Homeboy Sandman | Interview
Stones Throw rapper Homeboy Sandman approaches hip-hop like high-school math.
Combing through the dictionary to find 300 words that rhyme; daily freestyle exercises—it may sound academic, or even soft, compared to the street-hustle origins behind so many of today’s rap stars, but for Homeboy Sandman, it’s simply part of his hip-hop regimen. As a coach on a 2010 episode of MTV’s MADE, the towering rapper attempted to impart his old-school skills to an aspiring young rhymer, an awkward high-schooler. Other assignments for his pupil included rapping about the Cold War and the teen’s high-school mascot.
“I had the kid doing all types of crazy stuff,” Sandman, born Angel Del Villar Jr., tells us over the phone from a friend’s pad in lower Manhattan. The goal was to boost the boy’s confidence, something Homeboy’s hardly lacking. “I’m lucky that I rap well enough that I don’t have to establish any image to go along with it,” he says. It’s not an empty boast. Sandman rhymes with an acute attention to detail associated with a dying breed of MCs, the kind he grew up with.
That the Queens-born wordsmith came into MTV’s makeover reality show with a lesson plan makes perfect sense given his background in education. After picking up a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002, he taught ninth- and tenth-grade math at a public school in Queens for a couple of years. “I really like working with kids,” he says. “I’m still pretty cool with a number of students I used to teach.”
Law school was the next step in the rapper’s atypical trajectory, following the path of his father, Angel Del Villar Sr., a Dominican Republic immigrant and champion heavyweight boxer–turned–community lawyer. After scoring a scholarship to Hofstra University School of Law, Sandman stuck around for a few years before making another career leap—he dropped out to dedicate himself to the rap game.
“I was able to take money that [Hofstra] hooked me up with, get a pad and also have some scratch. So when I decided to become a musician full-time I had a nice little cushion of money,” he explains. “I was able to use that to provide for myself until it ran out. I lost 60 pounds, but it was from just rapping.”
Sandman’s not exaggerating, citing his gaunt appearance on the cover of his third album, 2010’s The Good Sun. Things had begun to pick up for the rising MC before that. He hosted the Nuyorican Poets Cafe’s ALL THAT! Hip Hop, Poetry & Jazz open-mic night, and eventually connected with Wes Jackson, executive director of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. “The first time he put me on was 2008, and he gave me a seven-minute slot really early in the festival, and in the following year I performed again, and also did some hosting. Then I took a year off, because I was in San Diego doing MADE.”
Amid the rapper’s steady rise, he connected with esteemed L.A. indie-rap label Stones Throw, which issued two EPs earlier this year ahead of his new full-length, First of a Living Breed. Pairing quick-witted lyrics with often quirky beats, Sandman’s latest is worthy of his golden-era heroes while dangling a few clues to his former profession. Laid-back cut “For the Kids” playfully espouses wisdom in every verse: “Little sisters, you ain’t gotta be a freak / Even Nikki Minaj wasn’t that at 13.” The multifaceted album offers more than advice to young’uns, but education remains just as essential to Sandman now as it was when his job was in the classroom. “When I was a teacher, it was hard to get [kids] to pay attention,” he says. “But now I’m a rapper, so everyone wants to pay attention.”
Homeboy Sandman opens for Brother Ali Wednesday 3 at Metro. First of a Living Breed is out now.