Law school is an unlikely place for a hip-hop epiphany, but when your self-image has been built on resisting the conventional, it makes a strange sort of sense. Homeboy Sandman, a 34-year-old rapper from Queens, New York, is an Ivy League-educated vegan who has written for Gawker and the Huffington Post, and an artist who disparages the term “conscious hip-hop”, despite writing verses that brim with social critique. He’s admired for sharp insights delivered via an unhurried, almost drowsy flow. He has a panoptical way of looking at the world, allowing him to write a song like Illuminati, a grim skewering of the American dream (“the bald eagle’s mad evil”), and then two years later the non-ironically titled America the Beautiful.
It’s an approach that has won little chart success but has earned Sandman a special standing in the world of independent hip-hop. On the afternoon we meet, he’s just back from a three month US tour, taking a little time before a short UK tour next month. In his attractively shabby East Village sublet we split a bottle of kombucha as he recounts his “lightbulb moment” of 2006.
The then 25-year-old was on a scholarship to Long Island’s Hofstra University, studying law with no intention of becoming a lawyer (“I just went over there to chill for a while. I never thought I was going to do anything in particular”), and living in a basement apartment with ceilings so low “I had to duck while I took a leak”.
He’d been a heavy weed smoker for years but had quit four months earlier. He’d thought of rapping as just another pleasant side-effect of being high. It couldn’t, he thought, be a real skill if it only happened when he was smoking. Then a friend sent him a beat so good he had to craft a rhyme to go with it. His ability to write while sober was such a revelation that he remembers every detail, down to “the black and white chequered fabric of the chair I was sitting on”.
“The first verse was really technically ill, like mad wordplay. It was called Cheese Children, about how people be lusting over money – ‘cheese’ like slang for money. And I thought, this is really fly, but can I be a little more insightful and not so technical in the second verse?”
He could. And so then he put himself to the test: “Let me see if I can do this for a week… and for a whole week I wrote songs.”
These formed the basis for his debut EP, Nourishment, and then his first album,Nourishment (Second Helpings). Since then, Homeboy Sandman’s been dizzyingly prodigious: five LPs and seven EPs to date. “You want to know what it actually is?” he says when I bring up this rapid output. “It serves a similar purpose to the bad habits I used to have. I would smoke weed and I wouldn’t be nervous.” Now he writes every day instead, which he describes as another form of addiction. “I move around the earth feeling very cool and very competent and secure, because I’m writing. If I write an ill rhyme, I’m cool, I really don’t need anything else.”
Homeboy Sandman was born Angel Del Villar II in 1980 to a Puerto Rican mother and a Dominican father who was a professional boxer before becoming a security guard. For the first six years of his life he lived with his dad, who worked the door at L’Amour East, a famous rock club in Queens, which through the 80s hosted bands like Motorhead, Metallica and Slayer. One of his earliest memories is of drinking fizzy drinks, aged three, straight out of their guns behind the bar. Sandman grew up in the multicultural Elmhurst neighbourhood of Queens, playing his uncle’s saxophone and listening to his father’s jazz and merengue albums.
His life changed when, at 13, he won a scholarship to Holderness in New Hampshire, a small rural high school that was “pretty upscale – most people that went there had to pay a lot of money”. From there he went to the prestigious University of Pennsylvania where he majored in English. “My background,” he notes, “is a mash-up of a lot of different things, some that people think of as privilege, and some as underprivileged. I personally think of all of them as privileged.”
His most recent album, Hallways, was included on Rolling Stone’s list of best rap albums of 2014. It’s certainly the year’s only hip-hop record that starts off sounding like a Steve Reich piece. One track turns on the lines: “Street don’t want him around, he too deep/ The deep don’t want him around, he too street.” The lyric doesn’t just mark his own place within hip-hop but reveals a knot of assumptions about race, class and privilege. “For a long time,” he explains, “I tried to cater to both of those things. There were definitely overcompensation issues. I like my mind, and I try to use it. But when I try to say things that I find to be of merit, people are like, ‘He’s [just] some hip-hop kid – a brown kid from New York that grew up without money’. Because of that, people will write off a lot of the things I say.”
Conversely, “People say, ‘Oh, you’re too far removed from these struggles people are having.’ And it’s true, in large part I have a different life from everybody I know.”
A strange thing happens to hip-hop artists, particularly wordy ones, when they reach a level of renown: there’s an assumption that they should speak for an entire community. It’s not something that’s foisted on white rock stars. He chuckles. “It used to piss me off. It’s because many people look at things in these compartmentalised ways, you know? There’s a lot of racism that makes people think rappers are speaking for the black community. How’s anybody going to have music that represents everybody? The truth is the human experience is as varied as the amount of human beings on the planet. Everybody’s thinking their own way.” A beat: “Or at least I wish they were.”
Which leads us to “conscious hip-hop”. Despite observations like this – “Everybody wants to be a skinny white girl/ Though black girls are allowed if they getting loud or if they getting plowed/ Keep ’em from being proud it’s easy to keep ’em down” – Sandman calls the “conscious” term “silly on a hundred thousand levels. First of all, ‘conscious’ means aware, awake, so basically that term means that the default hip-hop is “unaware”, “asleep”, “unconscious” – the default is “mentally lost”, you know?”
And yet in a November 2012 piece for the Huffington Post, entitled “Words are Weapons: Hip Hop’s Self-Depreciating Lexicon”, he criticised the prevalence of the term “thug” and “the entire generation of hip-hop listeners who aspire to become someone they fully understand to be unworthy of respect”.
“I’m into good hip-hop,” he says flatly. “I don’t see hip-hop the way everybody else sees it: If you rhyme ill, that’s hip-hop, to me. When hip-hop started it was just about who could rhyme good.”
I put it to him that, at the risk of romanticising urban poverty, there are few more compelling examples of the creative utopias of economic wastelands than the Bronx of the early 1980s, aka the golden age of hip-hop. “It was desolation, it was people who had nothing,” he says. “You couldn’t feel cool about your family – family was broken, family was nightmarish. Couldn’t feel cool about your school – school was terrible. Couldn’t feel cool about your job – nobody had a job. You couldn’t feel cool or happy about anything. If you were a great athlete, you couldn’t become a basketball player: no basketball team at your school, but you could become a b-boy.
“If you were a great artist, there was no art school, but you could become a graffiti writer. These people crafted an artform and a culture. This utopia you’re talking about – that’s the foundation on which all this other BS [bullshit] lies.” That’s why, he says, hip-hop has the global reach that it does: “I’ve been to places in the world where I can’t believe they know hip-hop. I can’t believe I go to a basement in freakin’ Croatia, and everybody got their cap backwards, sweatin’ me because I come from New York.”
Last year Sandman wrote a piece for Gawker under the provocative headline “Black people are cowards” – a response to the scandal surrounding Donald Sterling, the then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball franchise who was recorded making racist remarks. It included the lines, “In all the history I’ve ever studied, in all the fiction I’ve ever read, I am hard pressed to find an example of cowardice to rival the modern-day black American.” Those who kept reading would also, however, find these lines: “I don’t really think black people are cowards. I think humans are cowards… the majority of us are content to live on our knees rather than die on our feet.”
Unsurprisingly, the internet went apoplectic. In the real world, however, his words made less noise. “It made me feel so strange because nothing happened – it was just a bunch of people talking [online]. I was trying to write something that would start a revolution, you know? People say, ‘America’s a great place, you can say what you want’, and I’m like, ‘being able to say shit doesn’t do anything’. I don’t want to be writing something just to be a conversation piece. It also has to be something that helps change something.”
This, he says, is why he’s declined to write on recent deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers. “I don’t feel anything would have happened, except, ‘Oh look, Homeboy Sandman gives a shit.’” He quotes the anti-police brutality hashtag and slogan, Black Lives Matter. “What about all the black motherfuckers locked up? Does black life only matter when it’s actually taken away? … ‘Yo, you can do whatever you want to us, as long as you don’t actually kill us.’ There are people locked up for six years for nothing. I’m so tired of these things – the thing that set the country on fire in ’91, that happens every single week.”
He’s referring to Rodney King, the black taxi driver beaten by police officers after a car chase. When video emerged of the incident it sparked unrest, and when four police officers involved in the beating were aquitted of using excessive violence the following year race riots broke out. Sandman says: “There’s a Rodney King-level video every week on the internet.” (Days after we meet, the world would witness footage of 50-year-old Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American, being shot in the back by a white police officer.)
So why, I ask, write at all? Because rap, he says, is different, a whole other “wavelength” to journalism.“ He quotes Mos Def’s lines from Black Star’s Thieves in the Night: “I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy/ I’m trying to live life in the sight of God’s memory.”
“I thank God,” he says, “that I feel comfortable standing up for myself regardless of the consequences. I feel like maybe that’s just my responsibility – be myself, show who I am in an honest fashion. If I convey that through art, it’s more likely to touch somebody in a way that’s going to influence them.”