Despot – New York
Despot: A king or other ruler with absolute, unlimited power; any tyrant or oppressor.
New York has had its fair share of people in power who fit some approximation of this description (Mayor Bloomberg, and to a greater degree, Bill the Butcher), but Despot, Queens’ prodigal son of sorts (as you’ll find out), may seem unassuming initially; but give him a mic and a stage, and he’ll leave it all in ruins.
Despite being around longer than most mainstream sensations, Despot has yet to release a proper full-length album. However, it’s a mistake to assume that he hasn’t been working hard or making fans of anyone who hears his music. In the hip-hop community, he has made a name for himself by bringing narrative lyricism with a head-spinning technicality. Whereas it might be enough for some rappers to boast and brag using the same catch phrase for two and a half minutes over the span of a three-minute song, Despot can’t, in good conscience, do this. He obsesses over lines for weeks at a time, and it’s explicitly clear in his songs that he’s working out knots in his own life, trying to find the answers like a concentrated chemist.
His skill hasn’t gone completely unnoticed, as he has been tapped for guest verses by some of the most important names in hip-hop. Over the last couple of years, he has appeared on the posse cut “The Last Huzzah” (featuring Das Racist, El-P, and Danny Brown) and Heems’ mixtape, both of which he blows minds with spotlight-grabbing lyricism and effortless flow.
Though Despot may be best recognized, for the time being, for his guest work, his true heart reveals itself in his solo work. Two of his most recognizable singles, “Look Alive” (produced by Ratatat) and “Crap Artists,” carry the weight of heavy-heartedness that eventually finds some resolution by the end. “Crap Artists” specifically deals with the annoyances of the music industry but with a wry smile that you can’t help but love, especially with lines like “Someone mistook the magic beans for food/So whoever farts the loudest is obviously the truth/And what could make me prouder than pouring salt in the wounds of them kids who still believe cows jump over moons.” It’s this witty but sincere wordplay that sets Despot apart.
As a native of New York, Despot grew up around a vibrant rap culture, and eventually he hooked up with the revolutionary, influential hip-hop label Def Jux. Along with El-P, Aesop Rock, Cannibal Ox, and numerous others, Despot has shifted a great deal of the attention away from the self-consciously violent themes of the mainstream to a more thoughtful, lyrically fulfilling avenue. ‘You walking around in a lion’s mouth/And finally finding out this ain’t the way to your house,’ is one of the better examples of a narrative more interested in self-discovery than gun-clap emptiness. In this respect, Despot is a perfect fit in the Def Jux crew.
When all is said and done, Despot is the underdog you want to root for. Largely underappreciated by the greater music community while being unspeakably respected by people actually listening (including his peers), Despot has his sights set on releasing his first full-length this year. In interviewing him, it became immediately apparent that he is an artist in its purest form, crafting rather than merely releasing the first thing that comes to his mind. That said, Despot’s wit isn’t regulated to the mic, as he granted me one of the most insightful, ironic, and hilarious interviews yet.
The Queens-based emcee’s interview, conducted while he was running on two days without sleep, can be found below. To lovers of heady hip-hop that retains a righteous boom-bap, let’s all take a moment to cheers one of rap’s unsung heroes to a successful 2012.
BANGSTYLE: You’re a New Yorker. Have you always lived in New York, or is it an adopted home?
DESPOT: I have always lived in New York in the same apartment in Queens for the entirety of the 20 years of my life until I briefly went to college and then dropped out of college after realizing it was boring and then moving back into the same apartment and then being a rapper some more and then being a rapper even more.
BANGSTYLE: Hip-hop is going through a pretty exciting renaissance at the moment, and a lot of that is coming out of New York. Is the energy different as an artist, or has it always felt like that in New York?
DESPOT: I think New York feels as different as everywhere else feels right now with regards to rap music and the way people communicate and all that. When I wanted people to know I could rap, I had to try to get on the radio and go do shows and shit. Now one just has to tweet and be blogged about. I think that unfortunately gives huge opportunities to a lot of loser sucker idiots who have not even lived life yet, but it also lets a lot of the people who deserve to be on get on. New York only feels different because kids are now walking around with the same silly Internet entitlement everyone else everywhere else is also experiencing. People just seem to think something uniquely New York is happening because New York is cooler than everywhere else. It has always been, though.
BANGSTYLE: What about Def Jux, despite being on a kind of hiatus, drew you in? How did becoming part of the roster come about?
DESPOT: I was a fan of Co Flow and Can Ox and Aesop and everyone before I met any of those dudes. I was also in the same circles as them. I hung out at Bobbito’s store Footwork a lot with my friend Yak Ballz, and we all went to the same shows and did the same shit. Eventually, I had a joint on an atoms family compilation. El heard it and liked it so he asked for more music. So I gave him some. He told me it was good, and he would put it out. I didn’t believe him about it. Nonetheless, he put it out. Now I am on his upcoming album. He says I am good on that too. The jury is out.
BANGSTYLE: The crazy thing is, as far as I know, your official debut LP has been in the making for awhile, and your fans are fiending for it. How is it going? Is there any news to report?
DESPOT: I am making my first ever full length with all the production being handled by Ratatat. A lot of people think I have been working on this record for upwards of ten years. The sad truth is the reason it has been so long is because I have mostly been NOT working on it. These days I feel like I am actually working on it. It will come out this year if I can stop being a very tired liar for a little while. It is going to be aptly titled “We’re All Excited.”
BANGSTYLE: Though you’ve kept a relatively low-profile, being careful with what you release, whenever you show up to drop a guest verse, you usually steal the show. Is there a sense of competition in posse cuts?
DESPOT: I like the posse cut stuff because I always write it very quickly. With my own shit, I will agonize over a verse for weeks or months at a time until I finally throw it in the garbage and then sleep for three weeks straight. I don’t know if I agree with your show stealing accusation. I usually think those verses suck because I write them in ten minutes, but then there are people who disagree and make me feel like I better just keep writing verses in ten minutes. So I’m trying to do that.
BANGSTYLE: Speaking of posse cuts, I think it’s safe to say that “The Last Huzza” is up there for best of all-time. What was it like working with an insane batch of first-rate emcees?
DESPOT: I have never met Exquire, Danny, Das Racist, or EL-P. They all seem like very terrible people. I hope I never run into them.
BANGSTYLE: It’s clear that your delivery style is very technical, but unlike a lot of other emcees who rely on technical skills, you’re absolutely a storyteller. What comes first: the lyrics or the flow?
DESPOT: I guess the flow does. I’ll usually sit down and listen to a beat and yell some gibberish over it to see what sounds good. Then I’ll plug a bunch of words in and try to make them sort of make sense. Then if they don’t make sense, I’ll tell everyone they’re stupid for not getting it. Then everyone tells me I’m smart.
BANGSTYLE: One of your most engaging songs, “Crap Artists,” has a lot to say about fakes in the industry. Was there a certain event that triggered the lyrics? If so, how did it affect you?
DESPOT: There was no certain event. I also think that what a lot of people missed in that song is it is largely self-referential. Not only was I maybe attacking the dips***s you hear on the radio, I think MORE than that I was attacking myself and my contemporaries. I wrote that when I was maybe 18 and starting to realize that myself and maybe a lot of the people I admired were like “smart rappers,” and it really bothered me. I was starting to wonder why the f**k I felt I had to so thoroughly illustrate a point or say some clever s**t. As a youngin’ I got a lot more pleasure out of listening to Queens thug s**t about shooting people than some dude referencing classic novels in a rap song. So why were me and my friends doing that s**t? I still don’t know. I felt like in that song I did a lot of exactly what I was mad at. Which is why the response was tons of kids being like “YEA! F**K LIL WAYNE! DESPOT IS THE BEST UNDERGROUND RAP RULES!” When in reality, I was probably trying to say f**k “underground rap.” The shit is boring. I am listening to Lil Wayne more than that s**t.
BANGSTYLE: Who are the Top 5 emcees of all-time and why?
DESPOT: Kool G Rap, Breezly Brewin, Doom, Every rapper from Queens, and every rapper from Queens.
Because they are from Queens. Except Brewin and Doom.
BANGSTYLE: When you were touring with Ratatat there was a rumor that you were writing a new song every day. Is there any truth to that?
DESPOT: That is absolutely true. Ratatat would make a beat every day on the bus. I would write a song to the beat the day of. I would then perform it live in whatever city we were in, usually reading it out of a book. We were going to release it as a free album. I hated it so we didn’t. Whatever cool s**t I salvaged from the verses ended up in other songs.
BANGSTYLE: What are some non-musical influences that creep into your lyrical themes?
DESPOT: Standing on a corner from age 10-22 or something. That’s really the only one. The overarching influence. Also lack of sleep. I haven’t slept in a couple days as I write this. You can tell.
BANGSTYLE: What’s your favorite city to tour in and why?
DESPOT: I don’t think I really have one. I walk around most other cities sucking my teeth and saying to myself this isn’t as cool as New York. I like when it’s warm and sunny and there’s a pool. That happens in a lot of cities, though.
BANGSTYLE: As a whole, are you happy with the state of music? Since the downfall of a lot of major labels, has it become better for underground artists like yourself?
DESPOT: I am just as unhappy as I ever was. Which is probably not that unhappy. The leveling of the playing field between majors and indies and the advent of social networking has made it easier for people to ‘get on.’ I don’t know if I was ever looking for that anyway though. I imagine I will probably ‘get on’ anyway, but I don’t really care about anything. I think if I really wanted to get a bunch of money, I’d be a lot more excited. I don’t really care though. That’s my thing that I do.
BANGSTYLE: What is more fulfilling to you as an artists: writing/recording or touring?
DESPOT: I definitely like touring a lot better. I’d say the writing and recording is more fulfilling, though. Touring doesn’t make me feel like I accomplished anything, but it sure as hell is a lot easier and a lot more fun. Writing is often torturous and makes me want to kill everyone. I might kill everyone soon actually.
BANGSTYLE: What was the moment when you realized that you needed to do music and be involved in hip-hop?
DESPOT: When I cut school and me and a bunch of kids were at Jason Ramirez’s house. We were rapping the lyrics to a Royal Flush cassette single into a built-in radio mic and taking turns recording ourselves doing it. Everyone else sucked, and I was really good. So I started just writing s**t and making tapes of myself rapping into my radio. Then I was a rapper. I was 12, I think.
BANGSTYLE: What makes New York the best for you?
BANGSTYLE: What can we expect from you in 2012? Any plans to tour or release new music?
DESPOT: I’ll be on tour June and July. And probably again later on. I expect to put this album out somehow this year. I intend to tour behind that. I will be coming out with a new fruit beverage called ‘Potato Girlz,’ and I’m working on opening a television church called ‘What’s Up.’