Interview: Rafael Casal
Rafael Casal will be turning 25 this year (on August 8th). He’s a multi-talented artist that won’t stop using different art forms to express himself. He’s a slam poet, a musician, an educator, a writer, and the founder of The Getback. He’s a 2-time Brave New Voices (BNV) Poetry Slam Finalist Champion and a 3-time cast member of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry on HBO.
In 2008, he dropped his first full-length album titled, “As Good As Your Word“. The following year, 2009, he released his “Monster” LP, on Halloween day. A lot of people might be familiar with his “Grinch Song” video (as it kind of went viral), where he dropped 100 Bay Area slang words in 3 minutes to this dope Grinch beat. And he hasn’t stopped there. He recently became the Creative Director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is helping to build the first Hip Hop theatre program.
We here at CrayonBeats have featured Rafael Casal a couple of times. We also reviewed his latest album, “Monster“. So it’s about time we get to interview him, right? Right!
Tiffology: Introduce yourself. Who is Rafael Casal?
Rafael Casal: Rafael Casal is that friend you have that is… the asshole you need in your life. The only honest answer in the room.
Tiffology: What does “A.D.” stand for?
Rafael Casal: High School nicknames should die there. Let’s do that.
Tiffology: Who were your major influences?
Rafael: In what, in music? in life? In life it will always be my parents – the older I get, the more I realize I am a dead ringer for 50% pops and %50 mom. In music…we don’t have enough time to list them all. I try to absorb everything I can from those I admire, examining the combination of attributes that makes them uniquely them. They help me identify the attributes that make me uniquely me.
Tiffology: How old were you when you picked up the pen to write, and what was it about poetry that pulled you down its path?
Rafael: I picked up the pen when I was 14, used to write in different directions on my paper while my best friend Hiro sat next to me and tagged up on his. I was very angry at the world for a number of reasons, and poetry allowed me to be self-indulgent enough to talk my frustrations out. I was finally good at something useful, I had always had a knack for articulation – finding the right words or parallels to explain the overly complex and the dangerously simplified.
Tiffology: As a music artist and slam poet, what’s your creative process like?
Rafael: I don’t think there is ever a moment where I am not thinking about a story or a melody. It is my favorite addiction, to constantly be trying to capture life in art. As far asa process, I try to keep as many different methods for creating art as possible, so that if one dries up for a month, the others are still nourishing. I tend to freestyle a fair amount of my music, just hitting record and seeing what comes out, and then going back to rerecord/put words to the parts I liked. It is likely why some of my music is simple, because I create it from a very different place than I do poetry. Truth is, they are completely different experiences and art forms all together. They stem from writing, and that is how I manage to manifest myself in both, but their intention is entirely different. As a fan, I go to watch poetry to be enlightened, inspired, depressed, and outwitted. I listen to music to hear something beautiful, rhythmically pleasing, to dance, to sing along, to live vicariously, to reinforce my vanities, to speak to an emotion that I am already experiencing (usually a shallow or foolish one) and so the content for my creation both is very dissimilar. I need them both, and so I attempt to create both.
Tiffology: RANDOM – Can you play any instruments?
Rafael: Learning the guitar, but I am better at piano. Can’t play piano though…but I can tell that it is the instrument I am supposed to play. It comes easier to me, but I bought this black guitar and it just looks more badass.
Tiffology: What do you think is the difference between being a spoken word artist and being an emcee?
Rafael: A bunch of poets get together and have a reading. They recite poetry and cheer for each other as we delve into the depths of personal realization. Afterwards, poets go out, get drunk, and listen to fun and shallow music. They are both a part of our rounded experience. Sometimes poetry is simple and shallow, sometimes music is heavy and complex. They are different art forms, one should not be confused for the other. However, they do often overlap, and so one should be able to enjoy both.
Tiffology: What was your very first time on stage like? Were you nervous?
Rafael: I’m sure I was nervous like anyone would be. However, we are always on stage in some way or another. Performing for someone, playing a role. Once you see the world as a stage, the venue is much less intimidating. It’s just a place with more light that everyone is looking at already. It’s easier than performing in the real world, you already have their attention.
Tiffology: Do you do anything to prepare yourself before a show?
Rafael: I spend a moment finding my most comfortable self. I have to feel like this is MY venue, my stage, and your here spending time with me. My backstage rituals always change, depending on what part of me feels least prepared. If it’s my ego, I do something to boost my ego, If I am tired, I do something to wake me up.
Tiffology: You released your sophomore LP, “Monster”, in October of 2009. The album is full of honesty that touches on things like sexism and exposing the depths of how ugly people can be in raw form. How has the reception been for the album so far?
Rafael: As always, the hardest part is getting people to actually listen to it. Those who have downloaded it and reached out to me have been big fans of the project. It has opened some doors for me and gained me a lot of respect in my music communities. I have gone from nothing to a small blip on peoples radar, and that was the point. On the other side, my poetry fans usually trash my music – thats likely because they want more poetry and I keep giving them songs. Music fans say “Where did YOU come from” and poetry fans say, “Stick to poetry.” But you can’t tell an artist to “stick” to anything. We strive to constantly change and challenge expectations. In that, my poetry supporters have been my biggest motivation. I am inspired by doubt. “Oh yeah, you think I can’t do it? Watch me.”
Tiffology: RANDOM: Describe the worst meal you’ve had on the road.
Rafael: McDonald’s along the 5 in California coming back from LA. I remember it so clearly. Me my homie and collaborator Josh Hari (Bassist) were coming back from visiting some of our friends in Los Angeles. At 4am we stopped at McDonalds for energy drinks and drive-through morning burgers. He fell asleep afterwards, but my stomach turned on me about 20 minutes down the road. Terrible.
Tiffology: Do you have a favorite track on the album?
Rafael: Always the tricky question. It changes daily. Right now I love Wise Guys, because it is so much fun to perform live.
Tiffology: Let’s talk a little bit about the track on Bay Area slang, “The Grinch Song”. I know there has been a lot of love from Bay Area heads, and people who don’t even live there… but has there been any “haters” towards the song and the slang?
Rafael: The term HATER, is from the Bay, originating from Player Hater. We have so many haters, we had to give them a name. Yes, There are so many haters. People love to attack the song because it shatters something they thought they knew. Bottom-line: We are known for slang. It is what we actively create as an activity here in the Bay. Every city has something they do in their pop cultures habitually, and ours is a love for inventing words. Luckily, growing up in the Bay, I have a high tolerance for the extraordinary Hater, so these everyday, part time haters do not phase.
Tiffology: In your song, “Bitch”, you talked about being raised on feminism. As a kid, how was that?
Rafael: My mother and father I would consider to be feminists. I was raised in a household with non-traditional roles at times, and was taught that the only word that could never, EVER be said in our house was “BITCH.” That is why that song is such a big deal to me, It talks about what it took for me to begin to feel that a woman should ever deserve to be called such a thing. For many men, misogyny is both a form of rebellion, and a bonding mechanism. I discovered it through rejection, through social structures that affirmed it and through aspects of my own self-hatred as a teenager. Some men realize it is a phase, and some men take it as a lifestyle. As a kid, I was sure I would never be disrespectful to women, however, we as a society are in a very odd place of transition in the way we view gender roles and dynamics. Because of this, I feel that much of my generation has grown up extremely confused about how to self identify and how to fulfill their expectations as men and women. Because of this confusion, I believe much animosity and frustration occurs. It is turbulent and fascinating, and so I love to write about it’s underbelly.
Tiffology: How is “Monster” different from your first album, “As Good As Your Word”?
Rafael: As Good As Your Word was a “feeler” album. Some of those songs were already 4 or 5 years old by the time we put them out. I wanted to get a better sense of what people were ready for from me, and releasing that project helped me better understand how people perceive me. It was slightly less honest, a bit more upbeat, and a reflection of where I was creatively at the time. The Monster LP helped me clarify the way I understand myself. It truly has been a therapeutic process of creation, and it will continue to be as we make Monster 2 and Monster 3. I feel very deeply for this mechanism of monstrosity, and it seems to resonate with a lot of people.
Tiffology: RANDOM – What do you like to do when you’re not making music or writing?
Rafael: I write and direct theatre often. I also love to shoot music videos and design posters and things. I do all of this for myself, and love to do it for other people. Not for free through…I also enjoy paying my bills on time.
Tiffology: You’re a founding member of The Getback crew. Tell us a little about that, and how you met each person in the crew.
Rafael: Daveed Diggs is my right hand guy. We knew each other in high school but really connected a few years after. I heard his demo from a mutual friend and invited him to the studio. We have been working together ever since. Chinaka Hodge is the person who invited me to my first poetry slam. She is my compass, and one amazing thinker. Lauren Nagel I like to refer to as “The missing link”, until her, the crew wasn’t coming together and functioning as it should. Once she came on board, everything felt right. She is an amazing singer, Music Director and writer. They are all monsters in multiple art forms, and so we inspire each other.
Tiffology: As Creative Director, you’re putting in effort to create the first hip hop theater program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. How’s that coming along? And what made you choose to do something this big?
Rafael: The program at UW is truly amazing and transformative. I am building the first x-men school for gifted youngsters. They all have super powers, and I am there to help them learn to use them properly. I have always been weary of having Hip Hop in the institution, however when I first saw this program, I noticed that I could get in on the ground and help make sure it happens right. My philosophy is that Hip Hop must remain a representation of it’s practitioners. Often times with things like Shakespeare, or Jazz, or any other once pop-culture-infatuation-turned-high-art, the institution becomes the authority on what is or what isn’t valid. We have designed the program to simply afford practitioners of Hip Hop culture the opportunity to attend the university AND continue practicing and producing their art. They major in whatever they want, and are granted all the resources of the university (including their full tuition paid) to continue developing their skills. As Creative Director, I am responsible for overseeing their artistic aspirations, and helping them continue to grow and produce.
Tiffology: Has anyone ever stopped you and asked that you spit something on the spot (written or not)?
Rafael: Yes, and I usually won’t do it. When asked if I rap, I usually deny it. It comes along with too much – I am a writer.
Tiffology: If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?
Rafael: So many people. Today? I want to work with Timbaland. I think I could murder some Timbo production. I could make something amazing with The Neptunes too, those two are insane.
Tiffology: RANDOM – Boxers or briefs?
Tiffology: There are a lot of favorites that I have when it comes to your spoken word pieces. But the one I wanna talk about is the A.D.D. slam (at BNV) and how doctors medicate the youth’s creativity. It was a powerful piece. The first time I ever watched that video on youtube, I had a combination of teary eyes, goosebumps, and felt so moved. So much truth, and you said what a lot of people only think about saying. I feel that it’s something that needs to be seen and heard. With so many comments of people relating to everything you said, and all the love and thanks you receive on that piece… how does it make you feel? And how’s your nephew?
Rafael: I’m glad that it resonates with so many. I just hope people can have a strong backbone when one day someone tries to prescribe their kid something that changes who they are. We have begun to see everything as some kind of malfunction, and the world of medicine is both a beautiful and scary place. As far as my nephew, he is too far away from me! He is in California, and I have been gone for too long. He is huge, and now has a new younger brother.
Tiffology: You have videos on youtube for your Getback blog called “Just the tip” (you need more, by the way!). The “Instant Messenging” video made me laugh. The squiggly line under misspelled words, seeing that the other person is typing, a sarcasm button, “lahmahfow!”, and using too many smilies. It’s funny, because it’s true. So on the topic of Instant Messaging… if you can, what was your very first screen name?
Rafael: I can’t because it is still the same! I will make more of those videos, I promise. I love writing comedy.
Tiffology: What’s your proudest accomplishment so far?
Rafael: Finding something that makes me happy.
Tiffology: RANDOM – Are there any bands/artists that you listen to (or used to listen to) that you probably wouldn’t admit to my face?
Rafael: No, probably not actually! I pride myself on loving a lot of different music. Is it all credible? eh. But if it does the job…
Tiffology: You were recently in Bermuda. Did you have fun?
Rafael: A Blast. Shoutout to Chewstick, and Yesha for making it all happen. Performing, Jet Skis, and sunshine. Ah the way art can pay off. Traveling is often my end goal. I want my art to take me places.
Tiffology: Out of all the places you’ve been to, in the U.S. and outside, what were your top 3 favorite spots?
Rafael: The Bay, Barcelona, Isla Mujeres (Mexico)
Tiffology: Do you enjoy traveling? What do you always make sure you bring?
Rafael: I LOVE traveling. Seeing the world is the end goal. I always bring some way to record/produce, need to be able to create anywhere!
Tiffology: What’s next for you in 2010?
Rafael: Graduating. Pushing my art in a way I haven’t been able to before. Releasing more music. Writing more poetry. Directing 6 new theater pieces going up late April. Premiering THE ONE DROP RULE theater works with Jason Samuel Smith in New Orleans early April. Shooting my music video for “Spitter” off The Monster LP at the end of this month. Gigs in the summer, who knows what will come by the fall. A few things possibly in the works that I can’t make public yet. All of it is too exciting to think about, but my plan is to live, to grow, and to continue to create. Getback.
Tiffology: Any last words, shout outs, or advice?
Rafael: Getback. Check us out at http://www.getbacknews.com. Bay Area all day.