The gigantic Rap City tour is all about the lyrical artform of hip hop. From Ghostface Killah and Doom to Killah Priest and our subject here, Chino XL, each artist has their own twist on lyricism. Few hip hop artists embody the pure lyrical form more than the emcee born Keith Barbosa. Since debuting in 1996 with the darkly inventive Here To Save You All, Chino XL has been wowing listeners with his rapid-fire multi-layered rhyme patterns. Most widely known for his brief feud with Tupac, during the so-called east/west feud, and his blistering verse on 1999’s The Anthemalongside the likes of a young Eminem, this New Jersey native believes he is just realising his potential as a writer and performer now, feeling more energised than ever. Having embarked on “nearly 100 shows a year”, he’s primed and ready to bring the fire and brimstone back to Australia, as Chino and company hit The Forum this Saturday.
“As far as the [Rap City] lineup goes, I couldn’t be more excited,” Chino says, in his clear, east coast-inflected diction. “The whole renaissance that lyricism is experiencing is amazing to me. In the early 2000s they told us lyricism was dead, it’s only about the hook and beat. When you’ve got a line-up like this obviously that’s not true.” Much like his peers on the tour, Chino is a veteran who remains active and serves as a bridge between the past and present, ready to help take the form to new places. “Maybe I take it too serious, but if you’re not gonna push the artform forward, you probably shouldn’t do it. Luckily we’re surrounded on this tour by artists who have definitely pushed the artform forward.”
Since the proliferation of home studio technology, the DIY aesthetic has been taken to new heights. More artists pop up every day, some maybe not in the game for the same reasons as Chino and his generation. “A lot of the artists don’t have the same barriers that we had. Getting into a studio and recording was so much more of, I don’t want to say hassle, but there was so much more commitment necessary. You were going to spend your 10,000 hours to master your craft before you even let anyone hear it.” The space between the product and the public is much smaller, Chino believes. “These days it’s like okay, whatever – let's send it to the world. We had to get our opportunity before even playing in front of an audience.”
A product of hip hop, Keith Barbosa got an early education in being a recording artist. “I started rhyming when I was around nine, and got offered my first record deal when I was around 12 or 13.” At age 16, when he felt more prepared, Chino signed with Rick Rubin’s iconic American Recordings label. “He put me on tour with a lot of rock artists and he had me understand the recording process. I was also in a group called the Art of Origin, so by the time I was in the process of recording Here to Save You All I had a good foundation of what needed to be done as far as recording and trying to get your point across.” The instant you hit play on his 1996 debut, which still retains much of its original power, Chino’s years of work and struggle are evident. Born in New York and raised in Jersey, during hip hop’s formative days, he was surrounded by the artform at school. “Everybody rhymed. There were some that took it more serious than others but everyone was banging on the tables in the lunchroom messing around with wordplay, it was the thing to do. We ate, slept and breathed it. Some people breakdanced, some people did graffiti, hip hop was very much alive. You didn’t think about what you were doing, it was just there.” Just as every generation has its idols, in his teens the guy to be was a cocky Queens, NY native now best known for his TV acting. “I wanted to be LL Cool J,” Chino recalls with reverence. It was the influence of his hero in addition to his family and cultural background that added up to the emcee par excellence we would hear years later. “My mother was very, very hard on me about being able to speak language the right way. So for me it was about what can I do to make the rhymes interesting to draw you in, to make them clever and use my gift of communication and language. I wanted to be a mixture of the way LL was witty and the way [Kool] G Rap was relentless with his compound and attack and twisting it with my own dark personality.”
The revitalised Chino XL is prepping to release album number five, his two-disc opus The RICANstruction: The Black Rosary, which he says is out in July. Much of his excitement comes from the diversity and rebellious landscape of today’s music scene. “As much as people believe that music’s in a state of decay, it isn’t. You just have to know where to look for it. We’ve got great tours and artists are always on the road and they’re always coming out with new music.” Lucky for us Chino and his peers are releasing that raw uncut music.
BY ANDREW 'HAZARD' HICKEY
Chino XL [USA] plays alongside Ghostface Killah [USA], DOOM [USA] and more at The Forum on Saturday June 9.