“This isn’t my retirement plan.” – An Interview with Devin B.
I meet Devin at a diner I’ve frequented since I was a small child. It’s an old Greek place, and not the expected setting for a hip-hop interview. Unexpected is kind of Devin’s thing though. When we were discussing where we were going to meet, his first suggestion was a nail salon.
“The first time I saw Oz, he was performing with frequent collaborator Devin B at Rap Night. Hip-hop in the Capital Region is often marked by it’s raw, 90s tinged sound. I like to say that Albany is where New York hip-hop flew to. Emcees like Mic Lanny exhibit the dense lyrical prowess typical of Harlem, over dusty beats. Against this backdrop, Oz and Devin immediately stood out.
Loud, synthy, Run the Jewels style beats pumped through the speakers in the Allen Street Pub. Devin unleashed rhythmically perfect rhymes, his methodical syllable placement and emotional subject matter reminiscent of technically revered emcees. Oz served as a perfect partner, employing the same mechanical lyrical prowess to a belting, soulful, melodic performance. The chemistry between the two was undeniable, and my night was made.”
That still stands.
I haven’t had much opportunity to interact with Devin, though I hope to have more in the future. He has an energy about him that I’m not sure how to interpret. It lies somewhere between nervous and nonchalant. He’s the type of person who makes things go his way.
The night before Thanksgiving, Devin played a show at The Fuze Box. I showed up early, and watched him struggle to get things right for an hour or so. To many people, this would be frustrating. I’ve seen many shows get turned upside down by bad sound and angry musicians. There wasn’t much anger in Devin — he simply solved the problem.
That show was one of the best sounding shows I’ve ever been at.
Our waitress seems annoyed that we’re here, but I don’t take it personally. It seemed like it was kind of her thing, which isn’t normal at this diner. The food was still good.
I order a quesadilla.
Devin orders breakfast.
Generic rap question: top 5?
Top 5, dead or alive. For me: Biggie, Tame One, Lord Finesse, Pun obviously. You gotta put that on there. O.C. O.C., definitely.
That’s my personal top 5.
I like character. I like when you feel like you know the person rapping. Like they’re in the room with you, talking to you. Dudes like Biggie, or Devin the Dude. You feel like you know them. They’ve given off enough of their character and essence. I always thought that was the coolest.
Devin the Dude is not the best rapper in the world, but for me it’s all about relation. In rap, you’re supposed to package your character the best way you can. And sure, Biggie embellished and had like a fantasyland, but he made you feel like you were there, too.
I’m not like the hip hop equivalent of a metal guitarist. I don’t care how technical you are. I care about if I connect with you.
How has that affected your music? Do you aim for that?
It’s tough. I kind of feel like I’m pigeonholed. Obviously, all artists embellished. I wouldn’t say I embellish myself, but… you know how there’s like a different narrative in your head? Whatever you’re experiencing might be amplified internally. In reality, I know a lot of the stuff I think is hyper or obsessive, and that’s what I write about. I feel like everyone has a Stephen King novel in their head, and I try to write that.
You said you feel pigeonholed. How so?
The thing that compels me to write is field reporting about depression. That’s the only steam that leaves that kettle. I’m not able to write about anything else. I need to write about what’s plaguing me, and that’s the only thing plaguing me. Even if I wanted to write about something else, I’m unable to. I’m not a completely joyless person.
It’s hard tapping into that all the time. It’s okay for me because it is genuine catharsis. I am being true to myself as an artist, but I worry about being a one trick pony. I worry about being the “sad white guy.”
Do you think that creates a negative feedback loop internally?
I’m always there. Always depressed. Writing about it is what makes me step out of it. The day or two after writing or recording it is out of it. I constantly feel like I’m under the surface, and writing is hopping up for air.
How did you get into writing?
I always wrote. I’d write little stupid bullshit when I was 9 or 10. I probably got into it because my dad is a very comedic person, and he would always change the words to a song. When I was a kid, that was the most entertaining thing in the world. What a concept! So, I’d be on the bus, and I’d sing a song with parody.
I think that taught me how to work with syllables.
Then I would write humorous songs. Typically, on school work. I got suspended for it.
My name means poet. When I was a kid I thought that was so dumb, but now it’s funny to me.
What is your writing process like?
First off, I need the beat. I used to write without it, it didn’t work. The beat will trigger some pocket in me. It will tap something. I didn’t know I was looking through the scope, and then the beat shows me the little window to make the kill. I’m a hunter.
I don’t ever sit down to write. It’s a call of the wild thing. I never plan, as far as starting it goes. Once it’s started, it’s boom. The opening line is the most important to me.
The “Bay of Wolves” project was all because of one line I had.
It’s a burst. It goes from nothing to “I’m putting out a project” quick.
Your opening lines are super strong. I think you can make very simple lines that are very impactful. Like El-P or Rakim.
Yeah. If you don’t get a good opener, it’s like a meal with no appetizer. Or sex without foreplay.
I’m really into improv, and all improv starts with the scene already happening. It’s not “figure out how it starts,” it’s “you’re in the bath.”
Get to the business.
Do you feel like you give 100% of yourself to a project?
Now I do. I used to be a lot lazier. It was, “just get to the verse.” I’m militant about what I do now. This isn’t my retirement plan. I don’t want to be famous. I want to be understood. I know that there’s an age limit with rap. No one is going to fuck with me when I’m 40. So, I’ve got to do it now. And I’m not going to waste your time.
I had an existential crisis when I performed one time. I felt like the first monkey to talk to all the other monkeys. I couldn’t figure out why my air should be important cause I was on stage. I stopped performing for a while, then I came back to it like, “You’re not going to waste anyone’s time. You’re going to go out there with shotgun shells and just pow, pow, pow!”
I love performing. Every artist says that’s the drug. If that’s the drug, I’m going on a binge.
Do you get anxiety about it?
Not anymore, but I used to. I used to wear sunglasses all the time. I was like Jim Morrison. I hated looking at the crowd. I know what my job is now. Yeah, you wake up and you’re going to shit 5 times. I’m still on guard. People say you should be nervous, but I’m not worried about it. I’m just on guard. I care.
I thought about it for like a week. Why should I be nervous for something I’ve been excited about for a week?
So, when did you get into rapping?
Around 2007. My buddy Anthony showed me the classic white kid getting into hip hop stuff. I loved lyricism, and I got sick of the “Cat in the Hat” stuff. I hate when I can guess the next word. If you say “brown,” God damn you if you say “town.”
For about a year I would fiddle around, then in March 2008 I recorded for the first time in downtown Schenectady with a bunch of drunk dudes. Since then it’s just going, going, going.
It hasn’t stopped?
It has. It did from 2012 to 2014.
It was an existential thing, mostly, like I talked about earlier. And I was in a bad relationship.
I had met up with Oz at that point, and we started writing “Dead Summer,” and that was going to be the last thing I ever did. Then, halfway through that, I came out of that bad relationship and Dead Summer became my revival. I realized I had left it out in the rain.
Then in 2014, 2015, I realized how short my time is.
How did you end up on Sub Bombin’?
From 2009 to 2011 I was with this EDM group, who was doing well locally, but my plan was to DJ with them and get my name known, and once they got to like me I was going to start rapping. That’s what happened. Then I wanted to get into venues.
So, then there’s this show called Beats, Bombs & Life 1 at the Putnam Den. Trumastr was on it, Rawhead, Midas, I think Oddy Gato. So, I messaged Trumastr (I can’t believe I did this) to ask if I could do a 10 or 15 before the show.
I get two messages back. One from his artist page, “If you want stage time, you should set up a show.” One from his personal page, “Come on.”
I love Tru, and I’m not talking ill of him, but I thought there was a chance he was fucking with me. I did my thing, though, rapping over like Statik Selektah and Dilla beats. I get a message from Trumastr after that, and he asked me to go to Beat, Bombs & Life 2.
Then, Sub-Bombin asked me to be in their showcase at the Beatshot Festival, so I thought something was up. Then, they approached me to do an album.
I’m really gracious for them.
Do you enjoy handling the business side of things?
Absolutely. Sub Bombin’ is the best. They give me 100% creative control. I love the DIY of it, like, “You want a cover? Figure it out.” That’s fun to me. More than just writing or recording, I love prepping everything for release.
If the goal isn’t fame, what is it?
I want to look back and know I did something. I want to know I expressed myself the best I could. This is like a time capsule to me.
Only one sperm is going to fertilize the egg, so I think it’s foolish to think you’ll be the one. I think I’m so cynical I never allowed it to be a dream. A desire, not a dream.
I never wanted it to be a mean to an end. I want people to either relate or to understand me better. I’m not looking for people to pay my bills.
If this is what I do and the time that I have, I’m going to take it.
Are you achieving that goal?
I think so. Whether it’s reciprocated or not, I do feel I’ve been expressing myself to the fullest capacity. Even more so after I started producing. There’s a little more longevity there. Producing is something I could do for like a long time. No one wants to hear a 50-year-old rapping, but producers get grandfathered in.
When did you start producing?
September 2016. There’s only so many boom-bap beats you can write about depression to. I needed something knew.
The thing that compelled me to produce was when I got into “The Knife.” They do pop, but they also do dark stuff. I heard the dark stuff, the droney synths, and went, “That’s how I feel.”
I got a laptop, and thought, “Well, now you have all the stuff.”
Last September I started producing, and by December I had a bunch of beats made. I took some I liked, Oz and I stayed up all night, and then we had “Niche.”
Oz says you rap like a producer. Do you agree?
I don’t know what he means by that. I think it’s because a lot of rappers start on the 1 and end on the 4, but I start on the 2 and end on the 1. I’ve always done it, can’t control it. I like it. I like the swing of it. I like the feeling of the second between the beat hitting and my voice coming in.
It comes naturally. I figure this out in hindsight. I can’t sing, but I know if I can’t sing what I’m saying, I shouldn’t rap it. When I used to write, I colored in everything. Like a kid. That’s what rappers do. No white space. Biggie would take a breath, you know? You’ve got to be like Ali. There’s no skill in just swinging. A good comedian doesn’t shit out words, they know when to breathe.
Nothing can be more than something. I’m a big believer in that.
Before you were producing, were you involved in production?
Not at all. I would just get a bunch of beats from this guy, and that would be a project. Then there were some issues with sample clearances, and I didn’t like that. So, I got all my stems, and recreated all the songs. That’s what got me into production.
I was terrible at first. I didn’t understand how I could rap but couldn’t write drums. I could only keep rhythm with my voice.
Producers don’t get enough credit.
It takes a lot more effort to make a beat.
Has producing made you better at rapping?
Actually, yeah. I feel like it makes me fit in the pocket a little more. I can see the grid better in my head. I’m tighter. And more enunciated.
So, Oz told me how you met. Wanna cross examine?
I met him on Future Producers, that’s true. He was living in Memphis, but his account said Saratoga. I bumped into him there and said we should do something, because I remember seeing him on Myspace. I was always blown away by his work. He was really a firecracker.
Nothing came of it, and then I bumped into him at a Beatshot show in 2012. He told me he wanted to book me for a show in Saratoga, so I go to the show. He hooked me up with his brother, who had just started producing. So, I was like, “Thanks.” I went to his house, and then within an hour, it was a joint project.
It was an immediate bromance.
Is that the same? Did he say I sucked his dick?
He didn’t say that, but he did mention a song you guys did.
Oh, I blocked this out of my memory. I still hold a grudge over this.
At this point, I’m paying for recording. Not just at my house. His partner at the time proposed we should do a song. I hooked us up with a beat, it had this dope Sublime sample. So, I write a good verse. One of the best I ever did. Really good verse. Pay for the studio time. He shows up with Oz. I thought it was dope, because I trusted him to deliver.
And they wrote two verses about how fresh they were. 32 bars of “I’m fresher than this.” I remember walking out after recording, and Oz looked pissed. He looked at his partner and was like, “I thought we were just joking, man. What the fuck?”
And I was pissed because they took my time and money. Mostly my time. A good verse.
So, yeah. That’s how we met.
How has your partnership with Oz impacted you?
We’re two sides of the same coin. I’m very rigid, he’s very “go with the flow.” I think he’s taught me to loosen up, and I think I’ve helped him put the manager side in perspective.
It’s an opposites attract thing.
Oh, yeah. You should look at our DAWs.
What influences you outside of life and other music?
That’s a hard question. I don’t think I have an answer. I can tell you what I appreciate or think about a lot, but that’s not what influences me. It’s the neuroses.
I’m unable to exhale. Anything that makes me exhale. Comedy. That’s what influences me.
Looking back at 2017, are you happy with it?
Yeah, definitely. Oz and I just put out passion projects, and we’ve gotten tighter with people in the scene. It’s been great.
My favorite thing in the world is performing, and I did a lot of that. Met a lot of cool people.
Devin isn’t sure what he’s going to do in 2018, but when he does it you can find it here. And here. Probably here. You can follow him on all those things, too. You can also listen to his music. You’ll like it. My recommendation is to listen to it on a treadmill. Or stoned. Or both.
Oh, and him and Oz have a song in a movie which is really fucking cool.