Dec. 22 2010 10:34 AM

A rock vet tries his hand at hip-hop—and it doesn’t suck

When Ben Johnson steps onstage, he transforms into Grammatical B (bottom), his zany hip-hop alter-ego.
Photo by Jacqueline Coulon
Pinpointing when rockers accepted rappers as artists and peers is a matter of opinion. For Jeff Chang, who wrote the definitive hip-hop tome Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and Chuck Klosterman, a pop-culturalist and self-professed metalhead, the event came in 1986, when Run-DMC covered a washed-up (at the time) Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” The result introduced Run-DMC—and rap in general—to a new audience and revived Aerosmith’s career.

Sure, the song was a pop hit and the first indication that people might be willing to accept hip-hop as music, but it did little to ease rock / rap relations among hardcore fans of the genres. Hardcore rockers didn’t like rap—and vice versa. When this changed, exactly, is even more debatable. Public Enemy jamming with Anthrax in 1991 or the release of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic the same year? The 1993 Judgment Night soundtrack? (To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, if you remember that one, you might be a music geek.) Please don’t say it was Koor Limp Bizkit.

Ben Johnson, a seasoned vet of the San Diego punk and metal scene, is all too familiar with the syndrome. Growing up, he loved hip-hop and has been beat-boxing and entertaining his close friends with freestyles for years. He thinks that both the rap and rock camps enjoy each other’s music, but to admit such a thing is akin to a kind of musical coming-out-of-the-closet.

“Me and my friends were never like that, but there definitely was that mindset within the scene,” Johnson says over iced coffee in his Golden Hill home. “Those dudes are still out there. I think it’s more from a fan point of view. You have to be so hardcore about one genre. But from a musician’s point of view, it’s a lot easier to jump into another thing. I’d like to think I could try a whole bunch of stuff.”

So, it might have been strange to some in the local scene when Johnson introduced his newest project, Grammatical B. He’s known as the charismatic and heated lead singer of the punk-metal band The Long and Short of It, as well as the drummer for the even heavier Hostile Combover. Everyone already knew he was multifaceted, but Grammatical B saw him teaming up with MC and producer Microphone Mike and rapping over bass-heavy beats with nary a distorted guitar within earshot.

“I did it just as a hobby,” Johnson says of rapping back in the day, “starting in like ’87 or ’88, just fucking around. I always really liked rap, but down here I was immersed in a whole different culture. I’d been freestyling for Mike for years, and when Hostile Combover broke up, I just told him, ‘Hey, man, I’m ready.’”

The result was the new seven-track Grammatical B EP, The Birthinating. Johnson’s voice and flow resemble a prepubescent boy on a Four Loko bender. About two minutes into the opening track, “2 B a Freak,” it becomes evident that he has genuine lyrical skills, unlike, say, Fred Durst. He also has a wicked sense of humor, evident on “Who Ganked My Dank?” and, especially, “Do Fries Come with that Walk of Shame?,” which was written when Johnson spotted what he calls an “unholy wreck” of a woman walking out of a neighboring house.

With Microphone Mike playing hype man and providing beats on what Johnson describes as a “crappy Casio,” it’s easy to see the songs garnering chuckles from both dorm-dwelling frat boys and older indie-rock fans. He says he recently played some songs for his grandmother—he’s always been shy about playing his rock material for her. Strangely enough, a recent per formance to a crowd of South Park mommies and their kids during the neighborhood’s monthly walkabout went over like gangbusters.

“I don’t have cuss words; it’s just adult subject matter,” Johnson says. “Stuff that goes boom-bip-boombip—kids love it!”

So, kids like it. Grandmothers like it. And Johnson’s metal friends like it. What’s the secret? It could be that he never hides the fact that it’s just him. He’s not posing as a baller or a player. Grammatical B is just another extension of his musical id. In the video for “Rules & Laws,” Johnson’s dressed in frayed shorts and a T-shirt, yelling from behind the bar at The Casbah. Pretty much just like he is in real life. He knows he’s not the next Eminem. He simply wants to follow his inclinations, he says, however unlikely they may seem to some.

“I like to mix things up. I don’t think I’m gonna come up with the next great musical style, but I’m gonna come up with stuff that I think sounds cool to me, and if people have my tastes then they’ll like it, as well. If they don’t like it, hell, I don’t care. I’m gonna do it anyway.”

Grammatical B plays with D-Pain, Microphone Mike and MC Jre & The ETeam at The Casbah on Thursday, Dec. 23. You can also check out Johnson’s rock thing when The Long and Short of It play with Retox, Grand Tarantula and Drug Wars at The Casbah on Friday, Jan. 7.