This interview originally appeared in Ink19.
He gave out free watermelons and rocked the show. During his performance at this year’s Hideout Block Party in Chicago, Brooklyn-based hip hop/folk artist Tim Fite made his set a little sweeter — with the help of his DJ, Dr. Leisure — by handing, flinging, and tossing out watermelons while he deftly merged hip hop with folk music, whipping up a block-rocking, last-party-of-the-summertime fruit salad.
Watching the show, I thought that with the free melons, Fite might be following in the wake of his second album Over the Counter Culture that has been available for free on his Web site since late 2006 and ended up on several of 2007’s Best Of lists. But these free melons were more than just a goofy stage prop. I quickly learned it was a case of Fite flexing his creative and thrifty side on the fly.
Just minutes after his set, we found a spot to talk about his latest album (second proper on ANTI), Fair Ain’t Fair, his love for tasty words, how he overcame fear and sadness during recording, and what sort of animals hide underneath his kitchen table when he writes songs.
We grabbed a seat in a back alley on the cement loading dock of a fish plant one block away from the block party. The awe of a post-show high was plastered on his face so I waited for Fite to come back down to Planet Earth as his t-shirt dried and steam evaporated from the glasses he now had on.
We both glared at a trickling run-off stream from the fish plant that made a puddle in front of us.
That was a heck of a show, man.
It was a lot of fun.
Where did the idea for the watermelons come from? I was expecting some sort of Gallagher smashing.
Yeah, last night we saw this produce store across the street and they had watermelons for 49¢, so we bought a bunch of them because we knew we didn’t have the normal screen projector as a backdrop to show my films during the show.
Watermelons or film projector backdrop, in general, where do you come up with what you do live and on record?
I started stealing and then I did so much stealing someone eventually told me that I should let people hear about things I stole and start playing shows. Then I wondered how to do that since at that point I was just a thief and not a musician. I love rap music more than life itself. I started to think that the show could be like a rap show, but not rap music per se.
At this point the water drain in front of us starts shooting out more water creating a larger river and puddle. Then a plant worker comes up the alley.
Worker: Well, it looks like we sprung a leak.
Fite: Yeah, but I was hoping it would start pouring down on us so I could take a shower under it.
Worker: This is a fish place. You probably don’t want that water coming down on you.
Fite: Well, I’m getting on a plane in, like, an hour.
Worker: That would be perfect… you could rub your socks in it.
Fite: Yeah, airlines love it when people smell really bad…
Worker: [laughs] Yeah, especially when you sit in the middle of the plane.
The worker leaves and Fite studies the fish water puddle again to regain his thoughts and answer my question.
Fite: (chuckles)… so I started to really wonder how to do shows without knowing how to play music and learn like everyone else does. Then I found the greatest DJ of all time, DJ Dr. Leisure. He changes his name all the time and I always get it wrong but he always corrects me. Today he didn’t tell me what his name was so I got it wrong again and we didn’t have our normal project, so I forgot the order of operations. There were a lot of people today and I got a little nervous.
Well, I had no idea you guys were improvising. But it was a lot of fun to watch. I saw a little bit of everything in your performance. You reminded me a lot of the crazy preacher from the film There Will be Blood but in a more KFC, Colonel-Sanders-does-hip hop, emcee folk-music version.
Yeah, that preacher guy was pretty hardcore.
So you’re from Brooklyn, but grew up in New Jersey?
What groups introduced you to hip hop?
I think De La Soul and Public Enemy were the first ones to really stab me in the eye. But you know… the best emcee above and beyond right now is Devin the Dude. He is able to make party music without dehumanizing anyone. There’s so much of hip hop [that] is dehumanizing, materialistic, and terrible, but it works because most parties are that and hip hop is party music for the most part. Or at least its origins are. By the time I got into it, it stopped being a party and started being [points to his temple] a party up here. And now it’s back to being just drinking songs for clubs. Devin’s music sounds so good but when you listen to his music you’re also aware that [the scene he’s rapping about] is not so good and he’s saying something about it. That’s magic and he’s the best.
Is that where you get a lot of your funny mix of message and metaphors? How did you come up with your style?
Not sure. I don’t know. I just wanted to write songs. I try to say what I see without saying what I see. There’s people that just sort of list the words… like “Oh, there’s a truck in the parking lot. There’s a bird drinking out of the puddle.” Well, that’s fine and sounds pretty. But I want to know why the bird is drinking out of the puddle and figure out a way to ask that without entirely inferring an answer.
A lot of your beats and samples have a different sound and texture to them then most hip hop beats, and I’ve read that you do a lot of digging. For your first album Gone Ain’t Gone, you limited yourself to only sample records that cost a dollar or less. I know you don’t have that limit with your last two albums but how do you go about samples and finding the right beats?
Steal them. [chuckles] Some people just rob one house and all they get is a TV and some pearls. That’s not very interesting to me. You got to steal from the whole world. I believe in equal opportunity theft. [chuckles] Everybody can be a part of that. [Musical] theft is a good theft because no one gets hurt. That’s one of the great things about music in general. Those beats and sounds exist with or without the people who make them. We give way too much credit to the producers and beat makers. Those people deserve a lot of credit for being able to make those sounds. But I think those sounds are there even without them. Even before they played it. They just help it be louder.
Interesting perspective. It sounds like you really like taking advantage of the creative commons side of stealing. What do you like most about songwriting?
Writing the words and singing and feeling them. Like food feels a certain way going down your throat, words feel a certain way coming out of your mouth. I like getting to know how they taste. Each word tastes different and they all have different textures. A lot of them don’t taste so good. You spit those ones out and try again. I like to keep a stack of napkins [chuckles] when I’m writing and spit ’em out, hide them and feed them to whatever fuckin’ animal is hiding under the kitchen table. It’s like here [chuckles]. “[low gravelly animal voice] Ergh… this tastes like shit…” [chuckles].
So what kind of animal is hiding under you table?
Mostly bad dogs…
You released your third album in May — not a free one or so much a hip hop album like Over the Counter Culture, so what excites you about Fair Ain’t Fair?
I was excited to pick up where Gone Ain’t Gone (2005) left off. Over the Counter Culture is like a sidebar, a beautiful side bar and very special. I had to make it. I like things in threes, so there’ll be a third following these two. I’m thinking about that and trying to sound a little better than I did before and learn more and figure out ways to improve.
I think the hardest part about life now is that we lose places to improve. We have to work so hard to get buy, pay rent, and keep everything going. So improving gets put aside as an afterthought. The only way to improve is to buy a nicer house, bigger TV, or make more babies that we can’t afford to feed. Please don’t get me wrong; babies totally improve the world but there are a lot of babies that don’t get the chance to improve because of the situations they’re born into. We just need to make sure that everyone can improve and has the chance to until the day they die. If we could do that we could do better.
What challenges you or keeps you from improving?
[Long pause] I got real sad. I didn’t improve. I went backwards and I got real sad. I had to realize that I wasn’t improving and force myself to face it and somehow move on. So I had to start way back on Fair Ain’t Fair.
What scared when you were recording Fair Ain’t Fair?
I still had to improve on listening more; before I wouldn’t listen. I wasn’t that careful, either. Some things I didn’t hear and other things I would over-scrutinize. I learned a lot from Dr. Leisure about not over-scrutinizing. He’s real open to the way things land. When I see things land I want to put them in a row. And I feel bad about that.
Do you guys work together a lot during the recording process?
I do most of the recording. Greg [Dr. Leisure] does a lot of the glitching and DJ sounds; he doesn’t use turntables, instead he uses tape decks and other stuff. One of the things I’m learning is to be more open about collaboration. That’s hard for me because I like to work all the time and I don’t know if anybody else does [chuckles].
What did you do before you made music?
I made pictures, films. I hope to quit music someday and just make pictures. I get the feeling that there’s going to come a day when I won’t be able to improve in music anymore; not because I’ll be perfect but because I’m so bad at it that I’ll just say “fuck it, this is a plateau.” I want to give up before I become that old guy wearing stretch pants.
Fite digs into his pocket and studies his tour itinerary on a slip of paper and checks his watch.
I got to go… is that okay?
No problem. It was a nice chat and you guys put on a great show. It was fun watching fans enjoy your music and the new converts you made during your set. Enjoy your flight.