I’d say late pass on Homeboy Sandman, but so it goes when you share an almost identical name as an ex-member of the Re-Up Gang. Not to ignore the use of “Homeboy,” which even white sitcom writers stopped using circa ’96. This interview originally appeared as a part of a longer feature for Pop & Hiss. Should you be interested in context, head that way. Otherwise, there is this insanely long interview. Sandman is a talker and so am I. It’s re-printed in full because I think he’s an interesting character with something interesting to say. And yeah, he can rhyme.
This is your third album, but it’s your first commercial album. What was different about “The Good Sun” other than that you have a label now.
It’s my third album, but in a way it’s my first. The actual first album “Nourishment,” I put out just to have something to sell when I was working the open mic circuit. My second album, “Actual Factual Pterodactyl,” I put out mainly because press people were beginning to support me and you sort of have to have a physical release or people won’t really care. But it was more a matter of me having a zillion songs and just picking out the best ones. This is the first major release – where I tried to create a cohesive sound. I love my other albums, but they’re disjointed here and there. I’m aware that people don’t care about albums the way they used to, but I’ll always be an album guy. I was collecting tapes until they stopped making them. I wanted to make something that you could listen to front-to-back.
Your song “Yeah, But I Can Rhyme Though” defines you in opposition to what you’re not. Has it been frustrating to be an artist in a genre where most people want to fit into a prevailing trend to get a deal?
I’m a musician, and hip-hop is my genre, but it’s just like jazz players, or country singers or a classical artist. It’s about musicality, talent, rhyme cadence, melody, assonance, alliteration, it’s about the gift I have. Music should have nothing to do with an image; what sets me apart is my ability. Nobody asked John Coltrane what his image was — it didn’t matter. No one could play the sax like him and nobody raps like me. I make my music to last a lifetime. I love going back to the Roots’ “Illadelph Halflife.” I love music from the 1950s and 1960s. This whole sub-culture in hip-hop of disposable music is not something that I subscribe to. I spend time on my music. There’s no 15/16 in my bars. I spend time on my lines, the production and the craft.
As someone who is obviously about the lyrical craft, what do you think about rappers who have made a point of stressing how their lyrics aren’t really important because they have swag or some other intangible?
People ask me if I’m a lyricist, but how can you be an emcee without being one? This isn’t supposed to be something that everyone can do — when you take away from the musicality of it all, it becomes an image-based thing, and that’s something I’m so far removed from that you might as well ask me to speak about Dale Earnhardt. I don’t want to do things that have been done before.
You mentioned John Coltrane earlier and you’ve spoken in the past how jazz has influenced your sense of space and notions of musicality. How has it done so?
I used to play the saxophone, and it allowed me to learn that I wanted my flow to sound like another instrument. Even if I’m not saying something…[scats da.da..da..da..daa], that musicality can grab people. And if I can fill that in with magnificent lines and slamming production, I have all the bases covered.
I definitely get this from jazz and from classical music, and from most of the music that I listen to. It used to be that the most famous singers were the best ones, not who’s the prettiest one or who is marketed correctly. I don’t think that people are stupid, I just think that they don’t know any better. I was a high school teacher for two years, and I brought in records for the kids. At first, they were like, ‘What is this garbage?’ but by the end of the week, they were like, ‘What are you bringing in next week?’ I mean, the bestselling album of all time is “Thriller.” Motown sold incredible amounts of records. People want good stuff when they know it’s available.
Did you ever listen to Freestyle Fellowship. Your style reminds me a little bit of theirs in terms of your approach and sense of musicality?
I haven’t. A few people who know their hip-hop have mentioned the same thing to me—I really need to check them out.
Your music doesn’t seem to be preaching against the more materialistic major label stuff. You obviously feel passionately about hip-hop, but seem to be arguing less in opposition to things, and more in favor of expanding the number of voices that can be heard. Is that a fair assessment?
I’m opposed to censorship in any form. Everyone should have the ability to have their voice heard. What I want is options. I want a talent-based music community. Take a cat like Jay-Z, he raps about things that I would never rap about from a moral standpoint, but he’s a gifted MC. The difference from now and back in the ’90s was that N.W.A would say things that I thought you’d never hear people say, then the radio would play them next to Tribe or De La or Wu-Tang. People had a wide range of options. The music targets young people and they don’t know the difference. I’m sure you remember what it was like to be young — I know I do. I was dumb. Young people are just trying to be cool, and like whatever is presented before them as representing cool.
Say this record is received well, and a major label wanted to sign you. Would you want to do that, or would you worry that you’d jeopardize the fanbase that you’ve built thus far.
It depends. I’ll tell you what’s important to me – nobody tells me what to do and no one will for rest of my life. No one’s going to tell me what my records sound like. I have a team of people around me, who aren’t yes men and they tell me what they think.
A lot of these rappers don’t have the confidence to stick to their guns. I’m very patient. I only celebrated my third year anniversary of rapping for a living. It’s a lot of fun. It should be fun to make hip-hop, but a lot of people don’t make it seem that way. A lot of dudes don’t do it because they love it or because they have musical talent, but because it’s what cool people do.
When I used to teach, I’d tell kids to take their favorite rapper—if they could write a rhyme as good as him, then they should go for it. I want my music in every single ear in the world and I’m down for anyone who can help me get more ears, whether it was Sony or whoever. I’d just make sure that I’d had say from album art to producers to release date. But I’m never going to do anything corny.
But rappers rarely get signed by major labels anymore, just because they can rap well. And even if they do, once they get signed, the label is going to make them work to Lady Gaga or the girl from Paramore to make sure that they can hit as many demographics as possible.
What’s different from hip-hop and other genres, is that within hip-hop, there’s a deliberate push by many powers that be to make sure that good hip hop doesn’t get to peoples ears. People aren’t stupid, they just don’t know any better. I always talk about Common’s “Finding Forever.” When it came out, it was the number one album in the country, but it couldn’t get one spin on Hot 97. This is NYC, the birthplace of hip-hop, and you can’t hear any sort of variety.
Have you found it hard to build a critical mass in such a flooded market where no one has much money for marketing or promotion?
Building the critical mass is about patience and faith and I talk about this constantly. Rapping is all that I do. Since I decided to rap, I’ve never worked at another job. I’ve slept on couches, I’m always moving around, and I rarely know what’s going to happen next. But I know that as long as I persevere, I’ll be successful.
So how do you do that without any money? Do you just play tons of shows and try to network as much as you can?
Take for example how I met Rosenberg—I sought him out because I knew he was a true hip hop head and would dig my music. I’d do stuff like find out where Ed Lover was going to be, and I’d go to Power 105 at 6 a.m. just to give him a dap, not to be annoying and self-promote shamelessly but to let him know the deal. I handle everything for myself—I can’t depend on anyone. Whether it comes down to meeting the dudes from Nah Right or Okayplayer or 2 Dope Boyz or The Source and XXL. I’ll go to the offices myself, everything myself.
Good music wins out and I’m feeling optimistic and good—that’ why the album was “The Good Sun,” there’s this vibe of optimism and a new day on the horizon. I feel hip-hop is getting over the hump. Good music is undeniable thing. That’s why I try to rock live shows as much as I can—if you pick up five fans a show and you play enough shows, you’ll eventually be able to pack venues and people will start paying you for shows.
It’s constant work—the Internet is a great tool, but it’s not everything. I employ every tactic from walking up to people on the street asking them to listen to this rhyme, to putting up my flyers on trains and benches, to printing out my song lyrics and showing it people. You’ve got to think outside the box to get hard. Getting heard is what’s important, everyone else is concerned about their style and their dress. You only need ears to listen to music.
You grew up in Queens but your style is pretty far removed from the stuff that you imagine when you think of Queens hip-hop?
Growing up in Queens, hip hop is obviously everywhere. When I was coming up, Kool G Rap was everywhere, Tribe was coming out, Big Daddy Kane was huge. BDP was everywhere. The Beanuts were amazing. I was very familiar with that stuff, but believe it or not, the first tape that connected with me was DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, “He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper.” I was 7-years old in 1987 when that tape came out, and I remember people dissing The Fresh Prince. They’d be like he ain’t in the streets, he doesn’t write stories about the hood. But I connected at that age–he was having fun, he was nice on the mic and Jeff’s production was slamming.
I was lucky to have great access to hip-hop. I used to live on Queens Blvd and before bootlegging was everywhere, it was one of the huge spots in the city, so from 87 to 98, I’d be constantly picking up two tapes for $5. Then I left to go to school at Holderness in Plymouth, New Hampshire at 12. Over there, I was like the big hip-hop guru from NYC, but then this dude Eric Bass, gave me a copy of The Roots’ “lladelphalflife.” I The first time I heard it, I was like these cats can’t rap, but he looked at me and was like, ‘maybe you should listen to this one more time.’ So I listened to it once more and was like, this is slamming.
I actually had the same experience. That was my introduction to the Roots and I remember thinking it was just whatever aside from “Concerto of the Desperado” and “Respond/React,” but it’s definitely my favorite Roots album now.
Me too, that was the only song I liked right away.
Is that your favorite?
It is. I love “Do You Want More” and “Things Fall Apart,” they wow me to this day. But I think “Illadelph” was Though’s peak in terms of lyrical prowess. The Roots are an example of how people catch on eventually and what I wish music was talent based. The first time I heard the Roots, I didn’t rock with them, it took five times to really sink in.
I think my time away made my style different from other Queens rappers. I was able to have access to this whole other type of hip hop that kids who were hip hop fans from a hip hop environment might not have known about it. Like Pharcyde or Del or Hiero. When I was in New York, people thought that West Coast hip-hop was strictly Ice Cube, Dre, and Eazy.
Then when I went to Penn, I was exposed to people from all around the country, and all types of hip hop. I was starting to come into my own and used to love having hip hop discussions with other people. I just love music, I love telling my boys to listen to something that they might not have heard. A love of music needs to be your foundation.
What made you leave law school for rapping and how did that decision come about?
Before I realized that my true passion was for rapping, I was at Hofstra Law School. Prior to that, I’d been teaching in the New York City Public Schools, but before that I was a bartender, I was in marketing — one thing that I’m thankful for is that I’ve never wanted to sit around and do nothing. So I decided to go to law school, even though I never thought that I’d be a lawyer.
I did it because I needed to chill from being a weed head. People hate school, but I was always about school. I always tell kids to hit the books for 15 minutes or half an hour before going to the party, and it will change your life. So I went to law school because I figured that all I would have to do was read books and write papers. I’d been teaching kids 14 to 18 and those kids force you to stay on point. If you’re not, they’ll eat you alive. I figured that you can read a book in bed, so I was like, ‘Send me to the vacation spot.’
One of the other things that I thought was interesting was that I read somewhere that you’re a vegan. What made you decide to go that route?
I was vegan until recently. That ended in March. Now I’m just eating very healthy and mixing it up. The reason why I did it is because I wanted to be the best MC that I can be. I want to do whatever I can to be awake for the most hours. Even though I’m not a vegan anymore, I still strongly co sign organic food and co-sign for my greens, raw leafy greens. It was important for me to go that extreme and then take it back a step. Now instead of Doritos, I’ll be craving for coconuts and pineapples and nutrient-based stuff. A lot of people wanted to talk about that for a while, in California a lot of people are more on that tip, but in New York, it’s still seen as pretty weird.
You started rapping fairly late in life. Were you always rhyming when you were a kid?
I was, but I never took it seriously. Even when I was in college, I rhymed here and there, I hosted a few freestyle open mics, but I was just mainly doing it to get attention. I didn’t believe that rapping was something that I could do. I was always thinking that I was going to get a regular job, but I didn’t know what was in store for me. Rapping didn’t seem realistic until I was at the end of college. I was rhyming in my early 20s too, but it was sort of a dark ages for me.
Why were they a dark ages?
A lot of things were taking place, a lot of abuse of substances, a lot of dishonest behavior and stuff that’s not noteworthy. But I’d write these rhymes here and there and started to discover that I had a real unique gift with this stuff. But I would always need to smoke something before writing or else I didn’t think I could do it.
I was always on some, “if I can do this, I can be an MC.”
Who were the rappers that you wanted to be like when you were honing your style?
There were a lot of dudes. Black Thought. Eminem. Redman. Jay-Z. Andre 3000. But I was always like, I can’t do what these guys do. It was only when I was able to get over a lot of those issues –predominantly substance issues — when I was able to get over the hump. It was only when I wrote my first sober rhyme, when my life changed. That was when I knew what I was supposed to do.