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Pop Music | FAST TRACKS

Ozomatli draws on artsy side

December 03, 2006|Chris Lee ; Camilo Smith | Times Staff Writer

THROUGHOUT pop history, performers have drawn upon fine art for lyrical inspiration -- see: Don McLean's homage to Van Gogh's painting of the night sky, "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)," and post-punk band Television's "Venus," in which singer Tom Verlaine sings of falling "into the arms of the Venus DeMilo."

Multicultural Angeleno funk-rock-rap-ritmo Latino fusionist group Ozomatli have done them one better. The Grammy-winning 10-piece created its latest album, "Don't Mess With the Dragon," by becoming a piece of performance art.

Last March, the group holed up at the Tropico de Nopal Art Space in MacArthur Park -- just blocks from where several members grew up -- surrounded by the work of artist Gajin Fujita, a longtime friend of Ozomatli's and a former graffiti writer who fuses street art with traditional Japanese-inspired imagery.

"We needed a place to start writing our music that was cheap," says bassist-vocalist Wil-Dog Abers. "So we came up with this idea: We'll go to our friend's art gallery, set up in different areas of the room just like we would at home with all our stuff like we wanted and with this art inspiring our work. Three weeks later, we had all the music for the album written and performed on the closing night."

During that span of weeks, a performance Fujita and the group titled "Furious Conversations," art lovers, Ozomatli fans and students from nearby Belmont High School regularly stopped in to check the progress. "You could drop by on a Monday and see us working, coming up with stuff," Abers says. "In the studio environment, there's no color, no vibe. Just being around amazing art changed everything for us."

The bassist describes the process of creating the album (which was recorded in the summer and is due in March) as a culmination of the genre-defying group's achievements, resulting in a fundamental shift in its members' worldview.

"For us, it has a deeper meaning," he says. "It's about us moving into adulthood, getting healthier in our relationships, figuring out what abuses have been done to us in the past -- and that we've done to ourselves."

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Franz's McCarthy is a curator now

ART factors centrally into the creation myth of Scottish alterna-rock band Franz Ferdinand: Members of the quartet first met at a party thrown by art-school pals and performed many of their earliest gigs at art openings in conjunction with friends from the Glasgow School of Art.

But don't expect Franz's guitarist-vocalist-keyboardist Nick McCarthy to take the rocker-turned-painter route a la certain aging Beatles and Rolling Stones members.

Instead, McCarthy is curating a contemporary art exhibition, "St. Mungo and Me," at Culver City's LightBox gallery featuring the work of eight emerging artists (including those two painters whose raucous house party brought the Franz together) whom he describes as "extreme characters."

"I'd rather curate than do art myself -- I think that's the cheesiest thing in the world," McCarthy says. "There's Paul McCartney and Ronnie Wood. Can you take it seriously? I don't think so."

The exhibition (which runs through Jan. 20) was scheduled to open Saturday night with a performance by God-Bearing Sisters, a Dada-ist jam-band composed of the artists and their rockstar curator.

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Mix tapes go mainstream

IN the rarefied realm of underground mix tapes -- that is, the illegal, limited-run hip-hop CDs many rappers use to virally market their music -- the names are familiar: DJ Green Lantern, Clinton Sparks, DJ Drama and DJ Kay Slay.

Exalted as urban-music tastemakers, their mix tapes have contributed to the chart primacy of rappers, including Young Jeezy, the Game, T.I., Clipse and 50 Cent. And Thursday at New York's Apollo Theater, the DJs will be among the nominees in the 10th annual Justo's Mixtape Awards -- a grittier, street-level version of the Grammys. Showcased in recent years by MTV and Black Entertainment Television, the awards have gained sponsorship from corporate entities such as T-Mobile, Billboard magazine and Sirius Satellite Radio, affording the awards their most mainstream cultural recognition.

This year's show continues to honor the legacy of its founder, Justo Faison, a former music-marketing executive for Sony, who died in a car accident in May 2005.

"Faison is to mix tapes what Grandmaster Flash is to DJs," says Rahman Dukes, senior producer at MTV News Online and creator of MTV's weekly "Mixtape Mondays" column. "He raised the importance of the culture."

Since being popularized in the early to mid-'90s by early practitioners such as New York's Ron G and DJ Clue, the mix-tape genre has spawned several breakout stars who have landed record deals and radio shows.

Last year's "Best Mixtape" winner, Green Lantern, hosts a one-hour show on New York's Hot 97 FM and is signed to the Island Def Jam-affiliated Russell Simmons Music Group label. And DJ Drama, a star of the Southern mix-tape scene with his Gangsta Grillz series, recently signed to Atlanta rap superstar T.I.'s Grand Hustle/Atlantic Records record imprint. The DJ also hosts a radio program on Atlanta's Hot 107.9 FM.

Gangsta rapper the Game, who recorded the song "Justo Faison Tribute" for his mix tape "You Know What It Is Vol. 3," credits the awards creator with helping him establish early buzz.

"He did a lot for people," the Game told the hip-hop website smokingsection.net , "he gave a lot of up-and-coming artists a chance to breathe. And now all these [rappers] are mainstream with deals. So that right there is just a little of what he did. Everybody is going to miss him."

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-- Camilo Smith

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