Curly Castro was due. Anyone following the Flatbush-born, Philly-living rapper over the last couple of years would have noticed the extra crank and personality that was coming through his rhymes, features and collaborations. It was time he applied it to a coherent album.
His formal debut, Fidel is focused, tight and varied while delivering a definable improvement in wordplay, hooks and production. It’s more than a win for Castro, it’s another victory for the Wrecking Crew – the loose collaboration of artists with whom the rapper does most of his damage. Zilla Rocca, Has-Lo and Small Professor have all increased their work rate over the last couple of years. As Castro is fond of saying, man sharpens man like steel sharpens steel. With Fidel now smoking, Passion of the Weiss took some time to hit Castro up on Skype and discuss the record. We talked his ties to both New York and Philadelphia, Fidel, paranoia, and the Wrecking Crew’s Wu-Tang Pulp mixtape. —Matt Shea
With the release of Fidel a few people are citing you as being from Flatbush, but obviously you’ve done most of your damage as an MC in Philadelphia. Where is home for you? Where feels like home?
Most of the people who responded to it do say Brooklyn-raised, Philly-located. They do put Philadelphia in there somewhere. It’s interesting being a transplant and now that I’ve been in Philly for so long, I’ve been in both places for an equal amount of time. But I still think my sound harkens back to a Brooklyn, New York vibe. There’s still a big West Indian and Caribbean influence and that’s definitely a New York thing. I think Philadelphia has seeped into my sound, whether it be Philadelphia bass producers or just the Philadelphia soul movement, I think that sound has seeped in. I don’t think I do strictly New York, staunch hip-hop – I don’t think I’m invested in that. The meanings and the girth and the heart of my shit is still Brooklyn, but I think the soundscapes have a lot of Philly in there. It’s very much split down the middle.
College took you to Philly. So beyond rap, why stay?
Well, you go to college and you get influenced by the area your college is in. Temple University is right in the heart of Philadelphia, so it’s not like I was out in the rural areas and didn’t experience Philly. So Philly had an influence on me. West Philadelphia is the main reason I stayed. People ask me the question and I don’t tell ‘em much, but when I came and looked at West Philly it reminded me of Brooklyn, but it always felt like one gearshift down from the pace of New York.
New York was very fast for me and I was able to keep up – speed is part of my reflexes – but I wanted to slow down a little. You meet so many people in New York. You go through a lot of friendships and there’s a lot of people in your circles, I felt like Philly would be that little step down and I could focus on things other than how many people I’ve met and areas I’ve experienced. Especially West Philly felt like a downshift from New York and I just felt at home, and I stayed. I started working out here and developing a career, and my music flourished out here. And I think that’s another reason I stayed – my music flourished out here, and I felt like it was important to have my base here.
You say in your bio that your mom doesn’t like you sharing things in an effort to protect your family history. Protect how? What did you mean by that?
I come from a Caribbean family so we have certain familial edicts. Some people call them superstitions. Even just being African American sometimes you’re supposed to keep family business in house. And you take care of your issues within your family; everybody doesn’t have to know your business. So sometimes there will be stuff that I’ve experienced that I want to put in a song, but I would have to really check with my mom to see if it’s okay. In fact, I had this glorious idea to write a song about my aunt. And I can’t even say what it’s about. But I asked her if I could and she said no. I have to bury that. It’s funny because maybe a couple years will pass, and in that instance I might still resurrect the song. There’s actually a song between me and Has – Has is doing the beat. We had the idea a long time ago but again I had to ask my aunt, and she said no. So now maybe I could dress it up differently and still leak it out. There’s always ways to share your experiences without offending people. But my mom, she’s really staunch and she says sometimes you have to check and make sure you’re not offending anybody by sharing your history. It’s just courtesy more so than secret.
How did she feel about [Fidel cut] ‘Winter ’87’?
I don’t think she’s heard it exactly. I told her I put the story on the album. And that actually is a story that she told me not to tell people about. She didn’t want us to appear as victims or victimized or anything like that. And we do live in a dangerous area. And it’s funny because me and my mom, even still to this day we have these certain checks and balances. Certain things we do not do. You do not check your trunk in the neighborhood – even though everybody knows my mom, she’s a matriarch in the neighborhood she’s been there so long everybody knows her. She’s more than safe. She’s safer there than any place in the world – but she still has her certain things you don’t do. You carry a certain amount of bags – split bags – to be honest it’s just a survival instinct. It’s just a survival city.
Talking about Fidel as a project. It is a much more an album than Winston’s Appeal, which almost felt half mixtape, half LP. It feels a lot more focused.
With Winston’s Appeal, it was my first foray into the solo battlefield, so I was just making songs and if I made a song that was good enough I wanted to put it on a project. I wanted to prove to people that I was putting out something substantial, so anything that I was doing that I felt was even semi-spectacular, I put it on there. So it was a collection of songs as opposed to Fidel, which was going to be my mantra, this was going to be my definitive work.
In the Wrecking Crew – Has and Zilla Rocca – we talk about definitive works, like what people are going to know you by. When they think of you, what album is going to shoot in their head. Some artists are blessed enough to have multiple albums like that. Say, Has has In Case I Don’t Make It, which is a classic, and Zilla has his Shadowboxers output. So that stuff is great and people would think about that, but I didn’t have one just yet. I was almost an indefinable artist. So I knew when Fidel was coming together that it would be my ultimate state. And I was all about that. So that’s where the focus comes from.
Did the songs birth the concept or the concept the songs, so to speak?
Fidel is a little bit of a chicken and the egg situation. Some songs I was compelled to write. I wanted to do a certain things within the song. I knew I wanted Fidel to be really strong, hook-wise. There are not many hooks on it, [so] the hooks that are on it I wanted to have a lot of strength and gravity to them. There were just things I wanted to talk about and I knew I wanted to be mature enough to express them. So that’s what came about.
There’s a paranoia running through here too: people looking over their shoulder, or people not being who they say they are. Even down to the biggest pop cultural joint here – ‘Fenster & McManus’ – it’s based on a film in which you don’t see the bad guy. Am I right to be picking up on that vibe?
The African American experience – the experience among the African diaspora – is very much rooted in paranoia. Being a person of color is very nerve-racking: you feel like you’re always being accused and you’re always being hunted. You’ve got to watch your back, people are always double-crossing you. Things of that nature are always happening. So sometimes there is that underlying thing in my music. One of the songs speaks directly to that, it’s called ‘The Spook Who Sat’. It’s just the feeling of paranoia; even the lyrics – it isn’t so much literal, you just feel it. It’s uneasy. I wanted people to know that there’s an uneasy truth in the world. But the fact that it is uneasy means, “Don’t be too comfortable. Be on the ready.” That’s one of the themes.
The album has a real arc to it too, both in terms of the storytelling but then also the sonics. It’s got that grungier front -nd and then the soulful back-end.
Yeah, and it’s funny people are picking up on that – how the record gets more and more subtle as it goes on. That’s where the autobiographical spin comes in. It’s autobiographical in a sense almost like the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as in that as he started gaining knowledge, he was able to better balance himself and there was more of a calm brought upon him. When he first started out he was in the streets, it was a very hectic upbringing and a racial influence on his upbringing. Then his criminal activities and a lot of chaos; going to jail. Things started to calm when he found his faith, but even that got crazier. Then when he started diving into his knowledge, he started getting his life back to a slower pace, and he started to focus and really pinpoint.
That’s what happened with the record. It’s just showing my growth: as I became more knowledgeable and started researching and finding out who I was and what the world was, I was able to calm my riotous intentions down. I’m all for riot, but it has to be planned, it has to be intelligent, and that’s what I wanted the record to show. Intelligence is not a handicap, and once you let all the noise quieten down you can really do some moves.
Do you feel more settled as a person than you did maybe two, three, or five years ago?
Not personally, because my life’s been kind of crazy last year. It finally calmed down this year, to be honest (laughs). I just feel like you get a better perspective; things fall into different placement in terms of hierarchy as you get older. It just goes to show you that life experience really fuels MCing. I don’t have a whole bunch of crime tales, and a sensational, movie-like upbringing, but you’re able to look back and phrase things properly. You’re able to account properly and pull the jewels of the things you learned and experience. And I think that’s the essence of making a song: to leave jewels in there, but leave them in there properly for people to pick out.
And I think you’re able to focus in on those different personalities you have. There’s the crazier rapping style at the front end, but there are other points on the album where you’re taking a much softer approach. It seems that you’re more comfortable turning the knob up and down, for want of a better term.
Definitely. When I first started this rap game, it was like, “Pay attention to us! Pay attention to us! Look at me!” I was the loudest in the room. I was always willing to rap and stuff like that. But there’s always other ways to get attention. I remember one lady, a long time ago, always told me, “Men are always going to bring attention to themselves when they’re able to go in a room full of men. And stand out.” I was like, “Wow.” Because I was always a ra-ra person; I’ve always been like, “Yo! Check me out!” But when you calm down, people are better able to digest what you’re saying. I remember a friend and fan of mine told me – she said about Winston’s Appeal – “I like it, but you rap the same on every song.” And it’s not all the way true, but I get what she’s saying – “You’re not trying things out” – and I feel like Fidel was my attempt to take all those risks. I really took some risks, vocally. I mean that’s all I do – I rap, I sing a little, that’s what I got – so I was going to take some risks. I said, “I’m going to go for it. I’m going to swing for the fences.”
Doing more work with Wrecking Crew – with Zilla and Has – you guys all bring something different to the projects you work on together. Do you feel like that’s helped you develop a more definitive voice?
Man sharpens man like steel sharpens steel. Collaborating with them, working with them has just made my blade sharper. I have to come tight – I’m rhyming next to Has and Zilla.
Talking about Wrecking Crew and the ‘Scallops’ video. Has-Lo was telling me recently that he was concerned about how it was going to come out, but it’s great that it creates these characters – not your true characters, obviously – but these clearly definable entities that an audience can pick up on and tap into.
It was funny, because we were saying how in the beginning of the video it seems like the Has is the star, and then Zilla comes in and he’s piecing these things together, and then I come in and it seems like I’m trying to get to Zilla, like he’s the star. And then Has is at the diner and it seems like he’s in control, but I’m helping him out so maybe I’m the star, but then Zilla pulls it off. So we just kept rotating lead positions in the video, which I thought was dope. The characters were circumstantial. It was what Has had wrote. When we started it, we were switching it around as to who would be who, until we finally settled on our different roles.
But I loved how it came together, the timing was perfect, and Wu-Tang Pulp got such a great response that we felt like we were obligated to do something. ‘Scallops’ was actually the second video. We did one beforehand, and it was awful (laughs). It was just very elementary, shot by the three of us so of course only two of us could be in the shot at any one time (laughs). It was that type of affair. I was just keen to get it out to the people but Zilla wasn’t convinced, so we just went back to the drawing board and came up with the current video.
Talking about Wu-Tang Pulp: it made Hip-Hop DX’s top mixtapes of 2012 – that must have been a blast.
That one was a total surprise. We didn’t have a publicist for the record so we didn’t think it would get into too many places on its own. Sometimes things like that, if you release it on its own it just hits a glass ceiling. But in terms of specific art, when art is that precious and works that well, like Wu-Tang Pulp did, it cracks that ceiling. So when we made that list it was amazing, but it was also the company we were keeping that was amazing. Even the list we got on with TheVine down in Australia – we were right next to ScHoolboy Q and Killer Mike and El-P, and these are albums that we all loved in 2012, and to see ourselves in that list was surreal to me. We knew it was a powerful record, but you never know how big a record is until it comes out. I was glad people loved it so much, because we put so much into it.
Going back to your move to Philly: you studied philosophy, Curly. I’m guessing that influences your writing.
I studied philosophy but I also minored in African-American studies, and you can hear that in all my stuff. I think it’s just important to praise our ancestors, and you can’t forget what happened. I mean that across the board: all foreign policy, African-American upbringing, racial history, social history, culture, generational studies – all those things, you need to know. It’s not about just where we’re at, it’s about where we came from. We don’t want to repeat history.
It’s taken you a fair while to follow-up Winston’s Appeal. It’s not like you had nothing else on musically, but there seems to be increasing pressure on rappers to turn out these projects at a greater clip. Take somebody like KRIT, for example, who’s just churned out the tapes over the last couple of years. Is that trend something you’re aware of as an artist? Do you worry about not producing music at a high enough rate for the internet age?
There’s a real culture of instant gratification in the digital age: “How did you do that?” “Show us this!” “When are you releasing the video?!” So you’re obligated somewhat to cater to that demand, but it still takes time to create something, so sometimes those things take a backseat and things just take as long as they need to take. But you might be aware and throw out more singles than you used to, or you might do more EPs than you used to. But making music should be like breathing for a lot of us, and it shouldn’t be too hard to satisfy the fan’s needs if you have to put together two or three songs, do up a maxi-single, and put it out for people. You owe them that because they’ll hang in with you for so long. But the days of waiting five years between a project are over: only guys like Aesop Rock and El-P can get away with that (laughs).
Looking beyond and talking about projects you’ve got going on with the Wrecking Crew, what are the plans for the rest of 2013?
2013 will see the Wrecking Crew hit Europe: you heard it here first. And then I have another EP with Zilla Rocca, and then a double album that Zilla and Has-Lo are working on – two EPs, but it’s almost shaking into a double album – one side, Has rhymes and Zilla produces, and vice versa. It’s a great project. And Zilla’s almost reached the finishing line on the next Shadowboxers record, which will have some very high-profile guests. And then Has is hard at work on some new solo material. Small Professor is dropping something new next month. So we’re just staying busy. Man Bites Dog Records, Volume 2: I’ve got a couple of cuts on there and that’ll come out at SxSW. And then I’ll also be having a brand new solo record in the fall.
ZIP: Curly Castro – Fidel (Left-Click)