Earlier this year, Los Angeles rapper Rhys Langston debuted his ambitious Language Arts Unit project, an album that coinciding with the release of the Language Arts Unit: a Rap Textbook that explored rap theory, race and music “as a social mobilizer and opiate.” After HYPEBEAST premiered “Eyes Dyed In Saturated Retinas” with Chester Watson back in January, Rhys returns with his new project — a three track EP titled Grant Money Raps.
The release sets out to practice those same theories first championed in his book. “It is worth wondering if a song would be as catchy and seductive to the senses if it had the same beat, melody, and/or flow pattern with simply different words and concepts used than what is expected. Or is there something essential about the baseline pool of ideas and words that has been established? Does the rate and immediacy with which songs are made disallow references to synonyms, or re-examinations of the whole picture and message given by compositions?” He asks in a statement coinciding with the release of Grant Money Raps.
With instrumentals helmed by longtime collaborator MVNTRA, Rhys waxes about socialism, the need for universal healthcare, whether the planet will even be inhabitable in 30 years and being a “MacArthur Genius on Black Twitter.” He presents these concepts all over modern, bouncy and polished production — and that’s by design. His new music video takes a green screen and stock footage approach given the current limitations of the quarantines but what results is the rapper showing not only his knack for comedy but his true self.
Stream Rhys Langston’s Grant Money Raps below and read about his thoughts on the project, how he’s holding up during the coronavirus quarantine and his thoughts on what’s next for the music industry given these transformative times.
What inspired you for the video? It’s hilarious and super original through the use of stock footage and all the imagery you chose for the green screen backdrop. It really reminded me of Heems’ “Soup Boys” and something we’d see on Eric Andre’s old show.
The entire EP that includes this song and video felt like a chance to explicitly show my comedy influences and talents. I’m influenced a lot by Eric Andre, Lil B, Marcel Duchamp… even if I don’t always feel humor is the way to approach an idea. I think being categorized as “alt-rap” there is this false assumption and stereotype that my work is always aggravated and in constant opposition to whatever is mainstream or “not conscious.” It just felt right to change it up and use the “based” aesthetic to get people to turn their heads toward this video, song, EP. Like if people want something serious I have almost two hours of released music with more stern qualities.
The Eric Andre/Tim and Eric/Heems/Lil B/Viper editing style also worked with the circumstances. In the quarantine, because traditional video and film production is hard and impossible to replicate right now, doing stupid things with a green screen is perfect. My friend Will Peil is responsible for the editing magic. I simply provided shots of myself and a few images to be interspersed.
Now’s the time to have the Universal Healthcare discussion (as well as Universal Basic Income in my opinion). You frame socialism and communism in this hilarious bar at the front-end of the track. Are you really on the socialist wave? It’s not something too many people are talking about in hip-hop these days but is super relevant. Also have you ever been in a relationship where political beliefs have ended that relationship? I feel like that’s more normal now than ever.
Day by day I am drifting toward a principled anarcho-communism — please don’t censor me (laughs). I think the anti-left crusade by the US/anti-communist train by the Global North in the 20th century really was effective in making people associate socialism and communism with qualities inessential to those political philosophies and practices. When the typical person thinks about communism or socialism they go straight to the examples of authoritarianism and state failures, which are important to acknowledge obviously. However, we are in a time where we need to seriously look at denotation vs. connotation, definition versus association. Saying one is explicitly socialist or communist is good to destigmatize those labels and words. Still, we need to focus on the actual principles instead of those big words and -isms (which can turn into a pissing contest of who is supposedly more ideologically pure). Like we are trying to establish a new way of life that affords everyone more dignity to live, and we are asking why we continue to give excuses for gross accumulations of wealth in the face of extreme poverty. Though obviously we have to be careful about co-opting and picking and choosing principles without drawing them under a specified umbrella. One could see how appropriating rhetoric, slogans, and expectations for populist ends put the current person in the White House.
As for my romantic life, I’m obviously an opinionated weirdo but I’m chilled out and understanding. Mostly, I’ve been in relationships where our politics have seemed aligned. In some instances though, as the relationship went on, things like varying views on materialism and surprising gender expectations revealed that wasn’t necessarily the case.
I also think that while more hip-hop artists are being as outspoken politically than ever (a good thing) there’s this weird contradictory love of capitalist beliefs in the genre, and there’s yet to be a day of reckoning. Do you think that day’s coming when it’s more widely addressed?
As I said, there is a big part of being deemed “conscious” that makes people think the music is all “message” and dry, sober, no fun. In my opinion the best social commentary balances levity with consequence. Also, unfortunately we are in a time where irony is amok, and ironically people need a little of it to take anything seriously. I made an attempt and still question what the use of humor is these days. I know why we laugh, but also why laugh?
That contradiction of loving and holding capitalist beliefs and seeing its obvious failures reveals how our imaginations are trying to stretch past their current boundaries. That day of “reckoning” will come when we realize the failure in making ourselves little advertising firms, and when we come up with a more genuine way of sharing ideas. Right now we are inherently selling ourselves with the intent of tricking people into paying attention. Real conversations happen in community and community is hard to achieve with the parlor tricks of marketing (which can turn everything into a logic of deception or playing all the angles).
How’d you link with collaborator MVNTRA? When’d you start recording and what were you looking for in instrumentals for your Grant Money Raps?
I met MVNTRA in college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He’s from the St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands and I’m from LA, so we connected at first off the WASP/Northeastern culture shock after arriving on campus. I wasn’t even making music back then (7-8 years ago), and he was way ahead in the production game. Over the years I learned a lot from watching him produce, and after a bunch of small collaborations he co-produced an early project Aggressively Ethnically Ambiguous that I released in late 2017. A few years ago he sent me a pack of beats after admitting he had fallen off making music. While working on another 3-4 projects I played around with the instrumentals he called his “industry shit.” Being in the “alternative” rap sub-genre I always wanted to show others (and myself) that I could freak a more mainstream style. While working on my album Language Arts Unit (from 2017-2019) I messed around with these songs on the side, though I did want the last track “MacArthur Genius Freestyle” to be on that album (it just didn’t get finished in time).
“She on Me Like a Dreidel / Universal Healthcare Freestyle” also taps into the whole feeling of dystopia in 2020 and this grim outlook on whatever the fuck is going on. How are you staying positive? What do you think the future holds for artists like yourself, independent-minded but who depend on a fanbase buying music, merch and going to shows actively to truly show support from a financial perspective?
I still feel like I am looking into the void, and feeling burned that I was just getting some shine for my last project as everything came to a halt. However, since I’m self-taught musically and in most of my other artistic talents, everything I create feels like a miracle. Fortunately that magic of being surprised when something comes out well is still intact. Years before any of the current moments were on the horizon I made myself consider the possibility that I’d never be “put on,” and that I’d have to do this because it felt good and inherently fulfilling.
Truth is, I don’t quite know what the future holds, but I think networks of people will have to get stronger, in the sense that there will have to be real compensation, acknowledgement, and appreciation for our time as artists. As much as it might sound pretentious, we are going to have to redefine fandom. Even if it’s only $3 dollars or something, maybe you can’t say you’re a fan of someone unless you are actively supporting them. And we don’t have to be mean about it. On their show, Desus and Mero the other day were joking that the 24-hour news cycle has become 12 hours now. With how fast things circulate, simply sharing a link doesn’t do what it used it to, and making work takes time, especially for creators without large coffers— no matter what the CEO of a company says.
You released a literal Language Arts: a Rap Textbook with your last project that was as ambitious as it was singular. You seem hyper-aware of the tropes and movements in hip-hop throughout history, so what are you listening to from today’s artists and who have been some of your favorites from the past?
I appreciate the nod on that project. It was several years in the making, and people seem to hear/see/feel the effort imbued in it. With all things considered I’m mad grateful it came out before things got flipped over. I recently have dug my head into the sand a bit, probably as a coping mechanism, but this genre and culture continues to be extremely vibrant. Even if I don’t necessarily like the music of an artist I appreciate the intent. An example of that feeling I think applies to a group like Brockhampton. Even though I don’t listen to them, I appreciate them using insurgent queerness to redefine a lot of sexuality and gender norms in the pop/rap space. Meg Thee Stallion’s success I think is the product of people more accepting of a leading woman role (though her recent injury has shown that respect’s limits). The arc of someone like Earl Sweatshirt is fascinating and that phenomenon of real evolution needs to be given more airtime in the biggest “markets.”
In terms of music I aesthetically, undoubtedly vibe with, Freddie Gibbs has a lot of nuance and reflection that I’m a huge fan of, on a gradient of self-awareness beside folks as varied as Pop Smoke (R.I.P.), Saba, Denzel Curry, Noname, even sometimes Future. Obviously I’m attracted to the top tiers of the left field camp, with folks like Open Mike Eagle, Quelle Chris, Armand Hammer (billy woods and ELUCID), R.A.P. Ferreira. Seminal artists/groups like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Mos Def, Saul Williams, Digable Planets, strongly influenced me and encouraged an ability to self-define outside of traditional notions of blackness and masculinity. Though I was listening to Gucci Mane, Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Raekwon and others beside them.
We are out of whack right now with the easiest most “comfortable” ideas at the top, so to achieve a balanced picture, I happen to swing far left to try and give that space some limelight.
You proclaim yourself a “MacArthur Genius on Black Twitter.” How much time are you spending on social media these days and how has that shaped your artistic output in recent years?
I’ve found my music reaching more people since investing time in using Twitter, and before that Instagram. Looking back I think 2016 was the year that I became a little more entrenched on social media and it seemed more necessary to use. Posting, for better or for worse, became an extension of my expression. However, I really got on Twitter in 2018 and it’s for sure been a love-hate relationship. When it comes to wanting to be able to get the word out to random people or unexpected fans, I’ve surrendered to the possibility that I will brush shoulders with a horrible opinion or distraction or misreading of something. I don’t think I’m the loosest cannon, but I know I’ve been online and out there too much these days, and it’s helped me to call social media, especially Twitter, “an active grenade.” I’m shielding myself from it, though sometimes I return to sender (laughs).