Bill Wrigley is the MC for the hip-hop group "Old Scratch". He is 30 years old and lives in Queens. We talked about stepping to the mic, Satan, and going to grad school. All of my interview questions have been removed.
The first time I took a mic and rapped into it was at a fundraiser in my high school, where they had people fast for pledge money. There was a rap contest, and I entered it on a lark, basically being a wiseass. There was only one other guy in the contest, both pretty green, and we ended up battling each other using other people's rhymes: he spat verses that I am pretty sure fourteen years later were "Death Wish" by Kool G Rap and DJ Polo. I rapped "Blue Rosebuds" by the Residents over a strummed acoustic guitar. It was awful, obviously, but they ended up giving me a prize as well as the other guy. Lesson learned: be weird enough and people won't know how to grade you.
On around 94, while home from Pratt for a summer, I started getting more involved in pipe-dream projects with my friend Seth, who at the time was a sore-thumb guitarist in a goth band, and who was experimenting with tape loops and samplers, making some really incredible ambient sound stuff. Somewhere down the line, driving between my place, his place, and the coffeehouse, we came up with the concept of a Satanic black metal group who has gone so far into the mid-90s cliche of 'industrial remixing' that they didn't realize they were actually an East Coast hip hop act. Once I started writing actually good lyrics, the gimmickiness started to fade, and at the very least there was no attempt at sounding like we were a black-metal band in denial.
Seth and I basically thought that that, in 1994, the most evil band that could possibly exist would be a death-metal-gangsta-rap group. Satanism also made the criminal attitude more glaringly white -- it's like the old Chris Rock routine about how if you hear about a guy getting killed for a hundred dollars, the killer is black, whereas if you hear about the killer using the victim's eyes as a click-clack toy, he was probably white. The natural, obvious name was "Old Scratch" and when I first started writing lyrics that summer, they were full of ridiculously overblown, cartoonish violence. This allowed me to be funny, shocking, and constantly referencing B-movies. Not a bad deal. When I first performed these lines to people, they were kind of aghast, and that was what ol'punk-rock me was hoping for. It wasn't for another few years that I really started moving away from a pastiche of gangsta rap - longish-form narrative verses about ludicrous we-bad-honkeyisms - to what I consider to be a more serious style, kind of battle-style, verses where you really talk about anything you want to in each line just so that you can prove that "antedeluvian" rhymes with "Peruvian," that you can rhyme off every syllable of "aluminum." But even then, there was a lot of "oooh, boogie boogie, I'm a bad bad man," because in 96, 97, when I started getting really active, a white guy stepping up and trying to join in the cypher was an anomaly, and an offensive one at that. So keeping the bad-guy gimmick allowed me make pre-emptive fun of their "the devil is here to steal our culture!!" beef. Basically, I have had an interest in being the booed asshole on a talk show or stage for a long time, partly due to your standard high-school social structure. "I can't make you like me, but if I make you DISLIKE me, I'm still in charge." So I tried to balance that kind of obnoxiousness with a lyrical skill coming straight out of 1988 New York, when MCs rapped fast, hard, and abstract, with lots of similes and extended metaphors and no real narrative other than "my lines are the shit, your lines are shit," letting the aggression come across sonically as much as lyrically.
I didn't intend to stop, it just sort of happened, and at a really shitty time. My DJ and I had put some songs up online at mp3.com, and gotten reviewed in SPIN, the VILLAGE VOICE, a few small rap magazines. Suddenly there was a ton of fanmail, and a few labels winked at us. We sorta decided to go with the major one. But I had just taken out about 40, 50 grand to pay for rent and tuition and stuff at a graduate program at Columbia, studying the highly lucrative field of art theory, and didn't feel all that comfortable just dropping out. I thought I was being pragmatic at the time, and figured that unless grabbing that brass ring could immediately help me pay off the loans that I'd have coming due as soon as I dropped out, it would be a good idea to focus more on just riding the merry-go-round. So I tried recording when the major work of the semester was done, and by that time the label had freaked out over the Napster-era drop in profits, sunk a lot of money on Mariah Carey's contract, and moved on from whatever in-development, but-no-money-invested acts they had looked at. I dropped out of school to record, then found out three days later that we had been dropped by the label, then an on-again-off-again relationship I'd had for about eight years sounded its death rattle. This triple-whammy pretty much fucked any ability to create for a few years, and last year I re-entered Columbia to finish my thesis on the reception of audience in the public sculptures of Richard Serra.
I went from being about the left-brainiest person in my undergrad painting program to being the flakiest, least-professional person in my graduate theory program. This is a school in which the artist is not considered a particularly credible source of information about his or her own work, and in which students read hundred-page essays about the inadequacies and evil of the "Culture Industry" and here I am, in my Astro Boy t-shirt, obviously coming from a non-academic background, and quietly asking the administration if I might take some time off to publish - well, it isn't even music, is it? Just a bunch of talking over music someone ELSE wrote. The saddest thing about it is that a line like "harder core than a backdoor porno, kicking negative dialectics like I'm Theodor Adorno" wouldn't be heard by the only people who might actually get the reference. It really felt like I was living two lives at the time - getting out of class at four, leaving the library at ten, going back to the East Harlem apartment Seth and I had and watching tapes of that night's MONDAY NIGHT RAW while running through the beats he'd been making and the rhymes I'd written in the library. A lousy way to develop an album AND a lousy way to, say, memorize the subtleties of portraiture on Roman coins over the course of a semester.
Now I'm looking for full-time work, writing more lyrics after a few years of false start after false start. I'm also working on character studies for a comic based on the book ULTIMATE PORNO, about the making of the Tinto Brass movie CALIGULA. Obviously, I juggle too many projects at a time. If I can get my DJ to work with me on some new Old Scratch stuff, that would be really cool. Now that we've both passed 27, there's no guarantee that dying in horrific and decadent ways will propel us to international hip hop superstardom, so I guess it's going to have to happen through making new music.
- Interview by K. Thor Jensen