An Interview with B. Dolan

Rick Ross isn't a threat to anyone but himself.
By    June 11, 2015


When I first heard of B. Dolan, he was getting lunch with me, my friends, and Atmosphere on the Atlantic City Boardwalk a few summers ago. He was quiet and intense looking. I had never heard of him nor his music. I remember there was a passing comment at lunch about him being down with Sage Francis, so when it came time for the show to start at the House of Blues, I had a fairly strong idea of what his style would be. When he came on stage dressed in black with a noose around his neck, I patted myself on the back. But as his set progressed, and he moved from political songs to old school b-boy routines, I was relieved, because there’s nothing worse than spotting a white rapper whose main influences are other white rappers.

B. Dolan is not your typical indie rapper with emo/backpack/purist associations. B. Dolan loves Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Scarface. He’s chastised Rick Ross while celebrating the real Rick Ross. His mixtapes are arranged like albums, with a clear nod to NWA, but he isn’t a preservationist. He did spoken word but he isn’t soft. His upcoming album Kill the Wolf is his first in five years, but his touring calendar was far from lean in the interim. He worked with Alias from Anticon, Aesop Rock, and Buck 65 on the new record, but he still wants to make an album like Tical. B. Dolan’s fans might not love Kanye West as much as he does, but B. Dolan has never concerned himself with appeasing anyone. He walked away from a Def Jam situation at 18. He wears “Film the Police” t-shirts while checking the new A$AP Rocky. His beard is rough, his raps are hard, and his influences will surprise you. — Zilla Rocca

What I’ve noticed about you, from your live show and your House of Bees mixtape series, is that you have a real connection to rap, not from an “indie” or “backpack” stance only, but from more of a traditional east coast standpoint. I saw you play with Atmosphere in Atlantic City a few years ago where we first met, and then late last year in NYC when we were both on the bill for Yule Prog, and both times you locked down the more “hip hop” elements of a show: b-boying, battling yourself, freestyling. And your mixtapes really remind me of old NWA albums, or Redman albums, where you have ill interludes, voicemails, stuff like that. So what was your entry point to rap music?

B. Dolan: Rap wasn’t the dominant culture it is now, in the 80s & 90s in and around Providence. Only a select group of people were up on it. We would just get these tapes trade them in school. If you got your hands on a DJ Clue tape, you were the shit. Those mixtapes meant a lot. I remember getting a copy of Scarface The Diary at 12 years old – heavy shit. That was one of my first albums. That’s what made me want to rap. Of course all of the east coast stuff I was into– Wu-Tang, Biggie, Nas, Bootcamp, Redman. Later on, when I was in New York it was stuff like Non Phixion and Rawkus was ruling at that time so I absorbed a lot of that. I also spent years camping on Stankonia and obsessing on the production and writing going on with Outkast. So, I was already performing and making things in 2001, when I left New York and bumped into Sage Francis back in Providence.

So when you bumped into Sage, I think that now is where most people would know you from. But that whole Rhode Island/New England thing, it always felt like a separate world to me from the more, I guess, “traditional” sounding east coast indie stuff like Demigdoz, or Nonphixion, or even Mr Lif and Akrobatik. But it’s weird because you guys have more straight up rap influences. Did you ever feel pressured to like stuff like Anticon or Def Jux? Cause most of those guys were in your backyard.

B. Dolan: To be honest, I didn’t dig too deep into that stuff back then, even though lots of people in that circle ended up becoming friends or collaborators with me down the line. I might have had a typical rap kid reaction to some of the more left-field stuff happening. As an artist I could appreciate motherfuckers going for it and making some wild stuff that sounded like nothing else, but it wasn’t necessarily my shit. I do however think that on the production tip, a lot of Anticon’s beatmakers have been hugely influential in music, and still sound incredible. That stuff has aged well for me.

Yeah I think Anticon still is a dividing line with rap fans – the guys at their core like Yoni Wolf and doseone are the most rap nerd dudes in the world, but their fans don’t necessarily reflect that. So with you, or Sage, or Slug, I’m always fascinated with rappers you really like that might shock people. Because once you get the “indie” tag, people still to this day might presume you only like that kind of shit. I remember Slug going on and on about Gunplay being his favorite rapper, but I don’t think his fans would be fans of Gunplay. So who do you listen to that your fans might not think you’d be checking for?

B. Dolan: In the past few years I’ve listened to a lot of Kanye. I always check for that dude and he consistently inspires me. From a production standpoint obviously, but even who he is interests me from a pop-culture standpoint, especially when you compared his arc to Jay Z. When it comes to rap I listen to, I don’t want to listen to a third-rate Slug or Sage Francis. Those guys exist already and are still making great albums. So the other stuff I listen to is stuff that makes me want to rap, or makes me want to produce. Lately I like Danny Brown. XXX is one of my favorite joints of the past few years – I wore that album out. The past few months I’ve been listening to a lot of A$AP Rocky.

Have you heard his new album yet? I’d be curious to know what you think of it. It’s kind of subdued and poppy, but it’s pretty consistent if you’re a fan of him.

B. Dolan: I gave it a spin recently, but will have to go back to it. Production wise it sort of underwhelmed me. Subdued is a good word. I don’t wanna pan it after one listen.

So going back to your stuff, I feel like you’re one of the guys who has made it this far because of your own hustle. I’m listening to rap and watching shit and staying up on all of the new stuff all of the time, but I never heard of you until you opened for Atmosphere a few years ago. I’m sure you were already, you know, decades deep at that point. So can give you fill me in a bit on the journey?

B. Dolan: I had some early success from spoken word. I was a rapper who got on stage at Nuroyican Café in New York when that was a big thing. And I moved to New York back then because that’s where all the rappers were, all the labels, all the stuff they talked about on their songs. I felt like I had to be there – it was obvious. I had no plan beyond “go to where all the rap is.” I wasn’t really a spoken word artist like that, I just was rapping all the time and I figured I could walk up there and get their respect by, you know, doing my rhymes like that. And I had a weird encounter with Def Jam in 2000, but that turned me off.

Why didn’t you roll with Def Jam?

B. Dolan: I couldn’t make any sense of it. I was 18 and all these people were coming up to me with cards and shit I didn’t understand or want to be caught up in. I didn’t want a manager. I didn’t even know what a manager did. I still kinda don’t. I just wanted to make my own stuff, and I felt like I was too awkward and dark and ugly to work that room. Without even knowing there was a DIY scene, I arrived at a DIY ethic that way. I figured no one would help me. I learned how to track my own vocals. I dropped out of school and bought a drum machine because that’s what I needed.

Yeah I remember around that time when Def Poetry was hot, Russell Simmons was trying to make that a big thing. He was pumping up Black Ice all the time.

Black Ice?

Yeah he was one of the stars of Def Poetry. He was a poet from Philly. I think Def Jam put out an album of his.

B. Dolan: Yeah I remember his name but I never knew of his stuff like that. I’m gonna check it out.

So how did you make the transition from rapper to spoken word artist to rapper slash producer?

B. Dolan: Trial and error. It took me 8 years to make my first album. By the time I did I had run into Francis and he was impressed with what I made; this 2 disc LP that I just passed out hand to hand with no cover. Through working with Francis and Strange Famous I met and did work with much more talented producers like Alias, Buddy Peace, Reanimator. Over the years I’ve made records with those dudes and sat behind them and asked questions, because I already had some interest in background in what they were doing, and what better place to learn. Alias really showed me how to dig for records and a bunch of production tricks. When we made an album together I would sometimes record demos to scratch beats I’d made, and he liked and kept my work for the song “Marvin”; just punched it up and made itbang. He didn’t have to do that because producers, you know, like to have their secrets or keep their records and techniques to themselves, but Alias always helped me. So have Buddy Peace and Dan le sac.

For this album, I linked up with an engineer/producer named DS3K who has a crazy ass studio. It’s a very curated Frankenstein of an album, but ultimately the production is mine. There’s a ton of muscians on the album, 3-4 vocalists. Upright bass. Analogue Synths. Guitars. I deferred a lot to better producers in the past, but on this one I finally felt confident enough to give the production end of things a shot.

That’s dope. As a MC/producer as well, I know what it’s like to split up your energy and creativity, but then you hang out with producers who just makes beats all day, and you’re like “I bow to you.” Do you ever notice yourself approaching beats different when you put on the MC hat after you’ve made the beat yourself compared to hearing someone else’s beat? Cause when you make the beat yourself, you’ve already heard every little part of it a thousand times whereas when someone sends you a beat, you can just react to it as a writer.

B. Dolan: You reach those points where you write nonstop for a week and making beats gives you something meaningful to do as a break from the rapping, like work on a bassline or something. When I write a song, I do the verse and chorus to see if a song is worth pursuing. So I might step off if it’s wack, or I might just keep it as a demo, and then go back to it later, make tweaks to the arrangement. So the writing and the beat sort of grew together in an interesting way. Lots of breakdowns and builds and changes… When I played this new album [Kill The Wolf] for people, they were like “Man, there’s a lot going on here!” A lot of the songs got really cinematic and big, for better or worse.

So how do you know what will make the album and what kind of song fits a mixtape? Is it a particular message or production choice to stay in line with the themes of either project?

B. Dolan: This record was five years in the making, but I released House of Bees 2 and HOB3 during that time. I just kinda make stuff and then sort it out later. In particular the one song with Aesop Rock and Buck 65 (on the new album), that was originally a mixtape song. Sage was like “You’re insane if you put this on a mixtape. This is album material man.”

Yeah you can’t be burning songs like that Bandcamp-only projects, with all due respect! But have you noticed the difference in how you approach albums versus mixtapes? Cause I feel like the secret of mixtapes in rap is that mixtapes are where rappers feel most liberated and free, whereas the album is more serious and carries more expectations.

B. Dolan: My last album came out five years ago, and when I listen to it now, I can hear myself having more fun on the mixtapes, especially HOB2. The first mixtape was a promotional mixtape, but HOB2 is a record I’m going to be proud of for a long time. There’s songs on the new album that are relaxed like that, but my first album, I didn’t have that. It was more like a fight with the listener. But I never stop making songs. The official stuff wasn’t sounding tight enough yet, so I put together the mixtapes and they became something, like took on their own life. But for this album I still like these songs after five years of making changes, and edits, and production work at various stages. It’s crazy that they’re gonna be new to people now.

So now that you have more people listening and paying attention, do you feel compelled to impress new fans or hold down the old fans? When we played together in New York, you came on stage with a “Film the Police” shirt, and that would make people think you were strictly a political rapper, but if people saw you in the days of spoken word, they would think you’re strictly a poet. But you have a lot of layers, like you said from producing, to rapping and touring. So how do you think that will be taken in?

B. Dolan: The support has grown but I’m not sure if that’s because of the material or because of touring, or what percentage I owe to what. I’ve been lucky to win the respect of dudes with big fanbases and have been brought on incredible tours throughout my career. I’ve never been an industry darling; I’ve built a fan base by not being the guy you came to see, but you leave with the shirt and hopefully a CD that turns you into a fan. And yeah, the numbers are growing and moving in the right direction consistently. There’s political content on the last official album, and I noticed that immediately led to getting pigeonholed by some as a “political rapper.” At times I’ve walked that line, but not all of my shit is political. So this time I put the heavy political shit on HOB2 but kept it off the album. I feel like it’s time to show people something more broad, and not give lazy reviewers the easy out.

I think what makes you more broad is when you do stuff like “The Devil is Alive” on your mixtape. I was playing the mixtape thinking “Oh shit, this guy is gonna rap over a Rick Ross instrumental” and then you took him to task for creating his false identity. I read how the real Rick Ross heard the song and reached out to you. Did that freak you out, or were you worried that the rapper Rick Ross would shut it down?

B. Dolan: I wasn’t worried about the rapper Rick Ross. I’ve heard enough things to know he’s not a threat to anyone but himself. I was however very concerned about Freeway Rick Ross, because he’s a real dude and I was telling his real story, which involves some street shit that I wasn’t involved in, but that I feel is important to talk about. That’s delicate, but I also didn’t want to pull punches either. I said he “sold death to the deaf dumb & blind.” So, when he reached out to me after “The Devil is Alive,” I breathed a big sigh of relief. Like “Job done. I didn’t fuck it up.”

Taking the name of any gangster is pretending you were in a war you were never in. But to rip off the legacy of that dude in the way it’s being presented … is to take a really important cautionary tale and turn it into a really deadly fairy tale. Aside from the Iran-Contra connection and it’s broader implications… it’s an incredible story about identity. From the perspective of Freeway Rick; you rot in jail for 20 years and come out to find that someone with your name and Kingpin image is presenting Act 2 of the movie; selling the same bullshit you fell for to millions of people using your identity… what an awful and important story.

Another song that made me excited for your new album is “Who Killed Russell Jones?” I thought the idea behind that was incredible. Again, it’s just showing people more pages to the book of you as an artist. Everyone knows who ODB is, but your song about him was very heartfelt and sincere. It wasn’t just about “Shimmy Shimmy Y’all” or “Got Your Money.” That song impressed me too because I’m a Wu-Tang lifer. So is Dirty your favorite member of Wu-Tang, or have you swapped out favorites as you’ve gotten older? Cause when I was young, it was Meth then Deck. Then Ghost and now Rae.

B. Dolan: My favorite member right now of Wu is ODB, for sure. When I was young I had a dubbed copy of Tical on cassette, and that was my blueprint for years of how I wanted my shit to sound. When I was making my first rap songs, I would play Tical for people I was working with and say “I want it to sound like this! I want it to sound broken!” So Meth early on was my favorite just because of how crazy that record sounded.

No one has ever said that to an engineer: “Yeah, can we make this sound more fucked up like Tical?”

B. Dolan: Trial and error, man. I was self taught, knew nothing about the effects I was messing with. I just looked through the list and saw “DISTORTION” and was like “Yeah! It’s distorted! Use that!” I’m pulling up distortion on Fruity Loops, putting it on the vocals, the bassline and the drums, ending up with something entirely different than I intended. I remember Sage at one point was like “Yo all of your stuff is really distorted. Like nonstop.” I spent years like “I dunno… we need to like rub dirt in the drum machine to get that sound maybe…” Then later, Ghost was my favorite writer and rapper. That emo-shit like “Never Be the Same Again” I loved that! He had that range which allowed him to make more kinds of songs than other members. Probably had the most classic albums. Ironman and Supreme Clientele are still dope to me. But in the end, I think as I developed my craft as a performer, the dude I was studying the most was Dirty. He is so performative. His entire body is crazy. There’s this freestyle he did on Yo! MTV Raps with Ed Lover and the way his upper body and face is moving, mimicking the cadence… That weird singing thing he did, he was so original. Like even the way he would move his hands, no one ever moved like that. The shit he said, who he was, and the way he presented it… Everybody knows rap is never gonna have another ODB. They got another Nas, another Ghostface, Like 5 Drakes on the radio currently, but we’re never going to get another guy like that. No father to his style.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!