MURS: "I Get Respect In Circles That Count"
By Stereo Williams
MURS has spent the better part of 25 years doing shit his way.
The Mid-City product is one of the legends of the Los Angeles underground scene, having emerged as a teen in the 90s with 3 Melancholy, alongside high school friends Scarub and Eligh. He dropped his debut in 1997 and hasn't looked back; over the next quarter-century, MURS built a name for unfettered lyricism and a persona that could rest respectably alongside the most eclectic West Coast alt-rap and SoCal G tales. He's a child of Mid City, and his music is a reflection of how broad his neighborhood has always been.
To put it more succinctly; MURS is Los Angeles personified. There's everything from gang culture to car culture to skateboarding across The City of Angels and MURS breathes and reflects it all; the latter of which can be felt on songs like 2003's "Transitions Az A Ridah," from The End Of The Beginning—and prominently featured on Tony Hawk's Underground.
"When I was rapping about skateboarding, I didn't know there was a Tyler or Pharrell or a Lupe," he muses. "I dropped that in '03! I'd rock rollerblades and niggas from my neighborhood called me 'Tootie.'"
The jokes clung to MURS; he recollects one memory regarding the man MURS considers his biggest mentor, Walker Martin. MURS would meet superstars like Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep through Martin, who owned Martin's Records. The music shop was a premiere location for Hip-Hop in Los Angeles.
"If you came to town, you fucked with Martin," MURS explains. "You didn't go to, like, the Warehouse. He'd have some barbecue or some bomb weed for you. When I got my deal at Warner Brothers, this white dude exec is like 'I hear you're from Mid City. You know Martin? He told me to tell you 'what's up, Tootie!'"
"I just signed a half million dollar deal!" he says, laughing. "And I'm still Tootie?"
Facts Of Life jokes aside, MURS had an unrelenting belief in himself and was never going to misrepresent for the sake of clout-chasing or fitting in with trends. That individualism and strong sense of self would propel his entire career. He reps for those who can't be or won't be boxed in.
"I was never not who I was," he says. "I came in with dreads and, of course, I used to ride rollerblades. But when you're not who you say you are—that's why I always told my story. It was important, because people back home were still rooting for me and watching for me. It would be disrespectful [to] them to not tell our stories through my eyes."
MURS has turned that perspective into a uniquely viable brand. His vision led to successes like the Paid Dues Festival, and collaborations with every from Terrace Martin to will.i.am.
"It's somebody who read comic books. I'm in all lanes. I'm more to the left, I've always been weird. But it doesn't mean I'm not on the same street level. I feel like I made space. I met Earl [Sweatshirt] and he was like 'I used to see you all the time...I'd see you at CJ's Cafe when I'd go with my mom.' I didn't see him, but me being seen and me being different and having those dreads and telling my story—I hope [it] gave people confidence to say 'I can still be Black and be a little unique.'"
MURS has reverence for the torchbearers of Hip-Hop's oddball side. From Del The Funky Homosapien to Dr. Octagon, MURS celebrates the kinship of rap's most iconic weirdos.
"Shout-out to Kool Keith and De La Soul. I wasn't the first."
Over the course of his own career, which saw him working with everyone from the late Shock G to North Carolina guru 9th Wonder, MURS got to see so many of rap's most outside-the-box personalities up close.
"I seen Keith one time at the bank in my neighborhood and he had on all this red and, just being a fan, I was like 'Hey, bro—not over here.'" he recalls with a laugh. "He got it—like 'Word.'"
But MURS doesn't see some huge rift between the gangsta shit and the skateboard shit and the oddball shit. Believing that things like marijuana and sex will always bring people together, he understands the commonalities that connect.
"That's how I got cool with all the hard OGs in my neighborhood. Before The Chronic came out, nobody was smoking weed except niggas that been to the pen and punk rock kids. [Weed] was the bond that we made. Love and partying will bring everyone together."
Space Jam: A New Legacy has been one of the bigger movie events of 2021 and it was MURS who wrote Porky Pig's bars for a freestyle scene in the Warner Bros animated film. He got word about the project while his wife was going into labor, having landed the opportunity via a former colleague who'd gotten "Lookin' Fly" by MURS placed in 2012's 21 Jump Street. The rapper was understandably preoccupied with his wife's labor, having suffered the pain of losing a baby previously. But he managed to get the work and be there for his family.
"My son was born the morning of the 24th," MURS shares. "My wife is in the bed, my newborn is in the bed, my mom was here. The evening of the 25th I did it and sent it in."
MURS didn't hear anything for months, but found out they were using his raps when a friend heard ...A New Legacy star Don Cheadle listening to MURS raps in a barbershop. He also found out his cousin Kris Bowers was doing the film score, and he also let MURS know he'd heard his rhymes.
"It was all meant to be," he says with a laugh. "It was a hectic time at the beginning, when I didn't hear anything. When I heard back, I was like 'Man.' I"m grateful and I hope to do more like that. I really enjoyed it."
MURS acknowledges that being a little left field might not always yield big commercial returns, but he's learned, over the course of a career that's made him one of indie rap's greatest success stories, that "alt rappers" have a much wider reach than one may initially expect. With or without platinum plaques or No. 1 hits.
"We do have fans in strange places. When the Gorillaz did their thing, who did they call?" he points out. "Del and De La. When they're doing Space Jam and Porky Pig need some bars, who do they call?"
"I'll be that dude. I like that. It'll pay off in the end. I may not have the Grammys or the radio play, but I get respect in the circles that count and I can still pull a check out of thin air when I need it—because there are people who love me and respect me for being me."