Talking to a musician can be disappointing. Sometimes, if you’ve listened to enough of their work, the actual person fails the expectations created by records. This can either make you feel duped or make you feel better about yourself (“Hey, so-and-so’s a regular person, just like me!”) but regardless the music will be slightly cheapened. People like to keep up the thin illusion that what’s coming through their headphones is spontaneous creativity (sometimes it is) rather than meticulously refined creativity. It’s quite pleasant to believe that your favourite artist is constantly speaking in poetic lyrics and never has to go to the bathroom.
For his part, Freddie Gibbs did not disappoint. When I called the rapper, our chat was almost exactly how I imagined it would be from listening to his music. Right from the start Gibbs was content to tell me that he was sitting in the studio at his house in L.A., “smoking a blunt.” His voice was the same deep and rusted growl that you can hear on his mixtapes Str8 Killa No Filla or Cold Day In Hell. The charisma, sense of humour and Midwest slang were all present. There was no drop off. This made perfect sense because much of Gibbs’ foundation as a rapper is his authenticity. Throughout his records he makes sure to detail his drug-dealing past in Gary, Indiana (the ‘blackest’ city in America) and proclaim how real his lyrics are. Gibbs has truly lived the street story that every rapper claims for themselves, whether they’ve earned it or not. Of course, a hardened past would mean nothing without talent and Freddie Gibbs has that in abundance; his lyrics, rhyme structures and cadence are impeccable. Gibbs’ ridiculous skills and prolific mixtape work have had his name bubbling for nearly four years, but recently his career took a significant leap. Young Jeezy, no stranger to the pop charts and a genuine gangster in his own right, signed Gibbs to his label CTE and announced plans to release Freddie’s first official album. At the moment there are few musicians with a character as compelling as Freddie Gibbs, and the spitter from Big Ten country made clear to me that his personality would never be cut.
You’ve been called the champion of Midwest hip-hop…
How would you describe the Midwestern sound?
All you have to do is pop my CD in, that’s Midwest gangster rap right there. There’s nobody doing it like I’m doing it where I’m from. There are a lot of copycats where I’m from who try to copy whatever they see on TV, whatever they think is hot to get them to the top. I came in this shit doing me and I’m going to finish it doing me. I’m never going to conform to what everyone else wants; I’m going to make what I deem necessary to make and I think that will be the true expression of where I’m from. The Midwest, we haven’t really put our foot down yet. We haven’t fully established our self as a region. We have some icons; Kanye, Common, Bone Thugs, but from a street side we haven’t been represented to the fullest.
Have any young rappers from the Midwest come to you for advice?
My little homies in Gary do but man, I’m still trying to make my own way in the game. I have no advice to give these young n***as – what am I going to tell these n***as? About selling crack? [laughs] Shit, all I can tell them is do what you gotta do, feed yours, and keep an independent mind state because this rap game is dirty. This pen is the best teacher, man, to keep it 100 with you.
When I first heard that you were signing with Jeezy, at first I thought that it came out left field – I had organized the two of you in separate columns. Were you hesitant to step into that partnership given your musical differences?
Never. Because, I be telling people I’m the most versatile rapper in the game. I’ve got songs with Jeezy, Euro acts, rock bands and I do all that and never step out of my zone. A lot of people try to do that kind of stuff and reinvent themselves every time they do. I keep it gangster on everything I lay down. It lets people know that you don’t have to conform to be tight. I just put out a song with Jeezy and put out a song with MadLib the next week.
What other rappers would you like to collaborate with in the future?
I don’t know man. If a rapper wants to collab with me, I’ll vibe with him but for the most part I don’t be fucking with these rappers, dog. They be some weirdos.
How did the collaboration with (dubstep artist) Joker come about?
That’s what I’m saying, that’s an example of what I’m talking about. It was a dude all the way from the UK who respected what I was doing and I showed mutual respect and we made a record. I’m an easy guy to work with.
Were you a fan of dubstep prior to doing the track?
I’m gonna keep it 100 with you; I don’t fuck with dubstep like that. But if the dubstep world likes the way I rap, I’ll rap on their tracks and we’ll get this money my n***a. I didn’t know what it was until they brought it to my attention. You learn something new every day, that’s all a part of growing musically.
The one criticism of your music, and it’s barely a criticism, is that you’re almost too good at rapping, meaning that your flow is so flawless it’s hard to extract memorable quotes or events within verses. How do you respond to that?
You’ll remember all those quotes when I die though. I don’t understand how somebody could be too good at rapping, that’s crazy. And you’re not the first motherfucker that’s said that. If that’s my only criticism then I’m cool with that. As long as you can’t call me a pussy or say that I rap about something I don’t know about or say I can’t rap. I can rap about what the gangsters rap about and I can rap just like Mos Def if I’ve got to. It ain’t shit to me.
As an artist who benefitted greatly from the Internet, I wanted to hear your opinion of the role of the web in hip-hop specifically. Given the simplicity of creating a rap song on your computer (all you need is a microphone and any instrumental) and the abundance of aspiring rappers do you worry about the genre becoming diluted?
Nah, you can’t dilute that potent shit, like when you’re cooking dope. That potent material will always rise to the top, that bullshit is gonna evaporate. It’s me and a million other rappers fighting for attention. I’m from Gary, Indiana – nobody’s checking for us. I have to make people check for me and that’s always been my mentality.
It’s clear that you take pride in creating cohesive mixtapes that are essentially albums. Do you treat every project like it’s a major release?
Some rappers will use a mixtape to give you some bullshit music but I don’t do that, I’m trying to give you quality every time. My mixtapes are better than most albums.
When did you first think ‘I can rap professionally’ ?
Probably around 20 years old. I knew I could rap better than anyone else in my neighbourhood. I used to hang in my homeboy’s studio and rap, smoke weed, sell weed, sell dope. I used to see everyone that came through, everyone in the city came through that studio. So really I just studied everybody else, studied what they were doing wrong and I was like ‘alright, I think I can do this.’ I spent a lot of time perfecting it. I wasn’t the dude in high school beating on the table, I was trying to get some women. I knew if I was getting into it I wasn’t going to play with it, I was going to do it the correct way.
What artist do you listen to that people would be surprised by?
That’s a good-ass question man. I listen to wide variety of stuff. I don’t listen to silly shit though. I like Weird Al Yankovic. I be bumping Weird Al’s shit, that dude is remixing people’s songs better than the originals.
The Palace Theatre is drawn in on the cover illustration of Cold Day In Hell. The Jackson 5 famously performed at that venue. What inspiration did you take from their success coming out of Gary?
Nothing, to be real. Zilch, nada. You can’t take away what the Jacksons did for black music, but what the Jacksons did didn’t do much for Gary.
I saw that the Big GhostFase blog tweeted at you, calling you a real rapper. That blog takes aim at ‘fake’ rappers, as do you. What is it that bothers you about these rappers? Is it that they’re disingenuous or is it more the music itself?
It’s a lot of the music that I don’t like. There’s a lot of fraudulent stuff going on but that’s been going on in rap forever. I’m not mad at these rappers for being fakeass dudes who know how to rap because they’re feeding their family off that shit. What I don’t like is the street culture getting exploited. If you’re making street rap, pay your dues, do something for the community. Overall I think the quality of rap has gone down. There just aren’t that many rap albums that come out where I think ‘I gotta go buy that’ and that used to be in high abundance when I was younger. Every month it felt like there was something dope coming out from the East or the West or the South, now when you turn the radio on it’s the same five dudes. Even on satellite radio it’s the same five dudes. The game is too fucking corporate, but the way I feel about it; I’m not willing to compromise my art just to get on the radio or to get attention. I’ll be the king of the underground.
Photo credit: Virigl Solis
Freddie Gibbs is currently on tour in Europe and working on several projects, including collaborations with MadLib, Ski Beatz and Alchemist. You can follow him on Twitter @FreddieGibbs. Download Cold Day In Hell here.