Callback to the Future: Maestro Gamin on the Miracles and Medicines of His Latest EP

Maestro Gamin’s latest venture with producer Books One, Miracle Work Medicine, sees a return to Daisy Age hip-hop.

Maestro Gamin’s dynamic in rhyme runs an unusual gamut: it spans the naval-gazing intensity of a scholarly wordsmith as well as the garrulous delivery of an affable barfly. But before you can even work out a point of objective, Gamin manages a turnabout that leaves little room for pause. His words are slack with the airy ease of vernacular speech and they flit around the stasis of a groove comfortably enough. But then, by a barely perceptible turn, his verbiage comes crashing forward with the force of a ten-car collision.

It’s a strange choreography of words, the kind that probably earned him spots at open mics everywhere across the country. But that’s how the rapper dissects the affairs of his life.

A highly prolific artist with a rather low profile, Gamin first earned serious attention with a little-known album he released back in 2008 called The Gamin Project, a lushly surreal exploit into turntablist groove, which featured some of the brightest underground hip-hop producers working in L.A. these last 15 years. The Gamin Project introduced listeners to a hazed-and-blazed brand of hip-hop, full of summer-fevered chopped grooves, normally associated with certain parts of the West Coast scene.

Today the album still resonates with the thirst of invention, despite its near disappearance from the market and scene these last few years. Since then, the rapper has continued to add his name to various projects, recording the EPs Savages, Red Winter, The Two Piece Claptrap and BlvckMvdonna as well as working with his hip-hop collective, King Trade Supreme.

Gamin’s latest venture is a five-track EP with Books One, a full-bodied effort which, this time, mines the hip-hop turfs of the East Coast. A return to ‘90s era jazz-rap, Miracle Work Medicine has its designs on the Daisy Age hip-hop that was dominated by the likes of Digable Planets and Brand Nubian; producer Books One indulges in grooves that are always insistent but still lackadaisically lush.

“Mango” appropriates the cool strut of Prince Paul-esque hip-hop until it upsets the rhythm for a detour into sci-fi funk. On the EP’s leading single “Future Calling”, producer Books One explores the pixelated squelch of electronic hip-hop while Gamin busts concrete with wrecking-ball lyricism about the cultural divide. Other numbers, like the boxy, shuffling “Cake” and the swag-dribble-on-the-basketball-court of “Crash Course”, are cuts that size up Books One’s thunderous, rotund production with Gamin’s flayed and crazed rhymes.

Gamin’s voice, plaintive but with a soulful undercurrent, often veils a deeper booming sensibility that places him on par with some of the more stringent heavy-hitters of rap. His rhymes are epigrammatic and deadpan, often circling in taunting nuances. But they can also detonate with cruel force, blowing half the opposition into the next planetary orbit; the explosions here are only matched by the more contemplative flows, which see him practice a smoother gradation in tone.

The rapper has been working the L.A. circuit these last ten years or so as one of the city’s best-kept secrets. His spoken word pieces have earned him the praises of luminaries like Jill Scott and have also landed him guest spots on such seminal programs as Verses and Flow, hotspots for both developing and established hip-hop-based talent. Gamin speaks with PopMatters about his newest project with Books One and his life as an L.A.-based musician.

Lyrically on Miracle Work Medicine, you pull away mostly from the automaticism of your earlier work. The lyrics on this EP are more focused and defined. What kinds of themes are you exploring on Miracle Work Medicine?

Well, I mean I’ve done a lot of work, with different producers on almost every project. A lot of it I’ve lost or even forgotten myself. A lot of it nobody will probably even hear. Different styles, and with different things both me and the producers have focused on. I did more raw and aggressive-type styles with my old crew Lurk Music, some of it was pretty arbitrary, lyrically, but we were always able to focus on concrete themes of whatever, too.

There was Infidel with Abomination Oner, there was the Driving Down Broadway LP with Mr. Aeks, The Petting Zoo with Kinglish, etc. But I think with Miracle Work Medicine we wanted to do something that had a good balance between showing off what Books did and what I can do lyrically and just present it in a way that was new and fun for us both. Something that didn’t really depend on being super lyrical or super over-produced, but also wasn’t too easy or blasé, either. Because with all the music that’s out today, why would anybody want to listen to something blasé? Why would they want to discover something if it’s on some regular shit, you feel me? They would probably rather just listen to their favorite people and call it a day.

I knew it was going to be hard not to have something that didn’t reflect the social climate with everything that has been going on the last year, election-wise. The Black Lives Matter movements, women’s rights marches, and immigration rights being so polarizing. I thought more than ever that people of color need to speak to each other and really see where we’re all at. Get our minds in the fight that’s actually going on and have our music involved in that.

I’m from a time when music was maybe a little more instrumental in that way, growing up with Public Enemy and even Cube back in the day. History is happening right in front of us and I don’t think the majority of us want to be on the wrong side of history. But I also want us to have fun, to remember to celebrate being here and how far everybody has come.

You’ve been a figure on the L.A. underground hip-hop scene for quite some time now. In the past, much of your music has pulled from illbient and jazz influences. On this new EP, the beats seem more uniformly hip-hop in nature, a lot heavier. Can you discuss your work with Books One?

Yeah, I don’t know how much of a “figure” I’ve been really, at least not in Los Angeles. I wouldn’t have any idea about the scene. I don’t know if there is a scene. It might just be like, “I like your shit, do you like mine? Maybe we should call up so and so who has a night at wherever and get on a bill.” I mean, that might be a scene but I’ve worked with Open Mike and my boy Serengeti, those cats are doing it. I mean everyone goes to Low End on Wednesdays, but does that mean they’re a part of the “scene”? I doubt it. They just wanna hear good music.

I just try to function. There was never any predetermined idea of making the music sound more uniform, to be honest. I really rely on drums, hard drums preferably. I mean, they help, but I like to think I could rhyme over running water if I had to. Basically, Books and I got together after doing this one song called “Out 2 Get”, well actually… Books and my boy Dem One (shout out to The New Math) got me on their last LP on a track called “Black Hipster Girl”. They wanted me to rhyme and then switch up and do some spoken word style thing at the end.

So it was after that happened that I think Books and I discussed working together on something in the future, so one day I think he sent me like seven of ‘em right off the bat. I was like, cool! And I got to work. We might’ve thrown out two or three and kept the rest.

Your work resides mainly underground; yet much of your material has strong crossover potential since your work is informed by a lot of palatable music. Have you been sought out be major labels, or have chased after them to any extent?

No. I mean, back in like 2010 I think my boy Tape Mastah Steph shopped around our Spliced Tape Format CD to Chris Manak (aka, Peanut Butter Wolf: DJ/Producer and founder of Stones Throw Records). Oh shit that was hilarious. We drove to Hawthorne. We had never been to his office before and got lost. The hood came out and helped us get back on the road ‘cause we were all turned around.

So we get to Highland Park and I waited in the car. I was hung over as fuck and I think Tape was digging for records or something. Anyway, two and a half hours later [Manak] freed up and we all walked down the street and watched him stir his coffee. Now, Tape and Chris are good friends from San Jose, good friends, and I watched him basically ask Tape like, “So what do you want from me…” I realized there and then how hard it was to actually say what it is you want, even with the person right in front of you. It was a dope lesson.

Anyway, we all smoked and heard the CD in the car, like five tracks out of 13 maybe. He dug it. We walked back to the office, and he told me to call him if I ever had a show. I was like, “Yeah… I’ll just call you. You know, on the phone!”

Much of the L.A. underground hip-hop scene was forged in the early ’90s by groups like Freestyle Fellowship. How would you describe the scene as you see and work in it today?

From what I see you basically have the OG’s, the Queens, the younger folks doing it, Art Rappers, Trap rappers, new movement somebodies feeling their vibe in art gallery parties that get live as fuck, the Femcees killing it — and everybody just wanting to be heard and respected.