Gary Clark Jr. Is Your Favorite Rapper's Favorite Guitarist

Gary Clark Jr. Is Your Favorite Rapper's Favorite Guitarist

On a Thursday afternoon in Houston, Gary Clark Jr. is desperately in search of the proper hat to complete his stage outfit. He needs to look dapper, because in a few hours he will be going head-to-head against Texas legend Paul Wall for Red Bull's annual SoundClash. Nonetheless, he takes the time to chat while a headwear hunt ensues outside the door.

Nursing a Red Bull can, Clark manages to offset the caffeine with his calm and collected demeanor. Onstage, it's a different story. With a guitar, the Austin native opens portals, seemingly possessed by the souls of every guitar great to ever live.

While those familiar with Clark will understand why a blues-rock maestro would be matched up with a Southern rap legend, it's a combination that will still turn heads. Clark's third studio album, This Land, won Grammys in both the blues and rock categories, earning significant attention for its fiery title track that grabs racism and bigotry by the neck. The 38-year-old musician enjoyed the increased success and visibility, but with it came the price of being thrust into a political space.

On stage in Houston, Clark had a chance to show that he's always been a student and lover of hip-hop music. With collaborations ranging from Blackillac and Trae the Truth to Childish Gambino and Tech N9ne, the renaissance man does not need to prove anything to anyone. That doesn't mean he can't flex his skills on the SoundClash stage.

Ahead of his incredible performance, PAPER had a chance to sit down with the generational talent to discuss supporting This Land, politics, Southern hip-hop and so much more.

You've had a busy year playing music and now you're performing at a SoundClash!

I just finished a tour. This is my last gig of the year, actually.

What is it like going from a tour to this unconventional live show format?

The whole touring thing is cool. You get out there and rock for a couple hours, but this right here, this Red Bull SoundClash with Paul Wall, is kind of a dream of mine. I mean, I was listening to Paul Wall when I was 14. I like this format. It's crazy. Paul was singing my song. I've been singing his songs since I was a kid. To see him over there and he's singing my stuff? It's cool. It's an honor. It's big for Texas. I like the idea of two stages going back and forth and the crowd turning around one minute and turning back around the other.

The lineup would make some people confused because they don't see you as a hip-hop artist, but that's the beauty of this format. How do you connect your hip-hop roots with guitar music?

I make beats all the time. Yeah, I still make beats! Well, the thing that's kind of funny is I never set out to be a rock player. Not to make it weird or whatever, but I never grew up listening to rock. I didn't have rock records in my house. That was an influence from other friends. I grew up playing soul music and the first guitars that I knew were Eddie Hazel, Parliament Funkadelic and stuff like that. So I think my main influence has always been hip-hop, R&B, soul, you know, funk music. That's what moves me. Of course, you're influenced by everything, and friends of mine that played guitar introduced me to Guns 'n Roses, Slash and things like that. It was strange when my first record came out. It was put in a rock category, so I was kind of considered this rock guy or this blues-funk-soul guy. I think the perception of me is like a rock-and-roller, but I'm a falsetto-singing crooner. "Bright Lights" is probably the most aggressive thing that I sing. It's a strange place to be in.

Especially because music is one of those places where it doesn't matter how you may label yourself, it's out of your hands. Everyone else is in charge of that.

It's funny you asked this because no one really ever asked this and so I never really got a chance to explain it. I was in Australia, doing my first tour over there. I was driving to the hotel from the airport and I saw these posters plastered all over with my face and it said, "the next Jimi Hendrix," and I was devastated. I was like, "I'm fucked." Like, just devastating to me.

Is it because of the pressure to "live up" to Jimi?

Well, there's that. And it's like, not giving somebody a chance to be their own person. And when you see Jimi Hendrix or what Jimi Hendrix was? It's not who I am.

I'm sure people also automatically compare the two of you because you're Black and have a guitar.

Yeah, I mean, I get Jimi Hendrix. I get Lenny Kravitz. You know, but it's never BB King, Buddy Guy, Eddie Hazel, George Benson, Wes Montgomery. It's never that comparison. It's never Muddy Waters. It's Jimi Hendrix. They would call me Lenny to my face! "Sup, Lenny! Good job!" I think it's a weird thing to put on somebody. It's like, "Oh, Black guy with a guitar? You must rock out," which is true! But my soul is really in blues, R&B, soul, funk, hip- hop. So thanks for letting me clear that up.

You had to sit with This Land a bit longer because of the pandemic, and the title track took on another life in light of the protests at the beginning of the pandemic. How has your relationship with it changed?

I think we did what we were meant to do with it. The pandemic was great for me. I mean, not actually great for me. But I was at a point where I was working on the album for a long time, at least a year, and then toured it pretty heavy internationally for a while. I ended up being back at home that October of 2019 and I was like "Guys, I just need to have a rest. I got a family and a bunch of young kids. I just need to go away for a while." And then March came around and it was like, you don't have any choice! Everybody's gonna go sit down. It actually was stressful and crazy, but I got a chance to watch my kids grow up. I would be on the road and come back and they grew so much. It's like, damn, I missed so much and started to feel bad about it. I actually had a couple of years to sit and just be with my family, which I really cherished a lot. As far as the record and everything, I think we did what we set out to do and I'm proud of it. But yeah, I was ready to sit down and I think I'm ready for the next one.

Yeah, it kind of got this second life in the middle of this thing when everything was going down. That was a crazy thing for me and "This Land" because all of a sudden people go, "Oh, you make political music!"

What was it like being thrust into this political space?

In particular, it was just the song "This Land." It was one of those things where I was reflecting on experiences that I had when I was young. I don't know if it was triggered, but it was annoying having something else happen close to me. I can't even talk about that. I literally can't talk about that at all. That shit is a nightmare for me. It was just kind of like these feelings surfacing again. In the middle of writing a record, you're inspired by things that happened to you or, you know, feelings that are provoked. I happened to have this thing that I hadn't really touched on. It's been love. It's been heartbreak, you know, "Please Come Home" and "Blak and Blu" and that type of stuff.

When I was touching on this [experience], I was like, "This is mine. I'm here. I'm proud of myself. You can't stop me, you can't affect me, you can't touch me." I say one dude's name with the intention of going, "You can keep it as a capital T or a lowercase t, but it is still the same thing." We're in this country that is built on capitalism and building and stepping over the next person to climb the ladder to get to this thing. That's what the trump card is. You pull out the trump card, you're trumping something. That's what this country is, so it's like kind of this double thing. And I didn't know if people will get it. Maybe they'll get it. Then I was on MSNBC, or whatever it is, and I'm in one of those boxes talking like a political analyst about this song. And I'm like, "This is not what this is." They take one word that I said and it flips the whole thing. I guess it didn't quite hit. Then it became "Let's test the waters here." I got asked, "What are you? Are you anti-this, anti-Trump? Do you have a problem? Do you want to sit down with Trump?"

I am so glad they didn't actually make you sit down with Trump.

There was this energy going on that made it obvious that people were uncomfortable. I'm going to touch on that a little bit, and then move on. That was intended to be the focus. "What is this? What is that?" It's a song, man. It's a song. You're not asking me about any other words in the other songs. I'm not this political activist. I'm not this revolutionary guy. It's a song that happened to be on the same record as love songs. There's happy songs, party songs, confused songs, depressed songs and there's a song that happened to be a "fuck you" song. It turned into this whole thing. It was crazy. It was nuts. I'll sit through these interviews and it's all politics, politics, political. I learned a lot though, which was that you say one thing and there's whole wave. It's a weird culture that we live in.

It's always what you least expect to take on a life of its own.

Yeah, that's true. But that's just kind of the world we live in. Acceptance is a beautiful resolve.

Which rappers did you listen to growing up?

The Geto Boys, Scarface, UGK, Screwed Up Click, Swishahouse, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, Lil Flip. Those are my guys. In Austin, I was really influenced by Bavu Blakes. I'm a big fan of that because I hear live elements, organs and things that are familiar to music that I play.

Hip-hop is beautiful in that it's so self-referential and so innovative, especially Southern rap. You had Trick Daddy sampling Ozzy Osbourne!

That's crazy, right? Trick Daddy did his thing with that.

I started rapping and getting into cyphers because my bars were like, "Pull up to the spot, got that swisher sweet box/ Got that money in my pocket, got that herb in my socks/ Beat knocks in the Cadillac, laid-back style/ Ladies line up to the ride to take a picture, single-file/ Smile, click. My clique stay froze, my clique stay froze, my clique stay chose." That's my style! Southern rap, Houston rap, that's how I started rapping.

Do you approach your songwriting differently if you're working on a rap song compared to a blues song?

Well, it depends. Some songs are written by the playing guitar. A lot of them are me making beats and then building the music around them, like the chord structure and the arrangements. I'll go back and put the lyrics over it like a rapper would. That's it. I can't help it. I'm influenced by the culture. I am part of this whole thing. I was listening to rap stuff before the blues. Before I was introduced to the blues, I was introduced to it by listening to Wu-Tang chop up Albert King. And I was like, "Oh, this is all connected."

Photography courtesy of Jade Gomez