Watsky @ Kilby Court. Photo: Madelyn Boudreaux
The email came twice––SLUG asking if anyone wanted to cover “Watsky @ Kilby (hip hop/speed rap).” I ignored it the first time, assuming someone else would jump on it (but made plans with my boyfriend to attend), but when it came a second time, I took it as a sign.
Everyone who knows me knows I’m so goth, I can’t cut out paper dolls without them turning into skeletal spiders. I haven’t been to a hip hop performance since my nephew dragged me to a New Orleans bounce show in 1996. My SLUG editor wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into before I committed to the show.
But, George Watsky isn’t exactly your typical rapper.
For starters, he’s a skinny “half-Jewish” kid from San Francisco, who defiantly raps under his own Midwestern-sounding surname because he “doesn’t need a fuckin’ emcee name.” He got his start as a poetry slammer, draws lyrical influence from childhood imagination and depression, played Shakespeare against Dr. Seuss in the “Epic Rap Battles of History,” and rails against a lot of the things that hip hop and popular culture often uphold in favor of down-to-earth appreciation for the real things in life: Subaru cars, doing what you love, working your ass off, and taking care of each other.
He also raps inhumanly fast.
The evening had an inauspicious start, as my name wasn’t on the list for the sold-out show. It only took a few minutes to get that taken care of, but by then the opener DJ Dstrukt had already started his set, and with most of the 200 people in attendance already crowded into the garage, I couldn’t stake out a spot near the stage. Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “Art!” and “Philosophy!,” Dstrukt spun a pretty good, albeit kind of generic hip hop set, dropping in “Harlem Shake,” which is the first time I’ve heard more than 30 seconds of that, and otherwise mixing a lot of deep mysterious beats, 8-bit video game doodles, electronic noises, and so on. Once I disconnected myself from the oddness of being in the middle of a crowd of mostly white kids doing what I’ve decided to call the “Hip Hop Heil”––where they toss their right hand in the air and then bob their hands or arms in time with the music––I discovered that I kind of enjoyed it. I can’t imagine dancing to it, but it had a good flow. Occasionally, Dstrukt would break in to say something, and the young crowd––my boyfriend and I were among the oldest in attendance, along with a few moms attending with their young teens––ate it up and shouted for more.
After about an hour, Dstrukt was joined by Jonathan Park aka Dumbfoundead. The lanky and adorable Korean rapper performed an energetic set and a freestyle piece, along with comedic riffing on things like Utah place names (he suspected that “Eagle Mountain” is majestic, but “American Fork” and “Spanish Fork” were too weird for him) and about being from a dangerous and isolated part of L.A., “North Koreatown.” Asian rappers aren’t that common yet, and Park was featured just last week on NPR’s “Code Switch” discussing the difficulty of Asian-American rappers to fully present their own culture rather than merely mimicking African American culture in hip hop, a trap Park is avoiding. While some of his pieces covered familiar territory (weed!), I was particularly impressed with “Are We There Yet,” about his mother’s heroism in fighting to bring him to America via Argentina (where he was born) and “She Don’t Care” about not-yet-making it and his girl who doesn’t care that he’s not a star yet. Despite some serious topics, his songs were anything but ponderous, and the crowd had a great time singing along with “I Need a New Chick,” about the inevitable boredom that sets in when you get involved with mall-obsessed, gold-digging party girls. Ah, young “love”…
By the time Dumbfoundead was done and a cool rain started to fall, the few stragglers and moms who were not already inside the garage at Kilby Court had crammed in, and after a quick stage change, Watsky’s band was set up and ready to go. I managed to worm my way to the corner near the stage, which gave me a great view of the band’s tushes, and the crowd’s reaction to the show.
I’ve already admitted my general lack of experience with hip hop, but I am pretty sure that most rappers perform with DJs or backing tracks, so I was surprised to see Watsky works with a traditional band––live drummer, bassist, guitar player, a smokin’ hot back-up singer (Danny McClain), and a guy on keys and trumpet. But if this is unusual, it really worked. With its rocked-out, speed-jazz performance, Watsky’s band laid down a fantastic background for Watsky’s newest tracks from his Cardboard Castles album (which came out a month ago and debuted at #10 on the iTunes album charts) and poetry interspersed with covers of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Mrs. Robinson” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” (aka “We Don’t Need No Education”).
With boundless energy and more talent and charisma than any one person should have, Watsky had the crowd eating out of his hand from the second he stepped in the door. An all-ages, no-booze garage in an alley is probably not a venue most people would be thrilled to play (at least, if they don’t know what they’re in for––we all know that Kilby is about the best place in town for underground shows and a great place for underage kids as well as adults to enjoy live music), but the band was amiable and seemed genuinely happy to be playing such an intimate setting, pouring as much energy into the set as you might expect in a much bigger setting.
It’s a fine line between rapping and poetry, and Watsky bridged the divide with a couple of spoken word pieces, including Tiny Screens Part 2, and a show-stopping number about his own brand of redemptive home-brewed religion, which he preambled by noting that he appreciated the likely large percentage of Mormons in the crowd and that he loved “The Book of Mormon” musical. Later, he praised the crowd for getting hyper during the songs, but remaining respectful and calm during the poems. The positive messages of love, respect and a good deal of kicking against the establishment was a constant through the show, and even when his language is blue, you never find Watsky sinking to sexist and homophobic hip hop clichés.
After a brief break, Watsky returned to the crowd’s chant of “one more song” and performed a few more, ending on his epic “Fuck an Emcee Name,” which was one of his first YouTube hits and still one of my favorites. He has nothing to prove, but his performance makes it clear that this “pale kid” has the skills and madness to show everyone a great time.