Cover Story Uncut: Childish Gambino Talks About The Internet

Read an uncut Q&A with Childish Gambino where he talks all about the Internet.

childish gambino awaken my love

Image via Sunshine Sachs

childish gambino awaken my love

The photo shoot for Complex's new cover story took place in the cliffs of Malibu. When we arrived in the early afternoon, Donald Glover seemed detached. He was quiet, and he looked like he had a lot on his mind. I was a little worried to talk to him. I thought maybe he was pissed off or in a bad mood.

After about an hour, I saw him lighten up. We were standing on the edge of a cliff looking out over the Pacific Ocean during a break in the shoot when someone asked Donald if he likes surfing. He does like surfing. He talked about the difference between skateboarding and surfing and then someone asked him if he’s afraid of sharks. He suddenly came to life and started talking like he’s on stage delivering a stand-up routine. “It’s killer whales that you have to be careful of. They kill for sport. And dolphins, too. Dolphins rape people! Google it.” I hate dolphins, so this was the perfect icebreaker. Soon after the dolphin rape conversation, we sat down on the floor of his trailer and talked on the record. He wasn’t pissed off or in a bad mood, but he did have a lot on his mind.

Interview by Jacob Moore (@PigsAndPlans)

You said in that Noisey interview something about being stuck at 25. When you were 25, where did you see yourself at 30?
I had no idea. I never really know. I'm not planning like that. I'm never really planning like that, but it's not purposefully. I wasn't like, "Oh, I wanna live in the moment." I just didn't really know. Every time I get to where something that I thought would be not it, just something I really wanted to do, then I start looking toward the future. So, right now…the show. That's the thing.

Is that the next thing that’s going to make you satisfied?
I won't be satisfied. No one's ever satisfied. You're not satisfied. I mean, everyone's trying to do something good.

Where does music fall in all that? When you finish an album are you happy, like, "Damn, I just did something amazing" or do you always feel the need to do more?
I never feel like it's done until the tour's over. Then the album's life is done.

Is that how you feel about Camp? Is Camp dead now?
Yeah, now I feel like it died. And you can go to the memorial whenever you want, you can put it on. But yeah, it's dead. And it should be. Everything should end.

Are you willing to talk about your suicide attempt?
I don't really want to talk about it…

Had you told anyone about it before you put up the note on Instagram?
No, it's nobody's business.

How do you feel about suicide in general? Kurt Cobain was my idol when I was growing up and my mom always used to say, "Suicide is weak, it's selfish." I always hated that she said that.
It's neither. It's neither. Like, that's the thing. I'm still here. I don't consider that shit like… I don't look at that stuff as I tried to… I obviously still like it here. I'm still here. Everybody feels that way. Everybody has suicidal thoughts. Everybody is on the verge of suicide every day. You could die at any moment. You could have a brain aneurysm.

When you wrote those Instagram notes, is that how you felt, like these are things that everyone else is thinking?
Yeah, I feel like everything I say is stuff that everybody else feels. You have to be real with yourself a little bit. No one is doing that anymore. Everyone is trying to eat. So there's way more eating and making everything look nice and calm and pretty.

Does the Internet make us all a little more shallow?
That's the thing, it's not real, it's curated. It's the same thing as going on a first date. The Internet is going on a first date over and over and over again. Everything online, even the fucked up stuff, is curated. Like, this is a site for fucked up stuff.

Like Fail Vines.
Yeah, like Fail Vines. There's a feel to it. Because real life doesn't feel like that. It doesn't make sense anymore. We want things to be in the formula of movies because we understand how that works. Everyone sees their life like a movie, because it gives it some structure. But the realest things lack structure. The universe is spreading out, we're trying to fill a glass, like give us some boundaries. But people our age are figuring out. There really aren't any boundaries or any answers to any of this, and all the structures that were given to us were given to us to make us good people. It's like the Bible. It's there to make people be good, because people aren't.

Do you think the Internet is fucked up because there isn't structure?
There's just as much good there as there is bad, because that's what's in people. And that's what draws us in. That's the stuff that people want to see. I watch Fight Cops. I don't know if those people died, man!

We've definitely watched a couple people die on the Internet.
We have definitely watched people die. The last Fight Cop I watched I was like, "There's no way that dude lived."

There are kids now who grow up seeing some weird shit. Like people dying, weird porn.
That's the thing, I am not the person to be like, "That's bad!" Because I don't believe in that. I just believe in progress, constantly. Like yes, that's going to change people. People always look around and ask, "Why are things changing?" but I don't think it's bad. I don't think the Internet is bad for kids. I don't. Definitely, I think if anything it will light a fire under us. I see more on World Star that's realer than anything else. There's two videos on there that I fucking love. There's a video of a woman getting tasered, and her kids are there. I love that video, man. It's like the universe. Like, no one is winning. The kid is calling the security guard a faggot, the mom is just getting shocked in front of her children, this guy is not a hero. That's the thing. It's just life. It's terrifying, it's really sad, there's all this fucked up shit in it. There's racism, there's homophobia, there's sex. Her baby dad comes out and does not protect her.

And there's one with these rival gangs and this one gang won't let the other get out of the elevator, and it's like, real.

But I love them because it feels realer than anything else.

Don't you think kids see that and get desensitized though?
Yeah, but people said that about me, because of all the shit I watch. People said that about my dad. Maybe that desensitization makes you stronger for what has to come.

Where does humor come into play for you in all of this? Like, sometimes in your lyrics you'll have some real serious shit and then a punchline right next to it. Even those videos you talk about, you're like, "Oh that's the realest shit."
Right, but we're laughing, because we can't believe that we're seeing it. Yeah, that's all in there. We all had that kid in class who was getting in trouble and getting yelled at and he just laughed. He didn't think it was funny, he was just nervous and all he could do was laugh. I'm guessing that's what death is like. There's nothing you can do, so all you can do is kind of just enjoy it. That's the world man. I don't understand people who want to make everything serious. Because that's there if you want it to be. Everything's funny if you want it to be. It's really dealer's choice. Like I said before, there's no boundaries really.

That's why I think a lot of people have a problem with me, because I don't see the difference. People will say, "The tone doesn't feel right on this." But it feels right to me. I've seen people die and then seen there be a joke about it. My favorite Vine is these people rolling up on a graveyard and being like, "Oh you dead! You dead!" It's the funniest shit ever. Because the irony in the thing is he'll be dead some day too. That could be really sad if you want it to be.

Is your album like that?
I just hope my album feels as real as it can. That's why I did the script. I just want it to be as real as possible in a way that people can understand. People understand movies. I just hope the album feels that way too. I feel like a lot of artists see the direction things are moving in and ask themselves how it relates to them. I feel like you're already relatable, because you're alive. And everybody has the same fears. If my letters did anything, they proved that everyone kinda feels the same way. I'm not special. Those letters were not special. They were just louder because I have a platform.

I wanted to ask you about Kanye's recent interviews. Do you feel any of the same things? Like that glass ceiling that Kanye talks about?
I haven't felt them yet. I haven't been limited yet. I feel like eventually that will happen. He's in a different place than I am. I'm kind of really just getting started.

You've already had success in a very different world.
It's weird because people see that. I don't see it that way. Maybe it's because it's me. I don't even know what success would even feel like?

You don't consider yourself successful?
I look at success like solving a problem. I haven't figured out humanity or whatever I'm searching for yet. It's funny because on Reddit, people are like, "Just give us another year on Community." It's strange to me. Our lives are so much bigger than anything, so why aren't we treating it that way? I get it, it gives life structure. You come home every day and Abed's in front of you and when Troy's not there where the fuck is my structure!? I get it. But it's time man, I just want to go further.

The worst thing to be in those civil rights photos isn't the black kid getting the milkshake poured over his head. It isn't the white kid pouring the milkshake over the black kid's head. It's the people who are just standing there looking. Those are the worst. Because those two forces are what makes everything work. That's what makes things move. The people just sitting there are dead weight.

I think that comes back to the Internet, like a lot of kids just grow up just watching, and not even watching real life, just watching a computer screen.
Because it feels real. It's curated to feel real. I'm a victim of it too. It feels real. I saw this thing on CNN. You can see the sniper turn the camera, then point his gun and shoot. And I saw that. And it's like I'm kind of dead now. I saw that guy who died. I experienced that too. That's crazy. No human beings have ever felt like that before.

I think it kind of fucks us up. Like you can see everything, you can experience everything. But it's not real, it's not your life.
We're in a weird place. I think in the future people will look at us pitifully a little bit.

Unless they just get more and more fucked up.
Well they will! But we look at shit and think it's fucked up but they don't think so. They just think that's life.

*        *        *

The next time I sat down to talk to Donald on the record was a couple of days after the photo shoot. We were at his house in Los Angeles the night after the listening session that got shut down by the cops. He had a bunch of people over that night, but once they filed out we sat down in his living room.

At the listening session, everyone was sitting down listening and then one kid got up and approached you, then everyone else started flocking around you. What were they saying to you?
It’s crazy. Most of the time it’s little things like, “Can I take a picture with you?” Or like, “What advice do you have for a writer?” It ranges.

Do you feel like your fans get you and your music?
I think people invest in my humanity. I think people get me as much as a family member gets you. They more just forgive me, which is all you can really ask.

Back before the Internet, when you were weird or different, you felt kind of isolated. Today, it’s like no matter how weird you are, how fucked up you are, no matter what you’re into, you can find…
A community.

Yeah, you can find your people. What did you feel like growing up?
I felt weird and awkward, like a lot of people do. I felt misunderstood. But it wasn’t like I had no friends. I had friends. I was aware of my situation. So I never felt too alone.

As much as everyone can find someone on the Internet now, we still feel lost. I still feel lost and very empty. It makes us feel more lost because nothing that I do is that different. Nothing is cool. We’re kind of alone in the universe. Like those Instagram notes I shared. We all feel these things, but nobody’s figured out how to solve them.

Why did you name your album Because The Internet? How did you come up with that?
I was in the studio with Beck, and he was saying that when he was coming up there were a lot of alt-rockers and they didn’t really talk to each other. Everyone kind of stayed on their own. But rappers would always come up and be like, “Hey man! I like your stuff!” They were very open. And he was asking if it’s still like that. And I was like, “Well… and I hate beginning sentences like this… but because the Internet…” And he was like, “You should name your album that.”

And it started as a joke, but then we started thinking about it and it just made sense. This album isn’t an indictment of the Internet. I just wanted to show how it affects our lives. We were just talking the other day about how important emojis are. They are super important, because they give tone to texts. It’s crazy. That’s why there are emojis in the script. Instead of writing, “He shakes his head,” I just wrote “SMH.” And people know what that means. It’s a language. It’s really cool.

But I wanted to show that we’re still emotional beings. Everything online, everything that we’re doing… If an alien race landed on earth right now they’d be like, “Oh these beings have moved past emotion.” Because all of this is bullshit. So I just want to show the complexity a little more.

Have we lost some of the realness of life because of the Internet?
No. The last thing I want to be is somebody who’s like, “The Internet is wrong.” I don’t believe that. This is how we connect, and I love the Internet. You can see me grow up on the Internet. You can see my tastes change. All of that is out there. I didn’t know what I was doing when I was doing it. I don’t know what I’m doing now, but everything is being recorded, and we’re the first ones to have to deal with this kind of stuff. So we have to be aware of that, and be aware of the repercussions. Our generation is a very important generation because we can still remember shit before the Internet. We remember just enough. We’re the only ones who remember time before the Internet. Our kids won’t know that.

There are some people who say the Internet killed music. Like people don’t appreciate the experience of going to a record shop and buying an album anymore.
Yeah, I think that’s bullshit. I believe that music has just become advertising for a brand, and if that makes music less magical, then fuck you. If you believe music is less magical because we don’t pay for it anymore, that’s just silly. I understand people being like, “I worked really hard on this song and I’d like some payment for it.” It just needs to be done differently. That’s the thing. People are going out to see live shows more than they ever have before. That’s what it is now.

And to be fair, people shouldn't have been making that much. People don't like to hear that, but it’s true. Television is seeing the same thing. Movies are seeing the same thing. This is a balancing act, and that’s what the Internet did. Trying to make somebody pay for music is like a bakery trying to get people to pay for smelling the bakery as they walk by. No man, music is free. As soon as an album has leaked, anyone can get it. And that’s fine.

Do you think it’s made some music less accessible? Everyone wants everything to be immediate. Are people less likely to spend time with an album. Because people don't pay for the music so they don't care as much about putting in the effort to appreciate it.
We're not going to be able to see the ripples of our existence. This is the way information works now, and I don’t know if that’s good or bad. There are definitely albums that I sit down and listen to and get later. I don't know if that experience is something we need. I feel as though that experience—if it doesn't stick around, it’s possible that it isn't necessary. Or there’s another way to capture that feeling in a more succinct, faster fashion. That’s what the Internet does with everything. Some albums are supposed to be like that, so how do you package that?

I definitely think there are some tracks on my album that, if you're looking for “Bonfire” or something, will seem boring to people.

When you're making music do you think about the listener?
Yeah, definitely. A lot. I want people to enjoy it.

Right, some artists are just like, “Fuck it, I'm doing what I want to do.”
Yeah, but at that point, why are you even putting it out? Just keep it for yourself if that’s what you're doing. My music is for everybody. I want it to touch as many people as possible. It’s stuff that I like, but also it’s accessible. I don't agree with preaching to the choir. You see a lot of these conscious rappers doing it. It’s like you're not changing anything, you're not getting any new fans, you're just agreeing with people. Your legend dies with you.

So if you had the choice, you'd be as big as possible?
Yeah, I’m trying to reach as many people as possible. Even if I know I’m not going to.

What about acts like Odd Future? They may not be super famous, but they've got such a strong fanbase of kids who love them.
Those guys are really smart. They know exactly what they're doing and what appeals to their fans. But I know that Tyler wants to be bigger than that. He can grow through touring with Kid Cudi, he can grow through working with Mac Miller. He’s trying to expand in a bunch of other ways, and he’s doing it really well.

Why did you include that meme generator on your site?
I thought it was really fun. Nobody else has done it yet. I want people to remember that I was the first to do it.

No one is using the Internet to make real stuff. When information travels, things usually get made. And that’s all the Internet is, and we're just now starting to see things come from it. That’s what I want to happen. That’s why I keep trying to find ways to bring stuff that is organic into the Internet.

I’ve heard you talk about coding a few times now. Is that something you've been into for a while?
I used to code. I never got good. I regret not doing it more. I wish I had stuck with it because that’s going to be the language of the future.

There’s a whole culture around it, too.
Coding is a beautiful thing. If there is a God, he codes. He definitely codes. There are failsafes in the world. That’s code. I don't want young black kids to aspire to be rappers or ballers. Even lawyers and doctors—those are service positions. I want them to be coders. They can make their own worlds then. Then they don't need anybody else. I love hearing those kids’ ideas. Like Cory Levy and all these kids on the Internet. The excitement of making something, that’s the spark of God.

When are you most inspired?
Like, all the time. I'm always doing it. Usually first thing in the morning.

Are you already thinking about the tour for this album?
Yeah, I was thinking about the tour while we were making the album. I knew “Crawl” would be a good opener to the show. The live show is so important. Honestly, that’s what saved me. Before I had the music shit figured out. This album is a lot more fun. The dude from Twin Shadow, we were talking and he’s like, “Music should be ignorant” and I agree. Music is made to be felt, and some of the best things are not made to be logical. The album really doesn't even make sense without the live show.

Anything else you want people to know about Because The Internet?
There’s life after December 10. This roll-out… I just want this album to feel like you’re living in it. I want it to feel like a season. Like when Kanye is like, “When Yeezy Season approaches.” and I’m like, “Yeah, it should feel like a season.” It comes in a cycle. I couldn't care less about the numbers.

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