Freddie Gibbs says if it weren’t for music he’d “probably be dead or in jail.” The gangsta rapper has earned praise for his bleak portrayal of crime and poverty. In a genre that’s been riddled with tired clichés to the point of self-parody, Gibbs’ uncompromising rhymes are refreshing; a reflection of reality from a former gangster who’s not so far removed from the drama on the streets of his hometown of Gary, Indiana.
Gibbs says he draws inspiration from all around him – “Personal experiences, the streets, the drugs, the women, my friends’ experiences, my experiences. My music is pretty life-based, you know what I mean? I really don’t know where it comes from – sometimes it’s sad, and sometimes it’s fun.”
When I call Gibbs he’s in Los Angeles, “just chillin’ at my crib, smoking a blunt.” Life wasn’t always so sweet for the 31-year-old rapper. He describes his hometown as a place where options were limited.
“It was a trap, you know? Gary, Indiana is an impoverished place – lot of drugs, lot of crime, lot of murder. You gotta find a way out of it, and I found my way out of it through the music. And that’s how I’m gonna continue to give back to it.”
“The streets is sports,” he says with a wry chuckle, and goes on to explain how he means this both literally and figuratively.
“To be honest, I was just into sports – playing baseball, basketball, football… That’s kind of how you build the camaraderie around, and then in the early and mid-adolescence that’s when the gangbanging starts. And once the gangbanging starts, once you don’t give a fuck about your neighbourhood, but you like to be a part of it, then that shit comes after the drug lord, you know what I mean? Because it’s something that you think you lack or something that you think you need or want. Then sometimes a person will be driven to do things that they normally wouldn’t do. I’ve been in some shit where peer pressure maybe got the best of me. I wanted the things that I couldn’t attain – material, you know?”
Gibbs was drawn into the criminal lifestyle during his early adolescence. “Teenage years, maybe 14 or 15, but it becomes even more hardcore as you grow, you know? You get into different things [at] 18 – more of the robberies … a lot of things, you know? The crime intensifies as you go. The more you did, the more drastic you get, the crazier you’ll get to get what you want.”
Gibbs started rapping relatively late, when he was 20, discovering his talent almost incidentally whilst hanging out at a friend’s recording studio. This discovery couldn’t have come a moment sooner – Gibbs’ life for the two decades prior was tumultuous. His attempts to escape the gang life prior to rapping led him into a series of misadventures.
“I did a lot of stupid shit in my life, you know what I mean? I dropped out of college, I got kicked out of the army, I didn’t really have no way to make money aside from like a bullshit job, and I knew I wasn’t gonna do that for the rest of my life so I just found a hobby, and the hobby turned into my job”.
The army seems like an odd place for Gibbs. “I got kicked out for smoking weed and shit,” he explains.
“I went on a court order, the judge made me. I didn’t go because I chose to go, I went because I was in trouble and it was a way out.”
After the military option was exhausted, Gibbs didn’t fancy a regular job. “Uh-uh, not my style. I ain’t knockin’ nobody that do it, because you need people to do those nine-to-five jobs, I just felt like there was something else out there for me.”
That something else has led to a prolific series of hard-as-nails mixtapes that have made him a darling of the underground, earning widespread acclaim for his nimble, rapid-fire flow and dark poetry. When The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones announced in 2009 that hip hop was dead, he cited Gibbs as one of the few who might save it. Most recently Gibbs has been collaborating with Madlib – the eclectic crate-digging producer whose jazzy, blunted style is a new feel for the rapper. Gibbs says the collaboration came about through “mutual friends and mutual respect.”
Although Gibbs’ gangsterism is based in reality, he’s surprisingly magnanimous about commercial rappers who may be perceived as less authentic. “I think rap is really mostly normal guys, you know; they’re good kids. The J. Coles, the Big Seans, the Wiz Khalifas, the Kendrick Lamars of the world that are running the rap game right now, I think they’re pretty much gangstas so to speak. I think most of them are pretty much being themselves and not trying to act like something that they’re not.
“I think rap has totally changed from the ’90s. In the ’90s, I think there was a time when everybody had to be hard, everyone had to have a gun – nowadays that’s not needed. Like, with me, I don’t speak the hard shit for show, you know? This is really what I’m about.”
“There was a time when a whole lot of people made gangsta rap and that was probably because that was the trend. It’s like you’ve got guys who are trying things now because they’re trendy, that they normally wouldn’t do.”
“I don’t think gangsta rap is dead because that’s the type of rap I make,” he says.
“I don’t make it for the kids, you know what I mean? If your kids listen to it… I want you to hide this shit from your kids.”
BY ADAM BLACK