Homeboy Sandman is sitting outside the Lower East Side’s Punjabi Grocery & Deli, a hole-in-the-wall, bare-bones Indian fast food spot. We’re bombarded with smells of cumin and curry powder as we enter, Hindi music blaring over the sounds of a sizzling fryer and a coffee machine’s loud sighs. “I love this place,” Sandman says as he walks to the counter to order. He returns with two piping-hot samosas and a bottle of tamarind sauce. “I rep North India to the fullest,” he adds.
Sandman takes a big bite of his samosa and offers the other one to me. “I don’t think I’m gonna do [my song] “The Carpenter,” he says suddenly. “There’s certain songs that people wanna see you do. [“Carpenter”] is one of my early signature records. I have a pretty extensive catalog at this point and I like to mix it up a bit. I’ve done “Carpenter” for a long time.”
Sandman’s still riding the high off his latest project, Hallways, an album about self-growth. He’ll tell you Hallways begins in one place and ends in another place; it not only has movement, but is movement. “[Hallways is about] like, not settling down. If I wanted to call this shit being in one place, I could’ve called it apartment. Being in a hallway, you’re moving around.”
It seems like this kind of movement has been a subconscious aspect of Sandman’s career from the beginning. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in English and creative writing, Sandman enrolled in Hofstra’s law school. During his third year, he dropped out and decided to pursue a full-time rap career instead; besides the law, music and writing were his passions.
Trying to make a name for himself, Sandman became synonymous with rap shows in New York, a pervasive presence in the city’s hip-hop scene. He took a guerilla-like approach to promoting his music: he’d leave demos in stereos at electronics stores; pen his raps on the sidewalks outside music magazine offices; and scrawl his bars on pieces of paper, which he would slip beneath the plastic of subway ads. Four years of hard work put him on Peanut Butter Wolf’s radar; Sandman subsequently signed to the coveted indie label Stones Throw in 2011.
Sandman views himself as a writer, period, composing bars everyday and paying weekly visits to studios. He has hundreds of unheard songs in the vault. And for the last couple years, after getting signed, he’s proved he’s fearless to a fault, expressing his unadulterated thoughts about a number of controversial issues. Any backlash doesn’t mean much. If you don’t know Sandman for his unconventional cred or for his recent work with Stones Throw, then maybe you know him for his brazen, repercussive think-pieces, which have appeared on digital outlets like the Huffington Post and Gawker. For him, expressing his views on a myriad of topics (America’s prison system, police brutality, NYPD’s stop and frisk program; hip-hop’s belittling vocabulary, a lack of topical diversity) is vital in principle and reaches beyond his rap audience. Sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate between his rapper and political pundit selves because the two deeply intertwined sides mesh well — no doubt a result of his proclivity for both music and law.
Take, for instance, his most recent think-piece, “Black People Are Cowards,” which he published through Gawker last April. In its most basic essence, Sandman’s article uses the Los Angeles Clippers players’ lack of reaction to Donald Sterling’s racist rant as a platform to call out black people, emphasizing the players’ quiet submission to their team owner. In the opening paragraph of the article, Sandman writes, “I have come to the decision that I agree wholeheartedly with the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, and I too do not want black people invited to my events.” However, Sandman goes on to elaborate that his reasons for not wanting black people at his events are not the same as Sterlings’; Sandman’s justification is that black people don’t have the courage to stand up for themselves.
“What do you call people who walk quietly to slavery? Who allow themselves to be insulted without standing up for themselves beyond wardrobe adjustments that in reality are nothing but a public show of shame?” He writes.
“It’s almost as if people have forgotten that struggle includes struggling. You might have to lose your job. You might have to lose your life. That’s what it takes for change to happen. There’s no easy way to do this.”
Indeed, there is no easy way to do this, and Sandman isn’t about the easy way: He wouldn’t hesitate to quit his job if it was promoting negative racial stereotypes. He doesn’t balk at the idea of losing his life if it means the police won’t mess with him.
“The cops don’t fuck with me. When the cops try to fuck with me, I express that they’re not going to fuck with me and they don’t. Same as with anybody in the whole world. I’m never ever going to have somebody make me do some shit. I might die or whatever, but that’s not a big fucking deal. I much rather be dead. That’s what my piece was about — being dead is way cooler than complaining all the fucking time. I’d rather be dead.
I was real mad [about Donald Sterling]. I was doing laundry in the laundromat and I came back and I saw some of the athletes’ responses to him. I saw everybody on social media sounding off. I guess the mood I was in, I was like you got all these people just talking mad shit. I kind of wanted to say you just talkin’ mad shit.”