Interview with clipping’s Daveed Diggs: Experimental rap overtaking mainstream
Daveed Diggs is the rapper of the American experimental noise rap trio clipping. After a Tony award winning performance in the musical Hamilton, Daveed Diggs then went back to work with his band members William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes to release two new and interesting projects, one being the blood pumping Wriggle EP and the other being the atmospheric concept album Splendor and Misery.
Daveed was kind enough to lend me some of his time to talk about his new album, working with others and breaking out to the mainstream.
How do you feel about Splendor and Misery and it’s reception? Because it is a very different album.
I’m sort of surprised with how positive it is, I mean it is sort of polarising with our fan base but I really didn’t think. I’m surprised anyone likes what we do to be honest with you [laughs]. I’m always pleasantly surprised when we put something out and there are people who not only seem to enjoy it but are also sort of excited to figure it out, you know? It’s not the easiest listening in the world. I get responses from fans who are like, “I’m trying to decode the messages,” or like, “Trying to figure out what the story is.” They took the time and care to listen to it in such a way that they got beyond the fact that it’s just a song. There’s not a lot of things on there [Splendor and Misery] that feel like you could listen to outside the context of the album.
I was going to mention that because you were on James Corden and while I’m not sure how that show ranks on the scale of other American talk shows it seems like a big deal.
Haha yeah I was excited.
Yeah, so what was it like to be playing not only what many consider very underground music but also music that requires context to a mainstream audience like that?
Yeah, I don’t know, I just think we chose a song that we knew would look good you know? We play shows all the time and we are confident in the way we are able to translate our sound live but doing it for TV is a totally different thing because the sound is kind of secondary, you have to focus on what it looks like to keep people engaged. We chose that song because we knew it would look cool if Jonathan was playing the chimes and we can bring the whole modular synth out that’s normally at the studio and we can build the elements of that song live on set so it can feel really live, opposed to other songs that might feel like they are played back. That’s why we chose that one and I’m super happy with it, when I watched it I was super excited by how it looked. It looks cool and like everyone up there is doing something, ’cause we are, but rap music doesn’t always look like that. I feel like we made a good choice.
You definitely did. Talking about Jonathan and William, when it comes to actually crafting songs how do you guys come up with ideas? This comes up a lot in Splendor and Misery but can really count for your entire discography, do you just huddle into a room and one of you guys will say something like “Ok I’m going to make a beat out of an alarm clock then Daveed can rap on it”? Basically how do you guys collaborate?
Kind of. That’s kind of it, basically every song starts out with a 2 hour conversation/argument of what the song should be but the start can come from anywhere, it could be Jonathan made a sound on a synth and he says, “I think this is a cool sound, what can we do with it?” and then we create a song around it like, “Oh if that sound was a synth line for a rap song it’d be like Three Six Mafia,” you know? We start contextualising everything and looking up YouTube videos so we can pin point what it is we are trying to do before we even work on it. So when we actually dive into a song it goes pretty quick because we know what we’re doing so we have a skeleton for the song down fast, followed by months or a year of tweaking little things every time we listen to it. Every song is pretty front loaded with discussion and then the creation doesn’t take that long and it just sits and gets tweaked until we put the album out.
Another thing about creating music together, how do you guys go about getting collaborations? You’ve gotten to work with Gangsta Boo to Antwon, how do you pick the people who get on clipping songs?
It’s usually pretty song specific. We did ‘Tonight’ and thought, “This song would be great with Gangsta Boo on it,” like that was actually the person we wanted, so we just figured out how to get her on a track. It’s usually something like that. Like with ‘Work Work’ we knew we wanted to do that with Cocc Pistol Cree. We in fact weren’t going to use that song on the album if we didn’t get her. That song with Antwon was a little different because we knew we were meeting up so we might as well work on something ’cause we like Antwon, so we made a rough beat before he came to the studio and I wrote a hook down and we told him, “Do whatever you want,” so we built the track around him after. But yeah it’s normally we know who we want to collaborate with, that includes non rap artist too like singers or instrumentalists that we have worked with. Baseck‘s scratch on ”Bout That’ was really intentional because we like him and ”Bout That’ sounded like a song that would have scratching on it.
That’s dope. Talking about your own rapping, you’re known to be a fast rapper but not only that – you have very clear enunciation when it comes to rapping, what did you practice to get to your level of rapping?
Well for the speed it was a pretty intentional thing, in that many, many years ago I wrote a song which was just too fast, I just couldn’t record it. I was in the studio with my producer at the time Wildman and I think Bill was there running the session – keep in mind this was a bunch of years ago like 2008 – and I couldn’t do it so I said I’ll just have to step away from this and try it again once I’m better. So after that, I spent months trying to figure out tricks to help me rap faster. The diction is part of it, but also I’m from the bay area and that’s a section of the world where we tend to over enunciate anyway, so if you listen to rap music from there like E40 or Souls of Mischief you’ll hear it, the R’s are really pronounced and we tend to hit the plosives at the end of words, so because of that there seems to be a lot of fast rappers from that area too. I think working in theatre a whole bunch help to but also that’s how people talk where I’m from.
Well seeing as you mentioned theatre, Hamilton is a big deal you got to play 2 characters and you did great. How much do you think your experience in clipping helped Hamilton and how much did Hamilton help clipping?
That’s a great question actually. Right before I got to go on Hamilton we were doing a tour for 2 months straight. We did a US tour then we did an EU tour, so with that in mind when I started doing Hamilton, I actually found it easier vocally to perform Hamilton shows than clipping shows, so it helped a lot and prepared me for the grind of 8 shows a week for a very long time, having just done 60 dates of clipping shows, which is all sorts of screaming and it’s pretty intense. Also you know rap shows aren’t in the best acoustic environments, so I also had to compensate for a lack of PA’s, that meant my voice on Hamilton was a lot stronger than I expected it to be. The physical part of touring helped a lot with the physical parts of Hamilton because at least after Hamilton I got to sleep in a bed afterwards. All of that was useful and the other way around I don’t know, it remains to be seen how Hamilton will effect my clipping work, other than the obvious way that it’s given us a much broader reach of Hamilton fans. People who find me through Hamilton have been open to listen to this… aggressive weirdo rap stuff that I do, which is nice and also unexpected. We put our Wriggle EP out the day after the Tony awards and I was expecting a huge backlash from it but we got the opposite with people being really excited about it.
It’s like now on every YouTube clipping video I always see a bunch of comments saying like Lafayette or Thomas Jefferson.
[Laughs] Yeah it’s pretty weird. Maybe it’ll even out soon I don’t know. We just played a show in San Francisco where they had this electronic music festival and it was at the Bravo theatre which is like a sit down theatre. We filled the place up and it was half teenagers who happened to be big Hamilton fans. They were all in the front moshing and you could see that some of them brought their parents who usually stood in the back observing but yet not disapproving of all the bondage raps I was yelling at the teenagers, it was fascinating.
I feel like somehow being in Hamilton has made clipping okay, like it gives it a pass, which we will take for as long as it works. What it does help is the fact that people are sitting down and listening to the music I think that’s wonderful. The shows seem pretty different now.
Okay to wrap up you can just tell the world how you’re feeling and anything else you want to get out there.
Well, Australia has been really supportive of this band so for that, thank you. We are going to make it out there eventually, it’s a hard place to tour to but we have to make it happen. We’ve had more support in Australia than anywhere it seems like, and that’s fantastic and I want to thank everybody for listening and for allowing us to do this very specific, strange thing that we do.
Thank you for the interview, I hope you come down here soon I’m super keen, either with clipping or Hamilton.
[Laughs] Working on it.
Words by Aiden Benavides