“Busta Rhymes. Eminem. Twista. Andre 3000. Tech N9ne. Chip Fu from the Fu Schnickens – he’s like one of the most amazing chopper rappers ever.” In the upstairs room of a quiet North London pub, spoken word artist, poet, author and rapper George Watsky lists to me the biggest influences on his double time rap technique.
Having honed his skill set listening to Hip Hop’s great and good, Watsky’s double time rap style made him a viral hit early in his career, now on his fourth studio album – ‘X Infinity’ – he sits across from me in the kind of thick beige winter coat and soft black beanie hat that leaves me even more convinced he’s two parts South Park, one part Buffy and a sprinkling of Marshall Mathers. “I’ve always been that guy at the poetry slam that occasionally had these punchlines and incidental comedy, I think comedy is a really great way to disarm people. I’ve never called myself a comedian ‘cause it’s not like I go onstage and people are expecting to laugh,” his answers are long, detailed and change direction often “and I like to surprise people with a laugh; I think my poetry and my rap is a way to – it’s a reflection of who I am as a person and sometimes it’s funny, and sometimes it’s really emo and that’s what I think my music is like, but I also think a joke is a great way to get someone off of their defensive position”.
Executive produced by Russell Simmons, ‘X Infinity’ features additional production by Anderson .Paak (a producer on Watsky’s last album – 2014’s All You Can Do) and long time collaborator Kush Mody. The 18 track LP comes off the back of his recently released collection of essays entitled – How To Ruin Everything – both pieces are filled with near forensic examinations of an ailing America, the human social condition and what it means to connect in the digital age. His essay questions the use of celebrity culture – “cheap glue for those who don’t know another way to bond” – his track ‘Stick To Your Guns’ featuring Julia Nunes examines the predictable, almost mechanical response of the mainstream media to America’s routine shootings – the up-to-the-second coverage, the interview from the traumatised student in a hospital bed, the manufactured morning news channels indulge in between advert breaks before eventually their next story.
If you’re a participant in this world, this fucked up world that we live in and you have an opinion about it, you have entered into politics.
“My political work is also very personal,” he appears to be looking far into space as though searching for the most honest answers, “I think the best way to show somebody what your perspective on the world is, is to give your own. To speak from the ‘I’ perspective. It’s something we talked about as elementary school kids in San Francisco. If you speak from the ‘I’ perspective; instead of telling someone else how to live their life – you can try and sort of lead by example. So that’s what I try – I tend to do with my work. I think it’s really hard to have an opinion on anything these days without being political in some ways because if you haven’t – if you’re a participant in this world, this fucked up world that we live in and you have an opinion about it, you have entered into politics.”
At a time when America is riven by social unrest and facing one of the most important, unpredictable and eagerly anticipated presidential elections in memory, it’s difficult to argue against his thinking. “And for me, especially with my most recent album I made a decision to try and not pull songs off because they were too alienating to people. But rather, let people know, you know, “okay, this is where I stand – take it or leave it,” I’m gonna share my opinion and my perspective and I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. I have a lot of viewpoints that are not mainstream but, um, that doesn’t mean that I’m judging you for your lifestyle, I’m just telling you how I see it, and you can take that or leave it.” I ask whether this new approach of less filtered self-expression has turned off some of the more socially conservative minds? “It’s possible. Like, my fan base is starting to coalesce around like, our shared opinions… when I put out ‘Stick To Your Guns’ and ‘Going Down‘ – probably the two most inflammatory songs on my most recent album, I got a little backlash from gun rights people but almost nobody on the sexual exploration song [Going Down] ‘cause I think that one was so personal; people really didn’t view it as an affront to their values. And I also just think, the nature of having a lot of fans who come from the spoken word world, we’re a very like, left leaning group of people – so I think that I probably started out with [an already] fairly liberal following”.
Whether you listen to the drama of ‘Brave New World’ featuring Chaos Chaos, the driving bass and flippant, suggestive lyrics of ‘Don’t Be Nice‘ or the bouncy almost cartoonish melody of ‘Chemical Angel’, Watsky remains committed to honest depictions of society and its ills. Complicated, confusing, by turns funny and sad he’s an artist comfortable exploring the full spectrum of emotion. A reason why, he thinks, people connect with his music, “they listen to my albums and they come to my shows and it had a different impact on them. It had an emotional impact on them” 10 years on from winning the Youth Speaks Poetry Grand Slam Finals in San Francisco he’s built a fanbase that is loyal, engaged and happy to hear him navigate issues that have no straightforward answer. “I’m seeing familiar faces, and they’re bringing their friends along, and their friends will bring friends along; and it’s been really gratifying to see it happen that way.”
It’s not difficult to imagine why his fans would return and bring friends, there is an unfussy air about Watsky – a kind of easy openness that you sometimes get from making a new best friend in the smoking area of a club, the situations where you dive head first into a discussion about how messed up the world is with a total stranger that you’ll probably never see again, “I like meeting people in person, that interaction is more worthwhile to me than a tweet response, some people might get offended if I don’t respond, it’s not because I don’t care – I’m just not on Twitter all the time. But this is who I am. It’s who I am with my friends, it’s who I am at a party.”
‘X Infinity’ then, is an accurate indicator of where Watsky is an an artist, never really tempted into a stereotypical ‘rapper’s lifestyle’ – “that almost doesn’t mean anything anymore” – he’s comfortable with life in its current form, “I guess you could describe it as joyful nihilism. Nothing matters but we can still experience beauty, and assign meaning to our life and have fun walking this world. Even if we don’t believe there’s a structure or a plan for why humanity exists. Even if, there’s no way for us to know what’s going on, and you know, you’re going through some painful, confusing agnosticism – there’s still room to have fun and enjoy life and not be so down on yourself all the time and I think that’s where I’m at. I’m trying, I mean I have my good days and my bad days just like everyone but my anxiety levels have gone down significantly”
The album artwork is a psychedelic depiction of Watsky created by Korean illustrator Minjae Lee, who is based in Hong Kong. Dynamic, colourful and unapologetic Watsky worked hand in hand with Minjae on a cover that could accurately begin to tell his fans and the wider world a message he likes more than any other – it’s okay to be you.