Photo by Bryan Lamb, courtesy of G Herbo
At the beginning of the second verse to "L's," the song that opens the mixtape Ballin Like I'm Kobe, G Herbo—formerly known as Lil Herb—lists off more than a dozen names of friends who have died to violence in his home city of Chicago. Herbo is 20 years old. And for all the powerful imagery that crops up in lyrics throughout his projects, particularly on this excellent newest one, that list might be the most effective moment of Herbo discussing the emotional reality that lies underneath all of his music: There's a human side to the statistics and horror stories that come out of Chicago.
Since gatecrashing Chicago rap alongside similarly babyfaced friend and collaborator Lil Bibby with the song "Kill Shit" in 2012, Herbo has continued to refine his voice as a verbally overactive documentarian of the street life he encountered growing up in a part of the city's South Side that's locally referred to as the East Side. His style is one of contemporary rap's most distinct, cramming words into bars in ways that don't always slide smoothly onto the beat until the final thought is complete. It's caught the attention of collaborators ranging from Nicki Minaj, whose remix of Herbo's "Chiraq" launched a million imitator freestyles, to Common, who brought Herbo on board for the lead track on his 2014 album Nobody's Smiling and appeared on Herbo's song "Fight or Flight" alongside Chance the Rapper.
Even as general attention for the wave of Chicago rap that brought him to prominence has waned, that skillfulness has made Herbo one of the most quietly popular young rappers in the country. What's more, Herbo's penmanship and attention to detail is only getting better: Consider "Pain," from Ballin Like I'm Kobe, which paints a picture of Herbo as a kid walking 11 blocks home (eight Chicago blocks measure a mile) from his school in another district through heroin sales and shootouts and bluntly but maturely depicts his relationship with his father: "and my problem with my pops is just we don't communicate / I see his face all the time but it's just hi and bye."
That clear-eyed lyrical tone has increasingly made Herbo, much like many of his Chicago rap peers, a de facto spokesman for his city, which is continually at the center of political debates about crime, gun control, and race—increasingly so following a series of leaks about police abuse this past fall. It's become an odd byproduct of the city's rap: Perhaps no other music scene exists in which the artists are so regularly asked to account for the broad societal trends of the community they grew up in.
But Herbo has taken it in stride, growing up quickly—remember, he's only 20—and communicating a nuanced perspective on the city's problems. He's always been sharp, but even compared when I talked to him around this time last year, I found him to be more attuned to the way he was discussing the issues that come up in his music when I called him earlier this week to talk about "L's." The video, which we're premiering below, takes a cold, hard look at the same ideas discussed in the track, about how someone like Herb, who was a focused student and basketball player at 13, might get caught up in the cycle of gun violence by 16, as he raps. It's a powerful video, and Herbo had plenty to say about the song in question.
Noisey: Ballin Like I’m Kobe is named after your friend Jacobi. Tell me a little bit about him. Why name the project after him? I think most people see that name and assume you’re talking about Kobe Bryant.
G Herbo: Yeah, that’s my late friend. That was the whole concept of it. Really it was my homie Jacobi who passed away that was one of my closest friends. It touched me when he passed. He was one of the people who motivated me to work hard and stick to my craft and don’t let nobody else sidetrack me. That was the one person, if anyone could be proud of me and my success, it’d be him right now. So really that was the whole process of the tape, to let everyone know that I’m living my dream and still going through the real ins and outs of the Chicago lifestyle, and growing up trying to make something of yourself in Chicago.
How long ago was it that he died?
He passed away in 2013, in the midst of me making Welcome to Fazoland, so it touched me. I was in the process of making my first mixtape, and he got killed in my face. It was crazy.
Do you ever have a feeling of if all of this success had happened a little sooner maybe that wouldn’t have happened to him?
Nah, I never really felt like that ‘cause I’m the type of person who believes you can’t beat life. You can’t cheat life. That’s maybe what God had planned for him, or I’m not sure. Everything I feel like that’s happened in my life happens for a reason, and it makes me who I am. I wouldn’t say if I did this or if I did that because I didn’t do it. If it was meant to happen, it would have happened. I would have been successful early on in my career and maybe he would still be here today, but I know he’s one of the reasons why I go hard and why I am so successful, why I stay focused. Because that’s one thing he always told me when he was alive, stay focused, really worry about myself and my craft. That’s one thing he always told me.
In this song you talk about Capo a bunch, and you say that you have songs with him from 2013. What was your relationship with him? What was it like working with him?
I’ve been knowing Capo for a long time, man. Almost ten years, maybe even almost longer. I feel like our relationship, it always been strong. His little brother’s one of my best friends. That was like a brother to me, so seeing him leave was crazy. And knowing what we had planned for each other. Me and him talked about becoming successful together, and of course we had songs together and stuff like that because that was just my homie. It wasn’t like a music type relationship. We’d been like that forever. We’d shared a lot of moments. So losing him took a big, big thing from me. I move a different way now. I think different. Everything about me has been different since he left. I ain’t gonna lie. A part of me left when he left. And I feel like really it’s hard to really explain because it’s a feeling I ain’t never felt before. I wouldn’t say I’m in denial, but it doesn’t feel like he’s gone. Right now, still. I just look at it like maybe he’s out of town, man, like at Sosa’s crib or something. I just look at it like that, he’s in LA. I don’t want to be in denial, but I don’t want to think about it.
Why do you think it felt that way with him?
The people who pass, you never expect them to go so soon, and it’s always the people you least expect, too. It was crazy for him to lose his life because we know what we were supposed to do in life. We know what we were worth. He knew there wasn’t room for error, to do that type of thing, to be outside the way he was and things like that. It’s no way that he should be gone now.
One of the themes of this song is that it talks about how you were doing the right things and staying in school when you were younger, how you grew up with two parents. A lot of people have this impression that all of Chicago’s problems are because kids are in single-parent homes or not going to school or whatever—which is obviously often true but is different from the story you’re telling. Why talk about this stuff in this way?
I feel like everyone judges my city from the outside looking in and not the inside and really having an input and being a product of what’s going on in the city, which I am. That’s why I rap so much about my past life, is to let people know this wasn’t the life I chose. I didn’t grow up choosing to be a thug or choosing to be in the streets where I know I’ve got to watch my back and I know I’ve got to lose people that I love and lose people around me. That wasn’t the life I chose. Some people do choose this life. Some people are in it for all the wrong reasons. But me, I feel like, and the people around me, we just became products of our environment.
I had a two parent household, steady home. I grew up with my father all my life. I was raised well. I just became a product of my environment, of things around me that I couldn’t control, things that I wasn’t trying to control. I just adapted to the streets because I always had friends in the streets and I come from the streets. My father was in the streets. But he didn’t want that life for me. He didn’t teach it.
I want people outside of my city to know that there are kids who just want to be cool, to shoot guns, to make a name, to just be followers, but there are kids who couldn’t help the life that they live. It’s kids who wanted a better life for themselves but lost brothers or sisters to crossfire, things like that. And some of that is going on all over the world, but I feel like in Chicago it’s a unique story that needs to be told the right way, and I try to tell it the way it’s supposed to be told because I’m from the streets. Everything that I am has to do with being from the streets and being in the streets. And I live the life of a dude that’s in the streets, but I’ve got a good head on my shoulders. I have a heart, I care about my family, I care about other people’s lives as well, and that’s crazy for me to have lost so many lives. I care about the lives of little kids and women and babies and mothers. I care about those lives, of innocent kids who want to make something of their lives and go play basketball or go to college. I care about those lives. I care about those people. And everybody don’t think like that. So I want people to know that just because of what you’ve been through doesn’t make you the type of person that you see in the videos and on the news. Our city isn’t full of those kind of people. Most of those people who are like that haven’t really been through what I’ve been through. I’ve been through a lot, and that’s what makes me think the way I think and appreciate life much more. I think people who don’t appreciate life haven’t been through a lot.
What do you think would need to happen to make things change?
I feel like really me, growing up, there was a lot of opportunity. All my homies, we grew up going to summer camps, watching the Bulls games at the center around our house. I feel like it’s no more of that in the city. It’s no more opportunities for kids to go play AAU basketball and stay off the streets. It starts young. The killing is being done by all the youth because they don’t have things to occupy their time, and a lot of the parents don’t have the money and opportunities that they had then. There’s no money in the black communities anymore, so there’s no opportunities for the kids.
Kids want to get high now. They want to do what the rappers doing, what they see us doing. And that’s why it’s our job and I’m a voice in my city to tell people that there’s more to life. If you’re a kid you shouldn’t be concerned about getting high or anything like that. Because I’m 20, and I don’t even focus on chasing a high. There’s more to life than what you think is cool. A lot of kids, they don’t know. Their father was a kid, so they think this stuff is cool. They think getting high is cool, and guns and the shit that’s not gonna matter. They want to be cool to the people who are not gonna mean anything to them in life.
I can’t even tell you ten kids’ names from my homeroom in high school. I can’t. Because I was focused on other things, and I knew that. But other kids are focused on being cool and who remembers them and who cares about them, and they want to get dressed to look good for people who they’re not going to see ever again in life if they try to make something of their life. So it’s on me to tell the kids. I feel like it’s my job to do it. I know kids look up to me, so I want to set a positive example for that no matter what I’ve been through.
And even if you are in the streets I want kids to know there’s more to it, you can make it out of the streets. It’s not the life that I feel like you should choose. If it happens, so be it. If you adapted to your environment, like I did, so be it. You shouldn’t want to be this because there’s only two outcomes. You’ll either be dead or in jail. So is that what you want for yourself or your mother or your kid? If you’re going to do drugs, you must know the side effects of those drugs. If you’re going to be in the streets, you must know the side effects of the streets and accept it. If that’s what you want with your life, OK, as long as you know.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.