Hip-hop’s most loquacious jester has been at it for nearly 20 years. Pigeon John (born John Kenneth Dust) first ran with the collective L.A. Symphony before embarking on a solo career that has curiously divided hip-hop devotees straight down the middle. John’s brand of hip-hop may seem a little too malleable for some tastes. But this approach in creative latitude has allowed the rapper to embrace everything that has ever been put on his plate musically, a Californian native who grew up listening to Public Enemy as much as he did Randy Newman.
Pigeon John first charmed listeners with his 2002 debut Pigeon John… Is Clueless, a mix of sunny hooks and self-deprecating humour. His following albums over the course of the years would further develop the melodic sensibilities owing more and more to pop. Not entirely impressed with the flash and glamour of some of hip-hop’s most popular notables, he’s forged ahead into a twilight zone of skewed hip-hop, jacked up on a buzzing Demerol high.
Trading in the samples and drum loops for a live band setup, the rapper soon embraced an instrumentation belonging to the works of the Beach Boys and The Chantays. His latest album continues in this tradition. With block-party beats, sun-kissed melodies and rhythms flipped by hip-hop and R&B turns, Good Sinner further carves the niche that Pigeon John has been faithfully making for himself over these last few years.
Can you tell me about the progression of this album from the last? Stylistically, what did you try to do this time around with Good Sinner?
After I completed my last album Encino Man I felt a period. I had worked with incredible Herve Salters of General Elektriks for the last two albums and the picture was set. [I had] An idea to write and produce Good Sinner as it came. We walked in empty and walked out with a song. My hands were up and we left room for the songs to speak first, before my intentions set it you know? What came out of those sessions felt like we had the sound we were looking for. A modern day Chuck Berry. I laughed at the end of the album after listening from the top. I thought, “Oh I get it now” and I laid back and smiled.
You’ve edged away from rapping in these last years and toward singing. What are your feelings about your transition and about rapping in general, particularly these last 15 years?
From my very first record with Brainwash Projects melody began creeping in with great examples of The Pharcyde, Slick Rick and Jungle Brothers. It was always there I guess. I still approached it as an MC as Beck did “Loser”. While on tour, all the rap acts would listen to rock ‘n’ roll and all the rock bands would listen to A Tribe Called Quest. Every singer wants to rap and every rapper wants to sing. Opposites attract I guess. I really let it flow where it went.
To me rapping is singing and vice versa. They are the same. A voice sings a note every time it’s heard.
’60s pop seems to be a reference point, particularly on this album and some of the last. It makes sense in some ways, as you are from LA, home of the Beach Boys, The Chantays, surf rock, etc. What’s your relationship to this era in terms of influences? Did you grow up on this stuff as much as you did hip-hop?
I grew up in Hawthorne before I knew it was the hometown of the Beach Boys. Water, sun and liquor fueled the vibe. With hip-hop we always go where we are not. We wear Polo without ever riding a horse. We wear tennis shoes without ever picking up a racket. You know? We sample everything. Which means we listen intently to what’s not focused on in the song. The break beat. Motorcycle jackets inspired from Easy Rider then worn by New York’s finest gangs. We first heard the Beatles and Bob Dylan when Beastie Boys and De La Souls sampled them.
Discovering the whole song years later. We’ve always been influenced by rock and vice versa. So when I let go of the wheel it veered to what was outside of my world. I’d lived and banged hip-hop continually. So much that it disappeared and became me. So when I listened to The Beach Boys, I heard them as neighborhood kids.
Hawthorne to LA is like Liverpool to London. We know the deal. So yeah, the LA culture guided the tunes and I love her for it. From Randy Newman to King T. It’s all the same to me.
Can you discuss deconstructing the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” in the way that you did?
Oh man, what a fun one. I had gotten good news via the phone and I was alone. I responded to the news with the first strum of “Fight for Your Right”. And I said, “man, those chords sum up a huge feeling.” I don’t read music or know chords and stuff. So I went around it.
The song doesn’t have a “melody” up front but behind the song. Way back there, there were lovely harmonic chords left unplayed. So I found the notes and the song changed from a cheeky teen yell to a haunting call. You have to fight for your right to party. It warned, you know, and pulled me in. I pictured the song brand new and went to redesign the tune. I am honored to be able to perform this song.
Because your music is in an entirely different place today than it was 15 years back, do you feel a detachment or somewhat disaffected from your earlier work when you perform it live these days? How do you approach your earlier work in a live set up?
No way! Whenever I do slip on an old record of mine I laugh out loud because I was doing everything without thinking with my eyes closed. I was young enough to naturally get out of my way. So I laugh in a good way. Like seeing an old picture of yourself drunk in a loft party in the ’90s surrounded by all your dreams…that you forgot about. Hearing your kid voice on tape, ya know? It’s dope.
With the shows I never leave a song behind. I still play my first records live and love how they fit in now. They go well with the new ones. It is a true pleasure to be able to rock and write and play for the world.