Freddie Gibbs doesn't understand what's happened to rap. Unapologetically gangsta -- with the criminal record to back it up -- the Gary, Ind., rapper looks around at these sensitive types, fashion bombs and party boys populating contemporary hip-hop. He rants about it, he rhymes about it ("Rap is for ... divas," he raps), he tweets about it. Lordy does he tweet about it. When his feed isn't spewing about the Bears, it's jabbing at other rappers he judges to be inauthentic.
"It's all just corny," Gibbs said during an interview last week from Los Angeles. "It's n----s doing something because the next man is doing it. The way everybody be rapping now -- they say a word, they use this metaphor, talking a lot of bullsh--. Dudes with hairstyles, all kinds of dumb sh-- in rap ... not enough originality. Boys who grew up in the suburbs, talking sh-- about the streets. ... I speak my mind. I'm throwing out shoes. Motherf-----s need to put 'em on and wear 'em."
But Gibbs is no dummy: "Kanye? He's one of the most talented motherf-----s doing it, doing music, period. I'd definitely work with him."
with Shad, Rita J and DJ RTC
♦ 9 p.m. Jan. 14
♦ Metro, 3730 N. Clark
♦ Tickets, $15; (800) 514-ETIX; metrochicago.com
The Tomorrow Never Knows festival begins Wednesday and peaks this weekend, featuring shows at three venues (Lincoln Hall, Metro and Schubas). For a complete schedule, visit the TNK site. Or click here for five must-see acts this week at the fest.
Indeed, while young rappers like Drake top the pop charts and Kanye West has once again raised the bar of what a hip-hop album can achieve, Gibbs, 28, is stubbornly old-school, a gangsta rapper fresh from the mold of Tupac and Biggie and telling tales of hard days on the streets of Gary. He dealt drugs. He took them (he used to sprinkle Oxycontin in his joints). He shot and was shot at. He robbed freight trains.
That's the past, but it's the near past. His rap career just started a few years ago, the result of boredom while dealing drugs out of a friend's recording studio in Gary.
"So I can't say I'm all the way detached from that," Gibbs said. "I'm still on probation [18 months for a gun charge]. I'm still a street dude. ... I walk with God. I'm not worried about nothing. But I've lived a lifestyle that's dangerous, and still could be. I move with respect. I'm not Superman out here [in L.A.]. I watch where I'm at and go places I'm familiar with. I could still die like Tupac."
A daily awareness of something like that is why his raps ring with a rarely heard integrity, even though our conversation was littered with the usual gangsta boasts ("Be sure to print that I'm the greatest rapper of all time"). "Product, I pushed that / I just pray my baby brother don't follow my footsteps," he confesses in "Live by the Game." Gibbs shows up on a new online track, "Field N----Blues," with Mikkey Halsted (including superb piano and production by No I.D.), rapping, "Mama was the mail lady, Daddy was the Po's / secretly they both despised the life that I had chose." On "The Ghetto," from last summer's mixtape "Str8 Killa No Filla," Gibbs tries to distinguish the place from the people.
"The ghetto ain't all negative," Gibbs said. "Just because you're from the ghetto doesn't mean you're a dope dealer or a crackhead. There's a lot of good people in Gary, people from the ghetto who went on to be doctors and lawyers. I want to be a success story from Gary, not just a statistic. This whole project is my quest to redeem myself and do better. It's all an open book."
Naked and honest, maybe, but not lucrative. Gibbs had a shot at traditional commercial success, getting signed to Interscope Records in 2005. But by then, gangstas were passe. Interscope didn't know what to do with him, and Gibbs refused to follow trends. One of his recent singles, "National Anthem (F--- the World)," states his stand:
Never change my style up for any of them, I'm strictly thuggin'
Lotta n----s made a name off banging and hustling but really wasn't
I built my name with no features or some expensive budget
Come from mine, cause I co-sign, can't coincide with the sh--I'm bustin'
Interscope dropped him without so much as a single, but tracks like that and dozens of others have been hot links online for two years. The way Gibbs has put his music out there for fans to discover is one of the reasons he's booked as part of this week's Tomorrow Never Knows, a festival of largely forward-thinking musicians booked through the weekend in three Chicago venues. Gibbs has yet to release a full-length album. In two years, he's thrown out five mixtapes, one EP (last year's crackling "Str8 Killa") and single after single online.
He is, however, at work on a full-length debut, "Baby-Faced Killa," promised later this year (though yet another mixtape, "A Cold Day in Hell," is coming in February). After starting a career on batches and singles, what's he got to say over a whole album?
"This album will be a soundtrack of a day in my life, myself and others from my city," Gibbs said. That "city" is still Gary, even though Gibbs is now based in L.A. "A day in my life is about heartbreak and violence. There's drugs, but there's good times and joy. There's probably some stuff I shouldn't be rapping about, really" -- he laughs -- "but, hey, no apologies."
And what if it doesn't happen? What if he doesn't make a million bucks and start hanging with Kanye in Hawaii? How does he pay his rent without dealing again? I ask this, and Gibbs stops boasting for the first time, ever so briefly. He goes quiet, pensive. He has no idea.
"Well," he says after a brief hesitation, "that's the million-dollar question." Another pause. "I'll figure whatever else I'm good at. If music don't work out -- and I don't see that happening 'cause I'm the dopest and freshest -- I don't know." Another pause, longer. "That's a great f---ing question. I don't know. I just pray every day I'm going in the right direction. I ain't in nobody's jailhouse or nobody's cemetery. That's gotta be good enough."