Kendrick Lamar / Stills from Noisey Bompton
When we met Kendrick Lamar, he was coming off the promotional cycle for his latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and he was easily the most talked about rapper in the world. We sat down with him in the backyard of his friend's mom's house in Compton. When he showed up, he was immediately flanked by childhood friends like Lil L and G. Weed, who had come by to see him. You can see many of these guys in videos like "King Kunta" and in the album art on To Pimp a Butterfly, as well as in Noisey Bompton, the documentary we were there to film.
After the interview, we bought Mexican corn smothered in mayonnaise and cotija cheese from a street vendor. Kendrick Lamar— arguably the best rapper alive— was wearing socks with sandals, sweatpants, and a plain white undershirt, standing in the middle of the street eating corn on a stick. If you want to talk about authenticity in hip-hop, it doesn't get much more authentic than that.
In the documentary, which you can watch here and which appears tonight on VICELAND at 10 PM EST, we talk to Kendrick about life in Compton; how both his friendships and gang culture have influenced his music; and how he's taking the hood with him, wherever he goes. The extended transcript of that conversation, slightly edited for conciseness and clarity, is below.
Noisey: Thank you for sitting down with us. You're the reason we wanted to come out to Compton.
Kendrick Lamar: I'm glad y'all came by here. Just seeing the lifestyle and the culture of it and what we're trying to do to make it better. A lot of people take it for granted and just want to glorify the negativity of it, not knowing the actual personalities that's in a community. A lot of these dudes got good hearts. They're just in an environment where it's hostile.
I came out here not knowing too much about Compton aside from what I knew from music. It's underreported. And that's like you guys are reporting on the neighborhood. And then meeting guys like L and G-Weed: That's the only way you get to know a neighborhood, by meeting the people who live there.
Yeah, definitely. You know, the biggest misconception is when America looks at these people they think it's all just one personality. As a whole. It's hundreds of personalities. But I think for the most part, you have to be in it to understand these guys' real motives. We don't want to be here all the time. We don't want to be here every day. We want to be out. You feel me? So, when you get certain artists perpetuating the street life activity, 99 percent of the time, we don't really want to hear about it. These cats don't want to hear about it; they tryna get out this motherfucker. And that's why I want to do my music. Period. Not only represent for myself, but represent for these guys out here.
That idea of wanting to get out, do you think that's changing? 'Cause I think Compton seems to be turning over a new leaf. There's this idea of getting out, but there's also this idea of giving back.
When I say "get out," I don't mean get out and forget about where you come from or not being able to give back. Get out as far as the lifestyle. That's what I mean when I say "get out." You can come back every day and show face and spread your love and show something different. But the lifestyle is what separates you. You got some guys that come back and still want to be in the lifestyle and don't appreciate the opportunities they got at hand. Whether it's the music business or whether it's any other type of entertainment. It's really just getting out the lifestyle. That's what it's about.
That's hard when it's so ingrained. A guy like Weed who has been living life a way for so long and now taking a turn doing a bunch of positive stuff. That's hard. I can't imagine making that sort of seismic shift in your life.
Yeah. It's definitely hard because you still have demons. You still have family. Just because Weed's doing something positive doesn't mean he don't have no relatives out here that's still in the streets. If something happened to them, you don't know how he may feel. You don't know how he may react to that. You know what I'm saying? And then that puts you in a sticky situation. It's a lot of mind control. A lot of mind control.
We saw you at the Staples Center. Do you like playing those shows?
The big shows? I love the small shows more. The intimate shows. That's why I like what J. Cole's doing. He be able to go back to doing it whenever he want with the Dollar and a Dream Tour, and I can pop up and get that same energy that I had when Section.80 was out? The big shows is dope, it's cool, but you don't get that energy that you get being right there with your fans.
Does the crew come out every time you come to Compton?
Yeah, ha. Yeah. Haha. I can't hide.
We're at G. Weed's mom's place. Did you come here when you were growing up?
Yeah. Running around all around here. Everything in that stretch from Central to Avalon and San Pedro.
Do you remember when you first met G. Weed?
I think I met him before he met me. Being a young cat and just seein him around doing his thing. And being always with all the older cats that's got the money in they pocket. And that be the guys that you wanna be like. You know what I'm saying? And not only him, a few other cats in my generation.
This was when you were still at Centennial?
Earlier than that. Probably a little younger than that.
When did you meet Lil L?
I met L… L when did I meet you? Third, fourth grade maybe. Fourth grade, Vanguard Learning Center. I wanna say the initial meet up was when we was on the P.E. field and we was doin this thing called "Slap boxing" or "Body" or something like that. It's like punching each other in the chest for no reason. Stupid little kid shit.
What was he like in elementary school then?
Bad as fuck. Haha. Couldn't tell him nothing. Getting into shit. Always getting into something. Always in trouble. Keep it one hundred, he know it too. I can't even sugarcoat it, you know what I'm saying? Always into something. But at the same time he was a good dude. Even at a young age, I always respected the fact that his decision making, as far as morals. Something that's a bit beyond the streets.
At some point you guys kind of took different paths. When did you guys splinter off?
When did me and L splinter off? I think when he started going to jail. When he started really going to jail that's when I started doing the music heavy. It's been a few times. But the last time I actually bumped heads with him, before I put out the Kendrick Lamar EP, I picked him up in the van down Rosecrans. I'm telling him, I'm finna go. This music finna jump off, it's finna crack. You feel me? And he like, "yeah I know bruh, got to do my thing though you know what I'm sayin?" And he hit the jail the next day. He was gone for a little second and right when he was doin that, doing that time, that tape took off. That's why I put so much pride in… doing the music, showing him the positive light. 'Cause if I wasn't doin the music I'd probably be in that cell right with him.
Did you feel the temptation to head in that direction at any point?
Yeah all the time. I mean it's around you. It's not even something you can escape. You're around these guys every day, since elementary, since grade school. You're going be influenced by them the same way they're going to be influenced by me. Period. Just like that. And whatever they get into, if I'm around them, I got to get into it too. It's just the code of it. He fight, I got to fight. You feel what I'm sayin? He getting rushed, he getting jumped? I got to get rushed. As simple as that. And whatever action or reaction that comes behind that, that's just how it is. It just so happens, I had the music. And I was full force with it. And they gave me the type of energy to say, you know what? Continue, keep pushing with the music 100 percent. Seeing the potential in me before I even got to see it.
Is that why you wanted to give money to Centennial? To sort of steer kids in a similar direction? I know that you gave like $50,000 to Centennial.
Man how y'all know that info?
'Cause we were there. We were with the jazz band.
I mean me doing that is just off the morals of my heart. You feel me? That was nothing I wanted to put out in the papers or what not. Just wanted to do that. Period. Just off the simple fact that I wish I could've had that type of feeling when I was in school. I wish my favorite artist could have came to the school and not even shoot no dollars, just talk to me. That's something I always wanted. I wanted my favorite rapper to come there. So the little bit I can do, I'ma do that. Plus more.
You started writing when you were at Centennial. How'd you start getting into poetry?
It had to go back before Centennial. Vanguard Learning Center. Seventh grade. I always tell a story: My teacher, Mr. E, he had a lot of poetry in his class as far as homework assignments and things like that. I started writing then. And eventually it turned to rap just because it was in the house, so it was something I was familiar with. I learned how to put the words together on a beat rather than just making me feel good on a sheet of paper.
Do you feel like cultivated that when you were in high school? What was that time at Centennial like for you?
Yeah, I cultivated that in high school because there were a lot of freestyle sessions. And things like that. That's when I wanted to do my mixtape and really started indulging into the culture of hip hop music. It started to become an even bigger passion, especially around the campus. At Centennial I think I was fair enough of a cool guy that people knew. They respected me on the mic, but they also respected me on being a cool cat. You feel what I'm saying? I'd just stay to myself. I made my own rules as far as how I like to move.
Was that hard when you have such a big, tight knit community here, deciding sometimes to keep to yourself?
It is hard. But people respect you as a man first. They can identify with that first. And knowing that you ain't no crash dummy, that's even more respected. And knowing that you're trying do something that takes a little bit more focus. That's even more respected. And also when you have people around you that actually respect your talent and see something in you, they give you that extra push when you're fucking up. When you want to go back and when you want to hang out and when you want to do this other shit. They give you that. And I'm fortunate enough to have individuals like that around me growing up. To see the potential in me before I even saw it.
Who were those individuals?
L was an individual. For sure. His brother was an individual: "Stay in the studio man. Stay in the studio. Stay in the studio, because it's goin take you places that you can't even imagine." That's when I was 13, 14 years old.
I've heard you tell this story of being saved in the Food 4Less parking lot. That was kind of a come to Jesus moment for you. Can you tell that story?
It was a situation, an altercation that happened. One of the homies got popped. And I can remember being frustrated with a couple of my homeboys. Actually we was coming from Louisiana Chicken. Walking the side parking lot, and this older lady walked up to us and asked us, was we saved? You know we believed in God and everything, but at the same time, we don't know what it means to actually be saved with the blood of Jesus. And all our families and backgrounds come from religious beliefs. But, we quite didn't understand that. When she asked that, we was like, "nah what's that?" She's like, "accepting God and Jesus Christ in your heart." OK, we'll do that. Just because we had respect. even if we didn't know what she was talking about. We do that because we got respect for this elderly lady that sees us down, that sees us ready to kick up some shit. So she blessed us right then and there: "Close your eyes and repeat after me." And it was said and done. And form that moment on, I knew, it's real people out here that really care. Not only for me, not only for what my homeboy's going through, but just for the sake of this generation. Being productive. And having something a little but deeper than a mentality, but morals in your heart. And believing in something other than a pistol.
Kendrick and friends
We went to church in Compton. It was like the most magical experience.
Where'd y'all go?
Greater Zion Baptist Church. It was beautiful, the pastor was amazing. Do you go to church regularly?
When I'm off the road I try to. Yeah, but once I get bumped up on that road it's tough. I think for the most part I stay in touch with a lot of spiritual people that send me text messages or I got to make a call to. And that's what keeps me level headed and respecting the word.
Being out on the road as much as you're out on the road, what sort of toll has that taken on you, like emotionally?
Emotionally being out? For the best part, I got to see the world. Period. That's the great part. you know what I'm saying, when you be trapped inside of Compton for years. Twenty-two years. And moving to get outside of that, that's a whole other vision board. So I loved that. But at the same time the distraction or the hard part would be actually adapting and learning how to be vocal with people outside of your neighborhood. We speak a different lingo over here. I'm sure you hear it. It's different. So when you get across people that's not even black and you're trying to conduct yourself, you feel a little out of touch. You feel a little but out of place. So adapting to that for me was the biggest part in the early stages. Not feeling so insecure because I'm not around the folks that I grew up with or the folks that know me well. Not being so blocked off from the world other than my own community.
I guess there's a bit of culture shock.
It's a huge culture shock. It's a huge culture shock.
Kendrick Lamar brings Lil L out onstage
There's a sense of optimism here in Compton. Do you think things are moving forward?
It is a sense of optimism. It's moving forward in certain directions. I think a lot of kids out here, they recognize the talent and the potential that we all have. I think that's one of the things that can really break down barriers, is the music scene. It's so much talent out here man. It's talent here and it's more kids putting it to use nowadays than it was coming up in the 90s, I believe personally. So I think that's a push forward. And as long as we have talented individuals on the forefront, on the commercial scene showing that we can do it too, that's even better. Aside from how they feel about us with the gang culture, we are all optimistic in what we have in our hearts as far as our ability to speak on something good. Whether it's through music, whether it's through sports, whether it's through our schooling. They don't acknowledge, they don't show them parts though. You know. When that news cut on, all you're hearing about is killing. But you don't hear about the kids out here that are all great in academics. You don't hear about that young cat out here that is pushing his mixtape and bettering himself better than anybody, Jay-Z, Nas, whoever. It's always the negativity, you feel me.
What is it about Compton that's produced so many amazing artists?
I don't know man. It's a trip. It's a trip even more to know there's a lot of artists that aren't even out yet. And they out here and just bubbling and doing they own thing. I really think the struggle though, if anything. Where you come from and what you can do with it, and how to flip it and turn it to something positive. I think it's that. All that we've seen, and all that we've done and flipping that is for granted.
I wanted to talk about the album a little bit. With what's going on. You got to watch Ferguson, you got to watch Baltimore. This stuff. And I felt like the album really spoke to what's happening, but I also think that talking to these guys here, this is stuff that's been going on in Compton forever.
Forever. Forever, bro. Sixteen, I was in two house raids. They didn't care that I was a minor. But they still put their boot in my back and that beam on me. They still did that. It's just the everyday lifestyle. They still pull you over and put you on they hood no matter how old you are. It's always been a war, outside of the gang community.
I think a lot of people looked at the album and said, "oh it's shining a light on this thing that's happening now," but it's—
It's been. All these current events, that's just a coincidence. When I talk on "The Blacker the Berry," that comes from home first. Before any incident it comes from home first. It starts with self first. Start with self-hate in myself, self-hate for other guys roaming around here. It started from the block first.
Another big theme in the album is institutionalized racism, how these institutions affect guys like you and guys in this community.
It's both physically and mental. Putting us in these cages. And when you do that, when you get with these cats in the community full bar numbers and they kids grow up without they fathers, the cycle just continues all over again. So it's not only caging us in the prisons, but up here [points to head] as well. Making us feel like there's no hope. And when you feel like there's no hope, there's not gonna be no action, not in a positive light. So you're gonna always be institutionalized and they'll always make you feel like you can't better yourself, you can't do nothing greater for yourself. And that's even worse than being trapped between walls. To know that up here your son will be thinking the same way. Forever locked up.
I think G. Weed's a good example of a guy who is breaking the cycle. He's working with artists and is trying to do positive shit.
Further than what America would think who he is on paper. Society is a trip. On paper they would think these guys is the corruption of Earth. But be around them and watch your perspective change and watch the type or morals and beliefs they believe in. I guarantee all of these cats out here believe in God and believe in a higher power. Ask every one of them. But nobody's willing to talk to them and ask them about that. They run from it and be scared of it because of what they heard or what they see.
Do you feel like that's kind of your role in this a little bit? At least for someone like me who didn't really know this neighborhood, hearing an album like good kid, m.A.A.d. city or To Pimp a Butterfly, it's a window into a world that I didn't know.
Yeah, it definitely is. And whether I knew it or not, that's what happened. I take that in stride because it lets people on the outside really journey in something different. Further than what you know about the street mentality. Let's flip it. Let me tell my story, let me tell all the stories as I hear it, that's out here, that wanna do something different but can't because you're in an environment where you just got to adapt. Simple as that. I haven't heard that story told too many times, not in this generation at least. And I want to do just that. And what happens is it invites people in to get another perspective. It brings business in and these corporations to the city and not be scared and not feel like we're just some animals. It brings a whole other side of the world, to Compton, to this backyard right here and say, okay, these are actually people. That I can actually physically touch and actually hold a conversation with. On something beyond the streets. And that shocked people. So I'm glad that album did what it did. I'm glad To Pimp a Butterfly is doing what it's doing. Because it's continuing that invitation.
The cover of To Pimp a Butterfly
How did the album art come to be? How did that photo happen?
I want to bring a light as far as, wherever I go, that's where the city is going too. It's several different meanings, but that was the initial meaning. Whether I'm in the White House. Whether I'm in Africa. I want them to see it just like me. All those different personalities like I was talking about in the beginning. I want them to see it.
It was crazy when it came out because we had been here already and we met all those guys, and then we saw that.
It's a hundred percent real. I don't even think I can make music where it's fabricating a story that's not mine. From Compton I could've easily came out and said, "I did this, I did that, I killed a whole bunch of niggas…" Just giving out fact where I'm from. That ain't me. I'd rather talk about my reality. I'd rather talk about something more deep than that. The reasons and the problems and solutions behind it. You hear what I'm saying. So when you hear these stories in good kid, m.A.A.d. city or you hear these stories in To Pimp a Butterfly, it's the backdrop behind it. The resume adds up. It's a little bit deeper than just the music. There's cats out here who are really trying to do something and are really trying to spark the idea of positivity in the community.
Entrepreneurs. Owning they own barber shops. Own businesses. They don't see that, though. They try to pull back from that. That's not on CNN. That's not on the news. Know what I'm saying. It's really a trip. I wish the whole world could come and have a conversation with these guys. And they're going to give you the real deal. You get cats that say, "I'm in the hood, all I know is the hood, I wanna go back to the hood and do this, and do that, and be on the block." They do they cause they got to do that. They don't want to be doing what they're doing. It's not for the luxury. It's the circumstances that be. You know. They want to be in these businesses. Own their own businesses for better. All these cats got kids, man, they don't want their kids seeing the same lifestyle. They want to make it out the lifestyle, come back and give to the kid that don't necessarily see it because they're in it just the same way they used to be in it.
Do you think enough artists who come out of here give back to the community?
Yeah. The main cats is doing it. You could start form the early days of Dre, Quik. Definitely. But it can be done even more on a bigger scale. I have a plan, but it's going to take some time and some development first.
What's the plan, if you don't mind me asking?
Really for the youth, I want to put a hub of YMCAs or just youth centers in general inside the city. Saying, "well we have Boys and Girls Club," is not enough for me. We used to have the Yet Center right in that plaza right there by Food4Less. When I was a kid probably eight, nine years old. That was the one thing that brought a lot of kids together from other communities, was that youth center. And I think it went down for the sake of money issues or what not. But the bigger picture is it destroyed a lot of kids' futures when that went down. We felt some type of way because that was our safe haven sometimes. That was our safe haven when we were tired and stressed out by just being out all day moving around. That was our rest area, that youth center. Running around, ripping and running. We could go over there and talk to counselors and listen to them. We may not be hearing them, but we're going to listen. Because we felt some type of love and respect they had for us.
That's what it comes down to it seems like a lot: Keeping people busy and keeping people active.
Yep. Activities. That's what it's about. Activities and a high level of focus.
Is there anything else you want to talk about? Thank you for talking to me, really.
Every time I try to get certain people from the business to come out here, it's like "let's do it in the Hollywood area" and things like that. Because from the stories they don't want to interact and actually talk to these guys. So I respect you for that. For real.
I feel lucky that we got to do it. I feel like I made friends here. It's a pretty basic thing, of course, when you go to a new place you meet good people.
You'd be shocked how far it'd take you to just having relationships with people outside of the norm that you're even used to. The same way I had to learn. So respect for that.
Zach Goldbaum is the host of NOISEY on VICELAND. Follow him on Twitter.