It's unusual for a 19-year-old rapper's debut mixtape to arrive with any anticipation surrounding it (10 friends spamming a hashtag on Twitter don't count), let alone for it to be an event that everyone from Chicago teenagers to record label scouts to Drake is looking forward to. But Chicago rapper Lil Bibby's Free Crack, which was released at the end of November, was the rare exception; a project that made the “free” price tag its title promised actually seem like a deal.
Hailing from Chicago's East Side (the part of the far South Side, east of State Street), Bibby, whose real name is Brandon Dickinson, began to gain attention last year for brutally hard but lyrically deft songs like “Kill Shit” and “My Hood,” recorded with longtime friend and go-to collaborator Lil Herb. With his youthful appearance, Bibby was immediately disarming and captivating, delivering blunt, matter-of-fact street lyrics in a raspy voice that was the perfect match for Herb's high-octane, syllable-obsessed spaz-outs.
The pair were already promoting their solo mixtapes, Welcome to Fazoland and Free Crack, but the promised release dates kept getting pushed back, even as the rappers continued to put out a steady stream of mp3s, guest verses and music videos (an unofficial compilation of loose tracks, Heir Apparents, was released by Chicago hip-hop blog Fakeshoredrive in May). Over the summer, the duo got a major co-sign from Drake, who reached out on Twitter and later mentioned listening to them while promoting Nothing Was The Same. Other industry looks followed, and Bibby found himself under considerable scrutiny as he prepared his release.
Free Crack lives up to, and exceeds, the hype. It's a polished, thought-out release that, as intended, finds a way to make blustering street talk broadly appealing and demonstrates sophisticated songwriting talent. Bibby's lyrics are straightforward: his lines are often standalone thoughts, truisms and narrative glimpses that seemingly just happen to be part of carefully written multi-syllable rhymes (e.g. “Day dreaming/Stay scheming/I don't want to live a life with no meaning”). He cites Jadakiss and Drake as two of his favorite rappers, and it's easy to see the influence of both in his grimy realism, swaggering directness and considered use of his voice. Songs like “Water” and “Bibby Story” coast with easy bravado and the occasional moment of emotional vulnerability, while “Whole Crew” is a masterpiece of stomping, “don't fuck with us” energy. You'll feel 14 thousand percent cooler listening to it in any situation.
It's a promising start for a young artist and an indication Lil Bibby could have a long career ahead of him. He stopped by the Noisey offices to talk about how the mixtape finally came together, discussed growing up in a rough neighborhood and explained the unlikely technology that launched his rap career.
You're from the East Side of Chicago, around 79th Street. How would you describe your neighborhood?
Somewhere you don't want to be around. (laughs) If you don't know nobody don't come over there. And if you know the wrong guy – I don't know how to explain it. It's just not a place for...
For casual tourism.
Yeah, yeah. If you ain't from my hood don't come around.
Have you lived there your whole life?
Yeah, since I was like five years old.
What was it like growing up there, like when you were little, living in a neighborhood like that?
I used to play basketball when I was little. I just knew all the older guys and stuff so they used to just be--they used to mess with me because I was real good at basketball.
Is that where your name comes from, like Mike Bibby?
Yeah, yeah. I got that jump shot. People called me Bibby. One of my dead homies—his name Fazon—he just used to call me that a lot, so I just ran with it. And then everybody started calling me that.
Fazon, is that where "Fazoland" comes from?
Yeah. In Chicago that's what we do. Like when somebody dies—not just anybody, but when somebody important dies—you name the neighborhood or whatever after them.
What was your family like, growing up?
My sister and my mom. I don't know, like, it was crazy. At a young age I always could do anything I wanted. So we was outside all day, all night. Our friends would come over all day. I was just free to do whatever I wanted, so I don't know. I just seen a lot at a young age.
On "Bibby Story" you rapped “everybody gon' relate to it, it's not just no block shit” about your music. What do you think there is about it that everyone can relate to?
I try to make it a little universal. Like I don't say a lot of names in the rap 'cause I know y'all don't know the guys. Or Chicago slang. A lot of people don't know it like that, so I try to make it universal so everybody could understand where I'm coming from. I try to make songs that everybody can relate to, like the "Whole Crew" joint.
Was that part of the reason Free Crack kept getting pushed back? That your audience kept getting broader so you felt like you had to change some things?
Yeah. The audience kept getting broader. Then stuff just kept coming in. Like, calls started coming in, a lot of opportunities, that Drake shit. Drake hit me up. I got scared. (Laughs) He's like, "I'm waiting on the tape." And I'm looking like, "Damn, I’m scared to listen to it."
So you're like, "I've got to make it better for Drake.”
Exactly. 'Cause he's like at the top right now so I was like, "I've got to do something. I've got to fix this shit." And then I just kept making better songs.
What were some of the songs that came in later?
I went to Atlanta and I started with a couple producers. And the songs that came out were "Whole Crew,” "See Me Down,” "Water.” I did a lot of newer joints.
A lot of the tape is Chicago people, though, especially your producer DJ L. Can you tell me a little bit about him?
That's my homie, man. (Laughs) He's a little crazy I guess. Something's wrong with the guy. He's cool though. He's one of my favorite producers. I knew his brother. His brother's from my neighborhood. We used to do a lot of industry beats and just beats we got off the computer. So we linked up with L, and then we just started working from there.
Where would you record?
We did some shit in the closet. Well, most of my tape was done in the closet to tell you the truth. (Laughs) We did a couple songs in L's closet, but it was another studio that we went to. It's not a popular studio. It was like another closet.
Tell me about Lil Herb. How do you guys know each other?
We're from the same neighborhood. I met Herb when I was like—what? 13, 12. So I've known him for like five or seven years.
How did you start rapping together?
We started recording like just on a cell phone. Just recording vocals. We had the beat playing, and we would record vocals. And then we just did that one day, and then somebody sent it to one of our homies, like, as a voice recording to their phone. And they just started sending it around, everybody gets to playing the shit, it's everybody's ringer. So we just took it from there. We went to the studio, and we actually recorded some stuff and everybody started liking it.
That's crazy. Do you still have that voice memo?
I don't think so. Somebody probably has it.
Do you feel there's competition with him lyrically? Do you guys egg each other on?
Yeah, yeah, it's always like that. Like on the "Kill Shit" joint, we both wrote our verses to the first half of the beat, and we had to do rock, paper, scissors to see who'd get the first half, 'cause both of ours were to the first half. He won, so I had to just record on the second half. That's why my verse probably—to me, it sounds like it's a little off-beat because I had to tweak it.
What is your writing process like? Do you write stuff out? Do you come up with it in the booth?
I do some of everything to tell you the truth. I like to write on my phone. I like to write. I like to write songs, you know? Sometimes I go in the studio and just hear a beat or something, play around with the hook, just like freestyle the hook or something. And it might come out people like it. Sometimes I freestyle, like I do two bars, or probably four bars, four bars, four bars. I do it like that. But most of the time I write.
Did you hear you the Drake song “Too Much?” I know he was listening to you and Herb, and that song kind of borrows your guys' flow.
Yeah, I heard it a little bit. I really didn't pay no attention to it. People just started pointing it out to me. I still don't really hear it like that--everybody else says it—I've got to listen to it a couple more times. But Drake, Drake is cold. He knows how to do that. He knows how to adapt to the newer stuff. Any good writer could do that. That's how you stay relevant.
You just met him a few weeks ago. What was that like? Did you talk to him or was it more of like a quick photo?
Nah, it was nothing like that. Drake is cool, he's a rapper that's cool. These rap guys, I'm going to tell you, I don't really like them, I don’t really mess with them like that. 'Cause they're not the person. They're funny acting, man. But Drake, he's one of the rappers that's cool. Like, Drake is really genuine.
You've worked with a lot of people in Chicago who first broke out a year or two ago, and you're kind of the next wave. Do you feel like people have kind of taken you under their wing at all, like giving you advice at all?
You know how Chicago is, man. There's a lot of hating shit. But a couple of the guys are cool. At the end of the day, it's a competition. Like, I don't know if they're cool, or if they're trying to find out some info, or they're trying to see what's going on with Bibby. I don’t know what to think. But some of the guys is cool. [King] Louie's cool. [Lil] Durk's real cool, Herb, and Fredo [Santana]'s cool.
What is your fan base like right now? What kind of people come out to your shows?
It's crazy, man, 'cause I didn't know I was the man like that. Like when I go to shows, it just be crazy. They all know the words, girls be crying, the guys, everybody salutes. It's like I'm the man already, like I’m a star. But I ain't really did enough yet to be that. I don't know what it is.
What kind of places have you played?
Minnesota, we did a show recently and it was just crazy. All the girls came to our hotel because we couldn’t do the show, so everybody came [to the hotel room]. The promoters were tripping.
In New York we had a show, and A$AP Rocky and them came out and shit. A$AP Rocky, I fuck with them. All of them knew the words and shit, like I didn’t know it was this big.
I had a show in Atlanta. I didn't like that. I was there for the people before me, and the whole crowd was just looking, so when I got on stage I'm thinking like, "They're going to be rocking to my stuff." So they're just looking. I'm looking like, "Oh, man, I'm ready to just run off the stage." Because they wasn't turnt up. They wasn't rocking. They wasn't singing the songs. But then when I got off the stage they're like, "Boy, that was a crazy show.” I'm looking like, "What the fuck? How the fuck was that a crazy show, and your ass was just looking at me?”
Do you feel like it helps to have Herb on stage with you?
Yeah, I like when Herb's on stage 'cause he's just a little hyper—you know Herb. I'm the laid back guy. Herb's hyper, so he gets me in my hyper mode. I feed off that.
You seem like a shyer guy, but obviously if you're a rapper you kind of have to be public. How do you balance that?
I had to learn how to act in front of a camera, how to talk to. I never really was big on the talking, I'm not a people person at all. I really didn't even know how to talk to people, like, not too long ago. And the cameras, I know you could tell. I'm getting better though, everything's getting better.
It's hard being on camera.
Yeah, and then all the attention. I never really was big on the attention thing. I'm just like low-key Bibby. But now this shit forces me to have to talk people, to have to take pictures and all type of shit like that. And just I'll be getting irritated sometimes with that shit. That's why I really don't like going out in Chicago, I can't go out like that.
You have that song, "Tired of Talkin.” was there a specific incident that prompted you to write that?
Nah, that's just me. Like, that's me all the way. I don't like talking to people. I'll be forced to talk to people, like with this rap shit you've got be nice. My manager tells me, "Bibby, you've got to be nice to the people.” I really just won't – I need a security, that's what I'm about. I'm about fucking security telling everybody to move. (Laughs) “Get up, move, move, move.” 'Cause without the security I've got to take pictures, I've got to talk. You know how the guys be, "What's up, boy, I fuck with you.” And I really just be wanting to move through the crowd. I be tired of talking. That song is me all the way.
How do you come up with hooks like that?
The concept is the most important thing in a song to me, so it's got to mean something to me. I don't make songs unless they mean something to me.
So you really think out like how the whole song is going to sound?
Yeah, the hooks come first.
On a song like, "For the Low,” you're talking about crack there.
Weed, crack, uh huh.
Were you selling all that stuff?
You on some police shit, man? (Laughs) I don't lie in my raps. I did a little something, something. I got a couple cases, couple drug cases. I really stopped when I started taking rap serious.
That must be scary. At one point you rap "I almost died at sixteen."
Yeah, that's every day. I got shot at so many times, it's just – I'm lucky. I’m lucky I never even got touched with a bullet. Damn near all my homies got hit somewhere before. Guess God be with me.
Do you feel like that's something you're able to get out of now with the music?
When I'm in Chicago, my head's got to be up at all times. Like my homies, they're crazy. And then, people know like, "Bibby's got a little money now." Motherfuckers'll risk their life for a couple thousand.
You say in your lyrics that your music isn't drill or bop, which are kind of the two music things that people associate with Chicago. What do you think makes your music different from drill or bop music?
That ain't all I talk about. I don't talk about killing and shooting all the damn time. I like to make shit about shit I'm going through. That's how I make songs. If I ain't feeling no type of way, I can't make a song.
So it's more emotional for you? Or just conceptual?
Kind of both. When I made “Stressing,” man, I was going crazy in the crib.
What was happening?
You know how this rough stuff be. Everybody's acting different. You've got to get used to the shit. Shit changes so quick.
Can you bop? Can you dance at all like that?
Nah. (Laughs) I'm half white, you see.
Kyle Kramer can bop, we think. Find him on Twitter - @KyleKramer