Los Angeles-based hip-hop artist, Propaganda, believes in enjoying work. That fact is not hard to see when looking over his incredible breadth of experience -- time as a high school teacher, a poet, and of course, as a musician, where he has released five LPs covering topics ranging from race, politics, faith and education.
We caught up with Propaganda to chat about what makes a successful collaboration, making art in community, and his new album, Crooked, out on June 30th.
Marmoset: When did you start making music and was there a certain moment that you can think of when you were like, "I'm going to make music"?
Propaganda: No, music for me, specifically, it was like... I guess it was like skateboarding for every other kid, where it's like, "Yeah, we all ride skateboards,” but nobody thinks about going pro.
You do it because you do it. Writing raps... it's just fun. I was getting in the battles and free-styling. This started when I was a freshman in high school. It wasn't until the beginning of college that opportunities arose that caused me to start taking it serious. I finished school. I have a master's in education and I was teaching high school for a while. I was moving into the workforce, but in the middle of that, I happened to land a record deal... I was part of a group called Tunnel Rats in the early days. They brokered a deal for me for a solo record. I still kept teaching until the moment came to where... either you're going to do this or not do it. I haven't gone back since.
Thinking of your time as a teacher, can you tell me a little bit about that and do you ever find that there's a connection to the work you did then to the work you do now? Does it inform your music?
Yeah, absolutely. It totally informs my music, my worldview, who I'm talking to and why I'm talking to them. I pull from so much of that experience. The school I taught at was super innovative. It was a public charter school for the arts in Pomona, California -- very diverse with a high Latino population.
The last record, the song "Bored of Education" was directly pulled from my time as a high school teacher. The people mentioned in there are real. I didn't make them up! Those are real humans. At the end of the same record, in "Tell Me Yours," there's a section of that and some of the names are my students. They're adults now but, yeah, they softened my heart and fortified my resolve in so many ways.
I was reading through your artist bio and one of the lines in there says that you have LA flowing through your veins. Do you feel like growing up and living in LA has influenced your songwriting?
Yeah. First of all, I know that's just a corny line, but it's very true. That city gets stitched into your DNA. I do believe that if you cut me open, Pacific Ocean saltwater is going to come out.
Is there anything that you go to for inspiration or anything you find that really influences you?
I think most of it is more just culture-watching. I feel like I'm more of a sociologist because of my music, being a romantic or anything. I watch culture so closely, I watch trends, I try to understand them. I try to understand the psyche of people around me and turn that into music.
Your music covers a pretty wide range of topics and some of them are pretty serious, some pretty intense topics like politics and race and faith and all of that. Why are those things that you bring into your music?
Because it's part of the life I live and I feel like we have a duty to the times. I feel like I would be telling an incomplete story if I didn't.
You've collaborated with a number of artists and producers over the course of your career. What does successful collaboration look like to you? Do you prefer to collaborate with others or do you prefer to work on your own?
I think collaboration is necessary. I think art should be made in community. Everybody's process is different, but I feel like at some point you have to bring the community in. I believe that open minds are important, buddies that can tell you, like, "Hey, this sounds whack." I feel like you need that.
In that sense, collaboration is super important. As far as features... I think a lot of that has to do with knowing what you're good at and what you're not good at. And for me, it's very important to play to my strengths and then I know... if there was a way that I could bring others in and allow those to fill those gaps for my weaknesses.
I think scenarios that come out of friendships also -- if we're already buddies, then the collaboration oftentimes just comes out of us enjoying each other. To me, those are the best scenarios.
Leading into that, I don't know if this is still true, but I was reading an interview with you from last year and you mentioned that you worked with Beautiful Eulogy a lot and they produced some of your records... but this time you’re adding in new producers. Did that happen for this new album?
Yeah, it did. We brought in Daniel Steel, who's worked with us often. Derek from a group called... from the group I started with called The Tunnel Rats, which is really cool because it felt like a homecoming. Omega Watts is another good friend of ours. Courtney Orlando... I know him as J.R. He did a few things for me, too. So yeah, we definitely diversified this time.
That's awesome. Why did you want to do that?
Well, I didn't want to get in a rut. Over the years, I've made so many friends with such talented people and it's like, man, at some point... I wanted to see what working with these other people would bring out of me, because the Beautiful Eulogy sound, I know what it pulls out of me. Let's see what else, you know what I'm saying?
On the same thread of the new album, can you tell me a little bit about it?
Yeah, so the overall idea is you have crooked people -- like, I'm a broken man among broken people with crooked relationships inside of a broken system with crooked desires, hoping for the day that the crooked is made straight. I'm just going to drag us through the ups and downs, the emotions, the cynicism, the desire, the soul... all that just comes with being here, now. It's like a real deep look at humanity as it relates to each other and to the systems that we exist in.
There's the song "Bear With Me," which is just about... I don't love my wife the way that I should, but I know I love her completely. You know what I'm saying? It's like, you know, just bear with me, I'm going to mess this up. My desire is to not always.
I love my city, I love where I'm from, but I know it's got flaws, but you can't tell me no different. Gentrification, what that's done to our neighborhoods. You know, the extreme, incredible racist tone we've seen from our nation’s leaders, what that's done to my heart, to my relationships. How it's exacerbated things that we've known already and existed and how those happened. What we've done to the Native Americans and how I'm even personally indicted in that.
One thing I was noticing, too, just from watching some of your music videos, they have a cinematic quality -- you can tell there's a lot of thought put into them. I'm curious if when writing music, you ever think of the accompanying film that would go along with it or how you see that relationship between them?
I try to write thinking about the song and thinking about the words doing the work. But now, having said that, I try to write considering all five of my senses. What's the sound, what's the taste, what's the smell like? All of my senses when I put words down, so I know that that lends itself to good film. Our story is we only work with film directors that we trust 100 percent, where they don't need to be guidance. Where you can just give them the music and say, "Hey, I just want something that's cool like this" and you can just walk away because they have that skill, that ability and that eye. I think that that's why the cinematic feeling of most of my videos is, because I trust those directors and I'm just like, "You don't need me to tell you anything."
What is the best career advice you've ever been given?
Wow, that's a good question. Let's see. Just enjoy work itself. Working. Whatever the job is, enjoy. Work has its own value, so it's all just work, and if you acquire a taste and a love for work itself, then what you're doing with your hands... you're always going to be the best at it, you're always going to do your best at it, just because you value work. So whether it's cleaning my house, taking phone calls during my daughter's nap, you know what I'm saying? It's all just work. Responding to emails, counting and folding T-shirts, cleaning toilets -- none of it is beneath me because it's all just work. And work is good.
If you're a barista for 20 hours a week and pursuing a full-time career somewhere else 20 hours a week, don't bemoan and feel like you're wasting your 20 hours doing the barista thing -- you're not. It's all just work, because work is good. It's not a waste at all. Are you working? Then it's good. That to me was probably the best advice I've gotten.