The New Generation of LA Rap Is Changing Everything
A group of rappers and producers are reimagining not just the sound of Los Angeles, but its slang, its fashion sense, and the cultural divide between blacks and latinos.
Illustration and animation by Seth Laupus
This article originally appeared on VICE US
03 Greedo’s voice cut through a late afternoon lunch service. Between bites of medium-well prime rib, garlic crab meat, and fried calamari, he was regaleing me (and, through sheer volume, every diner, waiter, and busboy) with a profane monologue about Phil Collins. While he spoke candidly about gangbanging, fatherhood, and ceviche (“Why would you eat some cold shrimp? This not the ocean”), the topic which most excited the Watts rapper and producer was stardom. Specifically, his plan for imitating the former Genesis drummer and “In the Air Tonight” singer.
“What about Phil Collins appeals to you?” I asked.
“Just how he look,” he said, theatrically grabbing the lapels of his fur-lined denim jacket. “Like, ‘Don’t talk to me.’ By the way his music sounds, if I never saw him, I’d think Phil Collins was a street nigga. He just got that sound, like ‘Gimme some gutter shit.’ You know how, when you listen to Erykah Badu or India Arie, you’re like, ‘Man, this bitch ain’t got no shoes on in the studio. I can tell this bitch a weirdo, incense burning’––you can hear it!”
Greedo shares that gift––to listen to him is to see the Grape Street Crip bearing his heart, face screwed up and dreadlocks quivering from the enormity of his pain. But Phil Collins-esque fame is on hold until at least 2020 when, after serving two years of a twenty-year sentence, he’ll be eligible for parole. The rumbling, brash wave of music he helped create is cresting without him.
A generation of rappers and producers from poverty-stricken and underserved communities is reimagining not just the sound of Los Angeles, but its slang, its fashion sense, and the once-yawning cultural divide between blacks and Latinos. They make rap for the silvery whoosh of midnight speeding on the 10, the 110, the 105, the 710, and the 405; for the goosebump kiss of air conditioning on sweltering afternoons; for dusks and dawns turned oil slick creamsicle by freeway carcinogens and ash borne from the Southland’s uncontrollable blazes; for bail bondsman neon, courtroom fluorescents, and concerts full of iPhone flashlights; for fake lean, real Gucci, and questionable morals; for 14-year-old Fairfax Avenue truants, 21-year-old Instagram twerkers, and 28-year-old parolees trying to avoid the third strike that condemns them to ramen noodle hookups and crackling phone calls with daughters growing older and more distant by the day.
Rappers like 03 Greedo, Drakeo the Ruler, and Shoreline Mafia have fashioned sleek, antagonistic rap to fit this terrifying, new Los Angeles, a place that is becoming increasingly unlivable for poor and working class people of color. California’s low-income earners’ real wages have dropped in the past four decades, and according to a 2018 report from United Ways of California, more than a third of households “do not earn sufficient income to meet basic needs.” Housing affordability is at an all-time nadir, with the estimated median home in Los Angeles County setting buyers back an eye-watering $687,600, according to Zillow––more than double the cost in 2002. Studies from 2017 indicate that Los Angeles County––which allows a shockingly corrupt Sheriff’s Department to administer the United States’ largest jail system ––imprison blacks at a rate 13 times greater than whites.
Using the ratchet outlines provided by Mustard and YG, today’s Angelenos are coloring phantasmagoric visions of a place awash with millions of dollars of Chinese real estate money and New York snowbirds eager to spend the final decades of a habitable planet with a birds-eye view of the fires. It’s music for Angelinos of color to vibe to as their nearest 99-cent store is replaced by a crystal shop catering to Brooklyn transplants who describe their ethnicity as “Anglo-Bruja.” And rather than deliver sermons on gentrification or pollyannaish godliness, these rappers detail a litany of deviant behaviors––late-night sales of Schedule I, II, and IV drugs, substance-fueled car crashes, the unpredictable whims of Instagram thotties––in a city in gnashing decline.
With a few notable exceptions—Azjah, the self-proclaimed “Princess of Compton,” and SG, whose “Came Thru Crippin” tied a blue bandana around Cardi B’s “Drip”—most of these rappers are heterosexual men of color. Their material can veer into misogynistic territory, reducing women to little more than props for raps about sexual conquest. Some of this macho posturing is undoubtedly an earnest reflection of widely held patriarchal beliefs; some of it is just the boorish playacting inherent to gangster rap, a music many have been inculcated in since birth.
“[My mom] listened to rap,” 1TakeJay, a good-natured goofball and member of the rap crew 1Take, remembers. “Since I was a baby, I could rap a song verbatim––a song I’m not supposed to be rapping––like ‘I’d Rather Give You My Bitch’ by Suga Free. I could rap that whole song as a kid.”
In the 1980s and 90s, Los Angeles’ trio of rap radio stations––KDAY (93.5, the world’s first 24/7 rap station), The Beat (92.3), and Power 106 (105.9, but close enough)––played local gangster rap for a young, ethnically diverse audience, incubating the careers of artists like Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Quik, Ice Cube, Warren G, and the aforementioned Suga Free. Now, with KDAY playing an exclusively “throwback” format, Power 106 and the rebranded Real 92.3 are locked in a pillow fight to see who can play more Drake. Neither station is an outlet for local music. The kids use Spotify, iTunes, Soundcloud, YouTube, and Audiomack to listen to and promote their music because terrestrial radio abandoned them.
As teenagers, the current generation of rappers drew more inspiration from their peers than they did G-funk, the melodic and biting gangster rap subgenre which borrowed musical cues from Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Second Amendment stances from Oliver North. Between roughly 2008 and 2010, teenaged Angelenos were jerkin’ at the Fox Hills Mall, the Howard Hughes Center, all-ages nightclubs, fast-food restaurants, parking lots—wherever there was a few square feet of concrete. Jerkin’––which had nothing to do with its name’s onanistic connotations––was an intoxicating blend of dance, music, and bright, garish fashion. In loosely organized crews like the Go-Go Power Rangers, the Fantastic LoL Kids, and Pu$haz Inc., skinny boys in skinnier, rainbow-hued jeans, customized New Era ball caps, and checkerboard Vans would “reject,” “pin drop,” and “dip.” Jerk music was for the “function”; it was brash and unsubtle music for hours of sweaty, ecstatic dancing.
But jerkin’ was too lighthearted to sustain itself––its gaiety was, in part, a reflection of the general earnestness and optimism of youth. (There was never a generation of Angelenos more assured of its capacity for receiving oral sex.) As its practitioners aged, jerk became ratchet and, with the aid of major labels, the scene’s most popular figures became household names. YG, DJ Mustard, and Ty Dolla $ign aren’t significantly older than the new class of Los Angeles rap stars––and, in a select few cases, are actually younger––but because they first experienced stardom in the late aughts they seem, from afar, less like peers than aspirational archetypes.
Ratchet, with its stripped-to-the-marrow beats and laddish, simplistic lyrics, is now passé, too. In the past few years, the same kids who danced in the streets have begun rapping about felonies; weed has become mere garnish for pirated pints of Hi-Tech and Wockhardt; guns, once kept mostly out of view from cameras, are ubiquitous and equipped with extended clips. Even the instrumentals, once sprightly and bright, have taken on a burnt, dusky timbre. The new Los Angeles is mean, unforgiving, and tense to the point of white knuckles and burst veins––and so is its rap.
For a month-and-a-half during an infernal summer, I drove around Los Angeles asking young men in Compton, Gardena, Hawthorne, Hollywood, Woodland Hills, Playa Vista, and Lancaster to tell me about how their experiences inform their music and, more simply, what the fuck they call it.
Because a life of crime is nerve-wracking, South Central slang maven Drakeo the Ruler calls his output “nervous music.” Ron-Ron The Producer, who makes music for the soul-withering aggravation of bumper-to-bumper congestion, refers to his work as “Traffic” music. And 03 Greedo, the Grape Street Golem, has been known to make “creep music,” a form of rap meant to reflect the bristling paranoia of his native Jordan Downs Projects, a Watts public housing project notorious for its poverty and violence. But during our conversation, 1TakeJay came up with a term that I think pinpoints the essence of his swaggering, chattering companions. He labeled it “talking shit” music, because “everybody in the age group’s talkin’ shit in their own way.”
Caiden is not allowed in the courtroom. The toddler’s coos are interrupting the court’s business, the bailiff barks, so Caiden’s mother carries him out, his miniature red Jordans dangling listlessly.
Shortly after, during a nearly two-hour delay caused by a tardy public defender, Caiden, with his mother at his side, surveys the plaza of the late modernist Compton Civic Center, its clean lines and scuffed white paint cloaked in the June morning gloom. He’s much too young to understand the severity of the array of charges facing his father, his uncle, and their alleged co-conspirators: burglary, vandalism, grand theft, possession of an assault weapon, dissuading a witness, conspiracy, loaded firearm in a vehicle (part of California’s drive-by shooting laws), attempted murder, and first-degree murder.
Caiden’s father is Drakeo the Ruler, and his uncle is Ralfy the Plug. The South Central rappers, who share a slippery delivery and near-inscrutable vocabulary, are integral figures in the city’s rap scene. Drakeo (pronounced “Draco,” like the ancient Athenian legislator) in particular has inspired scores of less linguistically dextrous imitators, some of whom have rushed to fill the power vacuum created by his absence.
But today they’re Darrell and Devante Caldwell, co-defendants in royal blue prison garb. Along with six others, the Caldwells are alleged to have botched a hit on the rapper RJ, leaving one alleged Inglewood Family Bloods member, Davion Gregory, dead and two other people injured. The charges are serious, and all the accused have plead not guilty. Even RJ agrees, having taken to Instagram Live to say that “I don’t even think [Drakeo] was plotting on me to murder me.” When Deputy District Attorney Shannon Cooley asserts that the Caldwells’ rap group, the Stinc Team, is a gang, the brothers laugh. The whole gallery laughs. The bailiff barks again, this time at the adults in the room.
As the hearing ends, and loved ones shout hurried goodbyes, Caiden reappears. He sees his father, his father sees him, then he’s whisked away to a hallway huddle of friends and family.
The story of the talkin’ shit era closely mirrors the story of Drakeo. As a teenager at Washington High School in the late aughts and early 10s, he was in the jerkin’ crew LoL Kids; when the Ratchet movement was winding down, he was briefly aligned with DJ Mustard, who remixed his first hit, February 2015’s “Mr. Get Dough”; and before ridding himself of Mustard’s influence, he released his second mixtape, I Am Mr. Mosely, in October of the same year.
Along with AzSwaye’s “Ride with My Glock,” Mr. Mosely defined new parameters for Los Angeles rap. Like ratchet, the instrumentals are skeletal and keyboard-driven; unlike ratchet, which was cartoonishly hyper-sexualized, the lyrics reflect the interplay between rappers’ material wants; their unscrupulous, often illegal behavior; and the acknowledgement that these actions can have dire consequences. Drakeo raps about targeting Chinese homes for burglary, shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus, pouring coma-inducing cups of cough syrup, and toting rifles big enough to start at center for the Lakers.
“[Ratchet] was always talking about fucking bitches and all that,” Drakeo remembers, his voice thinned by a phone in Men’s Central Jail. “It was never appealing to me. Around that time, I was risking my life trying to get money and buy all this shit, and trying to take care of motherfuckers. [Ratchet] wasn’t my lifestyle.”
His legal troubles, in conjunction with what Drakeo claims is harassment by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (he told Jeff Weiss that the department was "obsessed" with him), has slowed his output. He’s spent much of the past two years in jail, with an 11-month sentence and his current stay bookending a couple months of freedom. It was during this interstice that he recorded and released the idiosyncratic Cold Devil, his fourth mixtape and the shit-talkin’ generation’s most singular, complete work to date.
On Cold Devil, Drakeo raps with a patient, almost syrupy cadence that sounds like a tanker truck full of honey caught aflame, or mercury leaking from a shattered thermometer, or a mudslide hitting a confectionary. He inverts rap’s equation of loudness equaling hardness, channeling a conversational mumble into pointed, dismissals of unwitting “Stanleys” (police) and “silly billies” (enemies). To complement his creeping molasses flow, he has a lingo entirely his own. A sampling: “flu-flamming” (burglary), “Shanaynay” (a gun with an extended clip), “Pippi Longstocking” (the same thing), “hood trophies” (jewelry), and “backseat bandit” (a promiscuous woman).
“When I was really listening to music, I was listening to Lil Wayne––but everybody listened to Lil Wayne––and Rocko and Young Dro,” he said. “I liked that they had just stupid lingo. I was like ‘Oh, I like this,’ because I understood that shit. That’s what made me different: I always listened to a lot of other people’s music. And before I started rapping seriously, I asked [Ralfy,] ‘My shit don’t sound like nobody, right? My shit don’t sound like this rapper, right?’”
His fastidiousness paid off––he is, truly, an artist without a precise historical comparison. Suga Free was similarly syrupy, but his jargon was derived from the oral traditions of manicured procurers; E-40’s slang, by using context clues, is more easily decipherable. Drakeo sounds less akin to a recognizable California than he does a psychedelic pleasure dome of his own creation, cut through with sinuous arroyos of codeine. And should the District Attorney’s office drop his charges, Drakeo has more permutations to share.
“I alway gotta switch it up—I been switching it up in here,” he says, pausing to rap a few bars, which he punctuates with a self-satisfied giggle. “I’m on some whole other shit, but I try not to think about my case, because I don’t want it to effect how I rap. If I keep thinking about my case all day, then I’mma be rapping about jail shit, and niggas don’t wanna hear that shit.”
The Talking Shit generation has widely rejected G-funk. Their fathers wore Chuck Taylors, bandanas, and baggy Ben Davis slacks ironed to a razor’s edge, blasting Zapp & Roger cassettes in their bouncing Impalas. But American workwear, American footwear, and American automobiles mostly have cultural caché for those who weren’t surrounded by them as children and, for many young Angelenos of color, they’re symbols of a bygone, unsophisticated era. Or, as rapper and South Central (and Carson) native AzSwaye explains, “You don’t gotta have your creases all on. You can go outside looking fly and still slap somebody.”
But history repeats itself––or spirals so tightly it appears that way to our dizzied pates. While the new generation of Angeleno rap bears only a passing resemblance to that of their G-funk forebearers, the generations’ artistic evolutions are strikingly similar.
In the early 1980s, Los Angeles’ youth were in the thrall of electro, a rap-adjacent, bass-heavy dance music style imported from New York and Detroit and fueled by the Roland TR-808 drum machine. At cavernous venues like the L.A. Sports Arena, thousands of young men, backed by the electronic funk of Uncle Jamm’s Army and dripping Soul Glo on their polyester-blend outfits, hunted for “freaks” to bed (or call when their moms weren’t home).
Dam-Funk, Pasadena’s obsessive funk virtuoso, once explained electro’s popularity in Los Angeles as a reflection, in part, of the relative economic stability provided by the city’s soon-to-decline industrial sector. “Christmases were great for kids [...] There were jobs, there were picnics, parties, and kids were getting instruments and DJ equipment as gifts [...] You'd go to the record store every weekend and leave with the current stuff that KDAY and KJLH was playing.”
Then, in the mid-late 80s, with the racialized forces of the War on Drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing, and Reaganomics-driven austerity in effect, black Angelenos’ struggles were intensified. As unionized manufacturing jobs were offshored and became increasingly remote from black neighborhoods, rates of drug addiction, gang membership, and murder spiked. An already violent L.A.P.D., led by the aggressive and polarizing Daryl Gates, further militarized, with S.W.A.T. teams regularly battery-ramming suspected drug houses. (Toddy Tee’s 1985 song “Batterram” documents the phenomenon.) Boys who’d gotten down to Uncle Jamm’s Army’s “Dial-A-Freak” were getting mowed down. Gangsta rap was born from this gruesome miasma.
But the music of late-80s gangster rap luminaries N.W.A., Ice-T, and Toddy Tee wasn’t the richest possible realization of Los Angeles. There was, in their delivery and beats, a rigidity borrowed from the East Coast. But by the early 90s, Los Angeles found the apotheosis of its culture in the emergence of G-funk, or “gangsta-funk”––funky, radical, a little apocalyptic, and, at times, brutally nihilistic. (Or, as Dr. Dre rapped on 1992’s “Let Me Ride,” “No medallions, dreadlocks or black fists / It's just that gangsta glare, with gangsta raps.”) In about a decade, the music of young, black Los Angeles had gone from fairly simplistic, feel-good dance tracks to densely layered songs about crime, sex, and power.
The current generation of Los Angeles rappers have undergone a similar evolution from dance-crazed boys to roguish men. Ten years ago, jerkin’ seemed potentially transformative for LA rap. But when the heady high of spaghetti-legged dance moves wore off, few of jerk’s participants’ material conditions had changed for the better. The scene they’d dedicated themselves to had failed to coalesce into something profitable and lasting, and without a clear next step, many fell into a life of criminality.
“After jerkin’, that’s when everybody started gangbanging,” 1TakeJay scoffs.
“Why do you think that happened?”
“Shit, I dunno. Followers wanted to look tough. Probably ain’t really got no guidance. Shit’s stupid.”
There is a purple-fringed rip in Los Angeles’ fabric the size and shape of 03 Greedo, an eccentric seemingly tailormade for national notoriety.
On June 28, eight months after after our lunch interview in Beverly Hills, the man with gang calligraphy inked into his stubbled face began a twenty-year prison sentence for possessing four pounds of methamphetamine and two stolen pistols, discovered by a Sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop outside of Amarillo, Texas. In the months before his surrender, rap’s most instinctive hook writer since Future recorded hundreds, if not thousands of songs; released the superb 27-song album God Level; performed his “final” concert a handful of times to pulsing crowds; and proposed to his girlfriend on stage. He was no longer “Greedo from Grape,” a local Crip favorite, but a rising star whose provocative interviews helped propel his videos to millions of views. (Even TMZ covered his last days before prison.) As June came to a close, and a prison cell in Texas beckoned, he tweeted, “Ima miss this life. Worked so fucckin hard just to get my dreams erased. Dont be in these streets. They dont love you bacc. This is a trap…”
Which trap ensnared Greedo, though? Was it the the trap of being raised in the Jordan Downs Projects in Watts, where the rate of violent crimes outpaces a vast majority of the county, and according to one 2014 study, the quality of life is akin to that of the early 1970s? Maybe it was the trap laid by the car that bucked his father from his motorcycle, killing him and destabilizing Greedo’s childhood before it began. Or, maybe, the trap was the allure of the powerful, violent Grape Street Crips, to which Greedo unquestionably, unashamedly belongs. Perhaps the trap was set by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which designated a lifeless stretch of I-40 in northeast Texas a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” and which, through the Controlled Substances Act, helped determine the severity of Greedo’s sentence. Maybe the trap was the cumulative impact of hundreds of years of racism, which can necessitate breaking the law as a means of survival.
However you choose to apportion blame, the result is that Greedo will spend, at a minimum, another year-and-a-half in the stultifying recesses of a Texas prison, away from his daughter, his fiancée, and his microphone. During the two years between his 2016 arrest and his 2018 guilty plea, he was an apparition shrouded in luxury garments, emerging from the eldritch Watts ether on a mission to permanently alter Los Angeles music. In his nasal, pitched-up voice, he rapped and sang with heartbreaking candor about loss, anxiety, and drug abuse, unconcerned with the storytelling motifs and musical hallmarks of an expired Los Angeles. He described his work as “emo music for gangbangers,” a designation nebulous enough that anything Greedo created—from mauve and pink pop, to steely gangster rap, to what-the-fuck sound experiments—could fit the bill.
Now the cycle of grief and pain continues anew, its contours the same, its color an even deeper hue of purple. The plaintive “Mei Mei,” a tribute to his daughter he released in July 2017, now feels like a eulogy for his aberrant adulthood. He croons:
They don't like to see a black person win
If I go down when I end up out of town
Just understand that I just wanted to live
'Cause when you young and tryna make it where I'm from
They don't want to let you raise your own kids
Fuck what these scary peoples always talkin' 'bout
You gotta get out there and take you a risk
In gaudy Balenciaga sneakers, Kalan.frfr strides into the Dash Radio studios, an entourage in tow. The San Diego State cornerback-turned-contemporary R&B singer is in high spirits, and for good reason: An interview with Rosecrans Radio’s Victor Ulloa, aka Rosecrans Vic, and his co-host, Cypress Moreno, is a coronation.
Ulloa’s blog, RosecransAve.com, was the first to write about a significant number of Los Angeles’ emerging artists, and a spot on his and Moreno’s radio show—then broadcast on the uncensored and commercial-free Dash Radio digital platform and, as of January 2019, operating independently—is an entryway to more widespread recognition, including that of other music journalists. They’re young, emotionally invested, and grew up in the same places as the artists they cover. And they’re Latino.
Since the 1970s, Los Angeles has experienced a profound, once-unthinkable demographic shift, with Mexicans and Central Americans––Ulloa and Moreno’s parents included––migrating northward in search of peace and opportunity. Today, Los Angeles’ Latino population is about five times that of its black population. The offspring of the late-20th century immigration boom, which peaked in 1990, often grew up in the same neighborhoods as black children, attended the same schools, and listened to the same music.
“Have you ever felt like outsiders in L.A. rap?,” I ask the radio hosts. It’s past midnight, but the parking lot at Dash faintly hums from the speeding cars on the 101 Freeway.
“Up until this point, I feel like I haven’t,” answers Moreno. “But the deeper we’ve both gotten into it, we see that we are the minority. Is it safe to say that?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely,” says Ulloa.
“But it never caused you trouble?”
“Naw, it feels the same,” Ulloa says. “A lot of the homies are mixed, too, like Mexican and black.”
“When you go to a Nipsey Hussle show or a Y.G. show, it’s only Hispanics in the crowd,” says Moreno, who was named after South Gate rap group Cypress Hill. “I don’t ever feel out of place. I think [Vic and I are] definitely a good representation of Los Angeles hip-hop culture, because the demographic of the audience is very Hispanic.”
In addition to his blog and radio show, Ulloa curates Audiomack’s “Hometown Heroes: L.A.” playlist, updated weekly with new singles from up-and-coming Southland rappers. With the writer Jeff Weiss, he also co-founded Don’t Come to L.A., a concert series that showcases artists from typically polarized parts of the local rap scene. (JPEGMAFIA and G Perico once played back-to-back sets, for example.) Moreno DJs for Shoreline Mafia and Perico, and has also produced beats for them, as well as for 03 Greedo, the Stinc Team, and Rucci.
Major labels have spent considerable time and effort trying to find the “perfect” Latino rap star––ethnically Latino but with a less stiff, starched style than Chicano rappers like Mr. Criminal and Lil Rob. To their own detriment, they seem to have rarely courted scenemakers like Moreno and Ulloa, resulting in fewer Latino rappers with cross-cultural appeal.
“Have you been approached by labels?” I ask.
“I feel like people definitely see what me and Vic are doing––people that are in higher positions than we are now––and I feel like we provide a nice platform for these artists to get seen,” Moreno answers, diplomatically. “Whether we get credit or not for it, I stand by that.”
“I think we’re doing a lot of labels’ jobs for them, as far as discovering talent––,” Ulloa begins, before he’s cut off by Moreno.
“But it’s very passion-driven. It’s what we feel we need to do right now.”
I watch the sunset on Instagram because the grassy hills outside the YouTube Space in Playa Vista block its watercolor streaks of orange, purple, and yellow. Overcast afternoon turns to night, and, after a rush-hour Lyft ride from Hollywood, Fenix Flexin of Shoreline Mafia arrives, high as fuck off a 2-milligram Xanax bar. Real Xanax, he clarifies—the new Xanax, the blue Xanax.
Unexpectedly absent from his crew, who are here today to film Christmas-related content for their YouTube channel, is Shoreline Mafia co-founder OhGeesy, who threw his back out lifting weights––an ironic twist for a rapper whose group has a song called “Break A Bitch Bacc.” The mop-haired son of Mexican immigrants, OhGeesy is the Statler to Fenix’s Waldorf. Their swaggering, opiated hectoring has been honed by years of skateboarding, graffiti missions, inebriated kickbacks, and, of late, months of stop-start touring. Alongside groupmates Rob Vicious (a West Adams native) and Master Kato (Chicago, by way of the San Fernando Valley), they’re the first of the Talkin’ Shit generation to take the stage in Europe—and probably the only notable L.A. rappers of any generation to be raised in East Hollywood.
East Hollywood is quite unlike its namesakes. West Hollywood, its own city as of 1984, is the tony epicenter of Los Angeles’ LGBTQ culture; North Hollywood, wedged between the 5, 134, and 170 freeways in the San Fernando Valley, is an annex for television and film industry workers; and Hollywood, whose luxurious hillside estates are concealed by forbidding security gates, is a chintzy tourist-trap. But East Hollywood is reminiscent of the way much of Los Angeles used to be. Thai, Armenian, and Guatemalan families lease battered bungalows; sooty mini-malls are crammed with seven-table restaurants, glowing all-night donut shops, and liquor stores with bulletproof glass thick enough to stop an anti-aircraft missile. Wiry teens seem to skate, tag, and loiter on every available surface.
“If you were giving someone a tour of East Hollywood, where would you take them?,” I ask Fenix.
“Fuck! Barnsdall Park––we would be up there deep. [And] after school, we’d be at Lexington Park––we’d get fucked up right there. Rooftops! Niggas was gettin’ fucked up on rooftops, then we got bored of that, so we broke into condos that wasn’t open yet––”
“Buildings that they just made––” interjects rapper and Shoreline Mafia affiliate Mac PDawg, who arrived with Fenix.
“Go up to the penthouse. One of them had lights and water running up there. We was just up there kickin’ it for a month or two.”
Videos filmed in graffitied, just-made condos and fluorescent strip malls near East Hollywood helped make Shoreline Mafia the group of choice for truant teenagers. “Musty” (partially filmed in the parking lot of the Gower Plaza on Hollywood and Gower) and “Bottle Service” (shot at the now-defunct Windsor Donuts on Sunset and Hobart, after the group was kicked out of a rented mansion) are definitive Shoreline: rollicking, slithering, and, in their creation, laughably janky and blatantly illegal.
In an interview with No Jumper, Ron-Ron, co-founder of the ultra-influential beatmaking crew Hit Mob, explained that he linked up with the group after OhGeesy messaged him, looking to purchase beats similar to the one Ron-Ron had made for FrostyDaSnowmann’s “Milwaukee Bucks.” “But I didn’t know who OhGeesy was,” Ron-Ron says. “That’s when he went on my SoundCloud. I had dropped a beat tape called I’m Not Your Average Producer. The beats for ‘Musty’ and ‘Bottle Service’ were on there.”
Stealing instrumentals from a decidedly non-litigious Ron-Ron ended up being a shrewd decision. Before uploading “Musty” and “Bottle Service” to SoundCloud in December 2016, Shoreline Mafia made geographically indistinct trap raps that, while good enough to earn the group a fervent and hyper-local following, were misaligned with the bare home-invasion soundtracks being created south of the 10 Freeway. The songs impressed Ron-Ron, leading to his producing an entire mixtape for the group. With its slinking, minimalist beats and coldhearted dope-dealer raps, ShorelineDoThatShit thrust Shoreline Mafia into a vibrant scene at its inflection point. They didn’t catalyze the movement, but their timing was impeccable.
2018 was a whirlwind year for the group, who released two EPs—Party Pack and OTXmas—and Traplantic, a Rob Vicious solo album and the first new Shoreline Mafia material issued as part of an Atlantic Records deal OhGeesy had engineered. On the strength of a couple hundred million YouTube and Spotify clicks and a spate of positive press, the group gigged in exotic locales like Berlin (“Burgermeister––shout out that spot,” Fenix says), Amsterdam (“They turn up cool out there”), Paris (“The clothes was nice”), and Manchester, whose food was “lowkey trash.” But the fullest Shoreline experience surely takes place stateside, where crowds pulse with hot, heavy teenage energy and hands grab eagerly at whichever member of the group is nearest to the edge of the stage.
Rob Vicious, Master Kato, and Fenix Flexin are popular, but OhGeesy is the Great Latino Hope, an ethnically Mexican crosscultural star with the charisma to perform (mostly) without controversy in a black genre. With sometimes-collaborators the Stinc Team and 03 Greedo incarcerated for the foreseeable future, Shoreline are the as-yet-unsurpassed stars of their generation, and look to remain such.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?,” I ask Fenix, who is now happily snacking on a Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich in one of the YouTube Space’s white hallways, his high having reached a comfortable cruising altitude.
“Some motherfuckin’ plaques on the wall––we goin’ gold this year. I wanna see all the homies up. It’s just fun getting up with your homies.”
G Perico just moved in, and what he lacks in furniture he makes up for in owning a purebred bulldog, Kilo, who wobbles about the house with a doe-eyed guilelessness. Nestled deep in the San Fernando Valley, the white-carpeted three-bedroom is his bulwark against the intrusions of his native South Central. For unwanted visitors, there’s jam-packed traffic on the 405; for malevolent spirits, there’s a mezuzah by the front door. Four years ago, the Broadway Gangster Crip was serving a two-year prison bid for possessing a firearm. Now he’s a suburbanite.
At 31, Perico’s older than most of the Los Angeles rappers of his era. In a scene greatly defined by its legal precariousness, he’s stable and reliable. But because he was gangbanging and incarcerated for much of his adulthood, his career didn’t begin in earnest until 2015, when he released Tha Innerprize II, introducing his music to a wider audience than Compton-by-way-of-Canada rapper Jay Worthy, A$AP Yams (an early devotee), and his neighborhood in South Central. (The first Innerprize, created during sporadic recording sessions in preparation of serving that sentence, is unpolished, as is Tha Hiatus, released while he was behind bars.)
In the four-plus years since he was let out of prison , Perico’s earned a dedicated, international fanbase by bridging the gap between present-day L.A. and the funky, seething L.A. of yore with his albums Shit Don’t Stop, All Blue, and 2 Tha Left. He’s got delicate locks reminiscent of permed G-funk legend DJ Quik and a street-hardened perspective he says was inspired by 1993’s Bangin’ on Wax; and, though his sound lacks the narcotized thrum of young Hit Mob producers (and cousins) Ron-Ron or AceTheFace, its smooth, orange synth lines and skittering hi-hats evoke a contemporary take on G-funk’s sun-bleached menace. I say as much to Perico, who agrees.
“I’m respected on both ends––and I don’t got no prejudice on either end––but I’m leaning towards the future and what’s new, as opposed to the old shit,” he says, seated on an overstuffed grey-blue couch with Kilo dutifully standing watch at his feet. “But the old shit is our history, right? [...] The OGs fuck with me and want verses, and the current era––which I’m part of––they fuck with me too. I’m like Blade; I’m a daywalker.”
It’s easy to understand what Snoop Dogg (who had Perico on his web series, GGN) and E-40 (who solicited a verse for his song “Ain’t Talking Bout Nothin”) see in the twice-convicted felon: themselves. Perico has an aged hustler’s gravitas that surpasses his 31 years. His fiefdom––a South Central clothing store for his brand So Way Out, Mid-City smoke shop One Stop, an as-yet-unopened juice bar, and some real estate––is considerably smaller than that of, say, the late Beverly Hills industrialist Norton Simon. But its mere existence sets him apart from other rappers of his era. In another life, at another time, he could’ve been Tom Bradley, the son of sharecroppers who became a five-term mayor of Los Angeles, or Ben Weingart, the delivery boy-turned-developer who transformed beet fields into the city of Lakewood. But he’s still trying to resist the siren call of 112th and Broadway.
“I’m finally living like a human being, and not a nigga on a street corner––even though that’s my shit, too,” he says, with a laugh. “Ain’t nothin like being on the block.”
“Do you still find yourself fighting off that temptation?”
“Yeah, I still got a problem with that,” he says. “I’m supposed to be stopping, through, and end up hanging out all day, drunk, doing ignorant shit. Maybe it’s still some form of ignorance. I still be having reckless moments, even though I got all this shit at stake. I need to buckle down, because I could change a lot of people’s lives around that way by me just sacrificing my type of entertainment, which is ghetto shit. My comfort zone is the hood.”
Because of that lasting connection to the streets, he’s keenly aware of the obstacles his younger rapper peers face. In a scene primarily comprised of early-twenty-somethings, Perico’s part-big homie, part-street-level sage. And, though he says that he doesn’t “come around tryin’ to preach to niggas,” he’s made music with Drakeo, AzChike, and Rucci, the latter of whom Perico’s championed since his days as a member of MackkRucci, his group with the late Sean Mackk. Before Mackk’s murder in an Inglewood cul de sac last summer, he and Rucci were a sharp-elbowed, knuckleheaded gangster rap tag-team, and L.A.’s equivalent to Lil Boosie and Webbie.
“I was a big fan of Sean Mackk,” Perico says. “I’m like, ‘ This nigga Sean Mackk tight. What’s up with this nigga? [2Eleven] brung him through. We was just rocking after that. Rucci was tight as fuck, too. I was like, ‘This sound like the next shit here.’ Sean Mackk ended up getting killed, which was fucked up, and Rucci’s just been stepping up to the plate… He’s, like, pound-for-pound, the best nigga outta Inglewood right now. That’s a fact.”
The past year of his life has been marked by tragedy, but when we sit down at the fully stocked bar of a Hawthorne recording studio, Rucci is happy. After being imprisoned for five years, getting deported with little warning to El Salvador, hiding from a police force fond of extortion and murder, traversing the entirety of Guatemala, crossing Mexico’s densely jungled southern border, and learning how to repair air conditioners in Mexico City, his father, Juan “Big Tako” Martinez, has reached Tijuana. And, since Tijuana is only a couple hours’ drive from Inglewood, it’s almost like the Martinezes have been reunited.
The elder Martinez’s struggles are commonplace for Salvadoran deportees. Like Juan Sr., many deportees were raised largely in the United States and often lack the Spanish-language prowess and support systems necessary for assimilating into El Salvador. The country, in turn, is being terrorized by two gangs that originated in Los Angeles, 18th Street and MS-13. The cycle is self-perpetuating: These gangs grow out of alienating socioeconomic conditions, and when their members are deported, they’re forced into a similar situation in their country of origin, which creates more violence, more desperate refugees and, eventually, more deportees. (This system will likely be accelerated this September, when Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security will strip 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants of their Temporary Protected Status.) However, it’s uncommon for these deportees to be members of predominantly black gangs, as Rucci’s father was.
Big Tako was an Inglewood Neighborhood Piru, and he inculcated Rucci into gang culture from a young age. On “Bodak Rucci,” the younger Martinez, now 24, details a particularly harrowing incident from his childhood:
Was six years old when I seen my first body
Walked to the front didn't even know who shot him
Walked to the back and seen my daddy wiping down his brand new shotty
My uncle looked at me, said ‘We had to get it brackin’
Them niggas was outta bounds and plus they don’t like your daddy’
Stone cold killers, didn’t give a fuck, they was laughin’
So I went back to sleep like nothin’ happened
“Are those lyrics true?” I ask Rucci, whose face tattoos––a broken heart next to his right eye, a simple, two-line cross below his left––look like beauty marks.
“My dad always showed me the rights and wrongs, straight to my face,” he recalls between hits from a bong he repeatedly packs with pieces of a blunt, a method of smoking he attributes to an adolescence of scrounging for weed. “I seen everything growing up as a kid, like, just by him keeping me in the loop. But he’d still tell me to get my ass in the house. I seen a lot of shit. He didn’t hide a lot of shit from me. That nigga’s crazy.”
“Do you still think about those things?”
“Unh-unh—I seen a lot of shit after that,” he says.” Too much shit. It sucks to say, but it don’t affect you as much no more. It ain’t nothin’ new. If [my dad and uncle] was doin’ somethin’ they wasn’t supposed to be doing, they made sure we knew, if the police come––” he pauses. “Me and my brother was always alert."
That remains the case. In the summer of 2017, Rucci’s best friend and rap partner, Sean Mackk, was murdered; Rucci said that his 18-year-old brother, Angel, also survived being shot in the head. Because he openly discusses and displays his Neighborhood Piru affiliation––one which was essentially foisted upon him by his father and uncle––Rucci lives within a narrower set of strictures than those capable of fully rejecting blue-and-red divisiveness, as many of his peers have done. These strictures extend to his music.
“There’s a lot of music that I’d do with a lot of people, but I can’t ‘cuz of gangs––and a lot of people don’t have that problem,” he tells me. “AzSwaye, 1TakeJay––they can do music with whoever they want. That’s why I be feeling I’m so boxed in, but I still know how to blow up in this box. A lotta people don’t gotta go through the shit me and my team go though. [But] we still manage to blossom.”
It’s a hundred degrees, so when 1TakeJay retrieves me from the smoldering parking lot of his apartment complex, we beat a hasty retreat to his family’s unit, where the blinds are drawn and the air conditioning’s on.
Other L.A. rappers are energetic, but Jay, a 23 year-old former wide receiver and cornerback from Compton who once had an offer from UC-Davis, is a muscular ball of light. (In June, he and Kalan.frfr played in Cincinnati Bengals receiver John Ross’ charity flag football game.) Other L.A. rappers are loose, but Jay, a former jerkin’ kid who describes himself as “goofy as fuck,” dances with unbridled joy, a toothy smile perma-plastered on his face. Other L.A. rappers make bangers, but Jay, like 1Take group mates 1TakeTeezy, 1TakeQuan, and 1TakeTy makes exclusively bangers.
It was “To Da Neck,” uploaded to SoundCloud in July 2017 with a photo of Jay sitting on the toilet and fanning himself with a spread of $20 bills, that established his still-unsullied reputation as one of L.A.’s best purveyors of party music. The song strikes an effortless balance between playfulness and punchiness, and from the second he yelps, voice cracking, “Look, I couldn’t even take a ‘L’ in a Lexus,” it’s worth shouting along.
“I recorded ‘To Da Neck’ right here in the living room,” Jay remembers, nodding across the kitchen’s threshold at a small space with brown couches and a leather ottoman. “It’s crazy how it happened. It wasn’t even gonna be a song; I was just gonna name it a freestyle, because it was gonna be one long verse. But I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’mma just keep goin,’ and I took the hardest, catchiest shit outta the verse and used that as the hook. That was the song for a minute–– and the song not even mixed.”
For those only superficially familiar with the city, Compton evokes a set of specific associations: blackness, gangbanging, a certain humorlessness. But these ideas and images are based on a version of Compton that is beginning to fade from view: The city is only 31% black (down from 73% in 1980); murders per capita, while still high, peaked in 1991; and, though Compton remains financially mismanaged, Mayor Aja Brown seems more attuned to the needs of a contemporary city than her predecessors. The disaffected calm Jay’s fellow Comptonite Roddy Ricch inherited from their G-funk forefathers is a legitimate expression of their city, but that’s not the entirety of the contemporary Compton experience. With their giggly camaraderie and knowingly ridiculous dancing, 1Take offer an alternative vision of an evolving Compton.
“Especially when I first started rapping––and even though I say I don’t bang on at least three or four songs that’s damn near viral––people still hit me up in the D.M. like, ‘ What’s up, cuz? Where you from?,’ he says. “Not even on no hateful shit, just tryna to see where I’m from. I be lowkey aiming towards young dudes [to tell them] ‘Be yourself.’ ‘Cuz I don’t give a fuck what people say about me... I don’t give a fuck if I look stupid, I’m just doing what makes me happy.”
A warm and starless summer evening in a Gardena living room overflowing with weed smoke, crosstalk, and a growing cadre of young men. Instead of a quiet interview with AzCult members RobTwo and AzChike, I’ve stumbled into a lively kickback. Its only unusual quality is that I, a white 28-year-old, am present.
RobTwo and his friend TimDawg, an aspiring rapper and one of the apartment’s residents, reminisce about 03 Greedo’s early-career discography. WoodroTheMan––who, too, is dabbling in rapping, and whose black MCM bookbag is stuffed to the zippers with an array of designer belts, watches, and cash––praises the fluid blunt rotation. I discuss the relative merits of marijuana and alcohol with Bam Bam, a Culver City bus driver whose thin frame is gripped by a white undershirt. Then AzChike (“A-Z Chike,” not, as he’s joked, “Azz Cheek”) arrives.
At my suggestion, RobTwo, AzChike, and I move from the smoke-choked room to the apartment’s pebbled staircase, where the building’s lights cast everything––from Rob’s silver Air Maxes, to the sickly palm trees, to the exhausted peach paint––in a spectral, almost antiseptic orange tint.
Along with the Stinc Team and 1TakeBoyz, AzCult form a triumvirate of young, exciting Angeleno groups. They have the dynamic of Long Beach boyhood pals 213 and sound like Westside “ghetto beach boys” Warm Brew if, instead of sports, they earned letterman jackets for varsity weed smoking. But Chike and fellow Cult members AzSwaye (the Raoul Duke to Chike’s Dr. Gonzo), and AzBenzz (a sweet-voiced singer) were schoolmates, and Rob wasn’t introduced to the trio until his late teens.
“They always had their Cult shit going up, and that shit was strong,” says Rob. “It was like they was on some brothers shit; I respected that. It was dope, I always wanted to be around it. Niggas accepted me. I met Swaye when he was 16, 17, and that nigga was rapping on some conscious shit. I was like, ‘This nigga’s like a Kendrick Lamar-type.”
“Yeah, dope as fuck. Chike, too!”
“We was really conscious rapping!” Chike explains when asked about his name. “Before I was rapping, I didn’t have no name, so I just dug deeper, and that’s what I came up with. It’s Egyptian: it’s Chike Bes. ‘Chike’ [means] ‘power of God,’ and Bes means ‘bring joy,’ so, ‘Power of god brings joy.’”
The cerebral nature of Chike’s Egyptianate moniker and the group’s “Az” prefix, which represents the circularity of the Alpha and the Omega as described in Revelation 22:13, are at odds with his music. While RobTwo’s work is often muted, confessional, and self-reflective, Chike, who raps with the frigid malice of someone who’d slap you for sneezing too loudly, is all white-hot id. In a sense, he’s the purest, rudest distillation of the shit-talkers: He doesn’t have the quicksilver tongue of Drakeo; he isn’t autobiographical like G Perico, Rucci, or Greedo; and, though he jerked in middle school, he doesn’t have the carefree exuberance of 1TakeJay. Chike is just venomous and explosive. On his 2017 hit, “Burn Rubber Again,” he raps:
He a opp, what the fuck I'm gon’ fight fo’?
Shed light on yo’ block with this lightpole
Dumb nigga, broke boy, pockets lipo
All caps you sucking dick, it's not a typo
Like 1TakeJay’s living room freestyle “To Da Neck,” or Shoreline Mafia’s pirated “Musty,” the song, recorded in Chike’s bedroom over a plinking, hardly altered Too $hort instrumental, was made without much forethought.
“Why’d you pick the Too $hort beat for ‘Burn Rubber Again’?” I ask Chike, whose metallic ear gauges are poking out from his black beanie and catching some of the apartment’s flat orange light.
“I didn’t,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t be picking shit like that. I fuck with [producer LowTheGreat] so much that I trust him. He just hit me with some shit to test my skills and see what I could do. What happened was Low hit me up and said, ‘Let’s do a tape.’ Every beat he sent, I said, ‘I’mma knock it out. I’m not gonna be a weird, picky nigga [saying,] ‘I don’t like this beat, send something else.’”
“I be thinking, ‘Damn, how did this nigga write this?’” RobTwo adds. “I remember I was in the studio with Skeme, [and] Skeme was singing [Chike’s] shit—like, ‘Damn, why didn’t I think of that?’ This nigga Chike went in. There’s nothing like being in your comfort zone and making music...”
“Facts,” echoes Chike, whose speech is littered with expressions like “facts,” “on God,” or “on me.”
“You can sit back in your draws and make a hit...”
“Have a bitch laying in your bed or something.”
A solo track with the impact of “Burn Rubber Again” has been elusive for RobTwo. While his career to date hasn’t satisfied his lofty ambitions, the soft-spoken Bellflower resident has recorded an album’s worth of material with 03 Greedo and, three years ago, produced one of his generation’s ur-texts, AzSwaye’s “Ride With My Glock.” With its sparse keys and lyrics about brandishing firearms and sipping lean, the song helped push an era of Los Angeles music away from DJ Mustard’s bubblegum pop instincts and toward a smirking criminality.
“We was at [Chike’s] house,” Rob recalls. “We was already in making songs, but we was making that conscious shit, that Drake-type-sounding shit. And we were like, ‘Man, we’re too hard. Let’s dumb it down and see what happens.’ And this is around the time no one is rapping like this––just Drakeo and Swaye. I started making the beat, started off with the piano, added the snap in there, and Swaye was sitting there: ‘[Mumbling] and I ride with my glock, [mumbling] and I ride with my glock.’ And we just put the words to that. [I] finished the beat, he wrote the hook, and he just freestyled the verse. We kept playing it back, back, back...”
“We had that song for a month or two–,” Chike interjects.
“We kept playing it for everybody, like, ‘That’s a hit.’ And it hit a mil. When that happened, I was like, ‘Damn.’ And then Chike hit his shit––”
Here, Rob pauses. A car honks, and I can hear the hissing whisper of the 110 just beyond the property line. Then, quietly, as though he’s trying to convince himself of what he’s saying, he continues: “And I’m next. You know that shit’s coming.”
I’m driving north on the 5 Freeway through the neighborhood in which I grew up, past the United States’ largest Ikea, past Panorama City, ground zero for the distribution of black tar heroin grown in the mountains of Nayarit, Mexico. Further north, in the Newhall Pass, I catch a fleeting glimpse of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, where water diverted from Owens and Mono lakes cascades—foaming, ivory, and silent—down a zig-zagged path. In the Antelope Valley, between brown-green hills of dry brush and below a merciless noontime sun, a 3-Series overtakes me on Route 14 using the carpool lane, then overtakes another driver using the emergency lane. Suddenly, a man-made oasis is revealed: a stately white windmill overlooking Lake Palmdale, a blue droplet in an otherwise dun expanse.
After an hour-long drive, I park on a leafy street in Lancaster, next to a home with a lawn sign memorializing a dead cop. I spot an elderly man in a driveway. “Does Swaye live here?” I ask. He seems unsure, but if the young man in the rear of the duplex is Swaye, could he please stop addressing his Amazon packages to the wrong unit?
When AzSwaye and his family moved from South Central to Lancaster, a defense industry outpost in the vast Mojave Desert, they became, like hundreds of thousands of others, part of a wave of migration reshaping Los Angeles. In the last 30 years, LA has experienced a steady decline in its once robust black population. Facing senseless violence, rising rents, faltering schools, and bleak job prospects, black Angelenos have relocated to the Antelope, Apple, and Moreno valleys, and, even further afield, to Arizona and Nevada. Like their 20th century forerunners, who fled to Los Angeles to escape the bigotries of the Jim Crow South, they’re migrants in search of safety and stability.
“How’d you end up in Lancaster?,” I ask AzSwaye, whose high-top fade accentuates his already lanky body, once we’ve sat down on his couch.
“Somebody died on my doorstep [in South Central],” he says. He describes the incident, which happened when he was 20.
“It was the middle of the night," he says. "It wasn’t like it was somebody that got killed on the front porch that I knew, or anything; it was just somebody started shooting. And we were like, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ We look out the door, and the dude is literally on the porch, slumped over, dead. I’m thinking, ‘This dude just got killed on the front porch? That could have been me, my brother, anybody. It wasn’t like we moved because we was really worried about that; it was [that] there was too much going on. That was the breaking point.”
He pauses to reflect. Then, with some prompting by his older brother Donye, who’s sitting next to him, he continues. “That street alone, though, is really how I got into a lot of situations that I rap about. I lost my cousin on that street––he got hit by an ice cream truck, rest in peace––and my brother lost his friend also in front of my house. He got shot four times trying to fix under his car. That’s all things I seen growing up.”
In a county with more than 50,000 unhoused people, poorly maintained infrastructure, and runaway gentrification, there are more pressing issues than music, but this massive demographic change will alter how Los Angeles rap sounds. As the few remaining black enclaves in Los Angeles disappear, it’s possible that dusty badlands like Palmdale and Lancaster––which have experienced their own, localized white flight––will eventually become what Compton and South Central were in the 80s and 90s.
For now, Los Angeles remains the region’s rap hub. So Swaye regularly weathers the mostly featureless drive between Lancaster and LA. In the broiling dun desert strip mall expanse, he’s an anonymous Angeleno exile; in the city, he’s a buzzing artist whose work has indelibly shaped what may be the wheezing twilight years of Los Angeles rap. Swaye and Drakeo the Ruler are the Romulus and Remus of the shit-talkin’ generation––twinned wildlings who, instead of succumbing to South Central, have thrived. And, had Drakeo answered his phone, the original version of Swaye’s “Ride With My Glock” would have featured the Stinc Team’s flu-flammer-in-chief.
“Originally, I was gonna put Drakeo on it, because I know that’s what my boy be doing,” Swaye says, referring to the song’s lyrics about the gratuitous consumption of prescription-grade cough syrup and dark nights of solitary skullduggery. “That’s literally the type of shit he does, like ‘This the perfect song for us.’ You know him––he be high as shit and he really don’t pay attention to his phone, [and] I wasn’t gon’ keep on waiting for bro to do his verse. I put it out, and he was like, ‘Oh, bro, aw, fuck—I shoulda did it. This hard as fuck’. Eventually, I sent it to him again, and said, ‘Fuck it. Just do it for the remix.’” (Drakeo eventually did the remix.)
Swaye is the (relatively) unassuming connective tissue of the talkin’ shit generation. He was raised, in part, in the cancerous footprint of the 110 and 105 interchange, and has known Drakeo, Ralfy the Plug, G Perico, and 03 Greedo (a distant cousin, he recently learned) for much of his life. As a teenager, he was in a short-lived rap group, Kush Gang, with Rucci, who jokes that while the other members were into making jerkin’ raps, he and Swaye were “on some A$AP Rocky shit.” (Swaye did jerk, however.) And, though he didn’t experience ratchet-era success like Drakeo, as an adult, he’s shared stages with Greedo and Shoreline Mafia; recorded songs with Fenix Flexin, Ralfy, and 1TakeJay; and put out EPs with RobTwo and Hit Mob producers LowTheGreat and JoogFTR . If there’s anyone who could explain his cohort’s volatile mixture of hard drugs, designer clothing, and automatic rifles, it’s Swaye.
“How, or why, did your generation develop its sound?”
“It’s everything that’s going on right now,” he tells me. “Everybody wanna look cool, everybody wanna do drugs––it’s like a thing now. It might not be cool, but that’s how everybody’s making it seem. Looking fly, doing hella drugs, sipping hella lean, riding around in cars with guns––that’s the cool thing. And we all rap about those types of things. If everybody’s doing it, that’s the wave. It was jerkin’. Now everybody wants to be cool-ass drug gangsters.”
From its Santa Monica Mountains perch, the Hollywood Sign once gazed impassively at a curious blend of Spanish Colonial duplexes, Craftsman bungalows with chipped-paint, and resplendent Golden Age apartments in the lightest pastels. Today, steel, concrete, and, glass high-rises block sunrays meant for golden-brown palms, whose distant ancestors were brought to California by Franciscan missionaries. These thirsty and scoliotic trees, dusty from exhaust and bark crosshatched, will continue to sway beneath crisp Pacific skies. But for whom?
For now, Los Angeles is a wild-as-fuck barroom brawl of micro-cultures fighting for their right to drink and smoke on the beach in peace. It’s a city divided by race and class, but not by religion. We worship six-month summers of “Fireworks or gunshots?,” green light after green light, the whirr of grease-stained taco truck generators, and, frustratingly, the wave at Dodger Stadium. There is no heaven or hell in the Los Angeles theology––they are both here, right before you. The city takes and offers, offers and takes, the balance affected largely by skin color.
There is a palpable unease throughout the county, from the lonely warehouses of Sylmar to the tip of Long Beach, where the Los Angeles River, exhausted from its 51-mile journey in concrete channels, makes its joyous egress into the Pacific Ocean. Sooty underpasses teem with the unhoused, and the freeways are potholed and gridlocked. Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey steadfastly refuses to prosecute cops, ICE goons arrest hundreds in sweeps, and, amid record temperatures and drought, brush fires occasionally grow into roaring hellscapes.
For now, at the very least, there is a spectacularly gifted cadre of rappers to distract us from the wails of red, white, and blue sirens, lonely backyard dogs, and wandering schizophrenics. The city’s greatest outpouring of rap since Snoop Dogg was on trial for the murder of Philip Woldemariam includes a group of heretofore unmentioned notables: Blueface, the rightful heir to FrostyDaSnowmann’s squandered empire; natural born juice salesman Desto Dubb and his enigmatic brother Pimp Pimp P; currently incarcerated Stinc Team members Ketchy the Great, SaySoTheMac, and Bambino; the devilish and gravelly Almighty Suspect; red-clad Inglewooder and headband connoisseur FreeAckrite; baby-faced Martin Luther King Park loiterer Johnny Rose; Athens Park gunshot survivor and “Hit Yo Ricky” guest Earl Swavey; Long Beach’s Saviii3rd, Jooba Loc, $tupid Young, BeachBoii, and Cinco; and the more intellectually inclined––and thus ever so slightly removed––Buddy, Huey Briss, and KB DeVaughn. Taken together, they form a rich, pointilist portrait of a city in flux.
Their music was born from unknowable struggles in unforgiving places, and its occasional bouts of aloofness or frivolity conceal trauma and suffering. For these men, the joy of rapping is inextricable from the anguish of living in Los Angeles. When I ask Drakeo about rivalries within LA rap, he softens. Just for a minute, he allows me a glimpse at a lifetime of pain.
“Since I been in jail, people been subbing me and all this little weird shit, but I just leave it alone,” he says, presumably standing at a bank of phones inside Men’s Central Jail. “I just be thinking to myself, ‘Where was y’all at when nobody was fucking with me?’ Where was y’all at when nobody was listening to my music, when I was getting 40 likes on Instagram? Where the fuck was y’all at when I was fucking homeless and staying with my motherfucking friends from school, in motels and shelters? Nobody knows. Everybody thinks this comes easy. Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, yeah, I’mma just do this and it’s gon’ come.’ But nobody wanna go through the shit that you gotta go through.”
Torii MacAdams is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.