By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Impressed, the pair flew him out to New York. “The first time he stepped into the booth, I got chills. We were sold,” Bonkers concurs.
Thus began six months of shuttling between L.A., New York and Gary for recording and meetings, culminating in a deal with Interscope. The timing couldn’t have been better, with the warfare in Gary constant, including several shoot-outs in which Gibbs narrowly escaped the bullet. Handed a modest $50,000 advance, he settled in L.A. to work on his debut and quickly acclimated to the Cali good life and Biggie’s holy trinity of amenities (the weather, the women and the weed). But trouble was never far, with multiple gun charges leading to a stint in downtown’s infamous Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Given a $250,000 budget that allowed him to work with A-list producers like Just Blaze and Polow da Don, Gibbs received praise for his music but ran into apprehensive label executives, who doubted their ability to promote a Gary artist, particularly one who wouldn’t be entering the pop marketplace. Nor did the label’s fortunes brighten the picture: When Gibbs inked his deal, Interscope had been riding 50 Cent and G-Unit’s success. Eighteen months later, illegal downloading and commercial disappointments had left it wary to pay for mixing, mastering and promotion. Even Eminem passed.
When Weinberger left for Warner Bros. in August 2007, Gibbs got his walking papers. After two years of working it, he was left without a college degree or cash. He seemed fated to return home, 25 years old and a victim of the dark side of the California dream.
Struggling for survival on the Gary streets meant more shoot-outs and skirmishes. When his pregnant girlfriend moved to Atlanta, he followed, hoping a new environment would alter his fortunes. But the descent hastened — the girl miscarried, his car was stolen, his grandmother died and drugs consumed him. “I started popping Oxycontin for my headaches, sprinkling pills on my weed,” Gibbs says. “I was finished with rapping and just trying to hustle to start a business.”
Then a friend, Josh the Goon, started pleading for him to return to L.A. A Venice-based producer and engineer whom he’d met through L.A.-via-New Orleans rappers The Knux (Gibbs’ official debut was on the group’s “The True,”), the Goon kept calling even though Gibb wouldn’t answer. Finally, he accepted a plane ticket back, only to crash on couches for the next six months, still unconvinced of a future in rap.
“I can’t imagine getting to taste that life, and returning to where you were. I would’ve given up, too,” The Goon says. “But I couldn’t let him stop. If you listen to his music, you know that this is what he’s is supposed to be doing.”
Reunited with Lambo and Bonkers and chastened after another fruitless period shopping for a deal, Gibbs spent the remainder of 2008 and the first half of this year laying down what became his breakthrough mixtape, Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik, which followed rapidly on the heels of the similarly stellar Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs. Both efforts showcased the brute force of Gibbs’ rumbling Richter scale voice, his superb storytelling and powerful primary-colors poetry. On “County Bounce,” he crafts an elegiac narrative from the perspective of waking up in prison, “shackled head to toe.” On “Neverending Story,” a track recorded before breaking with Interscope, Gibbs inveighs that “my label don’t know what to do with me/I’ll go broke before I let them crackers make a fool of me/before I’m a puppet, they’ll be reading my eulogy.” On “From the G,” he describes his hometown as “a land of lost hope, clouds of mill smoke, a community devoured by hard and soft dope.”
Gibbs also earned a powerful co-sign from local music impresario, DJ Skee, the KIIS-FM and Sirius XM radio personality and creator of Skee.TV. “He became my favorite rapper,” says Skee, whose mixtape series helped to launch The Game’s career. “Gangsta rap might not be ‘in,’ but Freddie is a 50 Cent–type figure to change the model. He’s not pretending to be Tony Montana. He’s honest and has a relatability that others lack.”
Building off the still-fledgling rap blog infrastructure, Gibbs received a torrential wave of attention from tastemakers like Pitchfork and The Fader. The gangster from Gary even gate-crashed The New Yorker, with Sasha Frere-Jones proclaiming Gibbs the “one rapper I would put money on right now.”
Yet Gibbs is still walking the line — another gun charge saddled him with an 18-month probation, while the lack of a deal means hustling is necessary to pay the rent. Plus, the rappers du jour are ultrasensitive types like Drake and Kid Cudi, with unabashedly pop instincts. Despite its deafening cacophony, the Web has yet to translate into commercial viability.