strange Music artist is getting back to the basics with Captain California, which finds the zany wordsmith honing in on storytelling, a skill that has served the rapper well over the past two decades and has resulted in some of his most popular songs to date.
Murs has become synonymous with dues paid and experienced everything from surviving the rough streets of L.A. to having relations with porn stars. As a result, the rapper has an array of experiences to draw from in terms of spinning riveting tales, and Captain California finds him diving deep. In addition to displaying his lyrical ability and chops as a songwriter, Captain California is bound by an air of morality, as the socially conscious MC looks to provide a balanced alternative to the sounds dominating the radio and kick truth to the youth in the process.
XXL sat with Murs to discuss Captain California and the inspiration behind it, how he came to the realization that rappers are superheroes in their own right, his thoughts on gentrification and more.
XXL: Your new album, Captain California, was released earlier this month. Is the title a take on Captain Planet or Captain America?
Murs: It was originally a take on a dude named Captain Kangaroo that used to tell a lot of stories and from there it evolved because my son is into superheroes. And then I was on a panel at Comic Con and then a gentleman by the name of Miguel [Gomez], who was on a show called The Strain, was on the panel with me and then we got into an argument about Biggie and 'Pac being superheroes and I said, “They’re not superheroes, they’re thugs.”
They’re also great men to me and Tupac raised me, but we gotta separate them from superheroes because superheroes are made of ideals that embody broader concepts and positive imagery. They’re not flawed, and Biggie and 'Pac were definitely flawed, as am I, so I was like, these are drug dealers, they did things that were detrimental and wrong in my community. They kill people, they rap about womanizing, they’re not heroes, we gotta stop deifying criminals.
So then, we got into a little rift between us and by the end of it, he was like, “To a kid that’s not from the hood, all they see is these people overcome their circumstances to become a millionaire and famous and live their dream, so they are superheroes to some people,” and I was like, “You know what, you’ve got a point.”
And he took it further and he said, “Murs, you’re a superhero to me because when I started rapping, I didn’t have the courage to not talk about that element that I’m from and you’re from the hood, but you don’t glorify that, you have the courage to speak out about what matters and family and love and doing shit for the kids, so you’re a superhero to me."
And he just kinda ended my whole argument with that, and I was like, Yeah, now I gotta call the album Captain California and kinda embody this superhero.
When did you begin the recording process for this album and what was the first song you recorded?
One of the first songs was a song called “Rick Grimes Is Dead” and it was a beat that my son loved. A lot of this album was written while I was getting divorced, so it was written in between driving my son up from Tucson and L.A. We driving eight hours and we don’t do iPads or phones. I don’t give him anything to keep him busy, I just do it old school, so we talk, we sing, we yell at each other. We make up songs. We ask questions to each other, look in the horizons in the mountains and the shapes of the clouds.
And I also play beats and I write, so it was a beat that he really liked that I was writing to, and it was the beat to “Rick Grimes Is Dead” it was a little different than what I usually write to, but that was the first song I thought was gonna be for the album. And after that, the songs I had started recording just took a different lane and the California concept kinda came and as things began to get more intense with me getting divorced and missing my son, I wanted to find a new way to put that energy out there, so I decided that I was gonna tell stories.
I usually just record and pick the best 12 to 14 songs, and the best songs at the time were all stories, so I said lets just make it a story album. And then besides that, the “Rick Grimes Is Dead” song, after I laid my verse to it and I played it for my son, he was like, “I don’t wanna hear you rap to that, I just wanna hear the beat so I can rap,” so he didn’t think my verse was tight, so that song didn’t make the album [laughs].
You've got a few features on Captain California, but one that sticks out is your collab with Curtiss King on "Lemon Juice." How did that song come about?
“Lemon Juice” was a beat that I got from Seven. Seven produces a lot of things for Tech N9ne and we’re both mutual fans of one another and when I met him, we decided we had to work together. So, this album, it was the perfect timing between Tech finishing his album, and Tech was on the road and I wasn’t on the road with Tech, for once, so, it was perfect for me to say, “Yo, what’s up with them beats?” and he said “Cool” and sent me a whole folder and I heard it.
And at the same time, Curtiss King had just put out a record called Jubilee Year that sounded similar, and I couldn’t come up with the hook, so I was like someone gotta sing on it ‘cause I can’t sing. So I sent it to Curtiss immediately, and I usually get beats from him, but I was like, “Nah, I need you to write a hook for me.” It was gonna kinda be like a [Special K] “I Gotta Man” type of song and I was gonna get my homegirl Reverie on it and I was gonna be trying to get at her and she was gonna diss me.
And then Curtiss wrote the hook and I was like, "This shit’s corny, bro," and I was like, "Now you gotta rap on this with me and I think we should go at it over a girl.” And he’s been a little brother to me kinda and someone I’ve mentored and learned a lot from as well, but we go at each other hard, all the time. Once he got comfortable over me being someone that he looked up to and started coming back on me, it’s just been a clown fest. And I was like, “Let's take that energy and put it on a record, kinda like that fun, Fresh Prince, jokey [style]." So this is like a similar energy and I think it’s something that you can relate to.
Another standout from the album listeners may take special note of is "Another Round" with Krizz Kaliko. What has your relationship with him been like since joining the Strange Music family?
We’ve become good friends. Me and Krizz Kaliko have done a couple tours together and we kinda got to a point to where we’re so close. And I got the opportunity to ride on Tech’s bus -- one of the only rappers that’s gotten to ride on Tech’s bus that’s not Krizz Kaliko. So, it was me and Krizz up every night ‘cause we both got heartburn, talking shit and talking about relationship problems.
He’s been married for a while and living the life and I was getting a divorce, so, he was just giving me lots of advice. And we both have acid reflux, so we’ve gotta sit up after we eat for a couple of hours and we became friends, so when it came time for me to find someone for the song, I kept telling Seven, who does a lot of production for Krizz Kaliko as well, I said, “Man, I gotta find something for Krizz to get on” and “Another Round” was just perfect.”
I had a hook to it and my A&R loved it, but I was like, “It could be better, this song could be bigger.” And I was hoping that Mackenzie [Nicole] or Krizz would get on it, and Krizz called me, we talked about it, he wrote something, called me, told me what he wrote and then he sent it to me and when I got it back, it was more than I had imagined. We call each other Samuel and Nicholas, so I was like, “Samuel, you killed that shit,” and he was like, “Thank you, Brother Nicholas.” Or he calls me Rainbow Brown because I rock a lot of bright colored leggings.
But yeah, that’s my man, I’m honored to have done a song with him. He’s the first Strange artist I’ve had on my solo album; I don’t force it. I still haven’t done a song with Tech on my album because I’m not gonna force it, it’s about the music to me and if it doesn’t fit the picture with the one I’m painting, I’m not gonna force it, and this beat was perfect for Krizz. I’m just happy that everything lined up and my first Strange Music feature, to me, is a classic, I love it. It’s not me with Krizz, it’s a great record that has Krizz Kaliko on it.
Who are some of the producers you worked with on this album?
There’s a kid called Wax Roof out of the Bay Area that’s really dope, he plays all of the instruments live, he did “Shakespeare on the Low” with Rexx Life Raj and “G Is for Gentrify,” and he did the outro, “Wanna Be High.” And then my homeboy MOD from North Carolina. Anthony Cruz and the ARCiTEC, they did “Ay Caramba.” Mr. Len , formerly of Company Flow, out of Jersey, he did “One of Those Days” featuring Reverie.
My homie DJ Fresh from the Bay, he did “Xmas and Thanksgiving,” it’s like some Too $hort shit. My homeboy Buttercream Bob, he’s a youngster, man. I got a new artist named Kojo... but he’s been working on shit and he took me to the little homie's house and I heard this beat and I was like, “Man, I ain’t even think your young ass would have something for me." But his name’s Buttercream Bob. He got bangers, so he did the beat for “Animals Damnit."
You have a song on your album titled "GBKW (God Bless Kanye West)." What was the inspiration behind that track?
It’s just a level of stress in the Black community where we don’t get acknowledgment for all this trial and tribulation and mental stress that we’re all under and when we show up to our jobs, sometimes we go a little crazy and it was just based on the struggle and whether you’re Kanye or whether you’re a young man that works at Target we’re all under stress and operating under more stress than the average human being and definitely more than the average American Kanye is crazy or blah, blah, blah but if you had what happened to him happen to you and if you still tried to do 10 shows a week, you might be a little cracked up too.
I would get to school and the teacher would be like, “Why you have such a attitude?” She’s talking about tardiness, but I almost died getting to school today, you have no idea what I’m dealing with and so many people have that layer. You don’t know the struggle of people that occurs in America, so when we do get to our jobs or when we do get on stage, you don’t know what we’re expressing or what kind of steam we’re blowing off. So I just wanted to give insight into the struggle of young people of color who are just trying to exist and live their dreams in this fucked up society.
You released a clip the other day explaining that you were going back to your roots as a storyteller on this album. Was that a conscious decision before you began recording the album, or did it happen organically?
This is something that happened along the way. Like I said, I did like 40 songs, I was like, Man, what if I did an album with all stories? And through the years, I’ve done punk rock albums, I’ve done festivals, I’ve done comic books, I play video games on Twitch. I do so much that an old manager of mine said, "People know you just 'cause you’ve been around, but no one knows what it is you do."
And I feel what started me, my first solo song was a story and that’s what got me a little buzz at college radio and got the attention of my homeboys at Living Legend that put me down with their crew and my first European tour in ’96, so I was like, Man, I should just kinda focus on stories ‘cause I love telling stories, I love reading. I was like, You know what? I think I’ve finally found my calling and the songs people loved most were stories.
I got a song called “First Love” that’s just a viral song. I’ve never put it on any album in particular and when I perform it, every dude and every girl, mostly a lot of girls love that song. It’s just a story about my friend that I lost in a drunk driving accident, so I was like Fuck, I gotta do it. People love it when I do it and no one’s doing it, I feel like. It’s not a tradition that’s being carried on. I feel like also hip-hop being an African culture, it’s more African. We weren’t a written people. People of color aren’t written people, that is a European thing. We’re an oral tradition and it’s supposed to be carrying and it’s ways that people are carrying that on, like not writing their raps and definitely the rhythms. Like even Lil Yachty or someone like that, they keep that tradition alive with the storytelling and the passing on our stories.
Like Kanye West is legitimate story, it’s not sensationalized like you get from some of the mainstream rappers, they sensationalize our stories of the inner city, but nobody’s really telling it how Ice-T used to tell it or Slick Rick used to tell it. That’s why I tried to do a "Shakespeare on the Low" like “Children’s Story” with the gangster story, but Slick Rick made it fun and upbeat, you know? And the video was crazy.
And with "Shakespeare on the Low,” I tell a story about a crip falling in love and making it into Romeo & Juliet and making it more colorful, but the hook on that song is amazing to me, and the beat is banging. It’s just uptempo, but it’s fun, but it still contains the essence of truth of our culture and our current struggle and I wanna take on that responsibility of being the oracle or the storyteller for our tribe, so to speak.
I wanna put the morals to these stories, it can’t always be shining in your Maybach and I sell this many bricks. I wanna take songs like that that have the moral at the end of the story. Yeah, the street life is glorious and there is an appeal to it, but there is a cost, like anything you do. Just like niggas that put their six-pack on Instagram every day, they let you know that it’s a struggle and it’s a grind to get there, street niggas tend to leave that out. And they leave it out 'cause of lot of people rapping the street shit ain’t real street niggas.
There's a song called "G Is for Gentrify" on Captain California. What spurred you to touch on that topic?
“G Is for Gentrify” came from me living with my girlfriend at the time in between picking my son up from Arizona and staying at her house and staying at my mom's house, just moving back. And one night I got into it with my girl and I didn’t have any place to go. She lives about 10 blocks north of the neighborhood I live in, which is completely gentrified and it had begun to move slowly down towards my old neighborhood, but I hadn’t been home in a while.
So I’m just walking through the neighborhood and I’m seeing all these houses that are million dollar homes now. There’s blood stains in front of a boarded home where my homie got popped while we were shooting dice, I remember it, you know. And they want a million dollars for this house? And then as people started to wake up, they’re getting in their cars and their looking at me crazy and I’m like “Motherfucker, my mama flipped that house right there, you’re renting this house from my mom.” You rent from us, you have no idea who I am and you’re looking at me like I’m gonna rob you, you’re a visitor here, motherfucker. It’s our shit.
And they put dividers in the middle of the street now ‘cause where niggas used to cause do U-Turns, come over and start busting out the window and then do a U-Turn and be able to get away quick, they didn’t wanna do that, but now they’re doing that to protect the White people there, but when it was people of color there, and then as people they didn’t block off the alley, they didn’t put the dividers in the middle of the street, they didn’t give a fuck.
They wanted us to catch bodies so that they could knock one of us off the list and put us in the ground. Get the other one for shooting and put us both away. But back then, we didn’t see they were letting us kill each other because they want us dead, and they wanna take us to jail so then we’re off the street 'cause then your mom is gonna have to mortgage the house to give you bail money and then she has to move out and White people can move in.
So for me, it was walking through the neighborhood. I’m thankful for that fight with my girl ‘cause it charged me up and I was like, I gotta write this shit. Niggas are at fault too for the way we behave, but White people are also at fault 'cause whether they know it or not, they’re taking advantage of a situation. A real unfortunate and unfair situation that America has put people of color in. So if you are gonna take advantage of it, you need to come in and really be a part of this community. You can’t just turn your nose up at us and act like we ain’t shit. We been here, we’re human just like you are, you need to start relating.
If you’re gonna live in this neighborhood, then you need to send your kid to the school in this neighborhood and make sure that they’re getting the money they need and make sure they’re getting the funding, ‘cause if you ask for it with your White skin, we might get the programs we need, the teachers and the smaller number classrooms that we need to make our children successful. But when you move in and you send your kids out [of the neighborhood] to school, you’re a part of the problem.
Are there any tracks that were a bit emotionally draining to record or you were able to get something off your chest?
I kind of just tried to leave my problems at the door on this record. I just wanted to tell stories; I didn’t really wanna get into my personal life, it’s just more of a fantasy thing for me. I feel like “G Is for Gentrify” is the closest it got to me kinda just blowing off steam, but I took my anger from my relationship and kinda put it in another form. “Another Round” was definitely some frustrations that I was dealing with as I was transitioning from being married for six years and being single and making some of the same mistakes with the same people again. Definitely that one, too, “Another Round” may have captured some of that.
I don’t have anything in the works at the moment, but I don’t know what could come out of this release. I definitely try to stay busy, but I’m expecting a kid and having a home birth any day, so I’m waiting on that. Helping my girl get back on her feet, getting my house situated. But it’s times when shit arises, that’s how some of the first Felt records happened, Shut Your Trap with Curtiss King, like I’ve definitely had some weird projects come out of downtime. For me, I’ve been blessed to still wanna be creative so who knows, it could be a techno album, I don’t know what could happen. But right now, there’s nothing I can say for sure, I’m gonna keep playing video games on Twitch for a little while and change some fucking diapers [laughs].
What do you hope listeners will take away from Captain California after listening to this project?
I hope they understand there’s morals to every story. I try to give ‘em some substance, even songs like “Xmas and Thanksgiving,” that are about prostitutes, there’s still a moral of the story to it about how sex workers are shamed in our society and women who are sexually confident are supposed to be shamed, so, even the crazy songs that are flamboyant have a little bit of a moral to them. So, hopefully they pick up on those things.
And if not, just damn, this guy’s a hell of a storyteller and the production to me is really top-notch. Everyone on there, they definitely showed up with the production. Just good music, man. I’ve worked for a long time to tell stories and have decent hooks and decent production, and hopefully people react to it well and we can continue to do this.
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