Interview: Donald Glover (of Childish Gambino)

It’s been a wild autumn for Donald Glover. As Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, now in its third season, he charms millions of fans each Thursday night with myriad pop cultural references and tweet-worthy quotes. But, as Childish Gambino, his hip-hop pseudonym, Glover offers a spin on the genre with his knack for comedic wit and left field lyricism. On November 15th, he’ll release Gambino’s fourth studio LP, Camp, out this time on Glassnote Records. Already, he’s supported the release with a string of gigs, including stops at this year’s Moogfest and Fun Fun Fun Fest.

While in Asheville, NC for Moogfest, Glover took some time out to speak with Consequence of Sound‘s Len Comaratta and Caitlin Meyer. The three discussed everything from filming music videos to haters to cunnilingous to an entity called “Space Pope”. You’ll have to watch the video to get that last one, which is available for viewing at the end, courtesy of Cluster 1.

Also, stay tuned for a special Audiography episode featuring Glover in the near, near future.

Caitlin Meyer (CM): [Referencing a class paper on the artist] I’m talking about the “Freaks and Geeks” video and how it’s basically unlike any rap video I’ve ever seen…I love the single shot… it’s for a film class…

Yeah, it’s a single shot

CM: Was it fun to shoot?

It was! I like doing stuff that feels like you can’t see it again. I feel like everything now you can just see again. Everything’s on the internet. See it, hear it, experience it over and over again until you’re bored with it. So I was like, “Oh, one shot.” I think that was the last one we did. We did one right before that I was happy with. We were like, “That one was good.” [The director] was like, “Can you do it one more time? Let’s do one for safety.” So actually some of the things I did weren’t in the other ones ‘cause I was tired.

CM: Crazy dance moves.

The spinning thing…was from being tired. That was a fun video to shoot. I had a good time. That one shot. I had a dream literally the week before.

CM: I think since it doesn’t coincide with the lyrical content of the song it makes you really focus on them. Usually people get super absorbed in the visuals of music videos and this time you actually have to listen to what he’s saying.

I think the best music videos are the ones that have nothing to do with the song. Those are all my favorites.

Len Comaratta (LC): Do you enjoy making the videos?

I really do

LC: Or do you feel more like it’s part of the job?

No, I really like making the videos. I’m all about storytelling; I really like telling the stories. That’s the most important part of most albums I like. Most albums I really like are just ones that tell a good story over and over again in different ways and by the end it’s like a novel. The “Bonfire” video’s really freaky and weird and a definite story. I really like it. And we’re coming up with a “Heartbeat” one and that one’s turning out to be pretty fucked up and weird, too. But I think that’s the point. It’s supposed to make you be like, “Okay, what color does that paint the song?” Like one of my favorite love songs of all time…I would listen to it when I would go through a break up and then I heard [the artist] interviewed and she [says], “Yeah, that’s about my dog.” And I [thought], “Oh, that paints it very differently; it’s about her dog that died.” So yeah, I think it’s just another tool to get the story and make the story specific but also general at the same time.

LC: Most of your recordings have been digital only right? And Camp was the first one you actually released a hard copy for?

Yeah, Camp is the first to be released hard copy.

LC: What was the argument or reasoning behind actually releasing a physical copy?

A lot of people asked why I signed in the first place anyway. I like doing music. I like putting it out for free. I really was fine doing it, but it was this thing where I felt like it could reach more people if I signed. I know that sounds weird because the internet is everywhere but I feel like with Glassnote [Camp’s label] behind me they could get me places that I wasn’t even thinking about going. And we’re already touring and stuff like that. And everybody was always asking for vinyl. For a while I was going to do it on my own. Like “Okay, I’ll just save up enough money and put it out and just have people pay what it is” but Glassnote knows what they’re doing as far as this vinyl’s concerned. It’s cool. I held the first copy in my hand. I was like, “This is crazy…” For some reason I tricked myself into thinking kids weren’t like me where they just go buy the No Doubt record and then go home and listen to it and read the notes while they listen. Kids still do that.

LC: How much control over the artistic vision did you have or was the label involved at all?

They let me do whatever…When I signed, the album was almost done anyway. I was like, “If I don’t sign with you guys, I’ll put it out anyway but I’m not changing anything.” A lot of labels were talking about putting “Freaks and Geeks” on there and stuff like that. The album, and I’m really proud of it, doesn’t have any features or anything like that. It wasn’t supposed to feed off the hype of the EP, which was strange to me anyway. We literally made the EP in a couple of weeks. We were like, “This is something that nobody will like but it’ll be something that we’ll put out and people might enjoy it before we go hit the road.” But I didn’t want to feed off of that. I really wanted Camp to be a story. I really thought it was a story I was kind of afraid to tell before but now I was finally okay doing it.

LC: So do you view it as a concept album?

I guess concept in the sense that I don’t think you have to look at it a certain way to do that. “Camp” stands for a bunch of stuff. Every meaning of camp from “campy” to “going to camp” to “concentration camps”…every meaning should be in that album; I think all the best things work on a lot of levels. So I don’t think it is just a concept album but it definitely tells a specific story that hopefully I feel like everybody will understand.

LC: Do you like making the original albums or the mix tapes better?

The original albums. I put out “Bonfire” and literally a day later someone is saying, “I’m gonna kill you on this ‘Bonfire’ track.” I don’t care. It’s always about who has what track and who can kill who on what track. That’s kind of the reason why I don’t like putting out instrumentals that much. It’s flattering when people freestyle over my instrumentals. I love it. I love that Kendrick Lamaar thing he did over “Bitch You Know Me”. I like that, I like that a lot. But I like the fact that on like “Human Nature” by Michael Jackson I know that’s him. I know that song. I connect with that song. I think rap should be like that, too. I feel like for a long time people just don’t do that; they’re just like, “Oh, they’re interchangeable.” It’s just like Wiz Khalifa on a Lil’ Wayne beat is just like you’re not listening to the music anymore, which I think is important. So, I love the albums way more. Mix tapes are fun. Like tonight I’m gonna rap on the Meek Mills beat “I’m a Boss” and I would never make that beat but I love that beat so much.

LC: Is that how you got into rapping? You were just making beats on your own?

Yeah, my friend ripped Fruity Loops for me freshman year of college and I literally didn’t know what it was. He just ripped it and gave it to me. I don’t even know why, but it was on my first computer and I was just messing with it and I didn’t leave my room for a week. I skipped class. This was amazing. I was ripping all this stuff and putting it together. I was just making instrumentals.

LC: Were you writing music before you became a comedian?

I was making music back in fourth grade. I’d write songs on guitars and stuff like that. When I got to college I just got really more into it. I was DJing and stuff like that. It was really cool. But, yeah, I was doing it before the comedy actually.

LC: So did the comedy help with the rap career? Or did it kind of hinder it? Because in some of your lyrics you say the reason you don’t rap under “Donald Glover” is because you’re afraid of people associating the jokes with the music and not taking the music seriously.

Well, here’s the thing. It’s funny. I think half of it came from going under “Childish Gambino” and that helped. Because sometimes people would find Childish Gambino and then they would find it was me and it would make them really think about it differently. But the other thing that helped was that rap just got really funny. I don’t think there’s a real difference in punchline and joke style between my rap or Lonely Island or Lil’ Wayne or Ludacris. [Like Ludacris’ “Number One Spot”.] That goldmember song that came out where it was just like pun after pun of goldmember. I remember going to the club in Atlanta and people were like: [hums and bobs a little as if dancing]. It didn’t matter anymore. It was a joke that works. It was all about the lyrical content. I think that’s what happens. That Lonely Island album, that last one that came out, is a really good rap album. I feel that if you brought that to a kid who had never known that they are on television doing comedy, it’d be kind of enjoyable kind of like Presidents of the United States. They’re in on the joke. LCD Soundsystem, where they understand what “It” is. There’s a bunch of meta stuff there. I think that’s just what happened. I’m allowed to do that and I’m also allowed to talk about things that are actually happening and make fun of myself and rap.

LC: Do you find that you’ve actually been able to shed some of the haters?

Yeah, it’s funny. I remember everybody was like, “This is a joke, I don’t know why you’re into it. This is a joke.” I was totally expecting that, and that’s cool. I was going to actually put out an untitled EP, another EP next week. I was recording and stuff like that and I was gonna put it out. But now it’s this thing where I can read on Twitter and people sending me stuff like “Everybody’s on Childish Gambino’s dick now, what the fuck.” The opposite backlash is happening where now I don’t think I’m gonna do it. I’m just gonna let the album speak for itself. I don’t think I have to…I don’t think I’m that type of rapper. I don’t think I’m that type of rapper who’s like Lil’ Wayne; he’s a machine. He fucking puts out stuff [snapping fingers quickly], he’ll take your beat and he’ll just destroy it and I’m not that I don’t think. I think I’m much more…“Let’s sit down.”

CM: Deliberate?

Yeah, yeah, deliberate. Let’s sit down and what does this mean instead of just a free spirit.

Photo by Catherine Watkins

LC: Do you ever freestyle or do prefer to actually sit down?

Sometimes I freestyle. I don’t think it’s great, that’s the reason I don’t release it. It’s more of like a jazz kinda thing. Actually, one of the songs, the last song, “That Power”, on the album was from a freestyle that we did with ?uestlove in New York and he plays the drums on that song too. It was just like “Let’s do something” and I ended up telling this story and was like, “That song’s great.” I like to freestyle, I just don’t…oh, and that’s another point I was going to bring up – doing comedy it actually helped because I think the tools I learned through writing 30 Rock and writing plays and writing all that stuff really helped me construct the album. I knew this has to be at the beginning. Ludwig was making fun of me because we would finish a song and I’d go, “Okay, that’s track four.” I just knew where the songs went. I knew “Outside” was going to be the first song since we made it; I knew that “Power” was going to be the last. I just knew structure-wise how movies and books should work…

LC: Is that for all your albums or just the most recent one?

Just for this one. It really helped. Well, the EP some too. I think Culdesac is more of a mix tape. Culdesac was me literally figuring out…it’s so schizophrenic. I look back and I’m glad I made it but it was super schizophrenic and it was all over the place. I love “Got This Money”. I’d never make that song again. I learned a lot from those albums and this one I feel like it’s a book. I knew what I was doing.

LC: My girlfriend actually picked this up while we were listening. You’re a black man…


LC: You rap about cunnilingus.


LC: That’s against type don’t you feel?

It’s against type, yeah. I mean in the last couple of years it’s been…I think Lil’ Wayne made that okay. I feel like the way Pharrell made black kids skateboarding okay, Lil’ Wayne’s made eating out girls okay again. It’s weird. It is against type, but here’s the thing: I don’t know why. As a black dude who is not stereotypically like…because the album is about being a middle class black kid and having people telling you who you are all the time. So that was something I knew in…seventh grade…when I wasn’t eating out anyone. I don’t know why, but I’m definitely into it.

LC: Can’t blame you there.

Well, mostly ‘cause girls like it.

LC: If you do it right.

But here’s the thing. You gotta eat out girls that get eat out a lot, which I know sounds weird, but they have to. Otherwise they don’t…me and my friend were talking about this…girls who don’t expect to get eaten out a lot they don’t…

LC: They have a shell…

Yeah, they have a shell. They feel weird about it. They’re not expecting anyone down there. It has to be girls that are comfortable with you being down there. So everybody write that down, just a little help.

LC: Childish Gambino came out of a Wu Tang Name Generator. What did you input for that result?

Donald Glover.


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