Last week, Childish Gambino announced a joint project with Chance the Rapper. It's the latest collaboration for Gambino. I pay attention to his career, as I worked with the MC on “My Hoodie,” one of his very first collaborations. My name is Chaz Kangas.
In August, 2004, I moved to New York to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. As an incoming freshman who expressed an interest in the performing arts, I was slated to make my first Manhattan residence on the music floor in the new student dorm, Goddard Hall. That first week, the one where everybody freely explains to as many people as possible who they are, I made no secret of my passion for rapping. I rhymed in front of anyone who gave me the opportunity. More than a few of these interactions resulted in the question, “Do you know Donald? He’s the R.A. on the seventh floor and he raps, too.”
Apparently, he began hearing my name, too, and a few days later we had our first brief interaction in between Welcome Week activities. It was something like, “You like rap? I like rap too! I like Madvillain. You like Madvillain too?! Let’s rap sometime!” Cut to: the following Friday night during my dorm’s basement jam session, where all the instrumentalists in the building would gather in the room next to the laundry room to, well, jam. The guys playing were down to rock, but weren’t really big hip-hop fans. Seeing as how our dorm was just down the street from the Weinstein Dorms, where Vincent Gallo first introduced Rick Rubin to Russell Simmons and founded Def Jam, I felt inspired and asked the boys in the band if they knew AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” They did and in front of a room full of my new classmates clad in skateboard shirts and jorts, Donald and I freestyled for a good 17 minutes.
I wasn’t the only person who liked Donald; he was one of the most popular R.A.s in the dorm. He wasn't afraid to bust parties or write students up, and the events he organized drew strong crowds of residents. Donald had something of an everything-to-everyone charm. Physically and verbally he would be very outgoing but his demeanor was always a calm, reserved one.
We hit it off immediately and talked hip-hop and shared music throughout the year, trading CD-Rs of our own material as well our favorite underground artists. Donald was really into Stones Throw, so I tried sharing the Rhymesayers, Definitive Jux and Uncle Howie camps with him, culminating in May, the day we all moved out of Goddard, when he gave me a copy of his “debut,” The Younger I Get. I still have it (though he later disowned the project.)
What’s cool about The Younger I Get is how you can hear the influence of the Stones Throw sound. This was that in-between space after the G-Unit mixtape invasion and before Lil Wayne’s Dedication 2 made so many rappers sound just like Wayne—the rappers making projects in our dorm, for better or worse, had to literally find their own voice on record. While Donald was never one for the hip-hop open mic or battle circuits (although he did once take me and some of the other students on his floor to the Nuyurican Poetry Club for a teen slam) the fact that he completed an entirely self-produced rap album while hustling his comedy stuff and working as the R.A. at a freshman dorm in New York City is a testament to his drive and/or his time management. Years later, the cover art for the “Break (AOTL)” single was a shot of the inside of his Goddard dorm. It’s a shame that the extremely personal nature of The Younger I Get, including what sounds like Donald naming the actual names of people in his life who affected him in good/bad ways, will likely keep him from ever sharing it on a wide scale.
It’s a shame that the extremely personal nature of The Younger I Get, including what sounds like Donald naming the actual names of people in his life who affected him in good/bad ways, will likely keep him from ever sharing it on a wide scale.
There was a lot of talent at Goddard that year (among our fellow residence were Elle Varner, comedian Jenna Kim Jones and Station guitarist Chris Lane who you can see in the above freestyle video) so sharing our finished projects was always a big deal. In a lot of ways, what drew us to New York wasn’t just the university, but the culture of New York music scenes themselves. To complete and release a CD in New York was a badge of honor. At Goddard, everyone’s music was inescapable, with hallway “study rooms” quickly turning into “rehearsal rooms” and friendly regular queries of “How does this cover art look” and “Guess what sound effect I’m starting my album with?” being a regular occurrence. I think perhaps the reason so few (if any other) copies of The Younger I Get are still in existence is because of how many items gets lost or damaged in the act of moving out of a dorm.
Donald and I continued to see each other around campus, but his graduation the following year and immediate rise to writing for 30 Rock didn’t allow for as many chance run-ins. We still kept in touch via Facebook and email, though. He would send me beats, some of which became the MCDJ projects, some of which are still unreleased. When the writers’ strike went down in 2007, Donald decided it was time to make a proper rap album. We began talking about it in January, 2008, and he mentioned wanting to make constructive use of the time the strike afforded him. He also mentioned how he had changed his rap name from “Childish Gambino” to “Bambino X,” which is why on that album, which eventually became Sick Boi, you hear him referring to himself as “Bambino” instead of “Gambino.” I kind of understood it at the time, because I remember him showing us the Wu-Tang name generator where he had first gotten the Childish Gambino name—maybe he wanted to move on to something more serious. (That's purely speculation on my part.) Whenever I asked him about becoming “Bambino,” he responded: “I just needed a change.”
Donald had a track he asked me to be on called “My Hoodie.” I had just finished and was preparing to release my 2008 album Knee Jerk Reaction and, at that point, was extremely active on the east coast rap battle circuit (it was essentially my college job). In other words, I was a verse writing machine. Within a day I had the verse written, and when I arrived at his apartment he seemed shocked that I already had the verse done as the other guests on the record had apparently just showed up to his apartment and taken several hours to craft their verses. It was my first time at Donald’s apartment. I believe it was in Queens, and recall it being clean and spacious, particularly for a first New York apartment out of college. We knocked it out, microphone-and-headphones-directly-in-the-laptop style, in about an hour, with the bulk of the time devoted to whether it should be “My hoodie on glow” or “My hoodie all glow.”
Over the next year as I was doing promo and interviews for Knee Jerk Reaction, I would bring “My Hoodie” and one or two other recent collaborations with me as, the more exposure I was getting, I wanted to get my friends heard as well. DJs reacted well to “My Hoodie” and in Spring of 2010 when some Midwestern Tween uploaded a video to YouTube of him and his older sister rapping my verse, I realized how that track really connected with people.
Gambino fans are still introduced to me and my music through stumbling on “My Hoodie” to this day. Looking back on Donald’s past decade, the one thing that never changed about him is his desire to do absolutely everything. Doing sketch comedy and stand-up and comedy writing and making a rap album and being a residential advisor at a New York freshman dorm is a tremendous undertaking, one that some might advise against as it risks stretching someone out too thin. The fact that Donald’s still so active in so many wildly different arenas isn’t surprising at all. Growing up in the ‘90s, we were always told “you can do anything you set your mind to.” In ten years, Donald’s shown that that “anything” could be swapped out for “everything.”