California rapper Eligh's experimental hip-hop chronicles the darkest and lightest times in his life

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Eligh, a rapper and producer from Los Angeles, remembers being a tiny kid, clutching his mom's legs while she sang folk music at protests. Since then, he has released albums as a solo artist and in three hip-hop groups. He dropped 80 HRTZ (Crowsnest) in August and is already working on the next one, which, he says, is "80- to 90-percent done."

His mother, Jo Wilkinson, never really got the chance to record music as a folk singer, having been a single mother with two kids, but the two of them released an album together—a hip-hop and folk mix called On Sacred Ground (Legendary Music). The album has flowing folk melodies from Wilkinson with Eligh adding beats and rapping some verses.

It's his 18th album—not counting another two dozen with The Grouch & Eligh, Living Legends and 3 Melancholy Gypsys—and not every track has Eligh rapping. Some are purely instrumental. He says sometimes words don't come to him but, when he loves the track, he keeps it. 80 HRTZ features more tribal beats, some much more subtle than the average club-rap record. Not only were unique instruments used on this album, but the lyrics are as clever and rapid-fire quick as on any previous albums.

Each album is different; Eligh says if you don't try something new on each, the music will get boring. So, to dodge tedium, he switched producers for each of his previous three albums. Given that he's cranked out so much music in the past 20 years, he says that's what he needs to do. "I never stop. I always have the chamber loaded, so to speak. No. 1, it's what I love to do. No. 2, in this day and age, if you don't constantly put out quality music, or music—period, you can easily get lost."

His music is personal and autobiographical, so darker times in his life produced heavier records. "Pain produces great, heavy music," he says. One of the most difficult projects to work on was the summer 2005 record he released with 3 Melancholy Gypsys (a trio that includes Scarub and Murs), Grand Caravan to the Rim of the World (Grey Crow Records). One of those tracks, "And If," is about how easy love is lost if it's not nurtured. In one of Eligh's verses, he bleeds for his listeners: You seek my company but I'm not up for that/ Just want to lay you on your back/ Don't want to conversate in fact/ Don't know if we should kick it at all/ Don't want to cause your heart to fall/ Don't want to be that man/ I'm not the one/ I'm not at all.

"I made it during a time when I was super-depressed and either in withdrawals or high," Eligh says. "It was a bad time, but the album is amazing."

In 2005, after four months of being sick from withdrawals from trying to quit cocaine, depressed and unmotivated to make music or tour, he decided to go to rehab to get sober. "All the horrible stuff was a motivator and produced a certain sound. I really love those albums where I was in that space. On the opposite side, you come out of it and have so much to say and share." He admits he sometimes envies people when they smoke weed, but resists the temptation himself, because, as he raps on "If I Still Smoked" from 80 HRTZ, he's a "kid who couldn't stop once his foot to the gas."

Eligh maintains a positive outlook about the difficult events in his life, including getting kicked out of his house. At 17, he decided he was done with school. "I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to work. I didn't want to go to school. I wanted to make music," he says. Wilkinson told him to get a job and, when he didn't, she kicked him out. "That was the best thing she ever could have done," Eligh says. "I ended up in the Bay Area, and that's where I began my journey." He moved in with his aunt, uncle and cousins in Berkeley, Calif., and met Grouch, whose best friend at the time had been dating Eligh's cousin.

Hip-hop had already settled into Eligh's soul by that time; he caught the bug after seeing the movie Beat Street and buying LL Cool J's I'm Bad. In seventh grade, he and his friend, Scarub, started rapping in the schoolyard. They called themselves the Boogaloo Badboys. In high school, they started 3MG, their first real rap group. While in the Bay Area, Eligh worked with Grouch and six others in an indie-rap group called Living Legends, which led to Grouch & Eligh. "I've been around music since Day 1 and my mom bought me a PlaySkool record," says Eligh. "She bought me a Bruce Springsteen record [Born to Run] when I was 5, [and it] is like a security blanket for me, like a Linus blanket. I carry it around when I get on the airplane. I still put it on in my headphones, and it makes me feel at peace."

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