Even gangsters have nightmares. Freddie Gibbs is no less haunted by his. Granted, the gravely voiced MC couldn’t sound more fearless or menacing on songs like “Thuggin’,” where he chronicles his days as a teenage drug dealer. But dwelling on those misdeeds can often leave him stricken with insomnia.
“My girl will wake me up, or I’ll wake her up. Violent nightmares, real intense,” the rapper (who hails from Gary, Indiana) says during a recent phone interview. Gibbs then describes his efforts to dream up better scenarios on the mic: “A lot of guys talk about street things, selling drugs, doing this and doing that. But I definitely don’t think they bring it in the positive way that I bring it across.”
And yet, his delivery sounds anything but optimistic on wax. Gibbs isn’t a naïve backpack rapper, spewing lofty, socially conscious rhymes. His ghetto parables are grimmer than any gangsta rapper’s, to the point of thrashing through the genre’s trappings.
Case in point: Gibbs’ lyrics on the aforementioned “Thuggin’,” (from his latest album, Piñata, produced entirely by studio guru Madlib, and released this past April to glowing reviews). On the song’s most compelling verse, Gibbs doesn’t focus on drug dealing or gun totting. Instead, he details how his loved ones succumbed to that environment’s temptations: “My uncle’s last bitch put him on the glass dick / Tried to rob a man to feed his habit, he got blasted.”
Such a frank depiction of his relative’s crack addition is unnerving, to say the least. But most of Gibbs’ hard hitting lines focus on his own missteps. One of Piñata’s highlights is “Bomb,” where he rhymes: “…back when I was 12 I threw some bells on a scale and got a pager / We broke them down and started selling nickels to the neighbors / Eventually the penitentiary gon’ see me later / Kiss my momma, told her if I die, then it was part of nature.”
Lines like that help set him apart. It would have been easy, and all too typical, for him to rhyme about drug money and chic riches. But Gibbs would rather mock himself and the clunky pager he coveted during his gangsta heyday. At the time, he never foresaw himself making light of those prospects on wax.
“I definitely wasn’t thinking about being a rapper then. I was either gonna be a dope dealer or a pro athlete, one of the two,” Gibbs says of his dismal youth.
It was a troubling era, and penning rhymes of his own didn’t yet seem like a suitable solution. But that didn’t stop Gibbs from thumbing through the volumes of more established wordsmiths.
“They used to say if you want to hide something from black people, then put it in a book. So just reading, having a general understanding that you can’t be dumb, that helped me a lot. Because I didn’t want to be where I was at, and I knew I couldn’t be dumb if I wanted to get out of it,” Gibbs says, adding that he still pours over such texts today, and those pages play an integral part in his rhymes. He says history books about slavery and Civil Rights especially inspire him, adding: “Black men in America are so disenfranchised, so I try to learn as much I can about who I am… A lot of black people in this country don’t pay attention to the history of slavery, the consequences of it, the aftermath. We still have that mentality today.”
Gibbs admits that slave mindset dominated his thinking as a boy, back when he thought buying a pager with his drug earnings counted as progress.
“Another thing I’d always see growing up is black people not sticking together, that’s really a slave mentality,” Gibbs says of the gang rivalries that leave neighbourhoods like his in turmoil. “We were first pitted against each other in slavery, taught not to like each other. It’s kinda like we’re inbred, we’re damn near like dogs. The way they turned us against each other and manipulated us, it’s like we were housebroken or some shit. And there’s still that inbred mentality, and we display it willingly.”
Reading up on that history changed Gibbs’ outlook as a boy, making him forget about that all important pager, or the the deals it helped him arrange. Be it chain gangs or street gangs, Gibbs saw how crucial it was to break the cycle and the binds that held him back.
He adds: “You can’t break no shit if you’re not aware of it. And if we can recognise it, maybe we can give advantages to other people. I do the same thing with my music. I talk about a lot of negative things, no doubt, but it’s all personal experience. I’m just trying to bring that across so you can take what you want to take from it, and break the rules you need to break, to make you life better.”
So what book is offering Gibbs that enlightenment now? He replies, without a moment’s hesitation, that he is completely enthralled by Miles Davis’ autobiography. In fact, as Gibbs learns more and more about the legendary jazz trumpeter, he is surprised by how much they have in common.
“We both don’t give a fuck. That’s for damn sure,” Gibbs says of the stubborn independent streak that he shares with Davis. “I know Miles definitely didn’t care, he wasn’t one to bite his tongue or conform to anything. He did what he wanted to do. And he’s a legend because of that. Just being an innovator is what inspires me. He was a great man. I want to be on that type of level.”
Piñata is out now. Gibbs tours the UK this week - head here to check out his live dates.