Homeboy Sandman has been the most visible face of New York underground hip-hop for seven years. What started as a balancing act between pursuing the music he loves and going for his law degree has given way to his becoming the galvanizing focal point of a scene, signing to revered indie rap label Stones Throw and developing into a national touring entity (most recently joining Brother Ali for 40 dates across North America). For Sandman, whose music’s melodic charisma works in tandem with an arsenal of avant-garde vocal delivery styles to appeal to casual and discerning hip-hop fans alike, the journey to the New York record-release show for his new album, Hallways, at Glasslands on Thursday, October 16, was as experimental as the music itself.
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“I figured all I had to do was get people to hear it,” Sandman says today. But New York circa 2007 was probably the hardest time and place ever to try to make it as an MC. With beloved rap venues and retail locations entering extinction, and hip-hop open mics becoming oversaturated with Bush-era political rappers and stubborn locals forever stuck in 1998, rhyming for rooms full of people awaiting their own turn onstage wasn’t going to cut it. So Sandman got creative, embarking on an unprecedented, ambitious self-promotional campaign. Along with being ubiquitous at rap events across the city, Sandman began writing his rhymes in chalk in the early morning outside the offices of music publications, leaving CD-Rs of his music in stereos at electronics outlets, even sliding slips of paper scrawled with his rhymes in behind the glass of advertisements on the subway, often topped with eye-catching signals to hip-hop fans (like Big Pun/Camp Lo/Gza Would Approve). “I thought that was going to get copied like a mother-father, to be honest,” Sandman recalls. “That train thing set me ahead five years. But I’ve found it took a lot of time and effort to do. I was on the train hours a day in the a.m. hours. I think the subway worked a little better than MySpace flyers.”
For someone whose first-ever show was in March 2007 at the Bowery Poetry Club, Sandman’s rise has been absurdly fast. “I recognized that what I was doing was working. Every time I would rock, I would realize that I won. When I started doing open mics, I won every spot. Winning it from the perspective of taking the attention and keeping it. So I expected everything and I worked hard enough for there to be a full house at Knitting Factory in 2009.”
The following year saw the release of his breakthrough album, The Good Sun, which would garner him national rotation on MTV2 (and whose release show would sell out S.O.B.’s). The signing to Stones Throw came shortly after. But while some of his underground contemporaries plateaued at the first sign of success, Sandman’s tenacity remained unabated. “I’m not surprised by anything that happened. I’m surprised by the things that have not happened. The thought of vacation drives me crazy. I have to prove myself to myself every day.”
Along with his prolificacy, part of Sandman’s staying power could be attributed to his music reflecting his evolution as a person. During the making of The Good Sun, Sandman swore off swearing. “Good Sun is the only album where I didn’t curse. I didn’t make a sexual reference to women. I don’t say ‘you’ at all — there was an energy with it I wasn’t feeling. One thing that happens to me, I’ll get rid of something altogether. I did it with food, I did it with language, I did it with relationships. Things I don’t have a good control of, I get rid of. By the next release, I was cool with cursing again. Now I feel I curse better.”
While Sandman’s status in the rap world has elevated, his DIY energy can be felt and seen around New York. The same week we spoke, Sandman was seen at his friend and local favorite MC AtLas’s album release show, watching from the crowd. He’s still supporting — only now the famous MCs he used to name-drop on the subways, he can call directly. Sandman’s still growing as a person, too, but at this point the transitions are much more comfortable. “I haven’t accepted a life philosophy in two weeks,” he says, “so I feel good.”