G Perico thinks he's been under the hair dryer too long. Below the chemical-saturated cotton strip circling his head, his face and neck are a map of pink splotches and angry red trails. He leans forward, and the rotten-egg funk of ammonia pierces the air. He's about halfway through the three-hour process for a Jheri curl, right around the time anyone who's ever gotten a perm is thinking, "just wash this shit out, it's fine." Gingerly, he turns his head looking for Dana Dane of Dana Dane's Hair Connection in Inglewood.
"Hey!" he hollers toward the gaggle of stylists gossiping in the back of the salon on this dreary, soggy day. He's the only customer. "This been on long enough?"
Dana Dane shuffles over in her Uggs. "Yeah baby. You burnin'?" she asks, poking at the patch of plastic rollers sprouting from his head before turning down the heat a little and pressing him back in the chair. Beauty is pain.
"The OG homies used to always be on me—'pretty ass nigga.' I had something to prove just based on that," snorts the 28-year-old Los Angeles rapper. Wearing salt-and-pepper sweats and a "Fuck the Police" T-shirt, he stretches out his lean frame and taps a BC powder onto his tongue. "I grew up on 111th between Main and San Pedro, big hood. My cousin jumped off the porch before me. He dark skin, I'm lightskin, handsome. They look at my cousin like he the one. Like he gonna be the golden child of the area. But it turned out to be me."
Recently, that's happened again, but as a rapper, something Perico didn't expect when he was a kid more interested in starring in, not narrating, stories from the streets. Though he had released a few halfhearted tapes since 2012, it was last year's mixtape Shit Don't Stop that attracted the attention of both the streets and critics outside the city, branding him one of the most promising new artists in a genre most people have left for dead, gangsta rap. His voice skips over haunting piano melodies and melancholic chords, so urgent it almost feels like he's shouting (in fact, he says he is). Now, he's taking calls from Atlanta don Coach K and being managed by Tavon "Pun" Alexander, partner to former Mac Dre manager Seaside Stretch. He's hanging with Freddie Gibbs and bumping into Leonardo Dicaprio. Curren$y recently told him he's his favorite rapper.
If he'd planned it out, it might've looked something like this: Avoid imitating the stripper bounce of YG and DJ Mustard's early releases, a frequent pitfall for many LA up-and-comers. Instead, draw inspiration from older, less widely-heralded rappers like WC and Suga Free and steep your sound in G-funk. Populate hood tales about the life of a G with LA-centric details like high-speed chases on the freeway, gang raid escapes, swarms of ghetto birds, and old-school name drops like the Fox Hills Mall. But there was no blueprint.
"I didn't plan to be a rapper. I planned to be in the streets," Perico says. "At one point in my life, I didn't even think I was gonna get this old—and didn't care if I did."
"I'm an uncut G, I ain't no rapper" isn't just a line from his song "South Central." The Jheri curl isn't part of some publicist-crafted persona. Both of his prison bids were the result of gun charges, and during the year he served of his second sentence, the prison guards maced him so badly for having a cell phone, he thought he'd go blind. He's affiliated with the Broadway Gangster Crips, the gang that made national news in 2014 when 72 members were named in a 213-page federal racketeering indictment. He's not only never been a member of the 9-to-5 workforce, he's never even filled out an job application.
Being an uncut G does come at price, however. Late one night last March, he was shot outside his studio in South Los Angeles. One bullet struck his hip, another skimmed his behind. Obviously neither were fatal injuries, and though he left bloodstains onstage, Perico even performed that evening at legendary Sunset Strip venue the Roxy. But as he says, "You don't pull up and shoot 30 times if you trying to scare me."
The reception of Shit Don't Stop shocked him, even if he briefly was peeved by his 7.5 score on Pitchfork. "I was just doing it for my area. I didn't expect it to expand," he says. Now, he realizes he has a real chance to leave his past behind, and doing so benefits not only him, but his six-year-old daughter. Plus, most of his best friends are gone, too, either dead or doing life. Still, the roads we know are more comfortable and familiar than those we don't, even if they lead to the same dead end every time.
"Sometimes I still find myself battling myself because I was just so in love with the street shit. I still got that feeling within that I wanna be in the midst of shit. Damn, am I turning my back on this shit? Am I doing the right thing?" he explains. He pauses for a moment, contemplating. "Everything an addict will say."
Perico opens the door to his spacious, two-story Hollywood Hills rental shirtless, his soon-to-be-permed hair pulled into a pony. Navigating the climb to his house is tricky, but the hard-to-reach location is a good thing as far as trouble is concerned—you can't get much farther, figuratively and literally, from Perico's hood. "My neighborhood is like a desert," he says as we look out on a hillside lush with trees, their obscenely green leaves glistening with raindrops. "No businesses, no good food, nothin'. I be wanting to be there, but it ain't really worth it." For his most recent prison stint, the charge was ex-convict with a gun. He says the gun was simply in the apartment he happened to be in, but he couldn't snitch. "That's the G code. But now I never be in a place like that. I'm too valuable."
Beside his bedroom downstairs is one of the studios. It's most empty, a dry erase board listing tracks on an as-yet-unnamed project due this spring. The floor-to-ceiling windows are smeary with rain, but you can still see the city sprawled out below. On one, "Broadway Gangster Crips" is scrawled in Perico's handwriting, the same seen on the cover of Shit Don't Stop.
"I was wrapped up in the street early. That was it for me. I never wanted to be nothing else," he says. "The shit kinda chose me, but you gotta choose it back. I chose it back."
Born Jeremy Nash, his father was "in and out of the pen," and he never felt a connection with his mother. Instead, he lived and bonded with his grandmother. "She was a hustler," he says fondly. "Tarot card readings at the house!"
An only child, he was observant and loved to build model cars, but soon he was stealing bikes and his talent for drawing turned into "drawing on walls." His cousin was only ten when he started hanging with gangbangers. Perico waited until he was 12 or 13, and then he began making up for lost time. He also had to compensate for a lack of history. While lots of kids his age had deep gang family trees, he and his cousin were out there alone.
"Then my cousin went crazy. I got an uncle from the hood, but he in jail. I don't got no name I can throw around," he says. "I came up in the last violent years of gang shit. Anything that gotta do with street shit that gotta do with building a reputation, I did it."
Some of those reputation-building activities led him to juvenile court and probation school, which mostly just served to enlarge his network and his knowledge of how to be a criminal, he says.
"I grew up into it. I didn't know nobody else. Everybody I looked up to was gangbangers," he says. "Get money, be notorious. Ain't nothin' wrong with going to Y [Youth Authority], ain't nothin' wrong with going to prison. They bred us to think like that."
"Everybody I looked up to was gangbangers. Get money, be notorious... They bred us to think like that."
Clearly there wasn't much time for music. He listens mostly to golden-era rappers now because he doesn't want to accidentally lift something from his contemporaries' styles, but he really prefers R&B going back to New Jack Swing. "Christopher Williams, 'don't wake me, I'm dreamin'," he starts singing, reclining in his sleek, new-smelling BMW. "I think a lot so I listen to the smooth shit."
Believing he'd be dead by the time he was in his 20s, he didn't give much thought to the future, though. His first stint in jail when he was in his late teens did little to change that ("It was like a class reunion!") but a series of events surrounding the second time a few years ago shook him.
On the same day he turned himself in for the gun charge, he'd released The Innerprize, which caught a bit of buzz in the neighborhood due to his crew's popularity. While he was in reception, he found out his best friend, who'd been one of the biggest supporters of his music, had been killed. And after the mace incident, Perico was moved to a unit with men all serving decades-long or life sentences and suddenly realized what he'd escaped—so far. Now he had a daughter, responsibilities. He couldn't keep playing with his life when so many others had lost theirs. His cellmate, who was in his 50s, half-jokingly told him that if he saw him come back in, he'd stab him.
Still, his homecoming was bittersweet. His best friend was dead, most of his other close brothers were locked up on long bids, and he found out another partner was strung out on meth. Then the 2014 indictment against the Broadway Gangster Crips went down. As a throng of over a thousand FBI agents descended on the blocks where he'd grown up, he found out that people he'd trusted had turned informants. He still had his daughter, but that was about it.
"Just in that one year, the whole entire dynamic of things changed. My whole crowd was out. Even if I wanted to be in the streets, I got common sense. The people I feel comfortable fucking with is either gone or strung out on drugs," he says. "My back was against the wall. That forced me. That last trip to prison saved me."
The sky looks bruised. Dabbing at his freshly permed ringlets with a paper towel, Perico eases his car through the Blood neighborhood where he almost got killed when he was 14.
"I've never told this story before—well, except to street niggas," he says, launching into a story about wearing a baby blue shirt and not paying attention to where he was going until he looked down a street to see a crowd of Bloods racing toward him. He got out of it by the mercy of an OG.
"I got a wealth of stories and shit that happened that I don't think no other artist in LA, period, can honestly say. I know for a fact," he finishes in a winking tone.
He hangs a left and falls quiet. The air in the car has thickened and by the time Perico parallel parks in front of the shop he owns and operates, So Way Out, it almost has heft. Perico's smile has disappeared, and his eyes are doing panoramic sweeps. No one who's not from the hood understands what it's like to be in the hood.
Whoever was supposed to be manning his store is gone, but a friend wanders up to say hey. His stay is short-lived. "Too many undercovers," he sings out as he leaves. Chatting in the salon earlier, I had asked Perico what his biggest fear is. "Niggas in street not playing fair. They working with the police," he said. "I could walk outside these doors and be dead in five minutes."
It's been almost a year since that very scenario played out right here.
That night he'd been in his studio, getting his hair braided and mixing "Bout It," which he was set to turn in for the soundtrack to the movie Meet the Blacks. He'd left, and when he came back around 3 AM, the assailant pulled up and opened fire.
"I definitely can't believe I came out of that shooting. They had me locked in. Shot so many fucking times, I'm like fuck, I'm finna die. I was waitin' for shit to start hitting me," he says. "I'm not supposed to be living."
Even so, as he says, the pull of his hood is almost irresistible. The hope is that he can be satisfied with taking people there in his music instead.
"If they can listen to your music and you can paint the picture and bring them to it? They naturally fuck with it. Everybody felt like they were walking through Compton with Dre. Snoop shit. Game. YG first album. It bring you to they life," he says. "If I can bring mufuckers to LA, I think they'll fuck with it."
Rebecca Haithcoat is a writer based in LA. Follow her on Twitter.