I recently conducted an email interview with Doc Waffles about his new EP, “Seizure Suit Farms” (click it, it’s free!). As you’ll see, he’s definitely one of the most unique emcees in all of Detroit. You can catch him performing live with yours truly and many others on Saturday, July 30 at Schoolin’ Y’all: A Hip Hop Benefit to Build a School in Nicaragua.
It’s been about 5 years since your debut album, “Golf View Drive.” What have you been doing during that time and why have you waited to put out another project?
I moved to Chicago in 2007 to try to get a rare bookstore up and running. While I was out there I focused more on writing short stories and creative non-fiction. When I moved back to Detroit in 2009, reconnecting with my cohorts in the local scene renewed my hunger to record and perform hip hop. I felt like Golf View was thrown together and released somewhat hastily, and was criminally slept on as a result. I’ve been more deliberate this time around and I’m hoping the result will be increased exposure.
Can you explain a little bit about the title of your EP, “Seizure Suit Farms”?
I patterned the title after “Thorn Apple Valley.” I’m attracted to phrases with negotiable interpretations. A seizure suit could be an article of clothing worn to enable or prevent epileptic episodes. A seizure suit could also be a legal proceeding regarding the removal of property. A lot of the songs on the EP deal with loss in some way, my physical loss of teeth, Billy Joel’s temporary loss of will to live, etc. Even “Socks with Pills” is ultimately about how a new pair of socks, no matter how whimsically decorated, is never quite the same after having been worn once. So imagine a verdant testing ground where suits for seizures are crafted and refined. Uhhh…right. Short answer: Seizure Suit Farms is a place I go to shoot birds.
For those unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe it? What should people expect from a Doc Waffles project?
I try to make records that are entertaining first and foremost, but also that encourage a more rigorous and democratic approach for the listener. Most rappers tend to be very direct and isomorphic with their message, I deliberately confuse and obfuscate mine through the application of a specific, personal vocabulary. So you might have to work a little bit harder to render the meaning out of a Doc Waffles tune than one by, say, Gucci Mane, but the idea is to produces a richer, more nuanced kind of reward.
I’m interested in your process as a song-writer. For instance, for the first track on “Seizure Suit Farms” called “Socks With Pills,” did you set out to write a song about socks, or did you just start writing and that’s what came out? In other words, do you generally start out with a concept in mind, or do you just start writing and let the concept evolve?
A recurring theme in my work is distortion of traditional hip hop subject matter. Talking shit about how fly your sneakers are has been a long standing preoccupation for rappers. As far as I know I’m the first rapper to make a song devoted to socks, which I feel are even more intimate and revealing of character. So I knew I wanted to write a tune about socks, but wasn’t exactly sure how it would turn out until I sat down and meditated on the beat. That’s usually how my songs come to be: I’ll have some vague idea of where I want to go thematically, then let it be guided by the beat and my own experimental approach to language.
For me, maybe the most interesting track on the EP is “Really, Billy Joel?,” which is about the singer’s attempted suicide in 1970. What was the impetus to release that song in 2011?
One of my managers was getting on my case for writing too many songs about girls. So I was like, “word up, Billy Joel’s not a girl, I’ll do a song about him.” To a modest extent I try to play around with people’s expectations within the genre. You don’t expect to hear a joint about Billy Joel’s suicide attempt on a rap record. I get bored hearing rappers talk about the same shit all the time, this is my subtle way of suggesting they direct their creative energies more towards illuminating obscure episodes from pop culture. Trying to lead by example, I guess. Also I knew the song would be a blast to perform live. Cats watusi like crazy to that one.
SelfSays is the only other featured artist on the EP, appearing on the final track, “The King’s English.” Why did you choose to work with him? What do you like about the process of doing songs with other emcees?
Self is one of my best rapper pals. I’m a huge admirer of his records, and he’s one of the funniest cats I’ve had the pleasure of crushing Telways with. Self has an obsessively personalized vision of nature. He conveys it in this uniquely colorful way that make you want to crawl in his head and see the world the way he does. I want my records to have that same effect, so I study his approach. Generally I’m very protective of my projects and don’t chase a lot of features. I enjoy collaborating with other rappers, but the unusual nature of my projects complicates things. There are a lot of rappers in Detroit that I’m a huge fan of that I would never put on one of my albums.
There are a lot of Detroit-centric references in your songs. Do you feel like that potentially excludes listeners from other areas? Are the references intentional, or do they just sort of work their way in?
I draw a ton of inspiration from the experience of living in Detroit, and I strive to have the city permeate my work in a vital and inextricable way. Embedding within an artwork the specific conditions under which it was produced lends a certain kind of authenticity. I think describing the minutiae of one’s daily life and surroundings produces a much stronger effect than groping at big ideas and universal truths. Like all cities Detroit has certain exquisite nuances and rhythms and I try to make my music as syncopated with them as possible.
Who are your influences in and out of music?
In plastic art, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. In literature, Raymond Roussel and Knut Hamsun. In music, Adam Green and Ghostface Killah. In sport, Pete Maravich. Performance wise I try to approximate something between Zurich Dada and Sammy Davis Jr.
I’ve heard that your next full-length album, “How to Shoot Quail,” is already finished. Why did you choose to release an EP now when your album is done?
I haven’t released a project for awhile, I wanted to put the EP out to reacquaint people with my style, to weed out all the non-hackers before I let the pretty bomb go.
You’ve called your EP a prologue to your album. What do you mean by that?
It’s a prologue in the traditional sense that it introduces themes and raises questions that will be more fully addressed on my full-length album “How to Shoot Quail.” It’s the same group of producers, Eddie Logix, Crate Digga, Sheefy McFly, Scav D. The idea is that listening to “Seizure Suit Farms” will inform the experience of listening to HTSQ.
According to your bio, you also write short-fiction, essays and poetry. Are there parallels for you between those forms and hip hop?
Regardless of genre I think the cultivation of a distinct and memorable voice is a chief concern for any literary endeavor. Whether I’m writing a short story or a rap battle I want it to sound like only I could have authored it. Because of the formal constraints I think rap songs are the most difficult to write, but they are far and away the most fun to perform.
Is it true that you recorded “Golf View Drive” inside John King Books in Ferndale?
Yeah, I was managing the store at the time and took some liberties. My pal Fluent recorded his “Mahogany Girl” album there at the same time. We had a pretty bright cast of characters who would come around, lots of other rappers, producers…it was like a salon. We would drink Crown Royal and eat take out Indian Food and record sometimes until one or two in the morning. Eventually John King found out. He called me into his office and he was watching a video someone had posted on Myspace of us drinking whiskey and smoking grass in the backroom. He was like “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.” I didn’t get fired and Golf View Drive is still a classic so its all geezy.
What is your philosophy as a live performer? What do you try to bring to the audience that they won’t get from someone else?
I try to have fun with my live shows. A lot of rappers are afraid to dance or act goofy because they’re trying to maintain this bogus façade of “realness.” C’mon son, what’s really reality is crafting enjoyable, immersive experience for your audience. I’m trying to provoke something a little more kinetic than sullen head-nodding. A twist, perhaps. An electric slide or two, if I’m lucky.
You’ve developed a reputation in battle circles for your creative references and quick wit (not many emcees tear down their opponent by comparing him to members of the 1980s Cleveland Cavaliers). What do you like about competing in battles? Do you prefer battling or performing your written songs?
I love the exposure I get from battles, and the crowd dynamic during a battle is always bristling and intense. A battle is typically event specific…I like the idea of preparing a one-time-only performance. Doing my songs is more fun and ultimately more rewarding, but I never get as gassed up for my local gigs as I do when I’m going out of town to participate in single combat.
Namedrop time. What are your favorite places in Detroit to…
Eat: I’m broke right now so I’ll say the Subway by my house at Michigan and Rosa Parks. They have the freshest spinach of any local Subway and the employees there don’t seem to be on drugs.
Have a drink: I’m a recovering alcoholic so I’m not really out there like that, back in my spring of youth I used to enjoy Margaritas at El Camal or Crown on the rocks at the Painted Lady.
Write: A seat on the back of the 49 Vernor bus heading eastbound between Gratiot and St. Jean.
Read: Upper deck of Comerica Parkbetween innings at a Tigers game.
Golf: Chandler Park.
Shoot quail: Ann Arbor is a good spot to go birding.