Three years, a stack of books, countless records, and a semester’s worth of class gives you an idea of how much inspiration is stuffed into last year’s dizzyingly dense hip-hop masterpiece Billie James Is Not Your Lover. The Billie James Project began as an assignment for Laduma Nguyuza—a.k.a. Dudu Stinks of Dumate, Stink Tank, and African\American—to sum up his comprehension of the books and music covered in Craig Werner’s University Of Wisconsin-Madison course on author James Baldwin and jazz legend Billie Holiday. But the ferocious narrative on racism, homophobia, and family that Dudu Stinks put together for class went onto form the backbone of one of the most important albums (in any genre) to come out of Madison in the last year. The A.V. Club recently talked with Dudu Stinks before the Billie James Project’s first show at the Memorial Union Terrace July 20 about turning homework into music, open discussions of homosexuality in the hip-hop world, and preparing this album for the stage.
The A.V. Club: You provide comprehensive notes for each song on the Billie James’ Bandcamp site, but can you succinctly sum up the concept of Billie James Is Not Your Lover?
Dudu Stinks: The story line is a mix between all those different James Baldwin books we cited. You’ll notice the relationship between two brothers, Elliott and Billie, and their relationship with their mother, who is a light-skinned African-American woman and whose great grandfather was a slave owner, which is why she’s so fair-skinned. She’s married an African-American man who is very dark-skinned. All those complexities, and the idea of masculinity, and all that plays together in the relationship of two brothers and what they see together.
AVC: Is the final product different than the original album you set out to make?
DS: No, it’s actually along the lines of what I envisioned. We had so much time to craft it and, like I said, to write a song we had to finish a Baldwin book and discuss it in class so I could put my thoughts together and get the ideas right. I was blessed to be able to be making it up as I went, as the class progressed. In class we were discussing all these wonderful readings and this wonderful music simultaneously, and then you have all these crazy minds who uncover something I hadn’t even thought of and shed some light on something else. It was really inspirational to be able to be using hip-hop to document this class.
AVC: That must be nice to work out a concept album with so many other people who get it.
DS: Yeah, I originally recorded on my computer, on GarageBand, and it was just so I could hand it in. We didn’t really try to produce it. So it was pretty much finished by the end of the class, 80 percent of it. But then it took another six months to write the rest, and then it took another couple years to get it to sound right. It sounds much better now than it did back then. When I was done with it, I handed out a link to all of the classmates to listen to, and people responded very well to it.
When I was making it, I wasn’t trying to really say anything to anybody. But what was happening was Baldwin and Holiday, and that time period and its parallels—and perpendiculars—relates to what we’re living, right. It was just too gripping. It made me totally re-examine a lot about myself and what I saw, particularly about labels on people and myself. It forced me to go into a place that I don’t think a lot of people go, you know, very, very deep and lighting up the darkness of your own mind and opening your mind up to different realities that have always been there. Which is the best thing about growing up. So everybody who listens to it, we give a lot of respect to, because it’s not the [most] accessible hip-hop album we ever put together. You have to be of a certain maturity and mind state to, first of all, listen to the whole thing and then listen to it again so you can accept the concepts and see how they interact.
AVC: All of the producers involved must have really been down with the concept, considering how cohesively all of their tracks work together.
DS: The two guys that I worked with, Man Mantis and DLO, you know, we’ve always been down with whatever anyone else is doing. So to have those two guys, I knew that I was making the right call asking those guys. We work together so closely that if I explain a concept, it’ll be so much easier to translate. Out of the three [producers]; DLO, Man Mantis, and Dr. Quandary, DLO was the one who put the most music into it. He put together something like 70 percent, [or] maybe six of those 10 songs. Quandary lives in Boston; he’s miles away, and we’ve never actually physically met. But when he heard it, the rough cuts on MySpace back in the day, he was very inspired by it too. He threw me his beat just in case—we didn’t even ask him for it—and he was like, “Hey, listen to this, and if you like, rock it.” His material is always top-notch so it kind of all fit together.
AVC: Which song did he do?
DS: He did “Mama.”
AVC: Billie James takes a particularly unflinching look at racism and homophobia. How has the subject material affected the reception of the album?
DS: You know, that’s interesting because that was probably top of my mind the entire time we were creating it. If you read any of James Baldwin’s work, he is, like you said, very unflinching and just sort of gets into it. He does it in such a way that the language is simple enough. It’s like folk. It’s like folk-speak, and anyone can understand what you’re saying. But the context that you’re using is so deep and so heavy that not a lot of people will talk about that kind of stuff. That’s what really grabbed me and gravitated me toward reading closely between the lines in all of those James Baldwin books. When we were recording it and I was writing it, I knew I had to stick to that. There was no way I was going to be able to try and sugarcoat any of the stuff that he was saying. I could not cover the whole thing, because once you start rolling with that guy you have to really examine a lot. I could have written a 20-song album if we had more time.
But the reception that we got when we dropped it was great. I’ve spoken to two MCs particularly about the content. I spoke with [the two guys] from Star Persons, and they specifically were like, “You wrote literally from a homosexual male’s point of view and put it into a hip-hop community that’s not well-known for receiving that point of view as easily as they accept the more hyper-masculine point of view.” But with that said, they thought that it was lyrically and technically, and as far as trying to catch the vibe, a very good representation. In fact, one of those cats looked into some of those Baldwin books we cited and got more involved in the reading, which was the main point.
In all of the blogs we’ve had, no one has thrown any sort of hate and [been] like, “Hey, this dude’s talking about gays blah, blah, blah.” Hip-hop is known for doing that. Unfortunately, we are, but we didn’t get any of that. We got nothing but love.
AVC: The normal dialogue about homosexuality in hip-hop tends to be fairly negative. Was the Billie James Project a response to that in any way?
DS: Absolutely. One thing we’ve learned from making music together is that anything that we do is inevitably going to be a response to something. That’s the way that art works. That’s how people create stuff. There’s a call in the normal day-to-day, and then a response in art. I, for one, am more enlightened by the idea of not being called a homosexual and just being called a human being, not trying to fit into any sort of box. Like what Baldwin says about [how] you have to force the world to deal with you and not the idea of you. People try to put people in different boxes, and I try to celebrate the fact that there’s no need to be in a box. To really get down to that, you have to speak frankly.
AVC: How tricky has it been preparing to play this album live?
DS: That’s been the trickiest part of the whole thing. Right now, it’s just beats and all the parts that Billie Holiday sings are done by samples. We’re going to figure out a crafty way to involve a live singer with that kind of music. Learning the beats is not going to be tough because we use the same formula that we use for Dumate, which is Mantis on the samples and everyone else just doing what they do. But we’ll be introducing K. Raydio into the Billie James Project world. I think that’s going to be the tricky part. And I’m moving too. I’m in the middle of a promotion for my job, so I won’t be around for a lot of it, a lot of the practice.
AVC: Oh, you’re moving away from Madison?
DS: Yeah, I’m moving to Milwaukee. I guess this is my official announcement. [Laughs.]
AVC: At least you’re not moving so far away that we won’t see you anymore.
DS: Oh no, not at all.