Anti-Artsy Emcee

The Grouch reaffirms his common man image on his new album.

Living Legends rapper the Grouch (né Corey Scoffern) often characterizes himself as a lone wolf — someone who purposely defies appearances, and doesn’t mind being a little out-of-place. Christened by his much grouchier crewmember, Sunspot Jonz, he’s actually a man of unfailing patience, with a penchant for earth tones and vegetarian food. He speaks in a slow, folksy drawl about wanting to go on a “health tip” and make it permanent. The album cover for his latest joint, Show You the World, features an extremely wholesome picture of the emcee holding his two-year-old daughter on his shoulders. Grouch once endured a shrill tongue-lashing from someone in San Francisco who thought his giant Ford F350 — which runs on vegetable oil — was actually a diesel truck. “Some lady stopped me on the street and said, ‘Thanks for like melting all the polar ice caps and, you know, giving people cancer from your exhaust pipe and stuff, you know, thanks a lot,'” Grouch recalled in a recent interview. “I was like, “Lady, look at my bumper sticker.'”

The Grouch grew up in Oakland, went to Skyline High School, and started rapping under his government name as a teenager. He met Legends crew founders Luckyiam and Sunspot Jonz (then known as the Mystik Journeymen) while living at his grandmother’s house in 1994, the year after he finished high school. The Journeymen had just returned from one of their infamous Greyhound bus tours and needed a place to stay, so Grouch said they could crash at his crib (“My grandmother was not around and I had this empty house, and so they were like, opportunistic, looking for a place to be.”). He ended up joining the crew and did some of his first rap shows at La Peña and the Black Repertory Theater, which was the first place he ever had things thrown at him. His image wasn’t so different back then, though he looked a little more naive.

Though the Legends still tour together, they’ve mostly splintered off, with each member working on his own solo album or side project (last year the Grouch collaborated with Zion-I on the exceptional Om Records release, Heroes in the City of Dope). The 32-year-old emcee now lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles, and can say that he has friends in high places. He finally got to cut a song with his longtime idol Raphael Saadiq (formerly of Tony Toni Toné), and was so happy with the result that he made it the title track for his new release. (Grouch said he left the studio feeling starstruck and buoyant — blithely unaware that it would take a whole year to hook up with Saadiq again and get the master back.) The video for his new battle rap song “Artsy” — a jeremiad against hat-knitters, chai-tea drinkers, and organic food fashionistas — wound up on the front page of, he said, because someone who worked at the company was a Legends fan.

“Artsy” is arguably the best track on Show You the World because it shows Grouch’s knack for reflexive irony. You ain’t artsier than me, he shouts. You ain’t artsier than me/Cuz you live in Los Filez, bitch, you ain’t Jesus. It’s probably the only track on the album in which this self-effacing, common man emcee seems convincingly grouchy. “The projection is loud and straightforward,” he conceded. “But still there’s a lot of sarcasm in there.” He explains that the song is set up as a parody, and the video is actually a pastiche of images borrowed from other people’s videos: ink blots from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” hand gestures from a Hewlett Packard commercial, silhouettes from an ad for iPods. In describing the video, Grouch is pretty open and unapologetic about his intent: The concept behind it, he said, “was that we were stealing from other people’s artsy campaigns that they had already put out.” blogger Noz suggested that the song is actually a diss on Grouch’s fanbase — a claim Grouch resolutely denies, though it has gained currency in the blogosphere. He said it’s mostly about being an anti-elitist: the guy in the hip-hop scene who’s not boasting about how he has the flyest clothes and the rarest records; the guy in the hippie scene who’s not trying to front like a baller just because he ate brown rice and salad for lunch today.

Grouch takes the Barack Obama gambit in this album, emphasizing personal stories, ranting against elitism, and gabbing about life in the domestic sphere (in one track, he even uses “yard work” as a metaphor for the travails of being a small businessman). The persona he cultivates is one that’s generally hard for a rapper to pull off (even beloved titan Kanye West had trouble convincing fans that he’s just a regular college dropout, who just happens to also be Jesus Christ reincarnated). But Grouch, who’s stayed thematically consistent for most of his career, does the “simple man” bit really well. He comes off not only as a populist, but also as someone who knows how to express values through narrative. Grouch’s humility may limit his popularity in hip-hop, or his ability to outpace his more battle-oriented peers. He may never be known as a formidable emcee, but he has the mark of a great speaker — someone who lives by his own moral code and can also articulate it.


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