Pigeon John is the next Nelly.
Well, maybe not.
Actually, he once left a meeting with a major-label exec without a contract expressly because he was not "the next Nelly." The Atlantic Records suit praised his work as "Mos Def meets Queen" and promptly told John, perhaps understandably, that he had no idea what to do with it.
"That's when I realized, "OK, this is just not my niche,'" says John. "But I'm not bitter. I realize that it's just a corporate decision. There's a reason why Atlantic Records is still around."
This well-adjusted approach may be the direct result of a childhood in limbo. As a mixed-race kid, John split his early years between Omaha, Neb., where he was "too black," and Los Angeles, where he felt "too white."
Eventually settling in L.A., John began listening to hip-hop on pioneering radio station KDAY and discovered his desire to write after hearing De La Soul's classic, Three Feet High and Rising.
In the early '90s, while working at a Waldenbooks-we'll skip the backpack jokes-John's buddy hipped him to the now-infamous open mic at Good Life restaurant, where Freestyle Fellowship, Jurassic 5, Kurupt, Black Eyed Peas and The Pharcyde started honing their skills.
His first time on stage, John spit what he thought was his best verse and quickly realized from the lack of response that he was spending too much time with his buddies. That's when he began to put in work, and he would soon become a fixture at the South Central café.
He also needed a name change. His legal name, John Dust, sounds better suited for a rapper with a PCP habit than for one with John's goofy sense of humor. A friend started calling him Chicken John, but that friend's mom thought John looked more pigeon-like. Her tag stuck.
Pigeon John would go on to join Brainwash Projects and L.A. Symphony before leaving them both to pursue solo work. He released his solo debut, Pigeon John is Clueless, independently in 2001, followed by two releases on Basement Records-2003's Pigeon John is Dating Your Sister and this year's EP, Pigeon John Sings the Blues.
His music has been described as "anti-50 Cent" and "emo-rap," neither one of which really speaks for the sound. PJ isn't really "anti"-anything, and these days "emo" just sounds like an insult.
But John didn't grow up gangbanging, and he shows a vulnerability that isn't often visible in mainstream hip-hop.
The closest he's gotten to defining himself in song was on "Identity Crisis," off Dating Your Sister. In it, John expresses his angst about being unable to fit in, catching flak for being a black skateboarder and questioning his own motivations behind rapping.
On "Emily," off the same record, he softens up even more, speaking first to his woman, then to his daughter: "I love you and you're my best friend... I'm sorry but I'm leaving."
He's got a melodic flow and often switches registers as if he were singing.
On Sings the Blues, he actually sings more than he raps, with tunes about atypical urbane shit like his woman cooking him oatmeal.
He's not all wimpy mush, though. His next LP, due out early next year, is even called Pigeon John and the Summer Time Pool Party. It's a "good time album."
But is it the new Nelly?
"It might be-who knows," he says. "It's cool to know that music can change and there can be a shift in the mainstream."
See, Pigeon John doesn't even fit into the cynical, anti-Billboard underground-rapper model.
The perception of today's hip-hop is of two schools in conflict. There are those throwing dollars and dancing to the latest club hit from G-Unit, and there are those still pining for the days of the revolution and salivating Public Enemy.
Perhaps both poles should pipe down; there are other voices to be heard. Voices trying to define themselves through the music, instead of the other way around.
Pigeon John plays with Lyrics Born and The Kneehighs at the Casbah, 8:30 p.m. Oct. 20. $12. 619-232-4355.