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How James Allister Sprang Transformed from an Art Student to a Hip-Hop Polymath

We talked to the artist and rapper about his work, growing up in Miami before its art scene blew up, and why hip-hop is Art with a capital A.


Photo by Carlos Monino

James Allister Sprang is one of the few people that I think can legitimately be referred to as a polymath. We met at an artist residency in the summer of 2014, and it's been fascinating to watch him continuously push himself in visual art and hip-hop. Further, he's one of the most likable people you'll ever meet, personable and authentic. Give him a mic, and he instantly transforms into GAZR, a dominating presence, fluidly navigating between spoken word, poetry, and rap with appropriate nods to comedy in exactly the right places. The balance between his on-stage confidence and humility is deeply engaging and rewarding for his audience. This Friday, January 9, GAZR will perform a unique and unorthodox one-man show, Life Does Not Live, at Dixon Place. You should buy tickets right now.

We got a chance to talk in depth over the holiday break about his upbringing, his time at the Cooper Union, and his new work.

VICE: Where did you grow up? What was that like?
James Allister Sprang: I grew up in Miami, Florida. Miami treated me well. My trajectory through the public school system seemed to intersect with a growth of art appreciation within the Miami community. I was lucky to have found my talents at an early age. Though some tried to dissuade me from making art, I felt vindicated because the Miami art community was literally building itself up around me. I went to school in the heart of the Design District... I was a sophomore in high school when Art Basel started to hit its stride.

I just went to Miami Art Fair Week for the first time ever, and it was outrageous.
It's actually crazy to think about when I compare my early experiences to current headlines about borderline nefarious activity. The childhood memories I have consist of getting drunk on Grolsch beer stolen from the VIP section and spazzing out at seeing a piece by Swoon in real life.

What was your community like before Miami became known mostly as the site of the US version of Art Basel?
The best part about growing up in Miami was that there was not a "hip" art scene. At least I wasn't aware of it. So, all of the older people around, putting in work, were so supportive. They were excited to see a young person genuinely trying to improve themselves. I felt like an explorer without a map. I was allowed to find my own boundaries. Believe me [ Drake voice]. The first memory that comes to mind, for example, is this one piece I did where I shaved my pubes onto a bible, burned it, and called it The Burning Bush— in front of a high school art class. Haha. It all felt like the Wild West.


Photo by Jake McNulty

When did you start rapping?
I started rapping at Cutler Ridge Middle School. The radio was still relevant and rap was a huge part of the culture I navigated on a day-to-day basis. I mean, when Cam decided to go pink the color had to be banned from our school because everyone wanted to rep their hood manicured homemade gang like they were running from the cops and the Miami police were Inspector Clousseau. Anyway, I digress...

In middle school I started hitting up Kazaa hard, downloading whatever caught my eye. It was an education with a rubric inspired by the radio and an understanding of what my peers perceived rap to be. But, the lesson plans were frenetic and entirely dependent on my own relationship to the internet. I would spend hours downloading albums and listening in awe of rappers like Canibus, Chino XL, Immortal Technique, Big L, Method Man, Mos Def—rappers that were not getting much radio time.

Then I started exclusively downloading freestyles. Which was when I realized that I could close my eyes, just talk, and make random shit rhyme.

So you were studying the music, and learning different approaches to the medium, much like somebody would in art school. Was there a moment when things clicked for you? When you figured out where you might fit?
Yea, I guess. I didn't really understood what rap could do until high school. I'll never forget being at the beginning of my two hour commute and hearing Jay-Z go, "I keep one eye open like CBS. Can I live?" It opened up something inside of me. Shit was bananas. I was on a school bus. It was like six in the morning. The lights on the bus were off. Everyone was sleeping. And that was the moment when I knew. I knew that rap could affect people as much as visual art could. The boundary between fine art and rap collapsed, for me, on that humid morning. If I were to make a sonic comparison to describe that epiphany, it would be the last line in Ye's "Last Call" off College Dropout. With the seemingly infinite echo and perfect reverb: "I said man, you think we can still get that deal with Roc-A-Fella?"

You went to the Cooper Union—is that why you moved to New York?
Yeah.

What was it like being at Cooper during the decision to begin charging tuition?
I knew about Cooper back in middle school. My sixth grade teacher had a son that went there. Even then, I was like, "Oh, so that's the best there is? Oh, and it's free? OK, see you there then." It sounds silly, but just the idea of possibly getting into Cooper was a strong reminder to be the best person I could be. I really don't know where I would be without that inspiration through those early developmental years. With the shift to a tuition-based model, I'm heartbroken by the loss of so much potential hope for kids from a background like mine.


Cooper Union graduation, 2013

You were chosen to give the commencement speech, and it's featured in the documentary film The Ivory Tower. I went to a screening of that at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, and people were crying during your speech. Can you talk about the process of writing it? Was it like writing verses?
Writing that speech was tough. So many things were happening at once. I also didn't want to be up there for too long. So the goal was to speak from the heart and to distill that passion and anger as much as I could. To create something that would move my peers. Much like writing a song. The process took a month or three. I was preparing for my thesis show, working two jobs, taking way too many classes. I'm pretty sure the first draft of the speech began with the words, "Can I live?" [ laughs] A lot of my writing process has to do with writing through the ideas while knowing that I'll never use the majority of what I put to paper.

I think a lot of writers would relate to that process. How did you eventually rein in the speech?
Well, the speech was going nowhere, and then one day I was sitting at a cafe and suddenly realized that I needed to talk about the relationship between hope and doubt. Sometimes the simple connections are the hardest to make. I later printed a photograph that really inspired the energy of the speech. The photograph is called Gesture 115 [Edited and appropriated text from Charles Bukowski]. Which, in part, also went on to become the mic-check portion of the speech that is featured in The Ivory Tower.

Hope and doubt seems integral to your music as well, giving way to a real earnest quality to your performances. You are your own DJ, projecting your computer desktop for all to see. Your stage setup resembles a bedroom recording studio. You do this, all while you rap live. I'm not sure I've seen that transparency before in hip-hop. How did you decide on this almost naked approach to performing?
I try to make work that is a part of life as much as it is representational of it.

Admittedly shitty question: You're a visual artist and a rapper—is that all part of the same practice, or do you differentiate?
It's not a shitty question. It demands insight. I differentiate between the sonic and visual experiences. However, I am interested in working with the slippage that results from engaging both of those experiences. As a result, I don't make a differentiation between art and rap. Because they both represent the slippage I am working with. It would be silly to deny awareness of the cultural differentiation that is made between art and rap by many. But, I believe that differentiation relies on the idea of a high/low binary, that calling something art elevates its significance. I don't necessarily agree with that.

A lot of artists right now are directly concerned with critically examining binaries of all sorts, be they political, artistic, or social. What's your angle?
To look at this in the round, let's entertain the high/low binary. I would first establish that the hip-hop movement was Art. With a capital "A." Rap is rooted in art. We consume, commission, and are informed by rap, much like art was commissioned, consumed, and informative during the Renaissance. An example of rap's effect can be seen in its astonishing influence on the larger American culture's shifting marginality. It represents an integration of "other" tropes and established "non-other" social constructs. So I look around and feel that it is important to not make a distinction between rapping and visual art-making. We are in a marked moment, in which all of pop culture is collapsing into the art world. We have returned to the rupture. What I do is an example of this.

What can we expect to see in your show Life Does Not Live at Dixon Place on January 9?
Expect to watch GAZR record an album in real time, surf the net, maybe skype, send some emails, and interact with a small string section that is a figment of GAZR's imagination. All the while, GAZR will be engaging and befriending the audience, in an effort to successfully scramble codes that many of us have become quite familiar with. But most importantly, expect to laugh.

Check out James's website and Soundcloud, and Instagram.

Sean J Patrick Carney is a concrete comedian, visual artist, and writer based in Brooklyn. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing and, since 2012, has been a member of GWC Investigators, a collaborative paranormal research team. Carney has taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Virginia Commonwealth University, and New York University. He is currently full-time faculty at Bruce High Quality Foundation University. Follow him on Twitter.