FEATURE | By Betty Nguyen
Chrysalis of Rhythm
The most notorious rapper you’ve never heard of before is collaging together his debut album in a little Airstream right here in Ojai. The last one to get up on stage at MC Solar’s all-star release party (1998) and blow the roof off. Singled out to perform by soulful Macy Gray at her Grammy’s after party (2000) the night she won. The slayer who was so loyal to his crew that he skipped a solo album offer from Island Records president himself, Clint Blackwell.
Evolving, observing and growing into a powerful force for the past two decades, with his knowing glance, glowing, humble heart and Cheshire cat smile, Din Morris aka JBL (Just Being Lyrical) aka DïN, is forever impressed upon you if you have had the honor of encountering his lightness of being and more so, if you’ve witnessed his heavy weight performances. JBL was his moniker from ‘91-’02 and now he goes by “DïN.”
He’s been seemingly in and out of the hip hop scene for the past two decades, but actually, he assuredly says, “I’ve always been here.” Showing up at parties at just the right time and place; fine tuning his rap muscle memory and experimenting with his production sounds in his spare time. After two years of getting to know this one as much as one can, as he’s been one foot in Ojai and the other in the rest of the world, he’s finally laying roots and has promised to dedicate himself to his god-given, cultivated craft. Pre-governor mandated lockdown,
I ask DïN if he can take a break from his lucrative day job to dedicate three to four months to his music. And then as fate would have it … COVID19 happened.
So, what better time to put that bedroom producer cap back on, now that the world is standing still?
The first time I heard DïN play was at an underground party in Ojai last December. A friend got hold of some especially coveted speakers, Klipsch, developed in the ‘40s. The party ran from 7 p.m. to 7 p.m. the next night á la New York’s David-Mancuso-private-club-style, where friends brought and cooked food to share throughout the happening and all genres of music were fair game, if not encouraged. DïN wanted to bring his AKAI sampler to play over my records. “Don’t tell anyone,” he texted. DÏN arrived and snuck his flight case under the table. There was fish broiling in the kitchen, a disco ball spinning and people filtering in.
When any good DJ plays, they’re setting up a journey of sounds for their audience to ride with them. Layered across my vinyl landscapes, DÏN intuitively played his textured vocals and samples. This slowed down the crowd, which started to take notice because something unfamiliar started to synergize. As my records began to lose their beginnings and endings, the our richness of perceptions and possibilities expanded.
“It all began in high school at a talent show in Altadena. I was asked to MC the Kool Moe Dee part for this super group and we won,” he said.
His crew, DILLIGAF (Does It Look Like I Give a F**K) started canvassing handmade flyers to compete in countless Open Mics including one sponsored by Cypress Hill, where he battled and befriended Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. “At that time, we ended up doing a lot of work with Ice T’s production studio, Rhyme Syndicate. I mostly laid down vocals for cuts that got licensed for TV and films.” JBL’s voice could be heard on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons and commercials in Japan, but he never fully cut an album. DÏN lives on the West Coast, but he was born on the East Coast in Trenton, New Jersey.
His style is mainly influenced by that first generation of hip hop that fused punk with electro, art rock and disco as well as the culture of battle MCs and the conscious hip hop that prevailed at the time like BDP, Native Tongue, the Juice Crew and West Coast artists Rodney O, CMW, Egyptian Lover and DJ Aladdin. DïN’s rap is fierce, audible and catchy likened to the style of the trailblazing hip hop MCs that he grew up listening to, that were part of his tribe growing up.
He’s got a precision all his own that feels like Muhammad Ali throwing a round of punches with that elevated, educated candor. “I MCed for Dakah, the formidable orchestra comprised of session players and established musicians in 2000. It was a dream to play with them at the Hollywood Bowl since I was going to concerts there as a kid with my parents. We sat in the nosebleed section and would make it down further and further each year closer to the stage. I saw Etta James front row while eating chocolate cake with my mom and the next year I had the honor to perform there. I had my Bono (U2) moment when I ran down off the stage to this lake separating the stage from the crowd. I MCed across the concrete that wrapped around the edge.” The next year they made a rule that forbade performers to go anywhere near the water, let alone walk the strip. Dakah’s guests have included the multi-talented Thundercat and acclaimed saxophonist-composer Kamasi Washington who has produced with world class stars like Lauren Hill, Snoop Dogg, Flying Lotus and recently Kendrick Lamar.
DïN’s the architect of his own legacy. Now that he lives in Ojai, he waxes poetic, “I’m influenced by the four directions; from the L.A. River, with the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, Pedro to the south, five C’s to the east and valley of the moon to the west, with the streets and culture between, cradled by ocean, mountains and deserts!”
In the pandemic, we have the opportunity to take a dive deep into the cenote that is our soul, spirit and heart, to shape our voices. Stripped down during times where we face the mortality of the world and the sixth extinction. We can hear what is of value to our true livelihood as everything else falls away. From this root called Ojai that he has tethered himself to, like many others who after years spent in the big city trenches — learning, absorbing, stimulated, he takes a step back to crystallize his highest self into being. In this “Shelter in Place,” DïN’s Airstream transforms into a chrysalis where he can sculpt his lightning lyrics and musical intuitiveness from these past two decades into pure heaven.