A park bench in Tompkins Square Park on a mid-week summer's afternoon: Homeboy Sandman is sitting in the shade while I ask him questions about writing relationship songs, ostensibly to compile some sort of step-by-step guide to writing a love rap. It's an idea prompted by "Relapse" on his new EP Things I Hold Dear, a melancholic song dedicated to "the only girl I ever met that liked Three Musketeers chocolate bars." But as with Sandman's music, the conversation soon takes on a broader ambit: He talks like he writes, full of considered nuances and brief flights of fancy (plus the Sandman staple of a reference to the Roots' Black Thought, his favorite rapper). So enjoy the following chat for what it is: Homeboy Sandman opening up about getting personal in his raps.
How much personal information to you usually put into a relationship rap? Like on "Unforgettable" did you really meet a girl from Bed-Stuy at a Best Buy?
No, nah, that was just a fat rhyme. That was based on me and a girl that wasn't fulfilling me the way another girl was. Actually, that song was based off of three girls. But no, I didn't really meet a girl in a Bed-Stuy Best Buy spot.
It's a composite of girls you've known?
Yeah, like the three girls that really stood out to me and since then there's one more who has joined that elite level. My girl that I'm with right now is actually one of the three. We went out four years ago and now I'm back with her. So there was three girls that had really taken it to different levels in different ways in one way or another so my mind would drift to them when I'm writing.
Do the girls know you've released songs about them?
Yeah, I'm certain. There's the part in the song about where I say, "I miss you my half-breed." She heard that and she knows it's about her. There's another one where I say, "The way you dug your face in my armpit." That's a girl who knows who she is.
Do you tell them before you release the songs?
Nah, one girl I don't talk to no more, the other girl is a really good friend of mine but we've never talked about it.
Would you ever let a girl listen to a song you've written about her and ask her permission to release it?
Nah, 'cause it's not about me naming names or putting anybody on blast. People know, and girls know when they become a part of my life that my life is what I write about. Even my sister knows that if she gets on my nerves I'm going to write about it.
And your current girl?
Two songs are straight-up about her. "Moon" and "Listen" are straight-up about her.
How does she feel about them?
She likes them. You know, there's a lot of personal information in those songs, particularly in "Moon" -- I had to talk to her about that. I like being open; it's something that makes me feel good. I told her, "This song, with me telling people it's about you, they're gonna know personal information about you." At the point she was out of control, drinking and smoking. I had to write about that. But there was also a lot of personal information about her past. I had to write about it. I try to be open about people I'm close to. That's what I write songs about.
Have you ever expressed a feeling toward someone for the first time in song?
Yeah, that's "Relapse." I made that song and I sent that song to the girl not that she could check it out like was it okay that I can put it out, but that the whole story is very personal. I got inspired to write that song when I heard that beat, and then I sent it to her.
How did she react?
It was like a bitter-sweetness 'cause she likes the song but it's a break-up song, you know? It was still very early after our break-up and she was still very much thinking that we would work it out, so it was bitter-sweet for her to hear a song like that.
Can you trace your relationship with this girl through your music?
The "Relapse" girl?
Definitely. There's some songs that's not out, like I wrote a song called "So Good" when I first started messing with her, before we were even an official couple, just about the way she had me feeling so good. I've also written a song where I talk about another girl trying to talk to me while I was in a relationship with another girl. So, yeah, you can, but the thing is I have so much more work unreleased than released. If somebody would have access to everything I record all the time then they would be able to trace everything: My diet, my relationships, my mood, my work-out regiments, my apartment hunting at the moment.
At what point do you decide to go from writing to express your thoughts to actually releasing something as a song?
I'm always writing to beats, so it always begins with music, but it's not an exact science. A lot of times it depends on how I feel. If I finish something and I record it and I'm happy with it, I'll look to include it in something. But I also started to write two other songs about my current girl -- I'd done the first verse -- but I didn't really feel the same way. I also have another song about the "Relapse" girl but I wasn't in the same movement. I can't go back to that. I had writer's block one time, in 2010, for four months. It was a nightmare; it was very stressful. I was depressed, I was sleeping all day. I realized then that the only way to avoid writer's block, for me … [Pauses] I grew up looking up to all these hip-hop idols, and I was like this is what I want to be like rather than figure out who I am. A lot of my writing wasn't showing my own self; it was about determining who I was rather than finding out who I was. So when I had that writer's block, I realized I had to write how I feel. If you're sad and you've broken up with a girl, you've got to write about being sad and broken up with a girl. Writer's block for me was looking to tap into a place where I wasn't really at.
What was it about the beat for "Relapse" that made you want to write about a relationship to it?
I think it was that last part of the song [hums the riff] 'cause to me it was like a shoulder shrug, it sounds like a shoulder shrug! I always got beats on me and I'm always sifting through them to see what I'm going to create that day and looking for something to match the mood. I have my beats and I'm moving around and thinking, "What matches this mood? What really matches this mood?" So I found the "Relapse" beat and that shoulder shrug made me feel like, "Oh well, I could beat myself up about this, you're an idiot, you could be strong, it's your responsibility to stay away from a girl who thinks we shouldn't be together…" Like I put that all in a song. I talk about it's high stakes if we're trying to remain friends. That's what it was.
When you were younger, were there any rap songs about girls that you used to relate to your own real life situation with a girl?
Yeah, The Roots' "Silent Treatment." [Black] Thought was trying to get with this girl and he couldn't get with her and he couldn't understand why. He liked her, but he was so focused on getting her buns. When "You Got Me" came out, that was another thing that I connected to a feeling; I had a girl I was dating in college at the time and I had feelings of jealously and insecurity and I feel like those feelings may have been noxious. When you're with somebody for the wrong reasons, you feel like somebody else can come take your spot 'cause you're not with each other 'cause you love each other. You're fulfilling different things and somebody else can come and fulfill that thing -- and you might know that deep down inside. I mean, Black Thought is my favorite MC of all time -- he captures emotions in such an amazing way throughout his career. Like I remember that song "What You Want," it was like a theme song for that movie The Best Man with Taye Diggs in it.
Are you working on any love raps at the moment?
I got this song "So Good" and I don't even know if it's gonna come out. The dude who sent me the beat, I lost his email address. I was thinking of putting it out as a promo, saying "Whoever did this beat, get in touch."
You can't remember who sent it to you?
Yeah, it was emailed; it was a cold-call type thing. I made a note of who did the beat but I lost it. Now I have a system to make sure that never happens again 'cause of that beat. But this song "So Good" is crazy. That song I wrote in a day, just like "Relapse" I wrote in a day. These things all come to me as long as I'm in that mood 'cause it's really just taking a thought that's germinating and expressing it.
What's "So Good" about?
It's about a girl who has me feeling so good! A lot of it is a sex record I guess, but it's also about the way she's treating me and I was all she was thinking about and she was doing everything to make me feel comfortable. She was like, "Yo, Angel, it's about you and I don't care who knows it." She wanted to become my girl and was really a sweet girl but at that point I was in a real selfish place and she wanted to come and meet me where I was at and feed into my ego. She just had me feeling so good from a physical standpoint but also from a mental standpoint. Cats want to feel like they're the king of the universe from a girl and that's what that song is about.
Finally, what do you think people will get out of listening to All That I Hold Dear?
You've heard a lot of my releases and I don't feel this one sounds like any of them. When I think of people that are fans of my music, they're not people looking for the same thing. Like that Black Thought record I brought up, "Silent Treatment," for me that's neck-and-neck with Billy Joel's "Only The Good Die Young" as the two best songs about trying to get butt from a girl but she's withholding that. I bring up Billy Joey 'cause I'm a big fan of Billy Joel -- I'm a fan of musicianship. On "Musician" I say, "Top level of dope art/ Black Thought, Ray Charles, Miles and Mozart." You didn't listen to this stuff 'cause it was going to be the same as the last one and you trusted their musicianship to see where they would go next. On this one, the title itself, All That I Hold Dear, evokes emotion more than any of my other titles. I'm dealing with subject matter like family, and my career, and relationships. I want to take that and do that from a more emotional standpoint. Even "Knock," that's coming from a real personal place. The first and third verses is talking about some girls and some ish I was going through with some color complex issues I was having: "I want a girl darker than me/ Lighter skin girls call me a tease/ They make the ill marketing team." I had a girl lighter than me since I wrote that -- the best ones end up in my notepad. So I'm getting better at opening up, and this is a product of me opening up my life. Next time I want to be even more open in my records 'cause that's why I connect to cats' music.