“I’ve Always Set Out to Make Real Songs:” An Interview with Choosey

Max Bell interviews the California rapper about his hometown of San Diego, being a musician since childhood, and working with Exile.
By    April 9, 2019

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Countless west coast rap albums explore black or Mexican life in the U.S, but you’d be hard pressed to find an album that does both. Enter Afro-Latino rapper Choosey with his excellent debut, Black Beans (Dirty Science).

Produced by Exile, Black Beans is rooted in rich, deftly chopped soul and R&B samples sourced from the speakers of candy-hued, gravity-defying lowriders. Backed by Exile’s soulful beats, Choosey sounds as though he’s rhyming while stepping out of a sepia-toned photograph, each verse imbued with warmth and nostalgia. He celebrates both sides of his genealogy and subtly underscores the shared adversities of black and Mexican people in the U.S. (“I’m a mix of enchiladas and fried chicken / dashikis and Pendletons, penitentiary penmanship” – “Black Beans”).

When reflecting on the grim realities of growing up in impoverished pockets of San Diego or lamenting the dismal fiscal returns of independent rap, Choosey expresses his thanks for small victories and the love of his family. Positive without being cloying and sociopolitically engaged without being overly academic, Black Beans is the best Exile-produced project since Below the Heavens and one of the best rap albums of 2019.

For confirmation, start with lead single “Low, Low,” which features a stirring hook from Aloe Blacc and blaring horns. A song rapped in the conditional (“If I had a lowrider…”), “Low Low” is about more than pining for a shimmering Impala with gold Daytons. It’s about wanting to celebrate decades of Mexican-American car culture but lacking the finances. It’s about the privilege of being mobile in the southern California sprawl. And it’s about the familial communion of cruising, the feeling of riding with your significant other and your nephews to the park or the art museum. Together, Choosey, Blacc, and Exile make the dream sound sweeter than the reality.

Choosey’s reality began in San Diego’s South Bay. The middle of three children, he spent just over a decade in National City before his family moved to the border-adjacent city of Chula Vista. Though he “grew up around a lot of gang and drug activity,” Choosey heeded the advice of his hard working parents and contrite OG’s. He spent the better part of his childhood and teens busting tre flips and flying down stair sets on his skateboard. Plagued by injury and overwhelmed by the joy he felt performing at house parties, he eventually began making music under the name Makeshift.

After several projects, Choosey met Exile at his uncle’s restaurant in Echo Park (which has since moved). The pair developed a friendship and artistic kinship and began working on Left Field, Choosey’s first project on Dirty Science. A vehicle for Choosey’s sharp wordplay, Left Field does not want for punchlines, but the songs lack the cohesiveness and polish of those on Black Beans.

Choosey and Exile recorded Black Beans during two years of intermittent recording sessions. At various points, Choosey moved into Exile’s Echo Park home so the two could sort through 45s. Purposefully vague about the many jobs he worked during the recording process, Choosey says that he does everything from producing and engineering to graphic design. In fact, he designed the album cover and all of the flyers and merch for Black Beans.

Last month, when I hopped on the phone with Choosey just before the release of Black Beans, he was back in San Diego. We spoke on the phone for nearly two hours. What follows is a significantly condensed transcript of our talk, which covered the making of Black Beans, black and Latinx race relations, San Diego rap, Choosey’s ideal lowrider, and more. If you want to catch Choosey and Exile live this year, check the flyer below for their tour schedule. — Max Bell

What are some of the misconceptions that people from LA might have about San Diego?

Choosey: The list could go on forever (laughs). The main misconceptions are that there’s not much a music scene or an art scene. People are unaware of just how much amazing art comes out of San Diego. There are tons of art communities that support one another. Living here and watching how the art gets expressed within those communities is very unique. The reason people may not know about it is because it isn’t being exploited globally.

For people who want to visit San Diego and avoid the tourist stuff (e.g., Seaworld, the Gaslamp Quarter), where should they go?

Choosey: Check out the arts district in Barrio Logan. That’s where a lot of business owners I know are pushing a lot of cultures forward and helping people start their own businesses. The arts district is right by Chicano Park, which has been declared a national monument. You can go on any given weekend and it will be like a block party.

You played drums during your childhood and trombone in middle school. Did learning to play instruments influenced your rapping?

Choosey: Tremendously. Because of that band class, I learned how to count bars. I learned the basic principles of music and arrangement. I know rappers who don’t understand structure or how to count bars at all. Understanding that stuff influences my writing and everything. I developed a natural sense of timing. I’m so grateful for that. I want to find my band teacher and thank him. He probably has no clue that I’m still making music.

Your grandfather played upright bass. What kind of music did he play? Which band(s) was he in?

Choosey: He played in a few bands. He played in a band called Bobby & the Brothers. He played in the Luna Brothers Trio. They got some material that’s mind-blowing. They played Latin jazz, but you can’t really put it into a box from that time period. He also played in Eddie Cano’s band. That was his claim to fame.

What music did you hear around the house when you growing up?

Choosey: Michael Jackson. A lot of soul. Earth, Wind & Fire, Smokey Robinson, War, Teddy Pendergrass. A lot of ‘90s R&B. My mom would play gospel nonstop in the house. I was in the church choir, too. We weren’t playing rap in the house, but I was listening to it in my headphones.

Did you listen to any San Diego rappers (e.g., Jayo Felony, Mitchy Slick)?

Choosey: Of course. It wasn’t like I had their music, but we definitely knew about them from whoever was bumping them in our apartment. I also knew about Orko and Masters of the Universe. I was too young to go to a show when they were big, but I was always down for them.

Is Mitchy Slick’s “Triggeration Station” still considered an SD rap classic?

Choosey: For the DJ’s reading this, I’m going to hit you with a gem. If you want to turn out a party in inner-city San Diego, play “Triggeration Station.” Do yourself a favor.

What about Jayo Felony’s “Whatcha Gon Do?”

Choosey: C’mon. That was on the radio. It was playing out of cars. You had to know all of the words to that. I don’t know if many people even knew Jayo was from SD.

There are clips of you skateboarding on your Instagram. Did you originally want to be a pro skater?

Choosey: If you would’ve interviewed me ten years ago, my answer would’ve been, “I’m going to be pro. There’s no doubt in my mind.” I always made beats and messed around rapping, but I was always skating. Everybody that I grew up with, they are pro now. I was up there with them. We were skating the same spots.

Why did you give it up?

Choosey: I got a job at printing company right after high school. I would skate after work, but I would always be getting injured. My wrist was trash, on the verge of breaking. I was a printing press operator, so it was getting in the way of my job. Then my wrist finally broke, and I couldn’t work anymore. My boss at the time was like, “You might have to choose between music and skating.” I was already rocking house party shows and stuff. Based on the reaction I got from that and how good it felt to make music, it took over. I just got way more joy out of music.

Which came first: rapping or producing?

Choosey: Producing. I would make beats on Fruity Loops and stuff in high school. A friend of mine would come over after school, and we used to freestyle. I never really took rapping seriously until after high school, but I would freestyle just to see if the beat worked.

Why did you decide to wipe most of the music you made under the name Makeshift from the Internet?

Choosey: I feel like I grew so much after those projects. As Makeshift, I was recording myself getting better at rapping. A lot of people enjoyed those songs, but I knew that until I had a solid project that represents me I would be doing the listener a disservice. Now that I’m putting out a project that I’m really happy with, I may bring those songs back.

What’s the personal significance of the name Choosey?

Choosey: It comes from my mentality. Someone who doesn’t know me or is getting to know me might think I’m particular. To me, [the name] means knowledge of self. I know what I want at this point in my life. I’m aware of my preferences and style, and I take pride in that. Like, I’m not a vegan because that’s the thing to do. I was a vegetarian for half of my life and then became vegan. I can explain why I’m particular, but I don’t need to. I own it.

Despite the fact that you’ve been rapping for many years, Black Beans feels like your debut album.


Choosey: That’s what I was hoping for and how I approached it. I went in with Exile to fine tune the concept. We considered the visual representation as much as the sonic representation. I definitely want it to feel like my debut.

Is it strange to say that you’re releasing your debut after a decade in music?

Choosey: [laughs] Yes and no. I’m an artist, and I’m patient. I understand timing. The mixtapes were tests. I was doing a science experiment before I got the opportunity to put together a quality project. The reality is that it takes resources and money [to do that]. I knew that if I wanted to put something out and have it treated like a debut, it was going to take a few things. So it feels strange but it feels right. The reason why we’ve held off on this album for a while is we wanted the right pieces to be in place.

The songs have an assuredness and coherence that wasn’t as pronounced on earlier records. To what do you attribute that artistic growth?

Choosey: I’ve always set out to make real songs. To have Exile, who has such an incredible discography under his belt, really take these songs to the level was really what lit the fire under me. I always had it in the back of my mind and in my heart to make songs. Leftfield was more about proving my technical abilities. There comes a time when you have to prove that you can rap, but that was never my only goal. My idols are composers and writers who manipulated language to tell their story for the human race, not just for their block. I also had to uphold the standard that Dirty Science has held up.

You do an excellent job of highlighting your black and Latinx roots. Why was it so important for you to make sure both sides were represented?

Choosey: It was important because I have to tell my story. You can’t know anything I believe in without knowing what made me. That’s just robbing someone of knowing who I am. It’s my DNA, so I have to give you my foundation before I give you my perspective on anything else in the world.

Do you still feel like there’s a lot of shared prejudice between the black and Latinx communities?

Choosey: Definitely. That’s why this album was so important. I’ve heard it from both sides. I can tell you from firsthand experience what the stereotypes and the stigmas are and where they stem from. There are people who see me and just assume I’m black. Someone who’s Mexican who grew up thinking, ‘We don’t mess with black people,’ they might assume I’m only black and treat me a certain way. When they find out I’m Mexican, it’s daps and hugs all of sudden. To this day, I’ll be around my primarily Mexican homies and they’re talking amongst each other and they might make a joke or something about black people. Then they’ll try to keep the conversation going like they forgot that I’m black. It’s like being a secret agent for both sides.

When you hear terrible things about Latinx folks from a black person who might not realize that you have Mexican roots, or vice versa, do you say anything?

Choosey: You have to pick and choose your battles. If it stems from a place of ignorance and not anger, that’s when I’m more compelled to say something. There are times that people just aren’t willing to listen. It’s not always time for school.

Do you ever find it ironic that many songs Latinx folks cruise to were made by black people?

Choosey: I’m so glad you said that. That warmed my heart. It’s ironic and hilarious. I’m so thankful that we’re in an information age now and those prejudices are being destroyed at such a fast pace. I love it.

Since we’re tangentially on the subject, did you help Exile choose the oldies samples for songs like “Low Low?”

Choosey: Yeah. I look at this album as like 50% Exile and 50% me. We discussed concepts and angles and how we wanted to capture certain emotions. We would get a stack of 45s and he would be looping stuff back. He would bring some of oldies up and I’d be like, “That’s the one,” or, “That’s too typical.” Exile can take any sound and make it sound right. He understands so many of the nuances that, unless you’re paying attention, might go over your head.

“Low Low” is about the dream of owning a lowrider. What’s your dream lowrider?

Choosey: I have two. They’re the same make and model, just two different years. ‘63 Impala and ‘64 Impala. But before I even liked Impala’s, I wanted an El Camino.

When you eventually get your ‘63 or ‘64, what are some mandatory songs on your cruisin’ playlist?

Choosey: I’m going to go with “Be Thankful For What You Got” by William DeVaughn. Maybe Joe Bataan’s whole discography. “Ordinary Guy” [by Joe Bataan] for sure. We’re going to have some Brenton Wood. And we’re going to throw in some funk and maybe some modern stuff like NxWorries.

Partly because of the samples and partly because of your delivery on songs like “Satisfied”, you create a nostalgia for hard times. Do you reflect fondly on the adversities you faced growing up?

Choosey: Absolutely. I’m sure you can hear it in how I’m romanticizing certain things. I learned so many lessons from those adversities, and joy was still present during all of those times. Obviously, that’s what kept me going and what I hold onto dearly. If I learned anything from my parents, it’s the ability to see the beauty in every situation.

Choosey Tour Dates

May 2 in Seattle @ The Crocodile
May 10 in Las Vegas @ Ninja Karaoke

May 11 in Berkeley @ Cornerstone
May 14 in Portland @ Mississippi Studios
May 15 in Costa Mesa @ The Wayfarer
May 18 in Chicago @ Sub T
May 19 in Detroit @ Deluxx Fluxx
May 28 in Atlanta @ 529
May 29 in New Orleans @ The Den

May 31 in Fort Worth @ Shipping & Receiving

TBA Los Angeles

TBA San Diego

TBA New York

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