Rob Dz enters his "adult contemporary" phase
The Madison MC hosts a listening party for his new album, The Good Guy Memoirs, on Dec. 5 at the Central Library.
You could be forgiven for thinking of Rob Dz as a beloved Madison man-about-town more than as a rapper and spoken-word artist. Dz knows this, and that’s one reason why he’s calling his forthcoming album The Good Guy Memoirs. Since his last proper album, 2005’s Soul Anthems, Dz, real name Rob Franklin, has released a couple of EPs and pursued spoken-word poetry in collaborations with various Madison musicians (including jazz outfit The New Breed) and The Chicago Yestet. But it’s more likely you’ve encountered him working the door at The Frequency or Dragonfly Lounge, catching a drink and a show at the Cardinal Bar or The Fountain, working the bar at the now-closed R Place on Park Street, or mentoring teens at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, where he worked for three years. He’s still been developing and exploring as an artist, but it’s hard to separate that from the friendly, humble fixture he’s become in Madison life.
In other words, Dz spent a lot of years emphasizing the non-hip-hop parts of his life. But in early 2014 he buckled down on a new record, laying down most of his vocal tracks in the Madison Public Library’s new Media Lab. He’s become something of a public advocate and success story for the Media Lab, using its free resources and training opportunities to create music videos and the album art as well as the music itself. While the album’s not done, the songs he’s been sharing, including “Artwork,” which you can listen to here, suggest a little time away from hip-hop invigorated Dz. On “Artwork” especially, he sounds as relaxed and confident as I’ve ever heard him, laying out his manifesto for creativity: "A to the R to the T, Wisco flow / Like you're in a gallery and see a Picasso." Elsewhere in the new tracks, he explores grown-up romance that's "even got me backin' off the Dew" on "Lezlie Uggumz" and digs into education and working-class struggles on "Superhero."
During a listening party this Friday at the Central Library, Dz will offer a preview of the new album, debut the video for “Artwork,” and launch a crowdfunding campaign to support the album’s eventual release. Dz talked with us about making the new album and how he’s matured into what he considers an “adult-contemporary hip-hop” artist.
Tone Madison: Is there a narrative behind calling the album The Good Guy Memoirs?
Rob Dz: I called it like that because one thing I noticed after my last album, at least around Madison I became a socialite. Between the last album and this album, it’s been almost eight years. Over that time period, it was good for me because I needed to just live for minute. One thing I would notice, especially after the last album was well-received, I’d be introduced and they’d say, “Hey, this is Rob Dz, and he’s a really good guy.” And it just kind of stuck with me. I really wanted to talk about the struggles of what it is to be a quote-unquote good guy. And it’s funny because I had settled on that album title for a while, and I actually did an EP called the Good Guy EP, but that was just strictly out-of-the-trunk type stuff. I figured I would take it and run with it. The things that I talk about on this album are from the perspective of somebody who’s connected but still a little bit separate, but sees it all and understands it al. For me to be able to talk about hood stuff, it’s funny because the hood looks at me like I’m a pop artist now, but I’m not like a Ja Rule pop artist. They still respect me because I’m still connected to that. But at the same time it’s kind of weird.
Tone Madison: So the title is kind of about how you’re this man-about-town dude that everyone knows?
Rob Dz: Right. I talk about everything from hood shit to the girls that are in the bathroom powdering their nose, and I don’t mean with makeup. I see all that. It’s not that I dictate it towards any one person, but it’s just that I observe and I see, but I wouldn’t be able to see it if I wasn’t plugged in as Rob, the good guy. And I don’t see this to be a jerk, but it’s a lot of shaking hands and kissing babies to be a musician in this town. You see a lot, and you interact with a lot.
Tone Madison: On new songs like “Superhero” and “Time,” there are a lot of social themes, especially about working-class people and educational inequality, but are there particular people who inspired those songs for you?
Rob Dz: Even in “Superhero,” there’s one verse where I talk about education. I was a teen coordinator at the Boys & Girls Club for three years, and I saw kids everyday. I saw kids with unlimited potential that because of the social circumstances didn’t necessarily achieve it all the time. I also dealt with kids that went to places like West High School, where we talk about the achievement gap and things like that. To be able to interact with these kids every day, it kind of made me want to talk about it. I saw a lot of kids that were great and were smart, but would choose to not be smart. And I’m not saying that directly to the kids there, but I’m saying, out of the people that I saw, this is my memoir for this. “Reading is fundamental,” that’s one of the things I say in that song, and "a superhero knows that reading is fundamental,” so why aren’t these kids reading? Why aren’t these kids encouraged? Do I blame them for not trying? No, because obviously they haven’t had anyone to push them in the direction that they can achieve these things. So that’s pretty much what I tried to get at, is a reflection of what I see and what I deal with. I live on the south side of Madison, and I see kids every day that see me and know me because I’ve been walking the same blocks for a couple years now. It’s just a challenge for more, and that’s the biggest inspiration that I can see, is just living life. Honestly, man, the exposure that I got from the last album, it kind of messed with me a little bit because I wasn’t ready for that. I came up in an era of Madison hip-hop where we were fighting just to get shows, which is the same high that’s kind of going on now.
Tone Madison: Yeah, that kind of just seems to go in a cycle.
Rob Dz: Which I didn’t realize then. And then all of a sudden having everybody like me, it was kind of nerve-wracking for a little bit. Even in that, I just wanted to live life for a while. My family owned a bar. Did that. Worked at the Boys & Girls Club, and then it kind of got to the point where I was like, “OK, I’m gonna get back to doing music.” I know a lot of people who’ve said, “Dude, why has it taken you so long to release a friction’ album?” And it’s like, you know, outside of not having any money, it just takes time to need stuff to talk about. I don’t want to just be a happy just rapping for the sake of rapping. I want to be able to say something that means something. That’s kind of the idea behind The Good Guy Memoirs, because one of the things that I noticed is, machismo and hood shit has always been in, and everybody’s not cut from that cloth. I’m probably more Cosby kids than I am Good Times. I’m just being honest. Do I have Good Times instincts to me? Of course. That’s just all part of it. It’s about life, and that’s kind of where I was at.
Tone Madison: So the title’s a bit self-deprecating, as well as reflecting what you try to be as a person?
Rob Dz: Right, and it kind of refers back to what I was saying when people would introduce me. I just try to live my life and let my works be seen. That’s a Peter Tosh quote, “Live your life and let your works be seen,” and I’ve always taken that theory.
Tone Madison: But having gone a while since you made a full album, do you feel like you came back to it with a fresh head?
Rob Dz: Yeah, because honestly, it got to a point where I didn’t want to be around music. I appreciate it all, but you’re talking to a person who’s kind of a somewhat shy, introverted person that was forced to be extroverted all of a sudden, and that was different for me. It would be crazy for me because even in working, my family owned at R Place, and even there, people wouldn’t know me as Rob the bartender, they’d be like “You’re Rob Dz!” Or even at the Boys & Girls Club, it’s not like, “Oh hey, here you are, Rob Franklin, the teen director,” no, “You’re Rob Dz, that’s dope you’re working with kids.” It’s like, well, “I’m not trying to be Rob Dz here, I just want them to see Rob Franklin.”
Tone Madison: You’ve also done a lot more spoken-word stuff in the last few years, with jazz musicians in town and the Chicago Yestet. How did that inform how you approached this album?
Rob Dz: It pretty much affected me because with the spoken-word element of what I do, it was a maturing process for me artistically. Doing spoken word is not, and I’m not discrediting the hip-hop side, but it’s a lot easier to make a hip-hop song as far as delivering content, than it is to do spoken-word stuff. They’re both poetry, but I think there’s more of a simplicity to the hip-hop side of thing, where there’s more of a complex delivery with poetry. In doing that and maturing as an artist and being able to say things, I think it allowed me to make a transition from just doing basic hip-hop to doing more of what I consider to be adult-contemporary rap. It’s funny, because I even call it yacht-hop, instead of yacht-rock. That’s really where I go with this. I definitely think it affected what I do. For me, doing poetry and spoken-word, it’s a lot more challenging to hit it there. That’s why even in simple things like this project being a studio-produced album, I had to kind of strip it down a little bit to get more of the ideas across. Even the poetry side of it allowed what is complex to become simplified going back into it. It’s like what we were talking about before—stepping away from it, re-energizing, and going back to it. I think the poetry element of it definitely affected the challenge for me to say, “Screw it, I’m gonna do this like a project that I want to do, instead of doing what I think is gonna be successful.” I’ve always tried to stick to that, but I made it a point that I was gonna do an adult-contemporary project. I am an adult now, I’m not just some dude hanging out at the rave scene or something. I definitely think the spoken-word element of poetry affected my ability to say, this is gonna be an adult album. And I can talk to the kids, I do talk to the kids on the album, but I do it more from an adult perspective now, but still try to give it to the people as “Hey, I’m of the people, but I’ve been there already.” Even in growing up some, I’m able to say things that I probably never thought about saying two or three years ago. Even though I feel like I’ve always been able to give that commentary, now I have more wisdom to be able to give.
Tone Madison: When you talk about adult-contemporary hip-hop, who are some other artists you’d say are good examples of that?
Rob Dz: Cats like Talib Kweli. Even Common—Common’s newest album is still a little bit more street. The Roots are always adult-contemporary to me. Cats like that. There’s a select few that I think would really be considered adult-contemporary. For example, I think Drake’s an adult-contemporary artist, if you listen to his musical composition. I think Chance The Rapper is more of an adult rapper even though he’s young, because even the stuff that he samples and uses has a very grown-up feel. That by design really should be the social commentary for a lot of people—it’s time to grow the fuck up. There’s a lot of kids out there and I don’t just mean 1 to 18. I’m not saying a trap artist can’t be adult-contemporary, but let me know if you find one. Outside of Rich Homie Quan, who I do love.
Tone Madison: How did “adult-contemporary” aspect inform the production of the album?
Rob Dz: I have a beat broker who’s based in Chicago and LA and he works with this group called The Board Members, and they pretty much do production for mainstream artist placement. He’s known me long enough to where he wants me to get first crack. He’d give me 25, 30 beats at a time to go through, so I was able to pick and choose the kind of material that I wanted to deliver. I know we keep referring to “Superhero”—that’s a Shaft sample. Shaft, that’s part of my upbringing and culture, and I felt like it would be something to challenge people with, not only myself but other people. To be able to pick out these kind of tracks, I had to be serious because I’m getting quality stuff.
Tone Madison: Even though you were working with a variety of producers, did you try to make something cohesive come out of that?
Rob Dz: I knew there were certain topics I wanted to cover. Even in “Artwork,” the whole point of that single is, I’m giving you the other side. Everybody’s always talking about street stuff and hoodie and trap this and that. I’m like, well, what I do is art. It’s gotta be respected in the streets, but it’s in a gallery somewhere. I definitely had things that I wanted to talk about. Like the racial disparity stuff, education, and even love. The element that I’ve been hanging out in, most people are more into lust than they are love, just saying, so let’s talk about that. The list goes on. Overall, I had maybe six or seven different themes that I knew I wanted to address.
Tone Madison: You did a lot of work on the album at the media lab in the Central Library. How did that end up being different from other recording experiences you’ve had?
Rob Dz: Every production scenario that I’ve been in in Madison has been a great experience, but also, I’m a broke artist. So to go out and pay money for engineers and people to mix stuff, it just got to the point where I couldn’t afford it. The connection to the media lab was definitely a godsend. There was an artist who knew me, and I’ve always come to the library, even before they remodeled this library. So this artist saw me one night at a show and said, “You need to go to the media lab at the library.” I’m like, “…alright, whatever.” Two or three weeks later I was here, and he was like, “You’re gonna come with me right now.” It was Victor Castro, he was the artist-in-residence here. He was like, “You’re going to come with me now!” And I was like, what the fuck? Seriously? So then I walk in and I see the green screen on the back wall and I look to the left and I saw the mixing board. So even before Victor opened his mouth about it, just, the first visual I was like, “Everything that I need is right here.” And I definitely want to share that, because I think one of the biggest knocks that I’ve encountered as an artist is that I haven’t kept up with the times as far as my social media exposure. I haven’t had a ton of videos, and I haven’t had a website. Outside of Twitter, Facebook and ReverbNation, which I’ve hustled pretty good. Walking into the media lab opened that window up for me. The difference was that I could record myself absolutely free. All it took was me making a two-month investment in going to classes on Monday nights. I learned how to operate Pro Tools. I already had the beats, so I was able to go in there and start recording stuff myself. The beauty of the connection with the media lab is that the idea behind makerspaces is to allow a person ample opportunity to be creative and come up with a product that they are pleased with. That’s the whole point of it. I could take a week to record a song, as many times as I needed to record it. I would go from on Monday, reading the lyrics, to by Friday, having the song memorized and then recording it. I designed the album cover myself. I went to classes in Photoshop that they had down there. Learned how to operate Photoshop. Same with the video. My first video, the “Keep It Cool” video, I did that all myself. I learned how to operate Adobe Premiere, operate hi-def cameras, and I pretty much managed to cut out all of my overhead. If I didn’t have that album, who knows? It’d be maybe another three years before we saw another Rob Dz album.
Tone Madison: Have you met other people who are using it to this extent?
Rob Dz: I have, but it hasn’t been to the point where I think it should be. There are 12 computers there, and it’s very rarely filled. I also volunteer in there, and a lot of what I see is that people want this instant gratification. “Let me come in and make a mixtape right quick,” and it’s like, well, I can record you and make this mixtape, but why don’t I show you how to record? It’s like the saying, you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, you know? And that’s what I think has been the biggest blessing, because everybody in that lab has taken the time with me to show me their expertise.
Tone Madison: What do you want to do after you get this album finished and released? What frame of mind are you in as far as what you want to do next with music?
Rob Dz: OK, I’m gonna be honest with you. I’m also working on the Robby Franklin Project, which is the spoken-word side of things. With this album, I have made the kind of album that I wanted to make, and if it doesn’t really do what I would like for it to do, then I’m totally fine walking away from hip-hop and going into spoken-word poetry and jazz, and I can do that for the rest of my life and be cool with that. There’s no age limit on jazz and poetry. There’s a little more of a young-man’s-game mentality when it comes to hip-hop, so that’s why I made an adult-contemporary album.