Dom Kennedy on Overcoming Criticism, Keeping Interludes Alive & Why He Never Signed With Rick Ross

Jordan Perez @creativexperez
Dom Kennedy

"Today is our best day, tomorrow is what we look forward to. We can’t go back."

Dom Kennedy knew it. He was aware of the smattering of boos coming from his once devout fan-base because of his drop-off musically.

For a second -- and that’s a split second -- he buckled at the thought of possibly falling off. Instead of being devoured by his skeptics, in October, he nimbly crafted his latest masterwork Volume Two, and dismissed thoughts of him being finished. For Dom, all he needed was time to remind himself of his artistry, and because of that, he was able to deny Father Time any ounce of satisfaction. 

"I had to restart my career and look at it in a different way over the last 18-24 months," says Kennedy. "I was happy to address who I am and what I’m about. You can’t be like, 'It’s all good' when it’s not all good. I might get 25 great comments and have two people like, 'Man, what’s going on with this?' I have to be true to both sides."

On "Best Friend," Kennedy sacks his naysayers with the same silvery delivery that earned him acclaim on his 2012 magnum opus Yellow Album. "Heard they say I fell off, I'm like, 'How?'/ Archie Davis, birthday dinner Mr. Chow," he confidently raps on the song's chorus. Later, Kennedy keeps his buttery flow intact when cruising through the J.LBS-produced, "My Benz," which certainly signals the return of LA's prodigal son. 

"As a man, I don’t know any other way to put my life than to my music. I’m not an artist just making songs on beats and talking about regular stuff, I put who I hang out with, places I go, my son, things I do, places I went. I’m trying to give the real life visual," he says. 

Billboard spoke to Dom Kennedy on dealing with critics, bouncing back with Volume Two, limiting himself on features, not signing with Rick Ross, and witnessing the growth of Nipsey Hussle. Check it out below. 

I’m not gonna lie, man. I was harsh on you for a minute because me and my boys grew up on you. To us, Yellow Album is a classic, and we were concerned because we needed that old Dom. Then, the new tape comes out and you’re on your shit front to back. Did any of the criticism get to you and was that motivation when working on this album?

Man, it’s always motivation. I’m always looking for ways to express myself. As an artist, for me, the only other things I did besides rap that I took seriously was playing baseball when I was younger. I was pretty good at it. I liked being on the pitcher’s mound, meaning like, I couldn’t really worry about what people in the stands were saying. When you go to a Yankee game, they can’t be like, “What y’all think I should throw right now?” They just gotta do their thing. If you’re lucky enough to play season after season, you’re going to have to answer some questions and prove yourself.

I had to restart my career and look at it in a different way over the last 18-24 months. I was happy to address who I am and what I’m about. You can’t be like, “It’s all good” when it’s not all good. I might get 25 great comments and have two people like, “Man, what’s going on with this?” I have to be true to both sides. You have to be honest with yourself. I took it as an opportunity to know where I was at with my career. People can’t see me revamping shit, they just see the finished product. It is a good time to address stuff when you’re making an album. I like to put all of it in the music.

I love you bringing the baseball comparison up because the whole time I was thinking this is like a Clayton Kershaw situation, ‘cause you know Clayton cooks in the regular season. Then, if he has one bad game in the postseason, everybody’s like, “What’s up with him?” At any point, was your confidence shaken?

Nah, never. Nobody’s going to give me my confidence, so who’s going to take it away? I would say my confidence in making music and running [my label] OPM as a company, we’re stronger than ever today. We had to go through some trials and tribulations and I had to go through tough times and question my whole motive and system in order to get here, but that’s the beauty of it. I wouldn’t have what I have going forward if I didn’t at all. I wouldn’t have this half of my career and all the music I’m putting out now, and the visuals, if I didn’t have to re-examine what’s going on. It wasn’t just one thing, it started at the top and all the way down.

Talk about your evolution as a man and as an artist sinceYellow Album.

As a man, I don’t know any other way to put my life than to my music. I’m not an artist just making songs on beats and talking about regular stuff -- I put who I hang out with, places I go, my son, things I do. I’m trying to give the real-life visual. I’m looking around and I’m making dope music, I’m looking around and I’m happy with how things are going. Today is our best day, tomorrow is what we look forward to. We can’t go back.

As an artist, it’s about being able to weather trends, I guess, is also what I learned. There’s a reason why we can come to New York right now, with the album not even being out. We still got great crowds on tour, and that’s because of what we put into the music and the details.

I know you’re a huge Pac fan, and you did “Brenda’s Baby.” Was that any correlation to “Brenda’s Got a Baby”?

All the way. I never felt the need to address that, because I was hoping it would be obvious. For the people that know, it should be obvious, and for the people that don’t know, someone will tell them. The deeper meaning was that the girls now that I have to deal with, and everybody in the world sees -- the coming-of-age females of today -- they’re the ones that he was talking about, that their mom threw them in the trash can. That’s what it means, and that’s why on the chorus it’s simply, “She grown now.” It’s nothing that she could do. He was talking about the teenage girl of that time, wrapping her kid up and trying to hide her, but these are the girls that y’all threw away. This is what they became.

The social media shit, and all the sexualization of everything -- you know, how the music shit sounds and what people are into -- this is the girl he was talking about. You could call them a generation. I’d call them "Brenda’s Babies." That’s what the song is about. If I had to give them a name, "Generation X," "Y," "Z,"  it would be "Brenda’s Babies." That’s what they are, whether they realize it or not.

Back in the day, you did “Erica Pt. 1” and “Erica Pt. 2.” Since you say we’re in a generation of Brenda’s Babies, do you miss that classic ‘90s Nia Long kind of woman, in comparison to the everyday Instagram models we see and encounter?

I feel like they’re still out there, but in a different way. Like the Lauryn Hills and Nia Longs -- not super sexual but still intelligent and beautiful and all that. I feel like they’re still out there, but they’re just not promoted as much.

Honestly, that’s our fault. We gotta write those stories. Nobody’s going to write them for you. Nobody’s going to write your sister, your mom, your homegirl, more or less than what she is. I would like to believe John Singleton, Spike Lee -- I know I’m missing a lot of people -- but the artists and people who are writing those songs, they actually knew those women. Queen Latifah’s video was just as popular as De La Soul’s and Big Daddy Kane’s [back in the day]. 

Today, you got Nicki Minaj, and she’s super talented but nobody’s going to fool themselves and say part of what she does is not sexual. It’s like a little kid -- every time he goes on [Instagram] Live, he’s smoking. Every time she’s on Live, she got her titties in the camera. She knows that. It’s part of it. Where’s the one who’s just as good at rapping, just as intelligent and just as fly, but that might be secondary? They go off examples, man. Kids go off examples. They don’t know nothing else. They’re not willing to do something different unless they got a real strong belief in himself and a strong foundation.

There was a record on the project that I really liked, the “Trust Interlude.”  You spoke about steppin’ up.

Yup. “Same time my son started losing his friends, I had to step my game up.”

How has fatherhood evolved as time went on for you?

My son, to me, is like a marker in time. He was born when I was still on the come up. Now, he’s about to be eight years old, and people know I might drop something here -- and I’m looking at him around that time he was six or seven, and his front teeth were falling out -- and it’s like, man, shit is moving. The earth is spinnin’, dawg. If you don’t spin with it and grow up, regardless of what is going on -- you could blame this person or blame this person -- but if you don’t do what you gotta do for yourself and your mind to expand, you’ll be in the same fucked-up spot.

With me having a son, and God putting that directly in front of my face, saying, “Look, he’s going to be 16 regardless. If you don’t want to be shit, he’s still going to go to high school. That day’s going to come." I’m looking at him like, "Yeah, I’m doing cool but also I got to step my shit up because I can’t be representing for all these kids and my son looking at a bad example." It’s always a motivation. The battle isn’t always with the critics outside, it’s in yourself. Are you going to be real with yourself and what’s going on, and be like “I could put more into this"?

Time is a motherfucker. Me saying that, stepping my game up and correlating to my son, and having a marker that’s related to me that’s of my blood, being my true test of time. I can’t go and miss two birthdays and come back with nothing. He could understand, like, “He was working -- that’s why we got this and that’s why we got this.” But imagine you being gone for four years and you just pop up. That’s not who I am.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

8 down FOREVER to go. Proud of u son. Keep being a GREAT person above all else.

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What I appreciate about your artistry is that you still decided to keep the art of the interlude alive. How important has that been for you and your career?

Intermissions for me are also pieces of music, but also moments in time and moments in my thoughts really, relating to something that’s going on. If you look at “Dominic’s Intermission” on Volume 2, it’s more along the lines of being light hearted, there might be some lines in there  that will make you think, but for the most part it’s light hearted. “A Intermission for Watts” is the same way but it’s directed to Get Home Safely because that’s how we were living at the time, and those little experiences might be something that happens. It’s like, “Damn, I need to share this.”

“Dominic’s Intermission” is me sitting in the car, everything going around in my neighborhood. Everybody that knows me knows I be chilling. If you’re just kicking it with me, and that song comes on, it would signify what it really feels like. Even if you’re not there and you play that interlude, you’d understand the vibe. In the six-figure cars in the hood parked in the village, that’s just real. That’s not really a song, that’s just me giving you an idea of what’s going on.

I had 24HRS here a couple of weeks ago and he played me a couple of joints from the album, and you were on two of them. He was telling me you’re very selective in terms of who you do features for. Why is that?

I don’t believe in people unless I know and see you and rock with you. If I showed you my DMs right now, it’s littered with people like, “How much?” People would be shocked to know that even to this day -- I’ve been doing this for 10 years -- I’ve never gotten money for a feature. If I ever did a feature, it was simply because I fuck with the person I did the feature for. I was building and believing that. If they’re on my project, it’s the same thing. I don’t just get excited to do a song just because somebody has $5,000 or $10 thousand and I don’t know them. If I don’t believe in them, I don’t want to do it.

In the case of 24, he worked with Hit-Boy -- we’ve been working for a long time, and we vibe. It’s nothing. We might do 10 songs. He’s on a couple songs on me and Hit-Boy’s next project. It’s really us just working as homies. “I need you on this,” or “This song is dope, put that on your album.” We do whatever we gotta do. We go in there like a bank robbery. Everybody could get some, but if you’re not on the team, what do I have a reason to do a song with you for? I don’t look at the rap game like I have to do a feature and get $50,000 for it.

You’ve done features and you’ve been on tracks with Kendrick and Nipsey. What does it look like for you when you see these guys and their evolution, especially Nip with Victory Lap? What does their growth mean for the West Coast?

The thing about Nip’s situation and [his imprint] All Money In is, it’s a company I truly respect. We’re a week in on this tour and had a meeting on our bus about accountability. It’s like an NFL team. For the Patriots, it’s [Team Owner Robert] Kraft [all the way down] to the water dude. Whether they know it or not, everybody has to do an excellent job, and represent the logo right. I rock with them because of that. I think the best thing about Nip and what he’s doing for the city is he didn’t compromise nothing to get what he wanted. No matter how long he took and what he had to go through.. and it didn’t even take that long because your moment is your moment. I was just proud of him and happy for him.

I told him I’m proud of him, because I remember the first time I ever heard of a Nipsey Hussle. The first time I met him, and seeing him and people bumping shit back then. Like [2008 mixtape] Bullets Ain’t Got No Name and living in South Central and hearing people playing that for the first time, to Victory Lap dropping. I was really happy for him, because I know what it’s like to prepare for your moment. I feel like he was. I feel like he had the right things to say. If you don’t go through shit, you take that shit for granted or you might not be as prepared to speak on what you need to be speaking on. He was ready and all the press he did speaking on the business side of it, it was just the right side.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

WESTSIDE WEDNESDAY

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Speaking of the business side, I feel like you’re grossly underrated on the independent front and what you did with OPM. How would you say the independent world has changed from when you first started to now?

I would say back then, it was like a novelty thing. Now it’s the money coming back to it. Of course they want the name and the tag to say “I’m independent,” but how many people are really independent? You’ll never know. At the same time, I rock with it because the money’s coming back to it, and the control is.

I would like to see more joint ventures and more artists owning their masters and having companies. At the end of the day, that’s what happens anyways. When you drop, they don’t want your masters if you didn’t make no money. If you blow up, you’re going to have to create your own looks and your own style -- we already know this. I kind of feel like artists when they first sign, they get trapped into just the look of “I got a record deal.”

Growing up, watching No Limit and Roc A Fella, Bad Boy, Death Row, that was always in my spirit. That’s not something I fronted on. I grew up like, “I’m not working for nobody.” I don’t care what happens, if I make a $1,000 or $1,000,000, I ain’t working for you. We could work together or be partners, but why would I bring my idea, my vision, my company, my artist and just give it to you?

I remember back in the day, Rick Ross was trying to get you over to Maybach. Why did that never come to fruition?

That’s about the only person in business I really respect and got love for, who reached out to me and showed me major love when I was first starting and really, really genuinely looked out and showed me shit I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It’s Ross. But just like now, at that time, I was super independent-minded. It was never nothing discussed or brought to the table that allowed me to articulate what I’m talking about now. I don’t work good with just the artist turning in your album, "look, cool" -- that’s not what I am. Not at 24 or 34. I got just as much to offer as the person who owns this building and keeps the lights on. One day, that’s going to be me. Today, for my people, that is me, so I have to act accordingly.

With the MMG thing, that’s what I was always looking for, and at that time, I was coming up and hot just in people’s mouths as a rapper -- and that’s what they were looking for, just an artist to go along with their movement. I was always looking for more than that. Ross is a solid dude and everything he’s doing now, I want to do. From having restaurants, to beverages, even back then he was into real estate, he always has been a boss on some business shit, fo' sho. I can’t vouch for a lot of people but that man, he be on his shit regardless of the raps. He’d show me brochures like, “Look at this house. I’m going to go look at this on on Saturday,” while we’re in his other house. I respect him regardless, because at the end of the day, that’s what I’m trying to do for my family.

How has teaming up with Hit-Boy sharpened your skills as an artist?

I owe it all to him. Coming off of By Dom Kennedy and Volume 1 and seeing how things worked out and how I was frustrated and how I couldn’t get my vision to be presented how I wanted to -- and it was the first time for me where I had to struggle a little bit and figure things out. That’s around the time he and I started linking.

He hasn’t been on my album, but the music we created -- and working with somebody who’s independent spirited as well, but still has a name in the mainstream as I do -- just moved my spirit in this shit. It was like having a brother that you could just go in, and we ain’t complaining or worrying about what we got. We’re just going to kill as many motherfuckers today, and come back tomorrow. And to be able to do that and still maintain the lifestyle that we got was a blessing. I started to realize that, and that’s why we’re going to rock forever. I couldn’t even imagine where I’d be at or what I’m about to do if it weren’t for working with Hit so closely these last 18 months, for real. He helped me out a lot and I’m sure he’d say the same thing on my behalf.  

Sometimes, you just need that, how they say -- “steel sharpens steel.” One man sharpens another. Seeing someone like, “Okay, my n---a tryna get it,” that’s what I needed to see. Because for a long time, I was working by myself and challenging myself. You could get lost in that. I needed that reset. Visually, to work with somebody and get out my comfort zone. It could get easy to be like, “I don’t want to do this.” Work with my people or by myself. But working with his people, I got songs with so many motherfuckers, from pop stars to more underground cats like 24 that are still on the come up.

If you could pick a song or album to serve as the soundtrack to your life, what would you pick and why?

That [JAY-Z classic] “Can I Live?” popped in my mind. I’m doing my thing, but I got more to do. You see me and you know who I am type of anthem. I think that’s what people love about JAY-Z. You can’t deny the young black kid out of wherever he comes from in America who really got it and is really doing his thing. I think that’s what I represent. I think that’s what that song is. I’m cool and I can go to the bar and buy the bottles, I could do that. I’m pretty straight.  Regardless of what you think it is and what it’s not, it’s like, "Can I live?" At the end of the day, I got a crib. I bought too many cars. What we doing now is we’re going above and beyond.

Now it might be time for that Hard Knock Life shit. That’s what we on now. That dynasty shit. That’s what I’m trying to get my team ready for. Kids is watching, people is watching, and we have to constantly elevate.

If you could pick one word to title this chapter in your life, what would it be and why?

Patience. I feel like that was the last great lesson I heard in life in order to be who I am and keep going forward in this next chapter. I had to learn patience. I realized in the last 18 months, whatever happens in life, you can’t go back. If you’re building for something, you gotta believe in it. You can’t really tell people in six months you’re going to change the world, you have to just know it and keep working towards it but also have that patience to keep curating, keep your mouth shut, observe, take the praise, take the criticism. Just be patient because you could also ruin a lot of things by rushing or comparing. A lot of people crash that way.

I really had to learn a major lesson in patience. I realized as a person, that was one thing I did not have. Let the play develop. All I had to do was be ready when the people were looking for me. All the rest of this shit ain’t really got nothing to do with me. Whenever people see Dom Kennedy or OPM, that shit gotta be dope. That’s the only concern. That came from patience. Some people on the flip side of that would say timing is everything and that’s true. Time and patience is the same thing to me, you gotta let shit develop. It’s all part of the story. You can’t rush greatness. You can’t push yourself up to a plateau, the Super Bowl is in February, regardless. I’m playing for the trophy, that’s all I care about.

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