I caught up with Strange Famous signee, B. Dolan to talk about his new album Fallen House, Sunken City. The sometimes dark and intense songs on this album have more thought put into them than some whole albums. Fallen House, Sunken City is one of those dope albums that make’s you want to question everything around you.
How intense was it moving to New York and having to struggle so much in the early days?
It was very dramatic… haha. I originally moved to NY on the pretense of going to school out there, but in retrospect that was never really the plan. I’d given up on school somewhere around 7th grade. So when I started performing at the Nuyorican and was met with some immediate success, that was all the validation I needed. I let my family know that I was quitting school, which touched off a crazy shit storm. There was a long period where most of them refused to speak to me, or would call and threaten me and shit.
So the decision to pursue my career as a performer basically deaded all family relationships at that point, and I’d made the decision to drop out of school and had no place to live. I was basically living on friend’s couches that winter, crashing with girls and sleeping in subway stations and sometimes on trains. So, it was a long winter until I finally scored a job as a doorman on Park Avenue.
That job allowed me to buy my first drum machine and laptop, which I kept at a friends house, and then after I had those things I found an apartment. I was young and I felt invincible and like my feet were finally on the path though. It was hard but it didn’t phase me too much.
Is it easier today than it was in those early stages of your career?
Not really. It’s just hard in different ways. Some things have gotten easier. Parts of the process I’ve gained a very good mastery of in the past decade. But other hard things have come along to fill in the gaps. Hard work rewarded with harder work. It’s always taken a sick amount of effort and an unhealthy amount of ambition and focus… and maybe when it stops being hard you should quit. It’s easier to heat my apartment now. Harder finding time to stay there and enjoy it.
Do you find it kind of ironic that you dropped out of school when so much of what you do is informing and educating people?
Yeah. It certainly seems ironic when I’m asked to perform or lecture at Universities, and in general the educating role that I end up taking on a lot of the time. I’ve always loved the process of education though… the actual relationship between a good teacher and a good student, and the process of people learning from each other. I’m into that. In some ways I function like a career student, and I credit that with getting me to where I am today. I’ve really never stopped learning, or being hungry to learn, or been satisfied with a certain base of knowledge or ‘expertise’. I’m constantly seeking out new shit that I don’t know about, and trying to absorb and understand it… so, I appreciate learning. However, I became really disenchanted with educational institutions from a young age. I was always a kid that was aware of death, due to some things that happened when I was young. I always knew about the concept of death and that I would die… which obviously made me a very weird kid. Haha. But I can remember being in 3rd or 4th grade and thinking “why am I doing good in this school? So I can get into a better school. Why do good there? So I can get into a good college. Why? Get a good job? Why? Work until I die.” something about the whole industrialized learning process that they put you through in school… I saw through that shit at a young age and stopped trusting it. Then later I learned that it’s true that the department of labor is actually responsible for setting the standards for the department of education. So the purpose of school isn’t to help you actualize yourself as a human being, in this country. Their purpose is just to produce the desired traits in the next generation of workers. And I guess I instinctually resisted that shit. So, that’s where that kind of seeming contradiction comes from probably. Love learning, hate schools.
You faced a lot of doubters and, as you mentioned, hurt your relationship with your family because of your pursuit of a career in music. How did it feel to quiet your doubters?
Well, the shit with my family is complex. My grandmother and grandfather both immigrated to America with next to nothing, went to work in sweatshops and factories, and established a better life for their kids. My father still works in the same warehouse he worked in my whole life, and my mother was a secretary at a law firm. So, basically I come from a working class family with immigrant values; and my job in the order of things was to do good in school and become a doctor or a lawyer or something. And continue the climb up the social ladder. haha. Until my children’s children presumably become the first Guinea president. So, when I announced that I was gonna drop out of school, pursue my dream of being a rapper, and probably continue to shovel shit alongside my father in the same warehouse while trying to do so… I was throwing a big wrench in the works. So, 10 years later they recognize my tenacity even if they don’t understand what the hell I do. And they see me traveling and making money and shit… So there’s a kind of grudging respect. And on my end I had to make a decision years later to just accept them for who they are and be at peace. When you consider neglect and abuse that goes on, family can do worse shit than doubt you. I can get over people doubting me.
The production Alias does on this album really does a good job of setting the mood. How was it working with him throughout this process.
Alias is the shit man. I don’t know if there’s a more talented, unsung producer doing it right now. He also happens to be one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met, and I consider him a real friend. We developed a kind of trusting friendship relationship early on, and fairly quickly, after doing some shows on Sage’s ‘Death Dance’ tour together… Which allowed us to be really up front with each other through the whole process… There was no awkward or uncertain period really. We were both confident that we were fans of the same kind of shit in hip-hop, and that we both understood what kind of album we wanted to make. So from there it was just a process of passing the demos back and forth and working out the songs.
By the way. That shit with the band on “Border Crossing” is so fucking ill!
Yeah, “Border Crossing” was a special kind of track man. Pulling all of that together was a really incredible and rewarding job. All together that song took about 6 months to complete, from the time I started conceptualizing it and made the demo, to tracking down the What Cheer? Brigade, to working with them on an arrangement and having Alias come down to Providence and record them, make the track, finalize the vocals and writing, etc. There was really a period of despair with that song. Where I felt like ‘Fuck man. There is no WAY this song can survive being worked on for this long. This has to suck.’ but miraculously, it doesn’t suck. That song is a total anomaly in the course of my career. Haha… usually if you think you stink…
You and Sage Francis have great creative chemistry. Any chance we’ll be seeing a B. Dolan, Sage Francis collaboration album?
It’s certainly been discussed, though mostly in jest. There’s no strong concept of how to approach a project like that. I would say the chances are fairly high that it’ll happen at some point though. We did a run of shows with El-p earlier this year and he kept referring to us as “The Bushwackaz,” after that old WWF group. The two bald brothers who used to lick each other’s heads. So maybe that’ll be the group name. Plus it has the political double meaning. We can call the lp ‘Fuck Bush.’ We’ll be right on time with that.
Your piece, “5 Ways to Bleed Your Customer” for urb.com is on some real shit and you’ve got a song called, “50 Ways to Bleed Your Customer” on the album that touches on the same issues. You mentioned how important it is that you educate yourself. How important is informing your listeners of the atrocities we commit against each other and our environment?
Well, for me I feel it’s important to actually do something in terms of social justice work, instead of just rapping about it. Which is why I created the Knowmore.org website along with Sage in 2005. We try to offer that resource to people who hear the political content in our music and are fired up and want to make some positive change in their lives and the lives of others. I never know, really, what impact my music is having on people in that sense. My only frame of reference is personal experience, and I know that I started thinking about politics at a young age, probably due mostly to Chuck D, KRS, and later bands like Rage Against the Machine… I remember they had an album insert that was just a picture of a pile of books and I started hunting down those books… But, that just sparked a kind of awareness.
Only after living in NY on September 11th did I actually get active and start doing real work on issues, because the immediacy of these ideas came home to me, and I saw my city become a warzone overnight. So… you know… I don’t know what it takes to turn a comfortable, middle class college student into a soldier for change. Or if rap songs will ever or could have ever had the power to organize working class and poor people single-handedly. If Chuck D, and Bob Dylan, and John Lennon’s music didn’t spark a revolution, I’d have to be feeling myself pretty hard to think that mine had some quality theirs didn’t. So, when it comes to political art I just try to make things that are honest, and that I have genuine feelings about… I try to communicate it all in ways that are radical and challenging, without sounding preachy or like I know better than anyone else. It is what it is. Then I go try to balance that with some action in the real world, and some hours of work.
I’ve lead whole workshops on this topic man. Haha. Your questions are too good. This is a tricky subject. Political art and its usefulness… It’s like, I think music can in some cases be an incredibly powerful revolutionary force… but you can never rely on that happening. Like in South Africa, songs were really important to the whole anti-apartheid movement. They were critical tools. When the men were marching towards you with guns, what kept the line from breaking is that everyone locked arms and sang the same songs. Those songs were real-world weapons. But in other cases, a song is just a song. A Che Guevera t-shirt can be a totally empty symbol, and the kid wearing it thinks the guy on his shirt is named Bob Marley.
If the artist reinforces their songs with actions as you do it makes it more real though.
I hope so, anyway. I hope that message makes it through to people for that reason. It’s important that the listener and artist not get caught in this pat-me-on-the-back cycle of bullshit. Where we just become spectacles of revolution. I think that happens a lot in the ‘underground.’
There is a theory held by some that the world is controlled by an alien race of shape-shifting lizard-people. While doing research for the song, “Reptilian Agenda” you were warned by one of your sources to, “Think carefully before you start talking publicly about this stuff”. Is “Reptilian Agenda” a challenge to the lizard people to come and get you?
In a word? Yes. Haha.
What’s the energy like at the average B. Dolan show?
Controlled chaos. Unexpected costume changes happen. I say foul things and kick funky rap routines. Do dances. Talk shit. I’ve gotten into the habit of leaving pauses for people to heckle, and inviting and engaging hecklers a lot. Which thereby makes the crowd more likely to heckle. Kind of on some old Richard Pryor shit. People want to say dumb shit to me so I can pwn them. It’s familial and ball-busting and rowdy like that. Also, a marching band occasionally appears. I plan to push the crazy vaudeville circus angle more in the future too. If the gods keep granting me superpowers, I will continue to use them for evil.
Anything you want our readers to know? Tour dates? Shout outs?
Fallenhouse.com is the place to order the album. There’s a lot of cool deals SFR is offering, with lots of extras and posters and signed things and what not. Time is running out for people to grab those. Also, it’ll be available as a double vinyl lp starting in May, and people can pre-order those now. Assuming people still know what a vinyl record is. I start touring in 6 days. Europe, UK, Ireland, US, and Canada. Almost 70 shows in the next 4 months. Those details are at Fallenhouse.com. And Knowmore.org is the place to put your shoulder to the wheel.