Chicagoland area emcee Doc Wattson teamed up with producer Ronesh for an album called “Bonsai.” The frequent collaborators brought the best of their respective abilities to this project that finds Ronesh crafting a diverse soundscape for Wattson to tell heartfelt stories on.
Bonsai is a 12-track album released on Native Stranger Productions. The project is produced entirely by Ronesh and features appearances by Defcee, Iowa Rockwell, and RTST.
The Real Hip-Hop spoke to Doc Wattson about how he coped with the loss of his father, his disdain for the GOP, working with producer Ronesh, and their new album, Bonsai.
TRHH: What’s the meaning behind the title of the album, Bonsai?
Doc Wattson: Ronesh and I have been friends and connected in the Hip-Hop scene for the last ten years or so. He approached me with an avalanche of beats and the creativity started flowing immediately. I think that one of the things that he always liked about working with me was that I don’t always go for the straight-ahead banger or that straight forward slap. I look for the creative pieces. He and I really vibed on some of the more jazzier cuts, some of the more down tempo cuts, and some of the more creative expressions from his side. I just felt like it was important for me to sort of match that energy. The bonsai tree is not a product of nature. It’s intricately curated and almost a deconstruction of nature. Like a bending of nature to our will. Just taking that creativity and forming into something that is a product of both of us hearkened that image of taking all of those forces, putting them toward something, and crafting a tangible result out of it. Also, we’ve been sitting around for four months in coronavirus [laughs].
TRHH: So, the album was done recently?
Doc Wattson: So, we’ve worked on this in the last seven months. The final track “Out of My Mind” I recorded back in November, and that was the first session. We got everything done a couple of weeks back. It’s very much in the moment and a contemporary look at both of our states of mind.
TRHH: What was the process like recording the album?
Doc Wattson: I received a cache of beats. I would sift through them and found the ten that I ended up performing on. I would take the beats into a studio and track them. When COVID hit we just took it in-house. I have a microphone and a little home set-up. I’d track my vocals at home, send them to Ronesh, and he would mix and master. About half of the record Ronesh engineered, mastered, and mixed. The other half I did with this Chicago producer named Rey at A Quality. He did all of the mixing for several tracks on the record, Henry, Out of My Mind, Stop Signs. It’s really great. We were thinking that this project would be completely scrapped indefinitely, but Ronesh and I were able to put together some songs that stand up to the pro studio mixes just fine.
TRHH: The song “Henry” is an emotional song about your late father. How were you able to cope and deal with the loss of your dad?
Doc Wattson: [Laughs] Sorry, that’s not something to laugh about. It took me like ten years. As mentioned in tracks like “How I Feel” I’ve definitely gone through therapy and I’ve really done some healing. I’ve had a little distance from it. It’s hard, man. The song was almost impossible to record and it was even harder to write. I put it up on YouTube on Father’s Day and Father’s Day didn’t feel as bad this year. I felt like the resulting actually putting into words how I felt about my father really helped with the healing and connecting emotionally with the impact that he had on my family, but also on the world.
I love that people who listened to that song and knew him think about all of the things that they miss and loved about him. I really love that I was able to immortalize him through that song. He was not a flashy, showy guy, but he liked to surprise you though. He was a chef and he loved throwing down that meal that made you smile. He wasn’t trying to be a celebrity chef, he was just trying to make people happy and make people smile. I definitely try to carry him forward in everything that I do and hold him in the highest esteem. Mad hard [laughs]. It’s real hard. I hope that it touches people that are also grieving with a loss.
TRHH: The reason I asked was because I lost my dad in ’09 and I feel like I haven’t been the same since…
Doc Wattson: Sorry to hear that. For sure, dude. As I talked about in the song, my dad worked his whole life. He wasn’t always in the house. I didn’t always know what it meant to be a man growing up. I didn’t always have that model. I had a sister. It was like all women in the house. I still saw what he was doing for the family. You can never get that back. I still dream about him three or four times a week. I try to not let it weigh me down. I don’t think our culture gives us enough room to be emotional, be sad, and have those feelings. That was actually one of the hardest parts about putting out this record. I’m basically journaling, right? [Laughs] Putting them on some pretty dope beats, so, I know that I want people to hear it. I also know that it’s a lot. I’m saying a lot and I’m feeling a lot. I’m saying a lot and I’m feeling a lot and I want you to feel the same way. I think it’s important. We need to connect with that side of our humanity.
TRHH: The song “How I Feel” deals with mental health in a positive manner. Did you have any apprehension about sharing that part of your life with the world?
Doc Wattson: [Laughs] Yeah, absolutely. I think that this record in general has a very vulnerable feeling. My whole career I have produced music that has gotten to the core of my psyche in trying to address my own struggles and my own personal issues. I finally got to a point where I could address those things where I could also speak to others. I don’t want other people to experience anxiety attacks or panic attacks, but sometimes people don’t even know they’re having them. They’re just like, “Shits crumbling around me. I’m failing. What’s happening to me. What’s wrong with me?”
I was doing an executive training in a business class and this woman said, “Stress is chemistry, not character.” Basically, our brains are wired for fight or flight. We don’t understand nuisances of stressful situations. We don’t have tools to deal with these things and when we get to a point where we stress out we feel like we failed and there’s a problem. I think even just talking about it helps you to understand that it’s not just you, first of all. Everybody is feeling this way. Secondly, there is a way to address it. It’s not hopeless. It’s a lot. The whole theme of the record is the four bars in the middle of the first verse where I say, “For a while I thought my voice had no place/Wrong upbringing, wrong emphasis, no base/Then I stared into the glass and beheld a grown face/Then I started making choices that suited my own taste.”
This idea of being so hung up on what other people think and how you think other people feel and how you think other people are going to feel about you and just saying, “You know what, fuck all that for right now.” Get your expression out and deal with the criticisms later. I’m going to be my own worst critic anyway. It turns out the more honest I’ve gotten with my music the less I’ve hated it [laughs]. It’s a good thing. I’ve come into a situation where I love this record because it’s one of the most authentic expressions of how I feel. I think a lot of people are afraid of, “What if people don’t listen to it?” I’m afraid of, “What are people going to think of me when they listen to this?” yet, I can’t worry about that.
TRHH: The whole panic attack thing brings me back to my dad. After my father passed I started having panic attacks. I didn’t know what they were. I thought I was dying. My heart would just race for no reason. I finally went to a doctor and he told me I was having anxiety attacks. I thought it was bullshit. I’m like, “That’s what white people have!” [Laughs].
Doc Wattson: Yo man, the black and brown community have mental health problems substantially worse.
Doc Wattson: We actually are not allowed to admit that we have these problems, ever. Because of that exterior of strength. I never felt like I fit in because I wasn’t that dude. I always had this sensitivity to my emotions and I knew that I wasn’t like everyone. I started to consider it a strength. The only reason I say that is because I worked in business/school education for a while. When I worked there they would emphasize empathy as a leadership skill. It was something you had to be able to do in order to lead and inspire and motivate. I thought, “I have all the empathy, so, why not use that as a tool to inspire?”
I would host these executive trainings and right at the end of the program I would say, “If you guys want I’m happy to share this talent with you.” And then I would share a rap about how I feel. It’s very personal, but at least one other person in the room would be like, “Wow, I’m feeling this right now.” I think that the language of music, the language of Hip-Hop, and the language of rap in general is so provocative because it can connect you with someone instantly. I appreciate that this record resonates with you so closely too, because I don’t know you. I worry enough about what my own friends and family are going to think about it. It’s comforting to know that there are people thinking about it and hearing it in a way that makes them think about things. I think that it’s great that you are able to tell me that you have these feelings and experiences because that’s not a given.
TRHH: People are very passionate about 2Pac. I’m a “rappity rap” kind of dude. I loved Pac, but I was more into Rakim and that kind of thing. One thing I understood about him was people loved him because they could feel his struggle. The passion he had in his storytelling was what resonated with people. That’s why people love Stevie Wonder. There are a lot of great artists that don’t say anything, but when you can say something that touches somebody’s soul you’ve got something special. I think it’s important that you continue to tell your story. Not everybody will get it, but somebody will.
Doc Wattson: I can’t not. That’s also part of the process. This was a part of my therapy. Recording a song about my dad wasn’t something where I was like, “Hey, let’s go ahead and do this. This will be a fun thing!” I did it because it was hard. When you hear that choking up in the third verse where I say, “You were my biggest fan” I can’t listen to that line without choking up every time. But that’s the point. I couldn’t hide from those feelings anymore. I couldn’t not express them. That was my outlet. That was my mode of being able to manage the emotions and the stress. It doesn’t always work, but music is great. I’ve been fretting about how I’m going to promote this if I can’t rap anywhere. But I’ve got some buddies that are doing some speakeasy showcases where they’re filming it and putting it up on Facebook. I’m going to try and do a set there. Music is an effective form of therapy. It helps it out for sure.
TRHH: Two songs on the album, “Overtime” and “Out of My Mind” speak on the current political climate in the United States. In “Out of My Mind” in particular you say, “I love this country, down to the core of me…”
Doc Wattson: Yeah, dude. I don’t know if you know the James Baldwin quote, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Doc Wattson: That’s where that comes from. I think we are in a great country. One of the great parts of it is you are allowed to speak against it and not be thrown into prisons presumably and up until a couple of years ago. There are still people out there that believe in that world. I am aware that disproportionately those rights have not applied to even my whole person. But I see an ideal and see these black dudes out there thinking that they’ve made it, and in a way, they have because they’ve earned the right amount of money. We’ve got a lot of problems. “Stop Signs” is not nearly as optimistic about it. I think “Out of My Mind” was supposed to be ironic that it was sort of a love song kind of sound on the chorus, but then I’m just outlining how fucked we are basically [laughs]. I definitely do love our country — the ability to create, the influence that we have, that is waning. I’ve decided that I don’t always have all the information and I don’t always expect people will align with me or agree with me. I’m just trying to speak truth. I don’t think I’m saying anything that’s not true.
TRHH: The line caused me to think about how people on the right side of the aisle believe that those who criticize wrongdoing in this country obviously hate America…
Doc Wattson: Yeah, absolutely and they’ve been wrong. And that’s why I love that James Baldwin quote because he said that shit in the 60s. They were having the same conversations back then and the right-wing, racist, bigots who want to see the black man in his place will throw that back at you and say, “Don’t be here then if you don’t like it.” Yo, you guys stormed the fucking city hall with guns when they told you to stay home and that’s the same thing. So, shut the fuck up! They’re loud and wrong. I can’t make time for those people. I know it’s kind of lazy to cop out, but fuck the GOP, dude. The Devil Working Overtime song was kind of a layup. They’re doing everything they can to be miserable people that hate everybody, so, fuck ‘em.
TRHH: Hey, I agree [laughs]!
Doc Wattson: The best thing that could happen to me is some conservative outlet hears this shit and goes on a tirade about it. Dude, are you kidding me? I’d be like Kanye up in this piece, bro.
TRHH: Well, I hope that happens.
Doc Wattson: I hope I don’t get death threats because ain’t nobody coming to protect me.
TRHH: The hypocrisy of it is, these are the same people that celebrate the Fourth of July and the Boston Tea Party and all of that shit. It’s the same thing – change.
Doc Wattson: Not only that, but the document they are celebrating was designed to be changed. In fact, the founding fathers insisted that it be changed. If you’ve studied constitutional history at all they didn’t want an everlasting, never-ending government. They wanted a government to be fit for its people at all times. By the way, they didn’t believe that black people were people. Let’s get it clear here, they meant white land-owning men when they wrote the document and that’s now who it applies to now, at least presumably. Some people would still read it that way, but they forget to read the part that says, “Hey, if any of this shit doesn’t work for your current society change it.” That’s why amendments exist. I don’t have time to argue with people who are talking about stuff like being anti-American, because that’s the dumbest shit.
It’s exactly that line from “Stop Signs” where it says, “Taking knees was only after touchdowns, but then the act was distorted to attack a perverse angle/While every black death is justified because they weren’t angels.” I mean, most of the things that I say on these songs are things that I see on the news and happen more often than not. There was a police officer that just posed for the camera and said, “I’m about to whoop this black kid’s ass,” then properly whooped this black kid’s ass on camera. That cop ain’t going to be taken into justice and we all know it. What is the justice system? It’s all garbage. I’ve been mad disillusioned lately and a lot of the songs are commenting on that. But, that’s not me being anti-American, that’s me being anti-bullshit American’s. When you say you’re “ANTIFA” that means you’re against fascism, not America. Unless America is admitting its fascists, then yeah, let’s tear that shit down. Let’s tear it to the grown and rebuild it to suit everybody that’s here. Our founding fathers insisted on that.
TRHH: Who is the Bonsai album made for?
Doc Wattson: It’s made for music fans. It’s made for myself. It’s made for Ronesh. I wrote the songs because I had to. I couldn’t not. I hope others like it. I’m a very big believer that once you create a piece of art it doesn’t belong to you anymore. I’m a jazz musician by training. I grew up, the second I was off stage that song was done forever. If I heard it again I hated it, because then I had to go into my head at that moment and decide if the decisions I made were right or wrong. Instead of just making those decisions and moving along. If you make mistakes in the moment you cut your losses and move along. Recording can be excruciating for this reason. If you can get to the point in your career where you can put together a record where you can listen to it over and over again and not hate it, ooh! This is speaking from my voice of being self-conscious, anxious, sensitive, and wondering what people are going to think about me. For me to finally say, “Whatever they think about me they can’t tell me that I can’t rap,” because I do listen to the radio [laughs].
I study music so I know that I can do it. You might not like it. I’ve shared this record with a couple people. Everyone tells me they have a different favorite song, and that’s my favorite part. I love the diversity. I love the disagreements. If they tell me they didn’t like a certain part, yeah, I probably didn’t either [laughs]. I completely understand, but I did that shit, so what are you going to say? I’m at a point in my career where I’m confident enough to put myself out there. It’s for everybody, but it really is for myself. Again, I’m so appreciative of Ronesh for collaborating on this and helping shape this vision. He gave me inspiration on all the songs through the music, but he even provided some words. He has a similar upbringing where he studied jazz in middle school and high school. I kept it going a little longer, but we both translated Hip-Hop to jazz — we speak both languages. It’s a really fruitful collaboration and we’re really happy for people to hear it.
Purchase: Doc Wattson & Ronesh – Bonsai