Donald Glover is one of the most multifaceted entertainers of his generation, but most members of that generation haven’t even heard of him. His writing for The Daily Show and 30 Rock got the attention of NBC who cast him on Community alongside Chevy Chase and E! Entertainment’s Joel McHale. But I’m interviewing him before a sold out show at Boston’s House of Blues where he’ll be performing as Childish Gambino, a hip hop persona many have compared to both Kanye and Drake, but few appreciate began while Drake was still playing Jimmy on Degrassi: The Next Generation.
His edgiest humor appears in stand-up work where his impression of Chris Rock channels Eddie Murphy’s Bill Cosby. But while I speak with Glover, I remembered him as his character from “Bro Rape,” a faux-Nightline report from the web-video sketch troupe, Derrick Comedy (“If [bro’s] didn’t want to get raped, they wouldn’t walk around like they do in their popped color shirts and LIVESTRONG bracelets”).
The thread between Childish Gambino and 30 Rock may seem thin but as Glover tells it, he’s always telling a story. His ability to make a person laugh from behind their computer screen translates into the live setting, where he commanded an audience of over two thousand fans for the entirety of his Childish Gambino performance. Too many stale MC’s rap over an instrumental version of whatever track they’re on, but Glover had a live band with a stellar rhythm section on stage with him as he tore through “Freaks and Geeks,” a cover of Kanye’s “All Of The Lights,” and “Bonfire,” the lead single off his latest album, Camp.
Glover was fiercely charismatic, shirtless and amped up when returning to the stage for his encore. Yeah, he does a good stand-up bit about stereotypes, but Childish Gambino’s performances are much more physically charged than the vast majority of his contemporaries. However ferocious his stage presence might be, an hour or so before the show, Glover was calm, insightful and genuinely warm. Within moments of meeting me, Glover was not just comfortable, but enthusiastic to talk about whatever questions I had for him.
While Glover was far from “on” during our interview, his humor shone through in a way that demonstrated the raw intellectual prowess that’s fueled his success.
Before he dove into the drive behind his passions, or a response to claims that his lyrics are misogynistic, I asked if there was anything in particular he would like Glide Magazine readers to know about him.
Donald Glover: Not really. I warmed up a lot tonight. There’s a dude who helps me keep my voice from blowing out on tour. There’s a tape of him doing all this stuff with me, but there’s one part where he says “you’re really tight, you shouldn’t be so tight” and he gets behind me and holds me while demonstrating and he’d tell me to bend over and he gets behind me and start shaking me… and that’s all on tape. So I thought that was weird… but [Glide’s readers] don’t need to know that.
That will probably end up on YouTube but without knowing this guy I can’t say for sure.
He lives in LA. I think he’s a vocal coach for the stars. I saw him on a TV show for Real Housewives of Miami or something, teaching the women how to sing.
I’m glad. I’ve got two stage-tricks up my sleeve. I can cry and I can throw up.
You can do a good stage hurl?
So my next question…
[Makes revolting gagging noise while dry heaving.]
That is… impressive.
I’m really good at it. I don’t know why.
How much time does Childish Gambino consume? I’d imagine that when you’re on tour you’re not doing a lot of writing or filming for Community.
I’m filming. I do Childish Gambino when I have weeks off [from Community] but it takes up all my time now. I wasn’t expecting it to be like this. When I started [rapping], I’d just do it and nobody was listening so I could do an album on my own time and people listened to it whenever I wanted. Now I have a record deal, I have to do videos and press. It takes all of my time.
As a guy who is traditionally more of a comedian than a musician, how do you feel about this whole album release process? Plenty of bigger artists have used their clout in the industry to avoid having to do press and the whole tour/promotional cycle. How do you feel about it?
It might get to a point where I don’t want to do it, but right now people don’t know what I’m about or who I am so I think it’s an important tool. I am in a different form than people are used to. I’ve been making music since before I did comedy, but it just took off in a weird way.
It’s funny how I see people reviewing music I made six years ago. I guess with the Internet, everything is just readily available. With older artists, the stuff they made in their garage, you’d have to be their mom to find it. But I will never run for office because you can go on YouTube and see “Bro Rape” and I’ll never be president. My grandkids will see that. But I think with promo stuff, as long as the questions are interesting and people are doing their job, I’m fine with it.
Does rapping quench an artistic thirst that being a comedian and a writer doesn’t?
I see them all as the same thing. It’s all story telling. What helped me on Camp was [that] I wasn’t trying to make hits. I do what I do when I write or act. I just tell a story. Camp is that. I’m very happy with Camp. I can’t lie. I feel good about the story being told and want to tell interesting stories.
It does quench an interesting thirst but it’s not any different. It’s just newer than the other stuff. It’s also scary because it’s more of a challenge. If you write a comedy hour you can take three years to write your next hour. Louie C.K., if he doesn’t want to do comedy [shows] for 3 or 5 years, people will come out and see his next show. I think if LMFAO doesn’t come out with a hit every six months everyone will be asking “who’s LMFAO?” It’s hard to stay on top in the music industry.
Do you feel like you’re fighting to keep peoples attention span?
Not their attention spans. I think I’m fighting to keep my vision clear. I feel like making Camp was such a tightrope walk.
When you play Troy on Community or even the Bro Rapist, there’s this underlining intensity behind your comedy and it comes out in your music. Where does it come from?
Derrick Comedy, the three of us… five of us really: Dan, DC, Dominic and Meggie, we all work well together because we all think human nature is fucked up. Human nature and sexuality is so gross but we think it’s funny. Most every Derrick sketch you can watch and see it’s about someone sticking to their guns even though they think it’s a bad idea. That’s what people do. We all have that intensity in us and it all comes out and it’s never pretty or graceful. I think that’s the human condition: funny and sad. A lot of those Derrick sketches are sad. But I think the underlining thing is the anger in human nature.
I know you’ve done a lot of stand-up on the road. How does being on the road MC differ?
It’s a lot less lonely. I don’t like being on the road as a stand-up. You’re by yourself in San Diego for three days and maybe you’d get drunk with people and walk home to your hotel by yourself, and you’re alone thinking about your act. You’re in your head a lot. It’s kind of like being a kid when you’re on the road with a band. You don’t have to think. Everything is mapped out for you by the tour manager. It’s done for you and you always have people around, so it’s like being in school when you have people around telling you what to do and when to do it. All I have to worry about is making sure the show is great. So I can place all the focus on that.
You toured with Rock The Bells on the Wu-Tang stage. How does the back stage experience differ with Rock The Bells versus The Comedy Connection?
[Laughs] It’s exactly what you’d think. People were very high. People were drinking and hanging around. When it’s time to get on stage, they just say “alright” and get on stage. I was thinking, “is this that different from comedy? People just get very high backstage and go on and perform.”
Those guys even get high onstage.
Yup. I was surprised they even wanted me on that stage. I didn’t think I fit the type.
Were you playing on the Wu-Tang stage because you got the Childish Gambino name from the Wu-Tang name generator?
[Wu-Tang Clan founder] The RZA was going to direct a video of mine and I met him and he was really cool and listened to my stuff and liked it. He was the reason I was at Rock The Bells. He stood up for me and said, “This kid is good.” I was between them and Mobb Deep. I was thinking, “This is a bad idea.” I was wearing shorts and not rocking that look but it taught me a lesson. You’ve really got to bring it.
Growing up were there any specific MC’s you listened to and thought, “I want to be a rapper.”
To be honest I never wanted to be a rapper. When I heard Eddie Murphy, I said, “I want to be a comedian.” Mostly because my dad, who had a bad back, when we’d watch Looney Tunes and I’d see him laugh, it was the only time I really got to see him enjoy himself. So I said, “I want to do that!” Rapping, I did for fun because I could do it and it didn’t cost anything. I always wanted to make movies but didn’t have a camera. There was a lot I wanted to do and rapping was free. I will say listening to The Pharcyde and Biggie, and Eminem for the first time, I thought, “These are stories.” It was the first time I realized this isn’t something people just listen to. This is something you can do to express something. That’s what I want to do with Childish Gambino. [I wanted to] tell a story.
What viewpoint does Gambino take that Donald Glover the standup or Troy the student, or any of your characters… what does Gambino bring to the table that the others don’t?
I think half the reason I’m allowed to do Gambino is because they’re all not that different. If I went on stage and did stand-up and said stuff [in a cheesy voice] like, “Hey ! The N word is crazy,” but then went on stage and [in a gangsta voice] said, “Game time motherfuckers,” people would be like, “What the fuck are you doing?” But I try not to lie in any of my mediums. I try to be as honest as possible. I think the only thing about Gambino is [that] it’s more aggressive. I hear people talk about Childish Gambino and they say, “Oh, he says ‘bitch’ and talks about his dick and is a misogynist.” Have they seen Derrick Comedy? Have they seen my stand-up? Have they watched “Bro rape?” It’s because it’s rap that people have a problem with [my language]. It’s in a different medium and nobody says anything about it when I act. But when it’s rap people think, “[cowers] He means it!” and they freak. Which I think is funny. Rap is also the only medium I work in where people think I’m scary.
Now people walk on the other side of the street from you.
Yeah man. Now that I’m a rapper my mom looks at me different.
People have called the album misogynistic. I hear the same edge that I said runs through your standup and your comedy sketches, but do you feel that because hip hop has a fairly earned reputation for misogyny and homophobia that people fail to see the humor in Childish Gambino for what it is?
The only thing that bothers me is that people don’t give me the benefit of the doubt. I wrote 30 Rock and all this other stuff and I seem pretty open minded, and now that I’m rapping people won’t bring that [open mindedness] to the table. They’ll say, “This comedian is trying to rap.” But when the N-Word or the F-word gets thrown out there, [people decide] “He’s just a rapper now.” It has a twinge of, “But you were one of the good ones” to it, which bothers me because nobody does that about Chris Brown. Nobody is going to write an article about how 50 Cent is misogynistic.
But you play a wholesome character on a show that parents watch with their kids. Do you think people are more threatened by you [than someone like 50 Cent] because they don’t expect that from you?
Absolutely. That’s the thing. I stand by everything I say and I try to explain all of it. If you feel duped and don’t want your kids watching it, that’s weird, because I don’t do anything like that on Community, but don’t let your kids watch Community. That’s fine. I hear people say my work is misogynistic and yeah, it is, on purpose. You think I call my mom a bitch? I don’t! You think I call women bitches or hit people? I’ve never been like that my entire life. But the example I can give is that people freak out about the line, “I love bitches, I love pussy, I should be running PETA.” But if you replaced bitch with the phrase “well-educated women,” it would be more offensive. The point of the line is wordplay. I don’t think anyone out there is saying they don’t know women aren’t objects. The way I don’t think anyone says “What? Black people aren’t animals?” People know that, but they still say it. People still do it. All the stuff on my album isn’t right [and it isn’t supposed to be]. People expect art to be like the bible. And there is content in Camp to take away, but I want it to invoke an emotion.
Since hip hop is so regional in its sound and style, do you identify as a New York rapper or an Atlanta rapper?
Nah, I identify as a metropolitan rapper. Sometimes I shout out Atlanta because that’s where I grew up but I can’t rep one place. One part of Camp I talk about is African Americans are separated. We don’t have anything to hold onto because of… a lot of stuff I won’t get into. But I try not to say I’m a southern boy or a New Yorker, even though I’m from both those places. but I love L.A., I love Paris. I try to see myself as a citizen of the world, a rapper of the world.
This question is hypothetical because you sold the venue out, but if there were tickets at the door and some kid wanted to know why he should spend his cash on a ticket, or the album for that matter, what would you tell him?
One thing that [people would say] in the studio was “we should put this drum in” and I’d say no because “it’s too typical. This record isn’t going to be typical.” You may not like it but it won’t be typical and I’m very proud of that. My album has no features or samples. It’s from the heart. I like to think its not typical and that’s what I’d tell the kid. Our show isn’t a typical rap show. I try to do something different. Kids in Maryland just get it for some reason. Kids in Baltimore, DC, Atlanta…
Yeah, middle class black kids, they get it. They get the language which is strange for me. It’s the first time I ever felt… I always felt like I was out of place. We played the album straight through in New York and this black kid came up to me with tears in his eyes and he said, “Yo, that was my life that you did. I get what you’re saying about feeling alone with your own people.”
Are they the same kids coming to Gambino shows as your stand-up?
Yeah, it’s weird. I heard someone tweet that there were fights in the crowd between Mystery Team fans and Derrick fans and Gambino fans. They were going at it. It’s all from the same place, but it’s very cool.
I’m about out of questions. Is there anything you’d like to add, or say to readers who read headlines that called you a misogynist but haven’t heard your music yet? Is there anything at all you want to say while the mic is still rolling?
Maybe I am, listen to the album. Come up with your own decision. Listen to the album and if you feel that way then, yeah, feel that way. It’s a challenge to listen to it and decide for yourself. People say, “I don’t like Black Swan,” but they haven’t seen the movie. People do that all the time. And I get it because there is so much shit in the world right now. I get it. People say you have to watch this or play that or listen to this and there is no time for it all. People have their own lifestyle and you can get everything you need at urban outfitters. You know what you need to think about some record from reading Pitchfork, or Vibe or The Source. It’s hard because there is so much shit out there but I challenge people to try and make their own decisions.
You’re challenging people to think for themselves.
I really do. People have called me a lot of things and I feel differently about myself [than they do]. And you might hear one thing and feel another. [If you listen to the record] you might like it.