Kendrick Lamar (@Kendrick_Lamar) should not be here. The 24 year old rapper comes from one of the most notorious hoods in America; Compton, California. And like many hood citizens around the country he grew up having numerous “But I JUST seen him yesterday…” conversations. Death was common around his way. As if the true stories of Compton’s streets weren’t enough it’s also the home of some of gangsta rap’s most notable voices. As the stomping grounds of NWA, Compton’s Most Wanted, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Quik, Compton’s tales on wax are a creative shadow that’s uneasy to avoid. So how the hell does an MC who doesn’t want to chalk up bodies on wax make it? He laces his up his Chuck Taylors and gets to work.
After gaining attention as a teenager with his first mixtape Youngest Head Nigga In Charge under his first rap pseudonym K. Dot, Kendrick found himself inking a deal with Top Dawg Entertainment. With his Top Dawg team behind him he hit the road and the internet. Opening slots on tour with E-40 and Tech N9ne and a steady stream of viral music and videos helped build a buzz for his around the way everyman point of view. And that point of view has some hailing him as the New West’s Nas. He has built a following by doing something a lot of rappers are scared to do; being himself. He explains “I think once people believe you. Not just your music, but you as a person and an artist, that’s what really takes you over the top. You have to get out there and make these people feel you.” His is an approach that didn’t go unnoticed. He earned a spot as one of XXL’s Freshmen and relationship with one the G.O.A.T.’s in the game. Kendrick got a call from Dr. Dre to be a part of Dre’s much delayed Detox album. Working with one of the best can be a lot to deal with but for him it seems to be another day at the office.
Just three days after his birthday he’s the picture of calm. Direct, straight forward and with a tone of sincerity the former “Little Kendrick” seemed poised for the attention that his new work is bringing his way. His new mixtape Section 80 is one of the more anticipated works of the year in Hip Hop. It’s latest single the J. Cole produced “HIIIPower” has made the jump to rotation on LA’s Hip Hop monster Power 106 and snatched him a spot on the station’s big summer Powerhouse concert. Kendrick sat with us in the back room of sneaker shop Laced Boston before his Society Clothing sponsored in-store to talk about his city’s musical legacy, living a purpose filed life and what it’s like to be compared to a legend.
G. Valentino Ball: You have a creative approach that most people would assume that you wouldn’t because you’re from Compton. Has that been a road block or something that has worked to your advantage? Kendrick Lamar: It definitely hasn’t been a roadblock. At the end of the day I’m just doing me. I’m not trying to please what other people think. I’m Kendrick Lamar, a 24 year old man from Compton that’s seen it all and done it all. Its me. It’s a whole other story that I’m trying to put out to the world that no one hasn’t heard before from Compton. With Compton there has always been a negative stigma. I never feel like I have to venture into that negative stigma because there is much more than that.
G. Valentino Ball: What’s the story that you’re bringing to the forefront? Kendrick Lamar: I’m not glorifying the culture of violence or gangs. What I’m doing is putting reason behind it. It’s a story that my homeboys can’t tell because they don’t do music. The story of a good kid in a mad city. I feel at the end of the day we are all good people at heart. All my homeboys that fell victim they all was good people, it’s just that ignorance is bliss. The people that were around them didn’t teach them the morals that I had. The fact that I actually had a father. They didn’t have older people in their lives to say don’t do that. I still went out there and bumped my head but my Pops was always right there to say “I told you”. They didn’t have that.
G. Valentino Ball: So if the NWA’s and the Ice Cubes told the story of the gangbanger, sounds like you’re telling the story of the other people in the neighborhood. Kendrick Lamar: Exactly. It’s crazy because in reality only ten percent are actually real street cats in the world. The other 90% are just like me and you. Born around it their whole life. With family and friends involved and trapped in the middle of it. That was me. That’s how I grew up.
G. Valentino Ball: There have been a couple of Nas comparisons. You been getting that a lot? Kendrick Lamar: All the time. They said that Nas spoke from his project window. We don’t have projects like that in Compton. My analogy to that was that I’m speaking from the curb of my block.
Ignorance Is Bliss
G. Valentino Ball: That’s a lot of pressure. To have people say that you’re like one of the greatest of all time. When you first heard that what was your reaction to it?
Kendrick Lamar: I was overwhelmed cause that’s somebody I looked up to forever. For them to put my name in that light it just lets me know I am doing something right. I don’t really feel pressure. Just lets me know to keep doing it. All I can do is just feed off that motivation and keep doing what I’m doing. But if they put me in that same light, so be it. I’m going to take it and run with it.
G. Valentino Ball: The expectations from the fans seem to be high. Does that ever get to be too much?
Kendrick Lamar: Not really. The music that I’m making is premeditated. I knew it was going to work. I knew putting my story in my music would have everyone relate to it. For me to know I was right just gives me more motivation to keep doing what I’m doing. That the people just want real music and someone they could relate to.
G. Valentino Ball: What made you feel like you were right? What made you confident that you could get the job done?
Kendrick Lamar: What I did was look at all the people I admired. Tupac first of all. Biggie, Jay Z, Nas. And what drew people to these people is that they made people relate to them, some way somehow. It wasn’t just a lot of tight lyrics. It wasn’t just delivery. Each one of them brought people into their lives and made people feel like that were a part of them. That’s something that I wanted to do. I felt like West Coast rap just had the street mentality of gangsta rap and that’s all you knew. I don’t think anyone drew you into them as a person.
G. Valentino Ball: But you aren’t the first person from California to come from that non gangsta view. There have been the Freestyle Fellowships, Souls Of Mischief, Black Eye Peas when they started out. So did you look at any of those groups as inspiration as well?
Kendrick Lamar: I looked at all of them. Definitely. In my life I had the best of both worlds. I just didn’t have the intricate side that my father and mother gave me. I had the street side too. All my cousins and uncles around me were Compton Crips. I got about 20 of them that really were street cats and that really taught me the morals of the street and how to move. I think that’s what separates me. I give you both sides and put them together.
G. Valentino Ball: You talked about your family. What’s their reaction been to your career?
Kendrick Lamar: It’s crazy. They are overly proud. They are really amazed at the game that they game me and how I flipped it into music. I made it a part of my life without taking the iniattive to do exactly what they were doing. That’s what really fucks them up.
G. Valentino Ball: So what was the reaction when you said you would be working with Dr. Dre?
Kendrick Lamar: I had to write them cause they are locked up. They were like “I knew it. Grandma always said you were going to be the one to make our family proud. That’s why we protected you. We knew you were the one.” I’m the first person to even graduate out of high school.
G. Valentino Ball: We talked about the pressure of the music industry but how does that feel? Knowing that your family is pinning their hopes on you?
Kendrick Lamar: That’s what keeps me humble and keeps me sane. I do this for a bigger purpose. If I didn’t I would just be selfish. This industry is made for you to be selfish. This whole industry is a fucked up situation but it’s up to the person that’s in it to keep themselves sane and on point. What keeps me on humble ground is my family. In their eyes it’s no stress or pressure because they feel like I already made it. Avoiding negativity to them was success in itself.
G. Valentino Ball: Tell me about this new project #Section80
Kendrick Lamar: I been working on it for the last 6 months. It is music that surrounds my generation. This past year has been crazy to me. Walking in different communities and people come up to me with tears in their eyes saying that songs have saved their lives and stuff. And that’s something that I never thought I would be touching. At first I was just making music, which was selfish at the end of the day. But now I know it serves a bigger purpose than just me. I really just wanted to build off that. Real topics and real concepts that people actually go through. That’s what my music revolves around. And its organic too. It don’t seem forced. Everything I do is from conversations with my friends and getting in depth with their life stories and connecting it with mine. I think that’s why people have been real receptive to it.
G. Valentino Ball: You’re dealing with a completely different music industry then your heroes. What do you think is the key to being successful in this day and age?
Kendrick Lamar: I think once people believe you. Not just your music, but you as a person and an artist, that’s what really takes you over the top. You have to get out there and make these people feel you. Not just feel a hit record. A hit record comes and goes. Once you get that first hit and they like you cuz of that you have to keep making them. And eventually you are not going to keep making them. To navigate through all that, make the people out here feel you. That’s what makes an artist last forever.
G. Valentino Ball: Given that you have worked so hard to have your presence on the net, do you find that you don’t have the backing in the hood?
Kendrick Lamar: Hell naw. I never feel not attached from where I come from. It doesn’t have to be a whole song that sounds like where I come from. It can be a simple phrase that everyone uses in my city and they know that’s me. And they know me. They know me from dribbling the basketball up and down the block all day. They know me from having model cars as a kid. “That’s little Kendrick”. So when I put those things in my music they cant help but fuck with it. Cuz I’m doing me but not forgetting. I love it.
G. Valentino Ball: 5 years from now what are you doing?
Kendrick Lamar: I want to be in a financial state of an Oprah (Laughs). I want to be in peace and comfortable with myself. I see now that the industry can really jade you.
G. Valentino Ball: It seems like the first challenge was navigating to get to this point. Do you feel like that moving through the industry is your next challenge?
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah. 5 years from now I pray that I have the same inner peace that I have now. Cause this thing pulls you.
G. Valentino Ball: You are getting in situations where things keep getting bigger and bigger.
Kendrick Lamar: How I look at it is, I can’t slack. It makes me work even harder. I feel like I can’t let this slide pass. If I do I let everything that everyone put into me down. And that’s a waste. That’s selfish.
G. Valentino Ball: Now the question is about the album. Whats it like? Whats it going to be? Who’s it going to be with?
Kendrick Lamar: #Sectiion80 is a warm up for the album. After this drops then that’s the focus. I don’t know where it’s going to end up but its going to be an official album….
G. Valentino Ball: Hold up. Stop. I find it hard to believe that you handle your career so well and have NO idea where the album will be. You got an idea of where it’s going to be. (laughs)
Kendrick Lamar: (Laughs)
G. Valentino Ball: Put it like this. Is the list long or is there really just one person who you are thinking of rocking with?
Kendrick Lamar: It was long during 2010. Real long. Now we have narrowed it down to one.
G. Valentino Ball: One person. And I can get that exclusive?
Kendrick Lamar: (Laughs) naw man. Can’t do it.
G. Valentino Ball: C’mon man. How about this? Could it be someone with a doctorate?
Kendrick Lamar: (Laughs) That’s a good one. I ain’t never heard anyone ask like that before. I don’t know man. It could be a few people. But it is narrowed down to one. After going through meetings and all that at 18, I told my team I never wanted to sign to a major unless it was the right one. I want anyone we work with to recognize what we are doing already and feed off that.