Homeboy Sandman is one of the most prolific figures in contemporary hip-hop. In nine years he’s released six albums. Then there’s his writing for Gawker and The Huffington Post. It’s not a shock that he has a lot to say about a wide variety of topics. In Sandman’s music alone he’ll go from examining the state of the hip-hop, to addressing the mainstream media’s effect on the prison-industrial complex, to giving relationship advice, all sometimes over the course of one song.
Sandman’s most recent album, Kindness for Weakness comes out on Stones Throw this Friday. He sat down with us in the studio and shared some knowledge about the creative process, performing live, and the meaning of love.
I’ve read that this record was more collaborative than in past records. How did this process compare to your normal process?
I’ve always been open to input, you know? But I guess I’ve just been a bit more autonomous. I micromanaged everything. Normally I pick all the songs and then [Peanut Butter] Wolf is like, “Maybe you should add these two.” This is the first time we started with Wolf picking from the batch of songs. And then we cut from his joints.
It’s gonna be something that I’m gonna continue to do moving forward because I think it definitely adds a dimension to [Kindness for Weakness]. I got the most features on it of any album I’ve done, I recorded with different producers more in this album than with other albums. It was good. I guess the more positive energy involved in it the better.
Would you say that through your career your process has been evolving in that direction, or have you changed the process up on every record?
I feel like musically I’ve been evolving, and also as an individual. There’s been evolution, progression in the records. But as far as the similarity, that micromanagement that I talked to you about, and me primarily being the one who tinkers with everything, I guess it’s taken me a long time to develop the trust with Wolf, with other producers. Paul White does two tracks [on Kindness]. He added an intro to “God” that wasn’t there, it was very beautiful. He added a whole bunch of new elements to “Sly Fox” that I very much prefer to the initial [version]. It just took me time to develop this trust with different people. I’m really blessed to be around super duper gifted individuals. There was just a lot of fear inside me, and I wanted to make sure that I protected everything. I think I just loosened up more as an artist and as a person.
Do you see any of those changes that you’ve gone through reflected in your live show?
This is something I never thought about. I’ve always felt real free live. My DJ, Sosa, and I, we get tighter and tighter the longer we go. Now he and I are pretty much like symbiotical, like a well-oiled machine. I actually did Onry Osborne’s release party in Seattle the other day and it was one of the rare times I didn’t have Sosa with me. I feel naked up there without him.
While I do change as a person, a lot, I feel like the stage is one place I can be me, regardless of who that is. I just feel the stage show continues to get tighter and tighter, more boisterous and rambunctious where it needs to be. I’m about to do a 41 city tour—30 of them shows I’ll feel hyped up and ready, but for 11 of those shows I might feel a little more low key or laid back. So one thing that has happened over time, even when I have different moods or when I’m more low key, I’m able to relate to the audience wherever I’m at at that time. I don’t ever feel like I need to change to go on stage.
The live show is 100% of what I’m doing. The recorded product, while def, is not 100% of what I’m doing. It’s not me, it’s just a sound that I’m making. I believe in energies, personal energies, I believe in my own energy. I’m able to transmit that live like I can no other way. I do songs that are more serious to me, and I become earnest and stern; and the crowd will read that in a way that they can’t read on record. The live show is the 100%, you know what I mean? This interview is whatever percent, the record is whatever percent, but I’m Homeboy Sandman. Kicking it with me live, being at a show in person, whatever it is, I feel like that’s the true transmission.
So with this album, it also feels like the energy has changed up a little bit. Would you attribute that to changes in your personal life? Or is it more a reflection of what you’re interested in as an artist?
If I look back at Hallways [from 2014], you got a song like “Grand Pupa” where I’m really beating myself up about about some of my personal habits with regards to relationships. Even a song like “America,” where its [from] a perspective of attempting to be grateful, I feel like there’s some pointing fingers at people who don’t feel as grateful as me. But as an individual I do feel like I’m in a better place, like I’m in a happier place. I’m more oriented towards accentuating the positive. And that’s something that started on Hallways, and before Hallways. I had a joint on First of a Living Breed called “Eclipse,” getting at rappers. I used to love to dis whatever rapper, and on Hallways I realized I would’ve never done that. Now I’m doing stuff on this record that I’ve realized that I never would’ve done on Hallways.
But yeah I feel better, I feel happier. I would find myself really frustrated at different times. I’ve been rhyming now nine years, and different times over the nine years, I would really feel frustrated about one aspect of society, one aspect of my career. And lot of it really came from feeling like something was supposed to be different. If I would only take the time and pay attention to how things are I would recognize that everything was fruitful and blessed. But, I got the idea that things are supposed to be a different way. So the more I move away from that as a person, it’s definitely affected my music. The more I move away from that, the better I feel.
On “Talking (Bleep)” you make a reference to social media, about another rapper telling you how you need to be on Instagram. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how things are changing or have changed now that being on Instagram and all that other stuff is such an expectation for someone making music.
I recognize [social media] is powerful, but at the same time, if you look at that last verse [in “Talking (Bleep)”], “I met a rapper that sucks who is way more famous than I am/ Can you believe sucka tried to kick some knowledge to the Boy Sand?” I was having a conversation, and it’s a common conversation, why do you see so many wack people that are successful? That doesn’t even translate to me. You can’t be wack and successful. Being ill is being successful. I like being ill. I think of myself as ill, and if i didn’t think of myself that way I wouldn’t think of myself as successful.
Instagram, Twitter, they’re all great for putting the word out. There’s no doubt. But to have a cat talking to me that is not looking to create art with the seriousness that I am, having him look to express some things to me, was bugged out to me.
I’m making art for people who love art. I’m making art that I want to last for a billion, trillion years. I want my ish to be regarded, studied, like, “This is complexity, you can learn from this.” I would love for everybody in the world to know my music, know my name, and know who I am. That would be def. And Twitter and Instagram help with that. But I’m an artist, and great art is my success. When I’ve been in the Stones Throw studio with Jonwayne, when we finish, and have something hot, that is the success. Getting it out there is another ball of wax. But the success is in here. The success is in the art.
You wrote an article for Gawker after the Donald Sterling stuff came out in 2014, and in it you address some of the glamorization of certain lifestyles in hip-hop. Do you feel like some of the more street subject matter can be addressed in a way that’s artistic?
I’ve always loved talent rap. I always bring up the origins. Y’know Kool G Rap was like, “I’ll shoot you.” And there was always “I’ll shoot you” rap. I’m not at all for censorship. The point is, hip-hop is about being nice with rhymes. Some people who sell drugs is nice with rhymes. Some people who install light fixtures is nice with rhymes. A journalist could be nice with rhymes. Being nice with rhymes doesn’t have nothing to do with any certain lifestyle. That is the thing I was taking issue with at that time. Like Mos Def said, “Hip-hop is shorthand for black people.” And when you have what is representative of black people being associated not with a skillset, but with a lifestyle, this is what I’ve taken an issue with for a long time. I’ve never been about censoring out whoever because of their lives. Jay Z, one of the nicest rappers ever, raps about drugs. There’s all type of cats that are gifted and rap about whatever they rap about. But it’s about being able to rap ill, it isn’t about what you’re rapping about.
When I was a teacher, I would talk to my students, and they knew rap. There was rap telling them to sell drugs, telling them to get locked up, telling them to kill each other. There was more than enough of it to talk about everyday. And much of it, I could ask my class, “Can you guys do stuff as good as this?” And they could. When the people regarded as the champions of a whole genre are doing stuff that anybody could do, that’s a red flag. This is just stuff to promote, not a talent. Nobody is like, “Oh yeah, I could write a Jay Z rhyme. I’ll make some Kanye music.” You can’t do that. These are blessed, gifted dudes. But a lot of other cats that were just out there to promote this image, the kids were like, “Oh yeah, I probably could do that. That’s what makes me think I could be a rapper, because I’m as good as the dudes who I think are famous.”
On “Talking (Bleep)” you also reference an exchange you had with a girl about the meaning of love. What does love mean to Homeboy Sandman?
I got a girl teaching me about what love is. And she loves me. She wants me to have a good time. She inspired that rhyme. I mean, that rhyme was based off another girl who inspired that, but at the time, I was able to juxtapose those two. Ever since I’ve met this girl, I haven’t understood these girls talking about, “I have real feelings for you, but if you see something and you wanna have fun, you’re gonna have to limit your fun intake.” You know that don’t seem to me like love.
Stevie Wonder is my all time G.O.A.T. He said, “True love asks for nothing.” That’s what I’m starting to regard as love. Wanting the support, wanting to enjoy the company I have, and making me feel like I can be myself and be honest. My favorite girl of all time, there’s nothing I could think [of] that I’ve gotta keep from her. She loves me, she wants to know what’s going on in my brain. I see an ass and I be like, “Yo, that ass is crazy!” I say to her, “Yo, is that ass crazy?” And she’d be like, “Yeah that’s crazy.” That’s what I’m thinking of as love right now.
It seems like that’s changed over time.
It has changed over time. On Hallways, some of that angst I was dealing with in “Problems,” and “Personal Ad,” and “Unraveling,” and “Grand Pupa” is kinda a microcosm for everything, because throughout my whole life I’ve been shown a paradigm: this is how men relate to women, this is the goal, whatever it is. The popularized stuff is monogamy towards marriage, whatever the case was. I don’t even know what I’m about. I’m playing it by ear. But trying to fit into predetermined boxes definitely has plagued me throughout my career. It’s plagued me and led to frustration—with the relationship thing being one of the number one places because different people see things different ways. Love hurts. Love is a sacrifice. I heard these things all the time growing up. My mother and father would tell me. My mother and father are still together. I was the best man at my parents wedding when I was six years old. They love each other, but they be ready to cut each other into pieces sometimes. They’d be like, “Yo, this ain’t easy.” I was taught that this is an obligation, a challenge. And I bought into it. I ain’t really buyin’ that as much right now, but what do I know? But I got enough things to do in a day, I don’t need to add another challenge. I’ve got enough challenges. And I’m sure it’s different for everybody, but for me I’m in a blessed place right now.
You’ve also referenced not quite fitting into a box as far as your style, musically or artistically. There’s a line on Hallways, where to mention not feeling street enough.
“Streets don’t want him around, he too deep/ Deep don’t want him around, he too deep.” That’s another thing that I’ve come to grips with. I’ve been in some situations where I’m regarded as too one way and not enough the other. This cat is not rough enough around the edges, [or] he’s too rough around the edges. It used to bring me a lot of insecurity around both ends. I really had overcompensation issues on both ends. But I think I’m doing better with that now. I’m just looking to go out there and be myself, and whoever I connect to is who I connect to.