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Homeboy Sandman began his professional music career a little more than six years ago. After more than a year as a high-school teacher in New York City and then pursuing law at Hofstra, the Queens native picked up the mic full-time and self-released his debut Actual Factual Pterodactyl in 2008. In the five years since, he released a commercial debut in 2010 with The Good Sun, signed to the off-kilter, indie Stones Throw label the next year, and has consistently released music in the form of one-off tracks and cohesive EP’s. His first release of 2013, Kool Herc: Fertile Crescent, strikes a chord. It wasn’t just an outlier in Hip Hop, it was an obvious pinnacle for the emcee himself. It was his first full release—albeit a short one—with a single producer behind the boards, and it kicks off what will hopefully be a long run at the format. In September Homeboy Sandman dropped All That I Hold Dear as a follow-up, transferring the production duties from one long-time collaborator in El RTNC to another in M Slago (that later EP also showed off his sister’s painting skills on the cover art tip). This week we linked up with Boy Sand to talk a little about his music, but more so about his life and education, using his music as a tool to connect with children in the classroom, his earliest Hip Hop memories, and the current state of New York City politics and culture. The day we spoke (in the second week of October) more news of recent developments in the battle to preserve the Long Island graffiti destination5 Pointzhad come to light and we ended up circling back on the topic a couple times. If nothing else, the battle for 5 Pointz is a case-study on the ideologies and politics of Homeboy Sandman. He’s not ready to let go, and as he told me more than once, “this is our thing.”
You’ve been adamant about visiting and speaking in schools, what is it you try to bring to the classroom?
It depends. The last school I went to was in Washington Heights, they were working on creative writing. I was there under the auspice of talking about live performance or creative work. There was a lot of poetry and some kids were doing music as well. I really like to get in there and I like to just talk to kids about rap and coming up. I got so much to talk about with regard to the media, and how come the media is pushing this or that. Kids in the city, rappers are their number one role models, just straight up and down. It’s silly, it’s sad—you know rap, the people that determine what Hip Hop culture is, are determining what inner-city culture is, what youth culture is across the world. Kids wanna be rappers. That’s who they want to act like. It’s like “wow, this guy’s a rapper. This is the pinnacle of human life,” you know what I’m saying? This is unfortunately what a lot of these kids is thinking, so I’m able to get in there, I’m able to have more breakthroughs with the kids in an hour now that I’m rapping than I was able to in a whole year as a teacher—and you know, that’s an exaggeration, but the point is, when I was a teacher I would go in a class and say “damn all these kids running around trying to be rappers.” That was really one of the reasons I said, “I guess I’ll be a rapper, ‘cause you know that’s the only way to get these kids to listen.”
You’re signed to a record label and the landscape may be a little different for that reason, but your livelihood really comes from you. It always strikes me that there would be a lot of anxiety when someone’s depending on their art as a living, and it just doesn’t seem like you have that holding you back. Can you talk about that a little?
Yeah, I could speak on that. I mean, whose livelihood doesn’t come from them? I’m trying to think about the best way to answer that question. I mean first and foremost I believe in God, people got a bunch of words for God—the Universe, God, different religious names—I use the word God. I believe that I have responsibilities as a human being. I believe that I have a degree of choice and a degree of options, a degree of control, but I believe that the vast majority of control is out of my hands. I believe my responsibility and obligation is to the do the best I can, to try and be the best person I can be [and] make the best art I can make, be as honest as I can be, be a stand-up guy, try to be the things that I believe I’m supposed to be and that my father taught me I was supposed to do. It’s been reinforced to me time and time again that if you do the best you can, you’re gonna be okay. You know what I mean? What’s the sense in worrying, you can’t do any better than the best you can. If you do the best you can then you’ve already done what you’re supposed to do.
At the base of all that too is the fact that I know rap. I know music. When I was in [boarding school] I felt very much by myself. And Hip Hop music became, for me, home. I’d be like “these kids aren’t like me, I’m all by myself, I’m just gonna be under these headphones, this is how I’m gonna tap in.” So I spent an exorbitant amount of time just soaking in—I know what makes a fat rap record, I was always up on the cats that was fat. I recognize that I have a one-of-a-kind gift when it comes to rhymes. I recognize that the world is changing and focus changes, but the truth is, people that love to be impressed, that love to be inspired by music, that love one-of-a-kind music, are not going anywhere. Music that’s popularized may not be with them in mind anymore, there are kids out right now as talented as Stevie Wonder that are not getting put on because it’s not about putting on the most talent anymore. If Aretha Franklin came out right now they’d say “you sound good but you don’t have the right look.” If Aretha Franklin is out now, she’s gonna do fine if she puts in the work ‘cause there’s people that really want to hear [her] sing. And just like me—I’m gonna be in every single ear in the world, I see the end of my journey I just don’t see the path. But I know where I’m going. Right now, I’ve always recognized that I’m going to be okay because I have a one-of-a-kind gift, a one-of-a-kind talent.
I came up [and] I couldn’t wait to tell my homeboys, “yo, you hear this new Redman?” I was the first cat putting cats onto Broken Language when Smooth Da Hustler came out. And I was the man for that, and I recognize that that’s still around. There’s still people that wanna be like “yo, you heard this cat Homeboy Sandman? Listen to this.” They get social capital and clout from their friends ‘cause they were the first one to know about Homeboy Sandman. And those people aren’t going anywhere, people who love music and who love art are still here. So I just have to put in the work of getting to them and I’ll always be okay. I’ll always be fed, I’ll always be happy, and I’ll always be in control. I can’t really fail ‘cause my talent is real. The only thing I could do is lay back and get lazy, but I’m not gonna let that happen. So as long as I don’t let that happen and I have a real gift, it doesn’t even seem realistic to me that anything could go wrong.
You talk about your father and credit him with a lot and I know he’s not from this country. I wonder what his relationship with Hip Hop is like? I’m sure he rides for you but is there a disconnect generationally or with language?
My pop is from the Dominican Republic, he got to this country when he was in the fifth grade. And though he didn’t speak a lick of English, he grew up in Jamaica Queens. He was very much a Hip Hop kid, I don’t know how old he is now but he was coming up in New York when Hip Hop was coming up in New York. When Hip Hop was coming out, it was everybody that was in the city, in the hood, in the street, it was Black kids, Puerto Rican kids. It was New York, it was all New York. It wasn’t like he came to this country in his 30’s, he came of age in New York City and is very much a New Yorker. My first exposure to Hip Hop, the first Hip Hop memory I have is my father walking all around the house saying 'don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge.' That’s what he would say when I would start bugging out.
How do you reconcile what’s going on currently with Hip Hop? You look at 5 Pointz, there’s a lot of cultural artifacts that are kind of waning. Documenting early Hip Hop culture is not something that has really caught on in the mainstream. You named your record Kool Herc, can you speak a little bit on the importance of early Hip Hop culture?
I think that that removal of the past, which you talked about kids not knowing Kool Herc, I think that it’s purposeful. Hip Hop started off as a beautiful, beautiful thing, and I used to be the dude [that said] “Hip Hop started out with love, it was about peace” and it was actually Crazy Legs who set me straight. Crazy Legs was like “yo, let me hip you to something Boy Sand,” [he] obviously came up in it. And he said, “listen, half the cats that was creating Hip Hop was stick up kids, Hip Hop was never about all love.” There was cats about love that was making Hip Hop, there was cats that was robbing that was making Hip Hop. What it was always about, was talent. That’s what Hip Hop was about. ‘Cause cats didn’t have this, didn’t have that, didn’t have much to be proud of. But he was an athletic kid and he could be a b-boy. If you had the gift of gab you could be an emcee. If you had a little artistic talent you could be a graph writer. The elements of Hip Hop come from, are birthed from just talent and nothing else. You look at the deejays, we’re musicians but we don’t have instruments! We gonna have to take somebody else music and make that our instrument.
Hip Hop is born on talent is what you need. In a lot of ways you come to 2013 and the image of Hip Hop that’s perpetuated by many people is the complete opposite of that. It’s a very empowering thing and it’s a very weakening thing. But you have a child coming up thinking that Hip Hop is their culture, and thinking that their culture is all about you being cool because of what you have instead of realizing that their culture is all about you being cool because of who you are. It is a complete manipulation of all the real foundation and principles of Hip Hop music. Hip Hop music is all over the world. The essence of cool, these kids in the Bronx in the ‘70s, they captured the essence of cool for really what it was. And that’s why it’s been undeniable to people all over the world. And that’s a very powerful thing. That’s what I try to utilize it as.
I talk about it all the time, there’s people that are seeking to use Hip Hop to manipulate people, to sell a lot of product. I’ve talked about people filling prisons with Hip Hop, I’ve talked about Hip Hop artists being popularized way more to sell the product placement included in their records than anybody concerned with their talent. I’ve talked about the evil forces looking to kill this culture. And I think it’s very important that they make sure that nobody knows who Kool Herc is, that nobody knows who Crazy Legs is, make sure that nobody knows that when I grew up I heard all different types of rappers, some were killers and murderers, some were players, some were just cool dudes just chillin’, other dudes worked at the Mickey Dees. I think it’s very important for them to make it look like Hip Hop is about a person acting a certain way and is only cool because of the things they have.
An initial idea for this conversation was to talk about some of the books you’ve read recently, you mentioned The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander before we talked, can you speak on that book?
I think everybody should read that book—you know, you bring up 5 Pointz and people really need to stand up for themselves. Stand up for yourself. Everybody determines what sacrifice they’re gonna make. People think of the ultimate sacrifice as the fact that you might die for something. I personally think dying is way less of a sacrifice than being a punk your entire life. Out here on the streets of New York people are getting hands put on them. Didn’t we all learn as children that that’s not supposed to happen? That we’re not supposed to let people put hands on you? Here on the streets of New York and all over America people are getting enslaved. That’s what this is. How are you going to be against enslavement and allow yourself to be enslaved? You can’t be—it’s a lot to think about, but people should read that book because it pretty much sets straight what’s going on. I think there’s a good chance that anybody that reads that book will be convinced that Jim Crow is still alive in America in a different form, and that slavery is still alive in America in a different form. And hopefully, after that, they’ll feel like if it’s worth dying to change that, it’s worth dying.
Alright, last question. You’re a lifelong New Yorker, how do you feel about New York today? Obviously you grew up in Queens, but how do you see New York today as opposed to the New York you grew up in 20 years ago?
That’s a good question, man. I love New York like crazy and you know, for me, I did have the benefit of being able to leave as a youth. You know so many people never get a chance to leave and are like “yo, New York is driving me crazy” and they think that the grass is greener. I’m lucky that I have the perspective that I get to leave and come back, I think that’s one of the reasons that I love New York so much because I got to miss it so much as a teenager.
There is a battle going on in New York right now. 5 Pointz would be ours, my whole take on 5 Pointz—you know I was at some of the meetings, some of the city meetings, and I got up and said “this is silly because 5 Pointz is ours. Why are we even acting like we even need to come to this meeting?” We need only accept the fact that this is ours, the same that you feel the wallet in your back pocket is yours. If I went to go take it out would you call a meeting? Would you tell me not to do it? This is our thing.
I’m very sad about the 5 Pointz thing, it’s come up a few times today. And I’m really thinking, I was like “yo, I’m gonna be the first one there when the bulldozers come.” And I’m really thinking about if my responsibility is to go there and be there by myself, I don’t know, I haven’t made my decision yet. In New York City there’s a war going on right now between two different sides, there’s the side that thinks that money is everything. The people that think money is everything, they don’t really know what’s important, if they did they wouldn’t think money was everything. But there’s those people that think money is everything and they’re becoming really abundant, they’re all over the place. And there’s the people that don’t think that money is everything. And [those] people really need to answer the call, really need to decide how important some of this stuff is to them. I can’t remember a time where people were so much like “you know what, as long as I’m still alive I’ll let them take everything.” I don’t remember it being like that in New York City. I’ve seen it get worse and worse.
Things tie together, I think about police brutality. When I was a kid people knew there was police brutality but I couldn’t have imagined when I was a kid that one day a man would get shot 41 times—41 times, think about that number—and people wouldn’t do anything but yell and scream. I never thought that that could happen, but alas, when I was a teenager, Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times and that number seems crazy to me. But people said “dag I guess that’s messed up there’s nothing we could do about that.” And at the time I could have thought to myself, “dag, 41 times, at least they didn’t shoot’em 50 times. Fifty times, if someone got shot 50 times then we definitely would’ve done something besides go outside and yell.”
Sean Bell sure enough was shot, I was living on 148th and Hillside, Sean Bell was shot five blocks down the street on the eve of his wedding. Fifty times, [they] shot a human being 50 times, and the day that the verdict came out, there was extra cops on horses all over Jamaica Queens. And 50 is a crazy number, and if I said to you right now that if they’ll shoot a human being 200 times people wouldn’t do nothing, you would say to yourself “no way, no way, they can’t shoot a human being 200 times and us not do nothing,” but that’s where we’re going because [last] time it was 50 and after that it’ll be 70. Ten years from now they’ll shoot somebody 200 times. By then maybe we’ll all just be hiding in our houses because we didn’t go out and save 5 Pointz. Who really knows? But, right now in New York City we’re not stepping up to the plate, we’re a soft crew, one of the softest crews in history. It’s a shameful thing to be down with this soft ass crew that’s going on in New York right now.
Interview by Jay Balfour
Originally from Western Massachusetts, Jay Balfour is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. In addition to Project Inkblot, Jay also writes for HipHopDX, OkayAfrica, and the print publication, Applause Africa. A graduate of Temple University’s Philosophy and African-American Studies departments, Jay focuses on Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz and Latin records and the stories behind their creation. Questions or comments about this interview? Hit Jay up via Twitter at @jbal4_