The Rumpus Interview with Rafael Casal

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Rafael Casal is known in the Bay Area hip hop community from his three appearances on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and his music video Bay Area Slang, where he rattles off 100 slang terms invented in the Bay Area. But the Berkeley native’s latest album Mean Ones showcases his other side. Casal’s third hip hop album shines with his singing talents and producing skills. In this February 11, 2012 interview, Casal discusses how the Bay Area is similar to the world of Dr. Seuss, his thoughts on Occupy Oakland, and why he moved to LA. Check out Rafael Casal’s Get:Live Sessions and Whoville video. His album Mean Ones can be downloaded for free at http://rafaelcasal.bandcamp.com.

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The Rumpus: On your latest album “Mean Ones,” I especially like the track “Fall Back.” Most Bay Area hip hop fans know you from HBO’s Def Poetry Jam and are familiar with your style of “bustin’” where you rap really fast on tracks like “BAY.” But on each of your last few albums, you’ve released one or two tracks like “Giant” where you sing. Do you see yourself singing on more albums?

Rafael Casal: I think it’s been present since the beginning. There were at least two singing songs on each project. A lot of my hooks are melodic, singing hooks. I do a lot of song writing for other people and a lot of that is singing stuff. While I think it’s harder for people following me musically [to understand], I try to not exclude that part of my artistry from these projects that I put out.

I enjoy it, and writing for singing comes a lot more naturally to me than writing for rapping. It’s what makes me feel I’m not just some other rapper. After a while, writing 16-bar songs that’re about yourself and bragging gets old. The way I get some creativity in there is to start messin’ with the melodies and playin’ with the hooks, backgrounds, harmonies—these’re the things that take it a notch above just being a decent rapper in the studio.

Rumpus:Dreamer,” the first track on “Mean Ones,” features a hook where you Auto Tune your voice. What are your thoughts are on Auto Tune? There are artists like T-Pain who use it in a pop kind of way, but also artists like Kanye West, who similar to you, use it to enhance their songs by using Auto Tune in an artistic manner.

Casal: If you think about all the tools that’re used in the studio, there’s this negative stigma about Auto Tune. But Auto Tune’s been used for years on everyone’s favorite records. Stylistically, I think that it’s a sound we’re embracing now in hip hop. So for me, the beef with Auto Tune people have is not a beef with the tool, but a beef with people who can’t sing, pretending as if they can.

When I’m listening to somebody’s record, I listen to see if that effect’s being used to be contemporary and to achieve a sound that we enjoy. Or if it’s being used to compensate for a lack of talent or skill. Or if it’s being used to convey something they couldn’t convey otherwise, which is what Kanye West did on his “808s & Heartbreak” record. He’s not a great singer, but he had something that he really wanted to express, and he used the tool in the same way reverb has been used for years and compression, EQ, and any tool that makes you sound better in the studio, to get the overall point.

Now, anything overused sounds terrible, and I think my alarm only goes off for certain effects when they’re used incorrectly. That’s where I draw the line. With things like Auto Tune and pitch correct and other things people are using now, [my question is,] “Why is it being used?”

Rumpus: The album was originally titled “Whoville,” and now it’s called “Mean Ones.” In the final track, you talk about being a “Grinch in a pinch analyzing his Whoville.” Could you explain why you chose the Dr. Seuss theme for this album and why you’ve referenced the Grinch in your earlier albums as well?

Casal: In leaving the Bay when I was young and starting to travel and tour around [age] 18 and 19, the visibility of the Bay Area was so much less than it is even today, and it’s still low in comparison to [other] music meccas.

For me, the more I traveled and tried to explain culturally where I come from and have gotten to the point I am now, it just paralleled such a Seuss-like portrait.

Growing up in Berkeley and Oakland, we got such a strange, eclectic compiling of characters that’re everyday to us, and very strange to the rest of the country. We have the hippies with their organic everything, running their cars on vegetable oil, the people at the Ashby flea market selling bootleg Jordans—there’s just all these interesting characters. In telling stories to people [when traveling outside the Bay], people would be like “There’s nothing like that here.”

I think that’s because the Bay Area’s such a melting pot for people from all over the world, and if you grow up there, you grow up in the bubble of that kind of eclecticness. I would read Seuss books, and there’s all these different creatures that’re unique to the world that Seuss lives, and they’re normal to everyone there, but they’re strange to anyone reading.

And the Whoville thing came up because I felt like I was living on a spec that was a grand world to me, and very irrelevant to the other major cities I was in. And saying I’m from California, people immediately assume I’m from Los Angeles. It’s only now you can say the Bay Area and actually mean something.

And the second tier to that is I’ve been in the Bay my whole life, and I feel very jaded by certain things that I grew up around and saw there, about the certain liberalness of the Bay Area, and yet our drop out rates, poverty rates, and gap between the rich and poor is still as dramatic as ever and growing. The public education system in the Bay is shit. And I know because I worked in it. I went through it and dropped out.

And so I got Grinch-like. I was pro the Bay when I wasn’t in the Bay, but anti-Bay when I was at home. I felt that’s how a lot of people from the Bay act sometimes. I felt there was a relationship between the world Seuss was painting and how I could describe my reality. When I would talk to other people about [the Bay Area], I would compare it to Dr. Seuss. That started a trend with imagery I reference in my writing and led to me titling things and naming things as such.

Rumpus: What are your thoughts on Occupy Oakland?

Casal: [Lets out a long sigh before answering] I have a lot of different feelings about Occupy Oakland, in the same way I have feelings about protests in general. I’m torn because I believe that breaking windows and flipping over cop cars is not helpful. The nonviolent approach is what I’d hope would work. I also know that it was the destruction that gained Occupy Oakland its national attention because nobody was talking about it until the police started shooting at people, that soldier got fatally wounded, and shit was on fire.

And unfortunately, the way this country responds to outcry from the population is if it gets newsworthy. I wish that didn’t have to happen.

I think it’s great that we’ve changed the conversation on the news and in the mouths and minds of politicians because we’ve made certain things unacceptable to say.

As a language is created around “99%,” politicians know that there’s no more of this “We just need to tough it out for a little bit longer.” That type of language has been squashed because we’ve acknowledged it’s unacceptable to come [from] people who aren’t part of the economic classes of the majority of the population. We’ve managed to change that conversation, and there’s an acknowledgment that things are not how they should be.

Because I’m a Berkeley kid and was raised by people who spent a big part of their young lives in protest in very clear, direct, and strategic ways, I have a hard time knowing why or how to get involved. [With Occupy Oakland,] I’m not sure that the person next to me is angry about the same things I am, and I need that kind of cohesiveness to be onboard.

I think it’s still in its infancy. Clarification of why people are upset is still formulating. It won’t be until I see those ideas evolve [that I will] rally with folks in anything more than just collective anger.

Occupy has done what it was meant to do, and now hopefully it will be a word to unite the people part of the 99%, and many other movements can come from it.

Rumpus: The Bay Area is known as a place of culture creation, but at the same time, many of the most talented San Francisco and Oakland artists from our generation (including Chinaka Hodge, George Watsky, Dave Smallen, and Darren Criss) have moved to LA to get national exposure and to make a living. What are your thoughts on this, and has this influenced your move to LA?

Casal: It’s very easy to see where the top of the ladder is in the Bay, ‘cause it’s not that high. And for those who have larger aspirations, it’s not a satisfying climb. And the industry in the Bay makes it unnecessarily difficult to climb, considering how short it is.

As big as our pond can feel from inside of it, Los Angeles and New York are hubs for the world. I love the Bay. I make that clear in all my art. But even back home in the year I came back, after being Midwest for a couple years, I started approaching the top of the ladder and was really unsatisfied. I realized that you can have a good run in the Bay, but it’s hard to have a career in the arts without leaving. And the folks who’ve been the most successful left.

Our industry in the Bay Area is guerrilla-style, grassroots, alternative, and anti-industry, and that’s very counter-productive to me. I feel like it’s a very Bay mentality to do things in the most grassroots way, and I respect that—that hustle is inherent in how we are raised. But I don’t think you have to apply that to everything you do.

The music industry is thoroughly fucked across the board, but I don’t think you’re going to fix it in the Bay. It’s broken in LA and New York, and now’s a good time to go and sit down in those places and get in on the rebuilding.

The real reason I came to LA is I’m trying to be a writer and director down here. I’ve been working in film and writing for a long time. The reason we came down to Los Angeles is to be around folks who are pursuing the same industries and have the tools and resources to make happen what is much harder to make happen up North.


Matt Werner interned and volunteered at McSweeney’s Publishing for five years. He currently works as a technical writer at Google. His interviews and DJ mixes can be found at mattswriting.com. More from this author →