The internet giveth and the internet taketh away—and nowhere has that been more evident than in the music business, where the recording industry is decimated by file-sharing even as the web allows artists to reach fans in new and exciting ways.
One of these new music phenoms, who became popular because of the internet, is rapper Childish Gambino. Better known as Donald Glover, the former writer on “30 Rock” and soon-to-be-former star of cult sitcom “Community,” the artist is a bit of an anomaly.
Last year he decided to make the lateral move from acting to music, and defy hip-hop conventions by rapping about his feelings like a less egotistical Drake (who, of course, was also an anomalous TV star).
Glover then took that honesty even further this past summer, posting a series of instantly infamous Instagrams listing his many insecurities. The move prompted media outlets (we, admittedly, dubbed them “troubling”) to worry that he was having a breakdown.
“Why am I crazy for being honest?” he asked us. But of course, the reason for the widespread overreaction is shared in the title of Childish Gambino’s new album, “Because The Internet.”
On a recent trip to Toronto, Glover sat down with me to have a long, winding conversation that, surprisingly, ended in a detour about the racism that even a famous black man faces in America. (Read that story here.)
But before we got there, we had an in-depth discussion about Glover’s departure from “Community,” Drake’s origins online, how the internet has changed hip-hop and ourselves, and what he thinks about people who say, “Put your cellphone down, let’s go back to reading books and having real conversations.” (Spoiler: “They’re fucking lame and stupid.”)
Oh, and to be fair, Glover doesn’t defy all hip-hop conventions: he casually puffed pot through a vaporizer during our entire ritzy hotel room interview.
Q&A continues after slideshow
Have you had issues being taken seriously as a rapper coming from another medium?
I mean, yeah, but it’s kind of like asking a kid, “Are you afraid of the dark?” The problem was I was looking at it like, “I’m an actor wanting to be a rapper.” All of that sentence is wrong. The sentence should be, “I’m an artist.”
Why do people act like it’s such a crazy thing?
It’s a lot of work to not see me as Troy Barnes if you love Troy. That’s the thing, it’s just work. Everybody’s aware that I’m not Troy, but it’s just way easier to see me on the street and be like, “Hey, Troy!”
Do people say that a lot?
Yeah. People don’t say, “Oh my gosh, I love the acting, I like the way this actor does this.” No, they like that character and when they see that person, they want to see the character they fell in love with.
Especially if it’s a show that has a cult following, I guess, where fans are really into it.
Human beings are…we’re weird. TV is still pretty new. I don’t know if people are totally okay yet with, like, “I see this person on TV every day, he brings me joy every day or she brings me joy every day, and now I see them for real.” Of course they’re gonna to be like, ‘Be that thing I know.”
People initially wondered how Will Smith could be anything other than Fresh Prince. But he was really funny in the music videos—it makes sense that he could do all this other stuff.
But I think I’m doing something kind of different, like this isn’t part of the same brand. It was time for me to transition because this is who I am. That’s why I left, because that isn’t who I am. Being on “Community” was awesome and it’s one of my favourite shows, but that’s not something I would do anymore as an artist endeavor.
You’ve had all these different outlets. What is it about hip-hop that appeals to you as far as like being an outlet for your artistic expression?
I never really look at all those things like that. Like I never really looked at it, “Oh, I wanna do hip-hop.”
Right, but you’re saying that with “Community” you didn’t write your words, so you weren’t really being yourself. So obviously with this there’s like no intermediary, there’s no filter, right?
With “Community” it wasn’t like, “I didn’t write those words so I wasn’t being myself.” When I first started on “Community” that was definitely me. That’s like how I would display myself.
But it was also a character that had never really been seen on TV before, right?
Yeah, there’s a uniqueness to that character that you know me and Dan [Harmon] would like play off each other: “Oh, I wanna make this character a Jehovah’s Witness.” And you could look at episodes where characters on the show are dealing with what people in the show are dealing with, which is cool because that’s what makes him [Dan] an amazing writer.
But why music and how did that come about? I always kinda did music. But I feel like music travels faster than everything. Like music can travel at the speed of the internet; it’s the only medium [that can], and timing is so important to things.
Yeah, like Drake recorded at “5AM in Toronto,” and then put it online about an hour after they finished. What do you think the lasting impact of the internet is going to be on hip-hop?
The lasting impact is that we’re not going to remember what it was like before the internet when it came to rap. Our vision will be skewed. Or is already skewed. But also you can choose what your view point is. If I wanted to believe that gangster rap was always a niche market, it was never the dominant, I could find all the things on the internet that support that. I feel like that’s what the album is more about: we don’t know what we’re doing with all this power we have.
People forget that Drake started out as an internet phenomenon. He plays hockey arenas now, but he had this huge YouTube following before the big mixtape even came out. The mainstream media only knew him as the kid from “Degrassi.”
Jimmy, yeah. That’s the case of the internet working the way it should. Like, let’s get these people in the same place and do this thing. That’s all Drake is. Most people who listen to Drake are more like Drake than they are Lil’ Wayne, and he tied those things together. Like, ‘I’m singing these songs and what I’m rapping about isn’t popular at the time, but actually there’s more of us, we just didn’t know that.
Obviously, Drake made a ton of money. How has that made it easier for you to put out music where you’re honest and personal?
I don’t know if that made it easier. If you’re doing it right, it doesn’t matter what’s popping at the time. Yeah, Drake is an emo-rapper, for lack of a better term—he raps about his feelings. But rappers always rapped about their feelings. Lauryn Hill, one of the biggest acts ever, sang about her feelings and was a great rapper, too. It’s different because Drake’s a boy, and his masculinity is being questioned, but at the same time even the hardest rappers always had a song, like, “I miss my friend.”
The difference is that they’re all emotions, but Drake’s are coming from a place, like, “I grew up in a pretty good circumstance. My circumstances are more relateable to what you’re going through—you’re not from the hood, obviously, because you’re listening to me.”
Rapping about your emotions is always going to be dangerous if you allow them to be. The shit on the record, the way I feel, the honesty, even with the Instagram posts, would Drake do that? I don’t know if he would.
Were you surprised about the reaction to the Instagram posts?
I knew people were going to talk, and some people would feel it and some wouldn’t. I was more surprised about the media and how they tried to close it off. After I wrote it, they were like, “He’s having a crisis,” or, “He’s being a drama queen.” Everybody tried to put it in this little box. Why is it one of those? Why isn’t it just: I’m alive and this is how I feel? And I feel like everybody else feels this way, too. Why am I crazy for being honest?
I think the answer is because the internet. Because it’s clicky to say a sitcom star has an emotional crisis in cheap hotel room.
I guess it’s very clickable. And that’s the way the internet works. I’m not against the internet. I think a lot of people will want to make this album, or certain songs, a stance against the internet. I think that’s so lame. I am not like, ‘Put your cellphone dow,n let’s go back to reading books and having real conversations.” That’s fucking lame and stupid and anybody who says that is fucking lame and stupid. The internet is here.
But we talk different now, and people don’t realize the differences. We just assume that’s real life. People assume my real life is like: I go out and hang out with Lil B and we show each other our stacks, and yeah, that happens sometimes, but there’s also the other side where it’s like really boring and I’m stuck in Cleveland for two days. The moments of sadness need to be there in order to enjoy the moments of happiness. It’s like a drug, where we can’t feel for real anymore.
I’m more faceless than I’ve ever been. I feel like we all are. We don’t know who are friends are online, people are fake. The people who say shit about me have no face. We should be really connected, and we’re not. So I’m gonna try and speak the language of the internet, because nobody is doing it.