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Let Gangsta Gibbs tell it, most people ain’t know not a damn thing about Gary, Indiana, until Michael Jackson passed away. And sources say, MJ — once he became MJ — ain’t know much about it, neither. Be that as it may, Gibbs knows, and he’ll remind you every chance he gets. So the story goes like this…
Fredrick Jamel Tipton was born June 14, 1982. He was raised on the Eastside of Gary to a mother who worked at the post office and a father who fluctuated between jobs and hustles while nurturing his own singing aspirations that never materialized. (At one point, Gibbs’ father was a cop… a dirty one who ended up kicked off the force.) An adolescence in post-Reagan Gary meant becoming well-adjusted to barren landscapes, and even drier promises. It’s a town where everyone knows everyone: shooters, dealers, users, squares. Most murders go unsolved, most jobs lead to dead ends and the police are most likely in on half the bullshit you heard about. If you’re Gibbs, you might even end up robbing trains at one point in your life.
Gary is not the prime environment for dreams, let alone rap dreams. But Gibbs’ father put him onto gangsta rap, his education priming his dedication to the likes of 2Pac, Biggie, Twista, Bone Thugs and Rap-A-Lot, before he ever stumbled into the booth by accident. After watching his father sing in small clubs while struggling to hold it down, young Gibbs had no desire to play with music, let alone the industry attached. (This attitude would follow him throughout his life, but more on that later.) Par for the course for clichés on escaping the hood, Gibbs’ first love was sports, sparked by his father taking him to see the White Sox play as a child. By the time he was a teenager, he played wide receiver and sold dope off the field; by graduation, he got a scholarship to play safety at Ball State.
But the one-foot-in mentality caught Gibbs before the D1 lifestyle even settled in: Once his transgressions put him in real trouble, he got kicked out of Ball State, and returned to Gary. His first chance out led to him falling right back in, causing him to double down on every exploit he could find: dealing, pimping, robbery. He caught his first felony gun possession at 19, and caught a theft charge while the gun charge was pending, leading him to (reluctantly) serve in an Army boot camp at Fort Jackson for a pre-trial diversion to avoid prison. That stint proved short-lived as well: Gibbs was discharged after being caught with weed. When neither classes nor camouflage proved worthy pursuits, Freddie Gibbs was back in Gary once again, the air of certain death proven all too familiar. Should he remain in the trenches fending for his life, his inevitable demise would be fast-tracked for delivery.
Turning back to hustling once again, Gibbs connected with established Gary producer Finger Roll, and started serving out of his studio. Once Gibbs noticed how many of his homies (or randoms) would come through and lay average shit down, Gibbs took a chance and believed he could soar above whomever showed face. A simple place to serve blossomed into a collaborative friendship: Over the next few years, Roll showed Gibbs how to write and record good rap music, causing Gibbs to fall deeper in love with the very craft he had no desire to pursue as a youth. It all paid off sooner than anticipated once the industry came knocking: In 2004, Interscope intern Ben Lambert (or Lambo) brought an early Gibbs tape to the attention of A&Rs Archie Bonkers and Joe “3H” Weinberger. After months of meetings and negotiations across time zones, Gibbs signed to Interscope and relocated to L.A., once again lifting himself from the jaws of Gary on an unlikely adventure toward gangsta rap stardom.
Or so he thought.
After holding his first $30,000 in Interscope advance money, Gibbs took off and started working. Unlike many major-label signees, the Gary in him meant he was already intimately acquainted with the prospect of never waiting for a label to move on your behalf. This wasn’t the time to fuck up, and there were no fallbacks. He skated trouble now and again — gun charges, in Gibbs fashion — but he also amassed an impressive catalog featuring some of the most in-demand producers in the mid-2000s. He matched hardcore hustle with mainstream access, rapping over the sounds of Just Blaze, Polow da Don, DJ Toomp, J.R. Rotem and countless others. He proved he could place the relentless blunt force of his voice on just about any sound the game threw his way, radio or rugged. And in a time when 50 Cent and The Game were going platinum with ease? Surely, Gibbs was next to the throne!
But much like any good artist chasing success within the system, breaking through with talent doesn’t guarantee you’ll fit the shifting times or the agenda of your investors. Once P2P file-sharing networks tapped everyone’s pockets, the labels were playing more scared money than ever before. And, according to the labels, the writing was on the wall: Gangsta shit was phasing out, and a new wave of gentler, more sensitive depictions of Black men were soon to dominate the new era of hip-hop’s popular discourse. (Some called it “emo rap,” others called it much worse names.) After almost two years of pitching Gibbs around the system, everyone passed on him: Eminem and Paul Rosenberg with Shady, Polow da Don with Zone 4, no one could see where to place a skilled street emcee from Gary in the changing waves. Once 3H left Interscope for Warner Bros., Gibbs walked away with no debut album out.
Another setback casting him back into what he knows and pines to leave behind — the next year finds him moving to Atlanta with his then-pregnant girlfriend, leaving rap behind and trying to shake his foundation. The major label dream didn’t work, so the work must move and the hustle must prevail. He takes trips between Gary and Atlanta, moving product and taking fed chances trying to make ends meet and stack to go legit when it’s time. Then a double-up he wasn’t prepared for: His lady miscarries their child, and his grandmother passes on, sending Gibbs deeper into depression and drug abuse. As the odds of corrections or coffin continue to beat on his back, he receives a call from an old friend, the late producer Josh the Goon. Josh encourages Gibbs to give this rap shit another go, no matter what the labels wanted or how the industry moved around him. He moved back to L.A, linked with Lambo and Archie, and got right back to it.
Now, this is where our story begins…
2009 marked the second first life of Freddie Gibbs: discarded by the industry, but driven by the will to win. Unbeknownst to him, being lost in the shuffle of the sea change meant he’d wash ashore at the advent of the blog era. While the industry remained at the mercy of leakers, upcoming artists were slowly shifting toward a hybrid model between the classic jackin’-for-beats mixtape and releasing album-quality music for free. By going directly to consumers with free music, artists could cut through the static whether they needed deals, had deals, were tired of their deals, or never wanted deals. This also prefaced the inevitable tailspin into a digital free-for-all, giving artists the ability to build their cult fandom by tailoring their sounds to service their niches, leaving all outside interaction with the mainstream as an option rather than a necessity. Who needed a radio record when a free download could turn into a ticket sale or a merch purchase?
Ironically, gangsta shit was no longer high on the docket, yet many of Gibbs’ more prominent industry contemporaries grossed millions in the images of hustlers they’ve never been. The people and the press didn’t just love Gibbs for representing the streets, but for his commitment to authenticity in the boldest way. It was time to put the testers out, and try to hook the clients for life. Though Gibbs’ Interscope debut never saw a record store shelf, he parlayed his massive catalog by inciting a mixtape run that’d dazzle the critics, begin building his core, and prayerfully pave the way toward independent money. ’09 saw Gibbs releasing The Labels Tryin’ to Kill Me — a compilation tape of Interscope leftovers and standouts — followed by The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik. This initial trifecta landed Gibbs the adoration of sites like 2dopeboyz, The Smoking Section and Pitchfork, and even a mention in The New Yorker.
2010 gave us the EP that’s our April VMP Hip-Hop record: Str8 Killa, matched digitally by its mixtape companion Str8 Killa No Filla. Released on Decon, it symbolizes the first retail Freddie Gibbs project and an essential piece that kicked off the decade of independent hustle we all know him for. But its mere place in the label catalog doesn’t symbolize another modest advance or exorbitant budget, and there were no extra strings making all the magic happen for this record to do well. It was Gibbs, Lambo and Archie making everything happen with nothing: calling every favor, spending their own money, and letting a good reputation merge with a better work ethic. Months of sweat equity made these 35 minutes possible. If the house money ain’t in the picture, you run your own pockets dry and do whatever to fill them again.
Mind you, there’s one thing Gibbs and company didn’t have to call in a favor for: a slot on the 2010 XXL Freshman List. Gibbs was the only one with no label backing and no rich management to speak of — the music spoke loud enough. This is also the same year he tore down SXSW and played at the Pitchfork Music Festival, taking whatever bread they could get and doing what had to be done. This was all off the internet and touchin’ the people any way they could: one-offs, college shows or festivals fulla yuppies pining for a taste of the other side. There was no craving for an overnight success because Gibbs wasn’t used to having anything handed to him. With enough consistency and an unflinching confidence to bet on himself, these early victories were reinforcement of the proof of concept: reality rap, raw and uncut, by any means necessary.
The music of Str8 Killa, curated by the likes of Block Beattaz, L.A. Riot Music and Beatnick & K-Salaam, among others, guides Gibbs across the era’s reverence for synth-heavy maximalist trap, cut with more reserved, soul-leaning cuts that level the journey out. It’s frantic rider music with a blues inflection, often shifting from cruise control to chase sequence with Gibbs’ attitude matching where it’s headed. While he never loses pace, he’s never pulling a trick to over-impress his listeners; he raps at breakneck pace as if he’s trying to fit as many details as he can per bar, whether he’s lamenting over fucked-up decisions or reveling in the spoils of them. There’s a somber air lingering over every song, pain tucked deep beneath the groove so the music sounds as paranoid as Gibbs. This is an EP of desperation, but our protagonist doesn’t move desperately; it’s more of a fashionable Fuck You to his enemies, his doubters, and the demons that won’t leave him be.
Str8 Killa finds Gibbs far away from the space of having to prove anything to anyone on a technical level. He’s critically revered because his skill set reads almost bulletproof. He’s carrying the Midwest tradition on his shoulders, taking no prisoners as he effortlessly maneuvers through flows and tempos with a signature baritone that can run through beats like a battering ram, and soothe a hustler’s spirit with the right amount of Hennessy present. But where many vocal performers skate by on tactics alone, Gibbs’ pen translates his grimy lifetime into the language of survival. With this work, he makes a succinct effort to establish himself as the official antihero of Gary, Indiana: a real nigga who’s done and seen the worst for a piece of something better than his peoples could offer him. It chronicles moments that could’ve broken him, cutting through the depravity of his reality and dusting off a piece of his heart as an offering.
By the time you read this, Freddie Gibbs, age 38, might have gotten gold at the 2021 Grammys, where his Alchemist-helmed collaborative album Alfredo received a Best Rap Album nomination. He’s bigger than he’s ever been, done sold-out dates worldwide, and made two albums with Madlib… the second of which dropped on a major label! Considering the facts presented here, there are endless combinations for where Gibbs could’ve landed before becoming who he is today. He could’ve stuck to playing safety at Ball State, went to the feds multiple times, followed 3H to Warner, stayed with Jeezy on CTE or ended up dead in a shootout. Or simply caved in and gave up. So when you listen to Str8 Killa, consider that the Kane Train was only made possible by studying the greats, stumbling into his passion and finding the will to persist through every time no one gave a fuck about him.
And take notes for the next time you think of letting your dream die.
Fuck the World.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.
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