Photos by Andreas Brauning
The proverbial shelf of major rap labels will forever overflow with what could’ve been. Freddie Gibbs knows. After years of felonious hustles in the desolate and impoverished city of Gary, Indiana, he moved to the city of weather, women, and weed to sign with Interscope. When they left him in the lurch, he didn’t move back to the Midwest. Instead, he stayed in LA, unleashed a torrent of increasingly prodigious mixtapes, and gradually became one of the most successful and critically acclaimed rappers working, this time all while remaining staunchly independent.
His latest album, Shadow of a Doubt, is out today via his label ESGN. To say that this is the same Gibbs we’ve heard over the course of his prolific, (roughly) decade long career would mean that you haven’t really been listening. The tropes remain relatively the same—women, drugs, violence, money—but the delivery and the demeanor have shifted.
“I just wanted to make something that people were either going to love or hate,” he told me, adding that he wants to be seen in the same category at the end of the year as the Futures and Drakes. “I wanted either all bad reviews or all good ones.” To that end, the rapping is markedly melodic, his Midwestern double-time infinitely more fluid and his inflection continuously varied (e.g. “Fuckin’ Up the Count”); on songs like “Careless” and “Basketball Wives,” his crooning qualifies him to be the sixth member of Bone Thug-N-Harmony. The glassy-eyed introspection and reflection of last year’s Madlib produced Piñata are present, but the regret has largely been shelved, supplanted by a level of swag that would leave Soulja Boy reeling. And all of it occurs over music that expands the sonic boundaries of gangsta rap. It’s as if Gibbs and his circle of producers—as well as engineer and longtime collaborator Sid “Speakerbomb” Miller—discovered another constellation while sitting atop the kush clouds.
Earlier this week, Gibbs dropped by the VICE office in Venice, California. With a glinting Jesus piece dangling from his neck and a container of his new weed strain, Freddie Kane OG, in his pocket, he was unfettered by security or squad. Relaxed yet engaged, Gibbs laughed and joked with a regularity that was almost disarming given his frequently grim raps. Sometimes his answers to questions led to hilarious and candid tangents, but the words “off the record” were never said. There were no major label publicists to tell him otherwise. Gibbs wouldn’t have it any other way.
Noisey: You just got back from Chicago, right? How was your trip?
Freddie Gibbs: It was cool. It’s always cool going home to Gary and to Chicago, just being there and soaking up the energy. I used to go home quite often. With my schedule now, I don’t have too much time. But I talk to my homies from Gary all the time. I think that’s essential to making this music. You kind of have to go play in the mud a little bit and get little dirty. Then you get in there and shake that shit off and apply it to the music.
When you went back to Gary, did the city look the same as it did when you were growing up there? How has it changed?
Every time I go back I think there’s a steady rate of deterioration—more people dead, more businesses closed, more abandoned houses. It’s just dying slow. My homies ain’t got nothing to do. There are no jobs around there… The conditions they’re living in is like a third world country.
Do you think Gary’s proximity to Chicago was part of the reason you gravitated towards rappers like Twista and Do or Die?
Of course. I grew up listening to those guys. They were like the rap guys around there. Do or Die, Twista, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony—they definitely heavily influenced my music. I’d be a liar if I said they didn’t.
What’s your favorite Do or Die song?
There are so many, dude. “Picture This.” I like a lot of Do or Die songs, though. Everything about them said “Chicago” for their era. I feel like the music in Chicago kind of steered away from that. It’s way different. I don’t see any element of that in no Chicago music. Kanye embodied every type of thing, but as far as the new kids—nah.
Mike Dean, who produced the last song on the album (“Cold Ass Nigga”), actually produced some Do or Die songs. He also worked on a bunch of other Rap-A-Lot records, too. Is that the reason you sought him out?
Definitely. His track record, his sound, his knowledge of the music—I needed somebody like that around me so I could feed off of their energy and get some direction. A couple sessions with Mike and he made me more loose when I was making my records. I already knew that I could rap well, but when I started working with Mike it was effortless. It was like I had been practicing for this time and this era of my career that I’m in right now. I feel like I’m real sharp.
Have you ever heard a beat that you felt would be too difficult to rap over?
There are a lot of beats that are too difficult to rap over. But I can’t really say difficult, I just might not vibe to a beat. That whole Madlib album was a challenge to write. That was quite difficult. I don’t think a lot of guys could’ve done that. That was like putting together a puzzle. I think that just speaks to the type of rapper that I am.
Who made some of your favorite rap records this year?
Of course Drake. Him and Future’s shit together was dope. Future’s shit was dope. They kind of like at the top right now when it come to the music. They’re making the best music. I can definitely say that. I like the way Young Thug does his melodies. He’s got a distinct flow.
I don’t know. There’s a lot of niggas rapping, but there ain’t a lot of niggas rapping. I was in my car before I got here and I was listening to Tory Lanez. I like him.
At this point in your career, I’d imagine you could work with just about any producer you’d like. Why did you decide to work with producers that many might consider lesser known?
It’s me building something from the ground up. You might not know a lot of these guys right now, but after this record comes out people are probably going to be knocking down their door. That happens with a lot of guys. I saw when nobody knew who Lex Luger was and guys like that. Then they skyrocket out of nowhere. That’s how this game goes.
I think that the sound of the music gets younger every year, so you have to move with the times. You can’t get to the point in your career where you feel you’re above that. I feel like you have to keep your ear to the streets and your ear to the youth. There’s always a young guy that’s in his room on his computer or in the studio making those beats with a young sound. You have to cater to the youth when picking these beats. You can’t keep a stagnant sound. The Tarentino [of 808 Mafia] shit, that was dope to blend in with all the rest of those guys, too.
That’s the little homie, too. Tarentino’s from my neighborhood. People think he’s from Atlanta, but he’s really from Gary. There are a lot of niggas from Gary that’s on the low. But when I came out I made it okay for niggas to be like, “I’m really from Gary.” I seen a bunch of niggas in the club in Chicago and they were tapping me on the shoulder like, “I’m from Gary.” I’m like, “O yeah? What part, nigga? You wasn’t coming outside, nigga. You was on the porch.”
Since you brought up age, you’ve been rapping since roughly 2004. How have you been able to age as gracefully as you have?
Just not ever compromising my integrity. Always staying sharp lyrically, never being lazy. Always keeping my ear to the street and to the youth, and being able to adapt to the times. I came up in an era where you had to have a record deal to be sitting up here with you doing an interview. You had to be signed to a record label. I feel like my struggle with getting dropped and all of that made me have to make myself an independent machine. I feel like a lot of people followed behind me. I feel like I don’t get enough credit for that.
I never had no hit single or radio records. I’ve never been on a reality show. I’ve never done anything that would make people get weary of me or tired of me. I haven’t done anything of that nature yet. Everything that I’ve been doing has been on an underground level. It’s like I been fucking, but I ain’t bust my nut yet. It’s like, I keep fucking [pounds hands together], and my dick is staying hard. I don’t even know if I’m ready to bust my nut yet. I feel like that when niggas peak or get on a major label and they drop that album and that single it’s hard to go from there. It’s hard to get your dick hard again after 30 seconds to fuck that bitch again. But I’m just a nigga that’s been fucking this bitch for the long haul. I’ve been pounding that pussy out. A lot of niggas bust their nut too quick. I remember when I was on Interscope, there were all kinds of niggas that had songs out and I was wishing I was in their position. Now they probably look at me and wish I was in their position. So tables turn. That’s why you have to stay humble and stay consistent.
Do you think your consistency is what’s afforded you the respect of rappers from so many different lanes?
Yeah. And can’t none of them dudes beat me up [laughs]. I feel like I’m a long book. There’s a lot of layers to me that people haven’t uncovered. A lot of niggas didn’t know that I was funny. A lot of niggas thought I was a nigga that don’t talk or smile. As of late, I’ve been doing funny shit on Snapchat and Instagram. People love that shit. I just did my listening party and everybody thought it was a stand-up comedy routine. I was drunk and shit. When I get drunk, you never know. It’s going to be a laugh-a-thon.
You do a lot of singing on the new album, at least more so than you have in the past. How did you become more confident in your abilities as a singer?
Singing in the shower. My shower in my bathroom got a weird, natural reverb. I was in there experimenting with shit. I was like, “I’m about to go to the studio tonight and jam on some shit.” That song I got on the album called “Basketball Wives,” I was so drunk when I made that shit. We were in the studio talking about bitches and I was like, “I’m just going to go in there and jam.” I didn’t even want to rap on it. I was just getting bored.
After I made Piñata, I knew you couldn’t name five motherfuckers that can rap better than me technically. I don’t give a fuck about that anymore. I used care about, “Oh shit, I got to rap the best on this song,” or, “I have to be the best lyrically.” I already know I’m that. I don’t need a platinum plaque or a record label to tell me that. I already know that technically I’m definitely one of the top five. When I did this SOD project that allowed me to be looser. I could just be free. I don’t think I wrote none of this shit down on paper. I just went in there and was spitting all that shit.
Do you think there’s too much singing in rap music today?
Not at all. There might’ve been too much rappity-rapping ass rap music in rap at one point. I feel like a lot of this shit had to be injected in the music. It’s nothing new. Pimp C was implementing melodies into raps a long time ago. That’s why Pimp C is in my top five dead or alive. A lot of motherfuckers might not put him there, but I put him there because making a rap song is more than making a rap song. A lot of niggas get caught up in lyrics. It’s like that top ten list that just came out. Pimp C might not be a technical rapper like Black Thought, but he evokes that same type of emotion for me when I hear him rap, when I hear him say a line like, “I got a baby, but his momma act like he ain’t mine.” That’s something that will tug on your heart a little bit. It ain’t just the words he’s saying in the technical sense, but the feeling they bring out of you and the energy on the record. There’s a lot of factors involved in being the best rapper. I think we put too much on who’s the best lyricist. That’s that New York shit. It’s deeper than lyrics.
How do you feel about the resurgence of T-Pain?
I loved T-Pain when he came out and I still love him now. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. When you’re the first person to do some shit, you don’t always get the credit you deserve. He’s definitely a pioneer. He basically made rappers turn their voices into instruments. Like Future, he makes some of the best music out there. It’s phenomenal music because his voice is like a guitar or some shit. Rap now is kind of like dance hall.
The rhythms are relatively the same but the delivery is different.
Exactly. Those guys over there are rapping, but then they bust out with melodies. And the Auto-Tune is heavy. A lot of that island flavor has been dumped into rap. Drake brought a lot of different things into the music. There are a lot of things that are shifting rap in the direction that it’s going. I’m not mad at it whatsoever. I love it. I feel like I blend right on in with it. The motherfuckers that’s complaining about it is the old heads that can’t get with the shit. Niggas that ain’t talking about shit. If you don’t evolve with the game, get out the motherfucker.
Do you think gangsta rap will always remain relevant?
As long as I’m in it. Guys like me keep it relevant. You got little kids that talk about shit in the streets that they ain’t really done and things of that nature. I think that guys like me keep it in line and keep it respectable. I heard Trick Daddy do an interview the other day and he was like, “Rappers come out and they’re already rich.” That’s bullshit. When I started out, I wasn’t rapping about no rich shit. I ain’t have it yet. I think I’m just now getting to the point where you hear me talking about foreign cars and shit like that because I got all that shit now. But it was a grind. I want to show motherfuckers that there’s growth on each one of my records.
Would you like to see a future where the circumstances in the U.S. that create gangsta rap no longer exist?
Ummm…nah [laughs]. What is the world without a Scarface movie? There has to be some kind of struggle to combat with. That’s the beauty of it. This country was built on corruption, the blood of other people, free labor. This shit ain’t never going to be correct. So as long as it’s incorrect we’re always going to have subject matter and something to talk about. Black people are so disenfranchised it don’t make no fucking sense. We don’t even do simple things, like pooling our money to start businesses together like other races do in America. Things like that are things I plan on rapping about more as I grow. Social commentary, as Pimp C would say.
There’s a track on the record called “Freddie Gordy”, where I really opened up a whole lot. I said something about my past drug use. I used to use drugs heavy. Codeine, Xanax, Oxycodone, and all of that shit. I used to lace my blunts with that shit. Cocaine blunts. Blunts dipped. If there’s a drug out there I probably tried it. On the “Freddy Gordy” song I basically named the cocktail of drugs that I was using at the time and I said that I had to look myself in the mirror and say, “Are you a dope fiend or are you a dope boy?” You could be selling a whole bunch of crack, but you’re giving all that money back to the pill man, the lean man, the powder man, or the molly man to get your fix. I hear all these niggas rapping about whipping a brick, but then they say they’re getting high off six other drugs. You can’t be making a lot of money if you’re spending your money on six other drugs. There’s just shit like that to enlighten motherfuckers a little bit. I never want to take the position like I’m preaching to niggas. But you have to bring them in and make them relate to your struggle.
Max Bell is a writer living in LA. Follow him on Twitter.