“Writing to the setting sun”: George Watsky in profile

George Watsky

In August, One Night Stanzas played host to an exclusive spoken-word gig at the end of George Watsky’s Nothing Like The First Time tour. I started a write-up for it, but got bored: it was my own gig after all, and I spent the last three months or so organising it. The man himself is far more interesting. See if you agree.

THE FIRST TIME I saw George Watsky, he was stepping onto the stage at Camden’s Barfly, ready to launch into the penultimate gig of his twenty-four-city Nothing Like The First Time tour. Initially, I couldn’t get over how small he was – at 26, he looks more like a geeky high-schooler than a hip-hop wunderkind. For the gig, he wore an outsize t-shirt with goofy slogan – “dreamers think with their heart” – and a San Jose Sharks cap which he constantly fiddled with, turning it backwards, forwards, backwards again. But if boyish awkwardness has been a difficulty for Watsky in his efforts to get noticed as a hip-hop artist – one of his lyrics registers the complaint, “I’m the best rapper alive / who gets mistaken for Michael Cera everywhere that he drives” – then it doesn’t show. This tiny, funny-looking guy has become one of the genre’s fastest rising stars, thanks in part to the gawkiness that makes him stand out in a scene all too often characterised by macho posturing.

Watsky began to be noticed as a talented performance poet, winning over a dozen slams in the San Francisco area between 2005 and 2006, and scooping top titles at the Youth Speaks Grand Slam and the Brave New Voices International Poetry Slam. He was contacted by HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and his performance of “V for Virgin,” a poem that advocates remaining chaste in spite of peer pressure, aired in the show’s sixth season. Subsequently, Watsky toured campuses across America, and in 2007 released his first record, the “barely-heard” Invisible Inc. This laid the foundations for the 2010 album Watsky, an eclectic mix of tracks dealing with everything from George’s struggle with childhood epilepsy to his thoughts about the privileges and challenges that come with being a white rapper.

“I spent pretty much all my time and all my money for the last two to three years [making Watsky],” he said at the time. But the hard work paid off: it’s a brilliantly unique hip-hop record, layering whip-smart lyrics over slickly produced, usually collaborative, tracks. ‘Seizure Boy,’ the album’s fourth track and one of the opening numbers at Barfly, starts out as a teenage epileptic’s lament, poking fun at the condition with lines like, “you don’t remember whether you were wetting your gym shorts / in front of Amanda / the girl you’re after / who already thought you were a fucking disaster.” But the song turns into a call-to-arms for all youngsters whose lives are touched by illness: “this is for my sick kids / time to quit this shit / Depakote, Adderall, Ritalin, Pixie Sticks / I don’t give a fuck what you’re writing to the setting sun / use it as a weapon when it’s said and done.” ‘Who’s Been Loving You?’ was also on the Barfly set-list: a real crowd-pleaser, the track serves up floor-filling Northern Soul horns and lyrics like, “this insanity? That’s hereditary / but it’s my family, so we can let it be / wish I’d pretended that my mom and dad are dead to me / but I love my dad, that motherfucker read to me.”

As copies of Watsky began to move, George worked to boost his profile online, building up his Youtube channel by posting self-made videos for the album’s tracks. The video for ‘Who’s Been Loving You?’, which now has 1.5 million views, features home movies of Watsky as a small child. Gradually, these music videos got snazzier, and previously unheard tracks appeared on the channel beside them. One of these was the one-and-a-half minute ‘Pale Kid Raps Fast,’ in which Watsky delivers his lyrics at truly breath-taking speed. The song includes the lines, “I want everybody focussing on getting me to Letterman / to kick it for the betterment of innocent Americans,” and just days after it was uploaded, he pretty much got his wish. The track went viral – it now has over 21 million Youtube views – and Watsky was invited to perform on Ellen de Generes’ TV show on 24th January 2011.
“It’s a video that kind of changed the course of my life,” he recalls. “It gave me this following of people who actually for some reason want to watch my stuff… when I look back, I’m still so excited that it happened.”

Watsky’s appearance on Ellen gave him the boost he needed to take his career to the next level. To meet suddenly-increased demand, he released a flurry of new tracks, most of them collected onto his 2011 “mixtape” – essentially a serialised digital album – A New Kind of Sexy. In early 2012 came a digital EP, Watsky and Mody – but far more exciting for fans was the confirmation that, over summer of 2012, George would be setting out on tour and bringing his music to twenty-two smallish venues across America.
“I don’t know if I can describe to you how stoked I am,” he gushed, confirming the tour in a vlog on March 15th. “This is a dream of mine… a proper national tour. We’re not going to be playing stadiums, but… playing live is the reason I get up in the morning.”

Five months later, I watched George Watsky climb onto Barfly’s fogged stage. Somehow in the intervening period, he’d found a way to get his band across the Atlantic, and added two London dates to the end of his tour. An admirer ever since the Def Poetry appearance hit Youtube, I could hardly contain my excitement as a fairly mediocre DJ warmed up the crowd. I was desperately hoping that everything I’d seen online – dazzling lyrical originality, self-deprecating wit, effortless performance – would translate into real life. Although I was momentarily thrown by the tiny stature of the man who took to the stage, the doubts didn’t stick. Visibly tired from a month on the road and the weight of jet-lag, Watsky kicked off with an emotional thank you to everyone who’d turned out to see him. This was no ordinary hip-hop gig – there was no ego on display, no swagger. This was a scrawny kid who couldn’t quite believe his luck: a bundle of nervous energy delivering a smart, fast-paced, hugely engaging set to an audience almost rabid with adoration. As I glanced around, I realised why he cultivates the goofy teen Michael Cera look. The vast majority of my fellow audience members were shy young blokes, nodding and singing along to lyrics about girl trouble, social anxiety and secretly really loving your parents. My favourite moment was probably mid-set, when the band took a break and Watsky stood alone in a column of spot-lit dry ice, reciting a poem. “Who here likes poetry?” he asked the crowd, and the resounding cheer was accompanied by a forest of skinny adolescent hands. I felt a warm glow envelop me. George Watsky isn’t just a rising star in the hip-hop solar system: he’s making a whole new kind of masculinity acceptable to a new generation of listeners. George Watsky is a hip-hop game changer.

The second leg of the Nothing Like The First Time Tour starts on 3rd November. See http://georgewatsky.com/tour for more details.


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(Photo credit)

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