B. Dolan Discusses "House of Bees Vol. 2," Working Relationship with Sage Francis
Exclusive: The Strange Famous artist talks about social inequality, and sleeping in subway stations to make his way into a Hip Hop career.
If there’s one thing B. Dolan is out to change in the world, it’s Hip Hop’s image. From progressive and thought-provoking lyrics to unorthodox live performances, the Providence, Rhode Island-born emcee thinks Hip Hop traditionalists have too narrowly defined the identity of the emcee. It’s an image that must be transcended in order for Hip Hop to be seen as more embracing of today’s problems.
Released on June 12, House of Bees, Vol. 2 is a refreshing project that does not adhere to the status quo of a current mixtape. “It’s not a mixtape in the sense that rappers put out mixtapes every two months,” says B. Dolan during a recent phone interview with HipHopDX. “I really craft what I put out.” The craft he speaks of consists of meticulously produced and sample-heavy beats, as well as lyrics about death in the family, social injustice and Beatie Boys-inspired back-and-forth rhyming. It features artists like label-mate Sage Francis and Rhymesayers artist Toki Wright.
During the interview, B. Dolan touched on a number of topics including his decade-long friendship with Sage Francis, his social activist website KnowMore.org and the trial of transgender CeCe McDonald in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His passion is contagious and he hopes to draw a wider audience for all Hip Hop.
Photograph by Oleg Pulemjotov
HipHopDX: What's going on in London?
B. Dolan: I’m doing a tour over here. We just played the first show last night in Glasgow, [Scotland] and tonight we’ve got a radio appearance. But basically for the next few weeks we’ll be performing throughout England and then playing this big festival out here called Bestival, that happens next weekend.
DX: Nice. Well, first question I’ve got for you is: your entrance into Hip Hop started as a slam poet, how old were you when you first started doing that?
B. Dolan: Well, my interest in Hip Hop- I never intended to be a slam poet. My interest in Hip Hop started way before Poetry Slam. Poetry Slam was kind of an incidental thing that I stumbled into along the way. I was 12 years old when I heard The Diary by Scarface, and that was the album that made me want to be a rapper. And from that time I was writing raps and writing different kinds of things. And at a certain point I wrote some poetry, and someone - and I’d moved to New York at the time because all I knew was all my favorite rappers came from New York and so I just went to New York. [Laughs] And I was living there and that ‘s where I had started performing. And it just so happened that someone heard me and was like, “Yo, you should check out the Nuyorican Poet’s Café,” which was kind of a center of Slam Poetry back in the day, and I happened to get on stage and kind of be met with immediate success with all of that.
So it just so happened that when people first encountered me, they happened to encounter me as a Spoken Word poet. I don’t even like the term Slam Poet, Poetry Slam is like a shitty game with a trend like yoga. [Laughs] I don’t care to be associated with it because I don’t even think it’s like a good scene or whatever.
So people encountered me as a Spoken Word poet first, and so people think I’m a Spoken Word poet that became a rapper, but I was a rapper that became a Spoken Word poet for a minute, and happened to get successful with it. And it brought me to peoples’ attention because it was something different, and it was a story, you know?
DX: Yeah. You mentioned Scarface, and you said a bunch of your favorite rappers were from New York. Who else were you listening to?
B. Dolan: The Wu-Tang Clan was one of the first. I grew up outside of Providence, in Rhode Island, so the Hip Hop that we could get at the time- Hip Hop was still very much like outsider shit; it wasn’t the dominant culture and it was hard to get it if you didn’t live in the city, or near New York or Boston. We basically [got] one Boston radio station, and there was like one store at the mall that would carry Hip Hop. But it was still very secret; it was still passed hand-to-hand with like, dubbed copies of tapes and stuff. So for a lot of years I didn’t have many tapes, but the tapes I had, I just played and played and played. And it was Tical by Method Man, his first album. Or actually it was Ready To Die [by The Notorious B.I.G.] and from that I found Tical, and from that I found [Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers] album, and Scarface, De La Soul's Buhloone Mindstate. Those initial albums that I had I just clung to for years. [Laughs] Like whatever little Hip Hop we could salvage from Boston radio stations and all that stuff. So those were my earlier influences, and then also Public Enemy, I later found my way to some of that. But it was like, you didn’t even have access to a radio station that was playing it on the regular, so the way we would find out about stuff was rappers would be featured on other rappers’ projects. Because Method Man was on Ready To Die, that’s how I went and looked for Method Man.
So yeah, I kind of came into it with a funny sort of salvaged way that made it feel more valuable to me.
DX: Right, absolutely. So you went to New York and then ended up going back to Providence. What happened there?
B. Dolan: I was in New York and I was there for a couple years and I was kind of trying to get something going. But I was just- it’s hard to be working class in New York, and I was working as a doorman on Park Avenue, but even before I had a place to live, there was a period of time where I was just sleeping on friends’ couches or subway stations, and then going to work in one of the richest sections of New York. And it was just, you know, small fish, big pond at that point. And it just kind of happened that 9/11 happened and all that shit happened, and me and my friends kind of went crazy. We were like, “Alright, this is the beginning of like, a war, and we need to get us and our people the fuck out of here.” So I happened to have some friends and family back in Providence, and we were like- we were using Providence as the first place to go to, but we were talking about going even further than that, [but] then things calmed down a bit. But it was the kind of initial craziness after 9/11 that propelled us to be like, “This isn’t working in the city. It’s too surreal right now, too crazy.” And it just so happened that- I didn’t even know if that was permanent, I went back to Providence and someone told me, “Well if you’re going to Providence, you should look up Sage Francis, ‘cause he’s the only..." - this cat told me that he was the only poet worth looking up in Providence. And I did, and that’s where I met him, and kind of everything followed from that.
DX: Nice. And just moving right along with that, could you elaborate a little about getting to know and work with Sage Francis and what that was like?
B. Dolan: We met at the Spoken Word scene in Providence and just kind of had a mutual appreciation for each other’s work. And we knew of each other, we stayed in touch and we talked here and there, and in 2005, we both- through our conversations and our frustrations with the 2004 election when George Bush was reelected, I came up with the idea and Sage was willing to bankroll and promote the project for www.KnowMore.org, the activist website. And [over] the course of working on that, we kind of just became close friends, and then in 2008 when he was looking to make Strange Famous [Records] more of a concrete label as opposed to just releasing sporadic projects from himself and his friends, he asked if I wanted to re-release The Failure, which was and album that I’d kind of done on my own that was released earlier in 2003.
So it kind of just organically- from hanging around with each other as peers that respected each other, and when he was trying to turn his label into a more efficient label, he asked me to make music with him and I’ve been doing that ever since.
DX: You mentioned KnowMore.org, can you talk a little more about that and maybe help the viewers get a better idea of the mission?
B. Dolan: KnowMore.org is a website aimed at corporate responsibility and teaching people how to vote with their dollar. And the basic idea is that you enter the name of any brand product or company and you get the rap sheet of who they are and what they do, and we rate companies for Workers’ Rights and Human Rights, business ethics, environmental concerns, and it’s one of the ways we’ve tried to direct our fanbase, which you know, they listen to political music, they come to our shows and they’re clearly thinking about these things. We try to provide people with concrete things to engage, and not just wear a t-shirt about the movement, but actually get involved in some kind of social justice work or think about how their own actions are connected to the things that they feel so strongly about. So the Knowmore website was really important, and even stuff like “Film the Police” later, and our involvement with the Occupy Movement, and today we just released the “Whose Side Are you On?” video which details the CeCe McDonald story in Minneapolis.
So we try and provide people with stuff that you can do now, and the kind of change that you can make in your personal life, as opposed to these, “Let’s go vote for democrats,” or these simple gestures. We look for actual shit that can be done. Concrete things.
DX: Absolutely. And what’s one of the hotplate issues you’re trying to get across right now?
B. Dolan: I’m just kind of trying to keep my eyes open. I’m not one of these rappers that needs to make a song about every hot button political topic of the day. I don’t think people need to hear from me on every single issue. [Laughs] I think that- when I feel compelled to speak about something, that’s when I speak about something. And I make a lot of songs that aren’t political. People hear the political songs and especially the last album, House of Bees, Vol. 2 has a lot of- and I intentionally channeled a lot of the more political songs that I’ve written in the past couple years into that album, and let it just be a very political album. So right now people are going to talk about me like I’m a political rapper, but I [made] a lot of songs that have nothing to do with politics over the course of four albums. So it’s not something where I’m forcing that, or I cast myself as a leader or I’m trying to use my music for that, I’m just trying to [do]- something like “Film The Police,” where our concept is there and an important thing can be said or a concrete thing can be said, because I’m not trying to be one of these people that’s just on a soapbox just talking in bumper stickers. I don’t dig that kind of music, I don’t want to listen to it. I don’t want to make that kind of political Rap, you know?
But a few years ago, Papoose released this series called Law Library, and it was a dope little mixtape series [where] every track was talking about a very concrete part of the legal system. One track was about warrants, and like, “What is a warrant? What are your rights in regards to warrants? And what your [parole officer] has to do if you have a warrant.” And I heard that album and was like, “This is brilliant. This is a great use of Hip Hop as a tool where you don’t have to speak in generalities.” Let’s talk really directly and if we’re going to make a cool political song, let’s actually have it be useful and lead people to something to concrete. So “Film the Police” is something that came out of that kind of thinking. Where it’s just- the concept is dead simple: if you see the police doing fucked up shit, pull your cellphone out of your pocket and video tape it. Because we live in an era now that has power, and that can help us to control cops, and if cops know that people are out there doing that, then cops are going to behave better. So stuff like that, where I see a need or I see something that could be said that’s clear and direct, that’s where I pick my battles.
DX: Absolutely. You mentioned House of Bees, Vol. 2 that just dropped. What’s the reaction to this project been like?
B. Dolan: It’s been great, man. It’s been really cool. It’s a very sample-heavy album, and for that reason I chose not to release it in any kind of official label capacity, so it’s not on iTunes, I’m just releasing it through BandCamp.com. And we’re calling it a mixtape to kind of fit it in to what people understand the album to be. But it’s not a mixtape in the sense that rappers put out mixtapes every two months. I don’t do that shit, I really craft what I put out. So it’s a year’s worth of song writing and perfecting production and lyrics and all that. And I think it’s my best work, honestly, and we got the album mastered and all that stuff, we made sure it sounds proper. It’s no bullshit, it’s just called a mixtape, and it’s not going to be out in stores because of the sample content. And for that reason I think a lot of people have checked it out just casually, but been surprised to find songs that are really a catch too, and songs that are good and worth repeating and hanging on to. And the response to all this stuff at shows has been great. It’s a really cool collection of songs and I’m proud of it.
DX: Yeah, and there’s such a wide variety of production and beats.
B. Dolan: Yeah and that’s another advantage of calling something a mixtape too, is that you aren’t under the pressure to deliver the full focus that an album is expected to have. And with a mixtape you can kind of just experiment with different styles and jump from style to style. And yeah, I definitely took advantage of that. There’s even a track on House of Bees, Vol. 2 that isn’t me, it’s a Spoken Word poet that I really admire and it’s one of the only recordings of his work. And we just set that to music and have it as an interlude. A lot of the beats actually on House of Bees, Vol. 2- I had much more of a hand in the production of these beats than ever before. “2Bad is produced by me and Reanimator, and “My Tin Soldiers” is a beat that was almost entirely produced by me, but Buddy Peace kind of cleaned it up and put cuts on it. And “King Bee” is another one that with the mixtape format, you cansometimes just chop something up and rap over it. And then there’s “100 Bars for SFR” which is me rapping for 100 bars over different SFR instrumentals to kind of highlight the history of Strange Famous Records.
So yeah, we took advantage of- and that’s the thing, going back to your first question: the way that I really came to love Hip Hop was through tapes, it was through these things that were kind of hand-to-hand, and kind of secret, and kind of exclusive, kind of like something that only I knew about, but something that was really great. And I have appreciation for what a mixtape actually is. It isn’t just something you throw twelve half-ass songs on, and you throw it out to the blogs and give it away for free, or a reason for people to say your name this week. A mixtape can be like a treasure for some people. So that was the aim for it.
DX: Absolutely. On this release you’ve got a feature from Toki Wright and on your prior release, Fallen House, Sunken City (17:30), there’s a P.O.S. feature. Is there a creative relationship between Rhymesayers and Strange Famous?
B. Dolan: Yeah, definitely. The first place I performed that was outside of Rhode Island was Minneapolis, and that first show I ever performed at, Slug was in the audience- not the first show, the first show in Minneapolis, the first time I ventured out of my hometown Slug was in the audience because he was friends with Sage, so there is that kind of weird sister-city relationship where I know that any time I’m going to Minneapolis there’s a lot of good friends- some of my oldest friends at this point really, are in the Rhymesayers [Entertainment] camp. I just did a string of shows with Atmosphere, and Slug’s a great guy. And actually in the video we just released, he made a cameo. And when we found out about the CeCe McDonald stuff going on in Minneapolis, part of the reason that I was so sure that we could have a positive effect was because I know the whole Rhymesayers family in Minneapolis, and all I’ve got to do is hit up some of those guys and people are on it, you know?
Minneapolis is an incredible place and what’s been built out there by Rhymesayers and Doomtree is a really incredible, formidable thing that I’ve benefited from, and I appreciate that. I appreciate those dudes and I love to see them do good and I get the feeling that they kind of have the same feeling for us. So yeah, there’s really a lot of love there, for sure.
DX: And as far as you’re concerned, the relationship is going to keep going, and you guys are going to continue to collaborate for future albums?
B. Dolan: Yeah, definitely. There’s collaborations on deck that I can’t even talk about yet. But yeah.
DX: Goin back to “Still Here” really quickly. I know there’s a little bit of a background story to that related to the passing of MCA (of the Beastie Boys). What was that all about?
B. Dolan: “Still Here” is a song that came directly out of- 2010 was a hell of a year; it was the year that Fall House, Sunken City was released, and at the same time that the first sing, “Earth Movers” came out, my father was diagnosed with cancer and he eventually died eight months later, and I spent six months on the road promoting Fallen House, Sunken City. I met my father in the hospital that day and he specifically said to me, “Don’t think about canceling this tour,” and he knew everything and all the work that had led up to it. And while we were out for those six months, I was touring with Sage Francis, and his father suddenly died while we were on the road. He flew home- he cancelled one show during that tour. And he flew home to burry his father, then flew back out and did the rest of the tour. Not because we cared more about touring than the lives of our loved ones, but because we were committed to this thing and it was something that we had to finish and had to do. And everyone knew we had to do it, but it didn’t make it any easier, and it took a toll and it really left me in a place where I was down and out.
“Still Here” is more upbeat than Buddy Peace. It’s something that I listened to in the days immediately following my dad’s funeral. And it was something about that music that kind of roused the old defiance in me like, “This shit is not the end.” For me, or for the memory of my father or for the people we’ve lost or for what we’re doing. So there’s a lot in that song, but it’s mostly about defiance and tenacity. And also memory and preserving the legacy and that that’s what we’re here to do. So that’s where the lyrics of the song are coming from. And also in 2010, Eyedea passed, a dude that I had known and a lot of people I know are close to- were close to- and I considered a peer. And so the line in the song, “You can kill a man, but never the Eyedea/idea,” that was on my mind and what it meant to still be here and still make music and still be able to speak when one of my peers, someone beside me, has suddenly disappeared.
And just at the time we were about to release the first single for House of Bees, Vol. 2, MCA passed [from] cancer, and the connection between his passing and my father passing- that moment it was literally the week we were about to release the first single- I think it was two days before- MCA passed. And Hip Hop kind of collectively had this moment of loss and mourning. And originally the first single was going to be “King Bee,” but we released “Still Here” instead, because it kind of speaks to that idea of what we are left with, you know?
DX: Yeah, that’s crazy, man. I don’t want to try to have you compare your songs, but I can imagine that that one is a little bit more important to you than other ones.
B. Dolan: Yeah I’m definitely speaking more plainly and directly than I have on a lot of other songs. I definitely feel it every time I do it, so that’s good. [Laughs] I’m proud of that song. That song has resonated with a lot of people for that reason.
DX: Absolutely. Just a question about your artistic side, I know you’ve got a couple different personas in Bombzo Way and Evel Knievel. What are those guys all about?
B. Dolan: Those are actually some older pieces, I haven’t done anything in that vein in awhile. Not for any intentional reasons, just because it’s sort of like the political stuff: I wait for the perfect thing to come along and pop into my head. But mostly those things were done before I gave my full attention to the rap side of things. And I was kind of in the transition between the Spoken Word things that kind of respected a certain thing, and then the Hip Hop scene I kind of expected another kind of thing. I try to - I’m in Glasgow last night and I’ve been here like four times this year, and someone came up to me last night and was like, “You’ve been in Scotland more than the local bands that live here” [laughs]. But I still try every time I come out here to not just doing the same set over and over, I still try to approach a rap show like anything can happen at a rap show. Like literally anything can happen at a rap show, because I find that’s what keeps it fresh for me, and it keeps it fresh for the audience, and it’s how you should approach any genre that’s established and people think there’s an established set of rules for. Like, you go to a Hip Hop show, you expect to see three or four bands that get on stage and act like tough guys and do call-and-response stuff- there’s certain clichés about performing the act of Hip Hop and like, what you do and what you don’t do and what can happen and what doesn’t happen. So as someone who’s a student of performance, I have been inspired by great actors, I’ve been inspired by drag queens, I have been inspired by rock musicians. I’m always watching anyone that I think is great or I think is captivating on stage or seeing what it is about what they do that’s great or interesting or I can learn from or that relates to what I do. So in that kind of spirit, that’s where the Evel Knievel thing ends up happening. In the middle of a Rap set, the emcee strips his clothing and is wearing an Evel Knievel costume underneath, and then speaks as Evel Knievel and jumps a toy bicycle over three buses off the end of the stage while “The Final Countdown” plays. And then we just go back to rapping.
Or recently, I’ve been covering LL Cool J’s “You Can’t Dance” and having a dance battle with a random audience member every night, and that introduces a really chaotic, interesting element that’s different every night ‘cause I’m dealing with a drunk audience member who’s trying to dance on stage.
And you can come out and do your songs exactly like they sound on the album and they can be great performances. But time after time when you see a kid four years later, he goes: “I saw you at Webster Hall in New York City, you were in a fucking Evel Knievel costume.” Like, that’s the first thing people remember, ‘cause it’s the thing that never fucking happened at any other Rap show they went to. [Laughs] Stuff like that is part of the secrets of our success building a fan base [without] any publicity money, or radio money, or major label backing. Just on the strength of live shows and selling CDs hand-to-hand after the shows and making fans out of people.
DX: Yeah, that’s refreshing. I saw on the tracklisting for House of Bees Vol. 2 you and Sage had a “super-duo” of sorts formed. Do you have any plans or do you care to address the duo, Epic Beard Men?
B. Dolan: Well since we released “2Bad” we’ve heard a lot of calls from fans to make an Epic Beard Man album - a full length - and we’ve certainly discussed the idea recently. I’m not like announcing that it’s gonna happen, ‘cause I don’t like announcing albums too far ahead of time.
But Sage is my best friend, and I’m actually about to get married and he’s going to be the best man at the wedding. He’s a dude that, now, I’ve known for a decade, and we’ve toured the world together - a couple of times in tiny airplane seats [laughs]. You know, he’s definitely a kindred spirit and he’s somebody who’s whose work still inspires me, and I think my work still inspires him. When Sage Francis is killin’ it on stage, there’s not another emcee in the game that I’d rather see or who can be more dynamic and interesting. And he’s an absolutely incredible writer as well. I’m still honored to have ever been on a track with him.
The Epic Beard Man thing is fun, the idea is fun. We’re both big fans of- it’s something that just happened too, it was something I was working on before MCA passed. But we were thinking about the Beastie Boys and we were talking about the Beastie Boys; Paul’s Boutique is an album that we always talk about as like an inspiration, or a kind of album that doesn’t really exist anymore, but should exist. And thinking about the Beastie Boys and that back-and-forth style and how rare it is nowadays to find a duo that can rock that back-and-forth style as seamlessly. And it’s hard to do, it’s a different kind of emceeing. And it’s challenging in a different way. Like M.O.P.: they way M.O.P. - their voices and their cadences and the way they work their routine, there’s an art to that. It’s kind of been lost in Hip Hop as it becomes about individuals celebrating themselves. The rap group is kind of a lost idea- not a totally lost idea, but it’s something you don’t see nearly as much anymore. So we just made that song [“2Bad”] just to write a song in that style, you know, to do the back-and-forth thing, and it’s fun man. I like it. It’s fun and I feel more motivation to make Epic Beard Man songs.
DX: Excellent. You’re obviously an outspoken proponent of gay and lesbian equality and causes. I know the question get’s asked a lot these days, but do you think Hip Hop is ready to embrace an openly gay rapper?
B. Dolan: Yeah, I think Hip Hop better get ready to accept an openly gay rapper. When I do the song, “Which Side Are You On?”, live- which deals directly with that stuff- I generally begin [by saying], “Dedicated to the Hip Hop that died.” And I say that ‘cause in my experience, the people who walk around with this lost ideal of Hip Hop, or these strict borders of what is and what is not Hip Hop, and all the kids who thing all Hip Hop has to sound like a Mobb Deep record: those are the same people who tell you in the next breath that Hip Hop is dead. And the answer is, “Of course, your Hip Hop is dead. Your Hip Hop is like Twenty-Five years old and like, telling people that they can’t come to the party.” Making women feel uncomfortable at shows, demeaning people and feminizing them, calling them bitches, calling them faggots, making sure that the space that you exist in is strictly patrolled and you have to live in like a very specific mold to be considered an emcee or to be considered Hip Hop. And I’ve come up against that throughout my career just for writing songs about politics, or writing songs about emotions, or being a weird, white literary kid or whatever people perceive me as; I’ve run into that shit too. But I’m glad now, because I see the ultimate result: that that community [Anti-Gay Rappers] is based on some shit that happened in the past, and no one wants to be a part of it because it’s so strictly, rigidly defined. So there’s all this incredible culture outside of that, that Hip Hop closes its eyes to.
When I bring drag queens into my shows and incorporate what they do into a Rap show, or when I bring Queer performers out to perform in front of our crowds, I don’t think I’m doing a favor for queer performers or drag queens, because those are communities that are vibrant, and are thriving, and people are having big careers and making money, getting love and all that; I think I’m doing a favor for Hip Hop when I do that shit. Because Hip Hop is missing that shit. Hip Hop is not part of it. Hip Hop is in a corner putting its back to the room.
So Hip Hop is going to have to, man. It’s the same shit everywhere. I think generationally, as people get more and more comfortable with transgender people or queer people, each generation is kind of- the closed minded generation is going to kinda go away and die off, and the new kids are going to have a more open minded idea. So I’m sure - the Frank Ocean stuff has happened, I’m sure there will be plenty more about that. And an important point is that Hip Hop is very gay at this moment. Who do you think the stylists are that style 50 Cent when he goes to do VIBE Magazine? There are plenty of Queer people in Rap, in the industry.
So it’s all this front and this facade that I definitely see as crumbling and I can definitely help as what tears that down.
DX: Absolutely. Last question: what’s next for you? Anything this year or next year that you can talk about?
B Dolan: Yeah, at the moment I’m wrapping up the last leg of the Church Eleven Ruin Tour, which is this 26 piece tour. Twenty-six performers on this tour with a 19 piece marching band, drag queens, myself, Sage Francis, Buddy Peace - it’s just this crazy package show we’ve been doing all summer long. We did it in New England, and now we’re doing it in England.
So I’m wrapping this up, I’ve got a lot of songs, a lot of beats, a lot of concepts on deck, and I’m looking this winter to just get some time to get in the studio. And I’m also gonna be working out a kind of live band of my set for the first time. I’ve kind of been rocking a lot time off of CBJ. [Laughs] So I think it’s proper time to get some musicians on stage with me and kind of flesh out some new arrangements and new songs.
So the next time people see me, I’ll have a band. And yeah, I’ve got some interesting opportunities for some tours in 2013, and yeah, a new album is being worked on as we speak.