Homeboy Sandman on opening for Brother Ali and rapping in law school

Homeboy Sandman, coming to a Brother Ali show near you!
Homeboy Sandman, coming to a Brother Ali show near you!
Photo by Eric Coleman

This fall's Brother Ali tour is an exciting one for a number of reasons. Not only is Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color a landmark album to share with the world, but things already get good with his opening act; Homeboy Sandman. The Stones Throw-signed MC has been the reigning king of the New York underground and one of the most engaging live shows in the genre today. Gimme Noise had the chance to sit down with Sandman shortly after the tour announcement to get better acquainted.

Congratulations on touring with Brother Ali. How did you two link up?

Ali and I met at SXSW, we both did the A3C show together. I went on right before him. We got to check out each others' sets and backstage got to build a little bit. I was impressed with his accessibility and how he handled himself and I developed more of a respect for his music and how his character comes through it. I'm happy to be down. I know he has a really crazy fanbase who respects things I think are worthy of respect like talent, principles, so I'm in.

You've become the face of the New York underground. Where did your journey begin?

I was in law school at Hofstra, which is in Hempstead, Long Island. The truth about law school is that I never really wanted to be a lawyer. It was one of many things that I did to occupy my time before I found my passion, which is making music. I was in law school to pass the time, I was lucky enough to get a scholarship and they covered a place to live, food. So, when I realized I wanted to start making music it was really just "OK, now I actually have something really want to do." The transition wasn't so crazy, I was still able to go to open mics...

While at Hofstra?

Yeah. See, I wound up withdrawing in my last semester, but it wasn't like I wanted to quit. I thought it would be cool to finish. There's six semesters of law school and I actually started rhyming at the end of my third semester, so I actually did my fourth and fifth semester. But, my grades started getting lower and a condition of my scholarship was that I had to keep my grades over a certain amount, so in that last semester I was either going to have to take some time off of music to make sure I kept my scholarship or lose my scholarship.

Around that time you devised promotional tactic of putting your own homemade ads in the New York City subways. What were the origins of that?

It came from me sitting in the train all the time, where I do the majority of my writing, and it just kind of occurred to me that on the train nobody wants to interact with each other. If you look around, everyone is looking at whatever they can to keep from looking at you. So, they look at the train's ads. Which reminds me, how is every book a "best-seller?" Shouldn't there be only one book that's selling the best? Maybe there's different weight classes.


Bantam-weights? So, I was like "If I put 'Homeboy Sandman' stuff up there, everybody will look at that and it will travel all around New York." That's advertising people pay millions of dollars for. I remember in those days, people were taking Nike posters out of the trains and keeping them in their crib, so I knew it was pretty easy to get back there.

So, I got mad colored paper, my pops had a copy machine in his office, and so I made poster that said Homeboysandman.com and then "Big Pun would be proud" or "Mos Def would approve" and just put up my favorite MCs.

The first one I recall seeing was Camp Lo.

Yeah, and think about it, around the time I was doing that a lot of people weren't hearing Camp Lo. And the ones that did thought "Why is he trying to bring Camp Lo up? That's ill, he's not just touching on famous dudes, but dudes who have their own writing style. So, let me check him out to hear how not dope he is." and they would wind up feeling the music. We did every single line in the city, and that really helped. It really separated me from a lot of the people because a lot of people who had never been to an open mic or a situation where I would physically be would still see that and seek me out. We also would sidewalk chalk lyrics at five in the morning in front of hip-hop magazine offices and record labels. There were like eight components, but all in unison they worked like a charm.

Your most seen video is probably "The Carpenter," what was it like filming that?

That was awesome. My boy Brad Hasse was the mastermind behind the whole thing. Shooting was grueling because we shot over three days at different locations, and trying to be animated while laying on the floor is a challenging. It, physically, was the most demanding video I've shot, but the feedback has been tremendous. I think it makes a great impression: it's a simple idea, the song is dope and we have all these locations. It's a simple twist, not about smoke and mirrors. It had MTVU rotation for a long time, it got a really great response and was number one for three weeks in a row, which made them bring my earlier video "The Essense" back because people were more open to it.

How did you link up with Stones Throw?

It was through Jonwayne, who is a labelmate of mine. He's signed after me, but he introduced Peanut Butter Wolf to my records. I have a lot of respect for Rhymesayers, and outside of them and Stones Throw, I was really hard pressed to even think of labels that would think I was dope. People with specific tastes and specific standards get along. I started sending my records to Wolf, and he said "this is out of control, you should put this out" and I said, "you guys put out records, right?"

You've mentioned in the past that you come from a Jazz background. What's your process when writing to a beat?

Say I get a beat, and if I'm connecting to it, I'll just listen for a while. I like ones that tell me something on their own or give me the vision of a scene, and I'll just sit with it. Before I get into the lyrics, I'll create melodies with it, and that's where the jazz comes in. I used to play the saxophone, and with jazz you have the structure of how a song starts and ends, and in the middle you have improvisation. Before I even have the rhymes, I'll figure out "this is going to be dense here" or "this is going to be spread out and sing-songy," it's what sounds right before I'm saying something.

Homeboy Sandman joins Brother Ali on the Mourning in America tour on September 25th, which comes to First Avenue on October 5. His Stones Throw EPs Subject: Matter and Chimera are out now, and his full-length debut for the label First of the Living Breed drops in September. 

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