April 25 2012 02:06 PM

Outlandish rapper grapples with issues of race

Photo by Cesar Andre

The night before St. Patrick’s Day, rap jester El Gun Legro has a boyish smile stretching from ear to ear. Onstage at the House of Blues, he bounces around, delivering high-energy rhymes and tossing freebies to the crowd—mix CDs, glowstick-embedded thundersticks, wigs that look like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh if he grew dreadlocks.

His outlandish outfit matches the occasion: lime-green glasses, a vest the color of a golf green with gold accents and a matching green-gold bowtie that hangs on his trademark Jheri-curl wig. Tonight, though, he’s decided to leave his Speedo at home.

Many rappers assume personas—Rick Ross infamously caught flack when it was revealed that he was a former correctional officer, not the drug kingpin portrayed in his music. But few of them admit to it, and even fewer succeed at it. El Gun Legro—whose real name is Dominique Gilbert—is one of those rare successes. The up-and-coming local rapper’s charisma makes his antics seem natural.

“When I’m onstage and I’m El Gun, the only difference is a wig and a Speedo,” he says, comparing his stage personality with his real self. “I’ve always been that person to never limit myself from the possibilities of having fun.”

Last year, Gilbert surprised the local hip-hop community when he was nominated in the Best Hip-Hop category in the San Diego Music Awards. The nomination came mere weeks after the release of his debut album, The Return of the Future. Now, he’s set to release Coming to America, a collaborative EP with local rapper-singer J-Light.

The EP’s title refers to the 1988 comedy starring Eddie Murphy, who plays an African prince visiting the United States. The duo was inspired by African dashikis at a high-school fashion show. “I gave El Gun a call and said, ‘We should do an album called “The Dashiki Duo,”’” J-Light recalls. “He was like, ‘Dude, I got it: the Coming to America EP.’”

Like Murphy, Gilbert pokes fun at race issues in a lighthearted way. His stage voice, gravelly but high-pitched, reminds you of Dave Chappelle’s outrageous impersonation of Rick James on Chappelle’s Show. His name was originally “El Un Negro,” and the phonetic similarity is a joke on first-time listeners who mishear the name as something potentially racist.

Gilbert, 25, acknowledges America’s past and present shortcomings in dealing with race—he doesn’t believe the country’s become a “post-racial” society yet, though he’s optimistic it’ll get there soon. He wrangles with the issue through comedy.

“Comedy has always been about relieving yourselves from the negatives in society,” he says. “It’s a healing process.”

What separates him from many novelty rap acts, though, is that he raps well. You may dismiss his over-the-top style, but the music of The Return of the Future is rap first, comedy second. Gilbert fires off witty punch-lines with clever wordplay while tempering typical rapper braggadocio with goofy, self-deprecating humor. On “MJ,” his most recent single, he raps:

“Zombies looking sick and they ask me for the antidote / I am it, I’m all about my peas and my cantaloupe / Mufasa, I am him and you rappers is my antelope / Stop—I strip for the camera show.”

Tall with vibrant eyes, Gilbert grew up with his mother in Linda Vista. When he was 18, while attending San Diego Mesa College, he injured his back in a snowboarding accident. The injury dashed his hopes for a partial scholarship to UC Riverside, whose basketball program was interested in recruiting him.

After the injury, he got a job at the Linda Vista branch of the Boys & Girls Club, which turned out to have a robust music studio. He took over the music program in 2006 despite limited experience, teaching kids how to record their songs. During his stint, a group of teen rappers going by the name Loudmouth inspired Gilbert to try rapping himself.

The youth center also attracted producer Jaz Williams of the respected Batkave Recordings in Oak Park. Though Williams wasn’t impressed with Gilbert’s early work, he saw potential in the El Gun Legro concept and began mentoring the budding rapper.

“What we were talking about is making El Gun a character that’s crazy and wild with a purpose,” Williams says. “When you’re crazy with a purpose, people are more inspired by what you do.”

For Gilbert, the point is to be a positive role model as well as an entertainer. These days, he works part-time looking after kids at Mi Casa Group Homes in Mission Valley. He also attends SDSU, where he studies film and media production.

Ultimately, Gilbert’s vision is to produce and headline a Las Vegas show that combines comedy, music, visual arts and theater. Though he claims he can make it happen in three years, he’s a long way off. For now, he studies stand-up comedy, his current subject of observation being black comedian Kevin Hart.

“I’m studying because all those intermingle somehow, someway,” he says. “I’m trying to make all of them one.”