For the past three years, Lil Dicky has quietly been creating one of the biggest all-star charity records since “We Are The World” and he’s finally ready to share it. “Earth,” a song about the desperate need to save the environment before it’s too late, was produced by Benny Blanco and Cashmere and features the rapper alongside Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Halsey, Zac Brown, Brendon Urie, Hailee Steinfeld, Wiz Khalifa, Snoop Dogg, Kevin Hart, Adam Levine, Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, Sia, Miley Cyrus, Lil Jon, Rita Ora, Miguel, Katy Perry, Lil Yachty, Ed Sheeran, Meghan Trainor, Joel Embiid, Tory Lanez, John Legend, Bad Bunny, Psy, Kris Wu, Backstreet Boys and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Most of the guest stars appears as cartoon animals in the animated “Earth” video, which is destined to rack up historic numbers on YouTube. Lil Dicky also launched a website to give fans more information about climate change and ways to help. The rapper called up Rolling Stone before its release to chat about the origins of the song, how he roped in so many A-listers, his fruitless pursuit of Kanye West and the status of his upcoming album and TV show.
Tell me the backstory of this song and video. What sparked the idea?
It started with me just wanting to make a song about animals. It wasn’t an environmentalism type of climate change song in my head at first. I just had the idea of, “Wouldn’t it be funny to cast different artists to play different animals?” As I began working on the song, I had this vague understanding that there is an environmental issue on Earth. I knew what we were doing on Earth, vaguely, was harming the environment. I knew we were polluting the Earth, but I didn’t know any of the specifics of it.
As I started thinking about my song, I thought, “It’s probably a good thing that all the profits that come from this song go to charities involved in saving the environment.” It was always in my head that this was going to be something that helped raise money for environmental issues, but I didn’t really know the facts. I looked into it and was blown away. I didn’t realize, remotely, that it was such an urgent, dire situation. I didn’t know that we literally have 12 years to completely change how we do so many things on Earth, from a fundamental standpoint, or the damage will be irreversible and in our lifetimes we’re going to experience such drastic impact. Upon realizing that, it went from a silly song about animals to, “Oh my God, this is the most important thing I’ll ever do.”
Tell me about getting these guest stars. I imagine at first you didn’t think you’d get quite so many people.
Well, I’m an optimist. [Laughs] You start with your friends and people you have relationships with. It’s not that hard to say, “I need you on this song. It’s all for a good cause.” I explained the premise and got a good solid five. Once you have five people, it’s easier to go to somebody you are less friendly with and be like, “Hey, would you want to get on this song with Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran and Charlie Puth where everyone is playing a different animal?” The pitch wasn’t that difficult. Take into account that everyone’s part is so short that logistically it’s easy for each artist to execute. It’s like a 10-minute operation.
“My main priority is to get people to give a shit about saving the Earth” – Lil Dicky
Who were the first people you signed up?
Charlie Puth was the first person. I think I got Snoop and then Adam Levine, Meghan Trainor. It’s blurry, but I got Bieber pretty early. Ed Sheeran was in early, but he didn’t record until late.
Then it just snowballed?
Yeah! It just snowballed and then all of a sudden we had 15 [artists] and I was like, “This is the coolest thing!” By the end, I didn’t want to stop. Even now, I want to put out a remix and get like 50 other people. I don’t want to do that quite yet, but it was really cool.
How did it work logistically? Did they e-mail in their parts? Did you ever get in the studio with some of these people?
It varied. I’d say half of them I was in the studio with them where I’d either go to their sessions or they’d come into Benny Blanco’s studio. The other half of the time, they were sending it via e-mail. It definitely wasn’t like “We Are the World” where you see all these icons sitting in one studio and hanging out like they’re The Avengers. I don’t think there was any time where even two were in the studio. Well, actually there was one time where we went to the Wango Tango concert and we set up a booth since we knew Shawn Mendes was there and Ariana Grande, the Backstreet Boys, Miguel. We rotated people in and just got a bunch of people in one hour. We literally set up a booth in Ariana’s dressing room.
How did you match up each artist to an animal?
That was a me and Benny thing. We kind of just talked it over. The first version of the song was me singing everyone’s parts. We’d write down every part and start brainstorming. We talked about who we had relationships with and whose voice would be really funny. Lil Jon as a clam is one of my favorite ones. It’s so random, but his voice is perfect for it. I take a lot of pride in casting, even with my TV show I really tried to cast it well. I felt like this was an exercise in casting.
Why is Kevin Hart playing Kanye West?
[Laughs] I was planning on getting Kanye to go, “I’m Kanye West.” That was my plan. I’m friendly with Kanye. I used to play basketball with him. I have a relationship with him. And I wanted to wait until the video was nearly done because I wanted him to be the last person asked so I could put together the best possible presentation for Kanye. That left me a very limited window to get him on the song. And he’s very hard to get in touch with. He changed his cell phone number and his e-mail. I couldn’t get ahold of him. The animation was so far along that it still had to be his avatar coming out and saying, “And I’m Kanye West.” I still love that joke. I really love it no matter who plays Kanye, but I didn’t leave myself enough time to get ahold of him, so I called Kevin Hart and was like, “Will you play Kanye on this song?” And he was like, ‘Yeah!”
How long total did this take you from the first session until it was totally done?
Probably about two-and-a-half or three years.
Wow. How hard was it to keep secret that whole time?
It’s kind of something I’ve always been looking forward to. I didn’t view it as something that was hard to keep secret. I saw it as something like … I haven’t met my wife yet. I can’t wait to meet her. I love that I still have that to look forward to. I feel like I have the best part of my life to look forward to. With this song I kept thinking, “I have the best part of my career to look forward to with this thing.” That’s how I thought about it.
How did Leonardo DiCaprio get involved?
I’m so not involved in the environmental space. I don’t know anything about nonprofits and I knew there had to be a non-profit part of this. I knew that I shouldn’t be making money off this thing. I thought all the proceeds should be going to charities that help the earth and to raise awareness. One of the main things that woke me up, that helped me go from vaguely-informed to aware, was the documentary Before The Flood, which is a great documentary that is a digestible way to understand what’s going on.
And I’ll never forget when he won Best Actor [for The Revenant]. That guy has been waiting his whole life to win that and he gets onstage and starts talking about climate change. I respected that so much. I knew that I had to partner up with somebody in that space and he was always on my mind because his documentary really opened my eyes. I also love movies and he’s one of my favorite movie stars ever. He’s a great actor. I brought the song to this woman named Justin [Winters] who runs his foundation. She was moved to borderline tears when I played her the song. She was like, “I’ve been working for 20 years to try and get people to care about this as much as possible and it’s not an easy fight to fight. When an incredibly mainstream, accessible way to raise awareness for people that aren’t naturally inclined to know about this issue.”
I loved Justin. I felt such a connection with her. She loved it and brought it to Leo. And then all of a sudden, I’m at Leo’s house and we’re talking about it. One thing I can tell you about that guy is he actually cares. It’s not a front. It’s just me and him talking and he’s getting so worked up to the point of anger talking about how it’s crazy that people aren’t really caring about this stuff. I could tell how much he cared. It felt like a very organic collaboration.
You mentioned “We Are The World.” Do you see this as a sort of modern-day version of that?
Uhhh … I guess. I don’t know. You can see that parallel because it’s not often that there are that many artists on one song. But it’s like a different type of movie even though it’s about something serious. It’s a funny song too, but I do see the parallels. But I don’t want to compare them. I don’t want to be like, “I just made a ‘We Are The World.'” I am honored by the comparison.
Was there any one person besides Kanye you tried to land but couldn’t get?
There really wasn’t. Towards the very end, I went crazy trying to figure out who else I could get. I was like, “Can we get Obama?” Then everyone was like, “I don’t think Obama is going to do it.” And I want to save my Obama ask. Who knows when I’ll need Obama?
Do you think people are going to view you differently after this? You’re known as a pretty goofy guy, but this is something serious.
I don’t know. I’m still a goofy guy! And the song is silly. I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t know how that will shape the perception. My main priority is to get people to give a shit about saving the Earth. But if I was to think about what I want this song to do selfishly for my career, I want people to be like, “Oh my God, this guy is legit. This isn’t some one-hit wonder gimmick thing.” I want people to see me as a legitimate artist, which I feel I am.
“It just snowballed and then all of a sudden we had 15 [artists] and I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing!’”
What’s the status of your album?
I’m like two songs away, but I’ve definitely been two songs away for six months. I’ve got like 15 songs. It’s going to be a long album. There’s a certain type of song that I’m missing, like a certain itch I’ve got to scratch. I’d love to get one or two of them on my album, but I gotta put it out by the end of the year. I feel badly for my fans. Including “Earth,” I’ve put out two songs in a four-year period. That’s all. They are starving. I really think they’re going to love my album and I want them to hear it. But realize it takes me a long time to do this stuff. It can’t happen for me overnight. I don’t make many filler songs or songs about nothing. My album is very conceptual and its own kind of an event. My last album came out in 2015. I listen to some it now and I’m like, “Ugh, I hate it.” I want to do everything I can so that when I listen to it in 2025 I still like it.
Are you working now on your FX show?
Yes I am. We’re about to start the writers room. We’re shooting this summer and season one should begin in early 2020.
There’s a lot happening all at once. Is it overwhelming?
I think the overwhelming period of my life where it’s legitimately overwhelming will start once “Earth” comes out. I have a lot going on, but it’s been manageable. I don’t feel too stressed. But once I start shooting that TV show it’s literally … the process of a TV show is 15-hour days for me, seven days a week, for three months straight. That’s going to happen as I’m finishing my album and I’m going to go insane. That’s my thing I’m scared of, but I think the end of the tunnel will be true light.