Constantly Evolving: a Homeboy Sandman interview

On Homeboy Sandman’s recently released Hallways LP, the track “Activity” functions as a philosophical purging of the lessons the New York rapper has accumulated up until the moment he laid down the song’s vocals. Over a J57 production, he delivers his stance of “seem like motherfuckers so afraid of living life / so afraid with being wrong, so concerned with being right / personally I’m concerned with living life greater / fuck it, if I’m wrong I’ll correct the shit later.” It’s this outlook that’s freed Homeboy Sandman to be a public figure who can write a song about his vegan diet (“Fat Belly”) and switch his diet by the time the video is filmed, serving friends and family in his neighborhood grilled chicken. He’s sworn off cursing in the past and sworn on record years later. He’s not a contradiction. He’s human and refusing to settle for a static existence.

On Hallways he’s still sorting out his belief system which is resistant to prescribed dogmas, doctrines, trends, and marketing ploys. Ever a work-in-progress, Homeboy Sandman is not concerned with presenting himself as role model without flaw. He’s not a politician and was quick to illustrate exactly why he would never affiliate himself with that line of work. On “America, The Beautiful”, his growth comes in a challenge to not bog down his message with the negative, which he did previously with an epistle on the pestilence of oppression on “Illuminati”. This time around, he’s seeking the optimistic truths like “OK, the streets ain’t paved with gold / but at least they paved though.”

In our hour conversation, we discussed his transformations from new outlooks on sponsorship to looking into deeper issues connected to Ferguson, MO. We talked Hallways, the challenges that come with working with several producers on one album, and collaborating with Jozef Van Wissem, J-Live, and the unheraled 90s rap legend Kurious Jorge.

In your seven years as a musician you’ve gone from not cursing, to doing so; refrained from speaking of women in a sexual manner to easing your stance on that. Like say you’re a politician; in doing things in that manner you’d receive criticism for flip-flopping. How would you like these changes you’ve undergone to be perceived? 

I don’t give a shit about any of that. I’m trying to get it right. I’m pretty open about that. I’ve got a joint on the record called “Activity” about the different things I be doing. I wrote a record when I was a vegan called “Fat Belly” and then by the time I shot the video I wasn’t vegan no more and there was chicken in the video.

I tell the truth. I don’t mess with politicians. They’re out there professional bullshitting. I go through all types of changes. I’m trying to get it right. There’s a great quote out there, “you’re under no obligation to be the same person in five minutes that you are now.” Me personally, I’m always evolving.

You’ve expressed that your views have changed on race, sponsorship, and artistic responsibility, can we discuss each of those individually.

I’m at a place where I think race is some real played out shit. I know Gandhi said, be the change you seek to see in the world. I really grew up identifying hispanic and black. At this point today, I feel like that race shit is corny. Nothing good comes out of it. I’m working on eradicating it completely from my thinking. Tomorrow I might come across some information that makes me rethink that, but for now the race shit is stupid to me.

Naturally, but are you in a place where you feel you can ignore it conceptually? Like it’s inherent in our social and societal experience.

I want to be there, but I don’t feel that way. I still see race. I still think race. It’s very instinctive… not instinctive, but it’s become almost like instinct how deeply ingrained it is in my thinking. Interacting with people, interacting with society, and looking at events, there’s definitely still something that’s in there that I want to reprogram. But am I there right now?

I want to be there. I’m working on getting there. I was talking to someone that’s in recovery for substance abuse. He told me that relapse is part of recovery. That’s one of the things they taught him in rehab clinics. I’ve been at a place similar to where I am right now. This whole thing is a big sham and being caught up in it is crazy. Even if I’m the only dude in the whole world that’s not caught in it and everybody looks at me like I’m crazy… I’ll be happy with that.

I was told you feel there’s a missed conversation around the situation in Ferguson. What have you determined?

It’s not about Mike Brown. The truth is that slavery is happening. Slavery is real. There are more descendents of slaves that are enslaved, in captivity right now, then there were at the height of slavery. Mike Brown was murdered and everybody is yelling.

I can only speak for myself. Me, I’m never going to jail. I’ll never be enslaved. I ain’t going out like that. The way society views life now, to me, is something I have difficulty dealing with. Life is just about breathing. Like if you’re breathing that’s okay and the point of life is to just be alive. You know, I’ve got a line in “Illuminati”, “to be content to live a lie as long as they’re alive.” It’s just crazy to me.

In Florida there’s the woman that fired a warning shot that already got 20 years and now they’re trying to give her 60 years of captivity. I’m so happy to see kids break dancing on the train the other day because you know they cracked down on that and the other day they arrested somebody. Young kids who got no other way to make money. Just break dancing and trying to make an honest buck, but they threw them into the system. A lot of those kids are caught up in slavery from now on and people don’t look at it that way.

The conversation about Ferguson is I see so many people rallying about death, technical death, like no more breathing going on. But, I don’t see any rallying… this brother Mike Brown, it’s a tragedy, but when it comes to either death or enslavement… death is getting off easy, to me. What if they didn’t shoot Mike Brown? What if they grabbed him up and put him in jail for 60 years? We wouldn’t be out in the street for that because that’s regular. How can we expect cats to not get shot and murdered when it’s like the police are free to go around kidnapping us and we don’t even care.

When you look at history, the Native Americans chose death over enslavement, like the way Samurais presented their history: death before dishonor. It seems like historically there was more of a foundation that life is an amazing thing, but being in control of your life is something worth dying for and I don’t see that anymore at all. The only thing that upsets us is technical death and even that doesn’t upset us that much. But other than that we just happy to be breathing, which is something I can’t relate to.

I got to think of a more concise way to say it. It’s a new concept… well, not a new concept, it’s an old concept.

How have your views changed on sponsorship?

I had a couple of more capitalist relationships, but I determined I didn’t want to be a dough boy for anything and cut ties with my sponsorships. At that point, I wouldn’t even wear gear from friends of mine. I was just going straight black Ts, straight cargos, and I was even looking for sneakers with no branding on them. I did that for a little while. We ads to these things, so it’s important I determine what I want to be an ad for.

I got a sponsorship from Garden of Life now. Nutritional products. I be making these smoothies everyday and I’m getting in the best shape of my life now.

So right now I’m about stuff that gives a damn. I’ve had relationships with some big, big companies and they really don’t give a damn. They charging all this money and ain’t giving nothing back to nobody.

It’s a very millennial trend… caring about where your purchases come from and taking responsibility.

Even through all these up and downs, or flip flopping… whatever you want to call it. I’m trying to figure out what God wants me to do. It don’t bother me to turn down checks if I feel like it’s not what God wants me to do.

So you’re also no longer using the word “dope” any more?

I feel like it’s derivative of, you know, heroin. My language… I’m looking to be meticulous with my words. I don’t say “kill two birds with one stone”, I say hatch two birds with one egg. I don’t say “I’m trying to kill some time,” I say I’m trying to make some time of life. I don’t say “same old same old,” I say same new same new. I’m trying to have my verbiage be in the right direction.

I never said the word “crack” like it’s cool, like when people say “that shit is crack.” The word “dope” when I was a kid already had the meaning aside from heroin. But crack’s first meaning for me was the drug crack and then to hear “yo, that’s crack.” That shit is terrible. So I was wondering if it bothered people the same way watching people die from dope and to start hearing people say “dope.”

Do you get into the etymology of words?

I know gentrification is a word people throw around and I did the research on that word. I’ll research the origins of words to make a point sometimes. That whole gentrification shit is a diss. Like gent: well-born, well-bred. In some dictionaries it will even mean: good, clean, honorable. Basically the implication is that as we get gentle, we get gentlemen. Then, what’s implied is the good people are moving in which of course means the bad people are getting pushed out.

Suggesting the previous occupants were bad.

It’s almost like discovery of the New World Part Two-type shit. Like Columbus discovered America and there wasn’t nobody here. Now it’s cats who weren’t from New York are now discovering New York.

Let’s talk about Hallfways. What challenges did you place in front of yourself going into the record?

A couple of songs in particular, like “Stroll”, I was writing that walking around. I wanted to feel like you were walking around, for real. I needed to be like a Spike Lee shot he used to use that would just feel like you were moving through New York. I needed it to be a stroll.

For me, “America, The Beautiful” it was like people know me for being open about the shit I think is wrong with AmericaI’m open with what I think is wrong about whatever. In the three verses I had to change my frame of reference. I wanted to be grateful. I wanted to remind myself how lucky I am. I saw a lot of the gratefulness was being lost. There’s a lot of problems in the U.S. I say, “it’s a work in progress and it may always be.” I believe in trying to get better.

“Grand Pupa” is another challenge to myself. My records are based on my life and what I’m going through. I was going to have three other songs on the album that dealt with male and female interpersonal stuff. Instead, I challenged myself to write some street psychiatry. Like why are you illing so hard? It helped me change my life, for real. Try to think about your relationship with your moms, your patterns with females.

I get that it’s a play on Grand Puba of Brand Nubian, but what does “pupa” mean?

The pupa is when a caterpillar in its transformative state to become a butterfly, that’s called pupa. So, the Grand Pupa is me finding myself, like I’ve been running around caterpillar status and now I’m finally that Grand Pupa, getting ready to burst out with an understanding of myself to be a butterfly. It’s that transformative and introspective period.

When you were selecting the production for this album, it’s got to be difficult working with several producers to make it feel cohesive, but you’ve done so with Hallwaysprobably more than on First Of A Living Breed. What was that process like?

To be honest with you, I’ve never made albums. I work on songs and then I figure it out later. So, I make joints. When I have these songs stockpiled, then I figure them out. One of the things I feel I’ve benefited from is between First Of A Living Breed and this album is [that] I put out three EPs and worked with the same producer on each one. Those had a sense of cohesion and a sense of togetherness that was stronger than any of my LPs. So having those EPs, I benefited from that when I was constructing Hallways.

Even though I am dealing with all these different producers [on Hallways], I think that it helped me have a sonic depth to my album. And I feel like this album is too different halves, but all the way through it makes sense.

I agree with you thatfrom the sonic cohesion stand pointit trumps First Of A Living Breed and I think that has something to do with putting out the three EPs in between them.

First half does set up the second half and there’s a journey, that build particularly to those last two tracks. How did that collaboration with Jozef Van Wissem come to be?

Man that was so crazy, man. I was with my homegirl Jenny, we were in Liverpool and she was like let’s go to the movies. She wanted to see Only Lovers Left Alive, some vampire joint. You know the new Jim Jarmusch movie?

I saw it and I loved it. I loved the movie, but I loved the music. I came to find out it was all lute. It set this crazy mood and the movie was butter.

Three weeks later, I’m looking for a sublet online and this cat has a one bedroom in Greenpoint. Come to find out the dude who put it on Craigslist is Jozef Van Wissem, who did the music for the freaking thing!

That’s insane.

It gets even crazier. Right prior to that there had been an article in New York talking about the slept on things in New York. As the slept on rapper it had me. The slept on director had Jim Jarmusch. So this dude knew the article. He knew me from the reading the article and I knew him because he’s down with Jim Jarmusch. That’s his boy actually. They’re in a band together. [Referring to Jarmusch and Wissem’s SQÜRL band.] So we immediately hit it off.

Not only do I get the fat pad, but then he’s like let’s work on some joints. I love that joint. It connected to the mood I was in and I think that was the last edition to the album. This was earlier this year. I was at his pad two days ago. We’re working on more joints now.

Has he always wanted to branch into hip hop?

He’s a music lover. I never thought about working with him when I watched the movie, but I thought it was really fat. Hip hop is my creative genre, but I get down with whatever’s fat. He seems like the same type of person. We have musical conversations. He’s got his certain type of sound, his area of expertise with the lute. But I like the challenge of working with him and I think he likes the challenge of working with me.

And then you’ve got Kurious [Jorge] on the record. How did you link up with Kurious?

Man, Jorge is the man. I think I linked up with him through RTNC. I can’t remember how we started building. First of all, he’s such a solid brother. He’s all love. He’s a real straight forward… I love dude. I wish more people liked the dude because he ain’t bullshittin’ at all.

I was a fan of him from in the days like coming up Puerto Rican and Dominican. When you had Beatnuts, [Big] Pun, and Jorge. You always looked up to these dudes, like “yo, these are the Latin cats.” So getting to know him and seeing how cool he is… at first it was a conscious decision to end the album with his verse. I feel like J-Live is one of the most underrated as well. But, I feel like Jorge the way he stepped out, he’s saying so much that he’s like a shaman.

Before Nas came out with Illmatic, Jorge was Columbia’s lead horse. He was poised to be super duper worldwide with it. He’s seen so much from being on the cusp of that, to watching that go where it went. He really is a learned-ass dude. I just hear that insight from his verse. I fucks with Jorge.

Homeboy Sandman’s Hallways is out now on Stones Throw.