LMNO of Long Beach: 10 releases in 12 months
The conference room at Up Above Records has James Kelly’s name all over it. Well, his rap name, anyway. The wiry, 36-year-old plants his tattooed forearms on a sprawling, wooden table inside the sleek meeting area, swiveling gently in a leather chair. The wall behind him is crammed with a patchwork of glossy LPs released by the Long Beach label. Kelly’s moniker, LMNO, deftly overpopulates the collage.
Despite a prolific past spanning back to the early '90s, some of his Internet followers had their doubts when Kelly promised to release 10 albums this year.
“People were like, ‘Who does he think he is, Lil Wayne?' ” Kelly says.
In fact , he didn’t even need a year to do it. Though he continues to release one album a month, starting with "Push That Work" in February, the seasoned rhyme slinger captured style points by unveiling all 10 albums as a set prematurely in an aptly titled anthology "James Kelly" in October. (His name, by the way, has 10 letters.)
The emcee, a founding member of veteran L.A. rap outfit the Visionaries, took six months to make the 10 albums, which he crafted with a cavalcade of producers across the country and overseas, some of whom he’s never actually met face to face.
“I’ve always been one to be locked in the studio,” said Kelly. "But I was forced to step outside of that and put on more than one hat.”
He traded tracks and verses online with Cincinnati beat maker Theory Hazit and French re-mixer Astronote (producers on "Determined to Fly" and "Tripping on This Journey," respectively), and tapped Up Above artists, including LD, 2Mex, Kev Brown and label co-owner Key Kool of the Visionaries, for collaborations.
Each album posed a unique challenge for Kelly, who trades in an enunciated, staccato vocal style. In various corners of the 10 pack, tracks like “Time To Run” (on "Determined to Fly") and “Analog Catalog” see him clowning on mainstream hip-hop, lionizing his record collection or miring in convoluted wordplay.
The seventh album, "Tripping on this Journey," employs Astronote's synth-laden psychedelic boom bap production over which LMNO rhymes about fatherhood, maturing in the rap game and clearing the hip-hop scene of whack emcees. His delivery on songs like "The Gift" and "Hard To Do" offer wit and intensity over bold, big beat production.
Kelly says at times he felt ill prepared to tackle the project in the midst of busy touring schedules, working a side job as a commercial painter and maintaining his role as a husband and father of two.
“At certain points I didn’t think it would happen,” says Kelly. But once he had declared he would do it, he couldn't help but follow through. He even employed his wife Cam to help with the project; she designed the bulk of the album covers for the anthology.
“I wasn’t out there parading." said Kelly. “I’m not just an all-talk kinda cat. So I think at the end a lot of people could respect that.”
Kelly changed his work habits to get the albums released, and he created music as though he were going to the office every morning, producing multiple tracks a day. In years past, he used to require candle-lit, artistic vibes to induce his creativity. But this was different. He and LD started their tracks at 8:30 a.m.
The business mentality contributed to some of Kelly’s most inspired work to date. His second album, "fOnk Garden" (produced by Georgia Anne Muldrow), was his first concept album -- albeit a loose concept -- on a psychedelic garden wrought with vegetable and cultivation metaphors, signifying his growth in the rap game.
The last of the 10, "LMNO is Dead" (to be released individually on Dec. 14), offers short diaries about his recording experience, giving followers a cryptic peek at his work ethic.
Though he believes he’s broken some kind of record for album releases in a single year, LMNO said he abandoned thoughts of paying for a Guinness World Records adjudicator to come out and validate his 10-album feat.
“We looked into it at first and then I was like ‘nah,’ ” said Kelly. “All the merit of this project is right here in my hand.”
-- Nate Jackson
Photo: LMNO. Credit: Quang Le.