My first introduction to Cliff Notez was back in March 2017, four months before his debut album When the Sidewalk Ends released.
I had the pleasure of witnessing him perform the album’s lead single, “Good Riddance,” for a show at the Cambridge YMCA’s Durrell Theatre. The track, the quintessential Cliff Notez-fan-favorite (to this day), is a bouncy, soulful, electric keyboard-laden ode to indifference. That night, Cliff had the whole crowd singing “I gave all my fucks away” in unison in a family theatre.
When the track’s studio version officially released that June via Killer Boombox, I made a mental note to keep my ear to the ground for Cliff. A little over one year later, I’m happy I did.
In hindsight, Cliff’s release of “Good Riddance” was the perfect marketing move but not solely for its catchiness. It was a trojan horse. Disguised with feel-good production and an infectious hook, it’s actually a half smile, sunny enough to reel the listener into Cliff’s raw, frantic work of an album, When the Sidewalk Ends.
Sonically, WTSE is something akin to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, blended with the paranoia of Radiohead’s Kid A. It’s an album drenched in uncertainty and dissonant chords (see “Manic Pts. 1-3” and “Stress”), which make its optimistic moments (see “Savior” and “Mommy”) shine all the brighter.
Given Cliff’s sensibilities as a filmmaker (his film Vitiligo was featured in 15+ film festivals and was the Grand Prize Winner at March on Washington Film Festival), it’s no surprise that WTSE plays like a movie. I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t yet listened, but just know WTSE is an experience best enjoyed with its tracks played front to back, in order.
Thankfully, in commemoration of its recent one year anniversary on July 4, Cliff was down to unpack this album even further for us.
Catch our conversation below and Catch Cliff Notez performing live on August 26 with Brandie Blaze and Citrusphere at Great Scott.
Cliff: Firstly, thank you for taking the time to do this. I think more than anything I want as an artist is to know people are listening and people are relating to it. That makes me feel more human and alive than anything, and when all I’m trying to do is get people to understand what being human and alive means for a person of color in a world where it seems we are seen as being worth that, it means alot.
Rex: When The Sidewalk Ends is extremely cohesive when it comes to production. Are there any films or albums that you credit as inspirations for your process in making this album?
Cliff: I think, film wise, I was reminded of some of my favorites..Menace To Society, Boyz in the Hood. Those after-school hood classics I enjoyed whenever I had cable, which were some of the only representations of black culture that I had seen in mainstream. That’s just in terms of the subject matter, style, and feeling wise, I was really inspired by The Machinist, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Get Out, and the Runaway film done for Kanye by Hype Williams. Those are some of the immediate ones that come to mind. I also watch a ton of films and TV. So I’m sure there’s a lot I was inspired by that I’m not referencing. Black Mirror was big for this as well. I was really into horror and thrillers at the time. Still am. More psychological stuff because I hate gore and guts.
Music wise, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, was big for me, especially knowing the context and time period that album was released. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Kendrick’s Good Kid Maad City and To Pimp a Butterfly, Outkast’s Stankonia, American Gangster by Jay, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Because the Internet by Childish, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Tyler’s first album, and FlyLo’s You’re Dead. Oompa’s Nov 3rd and STL GLd’s Torch Song were obvious local connections because they’re both the homies, and I got to see those projects come to fruition, specifically Oompa’s.
I grew up around so many different kinds of music. And I literally have ADHD, and move from genre to genre so often just to keep me interested, which I think shows in the album a bit. It’s almost like I can’t sit still, and have to jump from time period to different genre, to different influence all the time. That also comes from my dissatisfaction in my own production. Wanting to have something that feels like Michael Jackson, Anderson Paak, 50 Cent, Nirvana, older Arcade Fire, Sonic Youth, Erykah, Lauryn, J Dilla, and Jay Z all at the same time, all while watching all of the films, and TV shows on 12 different split screen monitors at the same time (laughs).
Rex: What inspired you to incorporate Shel Silverstein influenced art for the album cover?
Cliff: The art is what stuck with me more than anything. These very demented looking characters. That’s what I remember as a child more than anything. I Was always into picture books over novels..for a while..may not have changed much. But I wanted to be visually stimulated when I was learning to read. This was great visual stimulation with basic writing. So the book stuck with me more than any other Jules Verne novel.
The book coincidentally does have this continuous theme of exploring what happens when people give up their creativity for 9-5’s, which I do think I related to in a certain extent. But realistically, none of the characters in the book looked like me, and that was important to my decision of changing the artwork to be more of a representation of my experience. Kind of like how Dave Chappelle used to take things and be like, imagine if this was black…except I’m nowhere near comedic as Dave. Nick Martin, who was my college roommate and been here since before HipStory was a thing, played a huge role in designing the art and is really good at taking my vision and helping me take it to the next level. If he’s not doing it himself in Illustrator, he’s teaching me how to do it myself. We’ve been a great team.
Rex: From what i’ve seen ‘round town, the crowd favorite from this project is undoubtedly “Good Riddance.” What is your personal favorite track off of the album?
Cliff: Everyday it changes. Originally, every song on the album had a one word subtitle that broke down every specific emotion each song was. Some of them are still there, like “Acceptance” on “Lights Out.” That was important because 5 of the songs were the 5 stages of grief. I think every song represents a different feeling I’m at every day in my life. That’s why the album as a whole is important because it lets me remember that it’s a chain of events, a cycle. Some days, I feel like “Good Riddance,” some days i feel like “Fright Night,” and some days “Damn!” will be my anthem. But they all can’t live without one another.
Rex: This album plays like a movie, man. There’s a rising action and resolution. What do you identify as the climax on this album, if any?
Cliff: Def. I’ve written the albums film treatment to feel like a movie. The climax, is undoubtedly “Manic Pt.3.” It’s the breaking point. It’s a culmination of all the anger and frustration starting with “Intro to Fright Night,” mixed with the confusion of not wanting to give a fuck on “Good Riddance,” the shared stories and anguish from my friends on “Manic” parts one and two, it all boils to a point of like “What the hell is happening? Whoa. What does this mean? What is happening?” It explodes and mellows out in reflection with the “Fright Night Reprise.” One day, I hope to get the money to make this film so it can all be detailed visually. For now, all I got is the music.
The “Manic” series is technically the only video thats out for When the Sidewalk Ends. If you ever seen The Methodist, you realize the entire score is a remake of the “Manic” series beats. That same motif. Technically making it Manic part 4, or part 3b, if you will. We recorded the drums, taiko drums, my personal reference to Kanye West’s 808s n Heartbreaks, which i think was when he first starting having his breakdowns, and had live strings and horns play out the strings.
Then Oompa and I played keys on it, amongst a ton of other things that happened in that manic rabbit hole. It’s the climax of the entire project, yet its a motif. Which i don’t think people understand about being black in america, your ‘climax moment’ is frequent until they cut our lights out, literally.
Rex: You’ve performed and toured with this project for a year. What are your most memorable moments in showcasing songs from When the Sidewalk Ends publically?
Cliff: I’ve been so lucky to actually have a few, and I feel blessed to be excited about what may happen tomorrow because of the album. The tour down to New Orleans and back was amazing. The album had only been out 4 days, and I was already on the road making new fans. That was an unbelievable experience for sure.
There was a day I remember I had 3 dollars in my bank account, and I was starving. I remember feeling so confident going to Burger King and spending my last dollar to get some fries. Didn’t know what it was that made feel confident. But the next day I found out I was invited to feature at the Boston Music awards new music showcase. That didn’t necessarily pay my rent, but I felt like I was heading in the right direction.
My first headline over at Once Somerville was also an extremely humbling experience. Above all, these were small moments of performing in front of the home team, having people know all of my lyrics because they know me. Thats been the most amazing. These songs lived in my head for 5 years and now other people know them, like what! I mean I guess I knew I was making songs for other people to sing, but it always shocks me when people actually sing them.
Rex: I admire your push to explore the overlap between the social and psychological in your work. In When The Sidewalk Ends, but also in your films, The Methodist and Vitiligo, I’ve noticed there’s always a build toward a “psychotic break.” What about this motif speaks to you?
Cliff: Thank you man, that’s definitely extremely important to me. Mental health and illness has always been a fascination of mine. I’ve obviously had my struggles, but I’ve always been bigger in the bigger picture. What does this mean in cultural standards? One thing I’ve always been obsessed with was this idea that genius borders insanity. To me, that seemed conflicting because one of these people are held on a pedestal, and one of these people are constantly looked down on in society. It all comes down to what is culturally acceptable. I think about how slaves were fed lobster hundreds of years ago because there wasn’t the technology to make that food a plausible dish. Now that food is served for 30 dollars if you’re lucky. So many people in society were initially deemed crazy, until society accepted their ideas after broadening their thinking.
I’ve had friends have psychotic breaks that I’ve seen first hand. What always shocked me was how long it took me to realize that they were actually having a psychotic break. My fascination with this “insanity” is the idea that we are not that far from “genius.” Both of these are somewhat along the line of thinking “outside of the box.” Being able to dispel what is agreed upon on by society. The difference between the two, as deemed by society, is if we’ve thought too far outside of the box, too far away from what is plausible thinking, too far away from the sidewalk. See what i did there?
What if we can do the same with blackness? How long will we be lobster for slaves until they realize we can be served for a hundred bucks at Ocean Prime on the Seaport? I think mainstream has begun to do this already. I want my own people to see our value, and open up their own Ocean Prime. If that makes sense.
Rex: Every solo artist is their own worst critic i feel. Talking to myself here (laughs). Are there elements of When The Sidewalk Ends you hope to improve upon for future projects?
Cliff: What’s funny about this is that I was so far into my head when this album was finished, that I thought I could never make anything better than this, that I spent 5 years perfecting my first album, and I was creatively spent. I could never do better. I think a year after the project has dropped, I’ve been lucky to continue to grow. I know for a fact that I’ve grown as an engineer and producer, there are so many things that I would like to do different on that album mixing and production wise. I think as soon as I begin to cringe at any of my work, I embrace that feeling, because I know I’ve grown and know I can do better. This makes me excited about the new music, film and art that I’m working on. I’ve grown as a musician, a vocalist, a producer, and artist in general, now hopefully it doesn’t take me another 5 years to finish this next one..no promises though.
Rex: What is your proudest accomplishment with the creation, release, and promotion of When the Sidewalk Ends?
Cliff: That it still exists. I used to be notorious for hiding or hiding from my art. Not performing, literally deleting music from the world wide web. I think it’s existence to this day is a testimony to my growth, my belief in myself, my willingness to stand by something that is authentically me and extremely vulnerable. Weeks before the album came out, I used to text Tim, Oompa, and Forte randomly and be like, “I quit. This album’s trash. I don’t want anyone to hear this shit. I’m deleting it.” Dead ass. My Twitter bio, for the longest time, read “world’s most insecure rapper” (laughs). Having people believe in it forces me to remain accountable for it. Remaining accountable for my artwork forces me to believe in it, in myself.
Photo Credits: Brunei Deneumostier