Described by LA Weekly as “L.A.’s subterranean Bonnie and Clyde, inhabiting new worlds of underground hip hop,” the indigenous duo of MC Red Cloud and Crystle Lightning broke into the mainstream with thunder earlier this year. The duo, which performs as LightningCloud, won the prestigious “Who’s Next? Battle of the Best” contest, which showcased top talents representing top rap hip hop groups from the west and east coasts in Austin, Texas in March.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, and the importance and diversity of Los Angeles hip hop is well established. But even so, a Native American act gaining recognition — and selling tickets — is out of the ordinary. LightningCloud looks to change that.
“Believe it or not, there’s a lot of Natives in Los Angeles—a lot of them,” explains Red Cloud, a lifelong L.A. resident whose indigenous roots stem from the Huichol Indian tribe of Jalisco, Mexico. “But it’s also a small circle so we all know each other. There’s powwows here all the time, there’s Mexican cultural classes, you can learn to speak the tribal languages now in school, and there’s a lot of different ways that Chicano culture helps people learn their indigenous culture. I was blessed to grow up in those surroundings.”
But Red Cloud doesn’t mince words when he talks about the challenges he faced growing up in south central L.A.’s tough Hawthorne neighborhood, which is adjacent to the more storied Compton. “I was raised in the streets and grew up in the hip hop culture. I’m not a rez boy!” he says. But even growing up in an area where groups like N.W.A. and Dr. Dre reigned supreme, he still listened to classic rock as a kid because that’s what his dad liked. Hip hop would eventually grow on him—especially after one fateful display he witnessed when he was in the sixth grade.
“One day after eating lunch in the cafeteria, I saw a bunch of kids running to a grassy area and I ran with them to what I thought was going to be a fight,” Red Cloud says. “But it was these two huge eighth grade kids, and they were free styling and ‘rap battling.’ It was just right-on-the-spot improvisation, and to me it was like magic because they were making fun of each other, tearing each other down, and making their words rhyme really brilliantly.”
And yet, after the two rappers had verbally destroyed each other, they bumped fists respectfully and walked away in peace. The crowd that had gathered went away thrilled. “I was sold,” Red Cloud says. “So I fell in love with the art of battling before I fell in love with the art of hip hop.”
As a young Red Cloud honed his MC and rap battling skills, he also sought out his tribal identity and Native roots. One day, while at a sweat ceremony, he had asked Anthony Flores Sr., a tribal elder and Luiseno Indian, to give him an Indian name. “And he gave me the Luiseno name for Red Cloud. He told me it’s a warrior’s name, and to carry it well.’”
"Red Cloud" is best known as the name of the Lakota Chief who forced the U.S. Army out of the Powder River Basin area (or Red Cloud’s War) before the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and MC Red Cloud said he actually had the honor of meeting Oliver Red Cloud, a grandson of the famous Chief. “And he also gave me his last name and told me to carry it and make him proud. And that’s where I got the name Red Cloud.”
Crystle Lightning’s journey began in Edmonton, Alberta. When she was eight years old, she moved to California, where her mother Georgina Lightning pursued success as a Hollywood actress. Georgina has acted in numerous films, and was most recently seen on the rez drama Blackstone, which airs on Canada's Aboriginal People's Television Network (APTN). Georgina also directed the 2008 feature Older Than America, an award-winning film detailing Native American boarding school atrocities that featured leading Native actors Adam Beach and Wes Studi (as well as People magazine’s 2011 Sexiest Man Bradley Cooper). Crystle appeared in Older Than America; it's one of several notable credits in a diverse filmography that begins with a 3 Ninjas movie (3 Ninjas Knuckle Up, from 1995; Crystle was nine years old) and includes Saving Jessica Lynch (in which she played Lori Piestewa) and American Pie Presents Band Camp. Crystle's most recent credit has been a recurring role in TNT’s acclaimed Southland police show. Her brothers William and Cody Lightning are also actors.
Being so far removed from Canada does present its difficulties in trying to stay close to her own Native roots, Lightning acknowledges. “I try to maintain my culture, but to be honest, but I’m so far away that it’s hard to keep up with things like my language and stuff like that,” she says. “I can carry a conversation in Cree and I can understand it, but my people are from the north, and so I was kind of adopted into this culture here in L.A. We still go to powwows, and still do all we can to support our people, and try to stay as involved as we possibly can.”
Red Cloud notes, “We’re advocates and stand proud with Idle No More, and we helped start out the first rally at the Canadian Embassy along with Georgina Lightning.”
While pursuing her acting career, Lightning’s affinity for music led her to becoming a well-established DJ in the Los Angeles club scene. She said she drew inspiration to go forward with her ambitions after watching DJ Christi Mills ignite and excite the club crowds 5 years ago.
“Christi Mills was the one that made me like, ‘I’ve got to get a pair of turntables!’” Lightning says. After Lightning saved enough money to buy her own decks, Mills took her under her wing, showing her the ropes and encouraging her budding talents. “She let me be her apprentice until she felt confident enough I could perform on my own. Now the two of us perform together in a group called Ladies Of the House that’s developed a strong cult following.”
Given the tight-knit nature of the community of L.A. Natives and their involvement in the entertainment industry, it was only a matter of time before Lightning and Red Cloud crossed paths. It happened two years ago at a photo shoot for Randy Bardwell’s Native Threads clothing line, for which they continue to be brand representatives. “We met at a catalogue photoshoot, and we were actually getting our pictures taken on the same day, and it was love at first sight,” Lightning says.
After hanging out a couple of times, Red Cloud noticed the natural ease with which Lightning sang along with rap songs on the radio. “She did it so well,” Red Cloud recalls. “And I was like, ‘You need to start rapping!’ And she said, ‘I can kind of bust!’ and she started busting out rhymes.”
They quickly decided they should collaborate. Lightning’s electronic house music and Red Cloud’s grimy and gangsta-styled rhymes meshed easier than one might have expected, as their personal relationship grew. “Literally, when we fell in love, our styles got married,” Red Cloud says. “So we just put our minds together on these songs and choruses.” Today, the duo shares vocal duties, backed up by DJ Hydroe on turntables and laptop.
Lightning’s acting chops come into play quite often when the duo creates a new song, as they make clever use of her voiceover skills. Listening to a LightningCloud track, for instance, one might be baffled to hear Lightning spitting rhymes with British cockney flair.
“She’s got, like, every voice because she’s such an actor, and we like to expand from that,” Red Cloud says. “So at the drop of a dime, if I need a European or British accent on a song, she’s on it. If I need a country girl or rich spoiled daddy’s girl, she’s on it because she knows that voice; whatever the song calls for, as we like to stay away from the monotony. It’s like the relationship a director has with an actor. It’s beautiful.”
“Part of the whole fun of it is I get to play these different characters,” Lightning says. “It’s kind of like being in front of a camera, but the camera is the song, and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
LightningCloud’s self-titled debut won the 2012 Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Award for best hip hop album, and the spoils from winning the “Best of the Best” contest include having a track produced by hip hop and artist Timbaland, who’s produced songs for Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake.
In the meanwhile, “We’re riding this wave of energy, and we’re going to be in the studio a lot,” says Lightning. Although they’ll soon be stretching their fan base when they perform at the annual Powerhouse concert in Anaheim (June 22) with some of the biggest names in the rap game, LightningCloud is always grateful for the consistent support they’ve received from Indian country.
“We’re not trying to pigeonhole ourselves as Native or indigenous artists, but that’s who we are, and it’s going to shine through from everything to our music to what we look like,” Red Cloud says. “But we make good music for everybody, and just by being good musicians and artists, Indian country is going to have our back.”