Freddie Gibbs used to rob trains, and not the arcane Jesse James, “your money in the knapsack” stickup trick. But whenever a freight had the misfortune to rest in his hometown of Gary, Indiana, locals looted like a disco-era blackout. The philosophy of Too Short applied in one swift gesture: Get it while the getting is good.
It wasn’t only hood kids snatching Air Jordans, electronics, socks and shirts. “One of my teachers was fired for jacking the trains,” Gibbs says with the same sullen, blunt-burned baritone he uses to ask one to pass the syrup, barely looking up from the fried chicken and waffles he devours at the Roscoe’s on Pico. Then he starts to discuss the pros and cons of robbing ice cream trucks.
That’s how it is in Gary. The trite 21st-century symbol of urban decay might be HBO’s The Wire, but listening to Gibbs talk about his birthplace makes David Simon’s Baltimore look like Pleasantville. Crooked cops. An obscene murder rate. Few good jobs. Trash pickup that costs extra, or else the refuse rots in huge heaps. Schools straight out of Savage Inequalities: few computers, book shortages and astronomical dropout rates. There is East St. Louis and there is Gary, Indiana. Flip a coin.
This is where Gibbs hustled in the aftermath of the crack-addled Reagan years, dope still ravaging the streets. The fantasia of childhood as idyllic dream factory seems absurd in this context.
“My uncle went from a king to a fiend, before he got murdered,” Gibbs laments. “I watched him rob to pay for his habit. He was constantly locked up or in rehab. I once asked how he went from selling to smoking it. He said he’d been chasing that first great high for the last eight years.”
Though his uncle’s death steered him away from crack, it also forced Gibbs to confront concrete realities and left him with a simmering rage. “I learned how easy it was to kill. I developed the instinct that if someone fucked with me, I’d take care of them.”
It’s that instinct that helps to make him one of the most compelling hard-core rappers in recent memory. In a genre haunted by studio gangsters, Gibbs’ integrity is unimpeachable. Like all the consecrated gangsta icons — 2Pac, Scarface, Biggie — Gibbs sketches the shadowy interplay of light and dark with a sober eye and clouded head, careful neither to glamorize nor exaggerate, and always wrestling with capital-letter issues: blood, dirt, death, etc. There’s an oxidized honesty that makes asking interview questions seem a bit stupid. The answers are there if you listen.
But once asked, the scene shifts back to the chrome warfare and shuttered storefronts of Gary. “I started hustling in early adolescence,” Gibbs says the next day at his apartment in Van Nuys, releasing words slowly, as the cumulus clouds drift from a Swisher Sweet blunt. “You start smoking weed and move on to bigger shit to make dollars. It don’t matter which drug — heroin, pills, crack.”
Temporary salvation arrived when Ball State University dangled a football scholarship in front of the all-conference wide receiver and safety; things went awry once Gibbs realized that college athletics meant total devotion: practice, film sessions, boring classes. So he returned to the same Gary streets: 17th and Pennsylvania, 1631 Virginia St., 842 14th Ave., The Eastside, the Westside and Glen Park.
Back in the ’hood’s clutch, Gibbs became gristle for the system. With multiple incarcerations on his record, a judge offered him two options: jail or boot camp at Ft. Jackson in South Carolina. “I preferred the jail time, but mom and pops would rather visit a nigga’ in an Army uniform.”
So the teenager dealt with drill sergeants and drudgery until being dishonorably discharged for smoking weed and hustling. Back in Steel City, Gibbs faced a crossroads. “I was lost. I wasn’t into school or the Army. I needed to do whatever it took to get out of Gary alive.”
With friends falling fast, Gibbs started kicking it in the studio of Finger Roll, a producer of local renown. Initially there to sell his wares, he soon discovered he could rap better than anyone coming through. Raised on a diet of Midwest speed-rap — Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Twista, Texas’ Rap-A-Lot roster, and 2Pac — Gibbs commanded local respect. But no Gary rapper had ever signed with a major label, even though Kanye West’s star was soaring just 20 miles north, in Chicago.
Nearly five years ago, Ben “Lambo” Lambert, then an intern for Interscope A&R’s Joe “3H” Weinberger and Archibald “Archie” Bonkers, discovered a mixtape featuring a cover image of Gibbs rocking a Bo Jackson Raiders jersey and a pair of pistols.
“There were only six songs, and it was unlistenable unless you turned it up loud,” recalls Lambert, who co-manages Gibbs. “But his flow was already incredible and he had a powerful voice.”