Searching For Brokeland: An Interview With Grip Grand

Jesse Taylor speaks with the rapper, producer, and budding instrumentalist about his intriguing new project and a lifelong dedication to the art of hip-hop.
By    August 24, 2018

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In twenty years, Jesse Taylor will be the “Sugar Man” of competitive line-dancing.

The Bay Area has produced some of the greatest rap music ever heard, but only a handful of artists have attained massive notoriety. 2Pac, Too $hort, MC Hammer and E-40 are the most well-known. Others like RBL Posse, Mac Mall, Andre Nickatina (aka Dre Dog), Ray Luv, Celly Cell and Spice 1 released a catalogue of music that deserved a much higher level of fame and success than they attained. Even Mac Dre wasn’t known as the “King of the Bay” until after he died.

Today, another Bay Area artist, this one with an affinity for East Coast hip-hop styles, released Outsider Art, a new project in a long list of albums, EPs, mixtapes and singles going back to 2002. Most rap fans likely haven’t heard of him, even those from the Bay Area. His name is Grip Grand, and not even a self-titled Bay Area hip-hop historian like myself had heard of him until reading an anecdotal introduction to a blog post listing of 2017’s best rap songs. The writer was Paul Thompson, and he wouldn’t have heard of Grip Grand either if not for one of his friends discovering him on a random WordPress blog.

Like Paul, I enjoyed the new discovery of Grip’s music, especially his 2008 Brokelore album. Brokelore has all the sounds of a Bay classic, but no one has heard of it. The more I listened to Grip, the more I researched him. The more I researched, the more I wondered: “Why was he such an unknown?”

Discovering an artist long after their music has been released is nothing new. Today, you have 10-year-olds singing along with their parents to The Beatles on the morning drive to school. The most interesting, and unfortunate, stories come from those who were unknown when their music first came out, but were rediscovered and appreciated years later.

In the 1960s, artists like Led Zeppelin were introduced to the 1930’s blues music of Robert Johnson and were heavily influenced by (i.e “stole”) his sound. Many jazz artists struggled for years in the United States, but found appreciation overseas. And we all know how the Germans feel about the soothing sounds of David Hasselhoff.

Listening to Grip Grand, I was reminded of the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, and the mysterious Sixto Rodriguez, whose 1970s protest music has been compared to Bob Dylan. But Detroit-based Rodriguez never found success in the U.S. and was dropped from his label after two albums. But unbeknownst to him, his music became legendary in South Africa and Australia. As hip-hop grows older and fans discover music of decades past, I wondered if Grip could become rap’s “Sugar Man.” An artist who was unsuccessful in his prime but found an audience later in life.

Unlike Sixto Rodriguez, Grip was fairly easy to track down. He has his own website. And that website has an email address. So I reached out. He responded and was actually putting the finishing touches on a new album. We ended up talking for three hours. Below is a small portion of our conversation.

You sent me a preview of your new EP, Outsider Art, and it’s really a beautiful project. People who love hip-hop should really appreciate it, but it’s not your typical rap album. How would you describe the album and what inspired you to make a project like this?

Grip Grand: Ayyy, thanks for the feedback man, much appreciated. Any artist of my stature is always appreciative of anyone coming out to talk about my art.

I’m not looking for it to be a big moneymaker. I’m not trying to make a hit record. I do only things that I love and that I want to do for myself. It’s not a rap album, but involves hip-hop. It’s me forcing myself to do a new thing, and involves a set of restrictions of what the album can be.

In what way?

Grip Grand: Most of my projects these days are about putting some restrictions in place to really challenge myself. My last project was a kids’ album. The restriction on that was I could only sample from children’s records. It’s hard to find clean rap music to play for my kids, even in my own collection, so I decided to make something hip-hop for them. It was in the year leading up to the last presidential election, and I wanted to put something positive into the world. Something to just put smiles on some people’s faces. We have plenty of darkness in the world.

For this new project, I couldn’t have any samples except for sampling myself. I am a self-taught musician with limited musicianship. My only training is 15 years of choir, going back to when I was like 6 or 7 at the San Francisco Community Music Center. The vocals on the album are all from me. With the instruments, not being trained, I had to play and record one bar at a time. It was really painstaking. A lot of digital correction and editing of wrong notes. What it ended up being is me sampling myself and creating something that I hope the ear will be fooled into thinking is a band.

The other restriction was using only instruments I had around my house. I used all the instruments I had like guitar and bass, plus all of my children’s instruments—a personal collection of toy percussion instruments and shit just because I can’t afford to go the music store and buy a bunch of legit stuff. A lot of baby rattles and miniature tambourines.

The album took me back to some classic hip-hop songs. Did you purposely choose songs that were famous, or in some cases not so famous, because of the rap songs that sampled them?

Grip Grand: Hip-hop is at the center of almost everything I do, because it’s my heart. So Outsider Art is an album of covers. I cover pieces of songs that were sampled by some great rap songs, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s, “They Reminiscence Over You,” which is made of pieces of “Today” by Tom Scott, right? I do a cover, only children’s instruments, of “Today” and then I sample my own cover of “Today.” Then halfway through the song it flips into a cover of a “They Reminiscence Over You” instrumental made out of pieces of my cover of “Today.”

Tom Scott’s version is a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s original “Today” and that version is sampled by Black Sheep for “Similak Child,” and that pops up later in my record when I cover another sample Black Sheep used for “Similak Child”—a song called “Les Fleur” by Ramsey Lewis. It’s super meta and self-referential, so for me, just conceptually it’s interesting.

It’s funny about the last two songs on the album, because until you mentioned it, I didn’t even know they’d been sampled. I had to look it up on WhoSampled.

“Wichita Lineman” is just a song my dad always liked, and a song you see a lot of covers of as a record collector. I have a few thousand records, and there must be hundreds of “Wichita Lineman” covers in there. It’s a classic song for arrangers to flex their muscles on, and I was just throwing my hat in the ring. I added drum breaks to mine, for example. That’s not typical. I just did it because I thought it’d be tight if my version was maybe worthy of sampling, itself.

“The Funeral” is just a song I like. Just one of many great songs I first discovered through skate videos. I wanted to do a couple songs on the album that weren’t a reference to hip-hop at all, but I guess I did it inadvertently anyway. My version of “The Funeral” is the most different from the original, as far as my EP goes, and I’m pretty proud of my arrangement. It has way more 808s than the Band of Horses version.

Your last two albums have been very different from anything you’ve done before, and far different than you hear in mainstream hip-hop. Do you see yourself making albums like Broakland or Brokelore again?

Grip Grand: I just make music for me. If other people are into it, dope. If not, whatever. I’m not feeding my family off it. I wish I was. If you don’t see the success financially or big numbers with the metrics, you can second-guess yourself and ask why are you still doing this. Why I did it was because I had to do it. Because that’s what I love.

Art can be whatever it wants to be. Art should have no rules other than the artist wants to make it. Creating art is not a choice. It’s a compulsion. You need to get it out there. Sometimes when you really write something great and a song just comes direct out where you sit down and some amazing thing comes out, it almost feels like it’s coming from outside you and you’re just a conduit. It feels external. You turn yourself into a lightning rod, so when lightning strikes you’re there and able to receive it.

It’s a lot harder to write the sort of generic rappity-raps right now for a lot of reasons. Partly because I don’t care about that shit as much as I used to, or the world is crazy and maybe this isn’t the time to be writing raps about rapping. Or everyone is bored of that because it’s not the 90s or the early 2000s anymore. Right now, the stuff that I can get down on paper and that I feel comfortable getting down is stuff that comes directly from my personal experience. Feelings of what I’m going through in life, mostly hardships that I’ve gone through in the last few years. Rap stuff comes out because part of what we do when we are creating is we are processing what we see in the world. It goes through you and we put it back out. It’s therapeutic. But not every song can be that.

I need to get back in a space where I can get with the fellas and make a posse cut that’s not about my feelings. Nobody wants to hear that. We want to cut it up like Red Man and Method Man, or Miles and Bird. Sometimes you just need to go at it and try to blow each other off the stage. I grew up with that framework and I’ve grown out of it at times where it doesn’t seem as authentic anymore because I’ve been less inspired lately. But if you can make a song that makes people happy for three minutes, then that’s positive too. Not everything has to be serious or political. I will always love music like that, but I’m not always in a place where I have the desire or ability to do it myself.

Do you look back at an album like Brokelore and wonder why it didn’t hit like it could have. It’s a great record. Or even, do you wonder if it might get rediscovered and appreciated today for how good it is?

Grip Grand: I might get discovered the way Charles Bradley or Sharon Jones did. They made music for decades and then when they were sixty or whatever, people finally catch up and are like, “Whoa.” The way music is now, it’s easier to discover older music. It’s important to build a catalogue, because people can realize you’ve been talented and been putting out significant art for a while.

I’m very grateful to be in the conversation at all now. To have anyone talking about me at all. The discovery system today is a lot different; you can go back a lot further and wider. If I can get in there and have people discover my shit the way that I discover fifty-year-old jazz records and shit that didn’t get the props when they came out, I’m good. I control the catalogue. People are still buying Welcome to Broakland from 2002.

Now, I don’t even know what the goal is anymore. I don’t know how you measure artistic success. It blows my mind that “Poppin’ Pockets” has a million streams on Spotify. It’s a catchy song, but it’s not the most Grip Grand song. It’s lighting in a bottle that I can never recapture if I tried.

Brokelore was lost in the shuffle when it came out. It hurt my heart. There were a number of factors why. Record label financial issues. It didn’t get pushed or promoted well. We put all this work into something I thought was really great and that other people thankfully have told me, now, has had an impact on them. But at the time it just … it just … nobody heard about it. It just came out and there was no follow up. For various social anxiety reasons, I didn’t tour. I still don’t tour or perform live. The way I am, staying in a basement making music all the time and making art is my strong suit. All the business afterwards is really a struggle for me. So I would have done well in a label environment that could handle all that for me. That could book a tour and force me to go do it.

If not for the record label issues, Brokelore would have done that for me. And I was ready. AG was going to do a European Tour with me. That would have been a good tour. It would have been a good look for me. But then shit was just done. The label folded and I didn’t pick up the ball and run with it. I didn’t know how to promote myself. I still don’t. I always have to lift myself up a little bit. No one else is going to do it for you. Most of my projects, I just put them out and tell social media. It’s not a great plan. I don’t have a ton of followers. I do believe in the power of word of mouth.

You can say, “If only we had better distribution, we would blow up.” But I’m kind of like, I know what you mean, but to me it’s like, if only we had better music, because there are songs that people can’t help but take notice of. And if one person hears it, they are going to tell a friend. Because it’s the power of that song. And what every artist needs is more of those, more undeniable songs. I’m not saying it will necessarily lead to success, but it’s better than having…not that. I knowingly put out songs that are not that. Most of my songs are not that. I’m not trying to purposely make hits or catchy songs. I don’t know what a hit is for an underground rapper anymore.

Now people are using music as a stepping stone to build their brand and that’s weird to me. I make music because I love making music. When people say, “Oh, I’m so glad to hear you’re still making music.” Cool, thank you, but at the same time that’s sort of insulting. Why would I stop making music? It’s not a hobby. I can’t not do it. I will do it until I die. It has nothing to do with how well I’m doing in the industry. If you stop, did you ever really love it then?

There are things I would like to do, of course, that would go bigger, like the MF Doom thing. It would be great to now do an official second remix project for him. I would love to produce a whole album for him or any number of my heroes. Or for young people who I think are talented. Of course, I would like to be successful and break into circles now while I’m still alive and able to appreciate it and grow from it. I don’t want to wait until I’m an old man, but I’ve seen it with a lot of jazz artists. What happened to underground hip-hop and 90s style hip-hop reminds me of what happened to jazz where dudes have to, and still do, go to Europe and have legitimate careers. Jeru moved to Germany because the audience there, for whatever reason, appreciates it in a different way and has a different perspective on it. I went to a Jeru show here in the Bay and there were like 100 people there, man. It was depressing because The Sun Rises in the East is one of the great artifacts of our culture. It’s an incredible record. He can have a whole career out in Europe, but out here he has to play these tiny little places. They are thought of as history here.

Even though you’re a Bay Area guy, you moved around a lot, and I’m wondering what kind of impact that had on your career. The Bay has a very unique sound and a special place in hip-hop history.

Grip Grand: I’m like a man without a country. I moved every few years. Even though I’ve mainly lived in the Bay Area, I’ve never been considered part of The Bay music scene. Partly from moving so much, but also because even though I’m a West Coast guy, East Coast New York hip-hop has always been my heart.

My folks got divorced when I was two or three, and my dad moved to L.A., so I visited him once a month and spent summers there. Then I moved to L.A. in the 4th grade and visited my mom in San Francisco all through high school. Then I moved to Portland, Oregon for college and was the rap guy at our tiny college radio station for four years. That’s when I started recording as Grip Grand. After college, I moved back to L.A. for a year and recorded and self-released my first 12-inch.

And from there you worked odd jobs here and there as you tried to make a career as a rapper, right?

Grip Grand: When I moved to Oakland, I worked many jobs, temping and bouncing around. I was a copy editor, sales assistant at a construction equipment firm in Hayward and a replenishment specialist at (when they run out of dog food, you order more dog food). I started recording the demos that became Welcome to Broakland.

I moved to Santa Cruz and worked at Ace Hardware until I got a job at the local record store where my record collection, already expansive, ballooned into seriously unwieldy numbers of crates. After Santa Cruz, I moved to Huntington Beach and worked at the local comic shop and went to audio engineering school at the community college. That’s when I released Brokelore in 2008. From there I moved to Seattle, then back to San Francisco in 2012.

What was it that attracted you to rap music?

Grip Grand: Both my parents are huge jazz heads. Soul music and jazz was a lot of what I grew up with in my home. I started writing hip-hop in my late teens, but I didn’t have access to the tools to make rap music until after high school. They weren’t common, so it wasn’t until college that I started making music.

I have always been immersed in hip-hop. Always. My whole life. I grew up at the same time as hip-hop, concurrently. The very first rap song I ever heard was “Rapper’s Delight.” There’s never been a time where it wasn’t what I was into. But I was never around rappers. I didn’t know how to act like a rapper, or if I was supposed to act like a rapper. Part of my problem with getting on stage is, am I supposed to act like a rapper up there? Am I supposed to be myself and do the Grip Grand songs. I don’t think the audience would even give a shit about that. That’s just me trying to come to terms with myself and this character I created. I had to create a Grip Grand alter ego. It was an outlet for me to do those things through hip-hop. It allowed me a place to do that.

I need to think less about that and more about, “These are songs you wrote, just go do the fuckin’ song, dude.” I’m the worst at getting hung up in my head. I’m my own worst enemy, as Blink 182 said or whoever did that fuckin’ song.

“Love/Drama” is one of my favorite songs. It offers amazing insight from an artist’s point of view on a critique of their work, and the result is brilliant. What critic was the inspiration behind that song?

Grip Grand: Love/Drama was about a specific review from Broakland. I’ve had some mixed reviews over time. And some mixed reviews that still don’t make sense to me where people have said one of my songs is great but don’t attribute the greatness to me. Like, “Great song despite Grip Grand …” And I’m like, did you like the song or did you not like the song? I wrote and produced the song you fucking asshole. No disrespect to critics. Some of them don’t know the process.

Reviews that frustrate me are the ones that make a lot of assumptions. I’m not hard to find. If you want to know how I made a beat, I’m here, man. Hit me up. Because they end up being straight up factually wrong and make a bunch of incorrect assumptions. That frustrates me.

The review I read about “Love/Drama” said the album was good despite the beats sounding like they’re trying to be made like garbage. The beats were literally from my cassette 4-track with no alterations and we just put it out like that. So to get this insulting review, and it was this one particular review, it said a lot of positive things about the record but it kept saying it was despite Grip Grand. But the record was only me. For this guy to come at me, but say positive things about the music, I just didn’t get it.

A funny little aside is that Design (Brokelore’s executive producer) was really pushing me to get that verse in one take. And I did and I fucked up that line, “I can’t wait to hear your album, it must be perfect.” The line itself is imperfect. I flubbed it. But the energy I had on that take, I could not duplicate. I tried to do it again numerous times, but ultimately, I loved that about the first take. That on that line, where I’m talking about perfection and imperfection, I kind of fucked it up.

And that magazine is gone now and I don’t know where that guy is.

With this new album, and most of your work, it’s clear you won’t sacrifice your artistic integrity for the sake of opportunity or popularity. But many in the industry do, so why not?

Grip Grand: It can’t be about how other people are gonna take it when I’m making art of any kind. It has to be about where I’m at, and how I’m gonna take it, and how it makes me feel.

When you first start out rapping, especially when you’re someone like me, who maybe doesn’t come from the traditional background that you think of rappers coming from, part of it is you’re rapping about things you’ve only really heard about on records and stuff. I’ve never actually battled anybody. That was just what people rapped about. I mean, I’ve rapped back and forth with my friends, but it’s not the same.

Paul Thompson once tweeted, “Mac Miller is hip-hop fan fiction.” It was a funny line, but it made me think, “I don’t want to be that.” Songs like “Something in the Water,” a song about thinking about killing myself, can never be accused of that. They come from my personal experience. That I can stand behind 100 percent. Making a song that dark made me realize it wasn’t that dark for me. When you push it to the extreme, you realize you have it better than that.

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