It’s easy to view Rhode Island rapper B. Dolan as a man of contradictions: he rejects the term “political rapper,” yet he pens songs like “Film the Police” and “Lucifer;” he performs at metal bars, yet he smiles during his set; he’s an independent rapper (i.e. not rich), yet he gives discounts at the merch table. How can one person sustain these discontinuities? By rejecting them, of course.
Joining us for an engaging, 50 minute conversation before his riveting performance at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn, B. Dolan gave us one of our best interviews of the year. Read it below. He’s passionate about hip-hop and its artistic and political potentials in wholly original and refreshing ways.
RESPECT. So my first question is what have you been listening to lately?
B. Dolan: I’ve been listening to a lot of Circle Takes the Square and United Nations because for the past ten days I’ve been on tour with them [laughs]. Which has been really cool. Because I don’t always make an effort to seek out hardcore music, but I’ve been around that scene and that scene is big in Providence. We came up around those shows as well as rap battles and hip-hop events and spoken word events. But it’s been cool to be on this tour and listen to these guys a lot. And see them in a live environment with their friends and how their music is translated and all that.
I’ve been listening to James Blake this summer. I really like that album a lot. The song “Retrograde” is still the song of the year for me. So I’ve been really inspired by him. Also a lot of my friends have put out music this year. Prolyphic & Buddy Peace from Strange Famous put out an album and produced a bunch of new material, Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip have a new record. Strange Famous has put out a lot of stuff and obviously I’m very involved in that and hear everything that’s going out. I think there’s been a lot of inspiring music out this year. And I’m also always listening to old stuff for digging and inspirational purposes. I have weird little obsessions with labels and imprints.
Do you follow their entire history or something?
Yeah, like there’s an imprint called Cadet Records and I obsessively collect all the records that they put out. They were an offshoot of Chess Records and they worked with a lot of famous blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But the engineer at the time was a psych rock engineer and so there’s this group of albums that has like blues songs with psych rock production and engineering, which is really interesting. There’s a lot of separation: drums in the left channel and guitars in the right channel, that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of breakbeats on it too. I’m always seeking a lot of music and listening to a lot of music at the same time.
What do you think the significance of “Film the Police” is after learning about the NSA’s mass surveillance?
I think in general filming the police is…we made that song in the wake of what happened with Oscar Grant. And that was a great demonstration of how important it can be for citizens to document what’s happening in the streets, especially when it comes to the people who have a monopoly on force, which is the police. And certainly I do think that since 9/11 there’s been a large trend towards more surveillance, less civil liberty and expanded police privileges and protections, as well as just money that’s been dumped into police departments for homeland security budgets that has resulted in militarized cops with these like futuristic weapons and riot gear. And so it’s more important than ever that we be able to document them.
The NSA stuff is almost a separate issue to me because that deals with our privacy and our ability to communicate with each other without being monitored by the government. I guess in some ways you could draw a comparison and say that filming the police is our way of counteracting the government’s surveillance of us. It’s just symptoms of an information age where power is in images and information. To the degree to which we can capture those things and disseminate those things ourselves, that’s how we’re going to have to resist huge overreaching government and all that comes with it.
I ask because one of messages of “Film the Police” is that you see your rights being violated in your face and you respond to it by documenting it. And with mass surveillance, even though you’re right in the sense that it’s a different kind of violation, I feel like just thinking about The Wire, they use that surveillance to be more brutal as police officers. You don’t even have to be charged with anything, but what they do to you is “justified.”
Yeah, I can see that. I’m not quite sure what else to say about it. What do you think?
On the relationship between “Film the Police” and the NSA?
It’s kind of embedded in another question I was going to ask, so I’ll ask that. So John Pike, the UC Davis guy that maced those students, was recently awarded a worker’s compensation amount that was greater than the settlement received by the people who he assaulted. And I was kind of wondering, what do we do when filming the police isn’t enough?
It certainly seems to have been that kind of summer. George Zimmerman got his gun back from the state of Florida. They really gave that guy his gun back. You don’t need a better symbol than that [laughs]. And certainly, filming the police was never meant and has never meant to be a fix-all. I try not to even make statements…I try to be clear that this isn’t a fix-all. It’s just an immediate practical thing that you can do. To me, when I think about making political music, I personally am turned off by emcees who rap in sort of feel-good bumper stickers and generalities about social issues. I think it’s really easy to get applause saying something like, “Every politician is the devil!” You know, just the generalities that we all know are true. Yeah, politicians are fake and fucking government is corrupt and shit’s fucked up, etc. You can say that shit and people will go along with you because it feels good to agree with that, but in the end, you’ve just produced a song that to me isn’t going to do anything.
So when I make an [overtly] political song, I try to be very clear and very explicit and even narrow in what I’m talking about. So “Film the Police” is literally about filming the police. It’s a reminder that if cops are doing some shady shit in front of you and you have a camera in your pocket and should use it. It’s just a reminder like, “Hey, that phone you’re carrying around can take pictures!” So if you find yourself in a situation where you see someone is being abused or you yourself are being intimidated or harassed, you’ve got a weapon there and you should use it. That’s literally the beginning and the end of that. Yes, it’s attached to other issues. Yes, it’s become a thing that’s gone beyond that song. And it will mean other things to other people and I’m happy about that.
If you search the hashtag “#filmthepolice” there are plenty of people talking about it that have never heard my song and I’m excited by that. I think that’s really great that I can contribute just a useful phrase. But at the same I time I know that it’s not a – when I perform it live, during one of the choruses I say, “And fuck the police. Still fuck the police.” “Film the Police” is not meant to supersede “Fuck the Police.” It’s more like we have a new way to fuck the police: this camera in our pockets. But I know…what does filming the police do to fight globalization? Nothing. The fucking device you’re taking out of your pocket is itself probably a violation of worker’s rights in another country and has not been produced under ethical standards, and represents people being taken advantage of. And that’s apart of things we’ll have to fix before we can get to being a more just society and world. There’s a lot of shit to tackle [laughs]. And I try not to get lost in that. If you think about everything, you get overwhelmed. If you narrow your view and think about something immediate and tangible, I think we can make small, incremental steps. Children of Men is my model for revolution [laughs].
I haven’t seen it yet.
It came out around the same time as V for Vendetta and I began thinking that the contrast between those movies was like fantasy vs reality. The fantasy is V for Vendetta, where a guy with a mask is gonna get on tv and say the right combination of words that will trigger a mass consciousness shift in the world population and the revolution is going to start today. With Children of Men, everyone does what they can for five minutes and will pass this precious cargo along to the next person, who does what they can for five minutes. Most people probably don’t even get to see the end result, but we’re still working and just handling what we can in the present and offering ourselves where we have the power to act, which is often in our immediate environments with family and friends.
You mentioned being narrow, or rather being very specific. I think that’s apparent in songs like “Lucifer” and “Come to Jamaica” where you mention Warren Anderson and Bugsy Siegel. I feel like by focusing on them you’re able to make your criticism and also note how that criticism is very specific. I think that that actually helps the songs travel further than ones full of generalities.
I’ve always been conscious of characters and of the power of a character, like the name and a person with a certain personality. That’s interesting. Whereas a generality is powerful in other ways, I feel like people connect more immediately when they can picture a person. And that for whatever reason seems to find it’s way into my writing a lot. I do a lot of character studies in my writing. Whether it’s people like Warren Anderson or Justin Timberlake, or Joan of Arcadia or Vin Diesel. I like describing people and personalities. Because the personal is political. The generalities are kind of boring. They’re kind of abstract and kind of stale and sterile. But all of these political ideas do touch down in peoples’ lives. And that’s where the stories and the humanness are. So yeah, in any instance, I’m more interested in where the political ideas come home and manifest in people’s actual lives. Which is why I object to the term “political rapper.” What’s political? What’s personal? Where is that line? Politics is in my day to day life if I can’t feed my family. Or even if I never have to worry about feeding my family. Politics is deeply entrenched in peoples’ realities.
That really relates to my next question. In “Which Side Are You On,” you say hip-hop is “folk music grown from the struggle” and I agree with that statement, especially as far as the origins of hip-hop. But considering its origins as well as what it has become, what do you think the politics of rap are at the most fundamental level? Not just in terms of a song being overtly political, but even a song like “The Hunter,” how is that a political utterance?
“The Hunter” is actually a really political song but nobody knows it.
I know it’s about becoming that which you hate.
Yeah, I’m glad that you dealt with it on that level. A lot of people think that it’s just a cool ghost story about a vampire hunter. But I was thinking about soldiers in Iraq doing horrible things for what they thought were good reasons. And they have that moment of realization where you look in the mirror and realize that you are the monster. You think you’ve been out there hunting monsters all your life, but then you realize that you are the thing to fear.
Okay, well maybe that wasn’t a good example.
[laughs] But no one knows that because it doesn’t necessarily come across in the song. But to talk about hip-hop is almost dangerous at this point because it’s such a huge genre with a lot of different artists making a lot of different kinds of music for totally different reasons. So for me I try to just judge people on the merits of what they were trying to make. So I’m not judging Kanye against Chuck D against Pharoahe Monch against nerd rap against Lil Jon. Those emcees might as well be in different genres. It’s like who’s a better jazz musician, Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong? They’re years and years apart and playing in different eras and niches of jazz. So I try to be careful about blanket statements for all of hip-hop. But for me, what inspired me about rap was when I heard Chuck D say that hip-hop is black people’s CNN. And Scarface, in a song with Ice Cube, said, “We were always considered evil. Now they’re trying to bust our only mode of communicating with our people.” And I was like, “This is what rap is.”
As time has gone on and the influence of rap has spread, I consider rap at this point to be poor people’s CNN too. It’s kind of transcended the black experience and become something that millions and millions of people worldwide are apart of. And I think that the power poltiically in it is that yeah, at it root, it’s a decentralized art form that can happen spontaneously anywhere. All you need is a dude that can bang on a lunch table and enough rhythm to rap your thoughts. In that, it has a power for people to speak with each other and be with each other in a way that doesn’t have to pass through a filter.
So commercial rap is what commercial rap is and if you’re making music for the club, then you’re making music for the club and if it bangs in the club, then I guess it’s a good song. For me, I choose to utilize it in the sense that I can say whatever I want. and I’m lucky to be on Strange Famous with Sage, which is an independent label. We don’t owe anybody anything, so we totally control our content and say what the fuck we want. I think that’s the power. I think there’s something political about people being in a room and not at home looking at a tv or the internet. Even if nothing “political” gets said on stage, the experience of coming out into the public and being physically present with a group of people and experiencing the same thing fights against the alienation that people experience and the push to just isolate yourself from other people and just look at a box and experience reality through that. Again, the personal is political, and a lot of what we do is at its root political even if you don’t think about it.
So I guess, to sum all that up, rap in some sense, gives people a voice. And whether they use that voice to make people dance, or whatever, giving nearly anyone a voice is kind of unique.
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