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Scroobius Pip hit the forefront of my attention as one half of the hip-hop duo Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip upon the release of their 2007 debut single ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’. Since then I have been following his career attentively and getting to as many of his live gigs as possible. In Dolan’s Warehouse, Limerick, several years ago the support for the night was an American rapper named B Dolan. I was unaware of him at the time but from that night onwards I had yet another artist I needed to keep an eye on.
While the chart rappers were spouting lyrically about their platinum Rolexes, stacks of money and bitches and hoes, B Dolan (along with the other great artists on Strange Famous Records) was rapping about real life. The economy, world politics, life and death. He has described himself as a working class, heterosexual white man, as a feminist, anti-racist and LGBT ally. In the world of hip-hop, that is a rare combination. In the times we live in, it shouldn’t be. B Dolan is an artist you should all get familiar with.
B Dolan, Thanks for taking the time during a busy schedule for the first Speech Development tour. For those folks out there who might not know who B Dolan is, you have described yourself as a rapper, performance artist and activist; how did you get into performing? Was there any outlet for this is your hometown of Providence, RI?
The place I grew up was actually outside Providence, in a little mill town called Smithfield. There were no outlets for anything there, to be honest. For most of my childhood I was behind a closed door reading books from the local library and listening to music.
I remember sometime in middle school, my uncle gave me a box of books that had been required reading for him in high school, and I found a copy of Hamlet in the box. Reading it, I suddenly found myself saying the words out loud, and acting it out for myself in my bedroom, kind of. I wouldn’t do it full volume or anything, but I’d be sat at my desk or laid out on the floor sort of speaking the words to myself and ‘performing’ in my head. Something about them demanded to be spoken and heard, and I remember doing that for hours.
Later when I started performing it came really natural, and I think back on that stuff as me training myself to perform without knowing it. But no… no outlets, which worked to my advantage, I think.
You name the great, fellow “Providence-ite”, Sage Francis as the man who has enabled your career more than anybody other than yourself. His independent label Strange Famous Records has been your home since 2008. How did you two come to meet?
Francis didn’t grow up in Providence either, interestingly. He grew up in North Smithfield, about 10 minutes away from me. We never met each other though. He was a few years older, and what’s funny is we both did the same thing without knowing it.
We found hip-hop wherever we could, through scrounged and traded cassette tapes or Boston radio shows at the bottom of the dial, then moved to New York City because it was 3 hours away and where all our favourite rappers came from. As he was moving back from NYC, I was moving out there.
I started performing in New York and had some success there, and when I was moving back to Providence in 2002 a poet named Bob Holman told me to go find Sage Francis because he was ‘the only real poet in Providence’. The rest is history, I guess. Hims me brother.
Your last LP; Fallen House, Sunken City, released in 2010, opens with ‘Leaving New York’. As someone not living in America, I witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks through the media’s eyes and songs like ‘Leaving New York’ gave me fresh views and insights into the fear and paranoia surrounding the aftermath. You were living in New York at the time of the attacks, do you think your perspectives and music changed from this point on, as it was so early in your career?
Definitely. It’d be hard to overstate how much I changed after that day. Musically, spiritually, and in my approach to life, art and activism. It radically shifted my perspective in a lot of ways. The most immediate change was that I pretty much abandoned a very serious quest I’d been on to find some kind of religious faith. Suddenly it didn’t matter to me at all. I became much more grounded in the material world, and had this burning need to get involved, to do more than just write about political ideas… that was sort of the start of my involvement in social justice work.
In 2004 you founded Knowmore.org. Can you tell us a little something about the project and why you decided to set it up?
I had been working on the campaign to elect John Kerry, and stop George W. Bush from winning a second term in office. At the end of that effort, I was left feeling completely disillusioned in the electoral process in the U.S. I hadn’t even liked John Kerry, it was just an Anybody But Bush thing… realising that powerlessness that comes from the two party system and only voting once every 2-4 years had got me thinking about other ways we vote… which led me to the idea of voting with your dollar.
I had just read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, and was realising how much information was out there about these companies that we support and “vote for” with our purchases all the time. I was wishing a site like Knowmore existed, and because it didn’t Sage & I ended up facilitating the creation of it with a few volunteers.
Your activism is something I admire and this rings throughout your work also. ‘Film the Police’, a reworking of NWA’s ‘Fuck the Police’, was written on the back of the shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. Your video has since gone viral and although being shared by the likes of Michael Moore and Billy Bragg, you have also had a bona fide death threat. How do you react to something like that and does it keep you going, knowing you’re obviously pushing the right buttons?
I wouldn’t say it keeps me going. If anything, it does give me pause. The death threat involved someone saying they were going to burn my house down, and demonstrating that they’d obtained my home address. There’s some people and animals that I love at that address, and I tend to take things like that pretty seriously. Death threats won’t ever stop me, but they may have caused me to invest in some ammunition. Standing up to bullies does sometimes have consequences.
I hate to pick a favourite track of yours, but ‘Which Side Are You On’ is my go-to if I’m introducing your music to people. It centres on injustice and intolerance, in particular the case of CeeCee McDonald, an African American trans* woman, who was brutally assaulted and in self-defence fatally stabbed one of her attackers. After serving 19 months, she was released earlier this year. This song really demonstrates the fact that transphobia, intolerance and other issues such as homophobia are still rife in hip-hop and in the world around us. You simply ask which side are we on, that of injustice or that of acceptance. How important is this song to you personally and how has the reaction been from your peers and the public?
It’s certainly an important one to me. I knew I wanted to use that sample for years before making the song, because I love the melody and that recording is particularly haunting. I held back for a long time though because I also understood the weight and history of that song, and that it was not to be trifled with or appropriated lightly.
I knew I was ready to make it when I wanted to speak plainly and directly about where I stood on a bunch of issues; from misogny in rap to homophobia, and a number of things in between. The reaction has been beautiful and humbling; I remember when I first performed that song in Northern Ireland the volume it was immediately sung back to me with shocked me. And then I talked to people after the show and realised ‘oh yeah, of course… ‘ it had been used there too… and there’s been an ongoing discovery of all that, around the world. That song has a lot to teach all of us, even taken apart from my rendition of it.
Both ‘Film the Police’ and ‘Which Side Are You On’ are from House of Bees Vol.2 the second instalment of your soon to become Mixtape trilogy. The Mixtapes are of an LP standard and I applaud you for that. You and Buddy Peace have the next instalment coming out soon. Can you tell us a little about your process of choosing which songs to put on the Mixtape rather than your LP and what we can expect from the forthcoming release?
To be honest, it’s often a practical consideration. If a song is a flip of an existing song, such as ‘The Devil is Alive’, or contains a very prevalent sample we haven’t cleared, such as ‘Natural Born Trouble’, it gets put on the mixtape and released for free. We put songs on the mixtape that we would like not to be sued for, and clearable material goes on the official album. That’s why the mixtapes are of LP quality; they’re just as valid as songs, just not as viable as a product, so to speak.
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Although your home is with Strange Famous, your UK releases are being dealt with by Scroobius Pip’s independent Speech Development Records. Was this a natural transition having a long history with Pip?
Given Pip’s commitment to our material, and also our personal relationship with him, it was definitely a natural transition. He has the resources and is located over here [the[the UK]d we knew that he’d advocate for us more ferociously than any other distributor or label we could work with. It makes sense on just about every business and artistic level, so yeah. It’s the best fit I could imagine, really.
On this inaugural Speech Development tour you are being supported by warrenpeace, the UK duo made up of the House of Bees’ soundsmith Buddy Peace and Worgie on guitar and vocals. What can we expect from them, for those who are unfamiliar?
Warrenpeace have got a really interesting dynamic, musically and performance-wise. Watching people take that in has been one of my favourite parts of this tour, to be honest. I keep seeing people try to describe it to each other on twitter and failing, which is a good thing. Their music is super listenable and catchy, but not in a way you’re used to. Their live show is super passionate, technically crazy, and totally watchable but again not in a way you’re used to.
I think they’re gonna impress a lot of people on this run, and Pip’s made a very wise decision in signing them up. They’re dynamic as hell. People can expect to have a new favourite band.
For the first time on tour in UK and Ireland, you will be performing with a live band. How does this compare to solo shows or just with Buddy Peace?
Well, at the moment I can say it’s way more fun. After about a decade of doing solo shows, it can get a bit routine to just rap over a CDJ or laptop. The challenge there becomes to keep it fresh and entertaining within yourself and by yourself, but with a band there’s about 1000 times more energy on stage for you to bounce off and react to. It’s easier in that way, and naturally leads to more improvisation in performance and delivery night-to-night. Also it’s fun to watch that sound just dominate the room before you’ve ever said a word. Sonically it’s all so much bigger and more powerful. I can feel the structural integrity of the building being tested by the Moog sub-bass we’re using. It’s the shit.
Two tracks from House of Bees Vol.3 have already been released. ‘The Devil is Alive’ is a track about Freeway Rick Ross (the real Rick Ross) and follows a history of tracks from you depicting, almost, biographies of people. ‘The Skycycle Blues’ (about Evel Knievel), ‘Marvin’ (about Marvin Gaye) and ‘Who Killed Russell Jones?’ (about ODB) are all tracks that flow with emotion and I was wondering if each of these tracks are very personal to you?
Yeah, they are. In many of those I am talking about issues that are extremely personal to me, under the guise of telling a ‘celebrity’ story. I think the idea of celebrity is useful to a writer like me because celebrities serve as a common mythology that we all share, culturally. Very few of us know Kanye West, but when I say Kanye West we all have a bunch of stuff we ‘know’ about that figure. So I can use that idea of a person to communicate all kinds of things. That’s what those songs and that approach is about, more than anything.
Who knows if I’ve accurately described the real lives of people, at the end of the day. Freeway Ricky Ross got in touch and digs the song I made about him, but who knows if Evel Knievel or Marvin Gaye would have appreciated what I wrote about them. That’s not the real aim though, it’s more of a device I’m fond of.
When can we expect House of Bees Vol.3 to be released and is there a proposed date yet for the new LP?
House of Bees 3 will be here in December. The new LP is called In The Mouth of the Wolf [Now[Now called Kill The Wolf]d will be here by late spring/early summer.
Finally, I have to ask; four dates in Ireland, is there anything you are looking forward to while you are here?
Guinness that tastes better than it does anywhere else in the world. Also, there’s a fella in Limerick who did a tattoo of my pug Cupcake on my left knee a few years back, and this time through I think he’s gonna do my cat Ella on the right knee. So, look for me to be limping a little at the Limerick show, but I’m looking forward to completing the pair.
For all your Speech Development Record needs http://www.scroobiuspip.co.uk/
For all things Strange Famous http://www.strangefamousrecords.com/
Nov 19th – Cork – Cyprus Avenue
Nov 20th – Dublin – The Workman’s Club
Nov 21st – Limerick – Kasbah Social Club
Nov 22nd – Galway – Roisin Dubh