Staying Ahead of the Curve: An Interview with Sharkey
by ben rubenstein
It isn't easy to get Sharkey on the phone these days. When I call him late one Friday afternoon, he requests that I call back in a few minutes, as he is engaged in a conversation with his lawyer. When I ring him up again, he delays again while getting off the other line. Given his past experiences in the record industry, it's no wonder he's seeking legal advice. Since his hip-hop outfit, The Crownsayers, was unceremoniously dropped from Elektra Records after completing their first record, Sharkey has had a new outlook on success and fame. "What happened to us wasn't a huge shock. The president of the label did the same thing with Beck and Moby. I don't want to say she was racist, but she didn't want us white boys introducing new forms of music into hip-hop, you know?" Describing his work with the Crownsayers as "ahead of the curve" and comparing them to other three-piece groups like the Beastie Boys, Sharkey says, "we had a decision to make; we could either compromise and make the record like she wanted, or we could make the record that we had envisioned. And in the end, we said, fuck it, we're going to do what we think is right." For that decision, the group lost its lucrative contract and this heartbreak pretty much spelled the end of the collaboration. However, the incident pushed Sharkey into pursuing his solo work, and thus began a new chapter of his career.
"The industry is actually pretty small. We had met a lot of people when we were shopping our record around, so when Chuck and Jesse (of current label Babygrande) approached me, I felt pretty comfortable working with them." Though a small label like Babygrande may not hold the same financial rewards as a major label, the freedom and support that it affords make it worthwhile for Sharkey at this point. "I think I'll stick it out here for awhile," he says, and it's probably a good idea. In addition to gathering together some of the hottest underground artists like Jean Grae, Jedi Mind Tricks, Supernatural, and Cherrywine, Babygrande has helped to secure a strong audience for Sharkey's debut, Sharkey's Machine.
"The last couple weeks, we had release parties in DC, New York, and L.A., and the response was amazing. It's crazy, I mean it's really cool when other people come to see you and your work. It's been fun, a whirlwind really. I've traveled before, but this was a lot to take in." The promotion of the record has been relentless, and Sharkey says that "95 to 98 percent of the reviews have been good, I mean really good." He's happy that someone finally understands what he's trying to do, as his mix of hip-hop, rock, and electronica has always made him a challenging artist struggling to be understood.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Sharkey got into music at a young age, as his father bought him a set of turntables when he was just ten years old. As he honed his skills throughout his adolescence, he was inspired by films like Breakin' and Beatstreet, some of the first movies to focus on the burgeoning hip-hop culture. By the time he finished high school, Sharkey knew that he couldn't ignore his passion. "I said to myself, this is something I really want to do and pursue". Eschewing college, he set about finding others who shared his vision of fusing hip-hop with other genres of music, and thus formed the Crownsayers.
It would seem that Sharkey has gotten the last laugh in terms of genre-melding. Groups like Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit exploded on the scene just after he was dropped from Elektra, and the interchangeability of hip-hop and other styles is evident throughout the music world. "You look at MTV now," he says, "and you see a G-Unit video one second, and a Slipknot video the next. And the kids love it. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about." Any chance Sharkey will be on TRL anytime soon? "I don't really see myself as an MTV guy, but it'd be cool to be on there. I have some kids in L.A. making a video for me right now. It's gonna be artsy. It'd be nice to get on there and reach a big urban audience, to know that a lot of people are seeing my stuff."
Sharkey points to influences as diverse as De La Soul, Public Enemy, 3rd Bass, and Radiohead He also credits groups like the Beastie Boys (he's collaborated with Mario C) for making hip-hop more accessible.. "I have a huge respect for the Beastie Boys-I never saw all that much in their lyrics, but the music has always been great. Like on Paul's Boutique, it's just amazing how they were able to reach back and use so many different samples that you may have heard before, but create something new with it. That's the kind of thing I'm trying to achieve."
He knows Sharkey's Machine might be hard to swallow for some. "I made the record for music lovers. It's a producer record…for me it's about putting together a good collection of beats, showing I have the ability to do a lot of different styles. The way I express myself is through hip-hop, but I'm all about flexibility. I want to do a lot of different things, and a lot of people are feeling it. Some don't. There's always a few haters, people for whom the mixing of different music just doesn't make sense, you know? They don't understand it."
One of the people who definitely appreciates this sort of inventiveness is Mickey Petralia, an acclaimed producer best known for his work with Beck on 1999's Midnite Vultures, an album that included elements of funk, hip-hop, and alternative rock. He and Sharkey had a great relationship in the studio, perhaps too much so. "He's really cool, one of the funniest guys I've met. We actually had to set time limits because of instead of recording we'd start making crank calls all day and completely blow studio time." Despite all of the fooling around, the two were able to get some serious work done. "I had the songs basically put together already - I picked the ones that I thought he'd be best to work on, so that I could get the best out of him. I think it worked well."
Once Sharkey had his beats laid down, he sat down with Babygrande to put together a wishlist of the MC's he was interested in working with. "About eighty percent of those people are on the record. There were only a few that didn't work out. Most of them were down with the idea of doing something different. I wanted a mix of old school and the underground, and I think we achieved that. I would've loved to work with De La Soul, and of course they were on the list, but they're kind of too big for the indie level I'm at right now. Who knows, maybe with how things are going, as I get more exposure. That would be like a dream come true."
He thinks that people should define his music by what they hear on the record, not necessarily by what happens at a live show. "The record is just me shining. I write all the music, put it all together. It's catching all my artistry, all my creativity. I love DJing also, the sets are cool, but when I'm spinning, its different, it's mainly mash-ups. I get into it but it's not really me putting together songs." This infatuation with songs is something that Sharkey feels sets him apart from other producers.
"I hear a lot of people comparing me to guys like RJD2 and DJ Shadow, so I've been listening to them a lot to see what I can hear. I don't really see a lot of similarities. We're all guys doing lots of stuff, not just straightforward hip-hop, but my songs are more "songs", instead of just having instrumental tracks. I don't know how to explain it. Those guys are great, just different."
Another difference is that Sharkey comes from D.C, a city not exactly revered for its hip-hop scene. "The scene is terrible in D.C. It's hard to figure it out. It will start to emerge every five years, but then it falls off again. Part of the problem is that it's so political here. And the local press doesn't support artists at all. So it's a hard place to break through. A lot of people have come from D.C., but they usually don't break out there. They'll move out, to New York or elsewhere. But for me, you know, the creativity is about where I come from, it's my key to success. That's not to say I couldn't be original if I went to New York, but it would rub off on me a little bit. I'm not that far anyway, I can go there when I need to."
So Sharkey is staying put, and maybe his presence will help to revitalize a struggling area. His future looks bright, and he's constantly working remain in the spotlight. "You've only got a small window," he says, "you've gotta make the most of it while it lasts." There is a possible upcoming tour with Brand Nubian in the works, and he continues to work with his band The Spark (that group's "Zooks" appears on Sharkey's Machine). For a person whose career has been defined by constant innovation and dedication to a musical ideal, how could you expect Sharkey to slow down? I was lucky just to get him on the phone.