"When I first came out with my music, people thought I was on hardcore drugs," explains the mysterious, mask-rocking rapper Issue. "But that was just me being natural and based." Issue's embrace of the Lil B-branded "#BASED" is a natural fit for for the rapper’s free-associative, experimental, damn-near-ambient take on rap music. Like the catch-all term, Issue began in the Bay Area and now floats freely across the Internet.
The youngest son of legendary Vallejo, California rapper E-40, whose rubbery gangsta rap has inspired an entire generation of musicians, Issue (born Emari Stevens) credits much his open-eared, hard-scrapping musical worldview to his father. "[My father] taught me game in general, the basics of life and then some," Issue says. "But the main things I learned from him career-wise is to be myself, work hard and treat people with respect." More zen than street and more free-associative than lyrical, Issue's music builds upon the do-anything spirit of his father's groundbreaking hip-hop without occupying the same lane.
Issue’s latest album, Liquid Wisdom, is a free download put out by Himanshu Suri (formerly of Das Racist) and his Greedhead imprint that features production from Stones Throw Records' boogie resurrector James Pants, Chicago footwork inverters Supreme Cuts, and plenty of other blissed-out beat-makers (including Issue himself), along with guest verses from cloud-rap nihilist Haleek Maul and Issue's equally eccentric older brother Droop-E. Infused with Chief Keef's #DGAF brilliance, Lil B's coy spirituality, and plenty of goofy humor, Issue’s askew rap also flirts with radio appeal. Like on the hard-charging, soft-focused retrolicious track, "Livin' On a Dream," he captures the same atmospheric '80s vibes as Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home." The song simultaneously does away with the solipsism, instead talking shy game at a chick and offering to "go downtown" on her.
Like so much Internet-brewed underground rap music, Liquid Wisdom surveys the hip-hop scene but also seems to be looking past it, fusing already odd rap with elements of classical minimalism, electronica, industrial, psych-rock, and more. When asked what he's currently listening to, Issue says, "a whole lot." He, like his peers who spend a lot of time online, provides an incredibly varied collection of artists as influences, from fellow Tumblr rap freaky-freaks, to pop-chillwavers, to Insane Clown Posse associates. "Lil B, Phantogram, Twiztid, Death Grips, Psychopathic Rydas, d'eon, Big Tymers, Cities Aviv, and Fat Tony," are on the top of his head when we talk. Oh yeah, he even listens to classic rock: "Pink Floyd always."
The mask he wears looks like Batman's cowl mixed with the visage of an Oni. And, with the disguise, Issue has afforded himself an anonymity rooted in a Buddhist-like sense of being ego-free, an interesting contrast to the usually ego-driven force behind most rap personalities. His meditative vibes extend beyond the music: For one, it is impossible to enter his world and not get pulled into his celebration of the healing powers of drinking tea. His label is called Teaholic Records and he devotes entire tracks to the drink, including Liquid Wisdom's trip-hoppy "Mask on the Moon." The song's childlike hook goes, "I be sippin' tea, tea is good to me," over glitching IDM.
"In 19 years on this earth, I have never done a drug," Issue stresses. "I like to say tea and music are my drugs. Tea makes me feel like I am a sensei floating on clouds. Iced tea, hot tea it's all good to me."