‘I think as a white rapper I have a particularly unique responsibility, because of white privilege, white supremacy, the music industry and the history of black music in America‘ – Dave Donnelly talks art, activism, and growing up Irish-American with B.Dolan
The Providence-born rapper of Irish and Italian-American parentage has made more than just a career out of politically and socially-activistic music – it’s been an ingrained part of virtually his entire adult life.
While activism is one thing – and a social good in itself – it’s quite another to put the mirror up to oneself and acknowledge where you’ve benefited and at the expense of others, and to identify the responsibilities that come with being a person of privilege working with an art form of the oppressed.
B.Dolan spoke to Dave Donnelly shortly before his whistle-stop Irish tour last September, talking about the drive to innovate that underpins the brooding heaviness of his latest record, Kill the Wolf, the struggle to make political music useful and how punk rock dovetails with the tradition from which he comes.
Are you pleased with how Kill the Wolf has been received so far?
You can’t get a lukewarm reaction after five years – it can be like, ‘oh, it’s pretty good.’ There’s been a lot of exclamation points, a lot of very good reviews, and a lot of people saying it was worth the wait, which is kind of a relief to me.
I was surprised when I learned it was five years – is there any reason why there was that big gap?
Yeah, I really wanted to revamp the sound. I was lucky enough to run into this guy, DS3K, who was down to work with me on the project. It was a really ambitious project. I tend to seek out really ambitious projects because I have this feeling like when I start to feel like I know how to make an album, that’s when I start to run run the risk of starting to phone it in, or for it to not sound hungry. There’s a reason that people love the debut album more than the other albums, because the debut album tends to have this vibe of, like, not exactly knowing what you’re doing, which keeps you really sharp as an artist.
I try to seek that out. I try to seek out situations where I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. I did that pretty successfully with this one. That’s the risk you run when you’re experimenting. I was trying not to take anything for granted, trying to see if we could advance the sound, make it sonically bigger and better and make the next step. That ended up including all kinds of stuff – we ended up building a studio in the middle of the process. We were working steadily for five years, but that’s how long it took.
Did you have a general sound in mind you were working towards?
I did. I came in with this collection of ideas. We were listening to stuff from the Dead Weather, which is a side project of Jack White. I had the idea first, and then I heard that stuff and was like, yeah, that’s what I’m looking for. I had gone in with the idea of instead of using software synths, I wanted to get to something like a live sound, but that it doesn’t sound like a rock band. So if we’re going to have synthesisers, I want to use analogue synthesisers and I want them to sound like they’re in a room.
It was things like experimenting with recording lots of live instruments, lots of live analogue synths, messing around with drums and we ended up at this new medley of break beats and analogue drum kit drums, analogue synths, live instruments – a lot of upright bass and live guitar – so we kind of had a couple of different ideas. I would bring in a Beastie Boys record, or I would bring in a Dead Weather record, or this old Muddy Wolf album that had this psych-rock mixing on it – I would bring ideas in and we would try to figure out how to bring that into the context of the album.
One of the things that pops out right away on the record is that, musically, it’s quite heavy. Is that meant to reflect the lyrical content, or had the sound developed before that?
My music has always had that aspect. I came up on boom-bap hip hop. Bomb Squad, the producers behind Public Enemy, were a really big inspiration. Ice Cube and Wu-Tang, all the production on those early records. Those were the records I was in love with as a kid and they made me want to be a rapper. When I rap it tends to lend itself to big drums and big sounds, and live that’s what our stage show is like too. We tend to find ourselves in big, heavy, epic territory pretty often.
So you didn’t want it to sound like a rock record?
I didn’t want it to sound like rock-rap – I didn’t want it to sound like Limp Bizkit.
Even the artists you’ve referenced there, like the Beastie Boys or Public Enemy, they’re always artists who’ve used elements of rock and were very respected in rock circles.
At the same time, I was experimenting with a live band. We toured for a couple of years with a live band set-up, so it was sort of lending itself to that also. Those players were around, I was around a lot of musicians, and we ended up doing some stuff that is in that wheelhouse. I brought in and showed those guys some old Rick Rubin songs and [asked] ‘what would it be like if Jack White and 1985 Rick Rubin made a record together?’
That, in particular, is what I was talking about, and it’s how we got to the song ‘Graffiti Busters’ on the record. Sometimes there were direct influences like that – that was in the beginning – and once we knew what the record sounded like, it was like we know what instruments we’re using so let’s just make some shit that sounds good.
Cathleen from Circle Takes the Square appears on Safety Theatre, which is another track that hops in and out of genres and is maybe not something you’d expect to work, but you’ve stumbled on something that sounds amazing.
Cathleen is a friend and a fan. She came to a show of ours and we met, and Circle Takes the Square is a legendary hardcore band. I was really impressed to learn that they knew who we were. We did a tour together where I was the only hip hop act on the bill – it was me, Circle Takes the Square and United Nations – and we just hit it off. That was one of the most fun tours I’ve ever been on. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was the kind of thing where I was trying to challenge myself, and I didn’t know if I was going to get bottles thrown at me every night, but those crowds loved it. It went off. We struck up that partnership and friendship.
Tours like that, and taking yourself out of your comfort zone and your own audience – is that something that also helped craft the new sound?
Yeah, for sure. It was definitely on my mind. I was on a European tour a few years ago and a booking agent just happened to fill a day and he booked me on this punk festival called Zoro Fest in Leipzig, Germany, and I was the only American on the bill, and the only rap act on the bill. It was just these crust punk German dudes in this warehouse with a couple of thousand kids, and these really intense hardcore and punk acts, and it just went off.
I was just like, ‘oh, I’ll see how this goes,’ but as soon as I started performing, it instantly made sense. It was like, ‘yeah, your music is aggressive, your music is heavy at times, your music is political’ – of course these kids are into it! I wouldn’t say I was trying to aim it at them, but becoming aware of that is something that maybe freed me up to experiment with some stuff that hip hop kids might not [be into] but loosened up the borders for me.
I really like the opening line in Graffiti Busters – ‘They say a work of art is an uncommitted crime / They paint me as a vandal when I’m committing mine’ – is there a parallel in there with how people view alternative and outspoken artists as well?
I’m really into that concept, and I always wanted to have a graffiti song – like every rapper has to have a graffiti song – but I didn’t want to do the same old tired tribute. That song has a deeper metaphor for art. Everything you can possibly create is going to be destroyed eventually, so then maybe that destruction is part of the creative process in some way. The last line of that song is: ‘I hate the blankness you take for a canvas.’ Destruction is a part of it. In the face of knowing you’re going to be erased, can you still create that with vigour, and in defiance? That’s the challenge.
Does your art then benefit from being in opposition, from being opposed to something?
My art always has been because that’s who I am, as a result of my art and my situation and upbringing, and where I came from and what I’ve witnessed and experienced. I don’t think art has to be [in opposition to something], but I think my art certainly does benefit. Some of the most beautiful creativity that inspires me has come out of situations where people had very little.
As artists acquired more tools and gadgets and gear and bullshit, something gets diluted at a certain point. When I think of the origins of hip hop, and the history of black music in America really, [it] is the history of having very little at your disposal, but making music with your mouth, or making music with your feet or hands, or making music with two turntables and a mixer. I don’t know if it has to be in opposition, but I know that lean circumstances can certainly benefit art.
And that’s a good point to get into your own background… I’m guessing being from Providence and with a name like Dolan, you must have some sort of Irish background.
Yeah, my father was Irish. My grandmother was from Ireland but was adopted so we don’t know from exactly where she came from, but my father’s side is Irish – we’re half-Irish, half-Italian.
Did you grow up with an Irish-American heritage or was it just American?
Yeah, Irish-American. My father’s family was kind of dispersed, so he was an Irishman but he was around a lot of Italians. New England Irish is funny man, because they’re almost Italian. There’s Irish mob up here, and I feel like the two ethnicities almost blend into each other. My father was an Irishman who behaved like Tony Soprano half the time. I don’t think that’s unusual either – there’s a particular type of New England Irish. We’re about an hour south from Boston here.
Did you have a musical element to your background too?
I didn’t, but I was interested in Irish music – I was interested in all types of music from a young age – and I remember around middle school or high school finding some channel that had Irish music. The first place I could hitch a ride to with friends before the internet was the local mall that had a music store and a book store, and that’s where I started buying my first rap tapes and I got into blues music too.
There was a time period where I was looking for Irish music. The easy one to find over here is the Chieftains – they’re always big over here, and if you’re looking for Irish music here that’s what you’re going to find in any major music store. I remember also, I don’t remember the name of the show, but there was a show, and the really mournful stuff is what I was into. I was a moody teenager into delta blues and stuff, and the Long Black Veil, that type of shit.
I know you got into performance as a spoken word performer, but was hip hop always where you aimed to end up?
Yeah, hip hop is what made me want to be a writer and made me want to be a rapper. I heard a record by an artist called Scarface, and the record was the Diary – I heard that was 12 years old and ever since I’ve wanted to be a rapper. Spoken word was an odd detour. I moved to New York City when I turned 18 because I didn’t know how anything worked – I thought you just went to New York City and performed and got discovered. I later found out what that means, and what the music industry looks like, but I just wandered to New York City and started performing.
I performed at this coffee shop where I just read some lyrics that had a hip hop sound, so somebody told me, ‘you should go to the Nuyorican Poets’ Café in Brooklyn.’ That’s where I started performing and that’s where I stumbled into spoken word. And, as it happened, I was immediately successful and a lot of people came to know of me first as a spoken word poet and then later they were like, oh he raps. But hip hop was the original thing – spoken word was the detour that taught me some skills, and I was in that world for a minute.
So it wasn’t a case where you had to make a choice – it was just about getting to where you wanted to be?
I did have to make a choice at a certain point because, especially if you’re successful in that scene, you have the option to stay there forever. I’d know some poets I used to perform with that are still there, still working the college poetry slam circuit, still trying to win the slam at the end of the year and all that bullshit.
To me, it was too isolated and too insular a community, and I felt like, ‘alright, I’ve learned how to beat this game, am I just going to stay here and beat this game every year?’ The real test is to take those skills and see if you can get up on a pool table at a bar and captivate that audience, or go to a rap show and captivate that audience, which is what I do. Spoken word is still a part of my set, but I don’t mess with the competition or any of that circuit or scene.
At what point did you become aware that hip hop is something you were becoming known for, and you were working towards making records and all that?
When I met Sage Francis in 2002. I moved back to Providence. I was living in New York on 9/11 and things got real crazy, and a year later me and the dudes I was living with moved back to Providence and that’s where I met Sage. I was very reluctant – I was very involved as an activist at that point, and I was still making the dark, heavy, political stuff that I make but I didn’t think anybody was going to buy it. I didn’t think there was any way to make that happen.
I had had a little encounter with Def Jam when I was in the city, and I turned away from the mainstream music industry, and Sage Francis brought me on my first tour, when I just worked merch for him, and he showed me, watching that dude night after night, I was like, ‘oh, there’s kids in every city around the world that want to see this?’
You can really make this type of stuff and people will come out for this, and you can live this way and grow a fanbase this way with a great live show and sending them home with CDs that make them fans and songs with real value. He gave me that hustle and showed me how it worked. More than anything, that was the definitive thing that made me understand: you can really do this. And I’ve been doing this ever since.
You said you were involved in activism even then – is that something that’s always been in your life?
Yeah, rap music was the foundations of my political understanding. Groups like Public Enemy and Scarface and De La Soul and Dead Prez, they sort of informed my early education. The stuff I wasn’t hearing about in school, the explanation for some of the poverty I saw around me, or some of the social situations I saw around me. I found that in rap music.
When I moved to the city I went to my first protest, against the shooting of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by the NYPD in 1999. That was the first time I was surrounded by thousands of people who felt the same as me and were on the same sound. 9/11 happened shortly after and almost radicalised me and made me realise, I have to do something right now. I have to get involved because the world is at a crisis level. That pre-dates the release of my first CD, so for as long as long as people have known me I’ve been attached to things like Nomore.org and activism in general.
Do you think as an artist, having the platform that you do, there is a responsibility to highlight the things that you believe are important?
I think as a white rapper I have a particularly unique responsibility, because of white privilege, white supremacy, the music industry and the history of black music in America. It’s a very specific set of circumstances that apply to me and other white rappers in that we make our living off a black art form. The origins of hip hop were… Chuck D called it black people’s CNN, and Scarface called it ‘our only mode of communicating with our people.’
That is what I understood hip hop to be when I first fell in love with it, so ever since I have had this understanding that if you’re going to be in a room full of white kids rapping on stage, and you’re not going to address at some point, in some way, the larger circumstances attached to this music that you’re all in love with and enjoying and using and benefiting from. For me, that’s my truth. I don’t think all artists… I don’t think every banjo player needs to be on a soapbox talking about politics, but that’s me.
Do you feel in any way constrained or limited by that, or is it just the way it is?
No, I actually think it opens up… when I realised that, and I started thinking about that, I realised there was this whole field of things to address that not a lot of people were addressing. It was like, ‘oh wow, I’ve never heard a song about this,’ ‘I’ve never heard this angle,’ ‘no one’s ever said this.’ In mentioning some of those things, in exploring some of that territory, I’ve had some of my most popular songs. ‘Which Side Are You On?’ is an example of that. I don’t feel constrained by it. I actually feel like it’s a fertile ground for art, because a lot of people have shied away from it for so long.
Obviously activism has a point and it’s valuable in itself, but do you have any concrete idea of what you could achieve through your music or is changing one mind enough?
The political song I’m maybe most proud of is ‘Film the Police.’ I struggled for a lot of years with how political art could be useful, and whether writing a song about something was really the most impactful way to make change in the world. It can be a hard thing to put a finger on – Chuck D never wrote a song that started a revolution, but hearing those songs made me who I am and probably created an activist in me and an activist in a lot of other people. That’s hard to quantify. You can’t say ‘Fight the Power’ directly resulted in 3,000 new activists – it’s not a statistic.
For a long time I was like, I don’t just want to make bumper sticker, feel-good, political music where we all pump our fists and then leave the concert and feel like we did something. I struggled with that and thought about that stuff, but I’ve come around to really liking making very practical political music at times, like ‘here’s one thing you can do.’
That’s how the song ‘Film the Police’ came about, which then became a hashtag, and now people send me screenshots of ‘Film the Police’ graffiti all over the world. People use that expression, that phrase, and they’ve never heard my song. To me, that’s something I can concretely say, great, we were able to give that to people as something quick and easy to remember to say to each other that is a useful tool. Providing tools to activists is definitely something musicians can do.
And music can have a huge impact. In the struggle against apartheid, when those people locked arms and faced down police that were advancing on them, there were songs. There were particular songs that everybody knew and everybody sang in those moments that allowed them to be solid in that moment. Music generally has a role in social justice and political activism and struggle.