West Coast rap collective Warm Brew — comprised of longtime friends Ray Wright, Manu Li and Serk Spliff — are hitting reset.
After dropping bars on projects like 2010’s Natural Spirit, the 2012 follow-up Kottabos, 2013’s The Ride and their 2015 offering Ghetto Beach Boyz (the latter a nod to the California-based ensemble as well as their Santa Monica upbringing), the trio signed with Dom Kennedy’s Other People’s Money label, which parlayed into a deal with Red Bull Records.
After bonding over their mutual musical tastes (local legend 2pac was a favorite) and freestyling at random hangouts, Warm Brew — whose name comes from high school joyrides with warm 30 packs of beer in tow — started performing at house parties before taking their musical mission beyond the Westside.
Sit with their latest EP Diagnosis and their sound is still drenched in West Coast flavor updated with grown-man life experiences like the breezy opener “The Mission” and the powerful finale “Hallelujah.” The six-track project serves as a recap of their past year-and-a-half of juggling relationships, tearing up stages throughout Europe, signing to a major and, perhaps most importantly, exceeding others’ expectations.
Before embarking on their tour with fellow rapper Michael Christmas, the Brew crew sat down with Billboard to discuss their latest release, going wild in Paris and making the best out of sh–ty situations.
Why the name Warm Brew??
Serk Spliff: Obviously, in high school, we can’t legally drink and we’re just at that point where it’s like we’re 15, 16, 17, we want to drink and me and the homie — which is like my cousin, I grew up with him – we would go into stores and we’d walk out with two 30 packs each. The whole thing is you could never go to the ones in the cooler, it had to be the ones on display, like the Super Bowl display of Budweiser’s and so we’d walk out with 120 beers. A friend of ours named Alex Spence, just had the idea and threw it out. It was just an idea that stuck. The idea of it, the symmetry of the word Warm Brew just go well together. It just seems like it’s very synonymous with California and it suits us very well.
When did you start taking music as a career seriously?
Manu Li: There’s a point in every person’s life when you take something serious, you have to put your all, your whole complete energy into it so I wouldn’t say we took it serious until we could afford to take it that serious. It became, “Alright, I’m not gonna work. I’m gonna spend my waking moments doing it.” I always thought that this was gonna happen, that’s more like a far-fetched idea but we made a whole project, CDs and we committed and bought speakers so at that time I think that’s pretty serious commitment for some kids who don’t really have that much. We were like 20, 21 years old. We didn’t really have shit, we weren’t saving our money like that.
Were you all working weird jobs just to fund the hustle?
Serk Spliff: It wasn’t even for the idea of having money — it was really little keys everybody else was saying like “Well you guys need to be doing this, you guys need to be doing that.” The fiscal reason is important and we need money to survive in any kind of way but we kind of did anything we could so we ccould keep funding what we want to do which at the time, was make music, just have a good time and pretty much kick it with each other as much as we possibly can. I worked at a tamale shop and Walgreens.
Manu Li: I did a lot of my working before. That’s when I found out I didn’t like listening to people and taking orders like that. I think that helped me for sure but I did a lot of working in high school at 21, 22.
Fast forward a little bit. Explain how you guys came up with the title of your project Ghetto Beach Boyz?
?Manu Li: I was just listening to Geto Boyz, Beach Boys and Brian Wilson. It’s pretty f–king simple. It’s perfect ‘cause it’s self-explanatory. I don’t even think we needed a cover for you to see what I meant.
Serk Spliff: It’s who we are, where we’re from, it’s a representation. We’re from the Santa Monica, Venice area or just the entire west side right by the beach. Everybody thinks the beach is the funnest place in the world and it’s nothing but sunshine and girls in bikinis — which it is — but it’s like we also represent that ghetto side of it, the different shit that goes down on the beach. I saw a 20-on-20 bum fight at the beach one time. The Ghetto Beach Boyz is much more than just the three of us. It’s really the community that helped us become who we are. Shit, anybody can be a Ghetto Beach Boy, it’s just the way you go about shit and the mentality you have. If you could make your little ghetto area, your paradise or whatever you want it to be. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing this entire time. We’ve been making music together, making a shit situation the best.
What kind of vibe were you guys trying to create for the listener with the Diagnosis EP?
Ray Wright: I don’t think we were going for a vibe. When we make stuff, we don’t go for a vibe — our range is infinite. We could make a rock song and it’ll be hard. It’s just to let people know what we’ve been going through for the past year and a half, and why we haven’t put no music out. We were making a lot of tracks and we were gonna come out with an album but we just felt it was way too early and that people just needed a taste to warm them up before we dropped a full LP so really, it’s just growth. We went to Paris, did a lot of things, got money, blew money. It’s just basically to show people how we’ve been trying to make it, maneuver through this life.
Serk Spliff: It’s difficult to capture that broad spectrum of feelings with six songs and I think we did that, which is truly a testament to us and the work that we put in. We put our heart into those songs and I think it paints a story and people understand us, which is amazing. I think Diagnosis was a great title simply because it’s exactly that – some people’s diagnosis of who we are. You only get one time to make a first introduction. I think we did a good job of showing these are three dudes from southern California who are human and feel things like everybody else.
Were there any fun anecdotes in Paris that inspired a particular track or a specific memory that sticks out?
Serk Spliff: Just the way that we live is always influencing what we do but we had a show out there, we were performing at Be Street Festival and it was an awesome show. It was our first time in Paris so we’re obviously losing our minds. We performed around 11 o’clock and the event supposed to run until about 6 a.m. I had the wise idea of buying a bottle of Absinthe the second day into the trip and then I had the wise idea of putting Molly in my Absinthe. It’s all about experimentation — I’ll try anything once. I tried it and realized it could beat your ass.
If you look at the recap video, you can tell we’re f–ked up but we partied all through the night. Our homegirl that lives out there that we went to high school with took us to another bar at 7 a.m. I don’t remember that at all — all I remember is being woken up in a hallway of a Parisian flat by police, screaming at us in French and asking us for our passports. We give them our passports and they’re saying all this shit. Long story short, we didn’t get arrested and we made it out.
Ray Wright: You’re missing the main part of the story is that he pissed on somebody’s doorstep.
Serk Spliff: We’re sleeping in the hallway and this dude is cleaning it so our friend whose house we’re staying at takes us down there and they’re just chopping it up in French.
Ray Wright: He called the cops and was like, “Yo, there’s two gay American bums in my hallway. Come get these guys.” They come knock on our door, we hopped out in our boxers and they’re just sitting there like some wet puppies and the cops start trying to walk in. I’m like, “Hold up. What are you doing? They’re with us.”
Manu Li: It was a whole ordeal.
Serk Spliff: But what I did learn that day is that my friends are resourceful and that we can get in anywhere. Don’t lock the door on us because we will kick that shit down.
Did that make it into a song?
Ray Wright: I would say “I Swear.”
Manu Li: Every song is pretty much an experience to be honest with you.
Why end Diagnosis on “Hallelujah”?
Ray Wright: I just think it’s probably the most powerful song we have. It’s the type of song people would listen to like who are real religious and go “f–k these guys.”
Manu Li: If they didn’t listen correctly.
Ray Wright: I think it’s saying it can just really reach kids to want to go out and follow their dreams.
Manu Li: And to believe in themselves. You don’t necessarily have to believe in a higher power — yourself can be a higher power but really hustle and get your money that’s more of a personal thing if you want to look at the reality of it.
Serk Spliff: When you listen to it, it hits you. The way it comes in is powerful. It’s an impactful song but it was also a great way to tie into our next project. All of our songs are pretty much about us and how we just f–king love being us but that song is like [Manu] said, believe in yourself and believe in the people that [you] have. [Points around the table] I believe in these guys before I believe in the dudes reading these Scriptures over and over.
What do you feel like you three have to prove?
Ray Wright: Milestones to prove to ourselves. We’ve already done a lot of things some n—as will never ever do in their life — get signed, go play overseas. I think just proving to ourselves we could take it to the next level and that’s really it.
Serk Spliff: We don’t have shit to prove to anybody. We’e here, we’re still here and we’ve been doing this for a long time. I think with this, we feel the strength of not only the music but of our friendship. This is a unique thing — this wasn’t formed in an office, this wasn’t put together, this is something that three dudes sat in a room and were like, “We’re gonna do this, we’re gonna continue to push through.” We’ve gone this far and it’s gotten us here and there’s still so much… we don’t even know what else is gonna happen in the future but we know that if we do it together, anything is possible.
Manu Li: I want to prove some things my dad told me right in a sense. I want to perform in Staples Center. I wanna do shit like that as corny as it sounds. Also, I wanna prove that I can actually be rich by being myself in music. That’s wild to do.