Homeboy Sandman Talks School, Stones Throw, and His New Album
Homeboy Sandman is an iconoclast and intellectual. He talks about the influences and observations that made him that way.
When other rappers zig Homeboy Sandman prefers to zag. So while his peers regale us with tales of lean, jewelry and big booty girls, Boy Sand would rather wax poetic about uncommon topics like his creative process, canned goods and even soap. He’s made waves in the underground with previous albums like Actual Factual Pterodactyl and The Good Sun but now he’s poised for tsunami status with his upcoming Stonesthrow Records debut First of the Living Breed. The Queens native sat down with us for a casual conversation about everything from attending boarding school to signing to the record label that Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib built.
MASS APPEAL: What’s the first record that you specifically remember relating to and making a connection with?
HOMEBOY SANDMAN: There was a Ruben Blades record that my dad used to play and all the joints on there were crazy. I think it was a black and white cover with Willie Colon holding his arm up and he’s [wearing] boxing gloves, I can’t remember what it’s called but it was a great Spanish record. That was ill. I actually took one of the records from that and chopped it for one of the joints for a mixtape I put out in 2007. There’s a bunch of ill beats off the record, if I was a producer I would go and chop that up.
That was a record I really rocked with and I also rocked with the Dave Brubeck Quartet . My father used to play their record Time Out. It was a seven-track album, a jazz record. I remember I loved every track on it except for track two and track seven, and then I fell in love with track two so seven was the only one I didn’t know by heart. When I learned to play sax I learn to play all the songs. That was a dope record.
Similar to Talib Kweli and John Forte, you went to boarding school. What was the experience like being an inner-city kid and being transplanted to a completely different environment?
Forte’s actually from contingent II in Prep for Prep 9, I’m from Contingent VII, so this a program that takes city kids and prepares them for boarding school getting them out of the city. As a kid I couldn’t stand it, I hated it, I wanted everybody dead, but it gave me a lot of perspective. Looking back on it I made some of the best friends of my life there, kids I still know and have become real good friends of mine. It really gave me perspective because you see people that look nothing like you [who] think nothing like you.
Coming from New York where people didn’t have money and were trying to be so into their gear. When I got over there, there was people with money — like rich people, wealthy, wealthy [people] — and they’re rocking some tore up Birkenstocks. That was one thing that was really strange to me, I was like “these people are mad wealthy and don’t care about their gear, where as we don’t have any money and we’ll spend our last dime in order to have some hot gear. It kind of showed me that there’s more then one way live or think or do things.
From a hip-hop perspective, I was at Holderness [prep school] when my friend Eric Bass put me onto the Roots, and it was there where I really got hear hip-hop records. You know in New York everybody knows about whats going on in New York, but up there there’s people from all over. Kids I was running with in New York weren’t messing with people like Hieroglyphics like my friends were at school. There was hip-hop that I wasn’t aware of, that without going over there [to Holderness School] I probably would have never become aware of. That broadened my horizons, I started learning there’s a million ways to rhyme, a million things to talk about, a million styles, and a million demeanors.
You went to boarding school then received a degree from University of Penn, where you naturally talented at school work?
I’m really blessed to come from a two- parent household, which is a super-duper amazing blessing which I recognize and am thankful for every single day. My father, from when I started going to school, was like “Yo, you gotta do your homework right after school before you go out.”‘ That makes such a big difference. You figure a way to make to finish the homework in 15 minutes and then you go to the park and you’re just 15 mins late. But just that 15 minutes you learn the lessons and it accelerates you. Unfortunately not everyone had that academic discipline that was forced on by their parents, obviously if it was up to me I’d have been like “I ain’t doing it.” Just from that initial push by my parents I began interacting with books and became good with them.
After being away for teaching for an extended period of time, what are your thoughts on that experience?
I really enjoyed certain things about teaching. I really enjoyed being with the kids and getting the chance to really break things down for them. I was teaching special ed, District 75 side 7, and there was very little expectation — they sort of just throw you in there and say “good luck.” So I was really able to do what I wanted. I remember once we shut down math class for two weeks and I just read excerpts of [Alex Haley’s] Roots with the kids. This was around the time I was young, I often times look back at my teaching and be like “Dag, I wish I could have been a little wiser.” At that point I was 23 or 24 and teaching kids [from ages ] 14 to 18. I was going into school, I’m ashamed to say it, but I was going into class high, hungover from whatever [happened] the night before, or just being vexed like “Whats up with my life?” That also allowed me to connect with them though, and even though I wasn’t always sure what I was doing they knew I loved them. They really respected me for that and I respected them. I loved having straight access to the kids that are getting brainwashed. That was real real ill, but at the same time it was a real challenging gig, particularly being a good teacher.This system is set up to maintain a racial stratification, make no mistake about it. If you wanted to make a system that maintains the case system that we have, you couldn’t come up with a better system than this. People think they’re trying to do good and its failing. From the inside looking out, it’s obvious that they’re trying to do bad and it’s working.
When did you start being more socially aware and conscious of the wrongs in the world?
I think going away to school, interacting with so many different people, and having so many experiences that a lot of people back home didn’t have, and seeing the differences between opportunities that I was getting and opportunities that others weren’t, really made me start thinking about things that are wrong and all the unfairness taking place. Even a program like Prep, which is great program and my life wouldn’t be the same without it, takes good minds out of communities where they’re needed. I’m not dissing Prep at all, but I think they should make a component of it that the reason there helping you is so you can go back and help everyone else. At the same time I was really on a personal level unfocused while I was teaching. I was really confused and trying to get things straight in terms of what I stood for and what I believed in. Interacting with the kids and seeing how susceptible they are to things, impacted me let alone my rhyming. Hanging out with kids makes you learn a lot about adults.
The track titled “Not Really” off your upcoming First of a Living Bread LP talks about the differences between your status now and a few years ago. How important is it to stay true to yourself?
It was definitely a plan that I’m always going to have integrity. Integrity is really important to me. I’ve met a lot of people who do music and I see where people fall into the trap, and they do that according to what their goal is. Some people do it because there goal is to get rich. If your goal is to get rich, people can give you money to do corny shit, and you’ll get rich. Some do it for fame. If you want to get famous you can make some corny shit and get famous. But if your goal is to do what’s right, you can’t do whats wrong and do whats right. I’ve recognized that in the cats I rock with, as a fan of music and the whole span of creativity. The reason I wrote “Not Really” was because there was a certain point where people almost expected me to start getting corny. I sensed it. I made that record to just be like I have my goals, but I’m never going to get corny with it, I’ll always be the same old cat — just representing on a global scale rather than a local one.
As for the production on the album, you have beats from 2 Hungry Bros, J57, and Oddissee. Was it a must to get these producers you’ve worked with in the past some shine?
Actually Oddissee, we’ve been on tracks together and I was on his Odd Winter project but this was the first time we’ve worked together on a joint for me. Stones Throw has some amazing talent like Oh No has the title track and Jon Wayne did two tracks, but for me the cats I came up with are some of the dopest producers in the world. For instance J57, I’ve seen people start taking note of him and people are recognizing. Its important to me to be like “I already got some homeboys for beats.” Ive been running with people like 2 Hungry Bros. They’ve done “The Carpenter” and “The Essence,” they did things that got me where I’m at. There’s also people on the album that cats aren’t familiar with, that I feel are world class talents.
Were you a long time fan of Stones Throw before being signed?
First my boy E put me up on Slum Village, before everyone was up on them. Then once J Dilla passed, everybody found out he basically produced every hot joint ever. That was some of my first exposure to Stones Throw. Then I remember P So and Fresh Daily put me on to DOOM. Then that’s what led me to learning about Madlib, M.E.D, and others like Dam Funk. Stones Throw was actually one of two labels that I thought, “When they get hip to me, well start to build.” When I started getting cool with Peanut Butter Wolf I was crazy excited. It was hard to play cool. Stones Throws been around for 15 years, but I haven’t known about them for 15 years, I knew about Lootpack from Bobbito’s store, but in the past 4 or 5 years I’ve been a huge Stones Throw fan and being aligned with them feels good.
How have they helped you in terms of your overall artistic package? Covers, packaging, videos, etc.
In terms of the artwork, I think Jeff Jank is fantastic. I really love the artwork for First of A Living Breed. I’m not the most visual person in the world. I was lucky to work with such a great photographer on The Good Sun cover, but my other covers I don’t think are wowing. I don’t even have a logo. Working with Jeff and having him break me down, so he can know what I’m all about, in order to come up with an image that correlate with me is really dope. You can tell he’s staying up nights to figure out what my covers going to look like. I love Stones Throw because they’re very much about creativity integrity so they don’t push my hand. At the same time I have a lot of respect for Wolf’s taste and understanding and he comes up with great ideas. I love that fact he’ll be like “this is dope, this is dope, this you may want to revisit”. It’s really cool that I have the level of respect for them that I can take constructive criticism from them.
Ultimately what you like to see happen with this project? What are your goals for First of a Living Breed?
I anticipate that cats are going to hear the album and be like “this is dope.” I think its gonna help bring up some people like Oddisee, Sene, Soul Kahn, and so many others form NY right now. I’m part of a brigade that’s so nice [but] that people aren’t seeing. The first joint on the project is called “Rain.” It’s some symbolism and I wrote it when it was raining like crazy while I was in London. The hook goes “The rain isn’t stuck on the way that it drops, the waves going to welcome the rain.” I’m part of this flood that’s taking place, and I known my album is going to be a major dart towards that cause, it’ll be a shock around the world. It’s going to part the seas, my goal is like Bill and Ted’s Wyld Stallyns [they wrote the greatest ever written and] the whole world became cool.