In 1831, the father of French literary realism Balzac wrote, “There is nothing left for literature but mockery in a world that has collapsed.” 164 years later, the father of West Bank hip-hop absurdism Ballzack wrote “You can’t punch a baby/You can’t eat a planet/But girl, I never took you for granted,” thus completing the circle of destiny.
Ballzack, a.k.a. 27-year-old Rami Sharkey, hit the scene in 2002 with Knucklehead Memoirs, a home-recorded hip-hop paean to the joys of cracking pencils and monkey hand jobs that landed him on the top of the WTUL request charts, headlining slots at TwiRoPa and House of Blues and a prestigious OffBeat Best Of The Beat Award for best emerging hip-hop artist. Success had its price, however. As Ballzack grew tired of performing the same material to increasingly eager audiences, he took time off from the stage to write and develop more material. The resulting second album, Chipmunk Dream Machine, eschews straight ahead hip-hop for a more eclectic blend of acoustic guitar, rock ‘n’ roll, quirky beats and samples.
The song “Doodlebug,” a ’60s-style dance craze song that should be destined for Billboard in a just world, embodies Chipmunk Dream Machine. Ballzack’s music isn’t funny in a self conscious, Weird Al kind of way. But rather, it’s an honest reflection of Sharkey’s sensibility—slightly absurd and not afraid to explore new musical territory. Ballzack met up for coffee to discuss his new direction, the problem with crickets and what fuels the Chipmunk Dream Machine.
Some musicians just shut off when they get asked the same questions over and over… Like, “When was your first album released?” I’ll try to avoid clichés.
I don’t understand that mentality. For some reason, I think people are into the idea of appearing mysterious and therefore enigmatic, which definitely has its place. I was reading some interview with Beck a while ago where he was talking about reality shows or something like that. He appreciated the fact that when a band like Devo came out, he didn’t know if Devo was from outer space or not. Now with all these reality shows people know everything about everyone. I couldn’t see myself becoming a total recluse.
In Ballzack Manor?
[Laughs] Yeah, in my lair. Some of these paparazzi are pretty aggressive. I’m sure it gets really annoying. I think actors should start staging pictures themselves and then sell those to the Enquirer, therefore eliminating the need for paparazzi. Yeah, like Tom Cruise and Bette Midler making out. And then they could step back and laugh at it. “Ha ha, look what we did.” If you don’t need the money and don’t like the attention, then don’t perform live. You know? If you’re an attention whore and need the money, then perfect.
Speaking of performing live, you took a break from the stage for nearly a year. Where was Ballzack?
I wasn’t just going to leave people hanging. I was going to fulfill people’s expectations, whatever they may be. It was a matter of going back to the drawing board. I got tired of performing the same songs over and over again. I just felt like I was getting bored with myself, and I didn’t want people getting bored with me. I always wanted to treat it like Ballzack was a national act.
Even if your favorite national act came once a month, you’d kind of be like, “Alright, enough, Neil Diamond.” I felt like I had reached a New Orleans glass ceiling. I don’t really feel like touring out on my own and trying to establish a following on my own. I’d go out on tour with a much bigger act, but you know, I gotta work. I was working at TwiRoPa at the time, and I was like, “I’m just going to sit back and make music.” So I just stopped performing live for a while. I suddenly started getting all these other ideas. Knucklehead Memoirs was a hip-hop album, and I no longer wanted to be just a hip-hop artist. I went through this all out Beatles obsession. Whether or not that’s reflected in my music, I don’t know. I just started learning instruments, learning chords and that kind of stuff.
You had never played anything?
I had played guitar a little bit, but I didn’t know basic chords. I’m not a believer in over education in any art form, but I was having trouble executing my ideas. I would have a melody in my head, but I was totally limited to a sample I found. I became more into the idea of composing from the ground out—being able to say, “I want a song that goes da-da-dum-da-da, but I can’t find a sample like that. Maybe I’ll play it.”
Chipmunk Dream Machine reflects that. It’s got the same spirit as Memoirs but you can tell there’s, as you say, a ’60s influence. I hear a lot of Beck in that.
I think Odelay was instrumental in forming my view. I think it’s what happens when you have an artist who’s into hip-hop but likes to play acoustic guitar, people are naturally going to make a Beck comparison. There’s nothing wrong with that. People could be comparing me to worse things.
What’s the worst comparison you ever got?
Eminem. “He’s funny. He’s not black, and he’s rapping!” [Laughs] Eminem. No, that’s not really where I’m going but thanks. I think people thought to make that comparison because I was being funny. I respect what people like Eminem do, but I was more into like Native Tongues hip-hop, Prince Paul type stuff. All that sort of underground hip-hop. That’s the other thing, hip-hop kind of changed too. It started to become a huge kind of backpacker thing.
I heard someone use that term to describe kids that come to the show with their backpack. It’s an underground hip-hop thing. If you’re into hip-hop, you gotta be into underground stuff like DJ’ing, b-boying and free styling. People come up to me all the time and ask, “Do you free style?” Free styling? I like to write. I say, “Well, you’d probably beat me if you want to have a [makes air quotes] battle.” I just have a problem with people who limit themselves. There are people who were into the same intellectual hip-hop that I was into, but meanwhile completely shun bounce. I love bounce rap. I’m a huge Cash Money fan. All the stuff Mannie Fresh did. I’d say that’s reflected on the album, all the drum machine and bass. It’s genius in its own way. People are like, “That’s ghetto.” You know, whatever happened to just good music?
You can’t close yourself off to music. I know people who are convinced that nothing good has happened since 1965.
There’s a lot of good music out there, but people judge today’s music based on crap they hear on the radio. There are still a lot of people who are into making good music, and that will never die, especially as technology progresses. And that’s another thing: fuck the record labels. I don’t even want to play the game. I don’t want to submit a single CD to a record label. Maybe it’s out of some weird fear of rejection, maybe it’s ’cause I’m lazy or maybe I just don’t care.
What if some record label dumped a pile of cash on you?
I’m never going to be one of these people obsessed with a record deal. Why? If they ask someone, they usually don’t know. They’re like, “The money.” Which is kind of dumb. If you really knew what was going on, you’d realize that they really own you and that advance you get is really a loan. If I were to ever do it, it would be strictly to expose myself to a wider audience. I can’t lie: money’s always good. Eventually everything’s just going to be online, anyway. Record stores, CDs—they’re just going to be novelties. Eventually I’d like to get it to the point where I have a web site and put up a song a week. You know, the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t stop 200 million people from downloading songs, especially when they know they’ve been getting ripped off for years. It’s like, “Man, I’ve been spending $18 a CD for 12 years and finally I get a song for free.” And usually, I only liked one song on the CD I bought anyway. There are no more singles. I’m not going to sit there and try to sell myself to anybody. A lot of people, they get told no [laughs] and then they just stop.
If you’re good, that stuff will come. Or not.
Yeah. I’m really into the idea of organic growth, letting everything become what it wants to become without pushing it too much. The bottom line is that for every Ballzack CD that’s out there, chances are it’s gonna spread. It’ll become like that Star Wars Kid video. Remember that, what everyone was sending around on email? If it’s good it’ll float. People get shit shoved down their throat constantly. I put up posters, but that’s about it. I’m not going to sit there and be like, “If you don’t like this, you’re a fucking idiot.”
“The Chipmunk Dream Machine is a go-cart that my dad tried to build for me when I was little, but it didn’t get off the ground until we found the green orb.”
Some people can’t take rejection or criticism. Some people just can’t handle that they suck.
Exactly. They’re like, “I put my heart and soul into this.” And it’s like, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t have. Maybe you should just have put a finger or two in. Maybe you just put too much stock in this music thing.” Working in the music industry like I did, working at TwiRoPa, you see a lot of people approaching the music industry as a bureaucracy. Like they’re becoming a lawyer, you take the test and then you’re famous. Nepotism is really strong in the music industry. More things just happen over a drink than happen over a submission. Everyone’s so obsessed with meeting the right person and getting their CD in the right hands. You know what? You are the right person. It’s in the right hands.
You put your art out there, and hopefully people will come along.
Yeah, you have to examine why you do it. I do it for some perverse reasons a lot of the time. Like, how stupid would it be if I wrote a song called “There’s a Man in the Motherfucking Woods.” And a lot of people are like, “Don’t put that song on there. That’s a fucked up song.” But it’s the one getting highlighted in all the reviews!
That’s probably because the first minute and a half is just a repetition of “There’s a man in the motherfucking woods.” First it was funny, then it wasn’t, then it was disturbing and then it was funny again. I’m sure a lot of people don’t get it.
People told me that if they were me, they would have made the transition to the other part of the song sooner. Don’t you understand? I did it to make people uncomfortable. Speaking of the “Man in the Motherfucking Woods,” Michael Jackson was acquitted.
That was actually going to be my first question.
I don’t know what to say about that. I guess if he’s innocent, great; if he’s guilty, that’s fucked up. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but you never know, there could be some people who genuinely wanted to take Michael Jackson down. Or he could be genuinely playing with little boys.
He’s obviously got some problems.
There’s no way I would ever justify molesting a child [laughs], but as far as being weird, I could definitely see how that amount of success could fuck somebody’s head up. And then if you add on the alleged child abuse he went through, wow. Can you imagine having more money than you knew what to do with, people fainting whenever they see you? Hanging out with Elizabeth Taylor and Liza Minnelli is enough to drive you insane.
What’ll they bust you for when you’re a celebrity?
It’ll probably have something to do with a ferret. It’ll probably be somebody going after another Arab. Maybe I’ll get on my soapbox about the wrong person. You never know. I think eventually they’ll put me on trial for thinking too much. “You’re thinking too much, we don’t like that. We’re trying to get rid of NPR and PBS.” There might also be a crime committed with a man in the woods and they might think it’s me. Or maybe some illegal monkey hand jobs.
How do you do the Doodlebug?
[Demonstrates] I ripped it off from the “Hot for Teacher” video from Van Halen. When it comes to the hug part, you have to open up your arms to give a hug and then go back into the Doodlebug. It’s easy to do, no matter what ethnicity you are. I can’t imagine an ethnicity that wouldn’t be into the doodlebug. Maybe a species. Crickets probably shun it, ’cause they have a jealousy issues. Doodlebugs are kind of cute, and crickets are annoying. So kids on playgrounds won’t play with them. Jealousy leads to hatred. Hatred leads to anger. Anger leads to the dark side, and my boy Yoda doesn’t like that.
So would you say your main inspiration for this record is Yoda?
Old Yoda, not CGI Yoda. Puppet Yoda. I think the release of my album is being overshadowed by the new Star Wars. People are spending money on that movie when they should be spending it on my album.
The 300 million should go to you?
Exactly. I could buy an oboe with that kind of money. I could have had Brian Wilson produce it. I wouldn’t want to work with Phil Spector. Did you see the Ramones documentary? It was awesome. I’m also really getting into the Misfits. I think Glenn Danzig has a really good voice and the lyrics, for a bunch of punk teenagers, were really good. They re-released their first album, Static Age, and it’s really good, really gritty.
What do you like about punk?
You know what I like about punk? Especially old punk? It’s just people getting music out of their system. They’re making music, but they’re not concerned with production, making it polished. “I know a few chords. You’re a drummer. You can’t really play, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make music. Let’s just do it.” When I saw that Ramones documentary, they were talking to Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten. They were both like, “We want to start a band, but we’re not good enough.” And the Ramones were like, “Are you kidding me? We suck. Just get up on stage.” And I love that, I love that “I can do that” mentality.
Well, that’s what you did. It was very punk.
If someone tells me I can’t do something, then I’ll work really hard at it. A lot of people said, “Oh, maybe it should just be a hobby. Maybe you shouldn’t really pursue it.” Especially my early stuff, but those were people who really didn’t get it. My biggest thing was just making it for my friends. Then it got to the point where I had to start getting serious about it. I was like, “Fuck it, I’m going to make an album.” But I had to borrow some money from my parents. I had to work at PJs for some time until I saved up enough money to do it. I realized, “Wow, if you’re trying to get the train moving yourself, then people will want to get on.”
It just seems like my life started dramatically improving once I did something myself. It opened up doors when I said, “Fuck this. I’m going to do this because I can do this.” I just started meeting all these people. I’d been Uptown maybe five times in my life, and suddenly, there were people who appreciated what I was doing. I was putting to bed all that early twenties angst. “I don’t know what to do. Should I go to college?” I did, I went to UNO, but I dropped out to make the record. My parents were pretty supportive. They were like, “If this is what you want to do, then do it.”
Do you get recognized on the street?
No, not constantly. It’s not like I’m, “Oh god, I wish they’d leave me alone.” That’s another thing I like about New Orleans, people don’t give a fuck. People appreciate what you’re doing, rather than, “Oh look, it’s a celebrity.” People don’t bum rush you. You could be Elvis back from the dead, but people will just be like, #8220;Whatever.” Is it true Elvis never wrote any of his own music?
I’d like to actually do some cover songs. That’s the funny thing, the easier the music, the more fun it is to play. I don’t know, maybe some really obscure stuff from the West Bank. There’s a label called Mobo Records who put out this group called Ruthless Juveniles, which were these teenage gangster rappers. I just ate it up, man. These guys were just making records for their neighborhood.
Music used to be a lot more regional that way. Way back when, you could have a regional hit when radio stations weren’t all owned by the same three companies.
I was courted by a few managers at one point, and they were like, “Maybe you’re being a little too regional.” I didn’t know what they meant. “Oh, you’re making West Bank references and New Orleans references.” I’ll remember that when I see a copy of “Straight Out Of Compton.” Or “New York State of Mind” or the Springsteen one, “Asbury Park.” I should make references to places that don’t exist to make it look like I’ve been places, you know? “Man, the neighborhoods on Jupiter don’t have sidewalks. Not like we have here.”
“If you don’t need the money and don’t like the attention, then don’t perform live. You know? If you’re an attention whore and need the money, then perfect.”
You just got back from New York. What brought you back up there?
I was just hanging out. I have a bunch of friends from here who had never been, and they wanted to come with me, because I knew my way around. I love New York, but I think I would have loved Old New York better, before it got all gentrified.
In the five years I lived there, tenements were being converted into wine and cheese bars. It wasn’t a real place anymore.
The same thing will happen to New Orleans. I’m not going to be able to buy some double gallery house in the Lower Garden District. I’ll be the sucker buying the house from the guy who flipped it already. I don’t think New Orleans will ever become too clean, it’ll always be kind of gritty. It’s probably the last frontier in New Orleans. The last place where a cool place to live is relatively cheap compared to the rest of the cool places to live in America. I think the only difference is that some music can be from anywhere. You wouldn’t know what city you’re in; it wouldn’t matter. But some music can only be from New Orleans. And I love all that stuff. I’ve tried to incorporate it into what I do. Not directly, but if you grew up here, whatever. I’m not going to have a po-boy every day. I might have a New York strip once in a while. It doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a po-boy. You get tired of all the stereotypes, like we’re a bunch of sweaty buffoons fanning ourselves on our porches. “Hey cher, there’s no air conditioning.” It’s a good selling point, but it’s not the total reality. I choose to live in New Orleans because I love this city, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to start a brass band.
Maybe you should.
I love that stuff. There was a band we booked at TwiRoPa called the Extra Action Marching Band from San Francisco. It was the most amazing show I’ve ever seen. It was this marching band that wore all black and red and they did Black Sabbath covers. They had topless flag girls on the floor and played everything note for note, except with a brass band. And they had this 250-pound Elvis impersonator singing. It was amazing. It lasted to 4 in the morning. Apparently they had been banned in a bunch of venues. There was a guy breathing fire, and we had to take him down. It was chaos—very Sodom and Gomorrah.
What is the Chipmunk Dream Machine?
The Chipmunk Dream Machine is a machine that’s going to take us out of here. It’s a go-cart that my dad tried to build for me when I was little, but it didn’t get off the ground until we found the green orb. No… I really don’t know. It was a title I came up with a long time ago, and my brother was like, “You better use that for an album title.” I didn’t feel like it was right for the first record, but for the second album it was perfect. The second album was going to be a concept album. Anybody who tries to do a concept album—it’s too restricting. “I’m on song
number four about the Chipmunk Dream Machine.” Like, the first track was going to be about building the Chipmunk Dream Machine, the second one about fueling it, the third one… I think maybe I was trying to do some kind of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy—Hitchhiker’s Guide to the West Bank. I can never stick to a theme. I was going to try to make a whole school themed album at one time. I was going to change my name to Laslo, and the name of the album was going to be Academic Game. I had a song about getting a tutor, gym class—school always sells. I made songs about scantron sheets and number two pencils. But Chipmunk Dream Machine just ended up being what it is, just a bunch of random
songs other than the intro and “Chipmunk Dream Machine.” The intro was how funny would it be for me to make a song that sounded like a real old gritty West Bank rap song? But I’m saying “Chipmunk Dream Machine” rather than “West Bank Killers.” I’m paying homage to that. Every song has its own inspiration. “Walking Thru A Drive-thru” was directly inspired by Mannie Fresh’s production. I wanted to see if I could give it a more rock sensibility. I don’t mean like people who’re like, “I’m going to combine rap and rock, it’s never been done!” Everyone claims they’re the first one to combine rock and rap. I was like, “What if it didn’t even rhyme? What if I was just talking shit?”
I like “Making Groceries.” There’s a non sequitur in there, “Let’s make a baby/Let’s make a baby.” It’s so random.
That’s another thing. I was trying to get away from verse chorus verse thing. Everyone’s trying to be a lyrical lyricist, but I was thinking that I wanted to make it less lyrical and more musical. If you listen to the way rock songs are structured, they could be repeating the same four words throughout the whole song, but it’s still a good song. I wanted to make songs, rather than make just hip-hop songs. You know what? It doesn’t have to rhyme. Let me just do something that’s going to satisfy me, that I’d want to listen to.
I really enjoyed the album. The songs are all excellent and it’s hilarious, but not in a way that’s trying to be funny. You’re funny; so your music is funny.
When people asked me what my second album was going to sound like, I told them like Paul Simon meets the Hot Boys. I was also going for organic over synthetic, like Flaming Lips production. Like somebody may have a drum beat that’s completely synthesized, almost sounding like a Casio keyboard. But meanwhile, someone is playing real acoustic guitar for the organic element. I was really into that idea. I’m pretty satisfied. I’m sure there are some people who are going to miss the really crude humor of the first one. I wanted every angle of this album to be honest, to reflect me and my taste. I feel like I haven’t
completely achieved that. I feel like people really haven’t felt the real wrath of Ballzack. I haven’t really put my mind to it yet, but when I do…