Underground Legend Swamp Dogg Makes Freaky Soul Music, and Doesn't Get Discouraged When It Doesn't Sell
"Fuckin' ain't sold but 30 tickets at the fuckin' place, so maybe I oughta get busy finding me a job!"
Swamp Dogg is joking around at the start of a phone call, lamenting the fact that his show at Yoshi's this Sunday, Aug. 25, hasn't moved a lot of units so far. But not selling well is a situation that's all-too-familiar to 71-year-old Jerry Williams Jr., the songwriter, producer, and singer who has put out a long string of offbeat and sometimes incredible soul records since the early '70s. Despite finding a niche audience, most of his albums haven't sold very well. Some of them haven't sold at all. Swamp Dogg is undeterred.
His first two records, 1970's Total Destruction to Your Mind and 1971's Rat On... are left-field soul classics, funky R&B contorted by LSD (which Swamp discovered in the late '60s) and rendered in a high-powered steam whistle of a voice, with a wacky sense of humor and a social conscience to boot. Both were recently reissued by L.A.'s Alive Natural Sound label, occasioning a few live shows and an excellent, hilarious SPIN profile. Continuing the phone call that began as above, we spoke with this underground legend about his perseverance, his take on being sampled by the hip-hop generation, and the, um, physical acts he just might perform on those who buy tickets to this Sunday's show.
You made it to Richard Nixon's enemies list. How did you do that?
My wife Yvonne, she was a militant. And I didn't know I was a militant until she told me. So I was writing militant songs and shit, and she'd say, "You need to write a song about blah blah blah." So, "Okay, cool." And I'd write it. And I'd record it. And I'd like it.
It wasn't a great thing for Nixon to like you. For Nixon to come out and say, "Boy, do I love me some Ian." You know, shit. Goddamn. Who needs it? Because his list was actually bullshit. So to make it -- I just got more publicity, just like with that white rat. Everybody hates the white rat, but they keep bringing the motherfucker up.
People think that's [Rat On...] one of the worst album covers of all time.
Yeah. It's not. But I go along with it, because at least it gets talked about.
You see that and you never forget it.
I know it. I really think it's great. A lot of concentration went into that album, and five dead rats.
Yeah. We couldn't keep the motherfuckers alive.
So do you still consider yourself a militant?
Not militant, because that word denotes so much more than what I am or what I ever intended to be. I consider myself a super-concerned citizen that wants to see the right people in the right positions and America start taking care of its damn self. I don't like the fact when we give a billion dollars a year to other motherfuckers to keep their armies alive and all that kind of shit, when we got people starving right here in the streets, where a billion dollars would go pretty fucking far. So that's what I am. I'm a concerned citizen. I love the United States, I wouldn't live anywhere else but.
On your voicemail, you call yourself "the Original Doggfather." I wonder how you feel about Snoop Dogg taking that title.
Well, it bothered me from the very beginning, because I know Snoop Dogg and Dre got it from me, 'cause I used to manage Dre. And I was the only one walkin' around with Dogg as a tag.... When I called myself the "Original Doggfather," I never thought of that until the SPIN article. And that's what I was going to call this new album. But now, seems like it's a little late for me to come with that type of title, because the Doggs have come and gone, you know? It's like being the original Cadillac. Who gives a fuck?
I don't know what to call the son of a bitch [new album]. I'm hoping in talking someone will say it, or I'll think of it. Most of the songs I write, or the ones I used to write -- the love songs was all about my wife Yvonne, but both my songs and my titles come from listening to people talk. They'll say something, and it'll knock me out. They'll say something and it will immediately paint the complete picture. So I run off and write the song or call the album that.
Having put out albums that are serious classics among your fans, but that took a long time to sell -- if they sold at all -- did you ever get discouraged?
No, I didn't get discouraged. I don't get discouraged over my music. I'm not discouraged that we've only sold 39 fuckin' tickets at Yoshi's. That don't discourage me. Because behind everything there's a reason. And in this particular case, the reason is, they're not advertising. With some of my records that I cut, and I go back and I listen to them, I say, "Oh, okay, this didn't sell, what I should have done was this." Or, "I should have stuck to my gun and not allowed myself to be talked into changing this," or that type of thing. But discouraged I never get. My fuckin' house could burn down -- I'd be dejected, I'd be hurt because of the things I lost, but I wouldn't be discouraged. Because I know the next house more likely will be bigger, better, and everything else, if that's what I so desire.
You've written so many songs. How do you know when it's a song for you or someone else?
That's easy, because I like to take chances with my songs, especially with Swamp Dogg. For another artist, I'll go right to up to the line but I won't cross it. Going all the way back say to Doris Duke, "I Don't Care Anymore." Now this was all about her tricking, okay? But I wrote it in a way that it didn't just come out and say, "I'm a whore because I'm a whore." No. She's whoring because somebody has put her in that position and she's trying to get the fuck out of it because in her heart she's not a whore. And that's as deep as I would get with my artists except Charlie Whitehead, who I was trying to make another Swamp Dogg. So I gave him like the "Freedom Under Certain Konditions Marching Band," which "konditions" was spelled with a "K," which made it the "F-U-C-K Marching Band."
I write down things that I plan to do, and when I get ready to write I'll go through this file. Here's one, this is a Southern soul thing, which is, "It don't matter where you work up your appetite, just as long as you eat at home." That's -- [laughs] -- oh, I got a million of 'em.
Was it a surprise when people started sampling your music?
It was a surprise, and it was a welcome surprise. 'Cause I'd sit around and I'd listen to all these older songwriters, who had these great little songs, and they'd be sittin' around talkin' about, '"Yeah, [rappers] takin' our shit, they making millions off of our shit." "You know that's not music," they kept calling it. That's their fuckin' music, that's what their music was. I'm happy about it. If it hadn't been for the motherfuckin' rappers, I might not be on skid row, but I might be in the vicinity, okay? So I love 'em. The ones I catch. And the ones I don't catch, fuck 'em.
Tell everybody who comes out, tell 'em I'll suck their dick or something. Anything, just come out the fuck out.
Hey, hey, hey, I didn't mean that. Hey, my bad.