Monday, September 19, 2016

Shift the Shape: An Interview with Mek One

GeeSlimmy

    Fans of the Shape Shifters will be very familiar with Mek One aka Mr. Fung. He contributed verses to classics like "Brain Fish Oner" and "Abducted Again." He produced several songs on Planet of the Shapes and Know Future, including co-producing the Shifter's anthem "Word to Your Mutha Ship." He provided raps, production and cuts on "Appoca-Palooza." But he was also an original member of the crew, extending back to the early 90s and played an important role in shaping the sound the Shape Shifters became known for. I had the opportunity to pick his brain and he broke down some important and largely unknown history about his hip-hop experience and about this unique and innovative crew.

Can you start off with your earliest experiences with hip-hop and what influenced you in those early days?

    My very first experience with any hip-hop would've been, I'd say '82. Me and my sister used to go out to Detroit, Michigan every summer to spend time with my mom's family and they would take us to this place called Boblo Island. Basically what it was was this amusement park. You'd take a big ship out to this island where they had the amusement park. There were a lot of black folks there, so it was very hip, you know? When we were on this ship, they were playing stuff that I thought was really cool. They had a live DJ and people were gathering around in a cipher. At the time, people had, like, Playboy bunny hats and white gloves, like pop lockers, stuff like that. This was very early. I can't remember what songs they played, but from that day forward, I just had to find out more about that. I was like, "When I go back to L.A., I need to find out what the hell is going on with that stuff I saw on the Boblo boat. If it exists in L.A., I'm finding it!"

    So when I was back in L.A., I was on Hollywood Blvd. and I saw they were doing the same thing, with cardboard, break dancing and all that. I was a little kid, like eleven or twelve or whatever. I had a friend, Ilya, and he was break dancing already. He was a year older, and he had the red beret. He had Converse and khaki pants, all that, you know? He was trying to do windmills, the backspin. He was into the breaking. And we used to go to Hollywood by ourselves. We weren't really supposed to be roaming around by ourselves in Hollywood, but anyway, we'd do all kinds of crazy stuff, like racking little Star Wars action figures and G.I. Joe action figures and like burn 'em and try to make 'em break dance and stuff [laughs]. And then we'd walk home and just talk about everything we saw. I just remember we'd be like, "Dude, did you see that one dude who did that?" And we'd try to do it.

    Ultimately, I started going there more and he ended up kind of going down the gang path. Me, I was kinda too skinny and frail so I couldn't go down that path. So I just started hanging around Hollywood by myself. So I met some cats my age and I started going up there a lot. I started getting the guts to do some break dancing, but it wasn't much. I had met two kids. One kid was named Lamar and the other was Laron. Laron was already well known. He had been on Different Strokes and a couple other T.V. shows for popping and stuff. He could do a little breaking too but it was mostly pop locking, stuff like that. This other kid, he was kind of living a rough life. His name was Lamar and he and I used to hang out, like, every single day. Basically, I wanted to master all the moves he had. I was like, "This cat is gonna teach me everything." So I became super good at break dancing, inheriting the moves from him. So I'd go up to Hollywood and fools would be like, "Oh, shit! Who's this little guy doing all this crazy stuff we've never seen before?" That's when I got in this crew called Crush Crew. It was a bunch of kids that lived around Hollywood. It was me, Dayvon, James, Tommy, and a bunch of other kids. So James and Tommy, they were like stars on Hollywood. They'd show up and do stuff nobody was doing. They'd do uprocks, like New York style. Their style was nowhere like L.A. They'd just humiliate people. They'd wear boxers with their name stitched on the back and moon people.

[laughs]

    They'd do the craziest shit. They were like four years older than me. I'm like the little pip-squeak of the crew. They're already crazy about girls. I wasn't about any of that. They were talking about banging girls, break dancing, all that stupid shit. I was like, "I dunno about all that stuff but can we go practice?" [laughs] Basically I was more like a geek when it came to the break dancing. So up until like '83 it was mostly break dancing. Then in fifth grade I met Ser from West Coast [Artists] (WCA), one of the original members of the Shape Shifters. I dunno if you found that out...

Yeah, I saw Rob One, yourself, Ser, Relm and Perk as the original members.

    Yeah. So Ser showed up to my school. I was going to Melrose Elementary at the time. He showed up with this, like, bleach blonde duck tail, this Filipino kid, like, really brown skin. And I knew he was a surfer or something. He looked different than anybody else. I was like, "There's something up with this kid. I dunno what he's into. I gotta find out." But I was one of those different kids too. I didn't look like anybody. Then one day he showed up with some hip-hop stuff on, some Pumas or some shit. So I was like, "Ok, this kid is hip-hop." So I started talking to him, and it's Ser, and he's DJing and stuff. He wasn't Ser yet, of course. He was one of these Filipino dudes from Carson. He hung out with Samoans so he had some hip-hop growing in him already from being over there. There was a lot of hip-hop going on in that area. That's where like Dream SMD comes from, R.I.P.

    So afterward, I started hanging out with Ser. We'd go to this dude's house and they had a cardboard and we'd spend hours trying to spin on our backs, drawing graffiti on the cardboard [laughs]. This other weird dude used to bring his boom box and play Uncle Jamm's Army tapes while he danced, something stupid like that. So as time went by, I think it was about '84, going into junior high school, and at this time, break dancing is pretty much dead. It was only for people who were really super good. Everybody else pretty much quit. I felt like, "Man, all this practice and we're just gonna quit?" So I kept going to Radiotron, even though it was about to shut down. Lamar was still into it and there was this kid Mike, so either Lamar or Mike, we'd go all the way downtown to Radiotron after school and spend hours and hours there practicing different moves. By the time eighth grade rolled around, it was really dead in the water. But see, while I was break dancing I was also doing a bit of graff, here and there. I got really into the graffiti in late '84, '85.

Is that how the Shape Shifters really got started? Through CBS and doing graffiti?

    No, the way the Shape Shifters got started was with Relm. Relm was hanging out with Ser a lot and they had a lot of inspiration from listening to Ultramagnetic. They had other influences, like Chubb Rock, all the super original New York emcees.

Yeah, listening to some of those early songs, you can hear a heavy Ultramagnetic influence.

    Yeah, I kinda took a step left from that. Kool Keith is definitely dope, but my style kinda differs from what they were doing, on almost all the songs, I would say. But they could quote every single Ultramagnetic song, even rare shit nobody's heard. They knew it all like the Bible, especially Relm. That was going on for a while and I was rapping mostly with Ser and Relm, and Perk would come around once in a while, when he wasn't slanging his yayo or whatever. There were a bunch of cats who would come to my place, my mom's apartment. Rakaa Iriscience from Dialated Peoples used to come around. At the time, he was rapping at the Hip-Hop Shop. I dunno if you know the graffiti writer Hex, they'd have this Hip-Hop Shop up in Melrose they owned. Everybody used to go over there and practice rapping, DJing, whatever they did. Also, you know who used to go there, who came outta there? Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am.

Oh cool, I guess that would've been the Atbann Klan back then.

    Yeah! Here's a funny story. Those guys used to do a very happy style. It was like Kwame. They'd wear poka dots and jeans, like some De La Soul dudes. They'd dance and do this thing called shack dancing, like running up the wall and doing a flip. It was like, "Oh shit, I don't wanna do that but that's cool." will.i.am had actually asked me if I wanted to get down with them and do some stuff 'cause I was doing some stuff with this cat called Circle. I was gonna do some stuff with him but it was so far different from what I was doing. I was still thinking I should hook up with this cat. But I was worried people would find out and think I was a happy rapper like him. Back then, you had this ego and shit [laughs]. I thought his stuff was cool though. I never really valued him as a lyricist or anything like that. But I thought he had some good delivery and good ideas and concepts. So I'm hanging out with Ser and Relm and Prince Charming, that guy who put out that Orgasmo record I was telling you about.

So Prince Charming, was he a punk artist, or was he a rap guy or...?

     He was like this geek. He looked like a developer you'd see at Dot Net or something [laughs]. He met Relm through some mutual friend or something. So he'd come through. He had some cool ideas that were way geeked out. He had some crazy instruments we'd sample on the SP12000 or run it through his Roland drum machine. He definitely had some weird hippy instruments he'd bring over to my place and we'd sit there for hours sampling it, trying to flip it and put some drums to it.

    So that dude, he used to take me to these weird spots, man. It used to actually scare the shit out of me. I think the only reason I kept my calm was because we were so stoned. It was like hippy land where they'd take a shit and a piss in an outhouse. There'd be this big jam going on with weirdo people singing and rapping. I went once or twice then after that I was like, "This shit is too weird for me." So that dude was kinda weird, but we had this comradery because he was from Detroit or he had spent some time there. But he was mostly Relm's boy. But we did some cassette recordings and ultimately he ended up pressing up that Orgasmo record on his own. I guess he took what he thought was the best of our little collaborations.

    So around that time, Relm had a couple names he was throwing around. He had this one, Anonymous Squared, which reminds me of that new De La album or something [laughs]. But I didn't like it. Perk definitely didn't like it. Then one day Relm throws out the name Shape Shifters. None of us really knew where he got it from. We were like, "Oh, that's from the movie The Omen or some shit." He told me he got it from reading some poetry, this poet named Lucille Clifton, a black poet from the 60s, I believe. Don't quote me on that, but I think so. So he was reading these poems called shape shifter poems, brainstorming different things. So it stuck with him and he really liked it and when he threw out that name, we were like, "Yeah, that's dope." So I didn't really have any say in the name - it was really Ser and Relm doing shit - I was just down, like, "I'm gonna rap with them and make some beats." But it was really a collaboration. It was like a big group thing. Everybody had input. It wasn't like someone just did a beat and said, "Here, you wanna rap over it?" [laughs]



Well, I wanted to ask you. That one song, I think it's called "Remember My Face", was that one of the first songs you guys recorded?

    Well, we did a bunch of a little things, but the first song we really did was "I'm a Man." Then after that, a couple months later, we decided we needed to do some more songs. Ser and Relm came up with that chant, "remember my face." That stuff is from them basically. The whole theme behind it was you could kinda rap about anything, shape shifting or whatever. So I had my thing about martians. Ser had his thing about waving the checkered flag. We kind of all stuck with the same theme and it worked out pretty well. I think everything came together pretty fly on that one. That one was on the cutting board for a while [laughs]. Every part of that song was put together so intricately. It became this big collage. "Are we doing a song here or where is this going?"

Well, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but listening to that song and hearing you rap about martians and all that - plus I know you did that verse again on Know Future on a song with Circus - that kinda seems like maybe that was the beginning of that whole concept of rapping about extraterrestrials and all that...

    Nah, basically, when I did that song, I was chilling with Circus already and he was already into that shit heavily. We'd get stoned and go to these martian expos - me, him and this other cat called Item - and we'd be talking 'til four in the morning about what we heard at the expos. So I think the martian thing came from those expos. We'd do it every weekend. He even went to Area 51. Marcus did a lot of that shit on his own too. He took it to a whole 'nother level [laughs]. They'd sell these tapes of scientists and all these crazy cooks just spitting stuff about aliens and all kinds of weird stuff. He'd literally read all these books, take all the information he could possibly conjure up and write lyrics, dude. He did his fucking homework. He was saying shit they had just started saying, way long ago. And that whole "it's your birthday" thing that 50 Cent did. He did that way back in '91 and '92. And I hated it [laughs]. I was like, "Please don't do that birthday thing, dude. I hate it." And then, what, thirty years later 50 Cent did the same fucking thing? But I think the martian thing for me, I was hanging out with Circus and that just rubbed off. It was stuck in my head so I'd write some stuff like that.

So that's how Circus got down then, through you?

    Hmm, yeah, pretty much. What happened was, me, Ser, Relm and Perk, we recorded a three song demo. It was "I'm a Man", "Remember My Face" and "Drum Drops." "Drum Drops" basically was, there's a beat playing, the whole song is basically one record playing all the way through. We liked that record so much, it just had drums all over it. Somehow, we wanted to blend that with the beat. So Ser had to sit there - he was the best one at blending - and match up the beat with his finger. It was kinda crazy. He did that in like one take, I think. So we did that three song demo in Ser's little studio apartment, in his closet or something cheesy like that. We had a reverb and we were gonna do some crazy voice shit but we didn't do it. Relm and Ser did some crazy Rammellzee voice shit and he wanted to put it on there but we were like, "Maybe on another song." It was better than B-Real holding his nose and trying to do Rammellzee but they were kinda poking fun at B-Real a bit too so I was like, "I dunno if we should do it. Let's scratch that idea." But we had a lot of fun toying around with the reverb.

Well, speaking of Relm, I know spinning off from the Shape Shifters you had the Hawd Gankstuh Rappuhs MC's wid Ghatz. Was that Relm...?

    I think all that is, dude - that whole "loving you because you're beautiful," Ser's singing that and then I think, if I'm not mistaken, they recorded that in New York with Reas AOK. And they sound like the Muppets or something, it's crazy. I dunno where the name came from. Maybe they were just sitting around cracking jokes and it came out. I wasn't a part of that.

So that was Relm, Ser and Reas?

    Yeah, that's it. But I think that beat, I think I did that, but it's been so long. I think I did the beat and then they took it to New York and did some stuff to it with Reas and that's where that stuff came from.

Can you talk about how you hooked up with Rob One and touch on the CBS days a bit?

     Man, I knew Rob since he was born. My mom and his mom were, like, pregnant in the park or whatever. The CBS thing, for me, Rob wasn't in any crew when I started hanging out with him again. He was DJing. So I hung out with him in third, fourth grade a bit then he moved to the Valley. So I didn't see him for years. When he moved back to Hollywood, I saw him and he told me he was DJing.  When I went to his pad, I was like, "Wow, this fool is blending Woody Woodpecker with Run-D.M.C. and crazy shit." This is '83, '84 or something. We started hanging out and he was into different shit. He was into rap but he was into punk. It was confusing to me. I was like, "I dunno if I can hang out with this dude. I can't figure out what he wants to do [laughs]." For me, it was a little bizarre. For me, it was hip-hop or nothing. He wasn't down with that. One day, I'd see him with Pumas and the next day he'd have some tight pants [laughs]. That was Rob.

    So he was tagging this crew around my neighbourhood, VCR. I was like, "What the hell's VCR, dude?" He was like, Vice, Code & Rob. I was like, "I know Vice. You're Rob. Who's Code?" He's like, "That's you!" I'm like, "Dude, I was just thinking of names, bro!" And he went all over tagging VCR. With VHS, VCR, the acronym just sounded cool to him, I guess.


    Shortly after that, he started telling me about this crew called ABC. There was another Hex, a Demo, a Frost, a Theory, maybe some other people. I think Smurf's big brother was in it. Smurf from UTI. So his big brother did a lot of graff too. So it was basically ABC first. Then Hex, I think, started CBS. Not the Hex you're thinking of. Not the Hex who does all that wonderful graffit stuff. This is a different Hex. So Rob and Sk8 were like the skater dudes of CBS. Rob and Sk8 became 2 and 2. After a while, I think Hex told Sk8 he could start pushing CBS and Sk8 took it to another level and started developing a crew around Hollywood. I think Anger was around at the time, and Vex. It was a small crew at the time. They used to hang out at Taco Bell, eat and go over to this place called Starky's Arcade at the Beverly Center. It was just dumb shit that everyone would do, you know? That would've been around '85, '86. CBS just grew out of that like crazy because Sk8 really pioneered the whole thing of going out and recruiting people. Whoever he saw that had a little bit of talent, even kids who didn't really do graff would start doing it after a couple months of hanging out with Sk8. So Sk8 developed a lot of these cats and then they came up on their own. He showed them what to do and they just kinda ran with the ball from there.

Can you break down the name Mek, where that came from?

    At the time, I was tagging Rec and Ser was tagging Rust, basically crossing out a lot of West Coast Artists stuff. We'd attack Piro, Miner, all their tags would get dissed. The reason we did it, Ser was kinda inspired by Beat Street and he got the idea, "Let's just start going around dissing these dudes!" I was like, "Man, we're gonna get our ass kicked! These dudes are in high school." And he was like, "Nah, we'll never get caught. We'll just run away." So every night we'd go out and diss as many Piro and Miner tags as possible. We didn't care. It was fun. It was a thrill. We're just gonna go diss all the tags we can. We might get chased and have to run but that's the fun part.

    Then finally one day, we're riding on the bus in Hollywood and lo and behold, Piro's on the back of the bus. He does his Piro tag. He doesn't know we're writers 'cause we're young little whippersnappers with peach fuzz faces. We notice him and we're laughing. We're waiting for his ass to get off the bus so we can diss his tag. And Ser wanted to follow him. He was like, "Let's see where this fool lives!" I was like, "Dude, I'm not doing all that, bro. What're you gonna do? Tag outside his place?" So we ended up following him. We didn't go to his place [laughs]. We went all out that night and dissed a bunch of shit.

    But ultimately Rec and Rust died when we got into West Coast. But before we got into West Coast, there was some static. We got caught out there. They caught us and they had saw Ser catch a tag or something and they were like, "Oh, you guys are Rec and Rust, huh?" We couldn't run anywhere 'cause it was like an alley or whatever. We admitted it and they didn't care. They were like, "We're not gonna fuck with you guys. We didn't know you guys were younger than us. We thought you were two big black dudes or something." So they just let us go. I just didn't wanna keep that same name. Ser didn't want Rust anymore so he went through a few names but he ultimately became Ser. I guess he just liked those letters. But I always liked an E or a T or an E and a K. I didn't wanna veer too far away from that. What would it stand for though? So I thought, in my head, Making Everything Kreative, M-E-K. So I started rolling with that. Sometimes I'd do it with an E-K, or an E-C-K, just to switch it up. So that's where that came from.

So in regards to Planet of the Shapes and Know Future, were you guys planning to record an album or were you just recording? 'Cause I know the songs were recorded over years but was there a plan to make a tape?

   It was kind of all over the place. That's all pretty much Circus. He did all the footwork, getting it out there, the artwork. I mean, I never got paid a dime for anything I ever did. None of the raps I did, none of the beats I did, none of the cuts, nothing [laughs]. It was just pure fun. But Circus, he put a lot of time and money and effort into putting this stuff out. He'd get upset, like, "I'm gonna do this shit myself." He basically did it all himself at one point. I remember I was living in New York at the time and that was right after Planet of the Shapes came out. He was like, "I'm not relying on anybody anymore." He just got tired of the bullshit, people being lazy. He was always relying on somebody who was slacking. He winded up probably mixing all that stuff down himself with minimal help, like, "Fuck it, I'm putting this stuff out. If it doesn't sound that great, I don't care." It was pretty much all Circus, dude. I did some rhymes, some scratching, but he's the one who's responsible for putting out every Shape Shifters record, I'd say. Maybe Rob might hold some weight with that. He might've put out a single. Rob was also involved in that too, getting the name out there too. I'm pretty sure he was a big help promoting and all that. I was in New York at the time.

    The reason why the original Shape Shifters broke up, after we recorded that three song demo, Relm moved back to New York, so it pretty much just fizzled out after that. And Ser was Relm's boy so I never hung out with him after that. So it just completely fizzled out. So Circus was like, "Fuck it. I'm gonna take it and do something with it."

So once they got passed the 4-track stuff and started recording cleaner stuff, you were pretty much gone by that point. Was that just you focusing on family or why weren't you involved in those later projects?

   I had moved to New York, just kind of trying it out. I was getting burned out in L.A., doing all these Joe jobs. I had this girlfriend who was from New York and she wanted to move back so we were like, "Fuck it, let's move to New York." We packed all our shit up and just drove there, cross country. That was way back in, like, '93, '94. That's why a lot of the stuff after Planet of the Shapes, I'm probably not on that stuff, or if I am it's old stuff. I did do one recording with him though. I think it was the "Girls Dipped in Chocolate" thing and some other one. I was actually living in New York. I think it was the winter time and I think we just recorded it at Cody's place. He brought all his equipment and everything and we just did it there, on the spot.

Cody is Bleek, right?

   Yup, that's Bleek.

So since then, the only thing I really heard you on was the Ex Vandalz stuff. Was that Perk pretty much spearheading that and gathering stuff from everybody?


  Yup, that was Perk. The first Ex Vandalz, I wasn't even on it. I did some music, maybe. I was living in New York at the time. He wanted me to be on it but it never happened. By the time I came back to L.A., in 2003, he wanted to do another Ex Vandalz CD. But he wanted a bunch of other people on it. So I was kinda confused because I was like, "Does he want it to be me and a couple other people, like the original Ex Vandalz?" But he was getting all these other cats on there and giving me beats I wasn't really interested in. None of those beats except maybe the one Pablo (Liferexall) did, but other than that, I wasn't really feeling any of them. The rest of them that he had me spit over, I wasn't really feeling any of them. You'd have to drop something on my head for me to feel it. That's kinda how you get when you live in New York too long. It's kinda disgusting but it has to be the best shit ever for you to want to rap over it. The funny thing is, he was feeling every single beat and I was like, "Man, I'm not feeling that, sorry." And he started getting mad [laughs]. It took me a long time to come around. I had to compromise actually to rap over some of those joints. We winded up doing all the Special Herbs, MF DOOM stuff, we winded up rapping over those. We did maybe four songs, but they never came out. He said he'd put 'em out, but he never did. Then we had a fight and I haven't talked to him since. I couldn't show up at a gig he had booked in Santa Monica. I had to work and he was pissed and that was it after that, we never talked.

Usually I end these by asking if you have any music coming up in the future but I guess unless somebody hits you up for a verse you're not really recording anything now, right?

    I'm not recording anything now. I still have my equipment but I haven't really been doing nothing. I still have all my old beats on discs. I did buy an SP-404 that I had MIDId up with my SP1200 and I was working on some stuff at home, like four, five years back, collaborating with Pablo - that's Liferexall. After that, though, I had kids and I'm just too busy with the family and all that. So I haven't had much time. But around maybe 2005, 2006 I was doing some stuff but it just went down the tubes, I guess [laughs].


I really appreciate you taking the time to break this stuff down for me. I was listening to the Shape Shifters in high school and it's kind of a trip for me to get to talk to you. I mean, you were on "Brain Fish Oner" which was the first Shifters song I heard and it blew my mind.

    I remember doing that song and showing up at L.A. Jae's place. We recorded the whole thing at his place. The whole beat was his. He had it on the MPC and as soon as he put it on, we all liked it. I had no idea. Circus just invited me to this thing. I had a verse I had just finished. I didn't have it down pat yet. I was sitting in the corner, trying to get it off my head. Circus had his long rap that he usually has. We were all stoned, sitting there, and Circus starts whispering in my ear, "Wait 'til you hear AWOL's rap." I had never heard AWOL before this day. As soon as AWOL started spitting his rap, I was like, "Dude, this is the dopest shit I've ever heard." His whole verse - it was short - but the picture he painted. I was like, "I dunno who this cat is but that shit is dope." After that, we all got excited and did our verses. And that's the last word from me...

3 comments:

  1. This interview is fire. So much knowledge dropped. Thank you Alex and Mek One!

    ReplyDelete