Chicago area emcee Doc Wattson released one of 2022’s most unique releases. “BARtending” is a project that is somber, celebratory, and contemplative. Doc changes his delivery to cater to each beat, providing a little something for every kind of listener.
BARtending is an 8-track album produced entirely by Iowa Rockwell. The album features appearances by Uxmar Torres, CRĀVE, and Know Sage. BARtending comes courtesy of Native Stranger and Class of ‘99 Productions.
Doc Wattson spoke to The Real Hip-Hop about the problem of income inequality, working with producer Iowa Rockwell, and his new album, BARtending.
TRHH: First of all, the album artwork is fantastic. Who came up with the concept for the cover?
Doc Wattson: Thanks, man! My wife took that photo. It kind of fed from the idea from the title. My homie was mixing down the record. I wasn’t even there but he was mixing down the record with my partner Know Sage, who is on the “Day Walkin’” track. They were listening to some of the other songs on the record, Iowa Rockwell stopped the track and he looked at Sage and said, “Yo, that Doc Wattson doesn’t waste a bar.” I just loved that idea. I was like, “Yeah, I definitely am serving them up.” And then I was like, “BARtending!”
I like puns and I wanted to get that idea. I saw a stock photo that looked exactly like that image. Rockwell and I were scouting out ideas. I was like, “I know a bar and I have an idea.” And I sent him a stock photo that looked pretty much like what it ended up being. But then I added the mic around my neck to be a little cheeky. Yeah, man, my cousin owns a bar out in Berwyn. Shout out to FitzGerald’s night club, awesome venue, beautiful bar. I got dressed up and we did a little photo shoot out there.
TRHH: What is it about the production of Iowa Rockwell that fits so well with your style?
Doc Wattson: I just like that he and I have a collaborative energy. You kind of tuned in with me when I was working with Ronesh on the Bonsai record. With that record Ronesh sparked this inspiration. He sent me pretty much finished products and I completely snapped on them because I had all of the materials in front of me. With Rockwell it was more of him sharing the ideas, me vibing to them, and sort of taking them home. This record was much more created together. I got basslines written in there – I played the bassline and tracked that out. I helped do a little bit of production with the record.
His energy and his ideas set the table and he and I spent a bunch of mornings sitting in a studio, smoking up, vibing out, and adding touches to it. It was a super collaborative creative process. Unlike Ronesh, where he was in California and I’m in Chicago. That creative energy was so much more in-person and direct. It was right around COVID and we were being careful at first. A brother still doesn’t share joints [laughs]. It’s cool, we go there and make sure that we’re respecting each other’s creative energy and we jibe really well. It came together and I think it sounds real nice.
TRHH: You use a few different styles on BARtending from fast to slow to melodic to conscious. Do you normally approach projects with different styles in mind or do you just follow the beats?
Doc Wattson: That’s a great question. I don’t know if other older artists can relate to this, but for me some of it was proving I could, leaning into some more modern styles that I don’t normally fuck with, and trying to maintain my own style and energy in different contexts. I just never want to sound like the same rapper on every record or even on every song. Sometimes I choose the beats for that reason. I’ll hear a trap beat and I’ll be like, “Let’s try it.” Sometimes I don’t like it. There’s a bunch of tracks I’m not publishing because it doesn’t quite hit the right notes.
I want to find that balance between having my voice and ideas expressed, but also stepping into the twenty first century. I’m aware that younger cats are listening to shorter songs, and are listening to songs with different energy that I grew up on. I’m trying to meet the zeitgeist where it is, but also still be myself. I can’t ever not be myself. I hope that I can ride that tension well, but I also definitely feel self-conscious like, maybe I am sounding like an old man on this track [laughs]. Certainly, I’m also self-conscious about that shit, but I’m never afraid to give it a try.
TRHH: We love Hip-Hop, right? There are times when our favorite artists do something and we’re like, “Oh no!” I think of Common’s album Electric Circus. I liked it, but the vast majority of people were like, “What are you doing?”
Doc Wattson: Or Mos Def with some of those band records. It was all basically soul music. It was like, “Okay, cool, but spit them bars, Mos [laughs]!”
TRHH: It’s hard. I’m not an artist, but it seems like a very difficult line of wanting to do what you want to do but also pleasing your fan base.
Doc Wattson: I very much try to limit the exposure of the fan base to my creative process, if that makes sense. I’m very much self-conscious about whether people like my music or not. But I very much try not to think about that when I’m making it because I don’t want to make music for people, I want to make music for myself. The nice thing is that the music that I’ve been making for myself lately has resonated with others. That’s a bonus. That is not the goal. I know people that are making music to sell it and their music sounds marketable. That’s not the adjective I want people to use when they hear my music. I’m not discrediting their hustle. Certainly, their hustle is undeniable, it’s just not the goal for me.
I think that if artists can have a clear goal about why they’re making the music then putting out that weird record might not matter to anybody but them. I try to put that in context too, even if it’s something I don’t like. I know that it’s my opinion. I don’t like some mainstream stuff that everybody likes and I do like some mainstream stuff that nobody likes. I try to remove all that subjective stuff and really move forward with how I believe the music should be. The phrase “fuck ‘em if they don’t feel you” comes into mind. It’s hard as hell to live that ethos, but I’m trying to come closer to living the truth on that, because it’s the only way to live [laughs]. Worrying about what other people think about you is death – just slow death.
TRHH: In the song “Summer Livin’” you kind of point to your versatility when you say “Despite my cynicism, I still have a fun vibe.” Is it difficult to balance those two things when it comes to music?
Doc Wattson: My music is very personal, but I don’t want to come off as an overly serious rapper either. I think there’s plenty of room for that in the space. I don’t want to be overly haughty. I don’t want people to misunderstand me, but I don’t expect to be fully understood either. It’s definitely a very fine line. I do try to keep it light, crack the jokes, spit the punchlines, and be clever. I also have a lot to say, I also have a lot of worry about our country, our society, and I can’t not tell that part of the story either. Summer Livin’ is an interesting one and I love Uxmar’s very provocative kind of “on the street view” kind of tackling where I fit in this.
I’m not from the streets, I’m from the suburbs but I still grew up around violence. I still experienced all of these trappings of those experiences. I don’t claim them, but I wanted to try to access that and again, it comes with a healthy bit of cynicism. When you come from the streets you know that you’re not being looked out for, you’re not being taken care of, yet you can still try and have a good time [laughs]. There’s nothing to say that you shouldn’t try to turn up or turn it off for a minute and live like tomorrow is not going to be as bad as today is.
TRHH: On the song “Doc’s Lament” you say “When prosperity’s concocted as a promise meant for all us/Then the profits of our products land in pockets of the blondest.” Such a dope rhyme. Go in depth about what you meant in that line.
Doc Wattson: Thank you. I’m really talking about income inequality. Essentially, that song is very, very high-level criticisms of our society. We live in a society where all of us are becoming rapidly irrelevant as far as our labor is concerned. I wrote about that a little bit in the last record with The Grind and that idea, but it’s getting rapidly to a point where we cannot survive in this situation whereas we’re one of the richest countries in the world and in the history of humanity really, and we produce a dramatic amount of wealth for a very small amount of people, all of whom are white [laughs]. With a couple of exceptions. I think there’s one black billionaire, maybe four, I don’t know.
Billionaires aren’t what I’m even talking about. I’m talking about the hundred billionaires. There’s a couple of them now. There shouldn’t be any. They’re not kings and they shouldn’t be. They’re not all blonde, it’s not an Aryan thing, but there’s so much white supremacism in our world though that it’s such a slam dunk to say “blondest” especially in the rhyme scheme. The blonde hair/blue eyed are not the only culprits. White people as a people are not the only culprits. There is a systemic inequality and it’s only gotten worse in the last 15-20 years. It’s only going to continue to get worse if we do nothing, and we’re currently doing nothing. It sucks, dude. There is no answer [laughs]. That’s a part of the lament, feeling kind of helpless in those spaces.
TRHH: I think a part of what makes America cool is the same thing that makes America suck. It’s capitalism. We can go out and make a fuck ton of money. There is a way to do it…
Doc Wattson: Right. And Ving Rhames still got arrested in his own home as a robbery suspect. Especially speaking of this transcending Jay-Z song Still a Nigga [The Story of O.J.]. I think of that all the time that you can always make money but there is still inequality. They treat it as this total opportunity. We all have this opportunity, but conveniently we don’t. Even poor whites live in healthier neighborhoods than poor blacks, than even rich blacks! I was watching this John Oliver thing on environmental racism and how they zoned black neighborhoods around industrial neighborhoods consistently throughout the last 125 years. Depending on the zip code you live in, you could live 12 years shorter than your neighbor.
TRHH: Completely, dude. My grandparents lived in a house on the southwest side of Chicago. Two buildings away from their house was a factory. I never thought much about this factory, but it was black smoke coming out of this thing constantly. I’m not sure what they were making in there. I think it was tires. Everybody on the block got cancer. I think they ended up suing.
Doc Wattson: Which could have taken twenty years to settle. Everyone who had cancer died.
TRHH: Actually, my cousin had cancer and he’s still alive. He did chemo, but he’s a year older than me!
Doc Wattson: Blessings. That’s awful, dude.
TRHH: Awful, but it’s exactly what you’re talking about. It’s not just that with systemic racism. It’s like you mentioned, it’s the police, trying to get a loan, all of these things that can get you going in life might not happen because you’re black or Latino.
Doc Wattson: And they’ve done a really good job in the country tying race to economics. Making economics the factor so when poverty strikes a black community it’s their fault. It’s because they aren’t working hard enough, not because they’ve been disadvantaged the entire time. Again, the propaganda is also real and it’s insidious and part of the equation. Again, who benefits from these things? I’m just following the money and making comments. I don’t think anything I’m saying is that salacious. It feels like such a big idea. I appreciate you having me elaborate on it. It’s such a big idea and it’s so difficult to really access the emotion behind this, how it affects my family, how it affects my people, it’s garbage, dude.
My favorite line in that song is, “They break our homes, then set the tone/That it’s impossible to roam, and be condoned/Out on the range/So, all you know is life is strange.” I think about how they’ve imprisoned one out of every four black people and ruined all of these families, anti-loitering laws so you can’t even fucking go outside, and everywhere you exist is either abuse or a crime. So, yeah, that’s a pretty fucking strange existence to live in. I’m lucky that I didn’t live in that, but I am good at noticing patterns. I’m good at hearing that in the cries of all of these very broken-down rappers, rapping about their plight. So, yeah, I’m trying to sympathize. It’s one of my favorite songs, but I also get that it’s definitely a lot. I can often be a lot [laughs].
TRHH: What’s your favorite song on BARtending?
Doc Wattson: I really like a lot of them. I think I like the way “The World of a Thousand NOs” turned out. I like the contrast between the first verse where I’m sort of double-time and then kind of slowing it down but maintaining the energy of the song. That was a challenging one, but I like the way it ended up. It’s also really fun to perform. That’s kind of a pet favorite. I think the best sounding one was probably “Distinctive Energy.” I just like the vibe of that song the best. It’s also one of the first ones that we canned on the project. CRĀVE is such a chaotic energy, but I just love the vibe of what he’s putting down. The two of us are actually doing a project and it’s going to be weird! I’m really looking forward to it. With Iowa Rockwell’s production, CRĀVE and I rockin’, we’re almost in completely different universes when it comes to our style and aesthetic. This is going to be kind of the new challenge for me, making that sound good. I like the first track already and that’s kind of been sort of a fan favorite as well.
TRHH: What do you hope to achieve with BARtending?
Doc Wattson: Just keep pushing the ball forward, bro. My creative process is very much about doing the work. After BARtending is the next thing, and after the next thing is the next thing. So, you’ll hear from me more. I hope you vibe with what I’m doing continuing in the future, but I’m going to keep working as long as I have the inspiration. I’m so blessed that the spark is lit because for 7 or 8 years it was not. I’m just feeling the gratitude in the moment and loving that my current life allows me to do it, because that’s not given at any phase of your life. For me to be able to both ask for that and have the whole world around me allow me the time and energy to make this happen, I’m going to keep doing it, man. I’ve got some other projects I’m working on with Rockwell. I got another project that I’m working on with a cat out in California named Grey Matter, who is new out on the scene. He’s also got a crazy energy to him, so, I’m really excited about some of those songs.
I’m definitely going to do a project with Ronesh at some point. I’m just trying to keep all of those irons in the fire and learning how to be prepared to say yes. That’s the big thing these days. As you continue to produce you start attracting this energy when you find a vibe, knowing that’s the thing to say yes to, and completing the work. I think what’s so interesting about people’s desire to collaborate you’re like, “Oh yeah, let’s collaborate” and you don’t hear anything for them. There isn’t as much as an actual desire to collaborate as much as there was this intent and this thought of “Oh, that would be be nice.” I’m like, “Yo, Tuesday, let’s do this!” and then you test the mettle. With Rockwell it was like yep, Tuesday, ten to noon, and we got a project done. That’s my ethic and that’s how I’m trying to move forward.
Purchase: Doc Wattson – BARtending