Your Old Droog Reveals How MF Doom, Madlib and Frank Zappa Led to the Full-Circle Moment of ‘Movie’

With “Movie,” rapper Your Old Droog is ready to make music that’s cinematic.

After eight solo albums, three collaborative projects and 10 EPs, the Ukrainian-born, Brooklyn-bred lyricist has created what he characterizes as a “seminal” work, featuring gritty, sample-heavy production from the likes of underground stalwart Madlib (“DBZ,” featuring Method Man and Denzel Curry), hitmaker Harry Fraud (“A Damn Shame”) and Grammy-nominated veteran Just Blaze (the symphonic opener “Success & Power”). As much an act of will as of hard work, Droog — whose stage name isn’t an oblique “Clockwork Orange” homage but means its translation, “friend,” literally — manifested his latest full-length both as a statement of purpose and a gesture of solidarity for listeners looking to escape their troubles. “That’s why there’s lines where I say, ‘Just because your life is fucked up don’t mean it’s got to end that way,” he explains.

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Though he remained discreet about his real name (“I want to be recognized for my work”) and the complicated cultural flashpoints where his birthplace and heritage intersect, Your Old Droog spoke recently with Variety about much else in his life, especially having to do with “Movie,” what it culminates, and how it exemplifies the skill — and style — that he’s cultivated in his career. “I’m entertaining myself in the vocal booth,” he says. “A good song is a good song, whether you’re talking about girls, or fish, or whatever.”

If you were a director, who would you be?

I’d probably say [Quentin] Tarantino, or maybe [Martin] Scorsese. I’m interested in the stories within the stories, so those two names jump out to me. But one of the movies I was watching while making this album was “Carlito’s Way,” which is a classic from back in the day — I just watched it repeatedly. I even got that lyric in the title cut, “I wish Carlito would’ve took that champagne from Benny Blanco.” That was the first song I recorded for the album, which ended up being the last [track].

What inspired “Movie,” the name for this record?

I was sitting on my couch, and it just came to me — “one day I’m going to make this seminal album called ‘Movie’. It’s going to be a big deal.” The way I envisioned it, it would happen much later in my career. I had a loose concept in mind, but I started doing songs and “Movie” got done.

Typically, do you work towards a theme?

Yeah, I prefer to have a concept. One of the things that was emphasized to me from people I respected was just having something to talk about, some meaning to the lyrics. Just rapping well, it gets a little empty. Being the best rapper, who cares? I want to talk about something. And if it’s a song about trains or girls or things that I’m interested in, I prefer it that way.

You’ve worked with MF Doom and you’re working with Madlib and Just Blaze on this record. Are they the hip-hop producers you were initially inspired by when you started rapping?

Making “Success & Power” with Just Blaze was a full-circle moment for me, because I remember being in the junior high school and dudes were making the [Freeway] “What We Do” beat by beatboxing. He was the premier producer of that era when I fell in love with hip-hop, so to work with him is a big deal. I didn’t know about Doom and Madlib until I was probably 18. I was kind of limited in terms of my hip-hop consumption during my teenage years — mostly mixtape stuff like DJ Clue and 50 Cent, and what was on the radio. So when I learned about Doom and Madlib, this whole new world opened up.

You also have all these Frank Zappa/ Mothers of Invention samples in your records. Was that educational process happening at the same time?

I heard Captain Beefheart first when I was 18, then I got to Zappa, and then I discovered Doom in the same year. So that was finding two artists I really am a huge fan of around the same time. When you find an artist that you’re a big fan of, it’s a transcendent feeling, like you’re in a higher state of consciousness almost. When I heard Doom, I was like, “I’m going to be listening to this for the rest of my life… or I might work with the guy in 10 years.” And that’s what ended up happening. To the point where I remember taking the Q Train to community college, and then when I got the Doom feature back for the first time, I took a trip back to that same community college playing the feature on repeat.

How difficult has it been to assemble this circle of regular collaborators that includes MF Doom, Edan, Pharoahe Monch, Madlib and others?

I think you get what you put out into the universe. Madlib reached out to work with me, and I remember asking, “How’d you hear about me?” He’s like, “Doom put me on you.” If I had a LinkedIn, I’d probably put that there! But Edan, I had a show and he was DJing  — I didn’t even know his work. But we connected and we realized we had similar tastes in music. Pharoahe Monch is a friend, which is crazy — this guy is one of the greatest MCs ever. I might think of a line and I’ll send it to him. I’ve known him for damn near 10 years now. But I don’t take it for granted. But I knew when I started putting music out and Sean Price reached out, I was on the right track. Or Prodigy was calling me — one of my favorite writers, period. Not just rappers, like a 20th century poet. So I’m fortunate to have people who want to work with me. Like Madlib sending me 100 beats and then telling me, “be picky?” That’s a dream.

How carefully curated is the subject matter on your records?

I make a lot of songs, and then I try to put it together and have it make sense in terms of an album. But with this record specifically, I wanted to give them all the sides of Droog, not just one thing. In 2022 when I did “Yod Stewart,” “Yod Wave” and [three other EPs], I was honing in on a specific vibe for each record. But with this album, I wanted to give them everything and the best version of YOD.

Would you say then that this record offers the most complete portrait of yourself?

Absolutely. On the outside and on the inside, I feel like I mastered certain things, like certain recording techniques, writing techniques. I feel like I mastered ad libs in late 2022, around “The Shining,” in terms of how I record them, my process of selecting them and editing. But also, I had a conversation before I worked on this album with El-P, where he was like, “Be okay with people missing you for a while. Just put everything into your 12 best songs.” So I internalized that before I was making the record, and just said, let me not do so much — let me do exactly what’s needed. I feel like I did.

You also maintain a certain degree of anonymity about yourself. How does that serve you better creatively?

I don’t really have interest in fame or the idea of celebrity. What does it even mean to be famous now? I want to be recognized for my work. With social media, everybody feels like they’re the main character, which kind of leveled the playing field. But I’m more interested in old school celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and people like him. I don’t know how we got from Sammy Davis Jr. to Khloe Kardashian.

Even so, “Grandmother’s Lessons” certainly touches on your background. For better or for worse, your identity exists at this nexus of the two very specific points of cultural sensitivity right now. How much are you interested — or not interested — in using your music to express a point of view about Ukraine or Israel?

I’m a person who works with words for a living, and I don’t even have the adjectives to describe how bad those situations are. The people that know me know how I feel. But I don’t feel like it’s my place to publicly talk about it. And plus, I like to do my research. This is very nuanced — it predates all of us. But yeah, it’s horrible.

You have a line in “Success & Power” that says, “Don’t talk about Jews/ that’s how Ye screwed up.” Is there self-protection in that as well?

Absolutely. I mean, I’m proud to be Jewish, but I just thought it was a witty line because it was a play on [Kanye West’s] line. But even though I do retain a sense of anonymity, the music has gotten more personal. If you’re listening to the music, you might know me better than certain people who know me in real life — which is crazy, because I don’t set out to be super personal on the records. But making music is inherently intimate.

Do you have a formal process in writing and recording?

If something comes to me, I’ll text it to myself — there’s this whole thread for years, and it’s always there. But sometimes I might just hear a track and something will come to me. Like “Movie” with that “Carlito’s Way” line, the moment I played the beat, I said the line. So I like to keep it naturally flowing, almost in a freestyle type of way, where there’s a voice or something telling me what to say. So I respect and honor that, because I feel like if I don’t put that idea down, I might not get another one. I was in a rehearsal with my DJ working on the set for this concert [in New York] on July 10th, and he looped up this Led Zeppelin sample, and a concept arose out of thin air. So I wrote a verse with a little loose hook concept thing, and it’s dope. But I don’t know how we’re going to clear a Led Zeppelin sample.

How strategic are you with your career in general? As much as you want “Movie” to be a defining work, is it a stepping stone to other things that you feel you haven’t accomplished yet?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t even say I was trying to make it, I feel like I was told that I was going to make it, so I had to respect that. And the deeper meaning of it is we don’t decide how our early lives start, or how sometimes even our careers might start. It might be rocky, or you might have a traumatic childhood. But there comes a point where you can kind of direct your life — your movie — and you can write that script. So this is me writing what I want my life to be, what I want my career to be. That’s why there’s lines on “Movie” where I say, “Just because your life is fucked up don’t mean it’s got to end that way.” Or, “put that pen to the page and write your own plot twist.” That’s the deeper meaning.

Did you feel a sense of catharsis when you finished “Movie,” or did it inspire you to go even bigger next time?

Absolutely. I had some shows that I did about two years ago, and I feel like I needed to perform at those concerts to make “Movie.” It’s like going to the gym almost — you’re taking information and energy back in from the crowd. There’s a lyric that they all shouted back at me, and it did something to me physically. And when I went back to when working on the album, I already knew certain lyrics were going to have that same effect on a larger scale. So I did feel a sense of accomplishment. Like that “Success & Power” beat — it felt like I had to reach it. The Harry Fraud tracks [“How Do You Do It?,” “Mantra” and “A Damn Shame”], I never really rhymed on beats with 808s and trap drums like that. But they’re not trap beats. But they’re bigger sounding and they’re on a larger stage. And I just wanted to meet that. I feel at home on bigger stages, and that’s where I want to be.

Notwithstanding the album cycle for “Movie,” how much are you going to take El-P’s advice and make people miss you a little bit after this?

I prefer to do a traditional way: You put an album out, you tour for two years, you come back with another record. That would be ideal. But let’s see what happens — I might be feeling more inspired.

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