Penguin Prison on Cashing Checks With Lana Del Rey, Being in a Boy Band and Occupy Wall Street
Why did you decide to form a mock boy band while at Bard College?
This guy came up to me and we're gonna start a boy band and we'll call it The Smartest People At Bard. I was like mmmkay and I ended up doing it. It was a mixture of N'Sync and the Beastie Boys.
Was your wardrobe more N'Sync or Beastie Boys?
Neither I suppose. Most of us wore these one-piece suits and one of the other guys wore a Mexican hat. We had some dance moves that made fun of the boy bands of the time. The thing that made it funny was that I was the only one of the three of us that could actually sing well and they had bad voices, but that was on-purpose. Our big hit was called "Uh Oh."
And that was about...
I don't even know. All we sang was "Uh oh, Uh oh, Uh oh" on repeat, but people seemed to like it.
All kidding aside, you've been involved in music from a young age. How did starting at a young age help set you on the path you're currently on?
It gave me a lot of experience. I started singing when I was little, I was in a gospel choir where I learned how to sing and build harmonies. It taught me how to be a professional at an early age. I also started playing instruments when I was in my teens, which led to me playing in clubs like CBGBs and places like that while in high school.
With your background as a member of a boy band, gospel choir and bands, what inspired you to send hip-hop tracks to legendary A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip? How did that all go down? It couldn't have been easy, right?
Believe it or not, I actually saw an ad in the classified section of the magazine Backstage. I saw Q-Tip was starting a label and he was looking for demos, so I figured I'd send one. Literally a year went by and then he called me. He told me he liked my stuff and went to see me play and flew me to Los Angeles. Though that label never happened, I still ended up getting signed to Interscope Records.
The album never got released. They weren't sure what to do with it. I turned it in and they said they loved it and that it was amazing, but couldn't do anything with it because all the songs were different. It didn't seem like anything was going to happen, so I started making more music and eventually that became Penguin Prison.
Your song "Don't Fuck With My Money" unofficially became an anthem for the Occupy movement. Was this done purposely?
I wrote it way before the Occupy Wall Street movement. I wasn't trying to make anthem or anything. There's a line in the chorus, "Don't fuck with my money or you'll be sorry," made me want to shoot the video on Wall Street or in a bank. I was trying to come up with different ideas and Occupy Wall Street happened and I became inspired by it and it made sense in the sentiment that everyone was protesting the inaction of the government to try to solve the financial crisis. I thought it made sense to film them and get good footage of it and to set the footage to that song.
You and Lana Del Rey are good friends. How did you become pals?
I've known her a couple of years. I don't remember how I met her, but I made a remix and worked with her on some music. I've hung out with her a bunch and she's an interesting character. I worked on a song with called "BBM Baby" about BlackBerry Messenger.
What's the best story that you have about her?
She came to my house once to work on some things, there was a check cashing place near us and since there aren't really any banks in my area (Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan), she wanted to cash this check from her grandpa and we had to call him and verify all the identities because of all the theft nowadays. It took a half an hour, but she got her money.
As a New Yorker, what is the thing that makes you excited to come to Southern California in January?
The weather of course! It's freezing and not fun. I really like Los Angeles and the weather in California.
Would you consider moving here?
Yes definitely! There's a thing with New York and Los Angeles with how people from New York act like they don't like people from L.A. and I was like that for a while. Recently I've changed my stance and have thought about moving.
Penguin Prison performs Saturday, Jan 14, 9 p.m. at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. (714) 957-0600, $13.