Lateef Daumont’s parents were affiliated with the Black Panthers. His mother was the roommate of the activist Angela Davis, who once appeared on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitive List. His father, a Vietnam vet, did security for the Panthers. When Daumont was young, his dad took him to a Panthers rally, and when little Lateef became absorbed in the event’s music performance, his dad turned his attention to the message.
“He said, ‘You listen to the lyrics,’” Daumont recalled from his home in Oakland, Calif. “For years, I didn’t hear melody — I heard lyrics.”
Still, Daumont believes what led him to become the socially engaged rapper known as Lateef the Truthspeaker wasn’t so much his parents’ political involvement as his dad’s musical engagement. “Dad’s crazy, eclectic music sense,” Lateef said. “Willie Nelson, Al Jarreau, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross — their bebop scatting, which was one of the true precursors to hip-hop.”
Lateef then goes on at length about what he sees as another major influence on his own development — and on hip-hop in general. “Hall & Oates — you can hear them in hip-hop all the time,” he said. (When I told Lateef that I had seen John Oates the previous night, he urged me to invite the Woody Creek resident to Belly Up for Sunday night’s show by Latyrx, the hip-hop duo of Lateef and fellow rapper Lyrics Born.) “Their sound was the definitive sound, technically, of that era. There are a couple of groups that spun out genres of their own. ‘One on One’ — you can play that intro at any R&B function, and everyone will go, ‘Yeah … .’ And that was 30 years ago. That’s some sticking power.”
Lateef has similarly strong views on another vocal duo — his own. In 1997, Latyrx released its debut, “The Album,” and the confident tone of that title was validated by the warm reception the music has earned. Lyrics Born, who has had a prolific career in the years since, says on the Latyrx website that “The Album” is “probably the number one thing I got asked about in my career.”
Lateef, too, said the idea of resurrecting Latyrx has never been far from his mind. In this, it helped that Lyrics Born (who was born Tom Shimura and attended high school in Berkeley, Calif.) was rarely far from Lateef. After sharing membership in the Bay Area collective Solesides, from which Latyrx was spawned, the two have contributed to one another’s recordings, and both have appeared on albums by Sacramento hip-hop group Blackalicious and New Orleans funk band Galactic. But finally getting back together as Latyrx came from the outside. In 2010, the San Francisco collective Jazz Mafia asked both Lateef and Lyrics Born to join them in a San Francisco concert. The two performed as Latyrx, the show sold out, and the feedback was enthusiastic. Soon after, the duo appeared at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and the reaction was again encouraging.
“The people were very, very excited,” Lateef said. “They said, ‘You have to do another record.’ We listened to the people.”
It was not only public demand that led to “The Second Album,” which will be released Nov. 5. Lateef thinks the music he made with Lyrics Born on “The Album” was unique. The two developed a style — Lateef calls it two-man wordplay — that required coordination, precision and even a sense of humility.
“There’s really nobody that does that. That chemistry, the beat, it’s so singular,” he said. “It’s very satisfying for the listener. It would be a shame not to do it again.”
Lateef and Lyrics Born first came together when they were around 19. Lateef believes the relative youth was a huge advantage for a partnership in which they wrote together and rapped together. “We could shake a lot of ego to the benefit of the song,” Lateef said. “You have to relinquish your possession of the lyrics of a song. I’ve tried to recreate that with other artists, who I’m close with or not close with, and it’s never been the same.”
Despite their age, the music was technically advanced. The Latyrx style sometimes has the two rappers singing different words simultaneously; at other times, they trade off phrases rapid-fire, sometimes each singing one word at a time.
“Usually, if you’re rapping fast and mess up, you can get back on track easily,” the 39-year-old Lateef said. “This is the total opposite. You have to keep the boat going straight. If you mess up, you have a small window to correct it, or the train is off the tracks and you’re in the ditch. It takes a lot of rehearsal, preparation. If it’s executed well, you just get this energy that is strong.”
Latyrx’s brand of hip-hop is almost inevitably tagged with the “alternative” or “underground” label, which Lateef understands. But in some ways, their style has gotten closer to the mainstream — or more accurately, the mainstream has moved closer to where Latyrx has always been. Their tune “Lady Don’t Tek No,” from the 1998 EP “Muzzaper’s Mixes,” was aligned with feminism, a radical idea in hip-hop at the time.
“Commercial hip-hop is now about being very vulnerable, very sensitive to women. And an ‘Oh, I’m suffering from success’ feeling,’” Lateef said. “Which is fine. It’s just not what we focus on. Although we do focus on feminist ideas.”
“The Second Album” opens with “Arrival,” a notably positive, inclusive social statement. “It’s an awesome time for those of us who felt marginalized/ Or even felt like a target at times,” Lateef raps. But “The Second Album” really earns its outsider status on the musical side, rather than the message. The guests include Chris Funk of the indie-rock band the Decemberists, the offbeat rock band Tuneyards and Blackalicious, with whom Lateef often appears. The overall sound is fresh and forward-thinking.
“It’s electro, rocky, experimental. And generally different,” Lateef said. “It comes off sometimes as creative ADD. But it’s a situation where we like to show the breadth of what we’re doing, how you can step outside the nonsense of genre boxes.”
Making the follow-up album wasn’t necessarily easy. Though Lateef and Lyrics Born have worked together often, and remain close friends, getting into the distinctive Latyrx groove took some effort.
“At first, there was a little bit of getting back into the flow. Then it went into a rhythm that wasn’t as integrated and natural as we wanted,” Lateef said. “But it was fun all the time.”