Enter Sandman: On the Cusp. Still.
Walking up to meet Sandman, the first thing I see is the flash of light fom the photo shoot. Night time, light drizzle, in a back lot off a side-street in Northern Liberties. Sandman’s hulking frame stands before the lights of a Dodge Magnum wagon as the photog snaps away.
“Yeoooo, Caaaaaanonnnnnnnnnnnn,” I yell.
Sand doesn’t holler back. He’s in grind-mode flicking it up.
Photos finished, Sand approaches me with his big hand outstretched. We exchange pounds and head inside a friend’s house/ studio to knock out the interview. First, a stop in the studio where the finishing touches are being put on a new track called “Roam,” a single with Sandman accompanied by an acoustic guitar and hook courtesy of Cookie Rabinowitz. A break from the norm but Sandman is no stranger to breaks. Good or bad.
His first deal was offered to him at 15 years old by RuffNation Records. There is a Trackmasters produced album no one has heard. At one point, he had a deal with Interscope Records. During a meeting with Capitol Records A&R President Wendy Goldstein, Sandman walked out after she asked if he could make Chingy records.
We move upstairs where Sandman, draped in a dark Dickies outfit, Timbos and a black Phillies New Era cap, sinks into the leather couch. Known for his stylized and versatile flow patterns, voice inflections that ride the beat flawlessly and well-crafted storytelling rhymes, he settles in while waiting for his weed bol to come through.
I promise not to ask any questions about what happened with the Re-Up Gang, his former quartet with Malice and Pusha T from the Clipse and Philadelphia’s Ab-Liva. The situation was tight and looked promising but yet again, another situation imploded. There were accusations and a fallout. Then the quartet became a trio with Sandman’s departure.
“Naw, I’m going to speak on it,” he says. “For the last time. And that’s it.”
The details are virtually irrelevant but Sandman makes reference to questionable decisions that were made by those in charge. Pusha and Malice were the “CEOs.” He doesn’t agree with some of the decisions they made, noting that not one video was shot for the critically acclaimed We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series. In the end, he accepts it. There’s no ill will.
“Shout out to Clipse,” Sand states. “Shout out to Liva.”
There was a point in time where the pairing of Sandman and the Clipse may not have made much sense to Sand. The Clipse are known as the forefather’s of coke rap. Sandman was vehemently against drugs since seeing his grandmother’s house get raided in his youth.
“I come from a family of kingpins,” he offers. “All that shit I said, I’ve seen. Every day.”
He is still able to recite a rap he wrote when he was 15. Hat pulled low, his eyes close as he zones out and dips into the memory banks. For 5 minutes straight, Sandman spits a capella style. Originally over the Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” beat, the rhyme is full of the staple street images. But listening to the story and saga unfold, you realize it’s not a happy ending or glorification of the lifestyle.
“Back then all my rhymes were aimed at the downfall,” he notes.
Later, Sand is in the middle of kicking another anti-drug rhyme from his younger days when we his weed bol arrives. Sandman acknowledges the entrance of his connect and finishes the rap he won a school contest with. The last line: “Do yourself a favor/ And don’t sell drugs.”
So how did he transition from anti-drug dealing to stone cold hustler?
“That’s life,” Sand explains earnestly.
But while many rapper’s are braggadocious about it, he isn’t trying to justify his actions. Only explain them.
“Another reason I go at this rap shit so hard,” Sandman explains, “is that I don’t ever want to hustle again. Not like that. The game is fucked up.”
During high school, street life took him away from a serious football future.
The rap game got him off the corners.
Sandman connected with legendary DJ and producer Clark Kent. Clark said he didn’t want to fuck with a drug dealer. Sand had to make a choice. What really pushed him over the edge was Clark telling him he gave the same choice to two other drug dealers: Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z.
When put like that, the choice was clear. Sand told his business partner he was out the drug game and gave him all his work.
“Philly is hard,” he says. “The shit I was listening to, I was seeing. Whether drug dealing or fighting or block parties and happiness. The whole reality of what was going on here. It was real. it was pure. But it was also hard. Being from Philly, you are prepared for anything.”
Part of what it prepared Sand for was battle rapping, he says, noting the influence of Philly’s Schoolly D, the original gangster rapper.
“We breed rappers,” he says. “I was able to spar all the time because they were rappers everywhere in the city.”
One of his early breaks came at a roller skating rink on Roosevelt Boulevard in the Northeast. Sand was taking on someone over a game of NBA Jam. The other kid started freestyling and when the game ended and EPMD’s “So Whatcha Saying” came over the speakers, Sand decided he had to let the dude know he was nice with his word game too. A cipher broke out. That cipher grew into weekly battles. After a chance meeting with the owner of the rink, who was impressed with the number of people the weekly battles attracted, Sandman was hired to perform on Friday and Saturday nights for $500. His manager/ mother, then known as PDP (Positive Duo Productions), negotiated the deal.
Back then, Sandman wasn’t known as Sandman. He went by his government name, Daytwine. When I ask where the name Sandman comes from, Sand starts fucking with his phone. He wouldn’t be the first rapper to take a call, send out a Tweet or check his email during an interview. But it turns out he is calling Aisha, the girl who gave him the nickname when they were teenagers. The woman on the other end of the speakerphone is sleepy and sultry. I have no idea what she looks like but with a voice like that, I can only imagine. After some gentle prodding she relents.
“He got the name from kissing,” she says. “His kisses used to feel like they were putting me to sleep.”
His boys used to clown him. Then, one day on the football field, he delivered a devastating hit, putting someone else to sleep in an entirely different manner.
The name stuck.
Sandman dropped his Mt. Crushmore mixtape back in May. If you have any doubts about his skill level, please refer to him blacking out over Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now.” On the original track there is a guest spot for the silver-tongued Busta Rhymes. Sand manages to out bust Busta’s flow.
But here’s a dirty little industry secret: In the studio there is a technique known as “punching in.” It is the practice of being able to take snippets of vocals and arrange them, cut-and-paste style. More times than I can count I will hear a rapper on a mixtape, then see them in person, and realize they are a studio legend. They only sound good because of the studio engineer.
He has a mixtape of his crew – the C.A.N.N.O.N.S. Inc. movement, with 11 MCs – ready to flood the streets. He has visions of a distribution deal and a major label merger. He wants to turn C.A.N.N.O.N.S. Inc. into Philadelphia’s hip-hop Motown.
For his own projects, he has videos for Mt. Crushmore en route. He’s re-releasing his Ginormous mixtape with new tracks. His latest album, Grains of Sand, just dropped.
Those breaks don’t happen as a result of luck but from a combination of relentless and consistent hard work and talent.
Sandman has both going for him.