But AWOL One is also a thriving solo artist whose laconic flow, subtle satirical raps of mostly free verse and a healthy disdain for hypocrisy have been the main ingredients on five full-length records, the most recent of which, The War of Art, was released in April by the indie label Cornerstone R.A.S.
Released on the same day was Money Symbol Martyrs by $martyr, a duo that consists of underground rapper 2Mex and Life Rexall, a DJ and MC with the Shape Shifters, respectively. A member of the group Visionaries, 2Mex is also a satellite member of Shape Shifters.
As soon as the AWOL One and $martyr discs dropped, a co-headlining tour was already in the works. And that show comes to Tucson for a performance of top-notch undie rap Friday, June 23, at Solar Culture Gallery.
AWOL One recently took a phone call from the Tucson Weekly in his Los Angeles-area home, sounding a little stoned, or maybe just under the weather, to discuss the tour.
He compared his solo material to the work he does in Shape Shifters, which produces psychedelic sci-fi hip-hop that is often chaotic, comical, freewheeling and unpredictable.
AWOL One (who is known to his mother as Tony Martin) said, "With my own stuff, I get to carry out complete thoughts without having any other input from the rest of the group. I guess it could be possible that on my own, I can get a little more serious. That's why I like doing both, and I never want to stop doing both."
Backed by a variety of bare-bones synth-pop and electro soundscapes--with occasional samples from chamber music and Herbie Hancock's "Rockit"--AWOL One takes on a variety of issues, including the nihilism of gangsta-rap posturing, the emptiness of fame, the pointlessness of rap beefs or battles, family issues and current affairs.
This is a rapper who can move from "Nobody remembers the names of the victims / Only the killers get the fame" on the song "Casting Call," to "The thing I value most in my life is my family" on "Get You."
But AWOL One's style is deceptive. He comes on like a lazy LL Cool J one minute and then sounds artfully sloppy, not unlike Biz Markie or Tone-Loc, the next. It's definitely not mainstream hip-hop.
AWOL, who developed his handle as a graffiti artist some 20 years ago, said, "Some people might think something, like a painting, looks beautiful, and some people hate it. Someone might really dig what I'm doing, and some might think it's the worst thing ever.
"Anything can be music--an electric sander or a kid banging on pots and pans and singing about how much he loves his juice. That can be beautiful music to him."
Another significant part of AWOL's modus operandi is, as he puts it, "taking regular things that are familiar and twisting them around to give them different meanings." Take his new album's title, for instance. It's a reversal of the title of Sun Tzu's legendary military treatise The Art of War.
"It just kind of seems relevant to me right now to call it The War of Art, because I think there is a war on art in our culture, and there is a war over what is art," AWOL One said.
Rivalries and gang violence in the name of rap also dismay this old-school-inspired hip-hop artist. As he posits on the album, "Music is an expression / Music is not a competition."
Joining AWOL One on the new CD are such guests Pigeon John, Team Sleep, Eyedea of the Rhymesayers, DJ Rhettmatic and none other than KRS-ONE, who trades verses with 2Mex and AWOL One on the highlight track "Underground Killz."
Of KRS-ONE's appearance, AWOL said, "He's definitely a hero for me. I'm at a loss for words. ... He's definitely one of the pioneers of hip-hop, and it was definitely an honor to have him on my album."
AWOL One said he was stoked about sharing his art with fans, as well as getting to peek into the lives of people with whom he might come into contact on the road.
"I like seeing how different people live. When we first started touring, we weren't making hardly any money. Now it's started to be lucrative money-wise. At least we're coming home with money in our pockets.
"But I need to be experiencing new things, just as much as I like to be at home with my family."