Keith Stanfield’s Hip-Hop Connection on ‘Atlanta’ Is True to Life
Keith Stanfield is kicking off 2017 on a high note. The 25-year-old actor, who's also a rapper, has scored roles in full-length films like Short Term 12, Dope and Straight Outta Compton over the years, but it was in 2016 when he found breakout success on the small screen, starring in Childish Gambino's FX comedy Atlanta.
On Atlanta, Stanfield plays Darius, a prophetic pothead who completes the show's trio and doles out wry advice to Earn (Gambino) and Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Four months after the FX comedy began, Stanfield, the cast and creators took center stage at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards last night (Jan. 8) after earning two coveted awards: one for best TV musical or comedy and one for best actor in a TV musical or comedy, which was awarded to Gambino. Now Stanfield can say he's starring in an award-winning show.
But when he's not acting in front of the camera, Stanfield finds another creative outlet in music. He's a rapper working alongside L.A. producer Hirshikesh Hirway, better known as HH, as a part of the duo Moors. Together, the pair dropped their self-titled EP in 2014.
XXL caught up with Keith Stanfield to talk about juggling music and acting, Atlanta’s hip-hop connection and what he’s learned from Childish Gambino.
XXL: First, let’s talk about your personal connection to hip-hop. What did you grow up listening to?
Keith Stanfield: I didn’t really start to listen to music until I found the Internet and started exploring it. Other than that, it was just CDs sitting around and stuff. I didn’t even listen to music that much when I was real young. But then when I hit about my early teenage years, I started diving into all different things. I was kind of just curious about all different kinds of music, so I dived into all different shit.
It started with like Slipknot, Nirvana to Johnny Cash to 2Pac. Shit like that. And of course, I spin around the mainstream hip-hop stuff. I listen to it, but I’m not really interested in the music like, connecting to it. A lot of times, these rappers, I’m not really into they chains and whips and bitches and… uh, I don’t know, fuck that [laughs]. I’m more connected to music that tends to be a little bit more explorative and real. If it feels real to me, then I like it; it doesn’t matter what kind of sound it is.
You said teenage years, around what age, like 13?
Yeah, around there.
Why do you think Atlanta resonates with hip-hop fans so much?
I don’t know. I think everybody’s kind of a fan of hip-hop to some extent, whether they realize it or not because it shows itself in different kinds of music and we start to see the lines become more and more blurred. It’s an exciting thing for me because hip-hop musicians should be expressing themselves in the same way as other forms of music. Although what seems to be the popular thing is, “Let's keep doing the same shit, A, B and C. Keep making the same sound until this shit don’t work no more."
And I think that Atlanta represents the diversity in show-making that Donald [Glover] is represented in music-making. His music is different from anybody else’s shit. His music is elite. And so is the show in that sense. I think that’s why people respond to it. It’s like people don’t know what they missing until… it’s been there the whole time but they just never seen it. So when it shows up on the surface, it’s like, “Wow, I didn’t even know I needed that until I knew I needed it.”
And I think that’s the same thing as hip-hop is sort of going through where everything is starting to sound the same, but I think something else is going to come up in that too like, Boom! New thing! Or the new thing might already be here and we just don’t know it yet.
Who are some of your favorite rappers currently?
Uh… 21 Savage… no, I’m just kidding [laughs]. What I really like right now is… I like Death Grips. I don’t really care about no other hip-hop. And myself. There’s some dudes that make some cool stuff, but I’m not really a fan of all that. If it come on and I’m drunk I’ll dance to it, but I ain’t really listen to any of ‘em like that.
What do you think about the state of hip-hop right now? You were talking earlier about a stalemate, what do you think about it right now?
It’s boring. I be falling asleep. It’s like the same song a thousand times about the same shit. I’m not interested in hearing the same song every time. I’m not interested in hearing the same beats every time I turn on the goddamn radio, you know what I mean? It’s just boring, especially since no one’s really trying to be creative or have anything relevant to say.
And I’m not saying you need to necessarily need to be saying something about the social justice movement of the country -- no, but it gotta be real. To me, it’s not real that you run around with 15 guns and 15 bags of money and you also kill niggas on the spot but you also a rich, successful businessman. Those things, they don’t really go together like that, you know what I mean? They create all these screens to make people think that’s really how shit go down and I’m just not really convinced.
“I got my bitch over here/She got a gun in her mouth/And she aiming it at me/And I’m going down South.” I don’t see nothing in it that’s interesting, you know? 'Cause I’ve heard it before.
What are some hip-hop albums or songs that you listen to on set to zone out?
Xavier Omar a lot. And a lot of Young Thug and Future.
What are your three favorite rap albums of all time?
I don’t know. I don’t really have favorites or like to put things in stuff like that. It’s just good or not good, but that’s just how I generally look at it because it’s too complex to kind of list them like that. I like To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick [Lamar]. I like [2Pac's] 2Pacalypse Now and I like The Money Store by Death Grips. That’s pretty much it.
And had you listened to Childish Gambino's music before working with him on the show?
Nah, I knew who he was, but I wasn’t familiar with his music. I’ve seen him on shows a couple times and I knew he raps, but I had never listened to his music. But I did start listening to his music once I got on set and it was nice. His new stuff, some renditions, some stuff he’s working on… it's dope.
So you started a hip-hop duo with HH. What made you want to start rapping yourself?
A mixture of boredom and…shit, I don’t know, that’s what everyone else was doing. At the time, we were just like, “Fuck it, let’s get a group together and just start making music.” So we just all sat around in a circle, beating on pots and pans in the driveway making up some shit. And I think the first song was “Ridin’ high all night long, we don’t stop ‘til the end of this song.” It was the best shit we ever made up until that point. Still, it might be the best shit I’ve ever made. Nah, I’m lying [laughs].
Tell me about how you linked up with HH to form Moors.
I met HH in L.A. after a screening few years ago. We were both at a screening and he expressed that he makes music. And he said, “Would you want me to send you some music?” and I said, “I rap so you could send me some.” I gave him my email, he sent me a couple beats and they sounded different than things that I was used to, you know? I didn’t really want to hear the same lame beats over and over.
I wanted to hear something that had a little bit more of an interesting touch. And some of his beats was hard for me to catch, catch the rhyme of them. But then there were others that really hit me and I’d be able to write songs in five seconds. I knew we might have something cool there, so then we made more. It’s just him and me.
What made you guys want to have fun and do it recreationally then to actually form a duo?
Well, I don’t know. I think I just started to evolve as I grew. And now, it’s not even necessarily that I want to do well, I just want to express myself. To have things that I think about and feel inspired by have a place is why I make [music.] We make music on our own time. We’re not being pushed by no label, we’re just doing what we want to do, and when we feel inspired, that’s when we make something. When I feel inspired, that’s when I write something.
But now, it’s different. It’s not like I’m necessarily taking it more serious, but back then, I was having fun starting a group. We were just like being silly, saying silly, provocative things and being funny with words. Now, with the Moors project, I feel, when I see some fucked up shit happen, when I see a family member or something go through something fucked up or I’m in a fight myself or I’m feeling suicidal, then I just write some shit down and he’ll send a beat -- sometimes right on time when I’m feeling those things. And that’s how our songs are born.
Yeah, so it ends up being like an outlet for everything?
Yeah, you know, it ends up that. When I’m doing it at the time, I just want to say the shit, but when I hear it back and I see people’s responses and they’re like, “I went through something similar," that’s when it feels like it takes off in that way. Like, you’re not the only one that’s had these thoughts. And for me, it’s a form of communion, which is nice. It’s a byproduct that I didn’t really expect.
How often do you record?
Um, I don’t know. I’ve been busy with acting and stuff, it’s been a little less frequent than I would like to. And my studio situation is weird. I would have to make my own studio in my house, that’s what I wanted to do eventually, not quite there yet. It’s been tricky because I’ve been trying to balance the two, but now I got an easel I can paint more. I got money to get the easel so I can create more.
Which do you enjoy more, music or acting?
I think I enjoy them both differently just ‘cause they’re two completely different things.
Explain the difference for me.
Well, where do I start? Acting is… my position of being an actor being a part of the story I’m trying to tell, I’m working with a team of people who are bringing together a vision. And that vision is a story that may or may not be factual and I just exist within the story. Or if I’m directing, I’m trying to communicate my vision to an audience. That’s a little bit different from working with sonics and vibrations and sounds in order to express whatever I’m feeling at the particular moment.
And I feel that music is a little bit more powerful when it comes to connecting the people and really having people move and change things. And that’s not say… cinema is a very powerful medium, but I think music is the most powerful in getting you to move. It’s a much more intimate experience for me, at least in the practice of it. I’ll spend like five hours in the studio working on a song, jam-packed with the emotional stuff of whatever that song is.
If it doesn’t even have the emotional words, if I’m just saying,“Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it,” the energy coming from the “Fuck it” is spent through that duration of time and then it’s over. We move on to the next song or we just quit for the day. On set, I go through the day, then I go do some work, then I sit down, drink a soda, smoke a cigarette, chill with the homies, come back to set, boom, do it again. It’s a whole different kind of process.
I might start writing something, and then I might get a road block or I won't know what I want to say. I’ll say everything I want to say in just a couple lines, you know what I mean? I’m like, “Damn, I don’t know what else to say.” So I leave, and then I might come back to it later and start writing more. So that relationship can exist in both [music and acting] but I’d say the experience of it is quite different.
What have you learned from working with Childish Gambino on set together?
I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s a really smart dude. First, he works hard as a motherfucker, and I look at that like that’s good. Kudos to my man because he don’t ever stop working. He keeps his concentration and his focus on what it is he’s trying to do and he also don’t give a fuck about what anybody thinks. He does what he sets out to do and he’s not taking very much consideration for other people’s perceptions about it. That makes for beautiful, true honest shit. I got a lot of respect for that and that’s my dude.
Have you guys ever talked about making music together?
Yeah, we have. We talked about it briefly. But the way I would allow that to play out is to have something organic happening come together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You said you talked about it briefly. Was it on set or post-production?
We just intermediately had the conversation, onset, offset, whenever we’d chop it up, you know what I mean? Most he was always just sharing music. He’d be like, “Oh, you check this new thing out?" or he’ll play something and I’ll come across it and I’m always pleasantly surprised by him.
And has he heard your music before?
Yeah, yeah. He digs it... And he be singing onset all the time.
That’s cool. Do you join in? Do you guys be doing freestyles on set?
We might’ve [laughs]. I don’t know. We probably had cyphers and stuff, but if we did I was probably hella drunk, so I don’t remember.
Do you see yourself in your character, Darius, at all?
Absolutely, I see myself in Darius, in Paper Boi, in Earn, in Van. I see myself in everyone. That’s what’s great about this show. I didn’t create Darius, but I helped bring him to life and in creating these types of characters, you hope that people can see themselves in them in some shape form or fashion. And I think, effectively, Atlanta does that for all of us. Big or small.
What can we expect from your character in Season 2?
Well, I hope he gets a girlfriend or something. I think he might have a family or something. Meet his dad, his mom, his brothers and sister’s and everybody’s weird and shit [laughs] and they have this interesting, offbeat disposition about them. I don’t know, who knows? I still got to find out myself.
What’s next for you musically with Moors? Do you plan to drop another project or album?
Yeah, we doing something. We don’t got no dates or anything like that, we going to just keep going, get in the studio. We might drop a little video. Share it on Twitter and Instagram. Or we might just delete all our social media accounts and just stop making music completely.
So it’s all up in the air?
Yeah, I mean, it could die at any moment like all of us.
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