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Actor Donald Glover says the secret to both comedy and songs is in the details. The former “30 Rock” writer and current star of NBC’s “Community” shares the song made him realize he could be a rapper, a track he calls the “perfect memoir of a relationship,” and talks about the life changing moment when he discovered Bjork. Donald recently released a new EP as his musical alter ego Childish Gambino.
Dan Wilcox: Hi, this is Dan Wilcox from KCRW and I am sitting here with actor Donald Glover, who stars in the NBC comedy “Community”. He also has a few musical alter egos, including the rapper Childish Gambino. So, you have something beyond Childish Gambino?
Donald Glover: Yes, I re-mix and DJ and I used to produce and I still produce a little bit under MC DJ. I remixed Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois album in college and called it Illin’ Noise.
And, yeah, it was under MC D.
DW: Today we’re going to dig into his musical aspirations through the songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. So, Donald, what do you have for us today?
DG: Well, I guess the first song would be “Tell Me a Story” by Nadelle. She has a really pretty voice and the songs are very sing-songy to me. But this song stuck out to me because it’s about her dog dying, and I’m not really like an animal person, but the specifics in the song hit my heart just because it made me realize not only in scripts and in music, but the little things are what really hurt and when you have someone close to you die or leave or when you go through a break-up, it’s not, you know, I miss Ali because… It’s always the little things, oh, like her socks aren’t on the ground. She always used to leave her socks here. It made me realize specifics are what make relationships and bonds between people important. And it’s what makes songs good.
Song: Nedelle – Tell Me a Story
DW: That was “Tell Me a Story” from Nedelle. I’m sitting here with Donald Glover and Donald, what are we going to listen to next.
DG: The next thing we’re going to listen to is half guilty pleasure and half, honestly influenced me a lot. “ I Wish” by Skee-lo.
I guess if you don’t count Kriss Kross’ “Jump,” this is the first rap song I knew all the words to. Because like my cousins and stuff like were really into Bone Thugs and really into Biggie and really into stuff that scared me, but Skee-lo’s “I Wish” was the first song I heard where I was like, oh I can rap about that!
I always wanted to rap and I would freestyle and stuff and it just sounded fake- because I was rapping like Biggie and Biggie’s experience wasn’t my experience, at all. And, Skee-lo’s existence was exactly like mine -- I didn’t think I fit in, I wasn’t cool enough, and I wanted to play basketball, but I wasn’t tall. Everything he was saying- it was the first time, oh like, just rap about, or just do, in any art form, what you know and that will make you you.
Song: Skee-Lo – I Wish
It was the first anti-hip hop song, to me. It was just like, I don’t have to pretend. And, the thing that I liked about Skee-lo and I found out later on that I liked about Pharrell and stuff like that is that they didn’t fit into a box of what a black kid had to be, which I hadn’t seen a lot, like I always felt out of place because it was just like, ughh, where’s my struggle? But, like, the struggle was just trying to find out who you were because what defines you as a young black person a lot of stuff and I feel like you see that a lot now. It’s kind of cool.
I‘m sure someone will write a large New York Times piece on the rise of the suburban black male soon because that’s Kid Cudi, Odd Future, suburban kids.. You know. Suburban kids who had laptops for the first time, you know. (laughter)
DW: Ok, that was “I Wish” from Skee-lo, sitting here with Donald Glover. Where are we going to go next.
DG: We are going to go to some Bjork. Bjork literally changed everything for me musically. I was listening to a lot of Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, oh yeah!
DW: That’s quite a jump!
DG: Oh, you have no idea sir- I had dreads, young sir!
And, like I had a skateboard. I don’t know why, I guess it was a weird kind of rebellion thing. And there was this girl who worked at A Mellow Mushroom, which is a pizza place in Atlanta down the street from me. And me and my dad and brother used to go there all the time and I had the hugest crush on her. She had, like, pink hair. And she was like, “oh you like Korn?” Because I had a Korn shirt on. And I way like yeah. And she was like, ”you should listen to Bjork” and I was, like Ok…And I went and bought Debut and I was like, whoahhhhh.
And this song, “Isobel,” which is from Telegram, not the original one when they redid it when it was all strings -- it was the first time when I was just like, “forget you, I don’t care about stuff. “ Isobel” was the first one where you could strip all that down and it will still sound really powerful. And her voice is, like, crying and stuff. The vulnerability is there.
Song: Bjork -- Isobel
DW: Ok, we just checked out “Isobel” from Bjork. What are we going to dip into next?
DG: We’re going to dip into some Lil Wayne. I think he and Kanye, are kind of responsible for hip hop being able to do whatever it wants.
People always talk about how I’m funny, how my jokes are like, oh Childish Gambino is kind of, like, funny. I was like, Lil Wayne is hysterical.
My gat means business. The bitch should have a tie on. Like, that’s amazing! That’s such a great, funny line! And, like, that’s how I started getting into him, just like, no one’s using similes and metaphors like that. And, something you forgot, I listened to this song non-stop when I got it. I could not stop listening to it. And I really didn’t know why. I mean, like, maybe it was because I was going through a breakup too, but, I think there was just something about how honest he was. I did a song called “Almost There,” which used a Jay-Z and a Michael Jackson sample and I think that is a direct descendent of this just because it is -- I just like how he gets on the track. It’s just like, you remember this, you remember this, you remember this, you remember this-- he just lays it out. Because that’s what it is like when you go through a break up. It’s just like how can we leave all this? What was all this for? And, I had never heard a song like that before, for me anyway. It was so palpable in the song how much this relationship meant to him. Especially coming from someone like Lil Wayne, it kind of made me feel like, oh everybody goes through this. So, like memories I think are what makes us, and this is like, a perfect memoir of a relationship.
Song: Lil Wayne - Something You Forgot
DW: Ok, that song was from Lil Wayne. It’s called “Something You Forgot.” Donald, what is the last song we’re going to get into here?
DG: The last song we’re going to get into is A/B Machines by Sleigh Bells. I remember listening to it and it reminded me of the Beastie Boys when I first heard them and stuff.
First of all, number one, it was fun. That was the thing. I feel a lot of people forget how much fun stuff is supposed to be. Also, it sounds so different from everything. You don’t hear this kind of, like, guitar screech sound, with her high, beautiful, pretty kind of sing-songey voice.
You can’t find that everywhere and it really helped me. When I really found what Childish Gambino was, it was over the “I am Just a Rapper” mix tapes, when I rapped over their songs. And it was because it struck me as, no one sounds like that, and, like, you know what, forget it, I’m just gonna start rapping about what I like to rap about.
Because on the other mix tapes or albums that I did in college, I was kind of like rapping about stuff because I felt like that’s what would make me a rapper. But, with this one, I was like, I’m gonna rap about Tina Fey. I don’t care what you guys…, like, I’m gonna rap about Tina Fey because she’s a big influence on me and I like her a lot, so I’m gonna rap about it.
And their album and their sound was like, F you! We’re gonna sound so different from everything. You can’t find a band that sounds like Sleigh Bells.
Song: Sleigh Bells – A/B Machines
DW: Ok, that was Sleigh Bells, “ A/B Machines.” Sitting here with Donald Glover and Donald, thank you so much for joining us here on KCRW.com.
DG: I really appreciate it, thank you.