For Rapper London O'Connor, 'Pop is the Most Honest Genre'
Photo by Olivia Bee
London O’Connor is thumbing through an issue of Transworld Skateboarding, his head — a mess of light brown dreads — tipped over a full-page skate spread. Even in the August heat, he’s wearing black jeans and a mustard yellow sweater, emblazoned with the symbols Ο Δ, pronounced “Circle Triangle,” the name of his debut album. All of his shirts bear those same shapes. On his feet are a pair of Vans velcro baby shoes, the same style he’s been sporting for seven years. His style is purposeful, minimal.
The place he’s chosen for us to meet seems almost as deliberate as the shapes on his sweater or the shoes on his feet: Rbbts, a Soho eatery that is subtly tinged with skate culture. A stack of magazines — some of them Thrashers and Transworld Skateboarding — sit on the bar against a wall lined with skateboards decks. Rbbts’ door reads “Skate and Delivery,” an homage to the Thrasher video game Skate and Destroy; the restaurant’s sign says “Rbbts” in Thrasher's classic font. O’Connor’s been a fan of Thrasher since elementary school.
He looks up from his magazine with a playful sparkle in his soft, brown eyes and says, “Every time I do an interview with someone and I haven’t done this with them before, they have to tell me something embarrassing about themselves and then I share something. It can be anything, as long as it’s honest.”
It takes me almost five minutes to think of something. “I had a party in my house in high school and somebody left a beer in my kitchen. My mom found it and yelled at me in front of all my friends,” I say.
“Damn, that sucks!” he exclaims, “I got one, too. So there’s this woman who used to edit photos for [the photographer] Ryan McGinley and I was really attracted to her... I hung out with her for like a month and, like, tried my best. No progress. No play. Then I found out from Ryan like a year later — just because [I was] hanging out with her that whole month — she legitimately couldn’t tell like if I was a boy or girl.”
This is something that happens to O’Connor quite often, or “historically,” as he puts it. But he manages to take this kind of rejection in stride. “Most of my embarrassing stories are pretty much like about romance I’ve not had,” he says, laughing, “That’s what my life was like growing up.”
Beyond that, he's a bit tight-lipped about his childhood in San Marcos, California. “[San Marcos] taught me survival,” he says, emphasis on the word "survival." Ο Δ — which he produced, wrote, and performed entirely on his own — goes hand-in-glove with a theme of exploration, which the symbols signify. “I think I explore because I need to,” he proclaims, earnestly, honestly. This idea is further supported by a music video game he released last October, set to the song “Oatmeal” from Ο Δ. The whole point of the game is to escape. The setting is the suburbs, a nod to San Marcos, where the suburbs last forever. You have to fight your way out of the suburbs in order to be free. O’Connor often felt bored and trapped as a kid in San Marcos, and creative exploration became an outlet for him.
But to be fair, his hometown did give him some valuable things: It’s the place where he first picked up a skateboard at age six, where he first learned how to produce and play piano in high school, and where he first started rapping when he was ten years old. (And yes, he began rapping because he wanted a girl to like him.)
While he started out as a “rappin’ ass rapper,” O’Connor has now transitioned to pop music, a label he feels better suits him. “[Pop] is the most honest genre… Saying that something is pop does nothing to describe how it sounds, only that it’s popular — only that there’s something in it that should identify itself with the experience of a wide range of humans.”
The need for openness and exploration — and expressing feelings of being trapped — can be perceived across the board with Ο Δ, especially with standout tracks like “Oatmeal,” “Nobody Hangs Out Anymore” and “Natural.” “Outside my window there's a cave / Beyond that, I couldn't say / We sit inside and watch the tube,” he sings languidly on “Nobody Hangs Out Anymore.” His voice appears again, another layer on top of his singing vocals, to spit, “All my friends are on the net / And all my friends are in the net / And all of us are out of it / And none of us are into it.” It’s a track that considers San Marcos’ stagnancy and lack of curiosity.
Everything from Radiohead to Pixar to Dr. Seuss and video game composer Koji Kondo informs O’Connor’s music, which fluctuates between crooning falsettos and rhythmic raps, its production often minimal, driven by lighter, ethereal beats. For now, he's content with making music, but he hopes his minimalism will reach a point someday where he won’t have to say anything at all, where his minimalism speaks for him.
Other things about him, too, are heavily imbued with meaning, which he doesn’t necessarily have to voice. His penchant for wearing housecoats and rejection of societal constructs and rigid gender roles advises his overall aesthetic and character, and is probably one of the reasons he’s often viewed as sexually ambiguous, further rooting him in openness and exploration, not just musically but experientially, too.
“Rappers, like, lie to you a lot growing up, and it’s typically about this masculine persona they portray," he says. "That really bugged me because I liked rap, and they were older than me and I knew I was going to get older but I didn’t know if I was going to get more like that. And so I started to feel trapped by it. I think I started like identifying [rappers] with housewives because rappers are trapped by their masculinity and housewives are traditionally these characters that were always trapped by masculinity. I didn’t even really know how to express my feelings about that… So I would just express it by like wearing dresses to cyphers.”
His upcoming show at Rough Trade NYC will be the first time he’s performed any of his own music. Maybe he’ll be wearing a housecoat or maybe he’ll be wearing a sweater adorned with his need to wander and create. He did assure me that he’ll be performing on top of a cube made of aluminum and acrylic — a “ship,” he calls it — another symbol for exploration.
London O'Connor plays Rough Trade NYC on August 26. For ticket information, click here.
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