“This shit is from yesterday,” Lil Gnar says, lifting his shirt up at the restaurant we’re having lunch at to show me his enormous chest tattoo featuring a black panther with wings sprouting from its head. It still has clear wrapping on it to help the tattoo heal.
Gnar, a 21-year-old skater turned clothing designer with a burgeoning rap career, has been getting new tattoos at a rapid clip over the past several months.
“I gotta get ‘em all before I blow up,” he explained on the patio of Beacon, a slightly upscale (two Yelp dollar signs) cafe on the edge of Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles. He and I are the only people of color at Beacon that Friday afternoon. He is the only person there with neck tattoos, colored dreadlocks, a gold chain, and grills.
“In a few months I’m gonna be a lot bigger you know and so then I’m going to be doing shows. I’m not trying to be on the road and doing shows with fresh tattoos,” he says, with an air of inevitability.
Though it’s early in his career, the aplomb isn’t misplaced. His music has racked up millions of plays and earned him over 100,000 social media followers. He’s caught the attention of up-and-coming rap gatekeepers like music video director Cole Bennett and legends like Travis Barker—both of whom Gnar says he’s recently spoken with.
In his words, “getting good tattoos is money,” and Gnar has money now. His streetwear brand, Gnarcotic, is doing well enough for him to afford new ink, a Porsche and a Mercedes Benz, an upcoming trip to Europe, and whatever else he wants. His signature tri-color camo pants have been worn by Lil Yachty and cult favorite skater Stephen Lawyer, and he’s collaborated with the skate brand DGK on clothes and skate decks. His music is giving him the kind of attention that could attract a record deal, which would pump even more money into his bank account. And though he’s not making direct money off it, his persona is becoming more valuable as he gains attention by posting videos of himself driving around in Lamborghinis, smoking blunts, and shooting various guns into the air, sometimes while on a skateboard.
Though he’s yet to play a full show or release a mixtape, his first official single “Ride Wit Da Fye” has over two million plays on streaming websites like Spotify and Soundcloud, and his new joint EP, Big Bad Gnar Shit, is getting attention from internet tastemakers. He says his four-year-old clothing business nets him “well over six figures” a year, but “not a million yet.”
Before he started making music, his initial business ventures were fueled by slightly under-the-table means. Starting a company requires capital, something that the son of a single mother in a lower-income East Atlanta neighborhood didn’t have.
“Without illegal shit, my brand wouldn’t be where it is,” he tells me between bites of a Japanese beef burger on a brioche bun.
Today, his ascent is fueled in part by an uncanny ability to get attention on the internet with absurd and aggressive posts on Instagram and Twitter. When I noticed him on Instagram in late 2017, he had around 30,000 followers. As of mid March he is at 125,000.
“He’s viral minded. He’s gone viral a lot of lot times in the past year even before he had the following he does now,” says Adam Grandmaison who hosts the rap podcast No Jumper, which has been described as an authority of what’s next in rap music (Grandmaison also has his own collaboration in the works with Gnarcotic).
Even in a saturated market of internet flexing, Gnar’s social media presence is enthralling. In one video, he speeds around a corner in his Porsche and brakes before hopping onto a skateboard, popping a nollie varial kickflip and then firing a handgun into the air while flipping the camera off. In another, he does the same thing, but in a different car (his Mercedes), doing a different trick (a 180 no comply) with a different gun (an assault rifle).
He’s been skating, mostly sans firearms, since he was 13, when his older half-brother stole a skateboard from a kid living down the street. He loved it and quickly saved up to buy his own board. “Skating – it just feels good. It’s freedom,” Gnar says, grinning, when I asked why he was drawn to it. Even though he started late, Gnar still excelled, and has skated with Lil Wayne and gotten invitations to skate legend Stevie Williams’s private skatepark in Atlanta.
“He actually rips, which is tight, because most rappers just be flexing that shit, but they ain’t really about it. He’s really about it,” says Travis Glover, an Atlanta-based skater who grew up riding with Gnar. Glover describes Gnar’s skating style as similar to his music and persona: “fast-paced, kind of powerful but makes it happen type shit.”
Gnar’s now busy with his clothing business and music, but still skates whenever he has free time, occasionally Instagramming himself when he does. His non-skate videos prominently feature his collection of guns, women, stacks of money, and pounds of weed. In this way, he says his Instagram feed is a constantly updating homage to his hero Pharrell, whose brand Ice Cream blended hip-hop braggadocio with skateboarding.
“Ice Cream Skate Team Vol. 1. That was actually my first skate video I watched ever,” he said.
“It was the first time you see kind of what I do now, which is like black skating, but like stunting. Kind of a mixture of rap culture and skating. There are parts of the video where Pharrell has a Ferrari burning out and shit and then it cuts to somebody at a skatepark. That’s what really inspired everything I do, low-key.”
It’s too early in Gnar’s career to know if his trajectory will reach the Pharrell-like heights he wants, but he’s certainly got promise. “He’s got that effortless cool. He doesn’t come off like a thirsty fucking kid. There’s tons of good talented rappers. Most of them won’t make a dollar,” says Grandmaison. “When I’m picking out who I think is going to be successful, it’s just got way more to do with personality than anything else.”
To Grandmaison, Gnar has that personality. For starters, he’s brazen about his passions.
“For me, it was like I’m trying to get out here. Just being brazy... putting Xanax in girls’ butts and just wyling out and living life,” he says as we’re driving down the 101 in his 2009 midnight blue Porsche Cayman with “Lil Gnar” vanity plates. We’re headed to his childhood friend and fellow Atlanta skater turned rapper Germ’s apartment in Studio City. Gnar is carefully smoking a cigarette out the window, trying to make sure that the smell doesn’t linger on the tan leather interior.
Like most 21-year-olds, Gnar’s attention span can be short. He flips between apps on his phone and answering questions as he drives. He has an edge to him, but he’s still gracious and forthcoming. He’s also very confident that his ascent to the upper echelon of hip-hop is impending.
“I just want to blow up and tell everyone to suck my dick,” Gnar says just after we get to Germ’s apartment. He flips an axe that was sitting on a table and shares a blunt with Germ and producer Don Krez. They blow the smoke into an air purifier to mask the smell from their neighbors who keep complaining. Don Krez explains that he and Germ, two artists who seem to smoke prolific amounts of weed, live in a smoke-free apartment complex. There’s also a shopping cart in the middle of an otherwise normal living room. When I ask why it’s there, Germ shrugs and says “I needed it.”
“Gnarcotic, it’s gonna grow into a whole movement, the clothes, the music,” Gnar says, before he starts reading the number of plays he and Germ’s new joint EP, Big Bad Gnar Shit, is getting. “'Ride Wit Da Fye' is over a million. I think the lowest one is going to have 100 [thousand plays] by the end of the week.”
When I ask him about his goals for the next year, his answer comes quick, in a way that suggests he’s thought about it before. “I want to buy a Ferrari. I want to put a down payment on a house for my mom. And I want to meet Kanye. Not just meet Kanye on some fan shit, but actually talk to him as an artist.”
Gnar is hesitant to give exact details on his future plans, but says that he’s sitting on an unreleased mixtape and he's slated to perform at SXSW as well as the Rolling Loud festival in May.
I ask him if he’s nervous for the Rolling Loud show.
“Fuck no. I’m so ready. I just want to get big by then. I just want to be huge so everyone knows my words and I can go crazy. I want to fucking rage.”
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