About seven years ago, stories about “Bob Dylan’s Rapping Grandson” flooded the internet. Pablo Dylan — the child of Bob’s oldest son, Jesse — was just 15 at the time and he was trying to promote his new mixtape. “My grandfather, I consider him the Jay-Z of his time,” he said, in comments that ricocheted all over the web. “I love him to death.” It was a rare breach of the unofficial Dylan family code of silence, and the first time a member of the clan tried to make a go in the music industry since his uncle Jakob two decades earlier. Pablo was a complete novice at the time and wholly unprepared for the scrutiny he’d receive as the grandson of arguably the greatest songwriter of the 20th century that happened to have the same first name as one of the great artists of the century.
“I didn’t think anyone would care about my music back then,” he says. “For the first month, nobody listened. Then some blog posted about it and then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Ah!’ It was weird being a 15-year old kid and people were tweeting things to me like, ‘You should die.’ There was no way to be ready for that, but it was great because now I’m mentally very strong because I got through that experience very early.”
Right now, he’s sitting in a Subway sandwich shop in Midtown Manhattan with an acoustic guitar case resting by his side. He’s in town to promote his new EP The Finest Somersault. His rapping days are behind him, at least for the time being, and he’s now into folk-rock. The shift will inevitably lead to even more comparisons to his grandfather, but Pablo has learned that’s something he’ll never be able to avoid. He chatted with us about his musical journey and what it’s like to come from such a well-known family before demonstrating a shocking level of interest in historical figures like Homer, Edgar Allan Poe, Hank Williams, Charley Patton and Ulysses S. Grant.
Popular on Rolling Stone
Tell me your earliest memories of connecting to music. What did you gravitate to at first?
The Clash. I loved them as a kid and they were also my dad’s favorite band. Me and my cousins and little sister grew up listening to “London Calling,” “Train in Vain,” Jimmy Jazz.” All those songs really meant something to me as a kid.
They were really great at fusing genres together.
When I started doing hip-hop records, the Clash really made sense to me, because when you sample stuff you’re kind of doing the same thing that the Clash did. It’s like, “OK, let’s just put all these different elements together and together they make a piece that is unique.”
When were you born?
So you’re listening to this stuff in the early 2000s?
Yeah. I think I was listening to the Clash from when I was born, though. I grew up in a house with music playing all the time. It would be the Clash and then Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. There were a lot of folk songs. And then when I was six, I heard Eminem for the first time and it just blew my mind. It was so aggressive. I’ve never seen the difference between genres. That never really made sense to me. And now people call me a folk artist because I’m playing acoustic guitar. You know, Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets and it was the exact same to him. It didn’t matter.
Is your birth name Pablo?
Yeah. I was named after Pablo Neruda.
I bet most people think it’s Picasso.
More often than that, people think it’s Escobar.
When you were little, your dad was directing movies like How High and American Pie 3. Did you spend time on those movie sets?
Yeah. I spent time at both my dad’s movie sets and my grandfather’s concerts. I saw a ton of them when I was little.
What did you absorb from watching your dad work?
What I’ve learned from my family is that the only thing worth achieving is the greatest possible product and you have to work on it until you get there.
Did you always want to be a musician?
I wanted to be a basketball player first. And then I got a pretty bad injury, but obviously I wasn’t athletic enough to have ever made it in the NBA. I’m also not tall enough. But I knew from a young age that I wanted to do music. I was really lucky that I was able to get work producing for hip-hop, R&B artists and pop artists.
You began by just posting music on the internet. What made you decide it was time to start sharing your creations?
I’d been making music for a while on a laptop and a keyboard. I’d also been playing guitar since I was a kid along with piano. I knew all the chords. What really inspired me was Kanye.
How did you learn how to make beats?
By myself. In my room. It was hours and hours every day, just focused on it like a laser-beam, trying to get each part perfect. I was very lucky to meet David Banner, and he taught me a lot of things. He’s still an incredible friend and mentor of mine. The way I really learned was spending days remaking other people’s beats. I remember remaking [Kanye West’s] “All of the Lights.” And it was all I did for two months. I was just trying to get every note, every sound perfect. And by doing that, I was able to deconstruct it and learn how to do it on my own. Once I learned enough about production, I started producing for other people.
I imagine My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a huge influence beyond just “All of the Lights.”
It’s my favorite Kanye album. And, again, that album fits very much with the rock & roll songs I grew up with. You know, “All of the Lights” and “London Calling” are just two variations of the same rhythm. [He hums them both.] I find that people ask me a lot how I went from making rap to making this music. At the end of the day, music is chords, melody, rhythm and words.
How did you balance all this with your school work? Was it hard to focus on, I don’t know, chemistry class when you wanted to do music?
Chemistry was never for me. Once I started getting sessions every day, I didn’t pay much attention at school. I didn’t go to college because I was like, “I’m getting work in the field that I want to be in. Why am I going to school to get a different job?” I was very lucky that I got to work with Erykah Badu and A$AP Rocky and D.R.A.M. and Goody Grace and Brent Faiyaz.
The trolls really went after you when you began posting rap songs. Did that hurt?
It did at that age. Nowadays, I laugh so hard, man. I love my haters. And I don’t care what they say. I make music because it’s something so deep within me. It was in my soul. It was in my blood. It’s something I have to do. There is no choice. Everything I faced back then made me want to become the best of all time. It also made me realize how much work I had to do to accomplish it. And that’s why I moved to producing, because I realized that’s where I could learn the skills without the pressure of having to answer to the public as an artist.
Did your family care that you weren’t going to college?
They knew I had to do what I had to do. They knew there was nothing for me at school. But I did finish high school. That’s what they cared about. They were like, “You can’t not have a high school degree.” I don’t really remember much of actually being at high school. I don’t have one friend that I met in high school that I still know. And I feel very little connection to that place. I had one great English teacher who taught me about Homer. And that’s an obsession I’ve carried with me until this day. I am constantly checking in with Homer.
It’s hard to get more old school than Homer.
Yeah. Our entire world is built upon these old things that people sometimes forget. Alexander the Great wanted to be like Achilles, and then literally he became Achilles and died young. Lincoln learned from Shakespeare, and John Wilkes Booth learned from the exact same place that Lincoln was learning from.
What drew you back to releasing music again?
I’ve gotten to work with so many incredible people, but a lot of times as a producer you’re just doing random label work every day. Many labels sign artists that don’t write their own songs and doesn’t know what they want to do. Executives will have one person whose job it is to make sure there there is marketable song. A guy like me that just wants to make the greatest thing ever made, it was sort of hard for me to deal with that. It started making me upset.
And then Trump becomes president and everybody just loses their minds, even Republicans that I know. They lost their minds over the Democrats. All of the Democrats I knew were losing their minds over the Republicans. I just felt like there was important work to be made. I just wanted to play the guitar and write the exact songs I wanted to write.
I also realized the Beatles went to Hamburg. Robert Johnson learned how to play guitar in the graveyard. I had to do some version of that. So I tried to book as many shows as possible. I would show up to a bar with my guitar and say, “Can I play?” Sometimes they would say, “Sure.” Other times they said, “No,” and I would just play outside.
You’d just play on the street?
Yeah. Sometimes homeless people would come up to me and watch me play. People would walk by me and be like, “What is this kid with the crazy hair doing with a guitar?” And I’m just sitting out there until four or five in the morning, in the rain, just playing.
The shorthand for all this is: “Rapper becomes a folkie.”
People like to simplify things. That’s part of being a human, but I want the songs to speak for themselves. It’s something I debate a lot. Does any artist actually matter? Does Edgar Allan Poe matter? Does Shakespeare matter? Does Homer matter? Or is it just the work they made? I think it’s probably just the work.
You have an EP out. Are you going to drop a whole album?
I’m working on the full-length. I want to get it out around June, but it might be a little later. We’ll see.
Are you going to tour the country?
Hell, yeah, man. I’m going to play everywhere.
Did you ever think about changing your last name? It just carries so much baggage with it.
No. It is my last name. Here’s the thing — my lineage is just my lineage at this point. I’m not going to run from it. I love my grandfather as any grandson loves his grandfather. I’m incredibly proud of the work he’s made. But I’m doing my own thing. I’m definitely not going to be somebody I’m not. And it’s my own destiny I was born with. I didn’t really feel like it was my right to change the name I was given. Some people do feel like they can change their name. They do it for all sorts of different reasons, but it’s not something that I can do.
Are you ever suspicious of new people when you meet them? Do you worry they are just trying to get close to you because of your family?
I definitely get very suspicious of people. I’ve had the same group of friends since I was a kid. I don’t really tend to meet new people. I’m a very private person, as is my whole family.
But you’re a private person doing interviews and trying to get attention for your music.
I’ve been doing interviews for so long that I know what they’re like. And not every interviewer is as nice as you.
Some people must only care about your grandfather.
If it gets too bad, I just walk out. You know, I would never sell out my family for press or money or anything. It’s like how Michael Flynn sold out his country for money from [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. Scumbag. I mean, that’s a traitor!
What new music has really captured your attention in the past year?
You wanna know what’s really captivated me? There is this video of Son House playing in a dark room. I must have watched it over a thousand times in the past couple of months. It’s as if you can hear the heavens.
What are your musical goals going forward?
I want to be the biggest artist in the entire world. I want to keep writing songs. The next project is going to be better than this one. It’s about America.
Is it a concept record?
It’s not a concept, it’s just authentic. When I go out to all these bars and stuff and play songs, I hear so many stories. Playing in a farming town is so different than playing in a city. People don’t get that perspective when they just stay in one place and I want to address that.
What are some albums that have just blown your mind?
Well, I’m always listening to Robert Johnson. iI’s crazy the way he sings and plays guitar. It’s like his voice melts into the guitar, becoming seemingly indistinguishable. And then Charley Patton. He had a rhythm that reminds me of the train tracks here in New York. Everywhere I go here I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s Charley Patton’s rhythm.” Every time I hear the train goes by. I also really like Hank Williams Sr.
I gotta say, these are the exact same influences that your grandfather had back when he started out.
Yeah. But he wasn’t listening to Kanye or trap music.
Do you have a favorite song by your grandfather?
I think all of them are so incredible. I like every record he did.
Who else do you admire?
Ulysses S. Grant.
Yeah. After he leaves and they go to the [Battle of the] Wilderness, he sends Lincoln this letter and he says, “Whatever happens there’s no turning back.” And to free the slaves it took that relentless type of fighting that Grant did. And I mean obviously that is the most important thing anyone’s ever done in this country.
And everyone was telling Lincoln that Grant was a drunk and he shouldn’t trust him.
A reporter once said to Lincoln, “Grant is a drunk.” And he said to him, “Well, find out what kind of whiskey he drinks and I’ll send a bottle to all my generals.” And when Grant started at Lee, nobody had ever hit him like that before. Evert morning he just woke up and it was like, “Yesterday we lost another general.” And he said, “OK, well, we’re going to start at it again.” And finally after all that time, he starts winning. I mean, Grant didn’t even really come in until after Gettysburg.
He also wrote the best presidential memoir.
Of course. He did it with Mark Twain. I think he was writing Huckleberry Finn at the same time.
I gotta say, I don’t know any 23-year-old that cares about any of this stuff: Homer, Charley Patton, Grant … How did you get into this stuff?
Again, I got my eye on being one of them. To me, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, it’s really three sides of the same coin to me. It’s the American canon. This is what our country is. I hope the Republic lasts forever, but if it doesn’t, this is the stuff we will be judged by by future generations. Look, Lincoln was the first writer, Twain after him, to write American as if American was a language itself. And I actually studied Lincoln’s writings a lot. And the reason is because every line says something. Every line is important. There’s never any stuff that’s not supposed to be there.
Are you looking forward to your tour?
There is no higher honor than just being able to play to the American public. And I enjoy it more than anything. I’m excited to play more shows outside of California and see what the rest of the country is really like. Not what it’s like on the internet, or how people write about it, but really what are the people like.
Are you worried some people will just show up because of who your grandfather is?
Well, really that’s their problem if they’re coming to see him and not me. It’s not my problem. I had a heckler at one of my shows. I told him, “You can shut up or you can leave.”
What was he yelling out?
All kinds of crazy things. “Play this song, play that song.”
Songs by your grandfather?
Did that hurt?
No, man. I mean, everybody else in the room seemed to care what I was saying. This guy was just there by himself. It’s like, why do you even come?
An incident like that just bounces off you?
I walk with destiny, man. Not a guy like you, but, like, a guy with the job that you have killed John Keats. They didn’t like Byron either. Around here, on this planet, in this country, we have a way of tearing down our heroes, our prophets down.
It often takes a few generations to discern what art truly mattered from any given time.
I mean, Poe died drunk in the gutter, man, alone, no money. [F. Scott] Fitzgerald died without any books in print. These are truly sad things. I mean, these are our highest level of Americans when art truly had meaning.
Do you think music is what you’ll spend the rest of your life doing?
Of course. It is something that goes so deep inside of me. I can’t even explain the importance upon which I place on it. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with songs, or I’ll be doing something and a song comes and you just gotta stop and focus on it. I don’t think any artist knows why they create. And as we discussed earlier, a lot of artists don’t even get to know the impact they’ve had because most of it happens after they’ve died. So it’s just about making the highest quality of work possible.