George Watsky is a rapper, writer and performer from San Francisco. In January 2011 George’s fast rapping went viral and led to two appearances on the Ellen Show. We chatted to him a head of his show at The Small Ballroom on Thursday December 11.
When did you realise you had a talent for ‘fast rapping’?
I had a leg up because I played drums as a kid and did a lot of theater, where you get taught tongue-twister warmups. So I had a solid rhythmic base and pretty clear diction. When I started doing spoken word poetry, there was a fast style among youth poets in my hometown of San Francisco, and I found it was a style that suited me naturally, even as a teenager.
You don’t put ads on your YouTube videos. Why?
I’m lucky to not be in a position to need the advertising money. I take a lot of pride in my video content and I don’t need Pepsi or Miller Lite getting the first word in before I share a piece of my heart. I’m wary of corporate sponsorships. It’s important to make money to survive, of course, but I don’t make art in order to make money, and the bottom line is all a big box corporation is interested in. Giving a company a piece of my platform cheapens everything I have to say, so I avoid it whenever possible.
I’ve read articles where you’ve been described as YouTube famous. What does it mean to be YouTube famous?
I haven’t read those articles so I’ll have to take your word for it. I have a really great, loyal following on YouTube and a bunch of videos with big viewcounts. I also would consider myself part of the DIY video-making community and I have a lot of friends who have developed their following on the platform. I always hate being pigeonholed for one thing or another though, so even as I’ve become a more familiar face online, I’ve really dug in on touring and tried to make sure that my live show and ability as a performer was something that I was putting maximum effort into it.
Where do you stand on people remixing your music?
I’m all about it! Go for it as long as you give me credit. I’m actually planning on releasing all my acapellas soon for just that purpose.
What about P2P sharing and torrents? Are you happy for people to get your music like that?
I am okay with people torrenting my music if they truly can’t afford it otherwise. I don’t think financial want should keep people from hearing my music. But if someone has money and just chooses not to pay for my albums I think that’s pretty lame, considering how much material I intentionally release for free. Why pirate an independent artist’s music, especially one who chooses not to collect advertising revenue? My YouTube videos are all free to watch and I’ve released six free mixtapes on bandcamp. Artists need to make money so I try not to pirate in my own life whenever possible. I think I’m the only person I know who pays for a pornography subscription. Even the small act of watching a dirty video for free slowly chips away at an entire industry and the jobs of everyone employed by it. It’s the same for music.
How would the removal of “net neutrality” effect artists like you who have used the web and social networks to reach your audience?
It’s another step towards corporatizing music. One reason the web and platforms like YouTube were so compelling originally for artists like me is because it evened the playing field with major labels. Suddenly it was the ideas and execution that was more important than the financial muscle behind a project. If money pays for access, which is already starting to happen across all social media platforms, small, creative voices will be silenced.
What advice do you give other artists who want to use the web and social networks to “break through”?
I would say that unique ideas and creativity are more important than having a big budget, and don’t expect your first video to be the one that breaks through. Be prepared for a long slog. You learn a little bit from every piece of work you put out, but sometimes catching on takes a while, and you shouldn’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen right away.
Are your lyrics reflective of your life or are you more of a story teller?
Even when I’m telling a story that’s not about me, it’s still grounded in my life experience and perspective on the world. I tell a lot of purely autobiographical stories, but I also have some songs and poems that aren’t directly about me. I have a really silly song called “The Legend of Hardhead Ned” which is about an orphan from Tasmania who moves to New York and becomes a celebrated breakdancer. It’s a very thinly-veiled metaphor for any oddball who found an unconventional way to use their given talents to succeed.
Do you make your own beats?
I’m there in the studio every step of the way when I’m tracking my songs, but I’m not the lead music composer. I work with a group of really talented musicians and producers who take the reigns on chord progressions and arrangements. But I often write the song’s melody and help with the polish of the finished piece.
Have you been to Australia before? What are you most looking forward to checking out while you’re here?
I’ve been to Australia but I’ve never played a proper show there before. I love the country and in 2010 I roadtripped with my friend from Darwin to Broome in the Northwest. We’re playing all over the country this time so I hope we’re able to fit in some site-seeing. I was really passionate about making these Australian dates happen, so I’m going to soak up as much of the experience as possible. And hopefully it’ll go well and we’ll be able to come back again down the line!