Rhys Langston Walks Us Through His Provocative and Prodding New LP “Stalin Bollywood”
The LA rapper and multi-instrumentalist’s new album is available on Bandcamp today via POW Recordings.
Somewhere between the socio-political poetry of Saul Williams, the grimy rock of early TV on the Radio, the Yiddish references of Your Old Droog, and the impish charm of Lil B lies LA rapper and multi-instrumentalist Rhys Langston, whose latest record is a more balanced distillation of these influences to date than past releases which, say, see him blending in on a track with a more conventionally “hip-hop” artist. Over a broad range of beats and live instrumentation, Langston sets the mood for the project from the opening track—the (very intentionally) provocative “hos on my dick ‘cuz i look like a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad” teaches Timbaland what shock value’s really about.
Elsewhere over the record’s genre-spanning eight tracks—including a Desperate Youth–era TVOTR cover—references to NBA players you probably haven’t thought of in a decade or so weave in and out of screeds about having to cleaning up after dirty white boys, opening the record up to a much broader range of unexpected themes. With the project officially dropping May 19, today you can hear an early stream via Bandcamp, and read on for a track-by-track of Stalin Bollywood, courtesy of Langston himself.
About four times this track caused me to consider shelving the whole project, which was completed back in May of 2020. Putting out this song (and video) scared the hell out of me, because it is the most obvious example—dare I say the cornerstone—of this project’s attempt to appropriate shock value and in turn spur deeper considerations of concepts.
I wanted to conceive of a way to musically ask: If I were more stupid and brazen and controversial, might more people pay attention to me than when I’ve been subtle, nuanced, and reflective? Is what would be the most attractive thing to “hos on my dick”—the rap convention communicating some masculine desirability, and an allusion to Lil B—the very essence of controversy? How could I manufacture outrage to actually move toward new understandings? In this instance, is it untouchably blasphemous to even suggest I could personify something so off-limits (without actually committing the act)? Further, is this piece of art unsuccessful if I have to ask these questions to explain it all? But caveats and questions aside, this certainly sets the album off with a tone.
2. “the pope is a(n) (unrepentant) rapist”
One day GBH’s “Do What You Do (Concrete Mix)” ran across my mind. When I sat down to make a beat, the punch of the ’80s plate-reverb drums, the smoothness of the filtered bassline, and the general “cool” it exuded, gave me a bit of inspiration. There was no lyrical concept at first, just me fiddling with my cheap bass pedal effects and the limitations of Logic Pro 9.
Already having completed a draft of the first track, I sat on this beat, wanting to actually put forth a religious critique (rather than using ideas of blasphemy without specific commentary). However, as is my nature, I decided to veer into the absurd and call out all types of “violations”—not just Catholic molestation apologists, but past and future war criminal presidents, net-neutrality-repealing internet service providers, and many others. Listening to the track early, one of my very intelligent, writer and musician friends argued that some people who had been victims of assault would inherently be triggered by my cavalier usage of the word “rape.”
Perhaps, like track one, it was not my place to play with these limits. However, to use the trump card…having been the victim of a type of sexual misconduct that remains difficult to clearly name, I feel problematizing and interrogating language was, and remains, my duty (even with my male privilege).
3. “a two state solution to soak eye contact”
Sometime at the end of 2019 this track began as a silly synth loop, with almost a Donkey Kong–like tom fill giving it some rhythm. Around that foundation I added elements of bass guitar, electric guitar, and a perfectly suited sample from a classic anarchist punk record (which will not be named). Eventually the chorus came, and in layering my voice I revealed a tad too much of my TV on the Radio influence (guilty as charged). I had actually written the rap bars for this song back in September of 2017, for some reason compelled to flesh out thoughts on Israel-Palestine—one of the great moral questions of our time. After being unused for so long, these raps seemed right for this instrumental.
As a Black Jew on the left-leaning side of being well-read, I’m aware that in recent history, Jewishness has been next to—but just outside of—whiteness and Western/American imperialism. The chorus of the song communicates a tension I bear—thinking of right-wing evangelical Christians donating to hardline Zionist causes, some prominent Israelis proclaiming themselves white (and racially different from Arabs), and my own person-to-person experiences with racism (by members of my own Jewish family). The verses between then ask what really binds us as Jews to each other and the rest of the world, with some clever Yiddish references and uses of what I would call “linguistic Judaica.”
4. “it is what it is ain’t what it used to be”
Here and there I like to randomly scribble humorous perceptions and grievances. In 2018, I happened to sit down and write out a series of contradictions and social commentaries beginning with “It is—.” Some time later, when writing my 2020 book Language Arts Unit: a Rap Textbook, a Yogi Berra–like phrase came to me to diagnose the damned feeling of living in this era: “It is what it is ain’t what it used to be.”
In 2019 I decided to scramble together a bassline, sequence an emulated Roland CR-78, along with some improvised, insane destruction of my guitar strings. Then somehow, that 2018 collection of words came to mind and neatly fit between the above phrase (as verse and chorus, respectively). When I shared a private stream of Stalin Bollywood almost a year later, a friend told me that MF DOOM once rapped, “It is what it is ain’t what it used to be” in one of his songs. I believe this synchronicity with the late Mr. Dumile reveals the legacy of absurdist social consciousness to which we both contribute.
5. “dirty whiteboys” feat. The Young Gentrifiers
Before I moved into my own studio apartment in 2019 (LA rent prices, am I right?), I had a pretty painful fallout with some roommates who I shared a three-bedroom apartment with. I often felt like I was the only one working to make sure the house was presentable—not only for guests, but ourselves. Because they were friends, it was difficult to move out in anger, and so it felt a little like a breakup. Sincerely distressed about it, I needed to find a way to release my feelings (in a light-hearted way).
I picked up my bass and chugged out a simple bassline, immediately singing about being cleaning up after…“dirty whiteboys.” One thing led to another and I made a chaotic outro with the idea of having a Suicidal Tendencies–like rant about privilege and angst to finish the song. For a while, my guy Caetano and I had this fictional group name “The Young Gentrifiers,” and so with him being the one to rant at the end, I guess we actually made it a real thing!
6. “Bill Picket radio” feat. Ded Hyatt
In pre-pandemic times my mom and I used to semi-regularly go to the Bill Pickett Rodeo out in Riverside and the City of Industry, which are all-Black rodeo shows in the legacy of Mr. Pickett (a hall of fame rodeo star and one of the original Black cowboys). Purposely misspelling “Picket” and replacing rodeo with radio, this track is one of the softer, more playful suggestions of “protest music” in the title’s double entendre. The filtered bassline (much love to that cheap bass pedal!) and impactful emulated TR-808 drum kit drives the song forward in—dare I say—a rodeo-like bounce. In the track listing it rides out as the most pop-forward number, and a rare moment of what feels like some neutrality. Also, the homie Ded Hyatt did the damn thing on his parts!
7. “king eternal”
The idea to cover this TV on the Radio track was in my mind far before any of this project showed itself on my creative horizon. As one of my favorite songs of all time by one of my favorite bands, I originally wanted to do a more electrified, beat-based version of the song, more in line with the alternative rap stylings I’ve put out. Randomly one day, I distinctly remember toying with the simple, three-note bassline, and getting the idea to play it faster in a double or even triple time. I added a few simple triads atop the bassline with a fuzz effect from my aforementioned pedal, and messed with the parameters of an emulated Roland TR-808 for the drum pattern. I haphazardly recorded the vocals handheld, with an SM-58 and my speakers playing back the instrumental (without headphones).
I considered this cover as more of an experiment that I would never release, until a friend came by my house and heard a rough mix of it. He was extremely praiseworthy and made me hear it differently than I had previously. Soon after, I realized I had accomplished what I had been wanting to do for so long.
8. “talkbox / polemics freestyle”
I had the privilege of receiving a custom-made guitar for my 26th birthday, about a year and a half ago. Whenever I’d come around the house to visit, my stepdad would notice me playing on his various guitars, and so he surprised me with an instrument he had built himself. Exploring the guitar’s build and fiddling with the knobs and settings, I found that if I projected my voice a certain way, the front pickup would amplify my voice.
Before going to see a friend’s concert one night, I remember sitting down and howling a little melody into the guitar pickup. Then I decided to subconsciously to try and make an instrumental using just foley and sounds from the guitar (the kick is tapping on the bridge, my voice ambiently leaks through the pickup to sound like a synth, and the bass notes and main melody are from different octaves on the fretboard). Spontaneously I freestyled some melodies and lyrics through my SM-58. All in about the span of 15 minutes. The version on this album was how it came out in that instant.
Listening back, somehow the line “The wrong side of history was my friend / My inspiration in the beginning” really seemed to get to the heart of a very concerning matter to me. As such a cool-down at the end of this invective-heavy record, that line proposes a question: For those of us who seek change and a better world, how much are we inspired and revved up by negativity? Do we recognize this, and is this inspiration sustainable and truly transformative in its potential?