Coo de grâce 

Underground hip-hop eccentric Pigeon John gets ready to detonate

Pigeon John is the bomb, and he's about to blow up. Or so he says in the chorus to his new single, which is featured prominently in a current Volkswagen commercial.

At least half the claim is true. He is the bomb, particularly for fans who've stayed with him since his 2001 debut album, Pigeon John Is Clueless, and its 2003 successor, Pigeon John Is Dating Your Sister (which, if true, would be cause for concern). And it's hard not to love new lyrics like, "C'mon everybody won't you clap your hands / White folks do it on time if you can."

But blowing up the charts may be a trickier proposition. Name notwithstanding, Pigeon John is not easily pigeon-holed: He sings as much as he raps. He's the sole SoCal member of the Bay Area-based Quannum Projects collective. Best of all, he consistently shows up on lists of Christian rap artists, even though any religious references in his music are buried under a shitload of irreverence.

As a mixed-race kid growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood near the L.A. airport, John spent his early years riding skateboards and listening to hip-hop station KDAY. He wrote his first rap song, "Inglewood Skater's Dream," at age 12, and added a third source of inspiration a few years later.

"I started going to church when I was around 15," he says, "because my friend said there were girls there. Hot girls. Hot Inglewood girls. Dark skin, big nice booties, just praisin' the Lord, you know? So I skated my ass down there."

And how did that work out? "There were no hot chicks, just one ugly girl named Lisa. He tricked me. He was trying to save me, man."

But John still went back the next week, he says, "because the message intrigued me. I kinda snapped to and thought, 'What the fuck is he talking about?' For some reason it just connected, I guess."

As did the music of the Beastie Boys: "We had a car called the Beastie Mobile, and we just rode around Inglewood banging the Beasties. When I first heard them, I didn't know they were white at all. That was like the news of junior high school: 'They're white? Huh?'"

John has a side-project called Rootbeer, which dabbles in that early Beasties sound. But Dragon Slayer, his first new album in four years, is uniquely his own, an artistic vision that's both wide-eyed and world weary. And this time out, he and producer Hervé Salters didn't rely on outside samples.

"We just all holed up in the garage with instruments and made it happen," says John. "We brought in Tommy Guerrero and April Hendrix for a couple of songs, and the rest is Hervé and I."

The album is nothing if not eclectic: "Before We're Gone" lopes along like Johnny Cash, while "Hey You" is more garage rock than hip-hop. The downtempo "Dude, It's On" could practically be a Midnight Juggernauts track, if it weren't for references to Motel 6 and Chick-O-Sticks.

It's all brilliantly clever, as befits an artist who once claimed his nickname came from Jesus driving through Inglewood and stopping to hand John a dead pigeon, which then flew out of his hands.

Anything like that happen since?

"Plenty, plenty," says John, "but I don't like to discuss those things. Because if I keep having visions like that, people are going to start thinking I'm crazy. [Laughs disconcertingly.] And we don't want that, all right? Especially not in Colorado Springs."



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