Curly Castro is one of my favorite people to interview. We can be chatting about his music and then wind up on a long tangent about Cold War history, or the character dynamics of Wu-Tang Clan, or mass media consolidation. He’s a super insightful character, in addition to being a thought provoking Philadelphia rapper. His new album Fidel is out this week on Man Bites Dog Records, and he celebrates with a show tonight in his native Brooklyn at The Legion. Last week, we sat down talked about the progression the new record took from Castro’s 2011 debut Winston’s Appeal, a certain storied laundromat at 6th and Girard and how his outlook parallels both Marilyn Manson and Johnny Cash. Read more below.
The Key: One thing I like a lot about Fidel is the move from a first person narrative to more satirical, theatrical elements. Like “Starch” and “Colored Water Fountain” – they feel like sketches set to music, with an underlying message. How did this element come to be?
Curly Castro: Well, most of the songs especially on this one were dictated by the beat. I don’t know if its an epiphany or anything but certain things come to mind when I’m listening to a beat. So with “Colored Water Fountain,” that came about because I wanted to sing on my record. I don’t write many songs, I mostly write raps, but I wanted to try it. And so I don’t know what came about, but I started doing the Louis Armstrong voice – that’s me doing that! And once I started doing that voice, the words came for the song. I said allright, what’s the most, like you said, satirical way to get my point across? To symbolize how there are some white extremeists that have very staunch racial views, but they love black culture somehow. So it’s like, okay, come on down to my restaurant, you can have all the black food you want, you can dive in all you want, and then at the end I pull the rug out.
TK: “You’ve all been poisoned…”
CC: Yeah. The song made me think of a juke joint, the song made me think of the Cotton Club. And the dichotomy of the Cotton Club is that some of us were the main performers, but we had to come in through the back door. You could talk to people, they could be fans and come see you on stage, but if they want to see you after, you got to leave out the back and they leave out the front. So I was also thinking of a restaurant like that, but turning Jim Crow and segregation in its tail – making it the Colored Water Fountain. Like Tavern on the Green, there’s the opulunce to it.
TK: And what about “Starch”?
CC: Well, there’s this infamous laundromat at 6th and Girard. It seems like its open all the time, there’s this weird light emanating, there’s not many attendants after 10:00, and there’s all types of seedy activity that goes on there. They sell DVDs there, behind the glass. So I thought what if I was at laundromat one night, what could happen. But then I thought I want it to be a story, I want it to be circular. So I got Boogie Mandela on there, who’s doing really nice things in the city these days. And I got the legendary Has-Lo on there. When people hear it, hopefully they get its not too deep. But I think that those stories would be told best in that vein. And also, there’s the underlying issues – even with “Starch,” it’s about gentrification, enablers being all jacked up. And people in personal space. And people with germophobia. “Colored Water Fountain” has a more concrete point.
TK: With the circular story element, do you think the Wu Tang Pulp project had an effect on that?
CC: Not directly because we were working on it simultaneously. We finished Wu Pulp last year, but I’d been working on it for a couple years. We’d also been working on Fidel for a couple years. But you are keen to notice, because Boogie was on Wu Pulp too. We were just feeling collabroative, going with the spirit of Wu Tang, not that they’re deceased or anything, but the essence of how they would mix and match people. Not that these are posse cuts or anything, but that’s just how Wu would have done it, with three or four people. So with Fidel, I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of guest appearances. Winston’s Appeal has twice as many. But in the same vein, I knew that if I had people on there, I wanted it to be poignant.
TK: I was also struck by “Winter ’87,” with its Vince Guaraldi piano sample. How did you pair up those samples?
CC: I actually have the original Charlie Brown record in my crib, next to my telephone man from New Edition. My mom picked up on my affinity for it so she just bought me the whole record. I picked that beat from an old Small Professor project, he didn’t even know I took it. And it just hit me that I had all these stories. And once I realized that Fidel was becoming more and more autobiographical, these stories I would tell Zilla [Rocca, frequent collaborator and producer] or Has, they would be like yo, why don’t you make a song out of that? But I’m also a little old school in the sense that – you know, sometimes my mom says “Don’t tell people our business.” So certain stories, I’d call and ask if I can use it on a song. Sometimes she says yes, sometimes she says no. So this song, because Small didn’t even know I took the beat, I just went with the story. It’s an interesting and kind of horriffic story about us getting held up on an elevator on Christmas Eve. And when I heard the song, It hearkened back to Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas, and how majestic New York can be in the winter time. The snow falls, light glistens, there’s street lights, sometimes there’s a nice mist going or whatever. But there’s still crime and suffering and terror happening. And it was fast – it was so fast. That song is like two minutes, and it’s longer than the actual event. Zilla told me he was riding in his car, listening to it – he calls it “doing a field test” – and his eyes watered up, ’cause I took him there.
TK: And Charlie Brown is one of those things that the music is so universal, everybody has an association with it. You hear it, and it takes you back to some point in your life. And then, paired with it, you hear this other story that goes with it. That’s part of the reason why that track is so affecting.
CC: You start thinking it’s the one thing, and it starts changing.
TK: So the record is autobiographical. Not like Flatbush and Church, which was very linear, but this is more vignettes.
CC: Zilla and Has sequenced the record, and that’s when I realized how personal it was. It’s laid out in a way where it’s my story in the vein of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Some songs represent certain phases of my life, even though the may not have been written specifically like that. So “Mesrine,” “Fenster & McManus”…they have different themes to them. So they’re indiciative of when I didn’t give a damn, how I was trying to scheme and trying to do anything. To later points in the record, my enlightment, there’s “Kintro.” It was written to be the first song in the record, but the way it is, it’s my retribution, my rebirth. “Colored Water Fountain,” that’s my learning to understand hate and love dealing with race. “Spook” is about parinoia. So it’s me going through all those things, until I get to “Kintro” at almost the end of the album.
TK: So even if it’s not a literal representation of a phase in your life, a story about your life, its something where the underlying message of the story relates back to you.
CC: Yes, exactly. When they gave me back the record, and it was in the order it’s in now, it was like oh – I didn’t have the foresight to see that, but the way it ebbs and flows, of course.
TK: You kind of as an artist you need to step away from your work to see the bigger picture. Do you agree with that?
CC: Yes, and that’s a testament to it. People say you don’t see the forest for the trees. When you’re working on something and dealing with so many minute factors – a kick, a snare, a word, a phrase, alliteration, prepositional phrases. When you get so microscopic, you miss the full picture sometimes. It’s hard to pull back when you’re in there scraping on DNA, digging on caverns, every nook and cranny of what you’re working on. Somebody else can step in with a fresh eye and more importantly fresh ears and say okay, this is what this is. It’s almost impossible to listen to your record like you never did it. But you’ll hear your record and know oh, that was the fourth take, the second take was better. And it eats away at you. But the public never notices. So that’s why I’m glad I have friends and in turn colleagues like Zilla and Has who can take the material and put it in a good fahsion.
TK: Tell me about the Johnny Cash cover. Or the Johnny Cash extrapolation, would it be?
CC: Again, that was an instance where I wanted to sing. And at that time, Zilla and I were doing covers, but flipping them back, changing the cadence, making them rapped lyrics. And we were successful at doing it a few times. So I said this is my opportunity to sing Johnny Cash, I love his spirit, I love what he wrote, I love the message. And I really love the At Folsom Prison album that “Cocaine Blues” is on, I love the nature of why he did it in there for those men. And i know it can seem a little mysogonistic – hah, the song is actually very mysoginistic – but to understand you’re going into a hostile environment with hardened criminals, what do you do? He wrote a song about “I shot my wife.” It’s macabre, but you have to understand the performance, catering to the audience - and that was perfect for it. And because it’s written as a blues song, the time form made it a perfect rap song. It was nothing to transpose the lyrics. I tried to modernize it here and there, put my little reggae accents that I do, I tried to make it mine.
TK: As an artist, your name is an homage to Castro. calling this album Fidel continues that. As an artist, what draws you to him?
CC: Well, to an extent, Americans are supposed to dislike Castro because Castro was one of the few who stood up to the U.S. government when America was the biggest bully in the world. And when I took the name Castro, it was because I respected that – and I knew not to take everything at face value that was given to me. So there’s a militancy about me, so we’ll take that with the Castro. But there’s also a playful side to me, a humorous side, and so there’s Curly. People call me Curly, I have curly hair. When the name hit me in my head, I said this is my Marilyn Manson. The juxtaposition of those two divergent types of ideas. My tagline is “I’m your friendly neighborhood rebel.” You know, you can come over and kick it, have a beer, but we will be storming the capitol at 0900. So I studied him, I studied Che. I want to be knowledgable, globally. I mean, we have american newspapers, and the Metro is the best international news we have, and it’s like ten pages. It’s strange – I don’t want to be out of the loop.
TK: How about calling the record Fidel – does that come from the fact that its so personal?
CC: At some point I realized that it fit. If you call him Fidel, his parents call him Fidel, Che called him Fidel. What did that mean? Winston’s Appeal was my formal document, I’m submitting it to the government and I’m like here, this is what I don’t like, this is what I think should change. And with Fidel, I’m making my statement at a personal level. You think about revolution, you think about explosions and revolts. But before we even get to the big event, how are all the little pieces being connected? So I thought that by calling it Fidel, it would humanize it, bring it down from it being so sensational and be like let’s get down to the ground, to the soil, and see what’s really happeing.
Fidel is the featured album in this edition of Unlocked; hear the spotlighted single “Coal” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, watch a music video for “They Call Me Castro” in yesterday’s post and check back tomorrow for more.