For a while in 2007 it looked like Freddie Gibbs might become a rap star. He had a development deal with Interscope and a recording budget big enough to buy beats from proven hit makers like Polow da Don, Just Blaze, and the Alchemist. Raised in Gary, Indiana, he’d moved to LA to take his shot, and at 22, Gibbs was by all appearances living every young rapper’s dream.
So when did he realize things weren’t working out? “Um, probably like a month after I signed,” he says. “Like I signed the dotted line and a month later I knew somethin’ wasn’t right because I had the wrong management, I had the wrong A and R, the wrong lawyer.” In October ’07, shortly after the rep responsible for Gibbs’s deal left the label, he was dropped.
By the end of the year, his $30,000 advance running out, Gibbs was reduced to couch surfing in LA. In the past, he says, he’d been a drug dealer and a pimp, and he’d been involved in what he’s called “felonious activity” while playing football for Ball State, which helped get him kicked out of school. After his major-label hopes collapsed, he says, “I went through some pitfalls in the street that caused me to not want to rhyme and not want to fuck with the industry anymore. But I had to get past that and get back in the lab, you know?” He still owned the beats his record-company money had bought him, and he couldn’t let them go to waste. “I wasn’t gonna squander my opportunity. I had to make the most of what I had.”
Last summer Gibbs dropped a pair of album-length mix tapes—The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and Midwestgangstabox-framecadillacmuzik—that used some of those beats, as well as newer material from smaller producers, as a backdrop for verite street stories, declarations of his devotion to his hustle, and lyrics about the ups and downs of his LA experience. The two collections stirred up a huge buzz in hip-hop circles, and in short order gushing reviews from outlets like Pitchfork and the Fader broke him to an audience beyond the rap world. In October critic Sasha Frere-Jones discussed Gibbs alongside Jay-Z and Raekwon in the New Yorker, calling him “the one rapper I would put money on right now.”
Gibbs’s story isn’t unusual—declining sales have forced roster reductions at all the major labels—except for the fact that most artists who sink into a slump after getting dropped never come out of it. It may have helped that at the beginning he fell into rap rather than seeking it out—he says he frequently sold drugs to producers and musicians, and that those connections presented an alternative to what he calls “boredom” with the streets. “I’m just tired, you know, of the same old things,” he says. “Lot of my homies bein’ murdered every day. A lot of my homies going to jail every day. I kinda wanted to break that cycle, you know what I mean? I really didn’t want that for myself, so I needed something to exert that extra energy and that extra tension that I was dealing with. A lot of those circumstances I made on my own, I made ’em myself. And this is all about growin’ up and bumpin’ your head and learnin’ better, you know?”
Gibbs isn’t the first hustler to make the transition from the streets to the studio, or even from the studio back to the streets. But Miseducation, Midwestgangsta, and his upcoming EP Str8 Killa (due August 3 from Decon Records) all suggest that the proper place for him is in front of a microphone. As a stylist he’s conservative—while rappers like Drake, Kid Cudi, and Jay Elec-tronica have found success rhyming about their eccentric selves over every-thing from indie rock to dubstep, Gibbs sticks to the gangsta-rap template of stoned-slow, trunk-rattling beats and cold-blooded thug-life narratives, which has evolved only marginally over the past two decades or so. Amazingly, he finds new life in it.
Part of what makes Gibbs special is his talent for connecting the dots between regional variants of gangsta rap, combining syrupy Houston flow and the tricky double-time cadences popular both in the midwest (Twista, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) and in OutKast’s Atlanta. But his greatest asset is his presence. Even when he’s just rapping about smoking weed and cruising in a sweet car, like on “Boxframe Cadillac” from Midwestgangsta, his baritone voice and clipped enunciation give his syllables an almost palpable physical weight. And when he takes on more serious subject matter, on tracks like Str8 Killa‘s “National Anthem (Fuck the World),” shit gets seriously heavy.
“I don’t think I rap like anybody else,” he says. “I don’t think that my whole album’s like anybody else, you know what I mean? I’m not walking around with 35 chains on my neck. I don’t need to do that. You know what I mean? Because I know who I am.”
Gibbs isn’t quite the kind of self-promoter the current climate seems to encourage. He has a MySpace page, he’s on Facebook, and he maintains a Twitter account, but he’s not too outgoing about any of it—he seems standoffish compared to attention-seeking rappers like Diddy and N.O.R.E., who seem to tweet every five minutes. He’s also almost entirely unflossy, a rarity in the hypermaterialistic universe of gangsta rap. “Everybody does the same type of shit. They put big booty all over they video, money flyin’ around, and shit like that,” he says. “I mean, that’s cool, I’m not knockin’ it. I may do a video like that real soon, but at the same time I feel the need to be different.”
The music business has been so completely upended over the past decade that the traditional path to success—the one Gibbs set foot on when he signed to Interscope—only barely exists anymore. The new rules say that to break out an artist needs a strong social-media presence and a constant stream of releases, so as not to fall victim to the listening public’s presumably infinitesimal attention span. Gibbs doesn’t play that game. When he feels like he has something worth putting out—the title of Str8 Killa No Filla, a mix-tape companion to his new EP that he’s releasing via XXL magazine on July 29, could be his professional credo—he puts it out. He might be the only rapper on the verge of mass popularity right now who’s gotten there on the strength of his talent alone. He’s not asking for your attention. His music demands it.