LINAFORNIA: I’M IN THE RIGHT PLACE
photography by dana washington
Linafornia easily has one of the best stories to come out of the L.A. music scene this year. The Leimert Park native was always active in the local hip-hop scene, most recently as an aspiring producer and regular attendee at the neighborhood’s storied monthly Bananas hip-hop event. But in 2013, a serious car accident put her in the hospital for two weeks and kept her away from the scene for months. It was a close call that gave her a respect for the fragility of things, and the lengthy recovery time gave her the space and motivation she needed to hone her beatsmithing skills. When Linafornia turned up again at Bananas in 2014, her beats were sharper than ever. She played her first live gig ever that summer, and now as of March, 2016, she’s taken over the decks at Low End Theory, L.A.’s famed experimental club night, scored back-to-back first place finishes at the prestigious Beat Cinema Beat Battle, and, with support from Dome of Doom, dropped her debut album. YUNG is intimate and personal, a journey through her own taste and a worthy continuation of the work done by predecessors like Madlib and Erykah Badu, who have both strongly influenced her. We met up outside a cafe in Leimert Park on a recent warm afternoon to talk about her newfound success and her plans for the future. She performs Upstairs at the Ace Hotel on Fri., Mar. 4, with DJs XL Middleton and Clifton a.k.a. Soft Touch. This interview by Chris Kissel.
I’ve heard YUNG described as autobiographical, and I think listeners might get that sense because you’ll hear a piece that will have a sample from a jazz record, and then a 90s rap sample. The record feels like it encompasses a lot of territory, but also very specific territory.
Linafornia: I would think that any piece of work an artist would put out will be autobiographical. As an artist, you’re affected by everything that goes on in your life, and you put that into your music, your art, your dancing—whatever your craft is. So, yes, it’s autobiographical in a sense. I remember hearing Jayo Felony [sampled on YUNG’s ‘Hi Shrimp’], it was something I liked to sing when I was a kid. I tied it to a jazz sample because I liked to watch Adult Swim, listening to the bumps—how the bumps have the music with the trippy visuals. I love that. Taking bits and pieces like that, re-imagining them and molding them like a collage. I never sat down and said that it was going to be an autobiographical thing. But when you put something else out in the world and people interpret it, you can say, ‘Oh yeah, I see where you’re coming from.’ I can remember different stories when I hear the samples—remember what triggered me to create that. ‘Xtractions’ was a beat I made when I could not walk. I first heard the sample on this episode of Boilerroom I watched on my laptop in my hospital bed. AshTreJinkins started his set with a John Klemmer piece—he was just playing it—and I heard it and thought, ‘I’ve gotta flip it.’ That’s how ‘Xtractions’ came about. It was a point in my life when I wasn’t walking, I wasn’t able to do a lot on my own. But I still wanted to keep up with what was going on, looking at Afropunk websites and watching Boilerroom and seeing who’s performing at Bananas that month.
Who is that on ‘wrdfrmjazzoh,’ the ‘innerlude’ with the voice telling you to ‘follow your arrow’ and all these other motivational things?
Linafornia: Jazz-Oh is my friend who I met at Bananas—a really good friend of mine. We became close after my car accident. We were always cordial before, but after, for some reason, we got really close. What you’re hearing on that interlude is … that night, I went to her house and was just relaxing. She’s into tarot cards and energies and crystals and things like that. She’s very in tune with her spirituality. So what you hear is her reading my birth chart. She’s super tapped-in and was telling me all kinds of things about my journey. Because at the time I was getting a lot of attention for my music, after I had done my first Low End Theory show. I wasn’t used to it, so I was like, ‘What is going on?’ There were shifts and dynamics of friendships going on, and I was like, ‘I don’t know how to handle this!’ She read my birth chart and was just telling me all these different things. I was recording her without her knowing it because I wanted to listen to it later, but when I listened to it later, I was like, ‘I can use this.’ Two weeks before the record dropped, I told her, ‘You’re going to be on my album.’ She was totally confused, like, ‘What?’ She doesn’t rap or sing. But I said, ‘I think you’re going to like this. I think you’re going to appreciate it.’ And she was really flattered—and shocked.
Maybe autobiographical is maybe not the right word, because it implies that there’s a story. It feels more like the album is like a dialogue with yourself.
Linafornia: It’s introspective, in a way. Maybe it’s because I do tend to spend a lot of time by myself. It gives me a lot of time to think.
How did you make ‘Wetttt’? It has a great, almost giddy groove to it.
Linafornia: I locked myself in my room one day, because I hadn’t made a beat in months. I was like, ‘I have to make a beat today. I just have to.’ The drum pattern was from a different beat that didn’t pan out, so I found that sample, and I just locked myself in my room and made myself focus until I was done. I had a show that day, too. My nieces were running around outside knocking on my door, and I was just not leaving the room until I made a beat I liked. Not just a beat, but a beat I liked. So I just chopped it all up, and it became really dope, and I played it that night. It sounded so good.
Where did the water sounds that start the track come from?
Linafornia: I always admire different producers who add elements of people talking, music clips, stuff like that. I don’t use it a lot in my music, but I admire it in other producers. So it was an experimentation thing—I wanted to add a different element to my music. It sounded good. It complemented the track. It was nothing really profound or deep. I started doing field recordings. So it was like running water into a sink and recording it on my phone and then loading it into the 404 and adding a couple filters over it.
It definitely adds a personal first-person element to the music.
Linafornia: Side A [of YUNG] is called ‘Beats, Snippets, and Dusty Loops.’ Side A is like my live show—super hype exciting high-energy beats. Side B is more introspective. There are definitely more voices, like DeviWonder rapping on ‘Dot Wav’ and Jazz talking, and Lauryn Hill saying a couple things on ‘Rargroovs,’ and Busta Rhymes. Side B is more introspective, so I named it ‘Raps, Remixes, and Oracles.’
How do you find things to sample?
Linafornia: It’s different for each one. I haven’t really pinpointed my process yet. It’s something that’s really sporadic. When it happens, I have to jump on it, like, ‘I hope it doesn’t leave me!’ There are certain things with making the beats I like to make—beats that have a certain amount of swing and syncopation—that are kind of hard to get a really good hold on. It’s easy for beats to sound very mechanical, especially if you work on a computer.
I read an interview where J Dilla said he listens to music super carefully—listens for things that are weird or off. Little mess-ups or off-rhythms.
Linafornia: I definitely look for the weird. Just something you could re-imagine. With producers, sometimes we sample the same records. If I was to sample a record someone else sampled, I have to find a completely different part of it. Flip it completely differently. And sometimes I listen to records and I think they’re so beautiful and so dope, I don’t want to do anything to them. Like … I wish I could kind of flip ‘em, but I’m just going to enjoy it for what it is.
Did you grow up with music in your house?
Linafornia: We listened to all kinds of music in the house. My family is from Belize; my mom and my dad listen to a lot of punta and reggae and soca. Lots of different music with Caribbean roots. My brother was the one who listened to hip-hop. And my sister listened to dancehall reggae. So there were all different genres of music around.
You grew up here in Leimert Park—what’s special about this neighborhood?
Linafornia: The culture! The whole environment and the vibe of Leimert Park. When people ask me about it, I always say it’s the mecca for Black culture. There are all types of people, from all different parts of the African diaspora. There are Rastafarians, Jamaicans, Belizeans, Five Percenters—from different religions, different regions, Ghanians, Nigerians, all types of black people who are all here together. There are black-owned businesses here. There’s a lot of culture and a lot of music here. If you go down the street to the left, there’s the World Stage, where a lot of historical jazz musicians have played. On the right, there’s Melchizedek, where they play a lot of reggae music. On the corner, right there at the KAOS Network, is where they hold Project Blowed, which is one of the most well-known hip-hop workshops in America. There are a lot of different cultures, and a lot of different types of music cultivated here. I used to go to the Pan-African Film Festival and African Marketplace and see all these vibrant cultures and fabrics, music and food, from all different parts of Africa. Being younger, you don’t know that there are different parts of Africa. I didn’t understand that there were different countries inside Africa.
So when you graduated from high school you wanted to go into communications—not music?
Linafornia: I wanted to figure out a way I could find a career I’m satisfied with and be able to be self-sufficient but also to be able to enjoy it too, so I can use whatever I make from that career to help fund what I really want to do. The art.
Is that still what you want to do?
Linafornia: The artistry has taken over, and totally consumed my life now. Especially since YUNG dropped, it’s been really hectic. I haven’t gotten as many opportunities doing anything else. My artistry is something where I’ve actually seen upward mobility, I’ve seen growth, in every sense of the way—just growth, expanding, becoming bigger. Not everyone gets a second chance to pursue music. I had a chance to pursue music, in a different avenue, but things fell through. I kind of went through a slump with that. I was really disappointed.
A musical project?
Linafornia: Yeah. Actually, I rapped. It was something I was really good at. I was writing every day, enjoying it, coming up with new concepts and ideas every day. In a nutshell, some things happened where my circumstances couldn’t allow me to move forward, whether it be finding studio time, or finding a ride to the studio because I didn’t drive—things like that. I was in a rut, and it got me really discouraged. It was a low point, and I lost my passion for writing, because I was so disappointed. There was drama around trying to deal with people, or work with people, and people not having my best interest. It kind of jammed me up. I thought, at the time, that it was something I could do for the rest of my life. And when it fell apart, I was like, ‘What am I going to do now? What is my purpose now?’ But now that I’m pursuing this beat journey, I’ve been embraced by all these people in the beat community. So many different artists that I’ve looked up to—they’ve welcomed me. Now I know I’m in the right place.
I saw Erykah Badu tweeted your ‘xtrctions.’
Linafornia: Yeah! I’m so inspired by her artistry and the way she carries herself, especially as a woman in the music realm. Because it’s so easy for women to just fall into using their bodies and using their sexuality to get what they want. It’s so easy to sell your sexuality, but she kept it about her art for so long. That’s really admirable. She was able to execute her ideas on her terms, and people loved her for it. She stayed true to herself. That’s the most important thing to me as an artist. And just the fact that she was able to actually listen to my music, and she seemed happy with it … There’s a whole lot of static around the whole idea of sampling now, ever since the whole Robin Thicke situation. I think that if the artist likes what you’re doing, there’s no problem, because you’re paying the artist respect. You’re doing the artist justice [with] what you’re creating by re-imagining their original composition into something new and fresh.
That puts a lot of pressure on you, you know? Every time you hear something you want to sample, you have to live up to it.
Linafornia: Yeah—I’m very picky, and very hard on myself. Even putting YUNG together, I was sitting on it for a year, saying ‘I don’t think this is enough! This is not enough!’ Just feeling like there was something missing. People were telling me, ‘Just put it out!’ And I was like, ‘No, it’s not ready.’
That seems like a very Erykah Badu-like quality to have.
Linafornia: [laughs] It kind of hinders me. It makes me a slow worker. But the end result is so worth it. I’m so confident in what I’m presenting. No one can tell me anything about it, because I made sure. I’m confident in my ear. I worked on it until my doubts were gone.
That’s something a lot of artists don’t do. It’s hard enough for some artists just to fight through to the end.