Murs needs coffee. We're standing in the lobby of his hotel during SXSW, surrounded by a swirling vortex of musicians with faces full of dwindling hope and rapidly aging managers and bloggers looking for an outlet for their laptops. He barely slept the night before, going back and forth on email about the final mixes for his new album, Have a Nice Life. This snare needs to be a little louder, this bassline is getting drowned out in the chorus, no, now the bass is overpowering the vocals, and on and on and on, death by a thousand slow sonic drips in pursuit of perfection, until suddenly it's noon and you can't remember closing your eyes and a journalist is texting you from the lobby, asking if you're ready to do that interview.
And so Murs needs coffee, I always need coffee, and here we are, standing together in line at Starbucks, making small talk about how SXSW has changed, about how he was literally one of the first rappers to perform there in the late '90s. This was back when SXSW was a indie rock music festival made up of outsider musicians like him, not a parade of corporate branding thinly disguised as a music festival.
The mixer calls again and Murs excuses himself, steps out of line to talk about the sound of that snare for the 400th time. And at that exact moment his coffee is ready. Or at least I think his coffee is ready. He ordered the venti Americano, right? Would he have told the cashier his name was Murs, or used his real name? What's his real name again? Suddenly an entire world of questions about the names rappers might use when ordering coffee opens before me. I approach the barista, "What's the name on that?" She's haggard, worn down by the highest concentration of people demanding coffee per square mile on the planet right now. She glances at the name on the cup, it's a semi-illegible scribble. "It's a venti Americano," she says, eyeing me warily. If it's my coffee, I'd know my order. I fake confidence, grab the coffee and take it outside to Murs, where he's just finishing his call. He says thanks, takes a sip. That either was his coffee, or I just stole someone's coffee, he knows it's wrong and he's too polite to say anything. Now properly caffeinated we start walking the streets of Austin.
Murs' life has never conformed to a storyline, his career shrugs off any easy attempts at compartmentalization. Starting in 1997, he's released eight solo albums, nine counting the newly minted Have a Nice Life, and those albums have spanned every spectrum imaginable, from straight up hip-hop albums to projects paired with a graphic novel. His label resume include a major label stint at Warner Bros. to indie powerhouses like the late-great Def Jux and his current home, Strange Music. And that's just his solo work. In many ways he's a lone wolf, but he's also often found running in a pack. Albums with soul-sample legend 9th Wonder, albums with concept rock bands like The White Mandingo, his Mursday project with ¡MAYDAY!, songs with everyone from Pigeon John to Snoop Dogg, Mr. Lif to Kendrick Lamar. Oh, and he was also a driving force behind the Paid Dues festival. Also that.
It's a staggeringly expansive collection of work for someone who's built a career with his own two hands, and that's not a figurative statement. Packing up merch, shaking hands with fans, he's done it all himself, without any powerhouse help. "There was never a Dre co-sign, there was never a DJ Quik co-sign," he said. "I never got looked out for like that." I could hear the smallest sliver of longing in his voice when he said that, a flashing thought about what could have-been; imagine if Dr. Dre had taken him under his wing, he could be playing stadiums, drowning in more Beats headphones than any man could use in a lifetime. But it felt like time and experience quickly returned that momentary fantasy to the grave it belonged. Two decades in the music industry will teach you a lot about the dangers of fantasy. "Who knows how it would have worked out," he went on. "And now, that's the similarity I have with Tech [N9ne]. We built our shit from the ground up. Same drive, same energy, just manifested in different ways."
And so when we're approached by a young rapper hustling CDs Murs stops to talk to him, rummaging through his pockets for cash it turns out he doesn't have. I'm astounded, having long ago built a force field carefully constructed to repel rappers angling for money. But Murs explains he always buys a CD when he can exactly because no one looked out for him, because you never know who's truly talented and is fighting to be heard. He knows what it's like to have to fight to be heard.
To spend time with Murs is to realize what an asshole you are. It's not just the kid pushing his CD, Murs is astoundingly nice to everyone we come across. Fans yelling at him from passing cars, a janitor we end up on an elevator with, they all get Murs' signature smile. Maybe I caught him on a good day, maybe he loves his life that much right now, maybe it's the venti Americano he may or may not have ordered, but he radiates the kind of positive glow usually ascribed to pregnant women or Buddhist monks, a kind of calm and protective kindness that makes me realize just how detached and cold I often am to strangers. Feeling chastened by comparison, I profusely thank a young woman who holds a door open for us. Murs is making me a better man.
His apparently inherent happiness is even more remarkable considering the turn our conversation takes later, when Murs talks about the often dark origins of Have a Nice Life. "I'm from a neighborhood where more people die than war zones," he says. "They're war veterans, some of my friends, even me to a certain extent, but we're not taught that what we're going through is a serious thing. So I wanted to do a song ['PTSD'] to show we have a legit disorder."
Expanding ideas about who needs treatment for PTSD to include those who grew up in the inner city isn't exactly your typical subject matter for a rap song, but Murs is too deep in the issue to make music about anything else. It's his life. "There's another song, 'Woke Up Dead,'" he continues. "I always have dreams that I'm getting shot. Especially when I was recording the album, I was living in my mom's house. Just being in L.A., I'd wake up in a cold sweat. And nobody talks about it. Everybody talks about being tough, but nobody talks about living in fear, living in constant fear for your life. For me, from age 13, since I had my first gun pulled on me, when I first started having friends get shot, I've lived in fear. And I can admit that, yeah, I'm fucking scared."
Stories about the time he got rolled up on and was too nervous to even load a clip into his gun in time to scare them off, stories about the real guy "Okey Dog" is based on, a guy who texted him from the penitentiary when he saw the video, stories about waking up in jail days before he was set to tour Japan and realizing that unlike many he actually had options, that he had to do something better with his life, those are the stories that come spilling out of Murs, the stories that serve as the spine, the nervous system, of Have a Nice Life. They're not easy stories to tell but they're necessary, and Murs is committed. "I've been trying to add new depth to it," he says. "Instead of talking about the birds and the bricks, there's so much more to our lives. We never get the more to it."
Eventually we part ways, Murs walking off into the Austin afternoon to meet up with friends and finish the mixes on his album and if the last few hours are any indication, thank everyone he encounters. And I return to my hotel room with some new ways to think about the world, about hip-hop, about how to be a nicer person less of an asshole. Months later the album is finally out and listening to it brings me back to walking the streets with Murs, asks me if I'm counting my blessings, asks if I'm living a nice life. I'm trying, we're all trying. Murs is trying.
Nathan S. is the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.