Inside the Lower East Side apartment of F. Virtue—real name Will Kowall—I’m meeting up with Dick Van Dick, another rising New York-based rapper, who’s been recording tracks with Virtue all afternoon. The two have known each other for years and Virtue’s lending some of his production mastery to Dick’s forthcoming full-length debut.
The rapper—marked head-to-toe by dozens of tattoos—is wearing a denim acid-dipped dress with massive cut-outs, a tank with David Lynch’s surreal, 1977 Eraserhead poster printed across the front and docs with the toes cut out. Laughing, Virtue comments on Dick’s customized boots: “Beach looks,” he says, snapping his fingers. “All it needs is a g-string.”
The two begin playing new tracks for me off Virtue’s laptop, repeatedly reminding me they’re all unmastered demos, like true perfectionists. “He wasn’t ready for the slaughter or the BCALLA or the Eckhaus Latta,” Dick raps ferociously on one, shouting out his love for New York fashion. Another track follows with a similar aggression: “I told you to wreck me, nigga—fuck me.” As the grizzly song blares, Dick tells me he’s been channeling Lil’ Kim while penning this album. “I look down on men,” he says, nose pointed toward the ceiling. “Men are dumb, they’re brutes.”
Everything they’ve played me is strong, but not as quite strong as the track Dick created in just a few short hours with Virtue before my arrival. It’s this uncontrolled spontaneity that sees the artist hitting his stride—he’s passionate and powerful without having to try.
Dick, who’s on the paleo diet, grabs a handful of nuts, as many ciders as our hands can hold and a joint, before we head up to Virtue’s rooftop to talk more in-depth. Over the Manhattan skyline, we talk about everything from his reckless California life to femme empowerment.
How do you know F. Virtue?
We went to Emerson together.
Which is also where Andy Boyce went.
Yeah. Also, Matt McGorry from Orange is the New Black and Michael Angelakos from Passion Pit. We had a very lit little group—we weren’t all friends, but we were all there at the same time, so it was a cute notch in their alumni association. Well, I dropped out, but I think actually we all did except Will [F. Virtue].
What were you studying at Emerson?
I didn’t get into any of the acting schools I had my heart set on going to at 17, so I pivoted and went to Emerson for PR because I’ve always had my fingers in a lot of pies—I’m a Gemini, so I didn’t need to be in conservatory. I could happily create my art under other means and Emerson really does foster a great environment. That’s why they birth so many well-respected industry people, the school is literally one big workshop.
But then you left.
Because I wasn’t focused on school. I went to a really good private high school in San Francisco where the workload was super focused, but even there, I was a bit ‘artsy’ to use the euphemism for ‘lazy’ or ‘stoned,’ but I still had my talents. Eventually being at Emerson, the social environment was great, but I wasn’t going to class. So I got the hell out of there and fucked around California following punk bands, writing music and getting tattoos. And drugs—[I] did a lot of drugs.
I fell into this whole punk clan of bands from Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, LA—the whole West Coast. That’s how I know people like Shannon and the Clams and Hunx and his Punx—all these people were the homies back in the day.
Bring me through a typical night in that scene.
Let’s say we were all at the punk house in San Francisco where I lived and slept on the couch. We had plywood dividers creating ‘rooms’—gross, but chic. ‘Gross chic.’ These are like ’77 punk kids—very rock ‘n’ roll, New York Dolls, lam. Not like ’80s hardcore. There was a certain prettiness to this grime. We’re in snakeskin heeled boots, super tight pants and white leather jackets. Everyone has that power-pop mullet.
So we roll out to the show, drink some forties and pop whatever pills are laying around. I once emptied three Adderall 30 [mg] XR’s into a forty and drank that before going to see King Khan play in the basement at Urban Outfitters, where I happened to have my day job. There was this rival group of punk kids who we hate, and would have fought, but they were all underage so we couldn’t. King Khan looks into the crowd where I’m in the middle being rowdy. He looks at me and says, ‘This song is dedicated to you—I don’t wanna be no black fag.’ It was the sickest song in the set. The point is, it was fun. With rapping, I still come from this punk background—the fights, the weird. You might be high on crack and getting jumped by three girls, but it’s okay. You might watch your friend fill a champagne bottle with pee and throw it at some dude, but it all adds something. There’s a layer of all this, that I try to put into rapping now.
Do you feel like it was important for you to have that experience?
Absolutely. I’ve done some things casually that very few people could do, and I’m very blessed for that. But that’s all part of witchcraft—you’ve gotta look into the darkness to really see what you’re made of. I’m very comfortable with myself. That’s what my forehead says: ‘He who saw into the deep’—the opening lines of Gilgamesh—because I did an amount of mushrooms once that would have crippled a non-witch and I got out of there about day and a half later. I was better from it.
Is witchcraft something you’re interested in?
Yeah, especially the queer scene, here, and the people of color—we all come from some kind of [witchcraft] background. My family on both sides are Louisiana Creole, so there is voodoo in the blood. I go to Riis Beach and was there a couple summers ago in the water chanting. I turned and there were these two Puerto Rican gay dudes also chanting—not the same chant, but totally independent of each other. The magic has been real to me for a long time. It’s something you live.
What else does witchcraft involve beyond chanting?
I’m big on altars. They’re very powerful concentrators, and augmenters of energy—a place to focus your desires, and that’s what magic is—focusing your desires letting shit go where it needs to go for yourself. So I set up a rudimentary one when I first moved [to NYC] and when I went back to California, I grabbed the rest of my stuff from my house there that my old best friend still lives in to bring back.
How did you learn to create costumes?
It’s all kind of crudely manipulated. I’m good with my hands, I’ve always been a crafty bitch. Like that black leather mask in the ‘Killing Cunts’ video—that is three black leather pieces and all rivets. I just bought a couple black leather vintage skirts and cut them up. Things come together in my hands when I set out to do them for the most part. Gemini power—I also speak six languages.
Let’s talk about music. Lyrically, what are you mostly focusing on with this album?
It depends on the era because I’m a compulsive songwriter. I don’t need beats, I compose in my head and write on a whim. I have four notebooks, and the oldest one is from 2008. Even some of those songs are finding themselves reworked, put away, forgotten and then pulled back out. So it all depends on the era, but it does tell a singular story. There’s the hope of romance, the wish that I was more romantic and then the cynicism at the reality of myself and the dating pool. Then there’s a kind of reactionary, catty, bitchy, spiteful, fun side. But there’s also contentment hidden throughout where I’m not fighting my situation.
Has it taken time to become content?
Yeah, I’m growing up. That’s what this first album is about: Growing up.
So this album couldn’t have come any sooner?
No. The newer material on it—and by newer I mean written in the last year—is a totally different headspace than songs I wrote two to five years ago.
Enjoy the process, not the product.
Exactly. I feel like I’m finally old enough to understand that. I’m normally very neurotic when I record—super super anal. I have little moments where I try to tweak and tweak and tweak, until I get to a moment where I turn that off and then I just say, ‘fuck it.’ Weed helps.
Music has recently become your main focus. Why now?
I’ve been such a quintessential Gemini spreading myself across every possible thing I can get my hands on, and I don’t regret that—jack of all trades, master of none is a blessing and a curse. But I play to my strengths as much as I can. That said, I am refining my overall voice and vision across media. I’m trying to achieve maximum penetration in the market. I don’t want to do music forever, I’m not a rapper by any permanent sense of the word, nor is anyone in this ‘slash’ generation, but I get a lot out through music and will never stop writing it—for other people, ideally.
Do you write lyrics, exclusively?
I’ve been writing this book based on my dreams for the better part of 10 years, and that’s something I continue to labor on as it continues morphing, growing and changing. But it’s a steady project and ultimately, I’d love to see it on TV, which is a medium I hold in high regard— well done TV is powerful. Literature is obviously the gold standard, but well done TV is powerful and more penetrating than books.
But you love words.
It’s about telling stories, but there’s always been this inherent visual element to what I do. I used to do graffiti, I make stuff—I don’t draw a distinction, there’s a synesthetic melding in my mind between the word, the screen and the sound. I make a piece of clothing, then I think about the fashion show, I think about the soundtrack—it’s always one thought.
What’re you looking for in terms of production?
Because I pre-write so much, I’m flexible. I just write, conceptualize, and come up with an ideal beat in my head. But right now everything I have out is mostly dark vogue-y. I still have my ballroom heart, but I also have my trap heart, and I want to express a little of that. I like creepy stuff—Twigs, Arca—but I’m open to a wide range of beats.
I hear this fuzzy, gritty quality to your music. It’s not perfectly polished.
That’s my punk history. There’s just a level of crispness I don’t abide by. That’s very much my voice, literally and figuratively. But I guess I don’t really give it that much thought, to be honest, but things need a little stank on them. I need everything to be honest.
As someone who’s been involved in the queer scene for a while, how do you view today’s?
Queer people are the future, plain and simple. That’s what corrects men. Being queer is what actually corrects men from being testosterone-driven monsters. Queerness allows for a level of empathy of which the male creature is generally not capable. There’s definitely hope for the future of queer culture and community—a lot of new voices. I’m inspired. I feel it. I left San Francisco, not because of the scene, but because the city itself was becoming a battle zone of aggressive immigrants of high means and displaced natives, and then the hipsters who lived there for awhile, but weren’t actually natives kind of caught in the middle—it was uncomfortable.
When we were listening to your tracks downstairs, you said, “Men are brutes.” Tell me about that.
That’s the character talking. I am Dick and Dick is me, but if I had to boil down the emotion, it’s that aggression, which comes from a place of feminism. I have four sisters—it’s not about me, it’s more of a general disdain for male culture. I’m acutely aware of how dangerous men are as creatures, and part of the fun of my music is abusing them, talking shit about that quintessential male who doesn’t get it, who doesn’t deserve any real affection or attention from me. It’s not a real person in my life, but it is a real person in the greater sense. Also, I’m playing with gender. When I’m rapping, I’m almost rapping as a woman.
You’re asserting feminine power over men—subverting the social standard, which is structured oppositely.
I’m was at The Flat once in drag—four-inch pumps, multi-colored braids, but a hood-sized tee, sweatpants and baseball cap. The audience during my set was looking at me very skeptically—all big black dread-head dudes from Bushwick with their girlfriends. I’m giving them my full set and the girls are all in front, while the dudes are just looking. By the end of my first song, the girls are all in and so they’ve moved closer, so the men have no choice but to move closer. There’s this wonderful moment where at some point their heads are nodding, and by the end of the show they’re like, ‘Yeah, you did that.’ It’s that energy where the girls are the first ones to be like, ‘I get it,’ and then the men begrudgingly fall in line.
Men need to feel uncomfortable more often.
It’s like that old expression, ’A man’s worst fear is a woman laughing at him—a woman’s worst fear is a man killing her.’ I am a medium-large man of athletic build, but I also have a little curve to me, and in the summer, I’m always in short shorts. Men aren’t used to seeing that much of another man’s leg, and they’re noticeably uncomfortable. People are driven up the wall by my bare legs, but why? We have to break these social stigmas down. It’s the same reason I tattooed my fucking forehead. It’s the same reason I wear a skirt three days out of the week—clothes don’t have gender. I live in Williamsburg, so I get to be dressed the same as various Muslim and/or Orthodox Jewish women all the time. I’m wearing a turtleneck and a high-waist floor-length skirt on the J and all these Orthodox Jewish women are looking like, ‘Oh, I like his skirt,’ and I’m like, ‘I like your skirt, too.’