Written by Adam E. Smith (@theadamesmith)
Preparing for a conversation with a former Hofstra law student and University of Pennsylvania alumnus would typically involve brushing up on drab high brow subjects like global economics and world politics, but when mapping out my interview with Angel Del Villar II, the topics of choice gravitated towards the state of hip-hop and the dynamics of his artistic evolution. The 31 year old native of Queens, New York has lead an interesting life by any standard, including the noble role of educating the youth, but the most engaging facet of his journey thus far is his status as one of the more profound conscious rappers in modern music. More commonly known by his buzzing emcee moniker Homeboy Sandman, the undeniable proficiency of his lyrical skill set puts him outside the box, where personalized subject matters paralleling that of legends like KRS-1 are common place.
As a result, the recent Stone’s Throw Records signee comes across as vocally transparent enough to disavow any chance of simply interviewing a rap persona. While the hip-hop universe seems to force the idealism of its characters being genuine, an artist like Homeboy Sandman utilizes his sophisticated bars and unorthodox lifestyle to actually live what can be interpreted as the personification of real. Now saddled up on an eclectic label that boasts names like J Dilla, Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf, the wordsmith is sitting on two fresh EP releases in 2012, with Subject: Matter having dropped earlier this year, and the anticipated follow up Chimera hitting circulation today. Offering up a few minutes of his day, a humble Homeboy Sandman connected with the Daily Chiefers from his home in the Eastern borough.
Where are you at right now? Are you in New York?
We both just returned from the sonic overdose that is South By Southwest. What was that experience like for you?
It was dope man, I loved it. AC3 [showcase] has been showing me love, and this was the third year that I was there. I like that they make it a point to get a large cross section of all hip-hop acts, and make sure that everything is represented.
Do you find added value in the mainstream embracing, or maybe taking over the festival, from an exposure perspective?
I think there is a lot of people that look to hip-hop as celebrity culture, and aren’t as interested in who is actually nice. So at SXSW you had the celebrity artist mixing with these up-and-coming cats, some of which are actually good, but this year the bigger celebrities took crowds from the young buzz artists. In a way this was good though, because people were sleeping on the decoys that weren’t that nice, and instead gave their attention to the talented big names and the better of the newcomers.
You have always preached truth, honesty and positive life lessons when it comes to your rhymes. What are you honestly feeling about the state of hip-hop right now?
Hip-hop has a bunch of great acts and artists, and I saw a lot of that at SXSW, but for somebody that is up on what is going on, you know that there are one-of-a-kind talents that are pushing the envelope. Being a member of the community I am exposed to who is mad nice, and never have a shortage of material to be wowed by. Because of that I am feeling really good about hip-hop. I was talking to Crazy Legs from the Rocksteady Crew, and we were discussing the origins of hip-hop, and specifically how those cats had nothing, but were still cool despite having nothing. So all that wack shit out there about how the stuff you have is making you cool isn’t even hip-hop to me. Hip-hop can’t be wack, hip-hop is dope.
Hip-hop is forever evolving, which is probably why it is the only genre to stay at the forefront of the mainstream for 30+ years, while also maintaining a heavily artistic underground. You have said that you should never look to do something that has been done before – what do you think is the next step for hip-hop, and yourself, in that spirit of progression?
Well, it depends on what you consider the underground. Is that cats that are actually nice, or is it just artists that are unknown? I think I associate a certain sound with the underground, that even if it was exposed to a wider audience it wouldn’t necessarily fit because it might not have melodic hooks or what not. And at the same time, there are albums that aren’t necessarily heard, but they aren’t considered underground because they have sounds that could have mass appeal, so I wouldn’t call it underground just for that.
I do see talent reigning supreme in this art form, and taking it back in this craft. For a long time it was a lot easier to keep talent from the eyes and ears of people, and with the advent of the Internet comes a lot of decoys that the enemy is trying to throw in head-to-head with the talent, but events like SXSW and AC3 showcase the movement towards bringing talent back to the forefront. As it relates to the underground, that might bring more shine and attention to those artists that have already achieved great things simply by word of mouth.
You gave up law school to pursue rapping. Do you ever regret that or do you view it as your sacrifice in the name of hip-hop?
Yeah, you’re right in saying that, but in a way I kind of gave up everything, and it just so happened that I was in law school. I was also a high school teacher for a while, a bartender for while, had some jobs in advertising – I did a whole bunch of things. I was in law school, but I wasn’t actually going to become a lawyer. I liked school because they give you a place to live, they give you money, and you just chill. For me it was a time in between while I figured out what I really wanted to do. You know, I do like academia, and I think it’s a great thing, especially for people that might not know what they want to do. I mean, I got a Masters in Special Education, but once I figured out what I wanted to do I started doing that full blast.
So it really wasn’t really even a conscious decision, you just discovered what you were really passionate for and went for it?
Yeah, it’s crazy, because people often say ‘wow, you followed your passion,’ and I didn’t really know what that was, but it seems completely bizarre that anyone would know what their passion is and not follow it. How can you know what it is and not follow it?
If you had not pursued hip-hop, what do you think you would be doing right now?
That’s crazy man. I am not that good with the theoretical. So honestly, I don’t even know.
You were a self admitted vegan, do you find correlations between a clean lifestyle and your approach to a rap meta-game, meaning, does that lifestyle choice have a heavy influence on your message?
I was, but I am not anymore. Today I had a green smoothie, so I have been Vegan so far. I used to be a full raw Vegan, and I would rhyme about it, but that was just me talking about my life. So some people think that’s what I am because I rapped about it at some point, and they think I don’t curse because I didn’t curse before. The truth is I am always evolving with my music, so I still drink the green smoothies and have a lot to say about being healthy and what not. I don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or any of that.
So that clean message is a reflection of you in a broader sense?
Yeah, for sure, becoming a Vegan was about me trying to improve myself. I felt that I learned a lot from that. Now I am at the point in my journey where I can take away parts, like a lot of the Vegan stuff that is good for you, but I was also really thin back then and cats were pushing me around when I was trying to play ball. I didn’t feel strong, you know? So now I mix in the greens and stuff, but keep my energy up and stay active with whatever I want to intake. So yeah, whatever I am thinking about stuff like this is what I say on my records. Like on Chimera I talk about doing pull ups on all the scaffolding I see. Just simple things like that about self-improvement.
It’s interesting because not many rappers could pull off that subject matter, and in hip-hop the topics of choice are usually the exact opposite, with drugs and alcohol being content mainstays.
Yeah, but you know if you look back, rappers used to have records like that. So if you go back to when the talent that was heard by the masses was the best hip-hop being made, you hear records about food and health. You would hear records about everything. Now, people think hip-hop is about a certain thing. They think it’s about a certain subject matter rather than taking what’s around you and transmitting it with an ill style.
You just released your first record on Stones Throw, which is a label that claims some heavy names, how did that opportunity come about?
Well, I really got to give a big shout to Jonwayne, my label mate on Stones Throw, that has some production on Subject: Matter [“Unforgettable”]. You know, they were actually up on me. I have been a fan of the music and artists, and that they have supported creativity for a long, long time. But, I didn’t know any of them because they are on the West Coast, and even though I have been over there, I never got to interact with them. It was Jonwayne that put Peanut Butter Wolf on to one of my joints, and he was feeling it, but we weren’t even talking about signing then. We were speaking about me possibly working on a record that had a whole bunch of crazy production, and one thing about me is that I love to rap over whatever. So since I had this aptitude for rapping over non-traditional sounds, he said he could put me on.
So it just kind of happened organically as opposed to being a planned thing.
At the same time I was working on a full record with [rthentic RTNC], so I asked him if he wanted to hear that since they put out full albums. We ended up seeing eye to eye on a lot of my stuff, so it seemed like the best move was to put the album out. Shout out to Stones Throw, because I always pictured them as a crew of people who are comfortable just being themselves, and I found in real life that is exactly what it is.
Your busy these days, and beyond Subject: Matter and have the Chimera EP coming out next month that features “Cops Get Scared Of Me.” What inspired that track?
It’s really interesting actually, I was leaving my boy’s place in the Bronx and I had that beat in my headphones as I was getting on the train. Two cops were standing at the bottom of the stairs. A lot of times they think people get scared of them, and they even have this energy about them of being in control. And you know, I ain’t scared of no cops, I ain’t scared of nobody, so it is not like I am walking around staring them down or slapping them in the mouth, but no cop would ever punk me or anyone around me, ever. But I do love to do something that lets them know I don’t go for all that, so I might walk a bit closer to them then a person normally would. So, I took note of their reaction and got some kicks out of it, and thought “cops get scared of me,” so that is where that hook came from.
Do you think the cultural disconnect that comes from hip-hop has the potential to be a positive force, not just artistically like yourself, but in all facets of life? How can this be achieved?
Turn the radio off. I am a strong believer that the dope shit will always shine through. We got to start sharing the dope material instead of sending each other all the wack shit. People love to talk about what’s wack, but we have more than enough power to swing this back towards true artists getting the ball back in their court. I mean, one of the best selling records of all time is Thriller, which is dope, so there is proof right there.
What is the writing process like for you? Beats or lyrics first, and are concepts mapped out or do you just run with an idea?
More often than not it does begin with a beat. I actually just put out a joint called “The Miracle” that is all about my writing process, and starts with the line, “It all starts with the beat.” I look for beats all the time and I want one that gives me a vibe on its own, and then based off that I try to employ my musicianship so that the songs and my flows can be tailor made. I want my raps to be another instrument in addition to the beat. I used to say my flow was so crazy that even if there were no lyrics the track would be crazy, and even if I had no flows, the lyrics would still make the track crazy. So it is very important to me to have melody taking place within the beat. In terms of concepts, I will have a beat that I am sitting on for weeks and months that I will wait for the proper subject to attach it to. I’ll have them catalogued in my mind, and if I am feeling melancholy, or maybe even romantic one day, I’ll think about that instrumental and write to that.
Download the new Chimera EP from the Stones Throw Records website: http://www.stonesthrow.com/store/album/homeboysandman/chimera or download it off iTunes.