The Untold Story of Terry “Hymnal” Robinson

Nate LeBlanc tracks down Terry "Hymnal" Robinson, and in the process tells the story of The Good Life and early LA underground hip-hop
By    April 23, 2018

Nate Leblanc wrote this in the parking lot of Babe and Ricky’s. 

Terry “Hymnal” Robinson never released a solo record. He’s not on social media and has used a few different spellings of his handle. I sought him out mainly due to my affinity for a song of his released almost twenty years ago, “For Her Slowly, Slowly, Souly.” The song struck me immediately upon first encountering it on the star-studded Beneath the Surface compilation, one of the documents that helped me make sense of the sprawling LA underground in an early-internet era when there was much less information available than a hip-hop obsessive would have wanted.

The scene around The Good Life Cafe seemed like it was teeming with so many larger-than-life creative MCs, so many groups and cliques and monikers. That comp contains anthropomorphic farm animal rap, an MC with a noticeable lisp, the entire Freestyle Fellowship telling a macabre story, and many more bombastic moments. However, the clear highlight for me has always been Hymnal’s sparse and melancholy investigation of longing. So much so that I tracked him down for a series of conversations and correspondence during which he entrusted me to tell the story of his life.

His story tracks closely with that of the illustrious DJ and producer Cut Chemist, as their lives have been tied together since LACES, the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, where they met when they were twelve years old and became fast friends. While Cut emerged as a hip-hop prodigy who was active on the DJ battle circuit from adolescence, Hymnal was originally a graffiti enthusiast turned burgeoning DJ whose way with words took a bit more time to develop.

“There were a lot of kids at this school who were bi-coastal. They would go from the east coast back to the west coast and they would bring back Spraycan Art, films like Style Wars, and things like that. Wild Style, before they would show up on the West Coast. So our school was at least like six months ahead of when trends from the east coast would break.” He was fascinated with hip-hop from an early age. He took in the best of what the mid-‘80s LA era had to offer.

“Every week at school as a field trip we would either go bowling or skating. We would go to this skating rink called World on Wheels. On the weekends they would host rap shows. I would go see Heavy D & The boys. J.J. Fad, Rodney O, and Joe Cooley were staples there,” Hymnal recalled. “I was there to see LL Cool J get his necklace snatched by the Crips and everybody had to run.” And yet, he always gravitated toward the conscious side of the genre.

“Being able to survive hair-raising situations in Los Angeles as foretold by rap is consciousness. You’ve gotta be able to keep your brain in your head in order to be conscious,” he said with a laugh.

Hymnal’s epiphany about rapping was unconventional, but befitting a poetic MC who chooses his words carefully. While at LA High School he was inspired to write verses after reading The Canterbury Tales and mimicking Chaucer’s seriocomic rhyming verse structure to impress his charismatic classmate, who would go on to become fellow Darkleaf member St. Mark 9:23. It was shortly after that that Chali 2na of Jurassic 5—another longtime Cut Chemist cohort—gave him his rap name, admittedly as a mistake.

According to Hymnal: “I got my name because of a miscommunication with Chali 2na. When he asked me what’s my rap name gonna be, when we were getting out of the car in front of Cut Chemist’s house, I deferred to another guy getting out of the front seat and i just said ‘him.’ I was deferring to this guy to just evade the question and to be coy, and then Chali was like ‘Him, that’s dope!’ And so from that moment on, it was Him. The change in spelling to Hymnal came about from being into re-interpreting the aesthetic of Native Tongues and Zulu Nation through like a mystical lens.”

Hymnal and Cut Chemist, New York, 1990

The work of the legendary Native Tongues collective (core members include A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and The Jungle Brothers)—expertly produced, wildly original, and densely lyrical rap music has served as a touchstone for Hymnal, the influence showing from the very beginning of his career, when he called his first group Native Sons.

Hymnal explains, “We were super into Native Tongues. Because of the Bohemian aesthetic and also their connection to Zulu Nation. So the Mystical aesthetic, right? The funny thing is that on De La Soul’s first record even they’re fighting against being labeled hippies, right? But we’re from the West Coast, from Los Angeles, going to Venice Beach. So to us, it was like, fuck all that—we’re hippies.”

Cut Chemist’s house was the center of all of their activities until Darkleaf formed in earnest and they got their own space, the Darkleaf Manor. They inherited the duplex and a record collection from group member Jahli’s grandmother. Combined with Hymnal’s inherited collection from his father (the awesomely-monikered DJ Robin Red Vest, who owned a juke joint in rural Missouri for a time) and Jahli’s MPC60, they began to work on their first album, the dense, knotty longform work Kimetic Principles.

“LA was very communal. Each crew had a house or an apartment,” said Hymnal, describing the conditions that birthed such underground hip-hop luminaries as Freestyle Fellowship, Of Mexican Descent, Shapeshifters, and more.  “And they lived in it communally and had their choice of beat machine, SP, MPC60, whatever. And they had their choice of hustle.This house is always the one with the weed, this house always had the shrooms, this house had the acid, that kind of thing. Doing these kind of rituals and routines, along with altered states of consciousness, along with the ritualistic living, and the metaphysical tomes and books that we were studying, there was serious religion going on within each unit.”

Hymnal anchored two of the main Darkleaf lineups from 1989-2000. They have two underground tapes that are well known and respected in the LA underground scene, coveted by collectors for their abstract rhymes over primal beatscapes, infused with references and allusions to the occult and black mysticism. The group’s membership evolved every few years, with new players emerging and others cycling out. He left the group for good before their debut album F… The People was released on Ubiquity Records in 2002.

Darkleaf also had a confrontational element to some of their performances. Footage exists of an art gallery performance with Cut Chemist and Mear One where an avant garde wrestling match about the guest list spilled out into the crowd. TVs were often smashed with a bat on some Andy Kaufman shit.

Darkleaf coalesced around the same time as the vibrant scene at The Good Life Cafe. The legendary open mic was the soil that birthed pretty much the entire LA underground. However, when I asked Hymnal to explain how it felt to be a part of that epochal moment, his answer caught me off guard. They initially approached the open mic looking to test themselves in battle. “We came to take heads,” he said, “we did not expect to be met with patchouli and wheat grass!” Darkleaf were accepted and validated by their peers at the Good Life fairly quickly, emerging as one of the most creative groups in the scene, representing the spiritual side of the movement a counterpoint to some of the more more street-oriented figures like the members of CVE and Volume 10.

Like seemingly everyone else at the time, they were in awe of the powerful and intimidating MCs who composed Freestyle Fellowship. Hymnal made some lifelong friendships during the long nights performing in the converted health food store and then staying long into the night as the action spilled out into the parking lot. He remains close with Sesquipedalian, 2Mex, his former LACES classmate Abstract Rude, Fat Jack, and more. However, perhaps the most fruitful connection was with a quiet Persian-American beat maker named Omid Waziladeh.

Dark Cloud 9, Hymnal, Blackbird, Jahi, Darkleaf Manor, 1992

Hymnal wanted to work with Mumbles, one of the defining producers in the LA underground, best known for his seminal work on Aceyalone’s Book of Human Language. He was drawn to his skill in building dynamic beats with a darkness to them, a sense of foreboding and dread. That character is represented especially well here, on a one-off 12” from Ubiquity Records with an almost tribal beat accentuated by Cut Chemist’s scratches and featuring Darkleaf member Longevity and Hymnal trading long verses, each of them crafting phrases that relate to the transfer of energy in a kind of abstract battle rap that recalls the work of Hymnal’s favorite MC, Saafir.

Hymnal’s verse is an elaborate force metaphor. Says Hymnal: “The person is talking about overcoming impossible obstacles. That’s what these raps are about. This obstacle against me is so fierce, that I’m a magical being that can overcome it through brute force, or magic, or whatever metaphysical means. It’s about evading traps.”

This collaboration with producer Omid from the Beneath the Surface compilation is the quintessential Hymnal song, a meditation on longing and an urge for connection that spills forth is not-necessarily rhyming lines backed by programmed drums and a beautiful violin line from a woman named Tylana. Hymnal wrote the piece at a pivotal moment in his life, having broken up with a long-term romantic relationship and having left Darkleaf, he sought solace in a community service project, volunteering to teach painting to a group of orphans in Mexico.

He asked a woman to join him on the trip and she agreed. And yet, he wondered what the nature of the relationship was, and where it was going. He sat in the window of his beachside bungalow and let the words flow forth, set to the rhythm of the lapping waves. What emerged is an unusually beautiful rap song.

When I asked Hymnal if he would call the song his masterpiece, he was characteristically thoughtful: “I accept that. Throughout the years, people have come up to me and told me that the song meant something to them and have offered their interpretations or what they got out of it, so I accept that it resonates with people. It seems to the the main one of my songs that people really connect with, so I’m grateful for that.”

Omid built the soundscape around the lyrics, a fairly uncommon process in hip-hop production. It would not be their last collaboration.

Omid made the song on ASR-10. “You’d track each sample, then you might put a little bit of delay and EQ, compressor at the most, that was it.” As for Hymnal’s part, he is typically eloquent and thorough in his description: “”Club Apotheosis” was made using the cut up method. The source material for the cut ups came from pages of my own spontaneous writing exercises on themes of dystopia, paranoia, psychological oppression, urban corruption, and surveillance state stuff, a la Naked Lunch.

The composition in the closing section was made from cut ups of the earlier verses and notes from an alchemy class I took in grad school. The basic progression is that of a nightmare, in which danger and corruption must be skillfully avoided to find Club Apotheosis (the club of the sky), which includes its own puzzles and surreal locale, that seems only to be encountered momentarily by peak experience. This dynamic between the sacred and profane is contrasted with the child, who does not yet know of the harsh adult world. The final section of the song enters his dream, in which elements of the city and the club, mix and merge through alchemy, in an undifferentiated but pleasurable state.”

Hymnal took an extended break from releasing music in the early 2000s. He immersed himself in his studies, both at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and later at Pacific Graduate Institute where he earned an MA in Depth Psychology. During this period he remained active in music in other ways, participating in the formation of the legendary club night The Breaks, whose house band The Breakestra helped ignite the retro soul movement.

Hymnal would re-emerge in the public eye on a much larger scale on Cut Chemist’s The Audience’s Listening album. Their collaboration “What’s the Altitude” became a minor hit, spawning a popular video and being placed on the soundtrack of Drew Barrymore’s film Whip it!

The track was born out of Hymnal and Cut Chemist’s interest in the rock revival kicked off when bands like the Strokes and White Stripes injected new life into the moribund rock genre by stripping away artifice and taking guitar music back to a rhythmic, primal place. They were also inspired by the success of groups like She Wants Revenge, founded by one-time Prince Paul collaborator, musician, and former MC Justin Warfield. Cut commissioned him to remix the track, shooting for some rock radio play that did not emerge. However, the track eventually found a rather large audience. If there is such a thing as a casual Hymnal fan, this is almost certainly where they first encountered his work.

The lyrics are characteristically loaded with meaning for Hymnal. The narrative is essentially a musical re-telling of how he met his current wife. She was a grounded realist, he a spacey dreamer. They bonded over a shared love of music and trips up north for a jazz festival. Quick note for the true hip-hop nerds: The track is dedicated to The Fabulous Fleas, the long-rumored collaboration between Posdnous, Q-Tip, and Juju from the Beatnuts.

Hymnal also wrote and performed on a number of tracks on Cut Chemist’s latest album, Die Cut. The sonic palette draws heavily from post-punk, industrial, and goth music, in particular the standout track “Work My Mind.”

The stylistic evolution from the “chop” style of rhyming on the earliest Darkleaf material, through the meditative poetry of the backpack hip-hop era, to the exuberant talk-singing on Altitude, to the dynamic vocalization at work here is remarkable. The hallmark of an open mind is being able to adapt to the times and yet remain true to one’s self. Hymnal’s self assured work on this track was described as a kind of battle between the styles of Ludacris and Trent Reznor, all set to a throbbing electro track that would not be out of place at an ‘80s night or an electro set at a hip-hop club.

As friends for decades, Cut Chemist and Hymnal have developed what Hymn called a “hive mind,” often reaching similar conclusions independently, influencing and inspiring each other, spurring one another forward in the search for new sounds. Both are omnivorous record collectors, reaching far beyond the usual genres for sample fodder and inspiration. While Cut Chemist works with a variety of MCs and vocalists, some of his most unique and intricate work is with his old friend. I believe that can be explained by Hymnal’s intensely thoughtful approach to songwriting.

As opposed to just writing rhymes over beats, he crafts dense sets of descriptions and allusions, almost daring the listener to follow along what may seem impenetrable, but is in fact grounded in fact and reason. Nothing is arbitrary in a Hymnal song. It was a real joy to have him unpack some of these deeper meanings throughout our interviews. He was able to eloquently describe not only how but why he made his choices, a rare quality in an artist.

Since our recent interviews, it appears new period of creativity may be on the horizon for Hymnal. But most days he’s a happy, well-adjusted family man who works in the mental health industry as a children’s therapist and thinks deeply on ways in which his reading and his life’s work with language and music can help open doors for his patients. “One of my chief positions to this day is: in the psychology of music, to have compassion, to not allow your bias to become a kind of toxic poison that divides you from the basic humanity of another person. My ideas about music—rap in general—has hewn more closely to the study of psychology and sociology, and philosophy and religion than to being a rapper for a living.”

Terry “Hymnal” Robinson, 2018

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