“Don’t need no watch for me to tell you what time it is!” Billy Dean Thomas drops lyrical gems with their latest EP, Rocky Barboa. Packed with multilayered metaphors and deeply creative wordplay, the EP has the kinds of beefy rhymes that hip hop heads can chew on for years. Giving the listener a selection of styles to choose from, Thomas shows their range as a rapper as they bounce with ease between slow-paced raps and strobe light-level speed bursts.
A slam poetry heavyweight with songwriting skills to match, Thomas uses verbal weaponry to tell important stories of their experiences fighting against the forces of homophobia, racism, and “all the drama and trauma in my bloodline.” On the song, “Freeman”, Thomas tells us who they are fighting for by saying, “I do it for the kids with no voice / I’m a prophet, I don’t profit, I just focus on lyrical prose / while ya’ll in an all-white whip, to me that just look like a master’s home.”
A lover of hip hop music, Thomas knows how to drop rap beats that knock. On the head-nodder, “Don”, Thomas kicks out a smooth, mellow bounce with base that rattles the trunk. They also flex their thematic beat mixology on the song, “Jab” adding in a dash of Halloween-style scary vibe and combines that with retro video game sound effects to create a unique but approachable beat. Thomas also used these same scary movie themes to showcase their visual bravado on the 2016 video for their song,“Beatlejuice”.
Originally a Harlem native, Billy Dean Thomas has made Boston home and is doing well here, expanding the quality and reach of the city’s hip hop scene. They just recently played the House of Blues, had a WBUR feature, and even held it down acapella, On ABC’s The View a few years back. Keep an eye out for Billy Dean this year, with a new album in the works, They’ll be dropping more bangers and “coming to your city like a clothing store…POP UP!”
Hassle got a chance to sit down with Billy Dean to discuss their work, hip hop culture and Boston’s place in it.
Do you remember what song you heard when you first fell in love with hip hop? What was it about that song, and that time that bonded you to the music?
(BDT) One of the most memorable songs ever from my childhood was “warning” by Biggie Smalls. My mom’s boyfriend would play Biggie’s Ready to die album on repeat in the car and I had to be no older than 12. This particular song stuck with me because the swagger of the beat was insane and the way biggie was telling a story, enunciating each word so smoothly was immaculate to me. Each syllable was so intentional and I loved reciting it
When did you start rapping? What exactly happened that kicked that off?
(BDT) I began writing at 10 years old. I used to have an obsession with buying new journals and would write letters to myself as well as what I now understand to be poems and lyrics. Before I even understood what poetic devices were I was writing lines and they didn’t feel complete without rhyming. I would always write whenever I was upset specifically and super sensitive to something happening in my environment. It was an immediate outlet when I didn’t have the courage to communicate my discomfort or anger externally. It kept me from imploding.
Can you tell me a bit about the production on the album – are there certain types of beats or production styles you’ve been inspired by or tried to emulate?
(BDT) As far as production I really enjoyed co producing half of the project. I love to create the skeleton of a track with producers that evoke a certain emotion. I definitely am a sucker for heavy sub bass and almost menacing type beats. I like instrumentals that remind me of movie scenes or bring you back to a memory and almost stop time.
Can you share anything about what fans could expect on your next project?
(BDT) Currently, I am in the studio and the most important thing that I am focusing on is having a good time. I am really experimenting and tapping into feelings of joy despite the triggering things that come up for me on a daily basis. So in short I would say expect to dance, pay homage to my idols and hear hard truths at the same time. I am hoping to craft the perfect balance of all three.
It seems like anyone in hip hop that starts in the Boston area and makes it to the national stage somehow forgets to mention this city, whereas when an artist from any other major city in the US (ATL, NYC, Chicago, Philly, Miami, etc.) blows up, they put their city on their back as a major part of their sound, message, and image. Why doesn’t that happen here?
(BDT) This is definitely a complex question and one that I can only answer partially because I am not a native. However, in the time that I have been here I have been able to get paid for my work which feels super validating, and was not happening in NYC because so many artists are willing to take unpaid work and the cycle repeats. In Boston I feel like there are small communities of folks that have created their own buzz and opportunities but the higher paying institutions are only hiring one hip hop artist to the 3 singer songwriters or rock etc. This market ultimately makes hip hop artists more competitive not because we are competitive with each other but because as a genre we are given less opportunities for more than one person to thrive at a time. It puts us in a mentality of scarcity as opposed to abundance and to be quite honest egos get in the way keeping folks from sharing resources that would ultimately put the entire city on the map. This is all stemming from a fear of losing your chance to make it out.
Who are some of your favorite local and non-local rappers?
(BDT) “Oh it depends if we are talking pen game favorites or rappers with great records. As far as writing goes I would have to say two people that inspire me to write harder are Jymmy Kafka, who is a lyrical magician and O Fats who speaks nothing but the truth and has an incredible delivery and melodic structure. They also just met at a show I played last week and I was beyond elated that these two minds crossed paths. Non-local I have been bumping Nappy Nina from Oakland’s “The Tree Act” project which resonates with me so much as a grinding hip hop artist trying to rap their way to a better reality. Little simz, Oddisee and Mick Jenkins to name a few.
Top 5 hip hop records of all time?
(BDT) It stresses me out to think about Top 5 records of all time so I am just going to give you 5 that shaped me;
- Ready to Die – Biggie Smalls
- The Blueprint – Jay Z
- The Marshall Mathers LP – Eminem
- The Cool – Lupe Fiasco
- My beautiful dark twisted fantasy – Kanye