In a strange industrial park near Milan, I met George Watsky before his gig at the Live Forum in Assago. He came out to hand out some free CDs and meet the small group of kids who had gathered a few hours before doors to say hi. As we walked back to the green room, we passed the band and tour staff, all chilling out with their laptops. Although friendly, it George struck me as much more reserved than I was expecting, but his passion and sincerity about the music he makes was clear. This is an artist who has carved a career out for himself by sheer force of will, carving his own notch in the world with rap and poetry that at times is so inspirational that it verges on motivational speaking.
GiantMan: You’re touring with a full band, which isn’t something a lot of rappers do. Why did you decide to do that?
George Watsky: I think that it’s a fuller show – it’s great to play rap songs with a DJ, and people get their meat and potatoes, they know what the songs are, but I’m more of a fan of a live show that’s unexpected, surprises people, has different peaks and valleys, and frankly I don’t want to be the centre of attention 100% of the time, and it gives me a chance to rest and shine the spotlight on other good musicians. Then, from just a travelling perspective, it’s so much more fun to do it with your buddies than just completely alone.
GM: How would you describe the kind of music you make, if you had to pin a genre on it?
Watsky: I mean, it’s Hip-Hop. I would say it’s… Alternative Hip-Hop, I mean some of it’s not even rap, some of it’s spoken word poetry set to music. So, there’s differences between the tracks, like ‘Tiny Glowing Screens Pt. 2’, I wouldn’t even call it a song, it’s a poem with a musical backing. Yeah, it’s Alternative Hip-Hop, but there’s a lot of elements of other types of music too.
GM: So did you start out as a spoken word artist?
Watsky: I started doing both of them simultaneously, but I didn’t get any notoriety for my Hip-Hop until like, two years ago. So I’ve been doing it constantly, I just was more of an aspiring rapper all the while I was doing my poetry. I was gigging at colleges and universities, and I had a big opportunity for exposure when I was 18 getting onto this old HBO show called Def Poetry Jam, and that opened up a lot of doors in the spoken word world.
GM: Would you class rap and poetry as different things then?
Watsky: I view it as like, say you’re a playwright who also writes screenplays, or you’re a playwright who also writes poems. They’re part of your body of work. It’s like Sylvia Plath wrote ‘The Bell Jar’ and a whole bunch of poems, but it’s still “her work”, and Shakespeare wrote a bunch of sonnets and a bunch of plays. It’s still all analysed as Shakespeare, and it’s all poetry. And rap is all poetry, and spoken word is all poetry, but they’re different forms. It’s a sonnet is different than a haiku is different than a limerick. You know, there’s different conventions to a spoken word poem and to a rap song, but I still try to maintain my voice as a writer throughout both of those things, and I want people to view them as the same body of work, even if the form is different.
GM: So you think all rap should be considered poetry, as art?
Watsky: Absolutely, I think that rap is poetry. On a really basic level, it’s stylised text. Even if you think it’s bad poetry, it’s still poetry, and then rap that’s really good is good poetry. A greeting card is poetry. If you’re talking about the stereotypical definition of what people think a poem is – it’s metered and rhymes at the end – rap is actually closer to that than even my spoken word poetry, which is free verse, has less form, and might not rhyme sometimes. But yeah, absolutely, good songwriting, even beyond rap is poetry.
GM: You’re touring with ‘Cardboard Castles’, which is your new record. Why call it that?
Watsky: ‘Cardboard Castles’ is the title track of the album, and it’s literally about the fact that I used to take items from around my house growing up and make castles and crafts projects out of them. The whole album to me… I was trying to capture the zeitgeist of what it means to be a young creator nowadays in this changing technological world, where so many young people have access to get their work out there, quicker, with less restrictions and with less… blocked walls than ever before, but are doing so without the same corporate backing that might have come along with being a major label signed artist 10, 20, 30 years ago. So we have more access than ever before, but at the same time we might have less resources to create those things, and I see a direct correlation between that impulse to create things out of what was around my house when I was little, with what it means to be a 21st century content creator.
GM: And this record has been produced through Steel Wool Media, a company that you founded yourself – how do you think that’s affected the production of the album?
Watsky: Originally we were shopping it out to big producers and labels, and trying to get a bunch of backing, and I’m so glad we didn’t, because when you do it with people who you trust and whose voices compliment yours, you get to have complete creative control, you have nobody else’s fingers in it, nobody who’s got a financial incentive in what you make, so you get to do the record you want to make. I’m really really glad, because it taught me a valuable lesson, which is, if you have creative control, then you’re going to be more excited about the product you put out, and I feel like we got have a record that we’re all very proud of, and that we feel like we didn’t compromise what we wanted to do.
GM: The third single, that’s just come out, ‘Hey Asshole’, that was a collaboration with Kate Nash – I haven’t heard anything from her for a while, how did that come about?
Watsky: I’ve loved her voice, and I feel there’s a lot similarities in terms of what we write about, and how she represented a quirkier, different version of what a pop star could be when she first emerged… Then I had a space on that song that I didn’t think my voice sounded good on, so we just… we actually tried reaching out through her management, the proper channels first, and it didn’t work. So I was like, ‘I’ll just annoy the shit out of her on twitter’, and that’s what happened. I just told all my followers to, at the very least, annoy her to the point where she would actually check out my material, and she did that, really liked it… and yeah. Collaboration was born.
GM: You’ve released a few singles off the new record, but you’ve also put up a lot of the new songs on Youtube with some well-done videos, and obviously you got your first big kick of fame from that viral video ‘pale kid raps fast’, even on ‘Tiny Glowing Screens Pt. 1’, you say that he internet is “the hand that feeds you”. Do you think the internet has been the main contributor to your success?
Watsky: I like to think that no matter what the platform was, that I would have found a way, but I don’t know if that’s true. I feel that an artist like me, who’s left of centre, who’s quirkier than mainstream artists, has a huge opportunity through the internet that they never did before, to reach an audience who is very passionate about what they specifically do, but may not have broader appeal. So I have this ability to find a very specific fanbase who relates to what I do, and I don’t know if I would have been able to do that without the internet. It’s an incredible tool that completely democratises who can get their work out there. In ‘Tiny Glowing Screen Pt. 1’, it wasn’t meant to be an attack on the internet, it was meant to be an exploration of what’s great and what’s terrible about it, because with the good comes the bad. It’s an amazing tool that has changed my life and I’m very passionate about defending it, but also realising that it comes with some serious baggage.
GM: With the Reddit comes the 4chan.
Watsky: Absolutely. And not even all of Reddit is great, and some of 4chan is interesting-
GM: ‘Interesting’ is one way to describe it…
Watsky: Yeah, there’s a huge cesspool of negativity on the internet, but there’s also entirely new philosophies on the way that data is shared, and the way that people should have access to information that’s very revolutionary, very communist, and very inspiring in a lot of ways.
GM: And you’ve featured on some other Youtube channels. Do you consider yourself part of the Youtube community?
Watsky: Yeah, I do. I have been very embraced by a lot of the guys – I mean the Vlog Brothers have been super supportive, probably helped give my album a huge kick when it first came out; Nice Peter’s been really helpful, you know; I go to VidCon. I think there’s differences in terms of what considered ‘proper practice’ on being a Youtuber, where you exist first and foremost in the Youtube space, and I think I’m a little bit different than that model of artist, but I consider myself a part of the community even if I’m not a “Youtuber” by trade. I consider myself a live performer first and foremost, an artist and a writer who uses the platform of Youtube as a means of getting his work out there, but I also think that sometimes it can harm your work. For instance, the average Youtuber is a 13-year-old male, and if your goal is to grow your channel to the biggest possible state, what inevitably happens is that you end up catering to the 13-year-old male, because that’s what’s going to get you the biggest hits right off the bat, and that can sometimes degrade the quality of the work. There are manymanymany examples of Youtubers who don’t do that and put out great quality content, but I think sometimes if you look across what some of the content is, it can appear patronising. That’s not what I want to do.
Watsky: What I love about ERB is that it takes the battle rap forum, which is like, so silly and pompous – and I love battle rap, but it’s so self-important to think that you’re so great that anyone who would dare to challenge you must be out of their mind – but it makes it a funny take on that. If I were to able to have a freestyle cipher with anyone in in all of history, it would probably have been Shakespeare, which is why it was so great to be able to do that. Bob Dylan would be up there, in terms of non-rappers. In terms of rappers, I would love to collaborate with Andre 3000 from Outkast, who’s one of my favourites of all time… if I could battle anyone, it would probably be Eminem, because he is a rap battle champion, but I would obviously get my ass handed to me, because he’s a much better pure freestyler than I am.
GM: So speaking about Eminem, you must get this a lot, but what’s it been like in the rap community being a young white guy?
Watsky: The thing is, every time another white rapper gets a buzz, everyone compares you to that currently successful white rapper. So when I first started it was Eminem, and then it would become like, Slug from Atmosphere, and then it would become Hoodie Allen, and now it would be Macklemore, and before there was Mac Miller… There are so many examples of successful white rappers now that it’s not surprising to anybody anymore when a white rapper is successful. And the archetype of what a white rapper is is changing too: the idea that you need to earn some sort of street cred to be able to be taken seriously is going out the window now, because people are rapping about many many different types of lifestyles, and finding success in honesty in terms of what that means to them. So, I’m not worried about it, there’s going to be comparisons no matter what, regardless of what level you get to, and at a certain point people will start comparing other people to you, and that’s not a bad thing.
GM: If you had to choose one or the other, would you rather have no arms or no legs?
Watsky: Oh wow… that’s difficult. I think that I would probably rather have no legs. In terms of doing spoken word poetry, my arms and my hands are a huge part of how I express myself… and obviously I wouldn’t able to physically write anything any more if I didn’t have arms… they would both be terrible, but I’m going to say I’d rather have no legs.
GM: Thanks for chatting to me, have a great show!
And what a great show was had. The support from Dumbfoundead was fantastically energetic, and Watsky simply ruled the stage, featuring an amazingly talented band; check out the video for ‘Energy‘ to get some names. While entering it’s last leg, there are still a few shows left where you can catch a performance, which is something I highly recommend. ‘Cardboard Castles’ is also on general release and available here.