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Arizona's Murs Bridges Hip-Hop's Divide

It's a whirlwind few years that have landed Los Angeles rapper Murs in Tucson. A prolific artist and collaborator, the 34-year-old rapper spent a dozen years grinding before scoring a major label deal for 2008's Murs for President. Since then, he's been dropped by Warner Bros., gotten married and adopted a child, signed to Damon Dash's new label BluRoc, had his laptop boosted (its hard drive was filled with several albums' worth of material), and released four collaborative albums and a solo joint, as well as generating an unreleased punk album. His current tour also marks the official debut of his Kickstarter-funded combination graphic novel/10-track compact disc, Yumiko: Curse of The Merch Girl, which he recorded with Phoenix-based DJ Foundation.

The flurry of activity is typical of Murs (born Nick Carter). He's always been a hard worker, inspired in part by his single mother. That fierce work ethic was only amplified by a visit to Ethiopia in the summer of 2010 doing volunteer work with Ordinary Hero. It not only encouraged him and his wife to adopt an Ethiopian child but reinforced his opinion of American entitlement.

"There is so much opportunity in this country, and it's just the lack of desire — it's not the lack of opportunity, it's the lack of desire — in a lot of Americans that prevents them from achieving what they claim they want to achieve," Murs says.

Obviously, there's nothing stopping him. In 2011, Murs collaborated with producer Terrace Martin (Kendrick Lamar, Kurupt) on the album Melrose, spent more than a month in Brooklyn working with SkiBeatz on his BluRoc debut, Love & Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation, and also put out the Varsity Blues 2 EP, a follow-up to his legendary 2002 EP. Last fall, he released his fifth collaboration with producer 9th Wonder, The Final Adventure, and the appropriately titled This Generation with upstart West Coast rapper Fashawn.

Throughout his career, Murs has proved equally capable of grim street-level reality and heady consciousness — without resorting to the often preachy elements of "conscious hip-hop." Often, he'll rhapsodize about the banal, like hanging on the porch with homies smoking weed, and like a chameleon, he'll adapt to any situation. He partially credits a nomadic childhood that never found him in the same place for more than a few years at a time. "You have to [adapt] when you're always the new kid," he says.

That willingness to change up things eased his move to Phoenix when he finally tired of Los Angeles. It went beyond being mobbed at Best Buy on Tuesdays when he stopped in weekly to buy new music. Or strangers sneaking up on him and jealous haters stepping to him.

"A very famous rapper who's a mentor of mine said, 'Do what I do. It's simple, Murs. You get a gun, put it in your glove compartment, and if people roll up on the car, you just shoot a couple rounds in the air, and go about your business.' And he said it so matter of fact," Murs laughs ruefully. "I said, 'That's not me.'"

Instead, he moved first to Phoenix to be with his girlfriend (and future wife), before settling in Tucson. They bought a multi-home dwelling, allowing Murs and his wife to rent out the other two units. (He's practical to the core.) While he was in Phoenix, he went almost daily to now-closed The Coffee Conspiracy, where he spotted the mixtape of DJ Foundation, whose geekiness dovetailed with his own.

"The album cover had a comic guy on it, and I thought, 'I'll buy this guy's mixtape.' I listened to it, and it was all beats. And I was like, 'These beats are amazing,' so I called him," Murs says. "I'm, like, what's up? These beats are amazing, and I'm working on this comic book . . . He's a real hustler, so he was, like, 'Do you need a tour DJ?' We wound up going to Europe and Canada, and he's now a good friend of mine."

It may be that Murs' rubbery muscular flow and thoughtful lyrics aren't even his greatest assets. Indeed, it could be his ability to coexist with just about anyone that's driven him just as far. It's the concept behind his yearly festival, Paid Dues, produced in concert with Guerrilla Union and featuring an eclectic range of young and older acts. (Last year's show featured Wu-Tang Clan, Odd Future, Mac Miller, Brother Ali, Kendrick Lamar, Dilated Peoples, and Mac Lethal, among others.)

It's even smoothed over Murs' own beefs. "Sage Francis and I are not fans of each other musically, and we were at a point where we were definitely not friends, but I booked him on Paid Dues a couple times and we became friends," he says. "I never let my personal feeling about music get in the way."

Murs connects it to his own family and the sense of respect that's shared across generations. This year will mark his family's 99th family reunion, and he brags that he knows the name of each of his 13 great aunts and uncles, as well as other family arcana. He compares it to the historically contentious relationship between hip-hop's old and new guards.

"A lot of the dudes I grew up on were bitter at us," he says. "They were trying to ride it for dear life because they didn't want to end up like Cold Crush. Everyone was treating it like they didn't know when this hustle was going to run out, because that's what it is in the black community; everyone gets rich and then it's played out.

"Instead of being bitter, I said, 'No one helped me, so I'm going to make sure I help as many people as I can,'" he says. "That kind of turned into Paid Dues. It wasn't about creating someplace for me to headline every year. It was putting the focus on someone else."

Yet for all his apparent energy and enthusiasm, Murs is only human. After 15 years of hustling, he was feeling a little crispy a couple of years ago. Borderline burnt out. Taking his new wife out on tour helped him see things with new eyes, and his recent collaboration with Fashawn has proved even more of a wake-up call.

"Seeing the rap industry through Fash's eyes is really inspiring to me," he says. "He's reigniting a passion, because he still has that passion for it I probably had when I was his age. Touring with him is fun because he sees it for what it is — not how much you get paid, but that we get to rap for people. We come from the same place. We get to rap for people, and before this, our futures weren't as promising, but we kept the long-term perspective."

He believes that with hip-hop firmly established, there's room for broader vision. Everybody doesn't have to clock the same corner.

"So many legendary MCs will teach you everything about street life, selling cocaine, and not being a snitch, but they don't tell you how insane it is to live with a fucking 2-month-old," Murs says. "Let the younger kids talk about what you used to talk about. They probably can't speak to what you can about being a father or a mogul or any of that. I'd like to hear more of that from my generation."

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Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker