Paulo Rodriguez isn't one to get hung up on labels.
When it comes to breaking into hip-hop as an Asian-American, the 26-year-old rapper-producer known as P-Lo believes his music is neither limited to his ethnicity nor catered only to people of the same background.
"I never wanted to take that route and use that Asian thing as a crutch," says Rodriguez, who's Filipino. "People are already going to identify with me 'cause I look like them. I never wanted to use that as a crutch to get where I wanted to be."
P-Lo's idea of letting his music speak for itself is one of the pillars of HBK Gang, the Bay Area rap collective Rodriguez co-founded while still in high school. Led by charismatic MC Iamsu, the diverse crew of producers, rappers and multidimensional creative types has helped spark renewed interest in the Bay Area's colorful hip-hop culture due to the success of members Sage the Gemini and R&B singer Kehlani.
Now, P-Lo is beginning to break out himself. He developed his sound and swagger at a young age, emulating his influences like Kanye West and NorCal producers Droop-E and Traxmillion. He met Sudan Ameer Williams, the future Iamsu, in high school, first making beats together, then eventually uniting other artists in their circle to form the HBK (short for "Heartbreak") Gang. Rodriguez credits Williams not just with his own success as a rapper, but for making the whole Bay Area pop again.
"Iamsu really inspired a whole region," says Rodriguez, who grew up in Pinole, Calif. "For a second, it was pretty dead…And now, there's so many new people coming out. I don't know if Su will ever get credit for that, but I'm giving him his credit. He taught me a lot."
On his own, P-Lo has consistently worked the mixtape circuit, putting out projects that put a spotlight on the region that raised him. More Than Anything, his latest album, is heavy in bass and perfectionary rapping, mixing go-dummy anthems ("Put Me on Somethin'" with E-40) with uplifting songs ("Look at Me Now"). The title track is P-Lo in the moment—reflective, thankful and cognizant of his future. "More than anything I want it all," he sings. "Watch me, watch me, watch me, go get it."
"I wanted to get more in-depth in what I wanted to put in the universe as far as positivity and self-belief," he says.
SEE IT: P-Lo plays Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE 39th Ave., with Rexx Life Raj, on Tuesday, June 27. 8 p.m. $15 advance, $16 day of show. All ages.