Everyone wants something from Waka Flocka Flame, including me. There’s his handler, who throughout the day will make him go to places he doesn’t want to go to, at times he doesn’t want to be at those places, and do things that he doesn’t want to do while at those places. She’s officially a publicist from his label, but she acts more like his mom. This is weird because his mom is one of his managers, and though she is not with us I can only assume that she does not tell him what to do nearly as much as this other person does. French Montana, a rapper from the Bronx who is signed to P. Diddy’s Bad Boy records, and appears to be a functioning alcoholic, will eventually call Waka from a strip club asking to drink with him. Wooh Da Kid, who is Flocka’s older brother, and Frenchie, who is a totally different person from French Montana, want Waka to help them get more famous, because they are both rappers in his 1017 Brick Squad crew. I was tasked by the wonderful people at VICE with spending the day with Sir Flame, and want him to answer the dumb questions that I have prepared for him and generally put up with my presence. After all is said and done, Waka Flocka and I spend a total of 15 hours together. Here’s what happened.
At 10:45 in the morning, I walk into the conference room of a well-known rap magazine to find Waka Flocka in the process of giving an interview. “Who are you?” he says to me.
“My name is Drew. I’m supposed to hang out with you today.”
“Who you with?” he says.
“VICE. It’s a magazine for hipsters, sort of.”
Waka pauses. He then says, “I don’t like that one. You gotta leave.” As this statement hangs in the air, I am the most mortified I have been since I was 12 and my parents told me that my grandmother had just died from complications due to emphysema. Waka can see my horror on my face, and starts cackling. He tells me that he’s just kidding, but he’d like me to wait in the lobby with his bodyguards while he gives this interview because it’s an exclusive. He smiles. Throughout the day I learn he’s a really smiley guy.
Back in the lobby, I introduce myself to said bodyguards. Their names are Chello and Steve. Chello is like eight feet tall and really funny. You pronounce his name “Cello,” like the musical instrument. Steve is shorter, but likes to talk about everything. You pronounce his name “Steve,” like the name Steve. The three of us spend a lot of time talking about Waka’s music, and how a rapper generates street cred. Here’s more or less how it works: You send your mixtapes to dudes locked up in jail. They play your stuff for their Jail Friends on their headphones, which can be turned into a pair of makeshift speakers by gutting them and turning the cup into an echo chamber. If the guys in jail think your music knocks, when they get back on the streets they’ll tell their friends about you. It’s kind of like when your big brother went to college and came back on Fall Break with a Replacements CD, only way more awesome. This happened for Waka right around the time that he put Salute Me Or Shoot Me, his first mixtape out. It was the first time he’d ever tried rapping. This means throughout his rapping career, Waka Flocka has always been popular.
Waka emerges from his interview smiling. He’s a massive human, probably six foot six and 250 pounds. He’s wearing pink designer pants and a white t-shirt that says “420” on it in the colors of the Jamaican flag. He’s built like a linebacker. Chello tells him, “This dude’s in Brick Squad for the day.” That’s all he needs. He puts his arm around me and takes me into the stairs. It’s oddly comforting. “Brick Squad for a day, son! You gonna hit a blunt, get some rooster…”
“You know, rooster!” He moves his head back and forth like a rooster pecking at something. I realize he’s talking about blowjobs. We then spend approximately three minutes arguing about whether or not I’m allowed to get rooster if I’ve got a girlfriend. He tells me I’m totally allowed; I tell him I don’t want to even go there. He seems disappointed, but tells me he respects me for not giving into pressure. “You know who you are,” he says. It’s manly to stand your ground. Waka Flocka is very concerned with manhood. He, Chello and I get into the chauffeured SUV that someone from his label rented for him, and they explain Man Code to me.
MAN CODE, ACCORDING TO WAKA FLOCKA AND CHELLO
- DO NOT POP ANOTHER MAN’S PIMPLE, ESPECIALLY ON HIS FACE.
- DO NOT PICK SOMETHING OUT OF ANOTHER MAN’S HAIR. YOU CAN BRUSH IT OUT, BUT YOU CAN’T PICK.
- IF YOU DO SOMETHING WEIRD, YOU HAVE TO SAY “NO JELLY” IN ORDER TO NEGATE SAID WEIRD THING.
Man Code seems important to Waka, because it’s the type of inside joke amongst friends that normal, non-famous people get to have. Fame is a weird concept, one that Waka seems to simultaneously embrace and be deeply distrustful of. On our way to MTV’s office in Times Square, where he’s previewing tracks from his new album Triple F Life: Friends, Fans and Family, he shows me pictures of girls on his phone and asks if he should sleep with them or not. They are uniformly beautiful, so I say “yes” to every girl, except for one I pick at random in order to seem like I have more discerning taste in women (no jelly). I ask him if he’s ever slept with anyone famous. He says yeah, six or seven times, and it’s always better than fucking a non-famous person. As he scrolls through his photos, I end up seeing a lot of pictures of himself that he’s taken, the type of shots that used to show up on people’s MySpace pages. His phone rings. His ringtone is his own song. He lets it play for a few seconds, and then presses “Ignore.”
On the way up to yet another conference room where Waka will preview his new songs for some MTV people, we encounter approximately eight women. Waka hits on all of them—if there is one thing you need to know about Waka Flocka, it is that he is never not flirting. After he sweet-talks an older MTV lady, he tells me, “I like them Stifler moms. Like in American Pie.”
“You mean MILFs?”
“Yeah. I want a GILF though,” he says with a wink.
In the conference room, Waka gladhands some more and plays some of the songs off of his new album. Even though it’s set to come out in a little over a month, Waka is still recording material. He’s calling the album Triple F Life: Friends, Fans and Family because he appreciates his fans and is trying to balance that fan loyalty with the fact that his label wants him to collaborate with lots of famous people. Some of the songs are amazing—his track with Bun B and Ludacris shows a dedication to the canon of southern rap, and the song he recorded with Slim Thug and Alley Boy is good enough to drop your jaw. It’s not all great, though. One song has Flo Rida on it, and it’s pretty terrible. Another is called “Fist Pump” and features B.o.B. It is way better than it has any right to be. It samples some anonymous Eurohouse song, its trashy ping-ponging synths slowed down to a menacing lurch while Waka and B.o.B. yell about getting drunk at the Jersey Shore. It’s the type of song you tend to nod your head to in spite of itself, especially if the person who made it is sitting in front of you.
Triple F Life seems like a mercenarily commercial attempt to turn Waka Flocka into a fully-fledged pop star, the potentiality for which he stumbled upon with his debut album Flockaveli. A totally insular, insanely aggressive album, its sound—think fight chants layered over electric guitars and abrasive synths layered over quantized machine gunfire—marked a sea change for the sound of street rap. Though it was mostly riot music, Flockaveli also featured "No Hands," an afterthought of a third single that Waka was barely on. Full of synthesized trumpets and the sort of drum pattern that made logical sense when you first heard it, it sounded like nothing else on Flockaveli and ended up being a gigantic hit, for a couple of reasons. One, it was a really good dance song that was sort of about blowjobs—er, rooster—so it ended up getting a lot of play in strip clubs and dorm rooms. Two, the tempo of its outro segued perfectly into Chris Brown's "Look At Me Now," which was probably the most dominant song on rap radio last year. This meant that lazy DJ's would play "No Hands" and "Look At Me Now" back to back until the cows came home. That type of serendipitous lightning is hard to bottle twice. Hence “I Don’t Really Care,” the song whose video we are watching now. It’s a fine song, the exact type of thing that Waka Flocka should be making—its chorus, provided by totally competent R&B singer Trey Songz, is about how he doesn’t really care about anything, and its verses, provided by Flocka, are also about he doesn’t really care about anything. After listening to it, I would totally be willing to punch a stranger in the dick, which is pretty much the point of a good Waka Flocka song, and I can definitely envision drunk people dancing to it, which is pretty much the point of a good pop-rap song. There is a problem with “I Don’t Really Care,” however. Chello whispers into my ear that Waka absolutely hates the song’s music video. It takes place in an art gallery, and it features a lot of people destroying a lot of expensive art stuff, and it doesn’t really make sense. Still, Waka grits his teeth and raves about the video with all the enthusiasm of a used car salesman trying to unload a Yugo onto somebody. After he shows the video, he looks at me and nods towards the door. We’re leaving.
We’re headed to a photoshoot, and as we eclipse the realm of “fashionably late” into “just plain late” territory, Waka realizes that he’s left his boots at the hotel in Queens. At this point, there’s no time to double back. He’s got to be photographed in Timberland construction boots. Wheat color. Or else. The problem with this particular exigence is that the boots are out of season, so not too many stores carry them. He holds his iPhone up to his mouth and says “Timberlands” into it, hoping that Siri will point him in the right direction. It doesn’t understand him. He says it again. Still no dice. On the third try, he says “Timberlands” with the enunciation of a Word Ninja, and Siri tells him that there’s a store that sells the boots several blocks uptown. The only problem, his publicist/surrogate mom points out, is that we’re headed to Brooklyn and we’re already ridiculously late, so there’s no way we can hit the store right now. Waka gets pissy. It’s the first “diva” moment I’ve seen from him, which is impressive for someone so famous that he gets recognized every time he even thinks about peeking outside, and who’s five for eight in terms of singles cracking the Top 20 on the rap charts. It’s hard to imagine, say, DJ Khaled not losing his shit if he pulled up to the marina only to discover that somebody had taken his cigarette boat out for a spin, or Soulja Boy keeping cool if somebody forgot to give him wasabi to go with his tempura roll. Five minutes later, however, Waka seems to have recovered. No Timbs, no problem. He pulls out his laptop. His wallpaper is a picture of himself riding a bike. He starts listening to his own music, and says—I swear to fucking God I am not making this up—“I wonder if I could invent my own language.” There are six of us in the car besides Flocka. No one responds.
Ten silent, non-neologic minutes later, we arrive at the shoot. A pair of brand-new wheat-colored Timbalands have materialized, and no one exactly knows how they got there. I get the sense that this happens a lot around Waka. A barber is present. He gives Waka a haircut, and then gives haircuts to Chello and Steve. I am more than a little jealous that I do not get offered a free haircut—I might be Team Honorary Brick Squad, but some of the perks of being in the Squad seem reserved for fully-fledged members. Waka’s drinking boxed wine (his favorite), and smoking a blunt. He seems happy. Somebody puts his music on the P.A. at an ear-blisteringly loud volume, which signals that it’s time for Waka Flocka Flame to get his picture taken.
I can’t get into the concrete details of the actual shoot, but I will say that Waka is being photographed for a popular rap magazine whose editor-in-chief will eventually ask him to take a picture with her dog, who is wearing a sombrero. Waka will acquiesce, telling her that the dog has swag.
Watching him shake and scream along to his own song as the photographer shoots him, I notice that Waka’s got that certain magnetic quality that famous people are supposed to have. His eyeballs are huge. I change my mind about his new songs. They’re all amazing, even the ones that sort of suck. Chello comes up to me wielding the remainder of Waka’s blunt, takes a few hits and hands it to me. I’ve never been offered the dregs of Rapper Weed before, so I take it. At the risk of hyperbole, it’s strong as goddamn motherfucking shit.
I start getting suspicious of everyone, even myself. Collecting my thoughts, I ask Chello, “Isn’t this sort of a cliché? Like, the nerdy writer guy getting high with the rapper’s crew?”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” he says.
I pause. “Uh, never mind.”
Chello and Steve huddle up. I am convinced that they’re talking about how I’m acting like a weirdo. A few minutes later, Chello starts talking to me about rap music, and I realize that they were probably just talking about bodyguard stuff and I was just being stupid and paranoid. He tells me about Playa Fly, a Southern rapper who was popular in the ‘90s whose music sounds a lot like a blueprint for Waka’s. People tend to think that Waka Flocka’s music was created in a vacuum, but if you look hard enough, the stylistic antecedents are right in front of you. There’s Playa Fly, whose slurred grunts inform Waka’s cadence. Then there’s the No Limit crew, filled with Grade-A screamers like Mystikal and Master P, who peppered their songs with guttural ad-libs that tended to overshadow their actual lyrics just as Flocka does, and employed proto-Flockian production that favored abrasive counterpoint over bullshit like “melody,” “structure,” or sonic depth. But Playa Fly never found widespread success, and the No Limit Soldiers ended up fading into the sunset. I have a feeling that Waka Flocka is going to last: he might scream his head off, but there’s genuine songcraft behind what he does. His choruses have a way of worming their way into your ears, and the enthusiasm with which he raps lines like, Bitch I’m drunk! Bitch I’m drunk! Bitch I’m drunk! Bitch I’m drunk! (“Fuck Da Club Up” from Flockaveli) and I wish I had two dicks! (“Wingz” from Lock Out, his joint mixtape with French Montana) turn everything he says into a hook. It’s a rare skill, one that overtly lyrics-first rappers have trouble nailing down.
The shoot’s over, so it’s time to skedaddle. Waka is on the cover of the new issue of SPIN, and he’s got an issue release party in SoHo to perform at. We load up into the car, and we’re off. The conversation turns to Waka’s appeal, which transcends traditional hip-hop circles and crosses over to basically anyone between the ages of fifteen and twenty-eight who has a pulse. As the lone hipster in the vehicle, I get asked why hipsters dig Waka’s music so much. I’m still a fairly high, so I fumble for an answer. Waka rescues me with an explanation that sums up the several-paragraph dissertation on street rap that I’d been assembling in my head: “Getting crunk is for everybody.” Discussion complete. He calls Trey Songz to see if he’s going to the same party as us. He’s not.
If you’ve never been to a party thrown by a music magazine, they’re weird. They’re mostly populated by musicians, music writers and other various music industry people, so when you talk to someone it feels like both of you’re talking about work, even when you’re not. Outside the venue, we meet up with Flocka affiliates Frenchie and Wooh da Kid and hustle up to the VIP area. Frenchie seems the most excited of any of us, cloistered in VIP, shooting the shit and enjoying the free drinks. Short and sporting dreadlocks, he looks like Waka in miniature.
Once the party gets going, Waka Flocka leaves the VIP area and starts working the room, chatting up whoever comes up to him, posing for pictures and goofing off with strangers. If he weren’t an avowed ex-crack dealer who rapped about killing people for fun, his charisma would make him a lock for elected office. I hunt for the bar. Brick Squad might get free drinks, but the dude at Waka Flocka Fantasy Camp still has to pay for his alcohol.
When Waka takes the stage, he transforms into a fireball, he and the rest of Brick Squad oozing energy until the party full of demure music people transmogrifies into a low-level riot. His set’s short—probably thirty minutes—but it goes on way longer than the four songs he’d planned on doing. As I stand back in VIP, Steve motions to me: I’m allowed onstage. I get up there and lose my shit. Getting crunk is for everybody.
It’s one in the morning. The night is young. There are clubs to attend, people to meet up with. Waka finds out that Alley Boy and his buddy Trouble are in town, and he decides that we should all go to the club together. We truck up to midtown to meet up with them, forming a mini-convoy of chauffeured SUVs, with Wooh and Frenchie flanking in a subcompact. Waka says that though he’s not from Atlanta proper, from what he can tell Alley and Trouble totally own the city right now, which is important if you want to make it big as a rapper. The mainstream is fickle, but if you make music that’s true to your city, it will never abandon you.
Waka’s phone rings. It’s French Montana, and he sounds drunk. The volume on the phone is turned up really loud, and I’m pleased to overhear that French’s speaking voice is just as mushy-sounding as it is when he raps. He’s at a strip club in the Bronx and wants us to join him. But first we’ve got to hit a club in Chelsea, where it’s rumored that Fabolous and Ne-Yo are also headed.
The line outside the club is intense. Everyone looks rich and pissed off that they’re not inside. Even if the people in line have no less money than he does, Waka Flocka Flame is way more famous than them, and there’s no way in hell he’s going to wait in line. Everyone but Flocka files out of the SUV to talk to the bouncers and see what can be negotiated. We have Waka Flocka with us, about seven of us say at the same time in five different ways, More people will come to your club if you just do the decent thing and let us in right now. The bouncer doesn’t care. Everybody has to wait in line, even the dude who made “No Hands.”
We try to negotiate, but it doesn’t looking promising. Waka rolls down the window to see what’s up, and within seconds an invisible dam breaks and a gaggle of people try to engage with him, coming up to the window or just yelling at him from afar. Man of the people he might be, Waka’s window still goes back up. What makes him happy about interacting with his fans is that sense that he’s making somebody’s day. The people trying to get at him now, on the other hand, see him as a spectacle. This place is evil, and so are the people in it. Strip club in the Bronx it is.
My first instinct is to keep up with the Squad for a few more hours, if only so I can say, “I went to a strip club in the Bronx with Waka Flocka and French Montana.” This is the type of thing I will be able to tell my grandkids. But somehow, tagging along feels like a tacit breach of Man Code. There’s a firm line between valuing an experience for its own inherent worth and just doing something so you brag to people about it later, and it’s pretty obvious which side of the divide this falls onto. If I hang, I’m no better than the douchebags screaming at Waka from the sidewalk. It’s time to go home.
Right before I head towards the subway and back to reality, Waka Flocka rolls down his window once more and asks if I’ve got all I need for my story. “Yeah man,” I say, “I think I’m good.” We shake hands, and that’s the end of it.
Illustrations by David Calvo