Homeboy Sandman has a problem with hip hop. When he goes into the same high schools he used to teach before pursuing music full time and asks the question ‘What is hip hop?’ he could write the answers on the board before any of the students raise their hands: money, sex, drugs.
If you listen to heartfelt independent hip hop, you’ll know this narrow range of repeated iconography and clichéd stereotypes is far from the only game in town. Homeboy Sandman is just one (albeit one of the most lyrically talented) of a diverse community of underground rappers around the world taking on more complex issues and pushing hip hop’s lexicon forward. These guys just don’t get given their own reality shows or get invited on Larry King. Sandman’s beef isn’t really with hip hop, it’s with the media’s one dimensional portrayal of a highly commercial strand within a certain genre of music as a shorthand for black culture; belittling both entities in the process.
Born Angel Del Villar in Queens, New York, Homeboy Sandman isn’t so easily pigeonholed into simplistic narratives. For a start, people can’t seem to decide whether he’s old school or new school. While he works with pioneering producers like Jonwayne and Paul White, his embrace of storytelling, positive and soulful vibes, and the sense of energy and fun at his live shows, make people wonder whether he’s channelling the past or breaking new ground.
When we sat down for a chat after his electric London show earlier in the year, Sandman laid it out in his own words.
Who is Homeboy Sandman?
Homeboy Sandman, you know, your homeboy. You can depend on your homeboy, that’s your peoples. He lives down the hall and if you need to borrow peanut butter, he got you also. If like you need something, he’s looking out for you. You can trust him, you can depend on him.
Sandman, that’s the dream weavery, you know what I mean? This ain’t bringing a dream, but he can take you to another realm, to another dimension. I grew up listening to guys, like Slick Rick and Kool G Rap and it was like ‘wow, how vivid this story is’. It’s taking you there, taking you out of the mundane, into another realm, that’s the sandman. But it’s also very much about honesty, truth and journey. A man, he begins as a boy, in his home, everybody, we all start some place.
Sand is often used as a metaphor for travel and for time. You’ve got the sands of time, and you’ve got walking through the sand, soft sand. Through that you become a man. This is the journey that I’m looking to partake of all the time: going from my roots and my immaturities and all the dumb shit I learnt from listening to dumbass fucking music and trying to grow. Through all the beautiful shit I learnt from listening to beautiful music and the role models I had,
through these travels and these times, I’m trying to go from Homeboy to Sandman.
People can’t seem to decide whether you’re old school or new school. Where do you see yourself?
I think that talent and musicianship are things that are associated with old hip hop, because old hip hop was when you were allowed to be famous for being crazy nice. I get a lot of ‘oh, you’re an old school type rapper’, when the truth is, nobody ever rapped like me in the history of rap. If I was kicking with the old schools dudes, I wouldn’t sound like them. People tell me I don’t have the ‘New York sound’, or nobody old school sounds like me.
Paul White also stands alone. I’m doing things the way cats used to do it. Telling the truth is the way cats used to do it, but I’m telling my truth, I’m taking authentic materials and making it new. And Paul is taking authentic materials and making something new also. But I just think people associate authentic materials with the days of yore.
Why is important to you to call out misogyny in hip hop?
Before hip hop was co-opted and made into a thing that is used to define black culture all over the world, and really to manipulate black culture and black reputation all over the world, before that there was still misogyny. But now we have entire communities in America, in New York, where everybody grows up thinking it’s a bad thing to like women, to care about a woman. It’s a hurtful thing for the people that buy into it.
Yasiin Bey said ‘hip hop is shorthand for black people’ and he’s just being honest. The media portray that black people are hip hop, so if you say in hip hop that you don’t like women, then the thought is that black dudes don’t like women; that’s what it means to be black. Everybody’s growing up, trying to figure out who they are and taking cues from the media. The media controls everybody and having this whole ‘you don’t even like your own women’ discourse is a major tool to keep us weak, to keep us easily manipulated.
Why do you feel hip hop has lost its way?
The principles that are pushed in hip hop today are that ‘you are only valuable because of what you have’. That’s not how hip hop started. Hip hop started as ‘you are valuable because of who you are’, and that’s an amazing way to build confidence and self-esteem.
It started from ‘even though we’re broke in the Bronx and our schools are shitty, our buildings are shitty and there’s crime and everything is fucked up, if you are a good athlete and your school has no sports teams, you can still be a B-Boy and you can get love for that. Even if you are an amazing artist and you can’t get into an art programme anywhere, you can still be a graffiti writer and get love for that. Even if you don’t have anything and you’ve got some charisma, you can be an MC. If you have musical taste, but you can’t even get instruments, you can make music out of other music and be a DJ’.
Hip hop is about tapping into self-esteem when you don’t have nothing else but who you are; that’s where the elements come from. I think that’s why people love hip hop around the world, because we tapped into the essence of being secure with yourself.
The Sandman Recommends
Oddisee is just soul hip hop, you know and there’s such smarts in it; like ‘American Greed’, so smart. Oddisee provides a unique perspective because of who he is; he’s from the Sudan, but he also grew up, and is very familiar with the urban setting, DC, Maryland, Virginia area, and a lot of urban crisis that’s going on over there. Also a lot of the urban beauty that’s going on over there, but then he also has this different perspective coming from the Sudan.
Blu is one of the most unique and gifted lyricists in rap. He’s up there with the best MCs and lyricists I’ve ever heard. He’s got so many styles, he’s able to come with really heavy symbolism styles, and really difficult to nail down styles, some very esoteric styles, and then he’s got very direct, easy to digest styles. He’s easily understood and it all flows as well. Plus he does a million different albums, projects, and they all sound different. He’s not afraid to be experimental and he’s not afraid to be himself.
I think I Am Many is a remarkable performer with a remarkable raw energy and grit. When you listen to his records, you’re going to hear all types of societal commentary, all types of politics. I like people that are stand up people, who stand for something. Everybody, doesn’t need to be the same type of person.
Another dude who’s very very talented is this brother named Ka, from Brooklyn. I say everybody don’t got to be the same, I just like people that are crazy nice and have their own style. He’s not rhyming like anybody else. He has a very conversational style, but there’s such cleverness in his delivery and his way of saying things. His one-liners just make you say ‘Oh wow, that was a really amazing way of saying a simple thing’.