[RH Interview] Rhys Langston: Wordsmith, Historian, Poet-Laureate of His Living Room

Rhys Langston is a multi-disciplinary artist, hailing from Los Angeles. Signed with POW Records and the founder of Black Market Poetry, his music is meant to consume you, to leave you questioning the dynamics of the everyday world and the implications of the past. His art takes itself in several forms, seen especially through the thoughtful and detail-driven work behind his latest project, entitled Language Arts Unit.

Think of Language Arts Unit as a reeducation of the topics that are often undervalued in so many sectors of music. That is, in addition to the album, Rhys authored a corresponding Rap Textbook. The 80-page dissertation works in tandem with the album, yet stands alone as an impactful and extremely necessary proclamation of truth. Rap music–despite its mainstream status–remains a stereotyped and divisive space for black artists.

Rhys caught up with rubyhornet over the phone to discuss his journey in releasing the new project, while also touching on the obstacles of success in Rap and Hip Hop.

 rubyhornet: Are you doing okay with this whole virus?

Rhys: Yeah. I mean health wise, I’m very good. I’ve always kind of been knowledgeable of hand-washing from an early age, so I feel good. Life stopped a little bit for me. I’m a substitute teacher, which really helps the musical artistic endeavors. I can basically call them whenever I want or I get called in as needed. So without that – basically schools are closed in California to the end of the school year –  I am figuring it all out and yeah, I’m doing all right. But certainly, especially today I think was evidence for, I’m just getting into some not quite productive habits. I actually was going to go back to my Alma mater to do a show in Connecticut and had an East Coast tour planned. And as soon as we confirmed everything my friend there is the like, ‘Oh yeah? Cause classes are all being moved online.’

rubyhornet: How long did it take for you to fully do the book as well as the album?

Rhys:  For Language Arts Unit, I’d say the majority of it was probably written in fall of 2016 into the end of 2017. And a lot of it was produced in sketches before that because I did a lot of the production. But then, I recorded a preliminary version of it, had a 10-track version and ended up swapping in and out a few different tracks that I was working on at the time. I think it was May of 2019 when I had an updated tracklist. And from the time of 2016 to that time in 2019, I kept a really good nucleus of five or six tracks and then built around those, cause it wasn’t just about how things sounded.

The record, as a whole, is a lot of mood swings very purposefully. It wasn’t about cohesion in that regard. It was more like, ‘what types of concepts do I want to be here? What ideas do I want to counterbalance with what’s already included?’ If I were in a rush, I would have probably finished it in 2018 and just had that version and then sent it off to mastering. But it also helps, as I was mixing it myself and I have more time to really do the little insane details that would not really be apparent until you really dig in.

And concurrently maybe around the age of 17 I had always, I mean, from the time I was an undergraduate in high school, I always had these ideas about using Hip Hop as a springboard for deconstructing ideas. And then a lot of my ideas started to just come really naturally. So I had an idea to make the book. I really just hammered it out 2018, and got someone to totally eviscerate it, a really smart friend of mine. And then mid 2019 I was really just burning the midnight oil. At that time, I was working in customer service jobs and then coming home and editing small ideas here and there. So I was just swapping whole sections for one another. Yeah, that’s a long way to say in earnest the end of 2016 to 2019 was basically the two halves of the creation.

rubyhornet: That’s amazing because a lot of writers talk about how their first book is like their baby. Putting it out there is kind of hard because you could be unsure of what kind of responses you’ll get. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback on this from those you know and those in your community?

Rhys:  People that I know, yeah, they’ve really taken to the book and the ideas. I don’t think it’s quite hit people yet.  I feel a little weird about that, but I also feel fortunate. There’s a lot of people who have the book. I mean, I think at least 110 people have a book copy of the book, which for me is a lot.

For the people who have taken time to tussle with it, they’ve appreciated it. I think people’s experiences and feedback has largely been in response to the music. And just the lyrics. But that was kind of my intent, you can go with this as deep or as shallowly as you want to. I mean, you can really hang onto the symbols, or you could go to the album or you could go into the footnotes and the end citations and stuff. I’ve gotten a lot from the few people who have gotten back to me. I think a lot of people are still processing it, especially with what’s going on right now.

The small legion of people, they really are reinforcing my belief that, you know, I’m just talking about a lot of things that are not necessarily under interrogated, maybe aren’t like as discussed side by side with an actual practical application. And it’s so applicable in a very real and uncompromising way. So I feel like people have reacted to that, at least those who are entertained by it.

rubyhornet: I mean it’s also available online so there could be more people reading it than you think.

Rhys: That’s true, I don’t know. I think I’m going to go ahead and basically, because I’m bored, just solicit people’s opinions.

rubyhornet: That’s a good idea. Just go on Instagram or Twitter. And actually, speaking of social media, in the Forward of the book, you criticize the ways in which music and life in general is getting a little bit too digital. Do you think that now with all of this crisis management in regard to the virus, do you think it’s good that a lot of musicians are using social media more and more?

Rhys: Hmm. I think it’s good that people are using it.  I think there’s a bubble that we’re about to see kind of, if not burst, at least deform a little bit, when it comes to social media usage. What I want to talk about is things being in a large part with social media, that things are being able to be taken out of context with an album or with a book, a person in particular, you can just grab a quote or listen to 30 seconds of a track and think you understand the whole thing. And I think now I’m seeing at least some people whose posts have come my direction, they have expressed the idea that it’s great to stay connected to people in a social media form. But there is something essential that we’re missing with tangibility, with impersonal interaction.

I think if this happened 20 years ago or 25 years ago, it would be a lot different–it’d just be a lot more mysterious about what was happening for people. But at the same time with it happening now, I think people are realizing that you can’t replace the person. You can’t replace a context. You can’t replace things situated. And the space that they come from or space they originate from. What I’m smelling, seeing with everything and what I try to talk about in a very long-winded, maybe specific, maybe general way, or work – and then the songs too. You know what I mean? The songs are definitely abstract and a lot of multi-entendres going on, but it tries to present a picture.

rubyhornet: Exactly, and social media is all about appearance too. It’s all come down to, what do people want me to say in this moment? Or what do you want to want to convey to others, which can be damaging. So, it’s at least encouraging to see some musicians trying to do live streams and seeing some interactions between listeners and the musicians. 

Rhys: Yeah, I mean I’m not sure I want to downplay that at all. I think sometimes social media can be good for the improvisatory and spontaneous things and sometimes it doesn’t allow for those type of moments where you just have an idea in the middle of a conversation. Sometimes it doesn’t always happen.

rubyhornet: Let’s talk about “Nebbish Fredrick Douglass.” It is really stellar. Big fan of the music video as well. I was wondering if you wanted to speak about your real racial and religious identities, if it’s ever become a problem for you as a musician or if that’s just something that you wanted to discuss more in your music.

Rhys: Well, I think people have, there’ve been a few questions about this and maybe I didn’t answer them the way, not the way I want them to. Maybe I had other ideas that were left over, I feel like I understand where I come from. And I definitely tried to pay homage to that in very stark ways. One thing I was trying to utilize was a, I wouldn’t even say shock value, but just a hard juxtaposition of the Hasidic Jews and the Black Panthers having a Shabbat dinner together.  Nowadays, people don’t really take a chance on something past a few seconds, unless they’re really raring for something exploratory.

Getting something that has that bit of just popping it like, ‘Oh my God, this is what is going on here was really important.’  And to kind of create something unique in that way, because the cross- cultural connection between Jews and black people in this country is pretty robust. But in this one, I feel like an innovative way to explore that in a personal way to articulate that as a visual moving portrait of myself. I was trying to, I guess get a little bit ahead of not even get ahead, but just, I think self-definition is important and is often misappropriated nowadays. Well, not even misappropriated, but just done a little frivolously nowadays. People want to be just self-defined because there’s a front facing camera on their phone without really thinking about or without really doing the work prior to having publishing technology in front of them. If I can be a little judgmental.

So for me it was really important. I’ve thought about who I am, a lot. I’ve gone through the growing pains of people not understanding that, two, three, four, five, six, a hundred things can be happening at once with one person or one situation. And just kind of define myself in that click-baity way, but on my own terms is really important.  When I was first starting out doing music, a lot of people would just assume things about me visually and what are based on what I was talking about. I wasn’t doing this enough or I was, or I appeared like this. So I’ve always had a double, even triple consciousness, like who I am, knowing who I am, why, how they see me, knowing how others see who I am, me seeing myself, I don’t know.

But with [“Nebbish Frederick Douglass”] in general, it was really fun to just go really far out. But pay homage at the same time. And it’s not just for shits and giggles. There’s reverence, there is a calculated idea there. I’m not just like throwing myself at something because I want attention. So that was important for me to, to kind of create that as extended over responses.

rubyhornet: You definitely nailed it on that. It is written in the book and it’s implied in a few of your songs that Rap music is a bit underrated in a sense or undervalued when actually there’s a lot of agency there that has made its way into pop culture nowadays. Do you think that language always dictates success for artists?

Rhys: Yes, that was really, really important for me to express. And to express, a bit of discontent if you will– anger at that. Because there’s a lot of different reasons. I feel rap is disrespected; one, because it’s an art form associated with black people who are perpetually unrecognized until someone who’s not black does an art form. But also too, I think the fact, which goes in tandem with that, that anyone can do it. Rap is associated with youth culture. Many cultural ideas are still left with us about who is allowed to be complex, and what types of art is allowed, multiple interpretations.

And even if it doesn’t have interpretations at the surface–what’s below that surface? There’s just a doubt running in that regard.  The low barrier to entry, and something that’s really fascinating because it’s one of those things where it’s easy to do it, but when someone really does it well there’s nothing else like it. It’s like every other art form when someone practices rapping very well, and it stops time, like other art forms done with a high level of excellence.

The problem for me is that I think it’s one of the most intersubjective art forms. What people think is good has been really determined or swayed by a lot of advertising influence and overall cultural ideas, that I don’t know if people know or even aware of is a central idea of what a masterful rapping experience looks like, sounds like, feels like. And because of that, there’s something compelling about rap that no one can put their finger on, as much as we try and exalt the Golden Age. The early, mid-nineties rap, we’re seeing these debates and the last five years really crystallized on and yes that is one standard to hold it. But I feel rap is just disrespected because that’s the lazy thing. And a lot of highbrow culture critics want to act like they’re doing really erudite work, when rap is disrespected and when it’s not considered as plurality. And this whole plurality, that really shows the laziness more than any other word more than any other “-ism” or whatever. It’s really just laziness on the part of people who proport to be doing the work of investigation and of thought.  Yeah, the problem really is that, that the plurality is not considered.

And when you think about it, Seals and Crofts is not considered the same as like Napalm Mega Death or whatever. Compared to Future and Divine Styler, like both rap and that’s all they really are. It’s really interesting I think, and not to shit on people, but it has to do with a lot of what places are considered important. I had a label friend of mine, and there’s this really popular alternative rap group out right now, I’m not going to name them, not going to name the publication either. Well, my friend had this label, told me even before they released the album, he got wind through a journalist friend that this publication was going to pan the allbum. I mean, and got wind of it. So this just shows the power of people to roll their eyes in such official ways, and without even encountering something. And not to bash on anyone but I think critics have overly-developed a sense of identification with music when really the only person who owns the art is the artist.

rubyhornet: Black history has been constantly overlooked and mainly passed down through oral histories. I was wondering if you would consider your songs as histories within themselves?

Rhys: I think there are one or two particular moments on the record that actually are direct and modern retranscriptions of oral stories and passed down through family. “Megabytes per Second Cousin” is one where, and I didn’t even hear this from my grandfather; he’s still alive– I heard it from my mother, who was talking about my grandfather growing up in New Orleans in the 1930’s and 40’s. That is a piece of history that I have now, not only spoken orally, but written in the book and technically published the lyrics on Genius or whatever. I think that’s really fascinating about rap particularly and music, too by route, is that it is a very narrative literary-based art form.

The other thing is that it presents both the orality of the story or the idea and the ability to transcribe it because it’s been recorded. There’s a record of it. So it presents the authenticity of the actual emotion of the person speaking it and the emphasis, but also the ability to transcribe it. And that’s what I tried to do is self-transcribe because a lot of rappers, and I would too, is that they take personal offense to people, misquoting their Song Genius. Which I think connects especially with how social media, how the algorithms basically act as censorship modules. If you really look at what they’re doing and how they both take things up versus making things just disappear into non-engagement.

The documents like rap, or other forms, that preserve not only who’s speaking, but what they’re speaking about and how they’re speaking is really important. Which is why I think rap is particularly special versus other art forms. I would invert this criticism of rap, which is that technically you can’t cover a rap song, it doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. It sounds shitty every time because you expect the person rapping to be living what they’re saying. Whereas with other songs, yes that’s true. It comes from their context, but reinterpretations are a lot more possible because you’re not relying on just where that message is coming from as the message, if that makes any sense. And I think that’s really what makes rap, is that you can’t even try, you can’t really cover this shit.

You can’t do it. And it, and that’s, I mean, at least for me, that’s my problem a lot with ghost writing rap. Yeah, it might be originally someone’s song when someone covers it or something, but when you interact with a rap song and rap music, even if someone else wrote it, you are experiencing like ‘Oh this is the real shit spoken by this person.’ It’s like a testament.  I definitely think about that a lot because I’m pretty capable of making music and other genres and I’ve been toying with the idea of incorporating other elements and other types of songs. And I always come back to rap because of the type of preservation it presents is really unique.

And then back to the song “Megabytes per Second Cousin.” That’s a story all to me and my family. And that’s a  like parable or something. And there’s a bit of license taken in terms of what was said, but nonetheless, it’s about a story that is uniquely mine and then the people who surround me about a fictional conversation between a grandfather and a grandson. And it’s about what blackness is when we are no longer technically under the strictures of Jim Crowe law segregation. And when we live in two different places geographically, and we are two different shades, teachers’ perspectives. And yeah, so there’s a lot of that in that song particularly, which led me through this rabbit hole. There’s a lot of speakers and I’m trying to have them speak through me.

rubyhornet: Are you looking forward to anything in particular for the rest of the year? Just assuming that COVID- 19 dies down eventually and we can leave our homes.

Rhys: Yeah. I felt like with this project I was gaining a little bit of momentum and I think it’s still there. And when  I am permitted by the larger world, I really want to start playing shows again because that’s really where music is the truest for me. I don’t like to sit around in the studio. I like to make use of the time, get out and share all the variants versions of what I’m doing with people. So I’m looking forward to that. Yeah, I’m kind of looking forward to some spontaneity that I think that people are going to be looking for and that I definitely am looking for.  I get a lot of my ideas through just like accidents of conversation and accidents of say being in a second place and seeing something.

I’m looking forward as I’ve finished this project in general, regardless of what’s going on in the world. I’m finally in a space now where I’m ready to wholly engage with new ideas and be surprised by things that should be tight, I’m about to probably take a walk around the block, at least get a little, a little twinkling to open your mind. You know, I did drop the interactive e-book to start the decade. It’s only upwards from here. I would honestly love to think.

In so many ways, Language Arts Unit is a piece of work that listeners and readers can ruminate on for possibly the duration of this quarantine.

Support Rhys and his movement to underscore the intellectualization of language and poetry in rap.