“Stories in hip-hop are often the same, but I had never heard anything like this before.” Dominique Purdy says it himself: there are few rap albums like his autobiographical epic Little Dominiques Nosebleed. In great detail, the 36-year-old rapper recounts his tumultuous childhood in the neighborhood he named himself after, Koreatown, LA, centered on a trauma already outlined on the cover: “When I was a little kid , I was in two serious car accidents that would change the rest of my life.”
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: Mark Bijasa
Throughout his adult life, Dominique Purdy has drawn inspiration from his childhood; as a stand-up comedian, as the lead actor and writer of the black comedy Driving While Black (2015), and for the past ten years as rapper and producer The Koreatown Oddity. For a long time this inspiration was expressed in abstract references and short anecdotes, but that changed when Purdy laid the foundation for Little Dominiques Nosebleed in the summer of 2017 with the track 'Koreatown Oddity'. It evolved into a frank self-portrait, in which Purdy portrays his heritage and upbringing for the listener with characteristic nonchalance and humor. The message: “I won't forget where I started and how far I came.”
“I don't want to live with trauma, sadness and anger. I'm not rocking like that. I want to be part of something better.”
Because Purdy's childhood is deeply intertwined with Koreatown, a neighborhood in central Los Angeles with about 130,000 inhabitants in just seven square kilometers. “The place where I'm from wasn't all kimchi,” Purdy sings on Kimchi, and indeed, Koreatown is more than the ethnic enclave its name suggests. Fifty percent of the population is latinx, roughly a third is of Asian descent; only five percent is black. Now, in 2020, the district is in fashion: a cultural, culinary and tourist hotspot, with the highest density of nightclubs, restaurants and 24-hour businesses in the country. In the early 1990s – in the days ofLittle Dominiques Nosebleed – it was a different place.
On the album, the two car accidents he ended up in as a five- and six-year-old are turned into a case study of Purdy's personal backstory, as well as that of Koreatown. “Ripples from the impact spread out as wide as free jazz concepts”: as a child he regularly nearly choked in his sleep; To this day, Purdy copes with nosebleeds and migraines.
When asked whether Purdy has experienced those car accidents as trauma, I’m met with a roar of laughter: “A trauma? Hell yeah. Fuck yeah. Anyone who goes through something like this has trauma. But it was probably a much bigger trauma for my mother. It was barely a year between those accidents. Of course I've felt all those things, I've experienced all those things, but when I think about it now and when I look at my child, I think: damn, that's crazy. From this perspective, I see everything much more clearly. That's why my mother is also part of the record."
Purdy's mother Doria — once a member of the Zulu Nation hip-hop movement and friends with Ice T and Grandmaster Craz — does indeed star on ‘Little Dominiques Nosebleed, Pt. 1’ and ‘Pt. 2', the anchor points of the album. On both tracks she relives the moments right after both car accidents, all anger and panic. In between is a sample from stand up legend Richard Pryor: “Damn, I'm gon' bleed to death waiting on an ambulance. ... Ain't no way to get an ambulance in the ghetto, right? Unless you call up: 'there's five n***** killing a white woman!'”
What is it like to reminisce about such a traumatic moment in the studio with your mother? “Easy. It was easy as fuck. I showed her the track, told her what to do and she just had it right away. Did it bring back any pain? Well, not really. But it was very dope to translate that experience into music with her, to express it that way. Like, wow. I never thought we'd re-enact that moment. It was as if we were right there again. Like a fucking movie.”
It's neither the first nor the last time Purdy brings up movies. One minute he compares Little Dominiques Nosebleed to The Empire Strikes Back: “This shit is like Star Wars, you know what I mean? In the first movie you see a perspective that isn’t complete, but in the movie after that you slowly get to know a little more. Who is Luke Skywalker? Where did he have his training?” The next moment he compares it to Jordan Peele's Get Out: “Maybe you watched Get Out and it was a completely different movie for you at first. White people experience Get Out differently than black people, until someone tells them about all the racial undertones, all the metaphors.”
“People don't know a lot of things about you, and sometimes you want to let them know those things, because it might be something others can relate to and enrich their own experience with.”
Perhaps the most cinematic moment described on Little Dominiques Nosebleed, besides both car accidents, is the riots of 1992. A year earlier, in March 1991, a Korean shopkeeper, in his Koreatown shop, shoots Latasha Harlins (15) dead. Instead of the 16-year prison sentence recommended by the jury, Soon Ja Du gets off with community service. That same month, Rodney King, a black man, is arrested for a traffic violation and subsequently beaten 56 times with a baton by the four officers present. King is seriously injured. All four officers are acquitted a year later by an all-white jury. It is the last straw for many tens of thousands of African Americans: immediately after the ruling in the Rodney King case, there’s rioting, looting and fires. That week, 63 people are killed and more than 2,000 injured, and more than 12,000 arrests were made. The damage is more than a billion dollars, with Koreatown being disproportionately hard hit.
On Koreatown Oddity, Purdy tells his version: “Riding around with mom in the riots to loot. Terry with the Jheri curl tying plastic bags on his shoes. Koreans on the roof of the California Mart with the shotguns ready to shoot. The entrance blocked by shopping carts. You've seen it on the news. I've seen it with my own eyes, in person, 'cause I stay two blocks away. And I still got VHS tapes from that day.”
He calls it, full of conviction, a high point in his life. “The situation it came from was wrong, but the riots were a real highlight for me. I'm from L.A., I was there. My mom was driving around in the car with my homie Terry to loot, and I was there right next to them. I could just sit back and observe everything from behind the window. I was seeing this shit live, like in a fucking video game. It was as real as the realest video game. But it was real.” It was not scary for the then eight-year-old Dominique. “I was tripping. It was intriguing, awe-inspiring, but I knew this was happening because the police had screwed up. We were on the right side. I wasn't worried: nobody was attacking us. We were on the side of getting shit.” Like the box full of video tapes Purdy still has in his house. “From the perspective of the police it was undoubtedly a different story, from the perspective of someone who has no business there, but for me… It's an experience that certainly shaped me, gave me a certain view of the world.”
From the events in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992, the step was quickly made to what is currently happening in Kenosha and Minneapolis, among others. A lot has changed since then, but a lot has stayed the same. Purdy doesn't feel like talking about it. He already has Little Dominiques Nosebleed for that. “I don't know dude. We – black people – are constantly asked how we feel about this. So often. But I'm like, whatever man. Motherfuckers ain't gonna stop nothing they don't wanna stop. All I can do is live my life as a positive black man, do dope shit, create opportunities for people who are dope, and not stupid. That's about all I can do. I can be frustrated and fucking angry all the time, but when the cops are going to stop doing something, they’re going to stop; and if they don't, then they don't. I don't want to live with trauma, sadness and anger. I'm not rocking like that. I want to be part of something better.”
Live in the present; look ahead, not back. It sounds a bit contradictory for someone who has made an entire album full of references to the past, but in Purdy's philosophy all those things live on in the present. “People don't know a lot of things about you: why you do certain things the way you do them, why you think the way you do. And sometimes you want to let them know those things, because it might be something that others can relate to, and can enrich their own experience.”
It is from that approach that Purdy created an Instagram page around the album: @little_dominiques_nosebleed. It's a long-term project, an artsy collection of memorabilia, a museum of Dominique Purdy's micro-history. “It pays off especially for people who really dig deep into it, for people who know the record, who've listened to it multiple times, who'll think, 'oh, that's the skateboard he used to beat that kid rotten on that one track! Oh, and that's his Nintendo, and that's his Contra game.'”
Once again Purdy starts talking about Star Wars: “It's a whole world, a never-ending story,” just like Little Dominiques Nosebleed story. The skateboard, the Nintendo, the looted video tapes, the nosebleeds, the plastic bags on Terry's feet – Purdy leaves no detail unmentioned, because he knows it all shaped him, because it's all part of his saga. “I realized that life is made up of so many worlds you've lived in. For a year, or for a few years, you do something, you have a certain routine, until you change things up again.” If Little Dominiques Nosebleed is The Koreatown Oddity's The Empire Strikes Back, then this is arguably the best, most fundamental chapter of his career. At the same time, Purdy also realizes, so many details are still unspoken, so many worlds in his past not yet explored, that a sequel (or a prequel) is almost inevitable.
Little Dominiques Nosebleed is available to order at Stones Throw Records store or The Koreatown Oddity's Bandcamp page.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.