Freddie Gibbs Might Blow Up, But He Won't Go Pop
Freddie Gibbs' Grammy nomination feels like a shotgun wedding, a rushed gala out of nowhere between him and the major music biz he once denounced. His growth, however, has been a slow build, the result of wise collaboration choices and an ability to rise to those occasions.
Last year's Alfredo was an audacious album that flouted mainstream acceptance, which is why its nod for best rap album came with some surprise. Far from a commercial project, both in reception and sound, Alfredo's neither club or radio friendly. It featured stellar guest appearances and glowing sample palettes, anchored by an easy harmony between Gibbs and every beat he attacked. The production is entirely Alchemist, whose quiet influence on modern rap is finally starting to register despite prized work and decades in the field. Gibbs and Alc had paired together prior, but this is the first nomination for both. "I always wanted to take my mother to the Grammys and now I will," says Gibbs, who turns 39 this year. "Look, we don't make music to get nominated, so to hear that they're into it means a lot."
In 2006, a fallout with Interscope Records made Gibbs lean into the indie scene that not only clicked with his DIY ethos but was also privy to his talents. Technically proficient, Gibbs was also versatile, injecting hard truths into easily digestible rhymes. His rise from self-released mixtapes to international festival stages is nothing less than hard-earned. "I was young with the Interscope thing," he says. "That was kind of my first year of rapping. I wouldn't trade the success I have now for the success I would've had then, if that makes sense. I'd rather have my Grammy now."
Less than a decade later, his career arc shifted with two enthralling projects: 2014's Piñata and its follow-up, Bandana, in 2019. Helmed by Madlib — the seldom seen, utmost revered maestro — both albums were marked by sonics unheard in Gibbs' previous efforts: slower, contemplative backdrops where his percussive delivery ran amok, at times wildly sputtering but always tethered to the pocket. "Those projects really cemented my career," he says. "I feel like everything up until then was mixtape s*** and people thought of me as just a good underground rapper who did dope features."
Gibbs has the noble distinction as the second person from Gary, Ind., to be nominated for a best album Grammy (Michael Jackson was the first). He now lives in the Hollywood Hills where his ascent is not lost on him. "I'm from 17th Ave and Virginia Street. Google it. You'll see the neighborhood I'm from and where I live now, it's a 180." With an increasing focus on acting, he's also at home again with a major label, this time Warner Records.
While he still refers to himself as "Gangsta Gibbs," it's evident on newer songs that there's a broadened perspective. In between lines about Pyrex and kilos, there's introspection about family and religion, an attentiveness to more meaningful subjects. Gibbs also recently covered Gil Scott-Heron's powerful "Winter in America" (produced by Leon Michels) as part of the Black History Always—Music For The Movement Vol. 2 compilation. We're getting familiar with Freddie Gibbs, but as his decade-plus career goes into overdrive, we wanted to know: Who's Fredrick Tipton? Here he discusses his origins, his family, his religion, his art and what's next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
David Ma, NPR Music: Take us back to Gary, Ind. Tell us a bit about your hometown.
Freddie Gibbs: Gary is blue collar, a small town, impoverished. Lots of bad economical problems. Issues with the public school system. Where we was from, the motherf****** next door was smoking crack and the other motherf****** next door on the other side was selling crack. All of that. I always thought that to persevere from Gary you have to be a certain kind of person.
That leads to my next question. Is Freddie Gibbs a character? Maybe what I mean is, how much are you like the person in your songs? In what ways has that perhaps changed and why?
I am Freddie Gibbs a lot of the times, mostly during the day because I have to be that for work and business. Whatever that image may be or what people think it is, I do take breaks from that, especially when I'm with the kids. There was a time in my life when I was that dude 24/7. Having a family provides a different inspiration. You're doing things for a bigger purpose and not just yourself anymore.
You mentioned kids. Take us back to when you were a kid yourself. What are some earliest examples of rap do you remember hearing? Share a bit about your upbringing and how it might've influenced you.
I probably heard Too $hort and Scarface first early on. My mom was the oldest sister in our family and she had me when she was twenty. So her brothers were only like thirteen, fourteen. My youngest uncle was eight when I was born, so he's more like a big brother than an uncle. I'm the little brother of the household, so whatever they was into, I was, too. My introduction to hip-hop was the street s***. That's what I saw and experienced as a child. So when I heard that gangsta s***, it was music that spoke to me.
In your own songs, you've talked about Islam. And while you don't bring up religion too much, your lyrics do mention being Muslim. Are you a religious person?
I'm not a huge fan of any organized religion. However religion works for anyone else is fine by me. Islam is a personal relationship between myself and God. I just try to take whatever I get from that and apply it to my life. I don't believe in preaching to people. I believe that when your time comes, it's your time, and that's already been written. I don't believe in worshipping too much. My relationship with God is my belief in Islam, but I'm not a flag waver for any religion. I have my doubts about all religion, especially the men in those religions. I chose Islam because I honestly didn't have too much faith in the Black church. I don't agree with all Black leaders, but I do take insight from some of them and try to implement that wisdom for myself.
You've been on an incredible run and these recent projects seemed to have struck a chord. Do you think all the years in between had anything to do with it? How do you think you've aged as a rapper? Tell us about your working process.
I'm more thoughtful about everything now, which is definitely different from back in the day. I'm definitely better with age. I don't write anything down because I feel like it interferes with the recital of the actual rap. I don't want to be holding a piece of paper in front of me when I'm rapping. I want to just know it. If I need to, I'll re-listen to something for hours and hours. I think about how I am going to rap more so than what I am going to rap. My delivery is most important.
Having been in the music industry for a good amount of time now, with some ebbs and flows, what have been some of your takeaways?
In music, especially rap, you have white executives exploiting us and having us just make s*** that will run up their streaming numbers. It's not about the quality anymore, it's about quantity. "Hey, drop three albums in a year," is what they'll tell you. It's like a goddamn slave plantation. They work you and they work you and when you can't work anymore, they get the next guy. I tell people all the time these execs aren't even into music, they're more like Wall Street dudes. Oh, you killed someone? They'll sign you because you're on the run for murder and now people are looking at you. They don't care about the actual music.
Well, now you're on a major again, working with Warner. What made you return? How does it feel? How is it different this time?
It was just the first time I felt I fit into a label. I love Warner. For me, it can be any kind of building, I don't care what the sign says. It's all about the people inside the building. I love Aaron [Bay-Schuck]. It's good to have a young president that you can bounce ideas off of. I can call the label head on the phone, or text him anytime, and he's always available. The people at Warner are people I like and that's why it has been working.
That brings us to Alfredo with you and Alc. It was very much anticipated by rap fans with huge expectations. Tell us what your mind state was going into it.
I knew it would go far as soon as Alc showed me the beats. Everybody's just trying to make that melodic Atlanta type of rap and get on the radio. I just want to make the best music I can make. I don't really give a f*** about hip-hop or none of that s*** either. I don't want people to think I'm all about that "real hip-hop" s***. I hate all those motherf******. I don't do this for "real hip-hop." I also don't do this for "the streets." I don't give a f*** about the streets. I come from the motherf****** streets. I do this s*** because I make what I like to make and if you f*** with it than you f*** with it.
Even though everyone probably has asked, how does this whole Grammy thing feel? I'm surprised to hear you're into this type of validation.
I'm just glad they invited me to the party. I've been saying from the jump: Alfredo is the best. Not to say other dope albums weren't made, but I think I delivered and rapped the best. Hopefully, we win it. We made the best album.
What an incredible career moment this is, congrats. Tell us where you see yourself in a few years.
I want to add another classic to the discography. Make some dope singles. That's what I'm doing with Warner. I feel like this was my best year, but I didn't get to perform any of the music. I have a lot of music for when the world opens up. I just shot a movie; can't say much, but that's coming. Acting, doing a lot more auditions. I want to be in film or a regular in a series, God willing. The other transition is getting more into the executive phase of my career, supporting artists that I like. I'm definitely not gonna rap forever.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.