George Watsky sits unassumingly offstage, legs comfortably outstretched while Chukwudi Hodge hypes up a packed Bear Tooth Theatre Pub crowd with remixes of Cyndi Lauper and Outkast. Despite his seemingly calm demeanor, Watsky’s jaw is clenched, eyes piercingly focused on the stage. As a familiar forlorn Chopinesque piano excerpt reverberates throughout the venue, Watsky stoically takes the stage and beelines for the microphone. The house lights dim and a single shaft of light cuts through the darkness, silhouetting the young rapper who begins his set with spoken word poetry.
“What a tangle/ What a strangling knot to be caught in/ To be exiled here/ To be stuck in Berlin with Vienna so near,” Watsky chants rhythmically as he moves his right hand like a wave in perfect time with his multi-syllabic rhymes.
As his opening number emphatically declared, the 30-year-old San Francisco native is far from a typical rapper. His clothing is simple; white t-shirt, black skinny jeans, blue hoodie and a solitary silver thumb ring. Although reasonably tall, he is rail thin and sports a subtle lisp when he talks. In fact, in terms of physical appearance, little about Watsky is congruous with stereotypical rap culture, and that’s exactly the way he wants it.
“There are no rules for what it means to be a rapper and I think it is really important to have respect for the history and art form of the genre if you want to have anything to do with it, no matter what it is,” Watsky explained. “For rap, it goes double if you are a white person who wants to be a part of it. The thing that I focus on is ‘Am I being honest to myself? Am I being honest with my craft? It’s really up to the listener to decide if they fuck with me or not.”
For Watsky, being honest means sticking to his deeply rooted love of slam poetry.
“I went to go see Def Poetry Jam which was a Broadway show that also had a theater version in 2003 when I was 15 and I was blown away by it,” Watsky exclaimed. “I just became obsessed with spoken word and joined a youth organization that did workshops and open mic nights—I got really involved in it. I started doing competitions when I was a teenager and I just never stopped.”
His talent for spoken word garnered him national attention as well as a spot on season six of “Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry.” He then went on to pursue a career as a professional slam poet but it was a seemingly innocuous video entitled “Pale Kid Raps Fast” that became a viral hit on YouTube and brought Watsky into the mainstream for his lightning fast rapping.
“Being the fastest rapper in the world is not something I am interested in. At a certain point, you can’t understand what is being said anymore and I think I am reaching that precipice. I think five or six words a second was what that video timed out to,” Watsky told Ellen DeGeneres on a 2011 television appearance.
Although Watsky is still well-known for his speed, it is his lyrical poetry set to catchy beats that sets him apart from his peers.
“I’ve been doing music for many, many years and I’ve become more versatile. I’m still not a virtuosic musician by any means, in terms of being a trained person who can read charts and play a bunch of different instruments but I can do simple chord progressions,” said Watsky. “I’m workman-like when it comes to my music as opposed to my writing which is something I really take pride in as the thing I want to distinguish me from other people.”
This summer, Watsky made another huge step toward continuing to distinguish his unique brand of artistry with the release of his first book of essays How to Ruin Everything. The book was released to critical acclaim and garnered the artist a coveted spot on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Despite his incredible success as a poet, musician and now essayist, Watsky remains humble and approachable. A perfect example being his friendly banter with the Bear Tooth crowd.
"You sent me a message on Instagram? I've never checked my Instagram messages, ever! I'm on Twitter and IRL—in real life, I'm really good at that shit," Watsky laughed as he responded to a fan in the front row and launched into another song.
Throughout his performance, he nimbly jumped from stage to barricade and back again continuing to interact with the crowd.
“You guys know what would be a great name for a porno? You, Me and a Moose. Somebody has got to make that shit up,” he mischievously chuckled. “But seriously, I love this state! When I came up here a year-and-a-half-ago, I promised I would come back and I promise you this, I will be back again!”
Watsky ended the 61st performance of his x Infinity Tour in fitting fashion—by crowd surfing on his knees, continuing to rap before falling back into the crowd as the final note resounded. Of course, Watsky is no one if not a showman, so he took the stage for two additional encores before finally retreating to his party bus-turned-makeshift greenroom.
As the fans filed out of the venue, many excitedly proclaimed their love for Watsky with Snapchats, Instagram photos and Facebook posts. Others purchased the remaining small quantities of merchandise for sale. It seemed that Watsky had accomplished what he set out to do—fill his fans with emotion.
“Something that I’ve had to learn was that you don’t have to say the most convoluted, complicated thing to make it sound poetic. Good poetry a lot of times is being as true to the point that you’re trying to make as possible,” Watsky earnestly said. “You’re trying to basically take an emotion out of your chest and put it into the chest of your listener and sometimes that requires complete simplicity and cutting out all the bullshit.”
*Originally published in the Anchorage Press