March 3, 2005
Interview with Citizen Cope
By Canyon Cody
Published in The Heights
Rarely will I do this, but I'm going to spare the reader a long-winded introduction and just come out and say it: You need to stop reading this and go buy Citizen Cope's new album, The Clarence Greenwood Recordings.
If you don't like it and later regret your purchase, I will personally refund your money. That's how good this album is.
There's nothing especially unique about what Citizen Cope does - he's a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck, and Bob Dylan, but Cope incorporates subtle hip-hop rhythms to accompany his gritty, woeful wail and acoustic guitar. Beck is the closest thing around today to Citizen Cope's hybrid of folk, funk, and hip-hop.
But while Beck busies himself with experimental meanderings, Cope gives listeners what they want, proving that it's better to be good than unique. There's no need to reinvent the wheel, as long as you roll with style.
Nowadays, singer-songwriters tend to be pretty boys with pretty songs, but Citizen Cope sings about his reality, which hasn't always been pretty.
"I sing about the people around me, the people I've met in D.C. and all over the place, but they're not always normal, model citizens," said Citizen Cope during our recent interview.
Listening to Citizen Cope is like reading a Jack Kerouac story filled with lovers and lunatics. On "Pablo Picasso," Cope sings from the perspective of a deranged man in love with a woman painted on a wall mural. Even when he sings about someone estranged from reality, it is obvious that Cope sings with sympathy.
"I try to put myself into the reality of the character, no matter how crazy he is," he said.
Citizen Cope, aka Clarence Greenwood, released his self-titled debut in 2002, but soon after left his record label, Dreamworks, because they weren't sufficiently promoting his album. He bought himself out of his contract using the advance from his next album and then signed to Arista, recording The Clarence Greenwood Project in the interim time.
The album's lead single, "Bullet and a Target" features Citizen Cope at his best. Cope layers piano and strings over the best beat you'll ever hear on a singer-songwriter's album.
The rhythm and percussion stands out throughout the album, integrating hip-hop breakbeats and live drums.
"When I was growing up, I tried to learn the guitar and the trumpet, but I couldn't play at first, so I started making beats, messing with drum machines and samplers," said Cope.
Before he was Citizen Cope, Greenwood was the DJ for a funky, laid back Washington, D.C. hip-hop crew called Basehead.
"Hip-hop taught me a lot about song structure, about the idea of measures and choruses," said Cope.
Cope's previous dabbling with hip-hop shaped his cadence, rhyme scheme, and narrative structure, but in contrast to Everlast or Wyclef Jean, Cope's hip-hop influence is subtle and well integrated.
In Citizen Cope's music you can hear bits of Bob Marley, bits of Ben Harper, and bits of Al Green, but Citizen Cope is no carbon-copy imitator.
His music is deeply personal and there's an audible honesty in his words. Citizen Cope's songs reflect the natural genesis of his musical talent.
"I couldn't afford all these expensive drum machines and samplers, so I just picked up the guitar and started plucking at it one string at a time, getting to know each string with my heart, instead of trying to understand it with my head," said Cope.
The album features a guest appearance from Carlos Santana on "Son's Gonna Rise," a hectic tale about racing to the hospital with his pregnant wife going into labor in the backseat.
Me'shell Ndegeocello plays bass on "Sideways," a beautiful song full of pathos and regret about lost love, where Cope laments, "These feelings won't go away."
Soon everybody will know about Citizen Cope, but before then you can take advantage of his relative obscurity by seeing him perform at the intimate Paradise Lounge on Wednesday.