Q&A: The Childish Ways of Donald Glover

Donald Glover in Austin, Tx., March 2011. Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

For a guy who’s most widely-acknowledged musical contribution until last year was writing fictional 30 Rock character Tracy Jordan’s novelty hit “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” comedian/actor Donald Glover has blown up in a very real way as a musician over the last twelve months. Things changed last summer when he released Culdesac under the name Childish Gambino, showcasing some serious skill behind the mic; an odd realization for a person we mostly know as a comedic actor on Community.

Glover’s career started as a writer on 30 Rock and from there, he went the stand-up route before settling in with Chevy Chase and company on Thursday nights. Glover recently released the second part of the great Childish Gambino experiment, a five-song EP that finds him defending himself against any number of attacks, name-checking Amelie and Ariel Pink while discussing the need for a different kind of role model for young, smart, middle-class black kids. In short, it’s a busy 20 minutes and 16 seconds of frenetic and deeply personal hip-hop.

Hive recently spoke with Glover about the meaning behind Childish Gambino songs, the duality of rap lyrics, and growing up African-American and artsy.

There’s a lot of punch lines on the record, but it’s not a comedy record. Every rapper uses punch lines and jokes, so is it weird to have to keep explaining that this is serious?

I totally knew that was going to happen once I started rapping, and that’s fine. In a weird way, it’s kind of an advantage because people come into listening to it with the wrong intentions, and then they’re kinda blown away. It’s kind of a good thing, because people expect it not to be good. I feel like, when you listen to a 50 Cent record, you’re not going to be like, “Okay, are there going to be some big jokes? What’s the silliness value of this 50 Cent record?” But things like Lil B or Odd Future or Das Racist – those are groups where you have to take every line like they come. Some things are serious and some aren’t, and I would like to be in the same genre they are.

Even though there are funny lines, it’s really personal too. You rap about your insecurities and vulnerabilities.

You don’t need to be Superman anymore. It used to be a thing where, if you were from the hood, you needed to rap about that because people needed to know how strong you were or else they were gonna fucking kill you. And I don’t think a lot of rappers are coming from that anymore. Rap has hit the suburbs. Kids who listen to it are from the suburbs. So they’re not having to deal with it anymore. But everybody has their own problems. As my dad used to say: “Stress is stress.” A rich man has stress. So making rap more personal kind of makes it more general, because everybody goes through the same stuff.

Do you feel exposed?

Yeah! But I feel exposed when I do stand-up, too. I talk about sex – I talk about how I have sex in my stand-up. I talk about my family. I kind of realized … I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, I’m exposing myself. That’s what my art is. I listen to Louis CK’s stand-up, and he’s talking about how he’s horrible in bed, and I want to be that daring. People really connected with this EP, I think. A lot of art is about making people feel less alone.

But then there’s also a lot of talk on the record about bitches and whatnot.

Here’s the thing: I feel like people are smart enough to know the difference. If they think I walk around like, “Oh, look at that bitch,” they’re wrong. That’s stupid. No one goes around talking like that. Even 50 Cent, I don’t think, is like, “Oh, that bitch is pretty nice.” That’s something you say on a record when you’re trying to get the point across, like, “I don’t care about this girl.” Like, when Earl [from Odd Future] is on a record talking about how he raped a chick, I’m sure he didn’t rape a girl. But sometimes he’s angry and that’s how he feels. Also, it’s this thing where I grew up on Eminem and 50 Cent, so I’m going to rap like them even though their experience is nothing like mine. And that’s the feeling you want — people can’t jog to “Be Alone,” because that’s a more personal song. But you can jog to “Freaks and Geeks,” because it’s more powerful. Sometimes when I go out and hang out at night, I want to feel like that dude. Even though I’m not that dude all the time. And also, sometimes I want to be treated like a piece of meat sometimes by a girl. I don’t want every girl to think that I’m, like, her husband. Sometimes I just want to be seen as a sex object. I’m sure girls feel that way too. People feel different things at different points, and I wanted this EP to feel like that. So, yeah, you’re right – it sometimes can be crazy and misogynistic and unfair, but so is life.

Is part of the way you talk about women a way of trying to prove your manliness throughout this record? Every artsy dude got called a “faggot” growing up. Is part of it defensiveness?

I had somebody tweet me, “I like the record, but why do you act like being called gay is the worst thing in the world?” And I was like, “I didn’t get called ‘gay,’ I got called ‘faggot.’” Which is different. There’s a big difference. I feel like there’s this idea that if you’re metropolitan, or if you enjoy different things, then you’re weak. It makes you a weaker person for enjoying a lot of things and that’s what I was on the defensive about. Growing up, and feeling like, “Why am I being attacked for a liking a bunch of stuff? I don’t get it.” A lot of that came in the record. And for being a lot of things — I feel like a lot of people attacked me for that. “You can’t rap, you’re a comedian! You can’t make music!” Nobody’s one thing, so I don’t get why people expect one thing of you.

Is this your “moment” right now?  You’ve hosted mtvU’s Woodies, you’ve got the IAMDONALD tour coming up, Community just got picked up for a third season …

Yeah, that’s a lot. I don’t know what a moment feels like. I really don’t. I don’t know if, you know, Michael Jackson in 1986 said, “Oh, this is my moment! This is happening right now!” I definitely want to affect culture. I want to be a cultural controller.

One of the opening lines on your record is about how you and music are moving in together now. You left 30 Rock because you fell in love with stand-up. Now you’re in love with music. Do Community fans have to worry?

I don’t think so. They’re paying me pretty good over there. Music is hard, man. Music, they don’t pay you for a lot of stuff.

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