Though Anthony Dragons is a pretty accomplished local rapper, he's had a hard time settling on a name for himself — which is why you may not have heard of him despite the fact he has opened for Kendrick Lamar, Wale, and Talib Kweli when they've played in the Bay Area. His previous names, RGLND and Anthony Almxghty, never felt quite right, but Anthony Dragons is something he wants to stick with longterm. The surname references his Chinese zodiac sign and has all the qualities he wants to embody in his rhymes — swift and stealthy with a formidable presence.
Dragons currently has mixtape in the works and, though he hasn't shared much about it, it promises to be as eclectic as his past work. He has a penchant for mid-tempo, jazz and funk-influenced production, yet he's also no stranger to party music. One of his early mixtapes, 6olden, is full of hyphy beats and even has a verse from Too $hort. Yet, in his lastest effort, Ode English, his lyrics evolved into something more experimental and complex, packing in lots of surrealist metaphors and left-field analogies. A clever storyteller, he uses his music to process difficult experiences from his East Oakland childhood.
[jump] Dragons is a core member of Them Hellas, an all-encompassing art collective that features other buzz-worthy local rappers like Duckwrth and Queens D.Light. He and Duckwrth frequently collaborate on each other's mix tapes and join each other on stage regardless of which one of them is playing. They call themselves yin and yang and often convince strangers that they're twins, which is easy to believe if you've witnessed their symbiotic closeness.
Since the fateful name change, a lot has happened for Dragons. He's currently writing new songs, planning future music videos, and getting ready to spend the summer with Them Hellas recording a group project. Since Duckwrth got back to the Bay Area last month after stints in L.A. and New York, the duo has had a busy month of back-to-back shows. Over a hung-over brunch the day after a performance, I spoke to Dragons about his upcoming projects and his April 27 show at Ruby Skye, where he will be opening for New Orleans rapper Curren$y.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into making music?
I grew up in Oakland, born and raised. I used to work for Footlocker and two of my co-workers did music. They used to have their music playing, so I would be back there listening. But I did have one rap written, just on some play-around-type shit. One day I built up the courage to rap it for them and they were like, “Bro, you're rapping now. If you really focus and do this, you could be something cool.” That was around five years ago.
Who do you consider an influence on your music?
I grew up listening to a really wide span of music. Songs just have to make me feel some type of way or take me somewhere. My favorite song in the world is “Atomic Dog” by George Clinton. It's a damn near 10 minute song where they're saying the same thing, but where it takes me to in points in my life is crazy. It takes me back to riding backseat with my dad, old family barbecues — it's one of those songs that's been with me my whole life since childhood. As far as inspiration, though — Pharrell, he's like my dad. I got N.E.R.D. tatted on my leg. It's serious. I like Kanye a lot, and Kid Cudi. Those are my top three.
So, out of curiosity, what do you think about Pharrell's preemptive lawsuit against Marvin Gaye's family because of the copyright issues with “Blurred Lines”?
Aye, fight back, dad! I'm on his team whatever he do.
Before you were known as Anthony Dragons, you were making music as RGLND. What made you change your name?
Ragland is really my last name, so I just took the vowels out to make it look cool. I was working this job delivering packages for Google and everyday you had to pull in and give them your name, and I'd pull in and say “Hey, Anthony Ragland,” and they'd be like, “Huh? How do you spell that?” So imagine being on stage in front of like 3,000, 5,000 people and you're like, “Alright y'all, my name's RGLND.” And they're like, “Whoa, slow down, is that an 'I' in there?” It was too complicated. I had people walking up to me being like, “What's up, Reginold?” No! [Laughs.]
Where did the name Anthony Dragons come from?
This dragon shit, me and my brother Duckwrth have been pushing for like five years. So, why not make it my name? Every show we got them yelling “88 Dragons ain't nothin' to fuck with.” The #88dragons hashtag on Instagram only has me and him. And “dragon” sounds kind of like “Ragland,” too.
What's 88 Dragons?
We might have to do a whole separate interview on this. Me and Duckwrth are [close like] twins. We're trying to figure out the name for these types of twins because we were born two days apart [in the same year]. We weren't born in 1988 — it was more like 1388. It's the year of the dragon, but not everyone born in '88 is a dragon, though. It's about how you live, how you move, your energy.
We didn't make the rules, we just popped out. We didn't ask to be here. It's about being double infinite, and that's how we see '88.
I see you referencing Japanese culture and language a lot in your music. What's the deal with that?
I love it. I love the aesthetic, I love the design, I love the anime, I love the architecture. And plus, me being Pharell's “son” [laughs] I was kind of born into it. Damn near everything he does is heavy Japanese-based. It just sparked my attention really young. I'm getting business cards made right now that are gonna look like Pokemon cards.
I heard you're dropping a new project soon.
I'm just trying to do a lot under this new moniker. I wanna do more than I've done under any other moniker under this Dragons shit. I'm starting to see people reference dragons and I don't like it. We've been doing this for so long, I'll be damned if anybody comes and says they're dragon-anything without referencing [me and Duckwrth.] ILoveMakkonen is now known as Red Dragon [on Twitter]. It's like, “No! I'm ready to die for this shit! Today!” I have a general concept [for my next project.] I'm a few songs in so I've been performing them during my shows to get the crowd's reaction for direction purposes. I still perform my last project a lot. I put it out September 11 and I haven't pushed it that hard because right after I dropped it, I changed my name. I think I'm going to add one or two songs to it and re-drop it under Anthony Dragons and then put out my next project, all while dropping singles and visuals and doing shows. I get so caught up in branding and marketing… but I think I'm staying with this name for a while.
What direction is the new project going in, sonically?
I'm just doing what feels good to me. I'm not good at putting a label or category on things.
Your last tape had a pretty wide range of songs. You have some party songs and you have some more personal, serious songs.
And that's the type of person that I am. I'm a real energetic person at all times. That's the dragon energy, that's what it's about — being swift, hovering.
A lot of your lyrics seem like they're autobiographical.
All of it.
For example, I just heard your song “God in the Clouds II.”
Yeah. When I was 15, my cousin, who was 15 also, was gunned down in Oakland. That song was produced by Spencer Stevens, who is also my DJ. He produced it and sent the beat to me and Duckwrth, and another group in the Bay Area called Native Son. While I was working on it, they dropped their version first. So it's the same beat, different story. Mine is real personal. It's about my little cousin who was gunned down in Oakland and living with that experience. It sparked a huge change in my life. We were living the same type of lifestyle and it could have been me. But by the forces, I'm here. I put it out on the 10th year anniversary of his death. That was also the very first tattoo I got — the RIP to him — and I've been addicted ever since.
So are you going to be doing the production on your next release?
I'm not gonna say I'm a producer, but I'm a good co-producer, I'll tell you that. I have a lot of input on my production, I just don't really know the programs. But I know what I need. This song I've been previewing at all my shows, I was able to make a beat in my Voice Memos [on my iPhone] of what I needed. And I was able to take that to the studio to Harris the Knowitall and he was able to make it happen for me. [I'm working with] Harris the Knowitall, Spencer Stevens, hopefully Duckwrth. Hopefully before it's over, I get the buttons down and can produce something myself.
You're part of the collective Them Hellas with Queens D.Light and Duckwrth. Can you tell me about that?
There's like a thousand people in it — a lot of different types of artists and, like, family. It's a real free collective. You can do whatever it is that you do, as long as you be yourself. That's mainly what it's about. We get a lot of publicity in the Bay with me, Duckwrth, and Queens, but there's so many of us spread out. There's no set boundaries. It's more so like a blood type. Them Hellas is all our blood type. That's what brings us all together. It's family. But you know how family is — some you see more than others. This summer we're doing a Them Hellas project for the music artists in New York.
You're about to play a show with Curren$y, which is exciting. How did you link with him?
I used to be a big Curren$y fan and we met when he did a show at 330 Ritch around my 21st birthday. Then, later, he played at DNA Lounge and I met him again. My dad is from New Orleans, so I have cousins who are connected with Curren$y. So it's also old family ties, but we don't know each other super well. But I've done a lot of shows through the same promoters, Tastemaker Live, and they know I can bring people out and put on a good performance, so they called me. They call me for stuff like that — like when Kendrick came, or Wale came, or Ab-Soul. They call me for those type of people because they know I can share stages with these folks and it don't bother me no more. I just go out there and do me. I never really see myself as [the opening act]. I always say “I have a show with…” I'm not trying to sound cocky, but when I do these shows I make sure that I leave it all out there. Every time, the next day, I get people saying, “Breh, you had the best performance.” Because I'm hungry about it. I can't be on there being casual and kicking it like I'm the headliner. My objective is to smash the headliner. I'm trying to drain y'all's energy before he even come out.
Do you have any other big plans for summer?
Just to be alive. I'm not really into future. I'm so fucked up in my head experiencing death so young and so suddenly. My god sister passed away a few months ago from a heart attack and she was 26 years old. I'm all about living while you're living. If I wake up, I'm taking my day on. That's where my energy comes from. If last night was my last show, at least I had fun and got sweaty with y'all niggas. While I'm living, that's all I be about: to touch as many people as I can.