You might not have noticed, but Dom Kennedy had a breakthrough last year. The independent L.A. rapper has been kicking around the scene since 2008, and while his work has been consistent it wasn't enough to garner major-label interest. But last year, when he dropped the excellent The Yellow Album—prompted by his simple but undeniably catchy jam "My Type of Party"—he made a new wave of fans through word-of-mouth buzz.
If you haven't heard The Yellow Album, you should. It's one of the most cohesive projects of the past few years. The sound is distinctly L.A.: the perfect album to just ride around to. Dom raps with an everyman appeal that might be best summarized on the song "1:25" when he says, "Tryna get my chips and stay away from you simps/If you happy being you, I fuck with you on the strength."
This week, Dom dropped his newest project, Get Home Safely. We got on the horn with the OPM (Other People's Money) rapper to talk about moving independently, the one-of-a-kind deal he struck with Best Buy, and why there's so much talent on the West Coast right now.
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
You’ve been on the scene for a few years. People knew you, but they didn’t know you all that well. I think The Yellow Album really opened you up to a whole new audience.
Yeah. I agree.
So let’s take it back to last year before The Yellow Album came out. How did you feel going into that album?
Going into it, my mantra is to be as stable an artist as I can be. Like you said, I was doing [music] for a while, I had to put out projects, I traveled, I did shows. I really wanted to find my love for why I do what I did. I felt like being independent worked in my favor because it allowed me to miss some of the pitfalls that a lot of other artists fall into. [Artists get forced into doing] things musically that they aren’t ready for and they didn’t really wanna be doing but they just got lost in their label situation.
I had the opportunity to sit back and watch. The only thing that I really saw is what people really cared about: It’s the music. People get lost in that talking about the music business. Knowing that, I wanted to create a body of music that I felt people would like. That’s all I was really trying to do, establish myself in music. I knew what I was doing, it was a calculated risk. The Yellow Album was different, especially at that time.
A lot of artists, they come in and try to do exactly what they liked as a kid or exactly what they like now. But you don’t become anybody until you add something.
It had a unified sound to it. It sounds very L.A. without sounding like G-Funk. How did you come to that sound?
It really started on previous things that I worked on, like From the Westside With Love and on Original Dom Kennedy. They weren’t as big as The Yellow Album as a whole, but there were songs on it that I started to play around with [that sound]. On The Yellow Album, I figured out that sound. You want people to think highly of you, you have to add something to the game.
Everybody has influences. Like you said, I came in with a G-Funk sound. A lot of artists, they come in and try to do exactly what they liked as a kid or exactly what they like now. But you don’t become anybody until you add something. That’s what I had to do on The Yellow Album. It started with previous projects. I started focusing in on that. Instead of having a little flash of it on the album, I made a whole album around that [sound]. I felt like this is something that I provide, this is something that nobody else can do.
That reminds me of a great Miles Davis quote in which he said, "Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself."
For sure. There’s so much in your head about what you like listening to. It’s all good because that’s what gets you to where you got. I heard over a million songs in my life, half of them were rap songs. So, my songs are like chopped-up versions of those songs in a way, like pieces that I heard and I like. After you do that for so long, you begin to say, you know what, I’m gonna need to do this. This is me.
Right now, you’re definitely known for the music, but it seems like you don’t care much for the celebrity aspect of it.
I mean, I don’t know. I never really dreamt of myself that way. That’s really what it comes down to, the business that we do. It’s not that I don’t like it. I don’t think no way about it. It’s not my job to be famous, it’s my job to make a good song. That’s what I try to focus on. If you don’t know me for the song, then I’m fine with you not knowing about this.
That’s a position a lot of people don’t have. People are like, it’s fame over everything. For them, even if the people don’t like your song or they don’t know you for a good reason, it’s still all good. But me, I don’t really care if people don’t know me. If you know me, I’m happy because you know me for my songs. I don’t want you to know me for something else. I sell songs, that’s really all I got to sell.
I don’t really care if people don’t know me. If you know me, I’m happy because you know me for my songs. I don’t want you to know me for something else. I sell songs, that’s really all I got to sell.
Right. That sentiment sort of highlights how I feel about your music. There’s a certain humility about how you rap.
A humility? Yeah. For sure. I look at what I do as just like documentation in audio form. The same way somebody would come and say, “Okay we’re gonna make a film about this age bracket of young people in L.A.” They would come film me. I just talk about it. I’m just documenting what we do. It don’t really affect me so much whether or not it’s on the cover of whatever because it’s our story. Five years from now, it’s still going to sound good because it’ll all be based on fact.
We were talking about what was going on in your life leading up to The Yellow Album. What happened after that record came out?
After it came out, it did really well. It kept growing, it took us overseas for the first time. It really got me into the power of going in with an idea and seeing it all the way through. Once I saw that it was possible—that we could sit down, see it all the way through, and for it to be successful—it was a big step for me.
You’ve talked about wanting to leave the industry behind at one point. What was going through your mind at that time?
I mean, I didn’t want to leave the industry behind because I wasn’t even in the industry. Even today, I’m not really part of it. But you know, like doing music, I did a lot of things and I went further than I ever thought I would. When I first started rapping people didn’t think someone could come out of L.A. that wasn’t gang-affiliated. I was the one that showed a lot of people that you could do that and be yourself. You could come out like, this is me, and people will support you. So that’s how I am with life.
If I wasn’t in it for the love of the music or to innovate or to add something to people’s minds, then I didn’t even want to do it anymore. I was thinking, why else would I do it? I’m not doing it for the money. That’s what’s kind of pushed me even more so in the The Yellow Album direction because I truly love making an album.
It seems like hip-hop is getting better at moving independently. You can have a viable career just being independent these days. How does that work for you?
For sure. It’s perfect for me. That’s the only thing I really, truly know. This works great for me. There might have been days when I wasn’t sure, but there’s days on both sides. I know people who have deals that don’t know what’s going on, or what their next move is.
But after you really find yourself as a musician and an artist, you’re not gonna have a problem with people coming to find you. Today’s times are so much easier because of the Internet and all the avenues that are there now. You make a lot of things and make a lot of modes if you’re a credible artist. But it’s always been like this: If you’re good at what you do, people are going to come see you. People are going to hear about you, people are going to know about you, people are going to come find you.
How have you tracked your progression? I feel like CD sales or Twitter followers don’t tell the whole story for someone like you.
I really don’t think about it. But you know, I just judge it off the shows. I’ve seen myself go from six people to 600 people to 1,800 people at my shows in 24 months. I went overseas and people wanted to talk to me and they don’t even speak the same language as me. I judge it by that. I wouldn’t know. I do a show and they say, okay you can do a 2,000 person venue this time. That’s like a major-artist type of show. That’s how I judge it.
It feels like the West Coast was kind of quiet just a few years ago. But now, Cali is active and there’s just so much talent there right now from you to TDE to Odd Future to Nipsey Hussle to Casey Veggies. What do you attribute that to?
The perspective on life and the personality. The people you seeing are who they are in life. L.A. is a mixture of so many eras and styles; culturally it just turned out good people. The generation you seeing right now is an interesting generation with a lot to see. A lot of them have been doing it for a long time, so when the world gets to see them, they’re polished.
When somebody sees ScHoolboy Q for the first time on The Arsenio Hall Show, that’s definitely not the first time ScHoolboy Q has performed. When they see him people are like, “Who are you?” It’s like, damn, these motherfuckers have been doing this shit for a long time—longer than most people know. So L.A., it’s some real experts out here on what they doing.
Switching gears, let’s talk about your new project, Get Home Safely. What is the measurement of success for this record?
For this one, the reaction of people when they see me in the streets. I imagine that my peers and a lot of people would be interested on what this album sound like, especially a lot of people who probably never heard The Yellow Album but heard about it. Or maybe it wasn’t their favorite album but they’re interested in Dom Kennedy.
There are important times in the world, not just in rap. Like the government is shut down and shit. I feel like rap has social responsibility and guidance that it's supposed to be giving through the music. Get Home Safelyis going to be like that, the message is strong. One thing I look for is just how is it going to be with the other rappers [after it comes out]? Who is it going to influence? When the music comes out, who’s going to get home safely? Who sound like what? Who’s going to talk about what?
There are important times in the world, not just in rap. Like the government is shut down and shit. I feel like rap has social responsibility and guidance that its supposed to be given through the music. Get Home Safely is going to be like that, the message is strong.
That’s what I want to be responsible for, to influence people to be better and attain more. I challenge myself on this album. I do that on every album, but this one especially. I just try out new things and not just give up.
What are the new things you’re trying on this record?
All of this been done before, but it’s just that the new generation people probably never heard this. I added more music to this one, I gathered guitar players and bass players. The Futuristics, who produced a lot of it, they play live drums on there. We want to show our talent, show who we are as people. We went deeper with our concepts. I stayed up to two, three in the morning, even longer, writing these songs and finding messages and music that kids never heard before. Making music that I feel would inspire them to go past what we doing for life. Not just take the easy way out. You think, “Okay, I could’ve come back with the The Yellow Album Part II. But it’s like I did that, I talked about it. We move on, there’s more shit going on.
Speaking of new things, one of the interesting stories around this record is your Best Buy deal. As explained in the L.A. Weekly piece, you got Get Home Safely directly on Best Buy shelves without using a distributor. How did that deal come about?
That came about with the head lady of Best Buy who is in charge of music distribution. We got a chance to meet her and we sat down. We were actually talking about another deal and that didn’t happen, so we got the opportunity to meet with Best Buy. She became interested in our music and our story and wanted to give us a shot.
Is she a fan?
No, she didn’t know me before then. As I got to play her some of the music and tell her our story, she felt like our music was just as high quality as any major label out there. Really, it was her choice, though. We’re find new ways to do things and survive. If everybody tells you, “No, no, no, this can’t be done,” what do you do? Do you give up or find a different way? For me, we going to find a different way. If you really want it, you going to fight for it, that’s what my mom used to tell me all the time. Instead of begging for shit, try to figure stuff out. You gotta figure out a way to make this happen.
What do you want people to take away from this record?
Every record is made to be its own part of the story. They going to get it but I don’t know, I’m gonna pray for that. What I hope they take from this record is that it’s all in the power of sticking together. All good things come from working hard and doing what you love and staying true to that. Whatever I gain or don’t gain, whatever I do or I don’t do, you can attribute it to what we believe in our hearts to be right.
We was faced with a lot, we turned down a lot. Even working with The Futuristics, they’re Grammy-nominated and working with lots of artists. But we got together at a time when we just wanted to do better shit, to be the people we’re tired of other people talking about. We were like, let's do it together. People might not understand it, but lets just do it. We found what we wanted to say and it worked out. So do shit together man, find some people that you care about, that you can work with. If you have a common goal, go at it and do shit together. Just keep going.