Question in the Form of an Answer: Homeboy Sandman interviewed by Jonah Bromwich, Part One

I was first introduced to Homeboy Sandman through a quote he gave to Format Magazine about three years ago, which made it obvious that I would have to check out the guy’s music. The quote is...
By    November 29, 2012

I was first introduced to Homeboy Sandman through a quote he gave to Format Magazine about three years ago, which made it obvious that I would have to check out the guy’s music. The quote is self-explanatory:

“My pop is the man. Came over from the Dominican Republic at the age of 15. He didn’t speak a lick of English. Became a boxer. Was the man. Won the Golden Gloves in ‘82. Heavyweight Division. Undefeated amateur and pro. Major prospect. Got an unprecedented signing bonus when he turned pro. In his last pro fight he looked out at the crowd of wailing clowns who would never have the balls to step into the ring and realized that he’d just beat up the only other person he liked in the whole building. He quit right then. Didn’t want to beat people up for a living. He thought, what are you gonna do now Angel? I think I’ll become a lawyer he said. They gave him the look they gave me when I told them I was gonna quit law school to become an emcee. Probably even worse. He went to Queens College for 10 years. Then he went to Queens College Law School. Now he’s a lawyer. It’s because of my Pop that I am who I am today. I know I can do whatever I want whenever I want and whatever else anybody says means nothing. A great Pop changes a man’s life.”

Since he gave that interview, Sand has put out two albums, two EP’s and been signed to Stones Throw, all while becoming one of the most versatile, thoughtful and flat out talented MC’s making rap today. He has also started blogging about the music that he loves for the Huffington Post. I recently talked to Sand in lower Manhattan (dude is TALL). The conversation was long and covered a variety of topics, so we’re splitting it up into two separate posts. In the first, I talk to Homeboy Sandman about Homeboy Sandman.

We come in the middle of the conversation. I ask Sand when the last time he stopped teaching was, and he says he hasn’t done it since 2005.

Do you miss it?

It was fun. I don’t miss it because the great thing about it is you get to work with young people and you get to be an influence for them. As an MC I get to do the same thing. When I would go into school as a teacher, I see all these little kids just want to be rappers. So now when I go into school, they pay way more attention to me than they did when I was a teacher.

Is there anything that you miss from before you got signed to Stones Throw?

I’m pretty happy. I don’t really miss anything. I mean, I haven’t lost anything. I’m really happy with the label as far as how they work with me and my creativity. They don’t try to corral anything that I’m thinking I want to do.

And how does that work—how do you communicate what you want to do?

Well the way it works is everything I say to them, they with. One thing they wasn’t with is that I wanted to do something called “the damn 7-inch,” which was gonna be the song “Soap” that was the last song on Subject Matter and the song “Rain” which was the first song on First of a Living Breed. Because the songs have a similar concept but are very different. But you know they didn’t feel that was the right move, because seven inches, cost-benefit analysis, you know.
And also, I’m going to start putting out EP’s, you know, producer-based EP’s.

Like one producer for the whole EP?

Yeah. And I was thinking of doing double EP’s—six and six together but have it packaged as a double EP but they didn’t think that was a great idea. So now we’re just putting the EP’s out as EP’s. Because I’ve got so many EP’s! I’ve got so much work in the stash and I’m trying to get it out.

So who are the producers?

The two being mixed right now are with Paul White. [I made a noise of not-subtle enthusiasm here.] Wait until the shit Paul and I got, that shit don’t make no sense. The two that are mixing are that and the RTNC EP. So both of those are finished but I have enough work with a bunch of dudes. And I’m about to go out to the label later this month and spend two weeks over there just straight up recording. Recording with producers from the label and see what I come up with there.

With Paul White, you met him that first time working with him on his album (Rapping with Paul White) and you made your song (“A Weird Day”) about the experience of being in London, so it seemed like you had written it on your way in.

Haha, yeah, I had just gotten there, so that shit was still fresh on my mind.

While you were still there did you record some other tracks?

Oh no, no, we established this communication and a friendship. [White] is crazy cool and a crazy fantastic producer as well. He actually did two joints on Chimera, he did “Look Out” and “Word to the Mother (They Can’t Hang)” so we actually have done, I think, seven joints. He also produced “First of a Living Breed Out Now” which was, since I’ve been on Stones Throw I always do a joint to promote a project coming out. But we have six or seven tracks for the EP as well and we just started building. He’s down with his label over there in label is called One Handed Music and the Stones Throw representative in the UK also is down with One Handed. But it was actually before Stones Throw, that I was working with White. He was sending me beats, I was sending him tracks.

You mentioned “They Can’t Hang.” That’s a brag-rap song in the classic mold and I’ve noticed that you have several modes. Then there’s something like “Mean Mug,” one of my favorite of your songs, where you just break down a topic. What’s the writing process for those different kinds of songs?

It very much depends on whatever natural mood I’m in. It’s all on production for whatever it is I’m writing about. For a song like “They Can’t Hang” I just heard that beat and it just sounded cool. And ‘they can’t hang” just came into my head and then I was like, I’m gonna write a record that cats can’t hang. But with “Mean Mug”—it’ll just be based off something I’ve been thinking that day. Like that day I was just thinking, walking around thinking this is kind of ridiculous, with these people looking at me.

[Laughs] Because everyone’s running around frowning.

Yeah. But the process of writing it is not very different. It’s not very different. There used to be a time where topical joints or specific themed joints would take longer and I looked at them as more of a challenge or I needed to be more focused and I would give myself more time to write them. Like if I was going to write something in the studio, I would ask myself, is it going to be a topic or just something that I was thinking about on the train on the way there.

But I don’t really feel that way anymore. Now I feel kind of strong, like I’m kicking on all cylinders. So there really isn’t a very different process for the writing whether it’s like “ yo, I gets busy” to trying to deconstruct something.

Is it just natural or easy now? Is it laborious at all?

I mean, I never thought it was laborious because it was just always so much fun. Times when I spent on my second album, Actual Factual Pterodactyl I had a song called “Airwave Air Raid” and it took me three weeks to write that song. But it wasn’t like “damn, I’m still not done with it.” It was fun—I couldn’t wait to get back to it when I had to leave. So I never looked at it as a pain in the ass. I still do sit down and there are times when I need to leave the pad to get my juices, when I feel like I need to leave the pad and come back to it. That said, there will be situations where you get an opportunity.

I’ve gotten to know Jarobi [of A Tribe Called Quest]. He just did an album with Dres, who’s one of the most underrated rappers of all time. If you listen to the Black Sheep shit—Dres is crazy. The second record Non-Fiction has a track called ‘Autobiographical’—the production on that one wasn’t as good as it was on Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing but Dres’s rhyming is just crazy, there’s a song on there called “Black with N.V.” that’s just phenomenal. There’s a track on there, ‘Gimme the Finga.” The writing is so ill and he was so cool with it, he was like Special Ed with super-duper-look-how-cool-I-am, “I’m just the coolest motherfucker in the world. And Dres took Special Ed a little bit further.

But Jerobi did an album with Dres and he was like, “you should come by the studio.” So I just figured I was going to say whatup, meet Dres. When I got in there, they asked if I wanted to write on a song, but they only had fifteen minutes. I was like, “yeah, I can do that.” So when I need to write in a hurry, I do.

There were a couple of songs that were turning points for me. “Gun Control” –there was a time limit on that one, I had to get it in because it was part of a contest. I was like, I’m going to write a song about not liking guns in rap music, how am I going to do that? And I had anxiety. But once I was able to do what I felt was a good job on that, I was like, I can probably do this with whatever. Which led to doing songs like “Mean Mug” or “Angels with Dirty Faces” or the songs from Subject Matter or songs like “Illuminati.” I’ve been wanting to write “Illuminati.” But I was like, am I strong enough to write this shit and nail it?

Tell me about your conception of what “Illuminati” is about.

Illuminati is the term that has come to mean people behind the curtain that we can’t see. Who are working against us. I was talking about Trader Joes today and my homegirl was like, there’s no Trader Joes in the Bronx. And she was saying, yeah it’s a conspiracy. People use that word conspiracy to talk about things that are obvious. If a bunch of people are getting together to do something bad, it’s a conspiracy. No, a conspiracy is like in the shadows, a measure of uncertainty about it. This is a strategy or a ploy or something. It’s not a conspiracy that we’re sitting here talking. We are sitting here talking and everybody knows it.

But anyway, going back to Illuminati, that’s the word that’s come to mean these cats working in the shadows. I mean, I believe 100% and it seems as obvious as anything obvious that are forces that work to divide people, to keep people from using proper critical thinking, and keeping people subject to manipulation and commercialism, to get people to work for them and to disempower people to empower themselves. And that’s what that song is about. I see it on a lot of different levels so I touch on a lot of different things. I touch on music, war, racial stratification because I believe that it’s a very multi-faceted thing going on. Schools—when I talk to people about the shit they play on the radio, and that person says, “Well, what about the schools,” it’s like yeah, the schools are fucked up too! Two things can be fucked up at once. It’s not like there’s one thing in the world. Let’s deal with all of that.

It’s interesting, because you’re breaking open the term Illuminati to talk about specifics.

Yeah. The song jumps around a lot too. And I was waiting for that beat from J57 too.

It’s just a list of truths.

That’s what it is. And it’s a conscious decision not to have any hook. A list of truths is a great way to look at it because it was—this thing leads into this different thing.

And it was almost like the vocab leads you—if something rhymes or goes well syllabically, that would be next up?

Yeah, I think that’s the way I rhyme. When I’m constructing a rhyme, it’s very melody-based. Sometimes I’m dancing around, sometimes I want to hold the same melody. But there are a bunch of words that are capable of fitting into whatever I’m going for. And if there’s one that fits into the subject that’s the one I’ll choose. And if there isn’t one there, if I really want to find one, I’ll find it. But there are certain…”tight girls/straighten out they tight curls/everybody wanna be a skinny white girl” was a point where I was like ok, I can switch the scheme here.

It’s almost like a chord shift.

Something like that.

In part two, I talk to Homeboy Sandman about the state of rap, what it means for music to be “political,” and the differences in our respective perspectives

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