The Bard of Beantown

PROFILE: George Watsky

By Chris Faraone

Originally published in the Boston Phoenix (September 2010)

George Watsky says things that most rappers wouldn’t think. Like the word “befuddled.” Standing somewhere to the left of Ralph Nader, the recent Emerson grad supports gay rights and adores his parents, and he blew up with a verse about high-school virginity. And though he’ll be fully clothed at his Western Front homecoming show this Friday, one of his music videos features old home movies of him frolicking in Underoos.

The 23-year-old Bay Area native parachutes to planet hip-hop from the highest echelon of spoken-word supremacy, having debuted on Def Poetry Jam in 2007, presented an NAACP Image Award to Russell Simmons, and rocked slams from coast to coast. To show and prove, in 2009, while still in school, he starred in his own one-man play, So Many Levels, at the Boston Center for the Arts.

But Watsky went to Emerson, where he majored in acting and screenwriting, and where graduates who achieve just one media niche are not invited to reunion. “I love performing,” he says, “but that’s not the ultimate goal. I want to be a writer. I don’t want anybody to think that I’m comparing myself to William Shakespeare in any way here, but I love the idea of someone who produces plays and poems and leaves his legacy across so many different mediums in a cohesive voice so that people say, ‘That’s a Shakespeare. He makes you laugh, and he makes you think.’ I want people to say, ‘That’s a Watsky.’ ”

In his music, works by Watsky can be identified in their sincerity. Not just regarding his privileged white background, but also in terms of his convictions. Despite the genre’s rash of superficial megalomaniacs, hip-hop has few artists who are as comfy in their own dungarees as Watsky. On such self-depreciating joints as “Who’s Been Loving You?”, he concedes his romantic shortcomings; with more serious cuts like “Color Lines,” alongside Roxbury MC Catch Wreck, Watsky explores touchy race issues with a heightened maturity. And through it all, the kid is hilarious, and possibly the only MC besides Paul Barman who could be described as funny in a Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! kind of way.

“I reflect as honestly as I can,” he says, “and then I go back and figure out how I can say what I need to say without disenfranchising people who have a different viewpoint. That’s not to say that if I find a view that is particularly reprehensible, I don’t address it head-on. But somebody in Iowa or Kentucky should be able to listen to my music without feeling affronted by it. Being conciliatory is the only way to change someone’s mind.”

Unlike most respected slam poets, Watsky has themes that are universal and non-threatening in tone and delivery. That quality can be attributed to a worldview tweaked by moldy motel rooms in blood-red flyover states. He pays his rent touring colleges across the country, and he’s smart enough to leave his highbrow on the coasts. That acknowledgement goes double for his music — though he pulls liberal punches like a southpaw heavyweight, his self-released namesake debut album is much more Daily Show than Hardball.

“My biggest qualm with the spoken-word scene,” he explains, “is that if you’re hearing someone yell at you for three minutes straight, then you’re going to shut off immediately. That’s not the type of work I want to put out there. I want people to be able to listen and think and hear my opinions without tuning out.”

Although major labels seem to be signing every skilled whiteboy with neon hightops and a baby face, Watsky has so far been overlooked by the so-called frat-rap establishment. That despite his wicked smarts, quick delivery, breath control, sweet videos, and friendly beats. Perhaps the day will come when heady rhymes sell more than raps about road head.

Until that time, Watsky is content with his fringe acclaim. “There are people who are befuddled by what I’m trying to do, or who, for example, don’t really get my metaphors. But while some people might not know what I’m talking about, for those who do know what I’m talking about, my raps resonate a little more. Maybe my audience is smaller than it would be if I was putting out the simplest stuff that I can think of. That’s tough, but if I don’t play to the top of my intelligence, it won’t matter how many people listen, because I’ll feel like shit about it.”

Read more of Chris Faraone’s rap archives here …