RHYS LANGSTON: SEE IF I CAN OBLITERATE
photography by theo jemison
Since the time of P-Funk when a funky cosmology showcasing the intergalactic adventures of Starchild and Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk sprouted out of the crazed psyche of New Jersey’s George Clinton, a reverence for self-mythologizing has been a common thread within the Black experience. While ancient, the idea of self invention and looking towards space in order to redefine the boundaries and limitations of the present world is forever rooted in the attempt to decipher the mysteries of why things are the way that they are. Mix that in with the intersection between dead languages and past cultures and you soon see how and why a funny folklorish character like Rhys Langston comes to fruition here in L.A. Hailing from the far away lands of Langstonia, the multi-disciplinary artist Rhys Langston captured the attention of Earthlings with his Full Frontal Incumbent, an Incongruous Mixtape—a genre-defying attempt at revealing the the human mind. We sat down late last year with the foreigner in his Mothership off Slauson and chatted about the limitations of language, purist standards and life on Earth, as well as his love ballad to a coat rack. Rhys Langston performs Sun., Sept. 3, at the Bananas anniversary at the Echo and his new Aggressively Ethnically Ambiguous album is out now on Black Market Poetry. This interview by Senay Kenfe.
Form over content—let’s talk about that.
Rhys Langston: Form over content. Form, like, parallel to content, too. I don’t know—prepositions, orientations … I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the music that I hear and the associations that we have with certain sounds and—in relation to my own stuff—about things sounding a certain way and then feeling beholden to it. Speaking about certain things because there’s a certain cadence or melodic structure or a production influence. I don’t really know which dead old white dude said something about this in a thesis, but …
There’s been several.
Rhys Langston: Yeah—about how the content does not have to be dictated by the form. I think lately … where my music has been taking it is thinking about the soul’s implications. That’s what I always think about first: Where is this piece of art entering the world? Where is it coming from? Who could it touch? What could it touch on and who could it be speaking for? It’s really been crucial for me lately to think about with everything I do [and] the way I’m talking about something not to preclude a certain sound in doing that. I think there’s that dichotomy of spiritual lyrical rappers and then obviously the ‘dadada dadada dadada dadada DAH!’ And I think there’s a middle ground—not a middle ground, per se, but a fusion that I think is starting to be explored. I’ve really been interested in trying to insert myself in that conversation and speak into existence certain things. I think a lot, especially in Black art, is grappling with … you know, one of the most insidious things about post-colonialism—being post-reconstruction, post-civil rights, Black Lives Matter era—is that things are still so unclear. But the most insidious thing is that a lot of the history that has passed—that has done to people of color and subaltern peoples—has been to limit the imagination, and to draw a border around where things are in the mind.
Rhys Langston: Yeah. And in my own way, if I’m being audacious enough to think I could be breaking ground …
Rhys Langston: [laughs] I want to be able to show in my own way that certain things can sound a certain way and talk about something else and really just speak it into existence, literally, with rap and stuff.
I think a generation ago they would have called it nonsensical. [laughs] How do you feel about it? Because we’re talking about words. Words mean a lot to you. In terms of me as a consumer, participating in your art, the audience … what I can draw from or what I can tell from listening to your music, especially with the Full Frontal Incumbent—it’s a tongue-twister! I can’t say it five times—but in terms of Full Frontal Incumbent, there’s an emphasis on words. Where does that come from? Or rather I should say: why in 2016 is that important to you?
Rhys Langston: To draw a line from what I just said, I think constant content … News streams and all these words and images coming onto us, subliminal marketing—that’s a tactic used by the companies that we buy everything from. I think to discount the impact of words in music—to try and negate that—is just impossible. Also personally, I just find words fascinating. And language, it’s my most natural medium, probably. Especially with English—English is such an arbitrary, exquisite corpse of a language. There’s so many ways you can make a verb an adjective, even if it’s not in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. You can change and reconfigure things, or you know, maybe you can’t technically, but especially with a form like rap, I see it as a sandbox. I don’t know how else to qualify it. I used to be into a lot of different styles of writing; I used to try and enjamb words, like ‘igneous rockstars,’ and now I’m more into words on a more punny level.
Like in ‘MSRP (the Untimely Ballad Of A Coatrack).’
Rhys Langston: Oh yeah. ‘Waltzing insider trades. Left right serf ball,’ which is the first line. It’s not an enjambment like that, which has a new word from that configuration, you know, like ‘igneous rockstars.’ It’s more like ‘insider trades’, you know, suggesting the movement of feet, ‘waltzing insider trades’, moving back and forth between this language of commerce and the commerce of relationships and emotions.
That’s perfect. We’re talking about the idea of the multi-disciplinary artist, which you’d consider yourself to be? You’re describing movement within words, literally and metaphorically. It’s kind of like the people who can, like, describe colors and sounds…
Rhys Langston: Oh, synesthesia. That’s interesting. For me writing is a lot of catch and release, in the sense that I’ll get on a chain of words, and they’ll just come, and I’ll write them almost on a level of subconsciousness—just write them and not really think about what they mean, but know that there’s a connection going between them.
What’s the editing process like?
Rhys Langston: The editing process? Well…
Is there an editing process?
Rhys Langston: Yeah, yeah. I generally write everything out on paper, and then…
Why do that?
Rhys Langston: [laughs] I don’t know, I like writing. It’s a good feeling to me.
I do that as well. Again, you’re talking about the literal part of it—literally talking about the feeling of writing, but also the feeling of learning.
Rhys Langston: The feeling of just having some stuff pass through your hand. So the editing process is writing. I would’ve even brought one of my books of notes and stuff, but you know … there’ll be sections of kind of collaged pieces, and that’s especially the case when I write something maybe in free verse that’s maybe more literary. It’s like patchwork, and things have little tangents—lines connecting words that should be inserted here. Then when I type it up, that’s the first level of editing. Especially when it comes to music, if it’s sung or spoken or has a rap cadence to it, then I go in and I see if I can obliterate … if certain prepositions are non-essential in certain things. Actually, it’s funny—I had a phase when I first started out really writing music where I wouldn’t use the word ‘I.’ I just didn’t like it. I was like, ‘I wanna be the guy who talks about “I” without saying “I”.’ And that gradually laid the foundations getting to the essential words, especially when you’re doing something that people can follow musically—they don’t have to follow the exact meaning. They can just … well, waltz! [laughs] Waltz between the essential words, and if you wanna stick in an ‘in’ or ‘about’ or a definite article, using those strategically, then, and not being like, ‘I have to say “I am the…”’ You can say like ‘am’ something.
De La had a song like that—‘I Am I Be.’
Rhys Langston: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! I was just thinking of that the other day.
It’s like the destruction of self, or the idea of destruction of self.
Rhys Langston: It’s definitely interesting. There’s that cliche that’s not really that cliché: as an artist I am my toughest critic. I think generally pretty much everyone who makes art is that. And I think that’s a very literal way of trying to identify yourself in some way. I don’t know if it’s some type of trying to absolve yourself from being identified in some way.
It’s good that you said that in terms of identity because even within this project, you create a lot of characters.
Rhys Langston: Yeah! I’m glad you caught that.
You shape out a universe, which I’d say parallels like Parliament-Funkadelic, how they created this entire mythology.
Rhys Langston: Yeah, Chocolate Davis and Langstónia. So we have Langstónia as the land, and I am the vassal to the estate of the Lord Chocolate Davis, and, you know, my regular consorts and kind of advisory board involves Tercero Washington—kind of like the smooth executive operator, you know—Muckraker Jones, who’s the Operator of Rakes—he digs a little deeper—Calculus Johnson is the Minister of Abstraction … I think those three. And Resident Hairbrain, Prophecy of Mad Scribe. We know he gets a little more hairbrained. If you look at me, literally, things get that way, too. I think it’s just important to do that, and obviously Rhys Langston is kind of the projector—the megaphone. I think it’s important to do that. For one thing, I’ve always been into fantasy and high fantasy and RPGs and stuff—no shame at all in saying that.
Shout-out to Warcraft.
Rhys Langston: Yeah, shout-out to Warcraft. I got a tattoo of fucking Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind right here—it’s kind of crazy.
Oh wow! You weren’t kidding!
Rhys Langston: Dealing in concrete symbols and concrete words in such a dense and abstract way is a level of like … it’s a way to place everything. Or not place it, per se, but a way to encase it in a world. I think a lot of it feels like I’m just somehow taking shit out and I don’t even understand where it’s coming from, even though I may have read an article with a word that sounded really cool to me and I insert that … the way that it’s inserted, you know, it can be a little hokey or whatever. It seems sometimes otherworldly how it comes out.
Almost in a sense of channeling.
Rhys Langston: Yeah—it’s like, ‘Can I get three bars today?’ But I would definitely say that’s the relevance of all that. I’ve always just done voices, and I think in terms of synesthesia, when I produce things—especially when there’s a certain drum sound—it sounds different. I can kind of see some type of image in my head of that versus another. It’s really strange. I always reach for impressionism, and I think that’s easiest in a form that utilizes words [and] putting on characters.
How do you feel about being an independent artist? You can say it within the space of we’re here in LA, but also just in general—how do you feel about the maneuvering that you have to do in the sense of getting something like this to happen?