Justin Boland, AKA Wombaticus Rex, AKA Humpasaur Jones, AKA Thirtyseven, is a rapper, philosopher, and independent record producer who is just as likely to spend a year researching the technologies of bioremediation as he is to relentlessly educate the hip hop industry on DIY promotion & marketing from his blog, Audible Hype. He is a founder of the independent hip hop label, World Around Records, and his most recent work is published there as Algorhythms.
I talked to him about identity, avatars, independent hip hop, and the industry at large...
What's it like being a white, nature-loving, long-hair hippy playing the hip hop game? Do you find acceptance or has it been a challenge to bring your ideas into the scene? Or does acceptance even matter?
Well, it's been awesome. And yes, acceptance definitely matters. We don't fetishize being "outsiders" and we hold ourselves to high technical standards on all our projects. I am into emceeing as an art form, and I would rather listen to Big Daddy Kane rap about shooting people than a mediocre rapper doing a "conscious" verse with a really good message. I absolutely don't rap about normal anything, but I do push myself to make every verse the tightest possible puzzle box it can be. There's an international community of obsessive writers like that, and that's definitely the peer group I'm aiming to impress, no matter what they look like or talk about. We're all engaged in the same war against the alphabet.
In 2010, because of artists like Apathy, El-P, and Edan, being white is not a liability at all. As for being a hippie/hick hybrid from Vermont, that's actually a huge advantage because I'm different by default. I don't have to figure out a new angle to get people's attention, I can just walk onstage and be myself.
You've released a number of projects under various names. Would you talk a little about these projects and your aliases? Do your avatars embody & express your art in some way?
I suppose they do, man. They definitely embody the fact that my interests are intense and short-lived, that I tend to give all my content away for free, and there's also a strong whiff of the stubborn stupidity I'm known for. I've made music as Wombaticus Rex, as Humpasaur Jones, and as Algorhythms, as well as way, way too much other stuff. I'm somewhere between 50% and 90% of DJ Multiple Sex Partners, depending on the vintage. The Hump Jones project was dangerously stupid, I was really pushing the Total Sexual Freedom meme past legally safe boundaries there, although I will probably still publish the book, Human Sexuality for Filthy Apes, that I was preparing for that. It makes me sound like more of a perv than I am, but that entire project was borne out of a single joke instructional song about anal sex. In retrospect, it was good, loving advice and I stand by it, so perhaps it was not a joke track after all?
My avatars also reflect a copyleft mentality. Algorhythms is a project I really believe is my best work to date, and it's also the collaboration that led to the creation of World Around Records in the first place. It's also legally impossible to build a business around. Even within hip hop, there's another NY based producer named Algorhythm. Like I said, though: stubborn and stupid. We will continue to release our best material under that name regardless.
From a business perspective, do I regret not building all my music around a single consistent name? Absolutely, yes. Doesn't matter at all, though, because that's what happened and I think I'm in a much more interesting position now. The funniest part is that none of the names I mentioned are even what I call myself onstage: I've been rapping as "Thirtyseven" since I was 16. So my actual gig is what I'm the least known for. This small anaecdote sums up my life quite nicely.
You've built an independent label, World Around Records. What was your motivation to create the label? Why now? Who are the artists on your roster you're most excited about?
It's absurd, isn't it? It's so dumb to start a label. That's definitely part of the appeal, for both myself and Dr. Quandary. Record labels are going through an extinction level event and we decided to start up a new one with basically zero money. It's been working out great, too.
In reality, we're a promotional platform for a like-minded group of independent musicians. The live band on our roster, dumate, is very successful in Madison and 100% run their own operation. Our newest addition, the Swiss producer & instrumentalist Naturetone, has a totally self-contained process where he just gives us the finished product, artwork and all, and it's more impressive every time. My job is to run around the internet waving my arms and yelling about how awesome those guys are. There's more dignified ways to put it, but that's what it is.
Our navigation system is the feedback loop between my bullshit detector and Dr. Quandary's aesthetic 6th sense. We're definitely proving our case that good music can drive a business model without treating fans like "targets." Last month, the UK producer s. maharba released a vinyl collector's edition of his "S/T" beat tape and he did an experiment. Right on the landing page where he's selling the vinyl, he's giving away the entire album for free digitally. Despite this, he sold out 100 pre-order packages and he's about to run out of the 2nd printing now, too. So we had a lot of doubts since 2007, but this year has been a breakthrough. We've just been watching it work, week after week.
What are your thoughts on the current state of hip hop? Who are the names you think are doing the most to evolve the art & the scene?
Hip hop is amazing and pretty much always has been. I've never understood the arguments about it being dead or needing to be saved. Hip hop is completely un-killable and there's hundreds of innovative and excellent albums coming out every single year. How hip hop gets presented in the media is something completely separate, that just represents who's getting corporate funding that year.
I have an increasingly bad habit of going off on people who complain about hip hop, but it's exactly like when a guy sits down at a bar and starts complaining about women. That's got nothing to do with women and everything to do with the guy's own failures. Everyone should know about Jay Electronica in 2010. Everyone should know that the city of Detroit has been producing some of the best hip hop on Earth, from Royce to Elzhi to Invincible to Black Milk to the criminally under-rated Majestik Legend. Hip hop is on a long run of incredible albums. Roc Marciano, Diamond District, Tanya Morgan, Brother Ali, Termanology, Aesop Rock, Mos Def, Little Brother, Strange Fruit Project, I could fill a month of your life with front-to-back classic albums that came out in the last 5 years. There's so much out there, it's just not being spoon-fed to Americans by mainstream media.
My focus in on the emcees, and there's a LOT of writers who are really pushing me to work harder these days. Freddie Gibbs, from Gary, Indiana. Blu, Nocando and Fashawn from LA. One of my all-time favorite rappers is Motion Man, he's way too obscure. Most of my favorites are like that -- The Loyalists, Alaskan Fishermen, Witness from Philadelphia. There's older guys who have made comebacks and are still among the best living, like Kool G Rap and Canibus. I can see how people get burned out on the business, but I could never get burned out on the artform. It's amazing that there's still so much room for creativity with such a simple recipe and so much competition.
Side note: being dedicated to craftsmanship can be bad for business. We have turned down 99% of the rappers who want to work with us.
How has the industry changed, particularly with respect to independent artists & labels and emerging distribution channels?
Best decade ever. I feel really grateful, looking back, that I discovered Marshall McLuhan before I got into this business, because he was the best possible guide. It's beyond spooky how far ahead of his time that maniac was. When it comes to huge, multi-billion dollar industries being disrupted by technology, I really think the saga of the music industry will go down as the most entertaining example in history. Or at least, until the Personal Force Field app takes out the law enforcement bubble in 2019...that will be even better.
In the past 5 years, probably 90% of what I learned became obsolete. I really studied up on the music industry, and now in 2010 almost none of that matters. The only numbers we need to focus on are internal. The only asset that we have is our community of fans. We're creating unique space, so instead of modeling what "The Industry" is doing, now we're focused on communication and experiments. We're big believers in the Bandcamp platform, we've started working with Fairtilizer, and thanks to the coding talent of Charles Choiniere, we've also got a custom CMS and music management system built into the World Around Records website. That's been a huge advantage. For any curious tech heads, he built it with Django, a mutation of the Python language.
Artists have to be in control of their own data, their own music players, their own email list. Getting 100,000 downloads means nothing if you don't know who those people are. I think about this daily, and I write about the music business more or less full time for Audible Hype. I guess I should refer folks there instead of giving a 23 paragraph lecture.
What are your hopes and dreams for WAR and your own work?
There's nothing normal or healthy about day jobs. First and foremost, I want to end the tyranny of Day Jobs for our entire roster. So centralized success is not really the end goal here, with the actual World Around platform, our goal is sustainability. It's not a charity. I study business design like I study rap verses and having worked in marketing and ghostwriting and copywriting, I know exactly what kind of business I don't want to be. I was growing up in Vermont when Ben & Jerry's, the great hippie capitalism success story, sold out and absolutely killed the company right in front of us. I don't want anyone on our roster to be dependent on us, this has to be a collective and this has to be about mutual respect. I'm guessing that only comes from mutual success, if it's going to mean anything.
I don't think any of us want to be rich, we just want to make music, all day. Food in the fridge, functioning living space, no wasted time. Whenever our resident philosopher Louis Mackey gets a week of free space, he'll come back with an album's worth of amazing material. I want to unleash that for everyone on the team, that's our version of spiritual ascension in 2012.
Personally, I want to break one record in particular this year: Dr. Quandary's debut album, Beyond All Spheres of Force and Matter. I think it's the high water mark for World Around quality and I think it's got a universal appeal since it's huge, cinematic and distinctly Eastern-sound instrumental hip hop. He carved out something exceptional, so my big business goal is to push an independent release onto the national stage...but first we need to fund the vinyl.
Long term, I want to make a lot of money to fund a concept that's been on my mind since 2000 or so. Me and Dr. Quandary want to make "World Around" into a sort of international recording equipment aid organization, seek out talent in Asia, Africa, India and Latin American nations, find the future Lee Perry/Leo Chess figures who will do great things with it, and basically give them a studio. I want to learn and be inspired from outside of the great American echo chamber. We're both interested in solar and portable tech, and we're both huge Tinariwen and Ali Farka Toure fans. I'm still obsessed by the concept that a radio station in the middle of the Sahara could have brought me such life-changing music, years later, on the other side of the planet. Humans mostly exaggerate everything, but I don't think we can over-estimate the power of music.
What's your personal message to the world that you try to express through your art?
This planet is on fire and everyone is asleep. I'm uncomfortably conscious of the fact way too many hippies took the signal "Find the Others" to mean "hang out with like-minded white people." I want to relax people and I want to make them uncomfortable, preferably at the same time. Yes, you can do it...no, you cannot keep lying to yourself every day. I talk about getting free of belief systems a lot, but I have to confess, I am an Anarchist fundamentalist. I believe we are all completely free at any given moment and free choice is like oxygen or gravity or time itself, totally pervasive, and pointless to argue about. The only question is what we do with it, now.
I'm here to be part of the next big global movement. I am here to watch closely, work hard, and make the moves that I can. That's a big reason I stopped doing "clever" battle rap and pop culture references -- I'm trying to force myself to have a bigger horizon. The future of hip hop is global because reality already is global. Ghandi saw it and so did Malcolm X, any real peace and freedom movement has to be bigger than borders. It already is, too, our choice now is how we can either get involved, or justify ignoring it. American media loves to gloat about the reach and power of American culture, but the most important point, to me, is this. An international blockbuster like Independence Day gets translated into dozens of other languages, but everybody, around the world, listens to Tupac and Biggie in English.