Edan and Homeboy Sandman’s dazzlingly sunlit collaborative album Humble Pi arrives somewhat incongruously, as daylight savings descends on the East Coast and icy winds whip through the streets of East New York. There’s even an early blizzard on the day that we speak, which only adds to the sense that the existence of this album is a pleasingly surreal turn of events, like a rare tropical bird suddenly alighting on a Myrtle Avenue traffic light.
For one thing, there’s the small matter of the long overdue re-emergence of Boston’s greatest gift to NYC since Keith Elam, one Edan Portnoy. A triple threat of the old school who looks like a cross between a young Rick Rubin and a member of the Strokes, Edan raps like LL, has kicks like Afrika Bambaataa, and traffics in warmly lysergic psych, jazz and rock soundscapes. His 2005 album Beauty and the Beat was an instant classic, weaving Golden Age rhymes and reverb drenched loops into the kind of all-conquering sonic collage last heard around the time Beck hooked up with the Dust Brothers. It remains iconic – few producers could so successfully transmute the rarefied source material of Brian Wilson, the Small Faces or Nico into such an original whole. But Edan the auteur seemed to be semi-retirement until very recently, brushing off a low-key decade with a shrug and a grin.
Then there is Angel Villar aka Homeboy Sandman. He’s a fluid technician who blends the iciness of Evidence, the impish shithousery of the Beatnuts and moral disquiet of the Last Poets into wickedly barbed flows and searching ruminations. He’s also prodigious. He’s been dragging the New York sound into the light since 2008 with no fewer than 8 EP’s, 5 albums and one mixtape since we last heard Edan. An early glimpse of his fledgling work with Edan can be heard on 2017’s “Talking (Bleep)” in which he employs a skittering spoken word meter to skewer time-wasters, know-nothings and a hapless HuffPo writer to hilarious effect over a prime slice of Edan’s liquid funk, replete with a squiggly synth hook that perfectly apes those chattering voices.
Humble Pi ably follows through on the promise of that track with a small but immaculately rendered world. Edan’s production remains unique – a b-boy bouillabaisse of dusty kicks and fuzz-drenched psychedelia while Sandman has rarely been better cast than he is here in the role of shape-shifting spirit coyote to Edan’s acid-spiked Kool-Aid. His firebrand dexterity lets him sink into every crevice of Edan’s soundscapes while freaking several albums’ worth of flows, voices and stories – whether lamenting the relentless march of time on “Grim Seasons”, decrying the diminishing social cache of fly navigation skills on the hilarious “Never Use the Internet Again” or pushing Edan to new heights of bar-for-bar euphoria over the monster beat of “Rock N Roll Indian Dance.”
Above all, Humble Pi is a record that remembers when rap was a party. It’s clear from our conversation that two-and-a-half years since their first meeting, Edan and Homeboy Sandman’s budding musical partnership is just now hitting its stride in earnest. It’s also about to hit the road: There are a lot more parties to turn out and fly routines to kick before this season ends. — Joel Biswas
The album has been really well-received. How were the launch shows in Brooklyn and LA?
Edan: I’m enjoying doing shows with this brother and I look forward to many more.
Homeboy Sandman: We’ve got San Fran coming up, we’ve got Durango, Colorado before that and Atlanta before that. And we’re going be in London on February 8th at the Jazz Café. We will have some other US dates in addition to the ones I just mentioned and we will have some European dates in February. And we’re working on some full global what-have you. (laughs)
You guys are label-mates from Stones Throw and Edan has done some production of Homeboy Sandman’s album “Kindness for Weakness.” Did you guys know each other before that?
Edan: I had seen Sandman perform and DJ’d to open up for him on another occasion and naturally became aware of his musicality, his ability, his overall dopeness… It was one of those things that was so natural that I don’t really remember the details. We started working on songs shortly thereafter just to see what the chemistry was and after a certain amount of songs got made, we were like “yeah, I guess we should move towards some kind of project.”
Homeboy Sandman: A friend of mine gave me a very enthusiastic review of Edan’s live performance before I saw it myself. It really piqued my interest and after that I linked up with him at shows and in person and had confirmation of all the praise and accolades that he had received by that point from multiple people. I just became a fan and I’m grateful we’ve been able to work together.
What was the goal or objective for this project?
Edan: You want me to answer?
Homeboy Sandman: We can go back and forth. Yo E, we got in yesterday at 3AM dude. I just woke up. I was in 6 cities yesterday. There was a crazy snowstorm yesterday and was coming back from LA. And I was in 6 cities man! I just got up. So let’s go back and forth. [laughter]
Edan: Yo, hold on hold on – can we pause the interview so I can ask my brother…
Homeboy Sandman: We started in LA at 4:30 in the morning. By the time we got Denver to connect, the flight had been cancelled – everything to the East had been cancelled so they send you to Baltimore and from there you can go to Islip Long Island – I didn’t even know they had an airport. So on the way to Baltimore the plane just stops in Austin, Texas. We’re in Austin, then we go to Baltimore, then we go to Islip.
Edan: How did you get from Austin to Baltimore?
Homeboy Sandman: Same plane, same plane- we made a stop – drop some people off, pick up some new people.
Homeboy Sandman: Fun for the whole family. so let’s go back and forth. I’mma sleep for one answer, answer one thing.
Edan: Aiight cool. You know I’m so bad with time (as my twelve-year hiatus can attest) like I remember having a conversation with Sand like ‘yo we got some jams together pretty quick’ and he like pointed that it been like two or three years (laughter). And so, I wanna say in the beginning we were just enjoying the process and the purity of just checking out the collaborative chemistry. We had like three songs in and we were like we probably should start moulding some sort of project out of whatever’s going on. So then I would say like two and half years after the initial meeting is when we’re finally done with the songs and then it was just a matter of mastering and things of that nature.
Homeboy Sandman: The first track that we did didn’t even wind up on the record even though I think its dope and I’ve got some new bars for that. But we’ve got a lot of stuff, other jams that we’ve written and recorded. “Talking Bleep”. ended up on “Kindness for Weakness” but there are some other things we’ve kicked around and worked on and discussed but these tracks that made the album, they were the ones that organically and cohesively came together as the initial presentation to put forward for us.
Do you see this having more chapters like the Lice series you did with Aesop Rock?
Homeboy Sandman: I would love for there to be more stuff. We’ve been focusing on rehearsals, our show is a very dynamic show driven by some much creativity, variety and dexterity that Edan brings to it. I’m really happy that we’ve found a lot of time for rehearsing to put together this live thing. We really want to make an imprint everywhere that we bring it so in the recent weeks and months we’ve put a premium on that over musical creation but not entirely – and I look forward to getting back to it.
Edan: The thing with Sand is that he is so prolific, he’s probably made like two or three albums worth of material in the meantime while I’ve just been focusing on shows with him. He somehow finds a way to like constantly create. Just another reason to be impressed with this dude.
You mentioned this notion of a twelve-year hiatus – I mean, I know that’s not entirely true, you’ve been doing stuff with Cut Chemist and producing here and there, but there’s a perception that you’ve kept a relatively low profile and I’m wondering if Sandman’s coaxed you back into the studio or if his energy has rubbed off on you?
Edan: I think everything about that is true except for the ‘coaxed’ part. That’s always been my disposition. Like I’m here and if something brings out some sort of enthusiasm then it’s very easy to just get going – you know what I mean? I think part of it is, I was never worried enough about my career to make sure I have a record out like every year or two (not that people who are prolific are worried) I just kind of… You know when Beauty and the Beat came out, I was happy with that statement creatively and then I did Echo Party a few years later that was a different sort of expression but was still something I’m very proud of. I think I was just living my life not too hung up on any sort of touring cycle. I mean, shows were happening for years after that. There were tours five, six, seven, eight years after the fact just based on people’s appreciation for my music up to that point. There was enough to focus on for somebody like me, you know?
I was also playing guitar which is something I’ve been doing since I was eleven years old and getting in touch with some rock and roll stuff and wrote some songs in that vein and continued to do cameos, rhyming on peoples’ projects, doing stuff for Mr. Lif, doing stuff for Cut Chemist, doing remixes and somehow it all kept me busy enough. There was food in the fridge and the lights were on in the house but then just Sand very naturally was like “let’s work on some songs” and it didn’t take a lot of thought and I didn’t have to be persuaded. It was second nature and there you have it – another Edan thing is out there. I would love to the pace to quicken as far as output. I also have rap songs of my own in the works. There’s always something.
What’s it like working together from each of your perspectives and what do each of bring that’s particularly creative stimulating for one another?
Homeboy Sandman: We don’t stay to far from each other so it wasn’t much of an inconvenience oftentimes to take a walk or ride over there and just sit with him and be able to start from scratch on things, be able to listen to records that he found something in, that piqued his interest, and once we had found something that excited the two of us, talk about and discuss the concept together and then maybe write some bars, then l switch the beat up or add some stuff… I’ve made a lot of music in what is probably becoming a conventional way in a different room from some of my producers and even then that has had a lot of back and forth after the fact, you know post-production and stuff going on afterwards.
This isn’t the first time I’ve done it but it’s definitely the most extensive, organic producer and rap collaboration where we’re definitely in the same room and really got the think-tank popping. That was the energy, the musical camaraderie that I have really enjoyed. Then also Edan’s whole style, you know what I mean, rhyming-wise, production-wise, it’s just very distinct, very unique. His talents are uncommon and the opportunity to disappear inside the realm he is capable of putting together you can’t really get that any place else. It’s very rich. For me, that was a big draw.
Edan: I just want to add that Sand’s willingness to just be there, sit and observe or be patient while I go through the trial and error of trying different records and things – that’s such integral part of the success of this whole thing, that willingness and patience. Because I’ve been making music long enough that if no one’s in the room I might not have anything to prove to myself you know? Like I love life, I know that I love music – It’s a key component to have somebody there to spark my enthusiasm. As soon as somebody else is in the room it makes a big difference and it makes you want to bounce that energy back and forth. Just being present – that’s the main catalyst for me having a relative ease in putting these beats together.
There’s a big influence of guitar music and psychedelia on your music but I read an old review by our editor Jeff who mentioned that Sandman was a saxophone player, is that right?
Homeboy Sandman: My pop has a horn and I picked it up some time in the last five years and much of what I had known had evaporated and vanished. But Edan is still freaking all kinds of instruments but I even though I don’t play a lot of instruments I try to maintain a standard of musicality with my deliveries and the pockets that I find in the rich musicality of Edan’s production. You know listening to the record, there’s all types of flows on there. As I go through it in my head, I wouldn’t be surprised if each song had a distinct flow which I think it because of the variety of textures that Edan is able to come up with – they all call for something special and different. It’s so fun. I mean, the rhymes are critical but it needs to sound good. The rhymes need to be good enough that if there were no melody it would be awesome and the melody needs to be good enough that even if there were no rhymes… it’s about putting those two things together and it needs to be optimal.
Edan: One way that Sand’s musicality comes out to me is when I was talking to him during the making of all this shit he was like “yeah I played the sax”. I just wanted that vibe – the way Sand uses negative space in the rhymes, he’s maybe the master, or one of the best. He’ll use pauses in the rhythm to great effect. Whereas other rappers might try to cram a lot of words, Sand is very good at omitting words to give impact to the overall structure. To find out he played sax and all that, it wasn’t a surprise… I’m trying to push him to play sax in our shows. [laughter]
Homeboy Sandman: Come to the show and you’ll see one man do like fifteen things and another dude do like two.
Lyrically, that aspect of writing and recording live comes through really strongly. I count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard a back and forth like on “Rock and Roll Indian Dance” in rap music in the last five years. It feels like the writing has become a remote process too.
Homeboy Sandman: That specific song was a lot of fun to write. I’m not sure if had the entire beat by that point…
Edan: I remember I had that loop playing out loud when you walked in the door that day.
Homeboy Sandman: I remember Tone Tank was there that day and we had a drop of his creative energy. But that type of back and forth writing, it was my first time doing it. Because it isn’t even line for line…. Like Aesop and I have joints where we go line for line but here I rap until I think it’s time to pass it to him… that’s the method to the madness.
Edan: In the midst of that, there are instances where we go word for word. The two-man back and forth is something I have always believed in, from live performers or for songs – I think it’s captivating for a listener to follow the bouncing ball if you will and see the camaraderie between the two rappers. I’ll always push for that to be part of the situation because I just have so much fun doing that.
Any other particularly memorable moments in making this project?
Homeboy Sandman: There was a moment on “Never Use the Internet Again”. It had a lot of versions before we got to the final one and for me, this was a big moment. I am very prolific. In a sense, I think of myself as a perfectionist because I think everything I put out is perfect but for me I think of myself as a ‘dopist’ [laughs]. For me, it’s ready when its dope, you know what I’m saying? I make a record, it’s got to be dope. What have we got next?
I remember with that song, we had been working on it for a while and it was dope. It was ready to drop. It was our first project and I don’t like to waste time. I want to be productive. I’ll definitely spend five years working on something if its productive but I don’t want to overcook it. And E was like, “I kind of feel like it need a little more, trust me… What about this? What about this?” That was big moment because the stuff that was brought into the mix and the changes that were made empirically made the song hot. So it went from something that’s dope to being doper. That was a moment of trust, because the collaboration is always two people with two different psyches, personalities and styles of doing things. So that put me at ease for the rest of the record. I might not be able to recognise the productivity all of the time but that’s just because that mad scientist is working on it but I could rest easy that we’re moving in the right direction. I remember that moment pretty vividly.
Edan: Right on. One of the more fulfilling songs for me was “Grim Seasons”. I just appreciated the evolution of that song. Initially it had one loop all through it, Sand wrote the four season concept to one groove and it was instinctive to embellish and have the beat change up each season – I don’t know if that was a moment but I enjoyed two that song came together. Doing the hook for “Internet” was fun. Me being pleased with how it sounded, considering it was just me and him laying different lines of the same thing – like do it over here, now I’m gonna record our voices a little bit faster – I just enjoyed that type of shit. I’m in danger of being overly precious with my art and Sand is like as soon as its dope he’s on to the next – and that push and pull of those two different approaches, for me to have the influence of someone who works faster than me to pull me into faster currents of working and Sand being patient with someone who’s a little more deliberate and who doesn’t want to let something out there until we’ve exhausted every back alley and option.
Was it ever uncomfortable?
Edan: It was uncomfortable if I felt was I upsetting Sand or making him feel like shit was taking too long. I was cognizant that and I knew that he’s accustomed to a different approach. But there were moments where I felt a little uneasy with myself because you know my slowness or my lack of productivity or what-have-you was getting challenged… It’s almost like Sand, without even meaning to be, is by his inherent nature, productive, prolific and efficient. It would remind me of things I saw as shortcomings within myself as far as being slow. it forced me to confront that stuff but in the back of my mind I always knew that that was healthy and good. I was never really upset about it but I was like I gotta swallow this truth serum right now. You just gotta hang in there and ultimately, I was appreciative of being challenged and being in a position where I had to work. It’s almost like you resent your parents for making you do some shit you don’t want to do but you know it’s the right thing to do.
Homeboy Sandman: Even from the way we recorded a take that I would have went with, he’d be like “let’s do another one”. There was a lot of that creative tension between Edan’s energy and mine. But even the time when I would be in there in a more of a passive involvement, the times of Edan either digging for something, trying things out, finding a record – I would tell him all the time that I was enjoying that – that he might think because of my nature I was getting antsy and maybe I was feeling antsy from time to time but that feeling of this isn’t the way I move on my own was palpable but my slowing down, “let’s do that take again, we’re not in a rush here” – I don’t what it is about me. I don’t know if I’m in rush in my life. I don’t know if I feel any comfort in not doing anything, you know what I’m saying? But I didn’t feel like I wasn’t doing anything when we would be in there, the cauldron was bubbling.
I guess it was helped by proximity, to create an informal dynamic.
Edan: That always helps.
Homeboy Sandman: It’s an underrated blessing in the whole thing. But I ain’t going over there in the cold, know what I saying?
Edan: Well, I’ll come through and pick you up in the Camry. No doubt. But I might be switching whips soon. The breaks aren’t so good on that car. Yesterday I was driving through this blizzard out here. I willingly drove through it to get to a few places and it was hectic man. A little slipping and sliding and you know not the best tire traction, having to delegate gracefully with the brake pedal.
Homeboy Sandman: Yeah yeah, you need to switch that up. We can’t have no tragedies, we got records to do. [laughter]