"Wish I was 'luminati / My mom shouldn't work so hard / she's way too good a person" -BBG
Perhaps the brightest star in the New York New School, Big Baby Gandhi is a rapper so special that his rise, hype, and eventual pre-tirement from the rap game were all preceded by his own debut album, simply titled DEBUT. I wish I was illuminati, I'd fund music like I was Medici, but my wanting Gandhi to rap is selfish, he's a pharmacy student at St. John's, and his future looks a lot brighter than the flash in the pan that is most musicians' careers. I contacted him to talk about his posthumous debut, and self imposed retirement.
"There's different ways to be successful in the music industry, but none of them are realistic for me because they all require some type of budget." he told me.
"Rap is just like most other occupations right now, if you think about it. The whole mixtape/street album model mirrors internships. The ones who can afford to intern are people who have financial backing or stability to do so, and you can say the same thing about artists who can put out free music. It's much more viable for rappers who already have money."
A perfect analysis of the state of many industries and, and if you listen to his music, proof that life is not fair.
In 2011, Big Baby set the keyboards of music bloggers ablaze with his lo-fi, cut-and-paste, tape-loop, bedroom effort BIG FUCKING BABY. I resort to hindsight hyperbole here and declare it the best mixtape of 2011, because I don't think there is another mixtape I've listened to or shared more since. His sample of Donald Byrd's "Cristo Ridentor" absolutely destroys.
The resulting attention got the Queens native a spot on the Greedhead label, but his next mixtape No12LookUp2 just barely lived up to its hype, and one could tell Big Baby had already had close to enough. Early in 2013 Big Baby would quietly announce via Twitter that there was simply no money in the rap game, and he had school to attend, and would therefore be bowing out.
Later, the announcement came that he would be releasing DEBUT on his own, and here it is, a decadence of rap and r&b cleaved by minimalist beats. Every song on album shines like the "crack diamonds" of his personal label's namesake. Gandhi also clearly took critique well, avoiding yelling at the mic during raps, and upgrading his production. Songs like "Black Lipstick" seem radio ready, with Big Baby singing about the quest for that ass, intertwined with the ideal to be a better person. "Roll Call," its most experimental track, groups rap and the deep bass of 808s with birdcalls, and nature sounds. It recalls most of 2013's great minimal hiphop, from Dont Talk To The Cops! to Kanye West and Pusha T to Clipping. I asked BIg Baby Gandhi about how it was made:
"I actually had less studio access for Debut than I did for my mixtapes. That's mainly why it took so long to record, took over a year just to find places to record, along with having songs lined up. I have pretty much the same gear except for Debut, I finally started using a non-demo version of Fruity Loops, which meant I could save my stems and put a lot more into each track. Before, when I couldn't save, I would have to finish a whole beat in that 3- to 4-hour window of having my computer on, and export it. "
"I still was using my school computer that doesn't have a battery and has to be plugged in to work. I actually lost the stems to "Tru 2 Da Game" because the plug came out when I was making the beat. I really am out here making really full crazy tracks with literally nothing at my disposal. While I was making the album, I kept encountering that theme. I had a poverty of equipment, a poverty of time, a blankness that is just a part of me because of how I'm living. It's kind of bleak but I chased that thought in the writing too.... My entire budget for the album was $0 and I still ended up getting 100,000 plays on my Bandcamp in the first month."
The best thing about Gandhi's posthumous DEBUT is the things he chose to leave out. The fear of success is not holding him back. The need to impress is completely absent. The raps and beats complement each other rather than compete in the mix. Gandhi is always looking up, but never trips, he might get his head in the clouds but his work is concrete as New York ground. The album opens with the to-be-honest sentiment that perhaps mainstream rap's artists and their target audience —18-34 yr old white males — and he — first generation Bangladeshi-American, destitute poor, living out the actual American dream in Queens, do not relate. In contrast to popular music, Gandhi's raps are consistently pragmatic ("fuck yo Benz / I take the bus like a real g / turn up if you feel me"), with the exception of daydreaming about women, he never seems to get (even in his own songs). His raps over two mixtapes and an album were founded on the same gravitas the best New York hiphop comes with. I inquired as to whether this was a developed style or just themes that kept coming up:
"I think it's more... trying to be the way I am in everyday life. I think it's pretty funny that some people would say I am 'unique' or 'have my own lane' just by saying things that I think most people experience. Like, riding the bus, feeling isolated, being concerned about income inequality, believing in yourself, wanting to be close with people, thinking about what's right and wrong.... I think these things make me human, I think these experiences are universal. These are just themes in my life that kind of define how I see myself, so that's how I chose to write. Like, I don't think I am doing some noble thing by being honest... I think I just stand out in the current rap environment but it was never my intention. Debut was actually me trying to fit in, and yet I think it repelled more people than my previous stuff."
And that's been Big Baby right from the start. Songs like "My Maybach" are masterpieces because of his honesty, his perspective on society, and politics, and his introspective writing (plus the virtuoso production). They turn his albums into tomes on sociology, and reflect his matriculation. As an artist who can be devastatingly sincere ("Aint A Playa") but also make songs that drip sexual objectification ("Somebody Else's") —and somehow acknowledge when he's doing both, I asked him what he thought of the recent commentary on hiphop:
"I don't really have much to say on other people's comments.... One thing maybe I could say is that... When you had push back against Rick Ross for his "UEONO" lyrics, that was really dope to me. Because it was actually legit hiphop fans who were upset, and not some mainstream politics issue. I think its really great when rap fans hold rappers responsible for their raps."
And on his own taste in music:
"I actually very rarely listen to rap nowadays. This week though, I've been scouring for all the songs Smokey Robinson made right after he stopped recording with the Miracles... I'm trying to find all of Smokey's sad songs. His voice combined with those higher-pitched violin swells and big acoustic jazz bass... that's what I'm into right now, haha. I have like super-specific tastes."
It's that specificity that sets him apart from rappers in his class. Rather than hyper referential, stream of consciousness raps, he paints stoic responses to his own experiences as songs. On his creative process, which sometimes involves disembodiment, adopting a character, and removing himself from his writing, he says:
"You can only say so many things through the first person. I write raps like I write in general, I gravitate more towards thoughts and various concepts that I can separate myself from rather than 'expressing myself.' I'm the kind of person that just entertains a lot of different thoughts, whether they're good or bad, or true or false. Just being aware of a concept increases your understanding of the world, you know?"
Big Baby Gandhi's music is enjoyable is because it's easy to relate to the concepts he raps about, and looking back, I actually missed Gandhi's output in 2013. He did make production appearances on albums by Antwon and Hot Sugar and elsewhere to fund his debut, but I can't slight the dude for simply prioritizing. I asked him if producing helped make his album, and if he saw the potential to strike a balance between career and music in the future:
"Yeah, I am still down to make good songs, I'm just wary of releasing music on my own. And yeah, I used the funds to pay for mixing and mastering and artwork for the album, etc.
"In an ideal world, I would just make music, but it's not an ideal world. I'm not scared of working however much I have to. I'm always going to have an interest in music. I've been making lots of beats, but the prospects of other artists wanting to use them seems dim."
Gandhi's ideas aren't that crazy, his retirement isn't some silent, ascetic exile; it's an expression of his own self respect, that all-important quality of a supposedly extinct species of hiphop, alive and well, just beyond what's being advertised.
Purchase DEBUT on Bandcamp, where you can also donate bitcoin to Big Baby Gandhi, profits presumably go to his rap retirement fund.