Born Identity 

Tom Shimura, aka Lyrics Born, doesn't look, live, or front like a rapper, and that may just be the key to his crossover success.

Heard the one about the rapper who lost his pants but kept his head? The episode took place in April '04 at House of Blues in Los Angeles. It was the second-to-last night of a 27-city "Quannum World" tour, marking the first time since the artist-owned label's founding that almost its entire roster -- Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, the Lifesavas, DJ D-Sharp, Latyrx, the Maroons, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Lyrics Born -- stalked the same stage.

Label staffer Lydia Popovich witnessed the incident from a second-floor VIP balcony. The Quannum crew had ordered basketball warm-ups -- jerseys with each artist's name on the back, and breakaway pants with button-snaps running up the side -- to give them a uniform look. During his solo set, Lyrics Born -- aka Tom Shimura, the Asian-American East Bay icon who has become the label's biggest star -- was performing "Do That There," which includes the line Huge pair of balls/Keep 'em cool under a parasol. Normally, Popovich says, "Lyrics Born does this huge grandiose move where he mimics having a huge pair of balls with his arms." This time, the rapper's thumb got caught, and he accidentally unsnapped the side buttons of his pants, which proceeded to slowly fall down. "He's prancing around trying to keep going," she recalls. "He makes another gesture, and his pants come completely off. He's standing there, still rapping, completely in his boxer underwear. We see him struggling to maintain composure -- he's laughing and rapping at the same time."

No one in the audience noticed anything amiss, as the performer kept his cool (and his professionalism) until the set was over. "It was quite hilarious, actually," Popovich continues, noting that Shimura was embarrassed about the incident not because of what his fans might think, but because he knew he'd hear shit about it from his Quannum homies.

To show he was a good sport, she adds, he re-created the scene the following night at the Warfield.

That Shimura was able to laugh at himself is just one indication of what sets him apart from your average dead-serious rapper. In fact, little about his appearance suggests "rap star." He favors basic jeans, nondescript button-down shirts, and generic sweatshirts, and his topics run similarly counterintuitive to the outlandish stereotype we're all accustomed to. He doesn't rhyme about guns, drugs, or money, or profess to be a killer, baller, or pimp. And Shimura is not afraid to be goofball -- on a recent mixtape CD, he assumed the persona of a game-show announcer. Nor does he claim ghetto credentials. On the contrary, the 32-year-old resides in quiet, suburban El Cerrito, far removed from East Oakland sideshows or Hunters Point turf wars.

But none of this has stifled Shimura's career. His buoyant humor, wickedly clever wit, and remarkable work ethic have powered a thirteen-year stint that has taken him from humble underground beginnings to last year's "Callin' Out," a funky, upbeat tune that netted the rapper commercial radio spins, sold-out tours, and various plugs in TV ad campaigns and Hollywood blockbusters. Yet for all that, he has maintained normalcy -- one night he's rockin' the Fillmore; the next he's standing in line, entourage nowhere in sight, at the El Cerrito Trader Joe's, one fan and fellow shopper reports.

To longtime hip-hop critic Todd Inoue of Metro, San Jose's alt-weekly, what makes Lyrics Born stand out among rappers is his distinctive voice. "He has a drawl that's hard to place," says Inoue, who pays close attention to the careers of Asian-American recording artists. "Is he from the South? New York? Oh, shit, he's from the Bay? Davis? How the hell does a Japanese-Italian-American cat from central Cali sound like that? It's rare that you see a curly-haired Japanese dude -- Rocky Aoki is the other one -- and to see one in the cipher getting his makes him more unique."

Ask the Quannum cats about Lyrics Born, and they'll describe a trickster who livens up tour buses. "Well, you know Tom is a comedian," says Lateef Daumont, Shimura's college buddy and coconspirator in the duo Latyrx. "He's an impressionist. You know that, right? Tom can do impressions extremely well. On any given tour, he'll do impressions of everybody on the tour. And they'll be really good. Like, he does a really good impression of Gab, he'll do a really good impression of X, he does a fair impression of Shadow, so I can only assume that he does a fair impression of me. It doesn't stop there, man. He does an impression of DJ D-Sharp that's ridiculously on point. He does an impression of our soundman/roadie Dean that is uncanny. That shit's hella funny. And he's a capmaster on tour too. When it's cap time, him and Gab be going at it. They're kinda neck and neck."

Blackalicious producer Xavier Moseley, who goes by Chief Xcel onstage, has a slightly different take. "I wouldn't call him the capmaster as much as I would call him the anecdote master," he says. "Tom, of all my friends, is probably the most detail-oriented. He notices every little detail and every little nuance of people and their situations."

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