Mensa Rapper Chino XL Breaks It Down For Us
A 38-year-old Jersey-born rap veteran who is a verified member of MENSA, Chino XL has called L.A. his home for a decade and a half. Chino's has built a loyal following since his 1996 debut Here to Save You All from stacking oft-referential multisyllabic rhymes ("travelin' through my abdomen/unravelin' at the speed of a javelin" from 2001's "Nunca") and his gift for vivid storytelling with a pitch-black sense of humor ("I roll with killers who spent more time in the pen than ink" from 2001's "That Would Be Me"). Featured for his "Wordsmith" lyrics in one of the most critically quoted passages of 2011's The Yale Anthology of Rap, Chino looks to expand the legacy of his lyrics, this time touching on subjects including his daughter's cancer and his own suicide attempt, with his new album RICANstruction: The Black Rosary, out today on Viper Records.
We spoke to Chino to find out what makes one of the smartest minds in rap tick.
You identify as a Los Angeles MC, but you're originally from New Jersey. How different has it been being based in L.A.?
I feel like there's more space, metaphorically, because there's space physically. Whenever Jesus was tempted or looking for clarity, He went to the desert. You can really wrangle the writing muses here. I've lived in Jersey, and there's inspiration there, but inspiration is more accessible out here because it's quieter. I did my last album with no outside stimulus, like a complete deprivation tank, with my mind turning in on itself. I kind of dig that. Also, the Latino communities have embraced me so wholeheartedly that they've made me work much harder to rep them in hip-hop.
You have a knack for referencing current pop culture events. How do you discern whether something will date your material?
As I get better, I start everything with the end. When I'm crafting an eight-bar stanza, inside of that I try to make the references as timeless as possible. If you make a reference of something "here today, gone tomorrow," it really dates your work.
Have you ever not put a rhyme on a record for fear it might be too esoteric?
Constantly. On this album, I had a reference to [serial-killing pig farmer] Robert "Willie" Pickton. I heard it a few times and I felt, eh, nobody really knows who this guy is, but sometimes you'll still go with it. I listen the minutia of music. For instance, in Springsteen's "Nebraska," there's a part that says, "Policeman, don't pull me over," so I dug deeper and found out it was about [serial killer Charles Starkweather]. I listen to [experimental art-rocker] Scott Walker, and he has a song where he says, "Jesse, can you hear me?" and the chords are "Nothing But a Hound Dog" inverted because it's supposed to be the way Elvis talked to his dead twin brother. Once in a while, I want to throw stuff in my music that's complex so that when somebody figures it out, it opens another labyrinth.