I’ve never met anyone like 03 Greedo. He is, in turns, hyperkinetic and deeply pensive, and just as given to extended monologues as he is impassive silences. His dreadlocks veil unsettling, nearly black irises, and his face tattoos, like the coloring of South American dart frogs, project a dangerous toxicity. Were he less outwardly intimidating, he’d more easily be considered an eccentric, but “eccentric” feels inadequate, too. He’s probably not irredeemably “loony” (his word), but bipolarity, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and unknowable amounts of trauma have made Greedo into an unusual thinker—and, as a result, an unusual musician.
“Are you a visual writer?,” I ask.
“I don’t think my brain works that slow. It’s not me, really, it’s just like ‘Play that beat,’ and ‘duh-duh-duh,’ like a computer just shitting shit out,” he says, making silly computer noises. “I’m not really conscious when I’m making music. It’s like I’m a vessel. I get to spinning in a circle, [and] I face the floor. I spin in a circle and the thoughts ‘pew-pew-pew.’ It’s pretty weird.”
When I ask if he had access to music programs in school, he seems almost taken aback.
“I would never ruin the music in my mind–I don’t know how to read music, I don’t know how to play an instrument. Structure doesn’t belong with music; people who are doing that are not musicians...This is an untamed talent. This is how a nigga can dunk at 14 [years old]. You don’t lesson me.”
At his best, Greedo operates between genres—a B.G. with a keener sense of melody, or a Ty Dolla $ign with gun charges. On songs like “Mafia Business,” “Never Bend,” and the Lil Money tribute “Small Dollas,” Greedo–unabashedly channeling the atmospherics of Phil Collins, who he thinks sounds like “a street nigga”–makes music with the menacing purple-grey-orange-blue crack and rumble of desert thunderstorms. He calls it “emo music for gangbangers,” or, as he demonstrates, music that makes hardened gangsters grimace and clutch their fists to their chests like R&B singers. It’s music that comes from real pain, real anger, and real love. It’s music that comes from Watts.
In the early 20th century, Watts was a small, semi-rural enclave of whites, blacks, and Latinos. For Southern blacks alighting at Central Station, Watts seemed like home; residents kept acre-or-two farms and, when the Los Angeles River would overrun its banks, the low-lying town’s dirt roads would turn to mud, earning it the nickname “Mudtown.” In 1926, Watts voters chose to be annexed by Los Angeles, giving local farmers access to water diverted from the Owens Valley. (There’s scholarly disagreement over whether the Ku Klux Klan, worried that Watts’ body politic would become exclusively black, favored annexation.)
The end of World War II marked the beginning of Watts’ decline. A centralized population of low-skilled black laborers, drawn from the South by the promises of war industry jobs, temperate weather, and less overt racial segregation, were without work. Worse, Los Angeles’ prevalent segregationist attitudes—the same attitudes these migrant Southerners had tried to escape—left Watts’ black residents without the social or economic capital to recover. Watts’ ghettoization was finalized when Norris Poulson, elected mayor on a wave of anti-Communist hysteria, renegotiated the city’s public housing contract with the federal government. In 1955, Nickerson Gardens became the final public housing project built in Los Angeles. With housing projects Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, Nickerson Gardens, and the smaller Hacienda Village (later renamed Gonzaque Village) all located within a two-square mile area, Watts became an archipelago of poverty.
On August 11, 1965, a traffic stop gone awry sparked an era-defining uprising. The Watts riots–or Rebellion, depending on your political bent–were a direct response to widespread police brutality, high unemployment rates, underfunded schools, substandard housing, and exploitative local businesses–all manifestations of systemic segregation. For six days, Watts burned as a cowed LAPD stood and watched. It was only when 14,000 National Guardsmen arrived, and an 8 PM curfew was enacted, that an accounting could take place: 34 dead, a thousand injured, over three thousand arrested, and a thousand buildings damaged or destroyed.
A year later, Johnnie Scott—a Jordan Downs native, a then-recent drop out of Harvard University, and a member of the inchoate, soon-to-be-influential Watts Writers Workshop—spoke to the White House Conference on Civil Rights about the unfulfilled desires of his neighbors.
“The slum Negro will ask, for his children, parks (and in Watts there is but one); efficient care of those who need relief and medical care…; jobs that will reach the majority of the community's skills...; increased contact with social workers; a rapport with politician and policeman; good schools with space for growth as the community itself grows; and, most of all, communication with the outside world on a level other than that of fear.”
“Was your dad from L.A.?,” I ask.
“Yeah, he was from L.A. I don’t really know, I don’t know,” Greedo says, answering one question and almost reflexively preempting others. “My dad died when I was one. Maybe it affected me, but I don’t even be tripping. I done had way more problems than that. I think his peoples from Texas—I don’t know if he was born in L.A.”
The death of his father, struck by a car while riding a motorcycle, began a peripatetic childhood. He lost his virginity in St. Louis, gained a nose for the pungent burnt rubber smell of sideshows during his summers in Sacramento, and lived in rural Kansas, where, from his seat on the Greyhound, he relished the sight of abandoned homes and flaxen, endless plains. Still, these boyhood peregrinations––which included stops in Compton and Gardena––didn’t entirely prepare him for the throbbing intensity of life, and death, inside one of America’s most violent projects. Greedo moved into Jordan Downs’ identical, beige-brown buildings around 2000. He was 13 or 14. Though a 1992 truce between rival Crip and Blood sets had slowed Watts’ once-Balkanized violence—gang members complained of not being able to pump gas without incident—Jordan Downs’ Grape Street Crips and Nickerson Gardens’ Bounty Hunter Bloods remained preeminent paramilitary forces at the turn of the century. The options were stark for a young Greedo: get with Grape Street or get fucked up.
“When I got to the hood, it was hard because I was an outcast at first. You gotta prove yourself until you get to the top tier. For me to come from that and make it to the top tier, that’s a big accomplishment. That’s rare as fuck. First you gotta get accepted by your own hood. Then you barely got access to get here and there until you’re in with a lot of people in the hood, where you can be in this unit, that unit, this house around the corner–now there’s maybe like 20-30 houses a nigga can fall into, but when you new over there, boy, I dunno...”
“You’re lucky if you can stand on the porch,” adds La, a fellow Grape Street Crip who spends much of the interview quietly—almost meditatively—enjoying his shrimp fettuccine.
If Greedo wasn’t a full-blown rebel before Jordan Downs, he quickly became one in his new environs. His mother confiscated his first rap CD, Country Grammar, so he took to LimeWire and stole “small dollars” for a portable CD player. She sent him to private high schools, so he got expelled on purpose. When he wasn’t bringing guns to school, fighting teachers, or rifling through others’ lockers, he was was ditching class to shop on Melrose Boulevard with his baby-mama-to-be. Eventually, his mother kicked him out.
“I was straight up homeless. Like, eat out the trash can homeless, like sleep on a park bench homeless. But then I’d get to stay at my patna’s house for a while, then overstayed my welcome–I did that with seven families–or stay with my [girlfriend]. I was just drifting around. There was a few times I would try to move back in with my mom, but we would still keep getting into it–I was a gangsta and she was a woman. We only became cool once I became an adult.”
At 17, on the verge of adulthood, Greedo impregnated his girlfriend. He’d worked at Robinsons-May, Mervyn’s, Fry’s Electronics, and Best Buy, but, faced with the prospect of supporting a newborn, he took to selling drugs. At 18, he became a father to Meilani. At 19, he pled nolo contendere to two simultaneous misdemeanors.
In 2009, Greedo was released from Los Angeles County Jail after serving about ten months of a 365-day sentence for what the California penal code classifies as a 12021(C)(1) offense. (In layperson’s terms, he’d been caught with a firearm—a crime punishable by up to a year in jail due to his 2006 misdemeanors.) He was 22 with a lengthening rap sheet, a fluid housing situation, and an as-yet unrefined sense of musicality.
“I got to stay at my boy Calvin’s house on the couch for a few years. I used to record in Calvin’s garage. My first studio was at my boy Lil’ Chris’ house when I got out of jail...I had to get out of being homeless. I was really just trying to make it out; I just liked making music and didn’t give a fuck. I always knew I was going to make it, I just didn’t know what was the steps—I still don’t know what’s the steps—this is some lucky-ass shit, blessed-ass shit, praying on my knees-ass shit.”
Under the name Greedy Giddy, he released six mixtapes between jail stints: four iterations of the Bipolar series, Everybody Weak, and Money, Powder, Regrets.
“I was ‘Bipolar’ because I was separating [it]—I rap and I sing—and a nigga crazy,” he says. “But it was just like, with me traveling everywhere, I didn’t identify myself with anything. I was just trying to be mainstream before I was mainstream, and that wasn’t gonna work.”
Greedo’s opinion of his early work is slightly uncharitable. The fragments of the Giddy discography still available on DatPiff, his YouTube channel, and his Tumblr reveal a promising artist, albeit without a consistent, coherent vision. He grew up listening to Southern rap—he claims to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Lil Boosie lyrics—and if there’s a region that most clearly informed Greedy Giddy, it was the South’s auto-tuned harmonizing and melodramatic trap instrumentals. Because, as he obliquely references in our conversation, he was involved in Atlanta’s drug trade, Gucci Mane, Jeezy, and Rocko took on additional significance in his life.
These were chaotic years. Between July 2011 and December 2013 he plead nolo contendere to two burglaries and two felony firearm charges. In late 2013, he began serving his most severe sentence: two years in state prison.
During interminable days in his cell, Greedo, wracked by the restlessness and excitability inherent to ADHD, would pace and write lyrics. His hobby, in conjunction with the grape cluster tattooed beside his left eye, marked him for trouble.
“I was the best rapper in jail. I wrote, like, thousands of songs. When you rap, you gotta really be squabbling in there ‘cuz they can’t wait to say ‘That rapper ass nigga? He ain’t bout nothin’,’” he tells me, La nodding in agreement. His high cheekbones were sharper then, and he’d yet to grow the dreadlocked tendrils which swathe his inky eyes, but he was, without a doubt, ‘bout somethin’.
“Like one of my coldest situations was the time I went to prison in 2013. I went straight to the enemy dorm. I had to get ran and all that–but I ain’t finna roll it up. ‘Roll it up’ is leave. ‘I don’t wanna go in there, I fear for my safety.’ Boy, it be all bad. My career would be over in the streets and in rap. I’m aggressive. I was whuppin’ ass. That’s one thing people don’t expect—I’m a jokin’-ass nigga, [but] I’ll whup your ass.”
In this typhoon of low-fi recording sessions, cross-country drug trafficking, trials, incarceration, violence, and borderline homelessness, one of the few constants was Paul “Lil Money” Reed. With his sleepy eyes and long, boyish face punctuated by a goatee, Lil Money was almost ever-present in the sporadic Greedy Giddy vlogs. He’s flashing a handgun and throwing up Peda Roll Mafia signs; he’s filming the low-budget “Dirtbag” video on a palm tree-lined Beverly Hills sidewalk; he’s in a giggling footrace with Greedo and then, breathing hard, showing off his “war wounds”: a fresh, milky white scar running from his crotch to his sternum.
On June 28, 2016, on an infinitely flat stretch of the I-40 between Bushland and Amarillo, Texas near Cadillac Ranch, Greedo and a 26 year-old Justin Scott were stopped by a Potter County Sheriff deputy. After allegedly smelling marijuana, the deputy searched the vehicle and found four pounds of methamphetamine stashed in the trunk and two stolen pistols concealed within arm’s reach of the men. After eight days in an Amarillo jail cell, Greedo’s $20,000 bond was posted by Central Bail Bonds II. He returned to Los Angeles just in time for a gang war.
Raymond “Mafia Ray” Arnold was in Updeh Cutz, a strip mall barber shop in Hawthorne, when an altercation began between he and at least two other men. When the shooting stopped, Arnold was lying dead inside Updeh Cutz and another man, who needed life-saving surgery, was bleeding in the parking lot. Arnold—a 31-year-old father of four who walked with a limp from a previous shooting—was a well-known Grape Street Crip, and his July 16 murder inflamed the always-smoldering animosity between Grape Street and the Bounty Hunter Bloods.
The following day, DeAndre Dercell Hughes, a 30-year-old environmental services technician at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, was standing outside his home on East 120th St. when his two assailants approached and began shooting. Hughes, who wasn’t involved in gangs, was quickly taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. Police believe that the shooters either mistook their victim for another man or were aiming at someone else. Hughes’ murder, in conjunction with the Updeh Cutz shootout, increased the Los Angeles Police Department’s patrols in Watts.
And, on July 25, nine days after Arnold’s murder, the LAPD partook in the violence. According to police reports cited by the Los Angeles Times, two LAPD officers were driving through Nickerson Gardens when they stopped to investigate what they believed was a group of Bounty Hunter members. Richard Risher, 18, ran and began firing at the officers. During the running gun battle, Risher was killed and a cop was wounded. In June 2017, the four-civilian police commission unanimously found the use of force justified.
The day after Risher’s death, the former Greedy Giddy celebrated his 29th birthday by releasing the self-produced Purple Summer, a two-hour, 40-song tribute to an unnamed lover. He does—or tries to do—everything: soaring, auto-tuned paeans to dark-skinned women; brutalist, minimalist, almost disjointed beats; hammering, conscience-free trap; and, most powerfully, confessional moments where he sounds like a swimmer too far from shore, fighting off waves of tragedy and devastation. The scattershot approach was intentional. “Most of [the] Purple Summers are business: I’m trying to show you I got it all.”
And, to go with his businesslike approach, he adopted a publicly new, privately old moniker.
“Did you become 03 Greedo when you got out of prison?”
“Naw, I been was ‘03’ in jail. I been ‘Greedo.’ See, if your name end with a -y in the hood, they change it to an -o. So my name was ‘Greedy,’ but everybody trying to be ‘Greedy.’ I wanted a new name anyway. So I’mma just call myself what the hood call me–and that’s where the ‘03’ come from. ‘03’ is some gangbanging shit,” he admits. “If I put ‘103’ it’s gon’ make it hard for me to work. I just took the ‘1’ off and made my adlib ‘It’s only one...oh-three.’ That’s 103rd. I’m Greedo from Grape, so 03 Greedo.’”
For Greedo, who’s an obsessive plotter, his name strikes a delicate balance: for those in the know, his gang affiliations are plain as day; for those in the rap industry, where Grape Street is blackballed for “beating ass,” it provides achingly thin cover. “A lot of people be going ‘Don’t say that Grape Street stuff because people get scared.’ I’m not looking to meet these people,” he says without a hint of uncertainty. “I don’t give a fuck if that scares them–this is what I’m doing. This is packaged up for the niggas that get it. Bitch, the shit is called ‘Purple Summer’ [and] a nigga has [a grape cluster] on his face. How are they not gonna know?”
During Arnold’s July 29th memorial service at Breath of Life Seventh Day Adventist Church in Inglewood, Greedo performed a hastily-recorded tribute to the deceased, “Mafia Business,” whose lyrics are largely comprised of the departed’s unique lingo and inscrutable catchphrases. Despite being deeply abstruse and wildly deviating from grammatical conventions “Mafia Business” remains, as of this writing, his most viewed YouTube video. After scores of black men and black women enshrouded in purple interred Arnold, the shootings continued.
On August 4, at a 76 gas station across the street from Nickerson Gardens, Cordero Dougal, 26, and his girlfriend were sitting in a white Chrysler when a gray Nissan pulled up next to their car. Immediately, a high-caliber rifle began spraying bullets from the rear, driver’s side seat of the Nissan. Dougal was killed and his girlfriend was critically injured, as was a homeless bystander. The murder remains unsolved.
Greedo’s tibia was shattered by a bullet last September. “[St. Francis Medical Center] told me I needed to get it amputated, but I was like, ‘Fuck no,’” he later told Jeff Weiss in the LA Weekly, “I can still run.” In lieu of amputation, what was once his tibia was replaced with a metal rod.
After a four-day stay in the hospital, during which Greedo made the instrumentals for “Never Bend” and “Paranoid” on a laptop with FruityLoops, he was sent home in a taxi with his leg smelling of death. Though the pong of rotting flesh has since subsided, and the sutures have healed, his limp is likely permanent.
“Do you really feel like you live your life in a state of paranoia?,” I ask.
“Do you have anything to alleviate that paranoia?”
On Halloween 2016, Greedo released the 33-song Purple Summer 2: Son Don’t Shine. “I got shot and I was sad, so I wanted to make a depression one,” he says. “I always do that; if I make a trilogy, one of them has to sound completely against the other ones, like different chapters. It’s ‘Son Don’t Shine’ because ain’t no Jesus coming around where I’m from, and it ‘s-o-n’ like ‘Jason,’ [because] that’s my name, plus ‘Jason’ stands for July, August, September, October, November, so: Purple Summer.” More sadness was forthcoming.
Paul “Lil Money” Reed Jr., 26, was murdered near the the corner of East 109th Place and Wilmington Avenue, blocks from Nickerson Gardens, on December 2, 2016. Reed was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car when his killer approached from the sidewalk and fired into the vehicle. An unidentified man sitting the driver’s seat was unharmed, but Reed was declared dead the following evening. The day after his close friend’s death, Greedo wrote “Murda Music.” “That was my ‘ready to go kill somethin’ [song].’ Like I said on the song ‘This that shit that I play when I spray something,” he says as La raps along.
Then, when Reed’s death had begun to sunk in, Greedo wrote “Small Dollas.”
As a young child, Greedo suffered a series of severe ear infections which eventually necessitated a cochlear implant. The result was a honking, nasal voice that, during his lightspeed monologues, sounds like a bebop trumpet solo. But, when he sings about his peculiar ghetto potpourri of heartbreak, violence, and desperation, he might as well be Otis Redding sitting on the dock of the bay or Aretha Franklin stealing moments to say little prayers. He has the gift: he makes you feel his pain. On “Small Dollas” he croons
I remember all them Blue Line trips
Since we been down you was my dawg I ride with
I remember all that Polo and that Tommy, boy
I keep on texting your old phone hoping you’re gon’ reply
I can’t let this shit here happen, not without ridin’
I hope I complete this song tonight without crying
There’s inextricable, twinned senses of wonderment and horror in Greedo’s revelations. He shows you the purple bandanas, the bullet wounds, and the tear streaks. He divulges most–but not all–of a shadowy, felonious lifestyle few live and fewer survive. Perhaps to his own detriment, he’s an outlaw without compunction or apology–and boundless self-confidence. He’s not a rapper, or a producer, or a singer, he says, but something greater.
“Is there a label that you would apply to yourself?”
“The shit, that new shit. You know why? Because I’mma tell you something that’s gonna sound disrespectful, but I gotta say this: Michael Jackson did not make his own beats or write his own music like that. No big artist ever–Elvis, Bob Marley–they didn’t make their own beats. They didn’t direct their own videos, they didn’t write their own hooks, they didn’t rap hard as fuck and could sing. Listening to my shit, from Greedy Giddy until now–I had to remix it. I’m not a fucking Xzibit. Xzibit could only go so far until he’s gonna ‘pimp your ride.’ I would never have to pimp a ride.”
His self-belief has been matched by Todd Moscowitz’s fledgling Alamo Records who, Greedo has claimed, gave him a million-dollar contract in early December, a month after our interview. Before signing he promised an album from lupine alter-ego Jordan Downs Belfort, The Wolf of Grape Street, and a dizzying array of collaborative albums–projects with Mike WiLL Made It, Cardo, Mike Free, and League of Starz were all said to be in-progress or finished–but it remains to be seen how Alamo will handle his prolific output. When we spoke, Greedo’s immediate concerns were less musical than aesthetic.
“I got so much music, I’m not really focused on improving that, so I’ve really been on my rockstar image–how I move, how I walk, how I talk. People don’t know how much thought a nigga put into this shit, but I’m really trying to Bob Marley myself. I ain’t even trying now; now that it’s started I’m addicted to it.
Two days after 03 Greedo finished Purple Summer 03: Purple Hearted Soldier, he was captured by bounty hunters and extradited to Amarillo, a city Larry McMurtry once described as “rigidly conformist on the surface and seeth[ing] underneath with imperfectly suppressed malice.” He sat handcuffed at his wrists and ankles in the back of a van full of other manacled bond jumpers for six days, pissing into a bottle and wincing in pain from his atrophying left leg. It was, he says, the most humiliating experience of his life. If Randall Sims, Potter County’s cowboy hat-wearing District Attorney, has his say, the degradation will continue.
In 2018, Greedo will stand trial, charged with two felonies: first degree possession of a controlled substance and third degree unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. For the drug charge, he faces between 25-99 years (“or life,” as his indictment helpfully notes); for the gun charge between 2 and 20 years and up to a $10,000 fine. Both charges are enhanced by felonies committed in Los Angeles County.
Though Greedo’s understandably loath to discuss his trial, it is, like the furious howl of springtime tornados, a Texas panhandle inevitability. His psychological burden must be immense. How can he have a jury of his peers in Amarillo–59 percent white and just six percent black as of the 2010 census–if he’s from Watts, a fading but still resolute bastion of blackness in an increasingly Latino city? Was he destined for life imprisonment the instant he stepped from his concrete porch into one of Jordan Downs’ yellowing, cracked courtyards? Or was he destined for imprisonment the instant he was born? Is this the end of a tumultuous beginning or just a thudding, premature end?
I don’t ask any of these questions. Instead, I ask what Greedo wants from his third decade on earth. He wants to tour, he says, and show the world his form of curious, unalloyed genius. But there are more pressing matters.
“I don’t wanna be 30 dead or in jail, because I been in jail my whole 20s. I can’t even care about my daughter as much as most people care about their daughter because I’m going to my own casket,” he says, his pinched voice knifing through the rustle and low hum of a late afternoon Beverly Hills lunch service. “I can’t care about my mama, I can’t care about none of that shit–I teach my daughter the same shit. ‘Shit, I might turn on you. I might leave you. What if I leave you?’ My mama left me to teach me a lesson. What if I get so high I’m like ‘I don’t give a fuck’? Don’t depend on me. Fuck me. You use what you got right now to catapult you to some money. Tomorrow ain’t promised, you better get to this check. And she understands that and she’s on it.”
Torii MacAdams is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.