There’s been a lot of talk lately about rap’s throne and/or crown–who’s watching it, who’s taking it and who deserves it. While all that talk was going on comedian and actor Donald Glover AKA rapper Childish Gambino seems to have shucked his foolscap and stolen into the throne room when no one was looking–putting out his first album and breaking into the Billboard Top 200 right along with Drake and Wayne and Lady Gaga almost before the rap industry realized that his persona was not just a running joke. In spite of being almost constantly, can’t-help-it funny Childish Gambino has quickly established himself as one of the smartest and most unique voices in rap. Okayplayer caught up with the Childish star backstage at NYC’s terminal 5, not long before his album release to chop it up about black nerds, being angry and funny at the same time and other serious shit.
OKP: So you are obviously a busy dude–What exactly is on your plate right now?
Childish Gambino: I’m writing a movie, I’m tryina work on a mixtape, I’m on tour, I’m tryina finish the website, you know…doing interviews to support the album. And Community.
OKP: What’s your shooting schedule like?
CG: Three weeks on, one week off. This is my week off. On the weekends I try to do stuff, I still have weekends… I write on the set of Community, in between scenes, like verses and stuff, and when I get home I work on beats, or on the weekend, me and (musical collaborator) Ludwig would get together and work on beats and the production together, whenever we have free time.
OKP: Does one artform influence the other? If being funny is your day job—is rap music an escape?
CG: I see them all as the same thing. None of them are really an escape, I feel like they’re all expressions of myself. You know, I try to get it out there, that’s just the way it is. It’s an interesting thing, it’s a balance but lately it hasn’t been that balanced.
OKP: How do you deal with people thinking the whole thing is just a joke—you are being funny even when you rap…
CG: I just let people think what they want to think, like it’s not my job to make you any— Like if you want to do that it’s fine, if people wanna think what they wanna think, without actually tasting it, like I’ve never really understood somebody being like “Uh I hate cheese cake,” never having eaten cheesecake. Like I just, I don’t get it. I mean, I get it lately, because the world is a place with a lot of information in it, and it takes a long time to get your own information, but I kind of condemn it, I don’t really endorse it
OKP: But what if you built this pretty known brand as a comedian and actor, selling KFC or whatever…and now you’re selling cheesecake?
CG: Yeah (laughs) you’d be like, What? Is that cheesecake any good? I don’t blame people for that. No, totally, I’m fine with that. I totally get when people are like “Hey, comedian or actor? Or rapping?” Sometimes it’s just frustrating because I was rapping first. I get it. I just want people to try it, see if it’s up their alley, pretty much.
OKP: So are you trying to be funny? Or is it something you can’t help? Because the stuff you are talking about is actually pretty serious…
CG: I mean, I think that’s the only reason people are able to even handle it… But there’s not two sides to the coin, its the same quarter. Like, I’m silly sometimes but there’s serious stuff in there. I feel like my stand up is the same way, there’s silliness in there, but there’s serious stuff that I talk about. My favorite stuff is that stuff. My favorite stuff is where you make your own decisions about how it affects you. I just try and be honest. I just try to be as honest as I can–to my emotions, not honesty like The Truth, but honest to me. And I say that on the album.
OKP: So chronologically—you were rapping first?
CG: I got into making music when I was very young. My mom bought me like a guitar and I liked to make songs and record them for myself. I was always just making little songs for myself. And then when I got to college, I got fruity loops and I would just make little albums and I’d put them online, just for fun.
OKP: And this is all in Georgia, correct?
CG: Yeah I grew up in Atlanta, but I went to school here. And then…
OKP: Was that reflected in the songs? Did you feel like you were connected with that whole ATL movement of Kriss Kross and Outkast and all that?
CG: No I was very young when all that stuff came out…
OKP: So what were you looking at, musically?
CG: My dad was playing Funkadelic all the time, and Prince and Kraftwerk. I was really into like, songs on Sesame Street and stuff. I just liked the melodies of Fraggle songs or Jim Henson songs or Disney songs. I thought the melodies on them were nice in my head, something like [sings] Something that was bright.
But Outkast and stuff like that–when I was in college, yeah that was IT. But like I wasn’t really understanding what was going on in the music scene in Atlanta when it was really popping off. Like Outkast was big, Goodie Mob was big, there was a lot of really interesting rap that was popular in Atlanta that didn’t reach outside until later, but I didn’t even really think about it that way. I just thought, Oh, music’s out there. You know, that was it.
OKP: Part of the reason I ask about the ATL connection is because—not that you sound like hime—but Andre 3000’s persona was kind of a reference point for me in wrapping my head around the fact that Childish Gambino is not just a joke. His stuff on Outkast’s records was always kind of surreal and whimsical–but its not a joke.
CG: Rap is funny. Like, comedy helps you through hard times. Like my family is really funny, probably because like there’s been a lot of shitty things that have happened. You know, it helps you. Laughing has always helped me, I need that. So why lie? Like if I came on this record and I was just like, Yo, it’s fuckin hard core, I’ma fuckin do this! people would be, What? That’s not you. Being honest is what’s most important, my favorite albums are the most honest ones. They feel real. You know, even if the stories aren’t all real. The predicaments and the anguish and the things that are most human about them feel real. And that’s me…I’m very silly. Super silly.
OKP: Is that what the album name Camp is all about?
CG: Yeah Camp is like the place you go away to be away from it all, to be totally in your own space—but its also black people using satire to kind of deal with the pain and the fucked up things.
OKP: we all know “Wu Tang random name generator” origin story of Childish Gambino–but when was Childish Gambino, the persona, really born?
CG: I think when the whole Spiderman thing happened, I felt—and I’ve said this before—when people started telling me I couldn’t play Spiderman because there were no black kids like that, who live in Queens with their aunt and uncle and are into science…like, What? There’s no black kids in the suburbs? There’s no nerdy black kids? I felt like I was constantly told as an actor and as a comedian: Assimilate, Assimilate–up to a certain point. And then it was like, Don’t assimilate. I think Childish Gambino was kind of a reaction to all of that.
OKP: Kind of like: If that’s what you want, I’ll give it to you, kinda thing?
CG: Maybe, but also I just wanted to do what everybody was telling me I shouldn’t do—if there’s no voice for that kid in rap music, where is it? I wanted the opportunity to fall flat on my face if necessary. Its like Chris Rock said: as black people we don’t really need opportunities to succeed at this point—we need oportunities to fail.
OKP: So where do you think you failed on Camp? What moment on the album gives you your most spectacular opportunity to fail?
CG: Probably the misogyny. You know all the talk about women and anger and all that stuff. Because everybody’s gonna be like, Oh, we thought you were different. We thought you were on of the nice ones.