Sprawling, loosely affiliated collectives have largely supplanted the tight-knit rap groups of the '90s. Connecting the dots between solo albums is increasingly difficult, and the collective often loses its binding ethos to too many translations. Luckily, Warm Brew continues to fill the void one line at a time.
Since 2010's Natural Spirit, the Dogtown (Santa Monica and Venice) based trio of Ray Wright, Manu Li, and Serk Spliff have committed to recording together. Each project expounds on their singular, forward-thinking West Coast sound and expands their devoted local fanbase. After innumerable hours spent recording at Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica, the beachside group has become the first rap act signed to Red Bull Records. Today, their wave is poised to break far beyond the sands of the Pacific.
Born and raised in various Los Angeles locales, the three 20-somethings formed their still unbreakable bond at Santa Monica High. Rap was initially a shared hobby, one flirted with between classes, parties, and trips to the beach. When post-high school plans didn't pan out, however, Warm Brew emerged.
The group's earliest backyard shows remain the stuff of legend. College-aged fans up and down PCH toppled rickety fences and bounced on rooftops as Warm Brew developed their ever-kinetic live show. "It was like college for us," Li says.
Really, the shows were a respite from their most turbulent years. Days were spent shuttling between the homes of their respective single mothers; nights were spent sleeping on floors and working graveyard shifts to make rent. Projects such as Kottabos (2012) and The Ride (2013) documented the highs and lows with increasing returns. "Our biggest influence is the struggle," Wright explains. "You don't necessarily have to be down to make your best music, but sometimes you make your best music when you're not in the best headspace." The Ride also featured Warm Brew's biggest single, "Wanna Get High." The swirling, intoxicating smoker's anthem garnered the attention of L.A. rap luminary Dom Kennedy. In addition to offering free studio time, Kennedy released Warm Brew's 2015 album, Ghetto Beach Boyz, on his OPM label. The album's ceaseless, near two-year recording process reaffirmed the group's unwavering unity.
"We were fighting, laughing, and sitting there pissed off with one another, but what matters is the fact that we got through that," says Spliff. "Not a lot of people can get through those parts. We realized that we can do it." Since it's release, Ghetto Beach Boyz has received praise from publications like XXL and LA Weekly. A distinctly modern West Coast rap record, it reverently nods at the sunsoaked G-Funk of old while driving the proverbial lowrider down an entirely new lane.
Warm Brew's latest offering is the six-track Diagnosis. An assemblage of infectious chords, soulful keys, and layers of progressive percussion, the beats from producers like Swiff D (Schoolboy Q's "Studio") and Al B Smoov (Warm Brew's DJ) make this the trio's most sonically diverse project yet. "I think we already had a winning formula," Li says when discussing Diagnosis. "We're just getting better." The improved formula is never more apparent than on the project's lead single, "The Mission" (Swiff D). A meditative trip down memory lane, each member displays the kind of growth earned in and outside of the studio. Wright tempers tales of a checkered past with his perfected, Nate-Dogg-like croon on the song's poignant hook; the evercharismatic Spliff praises the support of family and friends in a polished double-time; Li laments the dissolution of a friendship with insight and perspective that belie his age. Like the best Warm Brew songs, "The Mission" confirms the timeless power of true collaboration.