It’s been less than three years since Columbus emcee Envelope (a.k.a. Tony Collinger) released his debut album, Insignificant Anthems, but listening to his follow-up, Shark Bolt!, would suggest that more water has passed under the bridge. Not that there was anything amateurish about his debut, but his new record (due out July 8 on Weightless Records) shows a sharpened sense of self and more complexity both lyrically and musically.
Though he’s been taking to the mic for most of the past decade, Envelope’s name is probably unfamiliar to most outside of the Agit Reader’s homebase in the heart of the heart of it all. That may soon change, partially because the album is a collaboration with Weightless head Blueprint, known as an emcee in his own right and for his work in Soul Position with RJD2, who produced the record. But mostly because the album is that good. While Envelope’s blue-collar upbringing has always lent itself to social commentary, on Shark Bolt! he’s incisive in his reflections on both worldly affairs and more personal concerns. With Blueprint’s creative pairing of samples from a wealth of sources to big beats, the album has all the pieces in the proper places. I caught up with Envelope the morning after a long night of drinking for both of us.
Why name the album Shark Bolt? Is there an overriding concept to that?
Envelope: I think of the imagery first and work backwards, and I thought it would be a sweet album cover. It’s better than any of the other ideas I’ve had. The idea is also that everything is attacking from every direction. I could go on, but I’d probably just be making shit up.
If the other one was Insignificant Anthems, are these significant anthems?
E: They’re just as insignificant.
How was it different working with Blueprint instead of Amos (Famous, producer on Insignificant Anthems)?
E: Because Blueprint is a rapper too, he knows how to produce for a rapper. Plus he’s worked with so many other people and so many different styles that he really knew how to cater to what I was doing. And the guy’s a wealth of knowledge, with lots of tips as far as delivery and recording techniques.
On “Looking In” it’s almost hard to distinguish the two of you. Were you trying to emulate him at all on that track?
E: No, that song was actually something he already had the concept for. I was just trying to fit the beat. I usually like talking about things directly, more overtly, and on that song I felt like I was tiptoeing around what I was trying to talk about.
The sample works so well on that song. Did the sample come first?
E: Yeah, that’s Etta James. The sample came first. Typically when I work, the beat and production come first and then I come up with concepts and ideas from that. I rarely write before hearing the beat.
Did you have specific goals for the record that were different than with Insignificant Anthems?
E: I wanted to make sure that I made a record that would translate well to a live setting because I know if anything is going to go right for me music wise, it’s going to be winning fans over on the road. So that was a conscious decision, but otherwise there’s just a certain type of music that I like and that I want to make. I like to have a “warmth,” and Blueprint knows that I like melodic beats and he tried to cater to that.
Do you think it has more warmth than the last record?
E: I think so. Also, I’ve found that at shows I never do the third verses of songs. By the time you get to that point, the audience is tired. And having friends like Times New Viking and getting into hardcore and punk, where the songs are so short, I’ve begun to feel like I should say what I have to say and get it over with. There’s so many rap songs that are a good two or three minutes longer than they need to be. So I tried to keep the songs on the new album short and sweet and potent.
So do you feel like more people discover you live than by picking up the record?
E: Yeah, but it’s hard to tell in Columbus because it’s mostly friends and people I grew up with. But I’ve been doing more shows out of town, and it seems like then people really give a shit because you’ve made a personal connection.
You just did a show with Times New Viking. Are you going to be doing more rock shows than hip-hop shows?
E: I’m going to do whatever gets me in front of an audience! But I would like to, though, just because just in terms of the shows I do in town, I probably play with more rock acts than hip-hop acts.
Hip-hop seems more susceptible to trends than maybe rock music. Did you feel, when making this record, like you needed to update your sound?
E: I felt like I was better and had improved. I’ve never really given a shit about following hip-hop trends because they change so quickly. I mean, look at the way I dress: I’m not exactly riding the wave of current fashion trends. There’s so much disposable music now, and it seems like the trendier it is the more disposable it is. I wanted to make something that people could still listen to five years from now and wouldn’t sound corny.
Did that play into using samples like Etta James and more timeless music?
E: I think those are just the beats that struck me so it wasn’t really intentional. I’m more concerned with the content. I wasn’t going to make American Idol references and Monica Lewinsky jokes. That’s what dates something, or putting “hizzurps” and “wizzurps” on my shit, or talking about sneakers or snappin’ or whatever current shit. And I hate talking about rap music. Rap music about rap music is the worst music in the world.
It seemed like you were more cynical in your views on this record than the last one. Would you agree?
E: Yeah. I wrote Insignificant Anthems when I was 21, and I’m 25 now. I’ve gone through a lot of shit. I’m generally optimistic, but I’m beginning to have more of a “who gives a shit” attitude.
Some of that “romantic nihilism” of Times New Viking?
E: Yeah, I totally subscribe to that. It was definitely something I was already feeling, and they put it into words and music for me.
You talk about not being the mouthpiece of your peers and seem to criticize your peer group. Do you feel out-of-step with people your age?
E: Yeah, I don’t like my peers, at least as a whole. As far as culture and music, I have two awesome older sisters who are generation X, and I’ve felt more like generation X than generation Y. I especially felt that way when I turned on MTV the other day. They were having people comment on the comments that people were making. It was like this example of the hyper, exponential speed of society. It was sick. I sound like an old man!
“Daydream Nation” seems to play on that. Is that a nod to Sonic Youth?
E: Yeah, it’s totally a nod. I’ve been listening to that album and it fed that romantic nihilism. There’s a mood on that album that connected to how I was feeling at the time I got into it. And I’m really starting to hate political music. Rage Against the Machine is the most useless music in the world, and shit like Immortal Technique is just unrealistic. So I wanted to get away from making specifically political music. Who cares about George Bush anymore? Social commentary is more important to me.
So you were more concerned with what’s being effected than who is doing the effecting?
E: Yeah, I’ve always been real concerned with where the power lays, following power. Things you take for granted, things that really suck—there’s probably somebody benefitting from that aspect of your life, whether it’s your job, your healthcare or the mercury in your fish.
I was wondering if you’ve created any separation between your persona as Envelope and you as a person. Are there things you’d say as an emcee that you wouldn’t say as a person.
E: No, I definitely am that asshole. I was talking to my friend Chuck when I was going to do an interview, and he said “All they got to do is listen to the record.” That’s something I always stick to: I’m not going to put something in a song that would make me not be able to look my mom in the face. It really scares me to be a hypocrite.
It’s interesting that your friend said that because just coming up with questions I was thinking that it’s pretty much you on the record. It’s not like you’re hiding behind metaphors.
E: Rap is all first-person narrative so as soon as my life starts to get a little boring I should probably stop making rap music. Patton Oswalt has this bit where he’s real happy with his girlfriend and so he’s afraid it’s going to kill his ability to do comedy. I’m not into being a tortured artist—I want to have a happy life—and I don’t have to rap forever. I want to have interesting experiences like falling off roofs (a mishap the night before) to have something to talk about.
Yeah, on the record at one point you say that you’re sick of your own voice. Do you ever feel that way performing?
E: I love performing. When I’m on stage I bask in it, but when I’m offstage I get uncomfortable talking about myself. To me a good thing about being from Ohio is having a down-to-earth nature.
You were saying that if your life got boring you’d have to give it up and on the record you say something along the lines of old rappers just put out B-sides.
E: I think in any art form, you’re only relevant for a short period of time. I’m sorry, but I’m not buying new Bob Dylan records. Maybe he still means something to somebody, but there was a period of time when he was really insightful and now who gives a shit? I’d like to Michael Jordan my way out, the first time he retired. Be relevant and take advantage of it now, then go on and live your life. Don’t try to hang onto that idea that you’re always going to mean something and be insightful on what’s going on in the world.
So you don’t see making a career out of this?
E: Well, maybe for the next five years or so. But I don’t want to jinx myself. If I’m 50 years-old and can still make good music, then cool. But I’m not going to kid myself and think that it’s always going to be like that or that it should always be like that.
It seems like there were more concerns about life and death on this record. Was that just a matter of getting older and thinking about the larger picture?
E: I’ve had a lot of friends and family members pass away and been around a lot of death the last several years. I’ve always really appreciated mortality. Just like you only have a short period of time when you’re relevant, not everything lasts forever. Everything dies.
Obviously your name is derived from your day job as a bike messenger. Does that culture play into your music?
E: It’s dead. Courier culture does, but it’s dead. It’s funny that as we’re losing money and there’s less and less working bike messengers, the fixed-gear culture is through the roof. They’re all really nice people, but it’s just a fake-ass, synthesized culture. When I was younger, we’d travel all around the country and there was this amazing camaraderie. You could go to any city and someone would put you up. People didn’t take bike courier races seriously. You’d drink in the car on the way there, you’d drink more once you got there, and chug a 40 before the race. During the race, all the stops were bars and afterwards you’d go drink more. It really wasn’t about athleticism. Meeting kids in DC and learning about Minor Threat and the whole DIY culture, that’s had a huge influence on me. But I’m not going to make songs about being a bike messenger. It’s like making songs about being a record store clerk.
Did you feel some pressure making this record?
E: I put a lot of pressure on myself making any record. I felt a lot of pressure to not let people in Columbus down. I didn’t want to have any awkward situations where I’d see someone out and they’d feel obligated to say something nice about it, like “Hey man I heard your record. It was nice. There’s drums on it.”
Did you feel like you were making a record that would be heard outside of your circles in Columbus?
E: I guess I did, but I didn’t think about it. It was more just that thing of not putting anything in a song that you couldn’t look your friend in the face and say without them laughing at you.