GoldLink, Unmasked, Comes Down to Earth Before He Takes It Over
DC's GoldLink is on the cusp of serious fame, but the further his music takes him, the less he seems to put up a facade.
Photos by Rachel Topping
“Can I ask you a weird question?" GoldLink asks, addressing our Uber driver. We've just pulled up and parked at a fast food restaurant in Austin, Texas. "Do you want Sonic? I’ll buy it for you.”
The driver shakes his head and laughs, but declines. Instead of ordering from the menus at the parking spot—Sonic’s schtick is that you can order at a drive-in stall and have your food delivered—we climb out of the car to order from the large digital menu at the front of the restaurant. It’s pouring and the temperature has dropped; we dart from the car to the covered seating area and huddle around the screen.
The menu is big and bright, luminous under the overcast sky. Among the overabundance of menu items are burritos, tater tots, milkshakes, burgers, hot dogs, and breakfast foods. There’s a patron eating at one of the bright red steel tables next to us, wearing a black garbage bag as a rain coat. A Sonic employee and his manager are talking at another table behind us—their conversation is serious, but their voices aren’t muted. The manager’s voice carries over the employee’s, who is disputing everything his manager is saying. The tension is palpable.
“We’re going to have to let you go. I hope you find success in whatever you do next,” the manager says, irritated.
The employee is getting fired, apparently for smoking weed in the bathroom at work. We’re all wide-eyed and a little incredulous, including the guy in the garbage bag, who’s muttering to himself and to us about the situation.
The manager leaves. After contemplatively sitting there for a moment, the fired employee gets up, slings his backpack over his shoulder and goes back inside Sonic. We quietly, jokingly, but not too jokingly, talk about how the dude getting fired probably has a gun and we should make it snappy.
We distract ourselves by ordering, and somehow Link ends up buying $30 of Sonic, including three drinks, jalapeno poppers, a couple orders of chicken fingers and fries, and a corn dog.
We walk back to the car with bags of fast food in tow. Link says to the driver, “I’m really bad at listening, so I got you a corn dog.” The driver laughs.
The very first tweet on GoldLink’s Twitter account reads, “The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.” It doesn’t appear to be him quoting a writer, musician, or poet. It’s a phrase that—whether purposely or not—sums up the concept that drives his debut project The God Complex.
This quote suggests an interplay of the concepts of imagination and God, two huge driving forces behind The God Complex. For GoldLink, imagination is more powerful than reality; he believes your imagination breeds perfection while reality doesn’t. Your imagination is also where you see God, where you envision what he looks like and acts like—in your imagination, God is perfect. God and your imagination are powerful things; you use your imagination to seek, see, and envision what you know and don’t know. Sometimes you intuit and become God by playing a hand in your future, and sometimes you have to leave it all up to the cosmos.
The concept of God surrounds GoldLink’s art in subtle but explicit ways. It’s not that he thinks he’s God, and it’s not that he’s overtly religious (though he does have a religious upbringing)—it’s about the melding of of arrogance, the defining characteristic of a God complex, and of attempting to be the best musician he can possibly be. The God Complex is simultaneously about laying himself bare and also striving for perfection. It’s about exploring characters within himself—the tape is an interaction with his religious background, with what he perceives God to be, and explores themes of sex, violence, family, love, and addiction—but reaching outside of himself too. It’s a testament to GoldLink’s imagination, his flaws, his reality, and his fantasies.
And like God, GoldLink isn’t a fan of making an appearance, or at least he wasn’t. When he released The God Complex in April 2014, the Washington DC-born rapper was rather elusive. No one knew what he looked like, and that was the way he wanted it: The only image we related to him was his logo of a mask with a green forehead, red cheeks and chin, blue lips, and yellow eyes. Though colorful, the outline of the face is generic at best, something akin to a tribal mask. It wasn’t much to go on.
“I wanted [to wear] the Maison Margiela mask that Kanye ran with, but I wanted to make it out of 3M material because it’s reflective. But it’s too thick, so I had to show my face,” Link tells me, simplifying his decision to disclose his identity. He professes to being mysterious and having qualms with showing himself; he wants his fans to focus on the music rather than on him. But when his popularity skyrocketed over the past year and he began touring (he never left Virginia or DC ‘til last year), GoldLink—born D’Anthony Carlos, and whom his friends warmly call D—was forced to reveal himself. And that’s when it all came full-circle: We were given a face to the music, a personality, a story.
When I meet up with GoldLink and his crew at Austin’s South By Southwest festival, he’s on stage for his first set of the day. He’s wearing a black Soulection T-shirt, the frontside aptly reading “The Sound of Tomorrow,” and a maroon, forest green, and gold scarf around his head. Regardless of the drizzle and gloomy skies, Link is as sharp as a tack, his energy high. As the rain hits during his opening song “Bedroom Story,” the crowd is still pretty mellow, but by the time he goes into his breakout hit “Ay Ay” and fan favorite “Hip-Hop (Interlude),” the audience is right there with Link, as he vogues, pops, thrusts, and does his trademark bounce—a movement where he bends his knees, crouches low, and sways his arms from side-to-side, which he later dubs the “dip-n-dot” for me—on top of the speakers. GoldLink has this ability to pull energy out of you even if you don’t know him or his music, giving you the feeling that you need to know his music if you already don’t. At one point, his scarf falls off his head and sits on his shoulders; he fumbles with it but still doesn’t skip a beat.
After his set, GoldLink weaves through the audience and says hi to everyone he does and doesn’t know. He doesn’t act like he’s just played a show—people are coming up to thank him, to shake his hand—and is out in the crowd dancing, a ball of energy. His gratitude towards his fans shows. Soon it starts pouring and we make our way into the artists and VIP lounge, which turns out to be a shed-cum-dive bar. Link is sitting in the back with his crew, animated but lax. Everyone in his entourage is more of a character than the last; everyone is an integral part of GoldLink.
First there’s Sam, who’s wearing a white Sudanese kaftan and matching turban because he “likes outrageous things.” When asked what he does, everyone keeps saying he’s a shaman, but I finally squeeze out the truth: Sam is a tour manager and sort of hype-man—he throws T-shirts to the audience and dances on stage during Link’s sets—and is also GoldLink’s best friend. Oh, and he’s goofy as hell. Then there’s Jefe or Jose, the videographer, who’s quiet and low-key; Henny, the manager, who’s reliable and hardworking; Alex, who’s the comedian of the group and GoldLink’s in-house producer—Alex has production credits on three God Complex songs as Louie Lastic, and he also recorded, mixed, mastered, and vocal produced everything on the tape. There’s Jake, Henny’s intern, who is eager and knowledgeable; and finally there’s DJ Kidd Marvel, or Pape, GoldLink’s DJ, who is a sweetheart.
They’re crowded around GoldLink, who’s sitting beside two skeeball machines. His charisma is obvious, and there’s something about his essence that’s slightly reminiscent of 2pac. Not only does he sport a nose ring, he walks a careful line in his music that helps him command a crowd: While his production makes you want to bounce, his lyrics are raw, real, and personal. There is no facade.
We wait until the rain dies down a bit and make our way to their car, an all black suburban that’s parked behind a random house. The homeowners are Spanish; as Jefe pulls out, GoldLink yells “gracias” to the owners who wave goodbye. He’s sitting in front, controlling the music, playing Donell Jones “U Know What’s Up,” Mike Will Made It’s “Choppin’ Blades,” and Boogie’s “Bitter Raps.”
We roll up to their Airbnb, a quaint white house situated at the end of a row of houses on a residential street, next to train tracks. There are a couple couches in the living room, a couple chairs, and an air mattress covered in a bed sheet. An NCAA tournament basketball game plays in the background as a blunt gets rolled. GoldLink and Sam laugh at something on Link’s phone. Everyone’s going through their free shit—keychains, hats, portable chargers—and GoldLink is giving all his stuff away.
“When I wear hats, I look like a dirty hippie,” Alex says.
“When I wear hats, I look like a black guy,” Link replies, jokingly.
Even though his music runs deep, Link still manages to remain lighthearted and jovial. He’s always positive, perhaps a coping mechanism, or perhaps just the way he is; maybe, even, it’s his reaction to the growth his career has seen over the past year.
GoldLink was born in DC, grew up going between DC and Maryland, and eventually settled in Virginia with his mother. GoldLink’s older brother, who is ten years his senior, moved out of the house when Link was ten, and Link’s parents divorced when he was a kid. His mother, a secretary at a law firm, was always working and was a devout churchgoer, a characteristic she tried to instill within GoldLink. His father, who worked for DC’s parks department, wasn’t around, and, with his mother constantly working, he was often left to his own devices.
GoldLink wasn’t big into school, and he would skip with his friends to learn on his own. He never made music, but when he was 18, he began to tinker with rap, choosing his alias as an homage to 60s pimp culture after being inspired by a documentary. As GoldLink, he began cutting hundreds of records to discover his aesthetic. He worked on his craft, never played any shows, but still emerged with a fully-formed sound, a fluid, melodic take on hip-hop that he calls “future bounce.”
“I had nothing else to do,” GoldLink says, explaining his decision to make music. “I was doing other things and I was getting money, that was about it. It was more of fuck it, I’m going to see what happens.” His endeavor into rap has been twofold: He was motivated by a devil-may-care attitude and fueled by a passion for music and poetry, citing Edgar Allen Poe’s dark realism and Maya Angelou’s beautiful portrayals of the mundane as influences.
“I was taught that poems don’t end, they just kind of stop,” he says. “There’s never an ending to a poem; it’s a continuation for later. When I write, I write for me, and I write in poetic form. There [are] no limits in poetry. Even rap is a form of poetry.”
Though he came late to performing, GoldLink is a natural on stage, and, with his genre-bending, party-ready sound, he’s quickly become a hot festival act. In the fall, he toured with SBTRKT, and in June, he’ll head out on his first headlining tour. Now that his fans know him by his face, Link has honed his look, slipped into his true character. Besides identifying as a sneaker-head, he has his nose pierced, and has taken to wearing colorful scarves around his head, with the knot facing forward, once again a la 2pac. He favors a navy blue Ralph Lauren bomber and—like his MC name suggests—prefers gold jewelry, usually wearing two gold rings, a gold bracelet, and either a gold necklace with a peso or a gold Jesus and Mary medallion around his neck.
After a well-deserved break at the house, GoldLink readies himself to play three back-to-back showcases that night. He swaps out his scarf for a black rolled-up ski mask that he wears as a beanie and puts on a black, neon blue, and neon green short sleeved hoodie by the D.C.-based brand Solbiato. Sam has committed to his outfit and is still wearing the white kaftan; Marvel has thrown on one of the freebies they’d gotten earlier that day, a navy blue New York Yankees bucket hat.
The first showcase is a bill curated by Chance the Rapper at the giant Austin Music Hall, as part of a lineup of similarly young, alternative-minded acts whose fans likewise skew young and alternative. The acoustics in the venue are terrible—the bass is too heavy and loud, which muffles the vocals—but that doesn’t stop Link, who pushes through the first couple songs. By the third, the crowd fucks with him. His vibe is alluring and intoxicating; the crowd roars when he bounces, shimmies, and backs his ass up on top of the speaker.
When we leave, Link twerks and jokingly tells me, “I used to be a stripper. My stripper name was Dip-N-Dots.”
Both on and off stage, Link is personable and engaging. He can effortlessly captivate the people around him. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the hot artists to see this week at SXSW, whether you know his music or not. What’s exciting about Link is that he’s able to bridge the gap between EDM and hip-hop without pandering or forcing a sound by working with some of dance music’s biggest up-and-coming acts, namely Kaytranada and Sango. These two producers have created the beats for some of Link’s best loosies: Kaytranada produced “Sober Thoughts,” while Sango produced “Wassup,” which samples Timabaland and Magoo’s 2003 song “Indian Flute.”
In a way, by working with Sango on this track, GoldLink brings his vision full circle—he makes a connection where previously there might not have been one to make. He takes iconic early 2000’s hip-hop, blends it with a new, burgeoning style of bouncy, elastic dance music, and lays his own story on top, using hip-hop’s resurfacing rap-singing trend to solidify the equation.
Even though he’s a hot item, his lack of pretense somehow allows the rapper to keep some of his mystery. His track “Sober Thoughts” is a testament to his honesty, where he reveals his desire for money, figuratively speaks on addictions he doesn’t have, and spits more references about God. “Sober Thoughts” echoes the same notion: The God Complex is not only centered on declarations, but confessions and appeals to a higher being; his project is rooted in soul-searching.
“[I was realizing] who I really was, what I really am, where I really came from, and what was really happening in my life that I probably never talked about, that I probably never paid attention to,” he explains.
Link isn’t afraid to show himself to you, through the music he artfully selects, and which plays into his upbringing—a fusion of rap, soul, DC go-go, gospel, and electronic music. He isn’t afraid to boast, to walk the line between braggadocio and painful truths, between darkness and light. He creates music that makes you want to dance but also lament, detailing stories of a tough childhood and of “figuring out how to be a man by [him]self.”
Calling GoldLink just an MC might be a mistake. “I look at [myself] as like a narrator or author or artist,” he says. “It’s like with the documentaries and shit, I do the same thing. I tell stories about the people around me, I tell stories about me. I tell stories about my hood.”
Everything about GoldLink is meticulously curated, from his sense of style to his dance moves to his music; everything is intricately crafted like a poem, and executed with little to no pretension.
On the way from one set to the next, we’re ten people deep in a Surburban—Link is visibly tired but also in good spirits, which continues into his sets. He’s comfortable because he’s surrounded by his homies.
A girl had been fawning over him at the previous show, which reminds Link of the crazy shit he’s been through on tour. He tells us about the time he played Terminal 5 in New York and a guy came into the green room with a broom, pretending to clean before confessing that he really snuck in to meet Link. Link is kind of mystified by his celebrity.
“You’re famous now, so you’ve got to have a rider,” we tell him.
Link jokes about asking for a jar full of grass.
“You mean weed, right?” I ask, for clarification.
“Nah, certified organic grass,” he says. “Like, give me some earth.”
When I ask him what his rider would really be, he says, “I don’t need much. Chapstick, a fruit platter with pineapples and grapes, one pancake—”
“A Dippin’ Dots kiosk from the mall,” we all joke.
We park at an iHop and I ask him what kind of pancake he’d want.
“One regular one,” he replies.
GoldLink drags his feet in the rain to his next set. While GoldLink’s energy is still up when he performs, he’s tired off stage. His all-white Jeremy Scott winged Adidas sneakers are caked in dirt; Sam’s white kaftan is wet and smeared with mud. As Link moves through his set list, he briefly pulls the black beanie down over his face and wears it as a ski mask.
When we’re finally at GoldLink’s last set, he feeds off the crowd’s vibes to regain some of his energy. There’s a huge dude in the front who’s fan-girling; he knows every word to every song and is dancing his ass off. Link finishes but is coaxed out for an encore, where he does the brief, high-energy genre homage “Hip-Hop (Interlude).” Henny and Sam get on stage to dance, soggy kaftan and all—it’s Henny’s birthday at midnight.
Afterwards, Link meanders through the crowd. He chops it up with jovial Boston rapper Michael Christmas, who played the same showcase earlier that night; he sings “Happy Birthday” to Henny, who’s turning 27. Link and I had to warm up to each other, but now we’re comfortable—we joke around like old pals. We practice our rap squats and the official flick of the wrist (one hand flicking and the other covering, if you were curious). His enthusiastic front-row fan comes over and joins our rap squat school. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.
The rain settles to a light drizzle as we eventually make our way back to the car. We decide iHop is the move—after all, it’s something GoldLink requires in his rider—and head in for some late night conversation and pancakes.
Even though GoldLink is hyped and in demand—seen as this unreal thing—he’s too beat to be about appearances. He’s cool and comfortable around his people, he’s approachable, and he’s fun to be with. Ironically, the further his music takes him, the less he seems to put up a facade. And ultimately that’s what The God Complex is about: the coexistence of arrogance and imperfections, of reality and the imagination, of God and mundane human experience.
At the end of the night, GoldLink tells me, “the only important things are family and love,” a last word that says everything and nothing much at all. It’s incredibly obvious and hardly the most dramatic takeaway from the lively performer’s busy, dip-n-dot-filled day, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s an imperfect statement, and it’s perfectly right.
GoldLink heads on tour with DJ Kidd Marvel this June. The dates are as follows, with special guests TBA:
6/9 - Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade - TIX
6/10 - New York, NY @ SOBs - TIX
6/11 - Cambridge, MA @ Middle East Upstairs - TIX
6/12 - Philadelphia, PA @ Voltage Lounge - TIX
6/13 - Montreal, QC @ NewSpeak - TIX
6/17 - Los Angeles, CA @ The Roxy - TIX
6/18 - Oakland, CA @ The New Parish - TIX
6/19 - Dallas, TX @ Bomb Factory - TIX
6/20 - New Braunfels, TX @ Whitewater Music Amphitheater - TIX
6/23 - Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St Entry - TIX
6/24 - Chicago, IL @ Reggie's Rock Club - TIX
6/25 - Rothbury, MI @ Electric Forest Festival - TIX
6/26 - Vancouver, BC @ The Alexander - TIX
Tara Mahadevan is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.
Rachel Topping is a photographer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter.