The Bul Bey

Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds is our occasional, seasonal foray into summer vibes with our fave local “summertime” bands, in which we meet up, share a drink, and revel in the sunny weather (check out past editions here). Today we catch up with rising West Philly emcee The Bul Bey.

South Philly’s the best around the holidays, when row homes battle for “brightest” and “most festive,” and Old City’s gorgeous in the spring, when the national park gardens come alive. But I’ll take West Philly in the summer hands down, when everything is green and lush and farmers’ markets dot Baltimore Ave., yet the bars remain comparatively empty, the college kids and shore-goers all away for the season. Is it a coincidence that The Fresh Prince, in West Philadelphia born and raised, chose summertime as the subject of his epic, seasonal anthem?  Is there anywhere east of 40th you’d rather than be than your friend’s giant, wrap-around porch, drinking a beer, after Ethiopian / Eritrean / Vietnamese food at Gojjos / Dahlak / Vietienne?

Amir Richardson, who performs under the name The Bul Bey, is like Smith in that he grew up in West Philly; unlike Smith, he still lives there now. In fact, his neighborhood is the subject of his breakout music video “Where I’m From,” a lively and complex portrayal of a place where, yeah, you better lock your doors—but where there’s also a real sense of community, whether hanging with your crew at a house party or laughing at your drunk uncle’s block party dance moves. The video, with its bright colors and enthusiastic participants (Bey tells me he did not instruct the kids to dance; they just did it) is sort of the ultimate tribute to summers in Philadelphia. So who better to talk summer vibes with than Richardson, who not only created a new summer classic, but is also one of our very fave rising hip-hop artists in the city right now?

Bey has been making raps since 2010; his most recent, Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies dropped earlier this year, after 2 years in the making. We <3 Bey because he’s relatable and not afraid to touch on social issues—and because his stuff sounds just as good soundtracking a bbq as it does blaring through your headphones as you amble through Philadelphia.

We meet at Dock Street Brewery after Bey’s first choice, Dahlak, is closed, but quickly find solace in perfect summer beer, Summer in Berlin. Over a few rounds we get nostalgic about summers past; read on to hear about Paul Simon and street crabs, plus his favorite ways to spend summers in West Philly.

The Key: So it’s so nice to be in West Philly among all the trees! Compared to my neighborhood in South Philly, it feels like a rainforest.

The Bul Bey: [laughs]. Yeah, West Philly is a nice mix of urban life, with little hints suburban life—like the trees. It’s concrete and earth.

TK: So what’s your favorite thing to do in West Philly in the summer? Like—how would you spend your perfect summer Saturday?

BB: Dahlak is always a top-five thing to do—just hang out in their outdoor space and drink Lagers—it’s really chill.  Not a lot of people know about [the outdoor space], so it feels like you’re in a secret club house.  And Clark Park always has something going on—it’s like nonstop. But honestly one of the best things about West Philly—and probably Philadelphia in general—is just walking around. I don’t know what the official statistics are, but I hear Philly is one of the most walkable cities, and West Philly is so nice to just stroll through in the summertime. It’s real lush. And then, you know. Just chillin’ on the stoop or the steps…

TK: Do you have an official stoop at your place?

The author, with Bey (via @BookishKate's Instagram)

The author, with Bey (via @BookishKate’s Instagram)

BB: Yeah, we have an official little stoop. And you just kinda chill, no socks or shoes, and you can see and feel the heartbeat of the neighborhood. In recent decades, no one goes to their neighbor anymore and asks to borrow a cup of sugar, or whatever. And I don’t think that will ever come back—and to honest, I don’t really want to ask my neighbors for sugar. But the closest thing to that tradition would be hanging on the stoop, watching your neighborhood. I have a friend who lives on 46th and Farragut, and we’ll just chill on her stoop, watch the cars go by, watch people walking their dogs, watch the sun dip behind what was West Philly High School…

TK: So you grew up in Southwest Philly. What are some of your favorite memories from growing up as a kid, in the city, in the summer?

BB: I can remember Saturday mornings hearing drill teams practicing—it was this big, exciting thing you hear coming from blocks away, from the other side of the hill, and you’re just waiting, in anticipation. I feel like back then, in the early ‘90s, drill team culture in Philly was really big —they would have these shiny, bedazzled uniforms and big boots—and you’d just hear them coming every Saturday, amidst your Saturday morning cartoons.

Also, block parties were really big…they’d block off both sides of the street…and you know—as a kid, you’re always told, “Don’t play in the street. Don’t you EVER go in the street.” And so—they’re blocking off both ends of the street and you can go in the street? It was crazy. It was like, an epic celebration every time. So we would be in the streets with our basketballs, and our footballs, and people would break out the barbecues, and cook out, and play music loud out the top bedroom window—and it was really nice because it was communal. Everyone on the block kicked in. So that was when you really got to know your neighbor—or the kids up the street, or down the street, or from a block over. It was really, really cool and really dope.

TK: I could see that. I think there’s something about being outside—you end up interacting with all these people you maybe wouldn’t talk to otherwise. Did you have any relationships develop during the summer that were unique to the summer?

BB: Yeah—definitely. I think a really dope thing about summer is time. You have more time on your hands—days are longer, and you don’t have to go to school, or be home at a certain time to do homework—so you have the days to yourself. I grew up on South Salford Street, and I remember I had this friend who lived on North Salford Street, and because I had more time on my hands, I would just walk up to his place and hang out on his block.

Everything was about walking in the summer. Sometimes we had bikes—but you know—bikes came and went. They got stolen; they got broken; a tire would go flat. But walking was always a constant. I feel like if you’re from Philadelphia, you’re a walker. It’s one of those things—we would go to the arcade or the movies, and you’d just walk.

We would go to the arcade on 40th and Spruce—I haven’t been there in a while but when I was a kid—oh my god. That block had an arcade, a movie theater, and a comic book store, which was epic. It was the best time you could have as a 10- or 12-year-old kid. There used to be like three movie theaters on that block. I remember seeing Johnny Mnemonic there, and the first Mortal Kombat movie. I remember seeing Casper, The Friendly Ghost…it was a just a nice little 5-block radius. And we walked there.

In the city

In the city

TK: That seems like a long walk from Salford Street.

BB: It was a long walk. But we didn’t really pay attention to time. Now that I think about it, I feel like it’s like 20 blocks…

TK: So I was thinking about my childhood summers, and one thing I remember very distinctly is my brother and I loved getting FunDip from the snack bar at the town pool. Even today, I always associate it with summer. Are there any particular foods that make you—as an adult—feel nostalgic for summertime and childhood?

BB: The only thing I ever had exclusively in the summer—was crabs. I feel like every neighborhood had it—there would be one guy in the neighborhood that had a deep fryer or a steamer or something—and he would season the hell out of them, wrap ‘em in a newspaper, and sell them—literally, it was $1.

TK: $1 for a crab? That sounds like a great deal.

BB: I feel like one crab was 50 cents; maybe 2 for $1. We’re talking like, 1993. So yeah—crabs were a summertime thing. They were sooo good. I’m actually really sad—crabs and seafood were a huge part of growing up, but I developed an allergy and I can’t eat them anymore. It’s really heartbreaking. That and bbq—burgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken wings. No vegetables [he laughs].

TK: What are your favorite things to drink in the summer?

BB: I normally reserve having tequila drinks for the summer—I know that’s kind of predictable. I drink it straight, or on the rocks.

TK: That’s brave.

BB: Probably stupid, but I limit myself to one, maybe two. I’m a lightweight, so I have to be careful. I drink 1800—it’s really good. And to be honest—I know it sounds kinda corny, but water [“wuder”]. You know, just because it’s so hot in the summer.  And of course Lagers at Dahlak.

TK: What music do you associate with summer?

BB: That’s an easy answer—definitely Will Smith/The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff, “Summertime.” It literally is the best depiction of summertime across the board, but also specifically summers in Philadelphia. When he says “A place called the Plateau is where everyone goes…”—Belmont Plateau is literally where everyone goes in the summer. Otherwise, I’m definitely more into EDM in the summer…

TK: I wouldn’t have guessed that.

BB: Well, I can’t say I’m really into it—but as someone who makes music, I’m never going to turn a deaf ear to anything. I feel like EDM works great when it’s hot as s*** out and you just wanna take off your shirt and dance on the beach or something. When it’s cold and snowy, you want to stay in and play Green Day [laughs].

TK: So back in the block party days, when you had the music booming from the top floor window—what were you listening to back then?

BB: Oh my god, let’s see. SWV, Mary J. Blige, The Fugees—a lot of the ‘90s hits. Also Donna Summer. And of course Earth, Wind, and Fire—that’s summertime right there. And my mom would always blast Paul Simon’s Graceland—so I hear “You Can Call Me Al” and I think summertime: Saturday mornings, the sun is blaring through the window, and I hear “You can be my bodyguard…” [He hums the first few lines]. I love it. Those horns! Also Miriam Makeba and Stevie Wonder and the Key of Life.

TK: That’s great.  I feel like my dad had records like that too—maybe The Temptations and CCR…

BB: I think summertime is nostalgic. It has this really cool balance of reflecting, but at the same time discovering.

TK: So what is coming up next for you?

BB: So, I released my project Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies earlier this year. And there were so many people involved that I never got to thank—so I’m having a “thank you” party at Ortlieb’s, just to say thank you. [NOTE: It’s happening tonight at Ortlieb’s. -ed.] And I’m also opening up for Oddisee at Johnny Brenda’s in October, which for me is huge. I’ve been a fan for so long…and this is probably really lame and fan-ish, but we both share the same first name, which is Amir. So I’m hoping to at least talk to him, at minimal. At best, I would love to develop a relationship with him. There’s this song on his new album called “That’s Love”—such a touching song. It gets me every time.

Performing live

Performing live

I also host a party called Friends & Fam at Kung Fu Necktie every third Saturday with Matthew Law—you should come out to that. We come from a house party background, so you know—he coined the term perfectly. It’s a real close, communal, social environment. It’s really fun.

Other than that, I’m working on an EP called Young City. It’s a collaborative EP with a band called Hazy Blu. They’re incredible guys. I’ve performed with them live a few times in the past and it’s always been this elephant in the room—why aren’t you guys making music together?  So we did. That’s probably coming sometime in the fall. Other than that, I’m pushing the record as hard as I can.

TK: We’ll be listening on repeat all summer.