California Rhymes

George Watsky and Dumbfoundead are living testaments to that DIY meritocracy of YouTube where it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like; all that matters is if you’ve got the skills. And if you think of all the millions of aspiring rappers on YouTube alone, you know you really have to be skilled to stand out since anybody can (and sometimes will) be a rapper. All it takes is a single cellphone video if we’re feeling ballsy (or stupid) enough to put ourselves out to the masses like that. But to get any kind of attention, you either have to be insanely good or insanely bad. Nobody talks about the insanely mediocre; how insanely boring would that be?  The fact that Watsky and Dumbfoundead have both managed to build a solid and diverse fan-base through similar means while occupying almost opposite sides of the rapper spectrum is a stark statement to the iron-fisted rule of the record labels of generations past. Being from the hood, or rapping solely about the hood, isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to being a rapper anymore. Both Watsky and DFD look like your average 20-somethings who wouldn’t be out of place just kicking it around town, at Starbucks, or even at your local university. It just turns out that they happen to rhyme, and they happen to do it extremely well.

Their style is a throwback to the rappers of the ’90s where rhymes reigned supreme and lyrics mattered; it wasn’t necessarily what they said, but how they said it. That’s how genres like even Gangsta Rap can be so diverse. It’s not so much the subject matter (the typical gangs, drugs, and gun talk) but the way the words were put together, and the flow of those words, that made each rapper unique. Watsky reflects this especially well during his spoken word pieces, where he endlessly and inventively rhymes in patterns so complicated it will blow your mind. DFD has more of that off-the-dome, clever wordplay that helped make him a veteran in the L.A. rap battle circuit.

You might even say that Watsky and DFD make an unlikely pairing, what with Watsky being a skinny, nerdy looking white guy with a philosophical bent, and Dumbfoundead, a Korean American born in Buenos Aires that grew up in Los Angeles. But in a city as multicultural as Vancouver, a pairing like that wouldn’t even merit that batting of an eye. This diversity was also reflected in the audience, as this sold out show attracted an eclectic mix of high schoolers, hipsters, and old school hip hop heads, all standing shoulder to shoulder. It was an all ages show of all H’s, demographically and alliteratively, full of fun and humor that any human could enjoy, hip hop fan or not.

The doors opened at 7 p.m., with opening act Dumbfoundead scheduled to kick things off at the mind-boggingly early time of 8:15 (which I suspect may have been due to the show being all ages), but the most shocking thing by far was that the show actually started at the time it said. I know people who were more accustomed to the 19+ shows where the headliner usually doesn’t take the stage until midnight or later regardless of posted start time, and they were quite disappointed that they missed over half of DFD’s set.

Dumbfoundead has a laid back, easygoing charisma with a quick wit which he’d use to full effect between songs, like when he talked about growing up in L.A.’s Koreatown, and how he came from the ‘dangerous’ part (NORTH Koreatown), and proclaiming to a couple making out in the audience that “A Dumbfoundead show gets you laid”. His set list was made up mainly of songs from the last year or so, which included “Are We There Yet”, the story of his immigrant family coming to America, along with “New Chick” and “Cool and Calm”, which are smoother, more relationship-oriented tracks. He also did “Green”, as the audience was bathed in lights of the same name as DFD rapped about his fondness for the sticky icky as smoke plumes drifted into the air. During the performance of his final song, “Genghis Khan”, Watsky crashed the stage with his band, holding a beer in one hand and a Kool-Aid Jammer in the other.

The highlight of DFD’s set was his freestyle, which is a thing to behold. He just improvised raps for almost five minutes straight and it seems that whenever you start wondering if it may be pre-written he’ll throw in a random observation of his surroundings that works seamlessly with the rhymes. Despite my forgetfulness at the time I still remember him rhyming ‘Vancouver’ with ‘man hooters’.

After a brief intermission, George Wastky was up. Apparently, after he rushed onstage with DFD earlier with the beer and Kool-Aid Jammer, he was told by security he broke house rules which led into a rant on “the man” and rules, while he also defended the security guy for merely doing his job, which is something you can’t really hate on. It culminated in a tense stand-off when Watsky defiantly drank his Kool-Aid Jammer onstage right in the security guard’s face, which led into his song “IDGAF”. For his part, the security guy took Watsky’s ribbings very well, even as the incident kept getting referenced, becoming a recurring joke of the night.

Watsky had a live band with him which included a singer, along with keyboards, a guitar, drums, and trumpet. I’d never seen someone singing with as much emotion and passion as the singer in the band, to the point where I found myself at times watching him instead of Watsky. He was really that into the music. Watksy also got a chance to show off his instrumental talents when he went on an extended harmonica solo during “Wounded Healer”, which actually blew my mind as I’d never seen the video or heard the song before then.  He’s well known for his super speed rapping, and the way he was playing the harmonica was like he was almost rapping into it, that’s how fast the notes and rhythm were coming. I didn’t know it was even possible to play the harmonica that fast, to be honest.

The great thing about Watsky is that he seemed genuinely thrilled to be here and there was this loose, improvisational feel to the whole show. Where else would you see the headliner and his backup singer break out into an impromptu dance in the middle of a song, complete with elbow locked spins? In response to an audience member calling out “Where’s my hug?!”, Watsky took a couple steps back, and then took a running leap into the audience, crowd surfing until he reached the guy and hugged him. It was one of those kinds of shows.

Not only is he a rapper, Watsky is a slam poet champion who excels at the type of spoken word that blurs the line between rap and poetry. One of his best examples is S for Lisp”, a poem he wrote in response to being mocked for a slight lisp, which is an alliterative masterpiece of the letter ‘S’ that has to be seen/heard to be believed.

Watsky did his encore to one of his most popular songs “Fuck an Emcee Name”, which in a way perfectly sums him up. It’s full of the quadruple time rapid-fire raps he’s famous for about everyday relatable things. The song’s message about how he is who he is and doesn’t need to hide behind a pseudonym  highlights how he connects with his audience in a way that’s more than being just an artist. The relentless positivity in his songs can be overbearing at times, but you get the feeling that he truly believes it and is genuinely trying to help his fans through his music.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I went to the show because I’m a fan of Dumbfoundead, and while I always thought Watsky wasn’t bad; I had sort of wrote him off as a somewhat corny rapper that used speed rapping as a gimmick. And while DFD definitely did not disappoint, I left the show a much bigger fan of Watsky than when I had gone in. My fanaticism of DFD remained relatively stable.  What drew me in about Watsky was that his performance seemed more spontaneous and in the moment, and he was somehow able to establish a stronger connection with the crowd.  And it’s not even  a case of me knowing one rapper’s catalog better than the other, since most of the songs that DFD performed was newer material that I wasn’t quite up on, and up to that point I had never checked out Watsky’s stuff other than “Pale Kid Raps Fast” and a handful of others.

I remember in one of his videos he said that if you ever come to one of his shows, and want to meet him afterwards, to get a picture or get something signed or even just say “what’s up”, he’ll wait for you as long as you’re willing to wait for him, regardless of how long it will take, because he understands that the fans are what made it possible for him to be doing it in the first place. I’d always wondered how true that was, and after the show I was extremely impressed in how Watsky just chilled for over an hour, sitting at the front of the stage talking to and signing things for the huge circle of fans around him. I’d never seen a musician make himself that accessible to the public willingly and without any of those special VIP behind the scenes, meet-and-greet passes.