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Rapper George Watsky has reason to rhyme


POTSDAM - Rapper and slam poet George V. Watsky doesn’t look much older than most of the students he performed for at SUNY Potsdam’s Dunn Theater on Friday, but the last few years have launched the California performer’s career to new heights.

The fast-talking 26-year-old’s performances have attracted hundreds of thousands of fans, with his distinctive style and savvy use of the internet propelling his popularity.

He grew up in San Francisco, the son of a psychotherapist and a librarian. He discovered spoken word performance when he was a freshman in high school, and began entering slam poetry competitions.

Eventually he started to get noticed nationally, and in 2007 he appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” an HBO show that highlighted new and upcoming spoken-word performers. This exposure allowed Mr. Watsky to turn his performances into a full-time career.

Ever since, he’s been touring college campuses, like SUNY Potsdam, to perform his poetry.

“That’s been my bread and butter,” he said.

In 2009 he released his first rap album, simply titled “Watsky.” It was well-received by his fairly small group of fans, but it would not find widespread popularity until later.

“There wasn’t really an audience for that album. It went over fine,” he remembered.

The turning point came in 2011 when Watsky released a Youtube video called “Pale Kid Raps Fast.” It’s nothing fancy; Mr. Watsky sits alone in a room that could be in any suburban homes, casually stroking a cat as he raps at lightning speed into a microphone.

The clip went viral. It now has over 23.5 million views, and helped usher in a new level of popularity for Mr. Watsky.

He remains loyal to his over 380,000 subscribers on Youtube, putting out a new song or poem every two weeks.

“It’s been really hard churning material out, it’s really widened my audience,” he said. “It’s very gratifying to have people actually hearing my work.”

Although he’s known for his nimble vocals, Mr. Watsky’s style is about more than a quick turn of phrase.

His early work had an aggressive political bent, but he said the last few years have shown him to see the world from different viewpoints, and his pieces have become more personal and less opinionated since.

“You get older and you see the world in more subtle ways,” he said.

That’s not to say his work lacks a message. He said he tries to find a balance between playfulness and sincerity. His poem “Go Robo” provides an example, as he turns a silly story about a little girl who wants to be a robot into an examination of what it means to pursue a dream at the expense of all else.

“Even my funny pieces always have a core message to them that is sincere,” he said.

The more light-hearted pieces, he said, are a good way to draw in fans who might not otherwise listen to him.

“I try to give people a way in that isn’t so challenging.”

Despite the widespread exposure brought by the fast-rap video, Mr. Watsky said his steadily-growing fan base doesn’t feel like a sudden stroke of luck. It’s the culmination of the years of work he put in to gradually building an audience.

He is now preparing to release his first full-length album since 2009, entitled “Cardboard Castles.”

The SUNY Potsdam poetry performance may be among the last of its kind. Although he has lived off of college shows for the last several years, Mr. Watsky said he now wants to transition to larger concert venues, where he can present both his songs and his poems to a larger audience.

Both the rap and the poetry are an integral part of his work, he said, and he won’t sacrifice one for the other.

“They are both extensions of who I am. I try to tell stories no matter what form they are in.”

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