Homeboy Sandman brings the dream
The Queens MC on being himself, beating fear and becoming the Bill & Ted of hip-hop.
"It all starts with the beat, once it start it don’t cease…"
Independent, intelligent, and signed to Stones Throw records, Homeboy Sandman has emerged from Queens New York with a defiantly individual take on hip-hop. His DIY rise has won him a lot of fans, as has his openness – whether that’s on tracks like The Miracle, a song exploring the mysteries of songwriting, or on his EP sleeve, where he explains why instead of rapping about guns and the regular blah blah, he’s all about his socks, toothpaste and lotion.
For a taste of his style, watch the video below and try to imagine Jay Z having worms of light coming out of his eyes...
We caught up with Homeboy Sandman after he gave an ace little free gig at Soho's Sounds of the Universe store. Here's his take on:
Being an individual in a carbon-copy world
I’m just being myself. People say my music is unique, but if everyone was being true to themselves then nothing would be the same at all. The uniformity you see in, say, rap music is undeniable evidence of the fact that no one is actually ever being themselves. Thank God I can’t even imagine looking to make someone else’s sound. That must be like a nightmare.
Every true artist is looking to take things further – whether they’re a musician, a painter, a mathematician or a carpenter. Similarly the gifted MCs are always looking to do things that haven’t been done before. My favourite MC of all-time is Black Thought, of the legendary Roots crew. Then there’s Mos Def, Big Pun, GZA, Redman, Andre 3000… None of those guys are a direct copy of anyone.
I work to overcome fear every day. Fear is a major limiter, it holds people back in every facet of life. Looking at my development as a human being, I’d always loved hip-hop, but I was doing loads of other things instead of actually making hip-hop for a living, and that was simply because of fear: fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of not being accepted. I deal with the subject of substance abuse in my songs – my experience there was all because of fear too. And all that just leads to jealousy, mistrust and a lack of confidence.
People will go their whole life waking up every day and doing something they don’t want to do, simply because they’re scared. I’ve reached the point where I realize the need to use fear to my advantage. I still fear things, but I face it head-on. If I’m scared of tackling a certain subject in a song, or of freestyling in public, it’s a surefire sign that I have to do it. When I wrote Angels With Dirty Faces [about various attitudes to giving to homeless people] I was worried whether I could get the subject across without being corny. The beat was hot, so I wondered whether I should just do something less challenging. But I knew I had to do it. I’ve found that approach to be very rewarding – and it always works.
Once me and my inner eardrum agree, my adrenal gland and my organs begin to argue audibly. I barely bother to breathe…
I love freestyling. It’s key. I used to play sax, so I come from an improvisational background and I appreciate being in the moment with rhythm and tone. You’re always taking a risk, constantly stepping up despite the fear that you don’t know what’s going to come into your mind in the next 20 seconds. It’s so much safer to prepare your rhymes in private before you take them public, so you know they’re polished. There are real wordsmiths who say ‘I don’t freestyle’. They could if they practised.
I know some of the best freestylers in the world: the End of the Weak collective in NYC, dudes like Big Zoo, Rabbi Darkside, C-Rayz Walz. I can’t understand the way their brains are wired. These guys go to church. I’m competent, but they’re freestyling things you couldn’t even write, rhyming like super-computers.
It’s intimidating to be in ciphers with guys like that, and I was really under-confident at one point. You need to get over that. I wound up using mistakes as part of my style – I’ll fall off the beat and come back on time when it fits again. Instead of struggling or fumbling to catch up I’ll leave a space, you can see me thinking, and then I’ll come back when it’s on again. And the more you freestyle, the more you’ll find yourself catching the groove and flying. Being put on the spot like that allows you to produce gems that simply wouldn’t come up otherwise.
Flow in life
I believe in God, and I believe that we’re not here with our gifts and dreams for nothing. And we’re not here to be miserable. Since taking the decision to have faith in my talent and to rhyme, it’s become obvious that everything all just fits into place. I believe in that 100%. My DJ, Sosa, for example, is a dude I met when I had no resources. I had no DJ, engineer or webmaster. Suddenly there he was, and he could do all three. Same with the Stones Throw deal: [rapper/producer] Jonwayne told [label boss] Peanut Butter Wolf about my stuff and he put me on. Everything that’s happened to me is impossible. It couldn’t happen.
That said it’s not a surprise either. The Stones Throw deal wasn’t a surprise. It’s clear from their roster that they’re into real artistry, and nurturing real creativity. There’s no cookie-cutter artists there. They know what’s dope, so I’m not surprised that Wolf was feeling it. Let’s say it’s not unforeseen, but it’s definitely a blessing.
How do I start? I'm not sure. How do I finish? I'm not sure more. Honestly I'm stumped. All I know is somehow when I'm stuck I'm unstuck...
Where all this is leading
Have you seen Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Their band Wyld Stallyns was so amazing that their music made the world a better place. That’s my only goal. To make dope records all the time, to be honest all the time, to have integrity all the time, to not let fear control me all the time.
People often make the mistake of thinking I’m a strategist, because I’m always releasing songs and videos, but I actually have a complete absence of strategy. It’s just that I never miss an opportunity to make stuff, to create. I wind up doing lots because I’m always seizing opportunities.
I’m always just looking to the next chance to get my music out to more ears. Because I’m dope, all I need is for people to hear it. That’s it. And yeah, that’s a nice trump card to be able to play.
Homeboy Sandman’s new album, First of a Living Breed, was released in September on Stone's Throw. As usual he marked the release with a free track, called Out Now: