Freddie Gibbs has rolled with
the punches - and delivered a few. The Gary, Ind.-born emcee began to
nurture his talent while living the life he raps about in his song — dealing drugs,
pimping, doing work he describes as "mostly illegal" in an interview
Hip-hop offered another path: While selling drugs at a recording studio, he decided that he could rap
at least as well as any of the emcees recording there. By 2005, Gibbs' self-produced
mixtapes had found their way to the right people, and he was signed to Interscope Records
Interscope Records. But two years passed without an official release, and after his budget ran out and his champion at the label moved on, Gibbs found himself back in Gary.
He still had the beats worked up for him during his time at Interscope, some of which served as raw
material for two album-length mixtapes, 2008's The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and 2009's Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik. Media outlets both underground (hip-hop
blogs like The Smoking Section) and mainstream (The New Yorker, Pitchfork.com) praised the tapes, hailing them as a return to old-school gangsta rap.
Gibbs' work is characterized by a fast patter
over heavy, uncomplicated beats. It's focused on the streets, sometimes taking
the long view (describing Gary, Gibbs rhymes, "Land of lost hope / clouds of
mill smoke / Community devoured by hard and soft dope"), other times fully invested in the life ("Keep my name out in the hood and my dick in the hood bitch / Niggers violate, we slice em and dice em like wood chips").
Gibbs tests the market for his music this month, asking fans to pay for work that was before available for free download. His Str8 Killa EP was released on the independent hip-hop label
Decon Records August 2, a week after a free mixtape version of the same album appeared
on the web. We called Gibbs in Los Angeles two weeks ago; here are the results.
NUVO: Sasha Frere-Jones of
the The New Yorker said that your
work hails back to early gangsta rap, which was all about "unvarnished
reporting delivered with a panache that balanced the pain." Does that sound
Freddie Gibbs: Yeah.
Everything you hear from my mouth is real — there ain't nothing
fabricated or fake about what I'm doing lyrically. I'm rapping my life, just
making my life an open book. I think some guys are watching too much Gangland and Scarface, and they're perpetuating what they're not. I'm
glad that my music can have the impact that it has by touching Sasha
Frere-Jones because I make gangsta rap and he's a white writer from New York.
For my music to reach him and for him to understand it, it says a lot.
NUVO: Are you surprised to
see that indie rock audiences are embracing your work? You played a really
well-received set at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
Gibbs: This is what I work
for — I work for my music to transcend those different audiences, not
just one different audience. I'm from the hood, so it's like, hood
motherfuckers are going to get my shit anyway. It speaks volumes that I can
reach an audience of five thousand or better people that's there for an indie rock
show. For them to be rocking to my show and seeing what I'm doing, that's just
love. I'm definitely humbled by that.
NUVO: When did you realize
you were good at this?
Gibbs: Probably in my
early 20s. Once I started messing with it, it started taking. I was getting
good reception for my music. So that made me go full-time at it.
NUVO: And you did other work
as you launched your career, both legal and illegal.
Gibbs: Definitely. Mostly
NUVO: Do you think it's
easier to change one's life outside of Gary, or can demons follow you anywhere,
so to speak?
Gibbs: The demons can
follow you everywhere. Being out in LA, I handle a lot of business out here, so
it's good for me to be out here. My girlfriend is out here. It's a good thing
for me to be away from home handling my business. But at the same time,
wherever you're at in the rap game, you can fall victim to the pitfalls. Having
good people around me and staying levelheaded is what keeps me going.
NUVO: And like The Jacksons,
do you still have to leave Gary to make it in the music business?
Gibbs: I think you do have
to leave Gary, per se, because there's no industry there. You can do music, but
you won't be in the music industry sitting in Gary. That's what I had to do; I
had to bring that element of the industry back to my city. It wasn't going to
come to me; I had to go get it. There's a lot of rappers from Gary, actually,
chilling in the Indianapolis area, because they know that there's nothing in
Gary. And it's hard for us to get embraced by Chicago. Luckily, as of late,
Chicago's been embracing me heavy. Within that market, I'm going to definitely
make a huge impact.
NUVO: What I like about your
work is that you're an on-the-ground participant and observer, and you also
pull back to look at the political and social forces that shaped the city of
Gibbs: I definitely look
at the history of Gary and the things that happened within the city. Gary used
to be mostly white, and then we elected a black mayor, and you saw what we call
white flight. A lot of whites moved south out of Gary, or to other states. When
they left, they picked up and took a lot of those businesses and jobs with
them. They left our city in a distressed state. That whole domino effect, with
the incoming of crack cocaine, definitely had an effect on my life. And I
dibbled and dabbled in that whole street life, and it was definitely due to the
economics of the city. Everything that happened in the city plays a part in
what I'm doing.
NUVO: What was your
neighborhood like growing up?
Gibbs: I definitely had
some positive examples because my mom was a hard-working blue-collar woman
— don't drink, don't smoke, and all that. Everybody in my neighborhood
knew each other. It was a close-knit neighborhood, yet at the same time, things
in my neighborhood were going on that were scary: murders, crackheads on the
street, ladies getting raped, things that would stretch you out to the point
where you say, damn, I've either got to get out of this motherfucker or I'm
going to end up a victim. Carrying that mentality everyday will push you over
the edge. It'll make you rob, it'll make you get out there and hustle. You see
everybody else doing it, getting their money, so why are you going to sit there
and be broke. Unless you're going to college, there's really nothing left there
for you to do. There's barely a job there for you to get. There's no community
outreach programs, nothing for the children to do. So they fall a victim to
what's out there on the streets.
NUVO: Can you talk about the
Gibbs: I ride past that
theater on Broadway downtown everyday. And I'm like, that shit is broke down,
all fucked up. And that's the only landmark in our city. It's one of the only
things that's definitive of Gary. I heard an old lady call it, one day, the
Devil's Playground. So I just combined the two and called it the Devil's
Palace. It's way more than a playground right now. I think the Devil runs
rampant in the streets of Gary right now; in the streets of the ghetto period,
not just in Gary. And that's something I wanted to touch on, so that hopefully
people can look at it and say, damn, we really need to change this shit.
NUVO: When I was there after
Michael Jackson's death, The Jackson Five were on the marquee...
Gibbs: Yeah, Gary's stuck
in 1973 or some shit.
NUVO: What did you learn from
being on Interscope?
Gibbs: It taught me to be
all about me, and not worry about these dudes in the industry because they're
not my friends. To see things for what they were. It taught me that I have to
definitely work hard to be where I want to be. The whole Interscope situation
was a blessing; it was sort of like rap boot camp, so to speak.
NUVO: You aim for a
no-bullshit, no-filler approach in your work.
Gibbs: No imaginary shit
going on in my raps. I'm not going to tell you that I've got 150 kilos of
cocaine because I don't have that — that shit is unimaginable, crazy. Yes
I have sold drugs, I have been in the streets and done everything that all
these guys are rapping about. At the same time, I'm not going to exaggerate or
make it anything that it's not. If you keep letting these kids see something
that's unattainable, they're going to be reaching for it; it's leading them in
the wrong direction. So I'm just getting real.
NUVO: To that point, are you
concerned that some kid might hear one of your tracks and think that you're
glorifying the gangster lifestyle?
Gibbs: Not at all. Because
those that know me know that I'm talking about it from my own point of view.
I'm definitely not glorifying the lifestyle, I'm just looking at it from my own
point of view.
NUVO: When did you start
Gibbs: As soon as I
started rapping. I decided to perfect my pen game, to actually write my shit
down and not go in the booth and just freestyle some bullshit.
NUVO: And how do you write
— on a computer, on paper, every day?
Gibbs: I smoke a whole
pack of blunts and just write in my notebook.
NUVO: Really? Do you have to
get a different state of mind to write?
Gibbs: No, I'm not going
to say I have to get in a different state of mind, because I'm always smoking.
For the most part, I'm getting in my zone and doing my thing, with nobody
around. I listen to the beat and just make that marriage with the words to the
NUVO: Why do you think pot is
such a popular subject in hip-hop?
Gibbs: Because alcohol is
bad for your health; weed is from the earth. No...for the most part, everybody
loves weed. I heard 70 percent of the country is smoking weed. It's something
that a lot of people can relate to. That's why I personally talk about it,
because most of the people that listen to my music can relate to that; they are
weed smokers, such as myself.
NUVO: How difficult is it to
make a living as a rapper?
Gibbs: It's definitely
tough. You've got to do your shows, your guest appearances; things of that
nature to try to generate funds from this. You've got to sell things, whether
it's merchandise or music. I've put my music out there for people to take a
hold. People are starting to recognize me now and like the music. There's a
trial and error period; I had to test the water with my music to see what type
of reception it would get. And it's been getting a good reception, so I feel
like I'm at the point where I can sell some of it...I'm hitting every city I can,
shaking hands and kissing babies, promoting this whole Freddie Gibbs thing.
Promotional video for "The Ghetto" from the Str8 Killa No Filla EP: