In Conversation: Earl Sweatshirt
When his music broke through during the great Odd Future explosion of 2010, Thebe Kgositsile never witnessed the rise to fame that his peers enjoyed. Exiled away at Coral Reef Academy, a residential school in Samoa for “troubled youth”, the elusive rap prodigy known as Earl Sweatshirt was denied access to the Internet and cut off from the outside world. Released 18 months after his return, the debut record he named in tribute to his late grandmother Doris, has achieved well-deserved critical acclaim.
Proving ever elusive, when I try to make contact with Earl at the agreed time, he has lost his phone and is unreachable for several hours. Waking up at 6am the following morning for another attempt, I finally get through to his girlfriend Mallory, who kindly passes her phone to Earl as the pair finish up a late dinner in Los Angeles…
I know you don’t like interviews, and I always find asking the first question pretty awkward, so I thought I’d ask the Based God, Lil B, how to start. He said: “Ask him does he love Lil B because I love Earl and Odd Future.”
Hell yeah dog. Oh man, of course I love him. He knows that, he has to know that!
What is it that you love about him? I know a lot of “purists” get confused about what you see in him.
I f*ck with Lil B because when he came out he just changed so much shit. I remember seeing his shit in 2009, before it was cool to like him. Before it was some niche thing like, “Yeah like I’m really into like shitty photos and the only rap music I listen to is Lil B.” And the n*gga is very thorough. You can tell he really listens to rap music, just because of how all over the place his music is. Like, he has shit that sounds like f*cking Hot Boys shit, he has shit that sounds like Dipset, he has shit that sounds like literally everything. And at the end of the day, that n*gga can rap his ass off.
How have the past 12 months been for you?
F*cking crazy man. A lot has changed. I feel like I’ve come a long way in the past year, I’ve grown up a lot. And I’ve also figured out a lot of what I was trying to figure out. I’m fully comfortable again, so I’m moving forward from that position.
What were your highlights of recording ‘Doris’?
‘Hive’ (video above) was the first real moment because that was the first song I did for this shit. So that represented doing music again for me. And ‘Pre’ was a great moment, because that was when I was like fully down for rapping all crazy. Sk La’Flare asked me to get on the beat. I went to the bank. And in the time that I went to the bank and came back to the studio I had the skeleton of that verse written in my head. I just went in the booth, got that shit in one take and then left. That shit was very tight.
Were these the first songs you recorded when you came back?
Nah, I did ‘Hive’ first and then I think I did ‘Chum’ and ‘Centurion’ and then ‘Hoarse’.
How about ‘Home’? I remember that was the first thing that got released.
Yeah that was the first thing I did. I didn’t like it though. I thought that shit was weak.
Yo! You ever lose your credit card and just have this f*cking feeling of impending doom. Just every time you think about it? I’m having a terrible time right now dude.
Why? What’s happened?
I found out I lost my credit card like 20 minutes ago when I went to pull it out at dinner with my girlfriend and it wasn’t there.
And you also lost your phone?
I’m not that mad about losing my phone though. I actually don’t f*ck with having a phone. It’s tight to, like, fully unplug. I haven’t looked at social media all weekend. It’s been pretty good.
I heard you wanted to get rid of Twitter.
Yeah! Well getting rid of Twitter, that’s thirsty. Getting rid of my phone is tight. Like, because my phone is lost, when I do get a new phone out of the necessity of being able to call the people I need to call, I’m going to get a regular ass phone that’s not an iPhone. Then at least I’ll only be able to check social media shit when I sit down at a computer and carve out time for it.
What are your feelings on the Internet?
I don’t f*ck with it at all. I don’t like it. It’s made everyone retarded. People have personalities online that they don’t have in real life. It’s like a big clusterf*ck. At least what it’s become.
How about for music and being able to put stuff out there?
For music it’s tight because OF and Lil B came up because of the Internet. So without it I don’t know where I’d be at. I feel like the platform is too accessible. So there’s shit that wouldn’t have gotten heard without the Internet, and then there is shit that doesn’t need to be heard, but is getting heard because of the Internet. So it’s a double-edged sword.
Why did you choose the supporting cast that you did for the record?
Well as far as the RZA and Pharrell go, that’s a pretty good summation of the sound that I like. If I could combine two people in a blender, it would be those two.
The word ‘freckles’ comes up a lot across the album. Was this intentional?
I don’t think it was intentional. Sub-consciously I attach myself to ideas, and I go through phases with them. So I think that was probably a phase.
Action Bronson be getting in phases too. That n*gga just got out of his “fixing bets” phase. And also, “doing gymnastics in and out of vehicles”. Listen to Action Bronson’s music with that in mind!
Action told me that MTV once asked him to do a cartwheel!
Oh my god! Action is so disrespectful! (Laughs) I’d be so hot if a n*gga came up and demanded me to do a cartwheel!
Generally, when we see artists becoming increasingly famous in absence it’s due to them passing away. We’ve seen the likes of 2Pac, Biggie, Big L and J Dilla all gaining more fame after they’ve gone than when they were actually here. You’re in a unique situation because you’ve become famous in absence to a cult level but then have been able to return. Did you feel a lot of pressure to deliver with such an iconic status?
Yeah there was a lot more pressure initially. I think because there was so much mystery around who I was as a person. N*ggas didn’t know what I was like at all. I could have come back like literally anything and people would have had to accept it. I could have claimed to have been a f*cking gorilla, and people would’ve had to roll with that. But I feel like coming back and n*ggas slowly seeing what type of person I am took a lot off of it.
And I guess it must’ve been weird to come back to see loads of kids wearing Supreme and Vans all the time too, trying to emulate you guys.
Yeah dude! That shit f*cked me up! That was crazy to me, because I entirely missed it. I could see on the surface level what was happening, through articles and shit. But there was no way to see the actual effect that it had on youth.
And pop culture. Lil Wayne is skateboarding now!
Yeah. I have this theory that mostly everything that’s going on in rap music right now, you could connect either Odd Future or Lil B to its origin. Any n*gga talking about ‘Swag’, chalk it up to Lil B; any n*gga being a weird or like a skateboarder or whatever, OF.
Did you think about music a lot when you were away?
What kind of access did you have?
There was an art teacher that came every Wednesday who would let us listen to her iPod while she taught a class. She had a bunch of ‘90s shit on there, like Portishead, Stereolab, DJ Shadow and Massive Attack. So I started listening to that more.
And was the music you could listen to vetted?
Yeah, you could only listen to treatment cleared music, so it couldn’t have swearing in it. It was crazy. But ay, we had f*cking ‘Respect Da Bitch Vol.1’ on this one MP3 player, the Lil B mixtape, so you know I was up on the Based God in 2011. N*ggas thought I was out. I was definitely paying attention, to only Lil B. I remember the day that [Tyler, The Creator’s] ‘Goblin’ came out, I made this kid download it.
You were able to hack into Tumblr and leave draft posts as messages to other members of OF while you were away. Did you manage to hear any other new music coming out while you were online? I know you hadn’t heard any of [collaborator] Mac Miller’s music when you started working with him…
I’d never listened to that n*gga. I didn’t know him before I left, so I didn’t trust anything I didn’t know. That’s why the only new rap music I listened to was f*cking [MellowHype’s] ‘BlackenedWhite’ religiously, ‘Goblin’ religiously and Lil B. And then I went back and listened to all of DOOM’s shit. Like the Dangerdoom shit, I studied ‘Madvillainy’. I was actually listening to some pretty f*cking crazy music in Samoa. I started listening to Electric Wizard out there, and Tame Impala before it was even the Tame Impala that it is now.
So you got quite a lot of good music through clearance?
No it didn’t get through clearance. We had the low-down iPod. The iPod man. His name was Coleman, and he was tight. He was the only other kid there who was into some shit that I could relate to.
Do you think that the lack of access has helped you musically in retrospect, because you weren’t aware of any trends or anything…
Yeah. I do know about them now, but I definitely didn’t when I got back. I didn’t know who the f*ck nobody was, so that was tight.
Have you discovered anything that came out while you were away that you love, or have you completely avoided music from that period?
Just Lil B and King Krule.
And you’ve met King Krule…
That’s my man. Making music with that n*gga was tight. That’s the only n*gga other than Tyler where when I make music with him I don’t have to talk. We were very much on the same page. We were just sitting there faded, f*cking doodling. That shit was tight.
So you’ve made music with him?
And do you know when we might get to hear it?
No. He put vocals on this one beat that I gave him, and then we made a beat together. But yeah I f*ck with that n*gga. I f*ck with him, and I f*ck with Ratking.
I remember when you were trying to find out if he had a Twitter.
Yeah dude. That dude’s f*cking more hard to reach than I am. He’s so bad with his phone. He’s worse than me.
I read a quote from Eminem in Rolling Stone recently where he said: “It’s a hell of a career choice for someone who doesn’t like attention,” and it made me think of you…
Yeah! I f*cking heard that. He said that in the Zane Lowe interview, too. I remember hearing him say that and then saying audibly, “I feel you.” Hundred per cent, I’m on the exact same page. Yeah dog, people make me squirm. Human beings freak me out.
Is it still as bad as when you first came back? I remember you once describing a situation where you were approached by fans when you were out eating…
Yeah. Yo! That’s my biggest pet peeve, bro. Like, “Bro, I’ve got shit on my mouth, like my face is halfway around a cheeseburger. At what other point is this acceptable to do?”
Are you getting more used to that now?
Yeah. I’m definitely getting used to it more. But it still f*cking freaks me out. I hate it when groups of people do it. I can handle one person, but when I get surrounded then I actually freak out!
And I can imagine that they can get quite rowdy, which seems quite the opposite of you.
There’s different flavours of fans. There’s fans who genuinely love you, there’s normal people who are fans, who just let you know that they’re fans then keep it pushing. There’s drunk boys, there’s nasty girls, there’s parents of kids and then there’s f*cking weirdos.
What are the parents like?
They always, like, ask something for their kids. I f*ck with the parents though, bro. I definitely f*ck with the parents, because the parents is where the funds come from!
When did you decide to start making beats? I heard that was in Samoa…
Yeah I just started f*cking around on the keyboard in Samoa and then when I came back I made my first beat and shit.
And how is that side of things going? You’ve often been sceptical of your beat-making skills…
It’s tight now, I’m f*cking with some of the stuff I’m doing now. I’m still not shit though. Especially when you got the best fools around you. Like you got The Internet doing they shit, which is like so extra-ed out at this point. Yo, me and Tyler went over to The Internet’s studio yesterday, and them n*gga’s new shit is so f*cking tight. Then you got Tyler and shit! It’s good though, I always got people around to make the shit challenging.
I spoke to Jonwayne a few weeks back, and he talked about how he prefers working with rappers who also produce, as they have a better understanding of how beats and rhymes work together. I noticed a lot of the people you’ve collaborated with — Tyler, Mac Miller, RZA, Alchemist, Pharrell, Flying Lotus, Samiyam — do both. Is this something that you find helpful as well?
Yeah. The only rapper that I f*cking like that doesn’t also try and do beats is Vince Staples, and that’s because he doesn’t need to f*cking make beats.
And he appears on the album more than any other guest…
Yeah, that’s my mans right there. He’s the best rapper. Vince’s new shit is crazy. I’ll just leave it at that. Vince’s new shit is important. He’s actually the best rapper.
I’m not sure if you heard about it, but Tyler once told [New York radio DJ] Peter Rosenberg that ‘Earl’ is better than ‘Illmatic’…
Man. I don’t know. I don’t give a f*ck!
He obviously used that comparison because it’s a lot of purists all time favourite rap album. And I was wondering what your ‘Illmatic’ is?
What my holy grail of rap albums is? [Madlib and DOOM’s] ‘Madvillainy’. Either that or [Kanye West’s] ‘Late Registration’, that shit is so good. I listened to it like three times the other night.
The beats on ‘Late Registration’…
So stupid! Yo, I used to listen to ‘College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’ in the car with my moms on the way to school every single day. The only shit that we could agree on listening to was Kanye.
How about now?
Nah, me and my mom be trading music now. My mom got the heat rocks! My mom showed me Dorothy Ashby shit — because I don’t be listening to too much rap shit now — so me and my mom, we listen to more of the same music now, we listen to jazz and shit. She really likes the song me and King Krule did.
That’s a good endorsement!
How is life for you now that the album is out and you’re getting more used to performing live?
It’s tight man. I’m f*cking comfy, I got a nice spot now. Living man, eating food, gaining weight. Shit is tight. Smoking weed. We’re filming the show [Loiter Squad].
And are you any closer to your goal of being Michael Cera’s roommate in a movie?
Uh. Yeah. I’ll leave it at that and nothing else. But yes!
Outside of Odd Future, what was your favourite album this year?
Archy’s [King Krule] shit. Let me see what else came out this year. A lot came out this year, but as far as I’m concerned not that much came out this year. I’m still looking for Schoolboy’s shit man! That n*gga’s shit is so tight! I’ve heard pieces of it and there’s some f*cking gems on there.
Are you on that at all?
Uh, I don’t think so. He’s tight though.
Are you working on an EarlWolf album?
I’m not working on it…
But is it still the plan to do one?
Yeah, we’re going to do it. It’s just that me and Tyler coordinating things is totally pointless, because our ability to concentrate is 100% zero. They left it up to me and him to coordinate which was a terrible idea.
Are you recording any new music at the moment?
No I’m trying to though, I’m so thirsty. I want to do music so bad. I started revisiting the shit I listened to when I was learning how to rap; found a whole bunch of old Eminem freestyles. ‘Marshall Mathers LP 2’ came out, which musically wasn’t necessarily the greatest thing of all time, but that n*gga’s rapping his ass off. Every time an Eminem album comes out, it unlocks some rapping! I wrote a crazy verse in the past week. This shit’s tight because, now that I’m comfortable, I’m starting to sound like myself again. ‘Doris’ is cool, but you can hear the doubt in my voice, that’s why it kinda stayed at a monotone. Just not moving from out that pocket. But now I’m fully comfortable, I can rap like I’m fully comfortable, and that shit is tight!
Words: Grant Brydon
Originally published at www.clashmusic.com.