There can be a lot of disconnect between rappers and the critics that review their work. Frequently these (nebbishy, academic) critics, at least the ones I relate to, are content to let rappers define their own worlds—the critics understanding that they may lack perspective on the black experience with which rap is frequently concerned. To put it more simply, many of the white people who love rap, feel they have no business criticizing what they see as a majority black worldview.
However, when it comes to what we’ve termed political or conscious rap, critics are all too eager to enter the fray, feeling, for once, as if they know what they’re talking about. The second part of my conversation with Homeboy Sandman explores this disconnect. We discussed conspiracy theories, whether political rap exists, and our differences in perspective. The second part of our conversation (first part here) was a lot more esoteric and, at least to me, even more interesting than the first part, and I learned a lot. We talked about the pieces that he’s been writing for the Huffington Post, one of the negative things I said about him in my Pitchfork review of his new album, and the importance of individuality. Though it isn’t necessary to read Sand’s Huffington Post pieces to understand the interview, it would make for good supplemental material, and here are the links to the three pieces.
A last note—the conversation here can be somewhat confusing at first, because Sand is essentially trying to air his views on the world, which, as you’ll see near the end of the interview, include the idea that mass media is maliciously manipulated and controlled, with racist intent. Though this starts off obscure, I think it’s worth reading through to get to the views below.
Kind of shifting a little bit now, let’s talk about rap. Sand has been writing articles for the Huffington Post and I guess you could say that they’re thorough criticisms of rap as it exists today.
The first piece I was writing for the Huffington Post, I knew there were going to be a lot of people reading it who weren’t even hip-hop fans. The first piece was topical diversity, the second is sales, the third is vocab. Even when you start writing for Huffington Post there’s a list of things and one of them is conspiracy theories.
You mean, like, tags for the post?
Like, we reserve the right not to even publish your shit. This is some shit we don’t go for. And that was one of them.
What are some of the other restrictions, other than conspiracy theories?
I can’t remember because that’s the only that occurred to me as relevant. My first piece was ground one really. In my mind I’m like, if it was as easy to say the things that I’m saying, they’d be out, but they’re not out. Like I don’t feel like I’m breaking new ground and stuff. But anyway, the point I’m trying to make is, my first Huffington Post piece, I found ways to let it be known that I was talking about popularized hip-hop. I say, “mainstream-embraced,” “media-endorsed.” I’m not talking about me, I’m not talking about Open Mike Eagle. I’m not talking about dudes who are ill as hell. Who everybody who hears loves, by the way. That’s what my second piece is about. Motherfuckers who hear my shit, they rock with it. And Open Mike’s shit, and Oddissee’s shit.
But I didn’t go as hard as I could have [with my grievances] in the first because I wanted it to get through. I didn’t lie or nothing like that. I just didn’t go all the way hard. Second one, I was like, ok, let me go a little harder. [The third piece] I went as hard as possible. I was saying in there that these are decisions, if someone were trying to target youth…..I’m stopping short of saying, if somebody was doing this on purpose, would it look any different than it looks now? And I just looked at a comment before I left and I was very happy to see that someone left a comment that was like, not once in this article do you mention the conglomerate that runs all this shit and everything. And it was good that somebody was saying that. Because it is true that not once do I mention it, but that’s what I’m thinking about and I’m glad that people are reading into it and thinking about that as well.
So this something that I wanted to talk about and maybe push back against. It’s interesting—I think one of the main things that holds politically conscious rappers back is that….I’ll give you total context for the evolution of my thoughts on this. I played my friend “Reagan” the Killer Mike song. “Reagan” is a song that a lot of people think of as the political song of the year—it’s very in-depth criticism of a whole load of different topics and a lot of it is really smart. That said, a lot of it is conspiracy-laden. And my general problem with any conspiracy theory is almost like what you said when we were talking about “Illuminati” (in the first interview.) Instead of saying “illuminati” or “conspiracy,” there are specific actors and institutions that you could point to and criticize. So when you come at those specifics in a way that doesn’t embrace the nuances, I think you lose the ears of people who would otherwise be interested in listening what you have to say, who are turned off by a point that’s not politically nuanced. And I worry that a lot of political rap doesn’t hold that kind of nuance.
Well I definitely have some feedback for that. I don’t think of myself as someone who’s into politics. I think I talk about that. What do you mean when you say politics?
That’s a good question—I think what I mean is how institutions (including the government) and people interact with each other to make up the way the world works.
And you’re asking if there’s room for talking about that in hip hop? What is there besides that?
[stutters for a bit] Well there’s storytelling first and foremost. And then there’s expounding on a subject. But then there’s also…kind of…this very deliberate….. Actually, that’s really interesting. So you’re saying even something like “Illuminati” is no more or less political than something like “Mean Mug?”
Yeah, I guess it all comes back to my life. My life takes place in an environment and a society that… In “Mean Mug” I touch on: “Where have you been lunching/what have you been munching/my dude/food being consumed will affect your mood/Mickey D’s be pumped with drugs/one result/mean mugs/what is in your ipod/let me have a looksee/oh my gosh/ all I could find is mugs so mean they make mean mugs look kind.”
It’s not a song about the fact that when I live in Jaimaica, Queens, everyone eats McDonalds and Crown Fried Chicken and when I come see my girl in Manhattan, nobody eats that. It could be about that. I have a song called “Fuel” that’s exactly about that. But it still touches on it—this is what I’m about. And talking about what’s in your ipod—that’s not an article like the one I wrote today (the third piece for Huffington Post). But it’s talking about the same thing and it’s also touching on the topical diversity article. What are the thoughts that are in your head—if they’re all negative, you put out what you put in.
So, there’s not even a separate sphere. When you do a song like “Illuminati” you’re not even thinking differently?
Nah, the only thing I’m thinking—actually, I guess a good way to think of it is, that there’ll be some songs that are just a collection of the thoughts in my head. And there’ll be others, where I’m actually moving forward, making a case. But even within the collection, there’s gonna be something in there about why I think people are making mean faces. I might kick a rhyme in one song ”Smiling at cats tryna ice grill me” and then make a whole song about that exact same topic.
So it isn’t like I’m going into another sphere at all. The only difference is, in a song like “Illuminati,” there’s not gonna be any references in that song to how much chicks like me or stuff like that. It’s more focused.
For another example, let’s take “Angels with Dirty Faces.” That’s a song about homelessness. And that’s a song that I would call political. And what I think I mean when I say political is that its serious, it’s focused and it’s on an issue that people want to see change in. And that’s the big difference. And so I think when people hear these songs, they’re thinking, for me anyway, how does this contribute, how does this help? And I think sometimes it does really help. For instance, pointing out that there’s shit in McDonald’s food that could ruin your mood or do far worse things is worthwhile. On the other hand, I think saying that your computer is a tap, be scared to get on your computer (the actual line from “Illuminati” is “think they’re tapping your computer?, your computer is a tap”) could be a double-edged sword to the point where people could be scared to get on their computers and that could be, forgive me, misinformation.
There’s nothing on there about being scared of anything. There’s nothing in any of my raps about being scared. There’s a lot in my raps about never being scared.
I hear what you’re saying and I see it as an artist putting stuff out. Yesterday I rocked the End of the Weak Party and I did a record called “Gun Control.” But I did it because I used to do it at the [party] because so many cats were in there posturing. And I was like, yo, check this out. And you could feel the difference in energy and perception. Some people are sitting there like, “yo, I think guns are cool. You don’t think guns are cool? Whatever.”
I guess people use the word politics and I think of politics as celebrity culture for people who think they’re above celebrity culture. But the root word of politics is the people. So in that case, in that regard, I am very political, and I think of myself as a very…I love going into schools. It’s important to me to be connected to the people. But in listening to you and thinking about it, it seems to me that there’s an aspect that people associate with political hip-hop, things that are important.
Exactly. And I think when you discuss “Gun Control” or Killer Mike talks about “Reagan,” usually a lot of people, including me, who usually give rappers space to talk about stuff that those people don’t understand are quick to take it into their own world and say, well you’re getting this wrong, and this wrong and this wrong.
There’s some hip hop that I don’t mess with, that I don’t connect with. And then there’s hip hop that I listen to that has no talent.
And those are two different things?
There’s stuff that I can tell is talented, and I can just see that it’s not as relatable to me. I might even like other things from that artist but I don’t connect to it the same way. People are mad different. They come from different places. Even me. You talking to somebody who….we’re comparing where you and I come from and maybe we come from different places and look at things differently. I look at things differently from people who come from the same place as I do. So I’m very familiar with being me. I gotta talk about me.
What we’re talking about reminds me of one thing. I read the Pitchfork review and I appreciate it, I thought it was great. You spoke on “For the Kids.”
Yeah, I was hoping you would bring this up, because I didn’t want to be like, “oh, I said this shitty thing about you, let’s discuss!”
I didn’t feel that way. It felt like you felt a certain way about “For the Kids.” I’m an artist. I gotta make sure I come from me and what I feel. As long as I do that all the time, I’m straight. My perspective is, there’s as much need for that record as there’s ever been, if not more. That’s my perspective. That’s what I see. I didn’t think it was wrong when you called it cliché. I didn’t say, this dude is dumb. I said to myself, I wish that [the song] appeared to be cliché to me. I didn’t say, he’s making this up. People have different perspectives on things and I feel like my responsibility as an MC and as an artist is to present my true perspective. It’s not gonna be the same as everybody’s, it probably won’t be the same as anybody’s, but me.
This is what I was talking about in the topical diversity Huffington Post piece. There’s the full spectrum of human personas, characteristics. I will tell you straightforward as I’ve told people all the time, as I’m getting closer and closer to saying direct on Huffington Post: There’s Clear Channel that’s giving us a name. If I knew who the people were I was talking about, I wouldn’t be with you here right now. I’d have bigger business to attend to…
I’ll readily say to you right here and now, mass media is being manipulated and controlled. People are being separated by the way they look, which is a falsehood. Crack and hip hop are two of the most powerful tools of racism ever. People look at them and say, oh, this is what brown people are about. And I think that’s purposeful.
It’s not about musical talent. Jay-Z and Kanye are talented dudes and they’re big. And I’m cool with that. Put Jay-Z on the radio, put Kanye on the radio. When I was growing up, before they recognized that no one would turn the radio off if it was flooded with negativity, they said that they would put the best dudes out. You saw NWA right next to Tribe, right next to De La. Phife said, “the aura’s positive/ I don’t promote no junk/I’m far from a bully and I ain’t a punk.” Like a pushover you know, soft. But say this kid is scared? You had dudes come on that were like, yo, I’m about peace and love. De La had to come out on their second record and say, Don’t get it twisted, if you come at us it’s gonna go down. But we still got peace and love in our hearts. To Kool G Rap: “shoot you in the belly to watch you bleed.” To Slick Rick: “Crazy cool, mad gold in the Bronx.” To Big Daddy Kane: “girls follow me around the street.” Whatever it was! But it was everything. And everybody didn’t vibe with everything. But there was everything out. For everybody to relate to and for everybody to choose.