Going Smart by Going Dumb: Talking Life and Art with SHIRT

The first rapper signed to Jack White’s Third Man Records talks about his new album.
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Imagine a guy dressed in baggy pants with pristine vintage Roc-A-Fella AF-1s on his feet, strolling through the MoMA. He has a certain aura about him, though you can’t see his expression yet as he’s slightly turned away from you, calmly examining the oval shapes on the dress of a pregnant woman in Gustav Klimt’s Hope. But you’re pretty sure you saw something inexplicable on his black crewneck sweater; was that really a white Nike swoosh sitting beside an Adidas leaf on its front? Then he suddenly turns to you, looks you dead in the eye with a knowing smile, and starts rapping: “I’m Sheek Louch tryin’ to cop Picassos, n*gga.”

SHIRT is one of the hardest rappers to pin down. The Queens native is constantly traveling, always on the move in both a creative and literal sense, and impossible to box in, in any sense. It’s all part of what makes him so unique. His enigmatic flair and incredibly search-engine-unfriendly moniker add a sense of discovery to his work for listeners that’s increasingly rare in today’s oversaturated media landscape. It also makes it pretty hard to secure an interview with him.

After a lot of emailing back and forth, though, SHIRT opened up to DJBooth about his life, work, and Pure Beauty, his first album with a barcode, released through Jack White’s Third Man Records.

“Important shit you learn should always inform everything you do. A poem or rap verse could be exactly the thing you need to hear to understand an entirely separate thing. It’s all metaphor. I like thinking about things as ‘poetry’ lately. Like when things happen in a certain way you didn’t or couldn’t plan and it seems to have been meant to be that way,” he says about his affinity for both the art world and rap. “We put out 'Flight Home' and Apple asked me for a selfie video introducing it. I didn't really have time but then the day it was due I had a flight home. So I got to do the video introducing my song 'Flight Home' about to catch a flight home. That’s poetry to me.”

There are more than a few videos of SHIRT in museums around the world, shot guerrilla-style. His work is as much at home between Renaissance paintings as it is on the streets of Queens, and trashes any perceived lines there might be between what’s traditionally perceived as ‘highbrow’ and as ‘lowbrow’ art. When asked whether that blurring is intentional, he scoffs at the entire distinction: “All of that just sounds like some elitist and patriarchal bullshit to me. Kids from nothing stringing complex theories together in syncopated flows and telling their stories resonating with a broader public are some of the most brilliant people walking the earth.”

“Rap is literature. It is writing. What’s the difference?” he asks. “A lot of rap is filled with more drama than a Greek tragedy. Structural racism is real. Elitism is real. If my stuff feels like blurring the lines, that's cool. But there actually is no fucking lines. I would imagine my music and art operates like that. Like there is no fucking lines.”

“My art is sharing” is as much of a definition he can give of his art outside of rap. A body of work that ranges from large, painted wooden pieces to selling snowballs on NY’s Cooper Square a few weeks ago, mirroring what fellow artist David Hammons did decades earlier.

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“I’ve gotten to be very acute when it comes to what I pick up on and what hits my eye and gets me excited,” SHIRT continues. “I’ve really come to trust that I’m gonna pick up on the good stuff and leave the bullshit alone. So my art has become sharing those details and that feeling. To me, art is about being thoughtful. Trusting your instincts. Getting smart and going dumb.”

"I love everyday objects elevated to art. I like art that helps us see what we might've missed.”

That last part appears to be something of a motto to SHIRT, who elaborated further. “I think I like art that conveys strong points in a simple and straightforward way,” he says. “I’m not about the complicated, longwinded, smart-for-the-sake-of-being-smart shit. I love everyday objects elevated to art. I like art that helps us see what we might've missed.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his love for rap ties directly into that approach. “Rap to me wasn’t just words to a beat—although words on some drums is fucking incredible. The writing became an opening for me into getting to the real talk. Then understanding rhythm, sharpening my wit and critical thinking.”

SHIRT has been hustling albums and EPs through a variety of online portals since 2010. The entirety of his discography isn’t available in a single spot, but if you’re willing to do the digging, it turns out to run quite deep. He’s built up a personal relationship with many of his fans (sending handwritten letters to the first fifty folks who bought a download of 2015’s MUSEUM, for instance) but releasing Pure Beauty through a record label is a new, surprising step for him.

“I love progression. I love challenging myself and being scared and not knowing,” he explains. “I mean, I hate it, but I love it. I was thinking the other day how much I fucked with that Jay line off 4:44 where he says, ‘Y'all niggas still signing deals? For real?’ Like, I get it. But I realized he only got there after signing a bunch of deals. I think I needed this experience.”

Jack White’s Third Man Records is a label with next to no experience in rap, but SHIRT isn't concerned. “I've been really active publicly. Not only dropping music but working on presenting art, doing public installations and ephemeral events, exciting people all over the world,” he reveals about how he ended up on their radar. “They were watching. It's back to the kind of poetry I was explaining earlier, that on the night before dropping my new album myself with no partners, Third Man reached out about wanting to stand next to me. I put my own plans on hold and respected the talk.”

Pure Beauty, SHIRT says, is titled after the artist John Baldessari's work of the same name. “For me, the purest beauty is almost ugly,” he posits, “But I rather let the music do most of the talking here.”

Those who’ve been attracted to his earlier, uncompromising approach don’t need to worry that signing a deal will change anything about that. “I didn't make this album knowing I'd sign to any label,” he says. “I make all my works like they're my last. I'm growing and this is the most updated me in every way. I recorded a full album for the first time living in a different country. I knew this would hit at least my friends and my circle and they would be listening. I knew my fans would be listening. I know my brothers need jewels. Shit, I need them too.”

Oh, and that surprising, seemingly unreal Nike-Adidas collabo gear SHIRT was rocking? It's available to anyone willing to part with a few bucks.

When asked how he’s been able to get away with selling those repurposed brand signs for years, SHIRT gives an answer that goes smart by going dumb, slyly revealing what was there all along.

“Impossible is nothing. Just do it.”

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