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Rollin’ with Ivan Ives

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Saturday, 22 September 2007

It's late afternoon in Downtown Los Angeles and I’m high atop a bridge. To my left is a local YMCA and to my right is the Bonaventure hotel, a monstrosity of a building that holds a salon, a gym and a variety of worldly cuisine. It’s also known as the setting for the infamous horse vs. motorcycle chase sequence from the film True Lies. I’m reminded of that by L.A. MC Ivan Ives, a fan of the film who—like the Governator—was a product of European shores, but now makes the Golden State his official home. Before I accompany him on a Bonaventure business excursion of DIY-ness (a meeting with a shop employee to discuss plans to sell several of his records in the store) I’m stopped by Ives' question on the bridge.

“What would happen if the bridge just collapsed,” he asks me. I’m clueless as to what to say in return. Sure enough, it’s met with a smile on his face. Joke or not, fear of the unknown is often a prevalent thing. And with artists it’s only increased tenfold as the pressures to rise from unknown obscurity to that of superstar status can be slim to none. In the case of rap music, it really is the only thing, as millions of up incoming rappers like Ives trying to make it when only one or maybe even two artists (arguably Jay-Z and/or Nas) can really be considered to be the greatest.

It’s only when I have my official interview with Ives that I ask him what are some of his general fears as a person and as a rapper. He responds rather concisely—“My only fear is failing myself.”

Born in Mother Russia, the travels of a young Ives from the cold haze of the former U.S.S.R to the warmth of the L.A. heat can be summed up in its entirety by one lyrical line: I moved from the U.S.S.R. to the USA/ NYC to be exact yo, da BK/ grew up ill then moved to L.A., thus I’m mo’ ilLA. In what's described by him as a “lonely” upbringing, it was the rap records that would help nurture. His adoration grew as he became more involved in the rap game. “Once I started writing hip-hop I realized how much skill was required to do so,” Ives remembers, “I fell in love even more so.” Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle—the first rap album he bought—would always be there, and the stylings of his favorite MCs from Notorious B.I.G to Jay Z would be closely embedded within his lyrical flow and overall swagger. Their influence was tremendous, shaping the man who frequently calls himself “The Greatest Russian Rapper Alive.”

It's early evening in Hollywood, and up in the apex of Hollywood and Highland is the office of Ivan Ives (yes, rappers have offices). Stocked with a Starbucks coffee machine, a pool table and an automated basketball game like the ones that you see at many an arcade (on which Ives eviscerates me, with a score of 74 to 25). The office is the primary headquarters for the release of “Victory” (the debut single off his second LP entitled Iconoclast) via MySpace. Ives' profile has garnered him 12,372 fans—and counting—and an average of 1,000 audio plays a day.

“Some people don’t realize the potential and possibility of MySpace as a grassroots movement to get music heard,” Ives says. The website has helped him achieve fans from California to Canada and all other parts of the world. “MySpace is largely responsible for my name being hollered out of the mouths of young, attractive girls all across the globe.”

For now he’s busy promoting “Victory” and its worldly timpani of horns a-plenty. It’s a perfect counterpart to his baroque-meets-block-party inflected track “Red Scare,” which was the centerpiece of his debut record Deus Ex Machina. “Victory” trumps its predecessor, prompting Ives to call it one of the “all-time greatest tracks” in his catalogue. Such distinction needs proper word of mouth, and Ives is a one-man advertising machine. He's in the middle of posting multiple comments to some of his 12,000 + friends, asking them to check out the track—and if they want to, give him a holler and tell him what they think.

Watching him from afar, just staring as he constantly copies and pastes, I realize he’s at peace with what seems to be an incredibly tedious affair. I can say that it's much more comfortable than having to market your music on the street, which Ives and I saw earlier in the day in Hollywood—two gentlemen asking any individual to take a listen to a rap album. I myself am not asked, but one of the men approaches Ives, doing his best to try and persuade him, forcing a CD on him. Ives ignores it, and as we enter into Hollywood and Highland complex, I’m struck by what Ives tells me. “Those rappers are garbage,” he blurts out.

Care to take a quick listen? It’ll take about 55 minutes, but it’ll be worthy of your time. Working with his lifelong producer/friend Fresh a.k.a. The Hitman, the two have progressed together from the early, aggressive stage of Deus Ex Machina to Ives’ EPs like the appropriately named LA Heat, which saw the two go from dark and murky to downright hyphy. Now for Iconoclast the two worlds have collided, boasting a hefty fifteen tracks that see the producer go even more expansive with his sounds and rapper skew much more personal, welcoming many of the uninformed.

“I feel like this record is really me coming to my own, and manning up to be who I was meant to be. I feel that the record challenges traditional expectations that people have for hip-hop music, but not while being some flat-out bizarro shit that no one can stand listening to for more than five minutes.”

Several prominent artists from various underground rap circles and even a member of the Wu-Tang Clan have joined Ives on this affair. He shares rhymes with Definitive Jux rapper Vast Aire (“Victory”), L.A.’s own 2Mex (“Carpe Diem”), and the capper, a seize-the-day track (“Honor”) with Wu-Tang Clan member Cappadonna. Still, it’s Ives' coming out party and by way of “Got It,” the infectious opener, he’s all but got your attention, mashing up references like the off-set drama that is Grey’s Anatomy to David Koresh in a single breath. Slicing up obscure film clips to branch tracks, the rapper is not one to follow suit with overdone rap skits (“They’re weird inside jokes that no one cares about,” he says) that often linger and plague. It’s really about creating original sounds for the dynamic duo of Ives and Fresh, never falling for anything hackneyed, always to the point of shooting for 'The Recipe,' a mixture of the most soulful of samples and a stirring of strings all backed by a confident lyricist not shy to be braggadocios, throwing out such quips as “I got rap in a chokehold” and “I sleep in my sneakers, I’m the truth, I’m rap’s resurrected Jesus.”

It’s also about not settling for the traditional run-through of verse, hook, chorus, second verse, hook and chorus. At their most playful, Fresh joins Ives on a mini-suite, or what Ives proclaims as a “two for one” in “World Wide Hits,” a smattering of scratches and a motherload of bass and drums, the breakdowns often veering from an early summer sublime to a final dash of electric march.

Premium party bangers are often a staple in Ives’ repertoire, but the self-aggrandizing that trumps the record takes a back seat for a triple dose of shock treatment. His first true linear track, “Revenge,” induces fanatical obsession amidst a sparseness of radar blips and what seems to be silver spoons on a pale knee. The Romani inflected “Zzyzx Road” wanders off to a hypnotic, gypsy-tinted chorus as Ives paints surreal images of psychedelic drugs, mental institutions and elderly communes. But it’s with “Olivia Josephs,” Ives ventures out onto uncharted territories. Misogynistic or not, Ives pinpoints the struggles with the one thing that rappers seemingly can’t get enough of: women.

“Olivia Josephs is the one woman that represents every woman that I’ve been with,” says Ives. “And yes, as a record, this is definitely me saying ‘This is how I feel about this, this and this.’ I guess you’d call that personal.”

“See the thing is, I don’t really drink much, I don’t smoke a lot of weed, and I don’t give a shit about being iced out or any of that other shit that other dummies do care about. And I speak out on it, so obviously I know some people will be mad or offended by shit that I’ve written. I don’t give a fuck. I’m not saying I’m on some holier-than-thou shit either, I’m a rotten individual. I’m just saying I’m too focused to get caught up in blazing every night. I never feel weak or vulnerable, pretty much ever. My heart is black and I’m too smart to ever truly be happy—but at least I can say that I never feel weak or vulnerable on my tracks.”

***

It’s been a month since the bridge to Bonaventure. Now late evening in L.A, I walk the streets of Lincoln Heights, my destination being the Airliner, a two-tier beacon that emanates underground hip-hop. Amongst freestyle rappers galore, t-shirts stressing the fact that real hip-hop isn’t played on the radio, chock full of alcoholic beverages (the Jagermeister machine cannot be expressed in words), the night’s location is funhouse central as it plays home to the CD release party for Iconoclast. Female rapper-supreme Avalon and the boisterous The Learning Curve thoroughly entertain, but the fanfare culminates when Ives, decked-out in a bright orange hoodie, arrives on the main stage—which from the exterior resembles that of a hip hop barn. The sweater is quickly removed, replaced by the brand-spanking new Ivan Ives t-shirt. As with any show promoting a sole album, choice cuts from Ives’ latest are showcased for the first time to many of his rabid fans who crowd the stage and the break dancers who pop and lock in the back. A huge circular fan is strategically placed behind everyone as Ives brings the heat elite. Plowing through “The Recipe,” “Got It,” “World Wide Hits” and giving the fans what they want in “Red Scare,” he goes as far as telling his DJ of the night, DJ Leviathan, to run through the beat again.

As night officially becomes day, the set drawing to a close, the plethora of female fans still dancing to a fervor, Ives still has a surprise in his sleeve. He calls upon his newly formed super-group, dubbed the I.V. League, which includes Grizz Pro, Menacin Johnson, Marc Spector, Kingslender and Amaze, all of whom join the rapper wonder for their first single “The Anthem,” a golden synth banger that Ives anchors, allowing his fellow associates to shine.

Beat fizzles. His microphone drops. Set over. His final word rings true: “Victory.” I’m not surprised at all…failure really was never an option.

Iconoclast is out September 25 on No Threshold

For more on Ivan Ives, including more cuts and tour dates, check here: www.myspace.com/ivanives

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