It's an August afternoon in Hollywood, and the shaggy-bearded rapper Speak is snacking on mac 'n' cheese in a recording studio at Atlantic Records.
He doesn't seem like he belongs here. For starters, he's wearing beach bum attire: sun-bleached peach board shorts and Sperry Top-Siders.
Though he came up as a rapper, he's been moonlighting recently as a ghostwriter, working on songs for acts such as No Doubt and rappers like Plies. But he's just been told that the song he wrote for the aforementioned MC isn't edgy enough -- a verdict he refutes loudly.
He knows he can come across as an opinionated prick (his words), but he also knows he's valued: After all, he co-wrote Kreayshawn's massive hit "Gucci Gucci" almost a year ago, and has collaborated on many more of her tracks, including her only other release so far, "Rich Whores."
Atlantic insiders have become hip to his resume, but he hasn't talked about his role in Kreayshawn's career until now. "We get high, play beats and freestyle. It's all super natural. And supernatural," he says of their creative interplay, in his irreverent style.
"He's a real champ," says Kreayshawn of him.
But despite her whiplash-worthy ascent (she signed a rumored million-dollar deal with Sony on the strength of "Gucci Gucci," and sold out the Roxy in August), he hasn't received any royalties or publishing for his input. "That's the weird thing," he says, "seeing someone become rich overnight and getting to do all the cool things that come with being a successful artist, knowing you had a part in that, but eating Spam for dinner."
The 25-year-old son of a religious Jewish mother from Tel Aviv and a father who was a minor league baseball player in the Dodgers organization, Speak's real name is Anthony Negrete and he grew up in Moreno Valley. As his taste in music developed, he was riveted by both Cam'ron's nonsensical lyrical genius and Axl Rose's snaking, stage-storming showmanship. In high school he met a producer named Afta-1 and another rapper named Pheo, with whom he later formed the Art Goon collective.
In 2010, Speak was working at Lowe's and slipping in and out of depression over his stunted rapping career, but he thought his luck was changing. The clothing company of his housemates -- also members of Art Goon -- had taken off when Wiz Khalifa began sporting their duds. Speak and Pheo even got friendly with the emerging superstar and were supposed to open for the West Coast leg of his spring tour. They got bumped.
That summer, however, Davey Boy Smith of the blog Southern Hospitality -- who'd posted on Speak's music -- suggested he work with a talent from the Bay Area named Kreayshawn. She had directed the video to Lil B's song "Like a Martian," which Speak adored, and he was immediately drawn to her style. He reached out.
"I first met up with him because he said he wanted to shoot a video in L.A. about conspiracy theories," Kreayshawn says, tongue-likely-in-cheek. "We went on a four-day acid trip and never ended up shooting the video."
At one point he proposed they make some music together. When she came down to L.A. last fall, he took her to DJ Gabe Real's studio in Pomona. In his recollection, though she already had songs, she was unfamiliar with traditional song structure. "I told her to drop 16 on a song, and she was like, 'Uh, what do you mean?' So we sat down and hammered it out, and I taught her how to conceptualize and structure lines and put a filter on all the craziness."
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Featuring a beat from Staten Island producer DJ Two Stacks, "Gucci Gucci" was intended to be a riff on annoying Top 40 radio hits, Speak says, its chorus a "bizarro" version of Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps." His approach, he goes on, was to take pop's standard formula and "sprinkle some nails and satire in it and shove it down their throats."
His fortunes continued to pick up when Odd Future's Syd tha Kid agreed to mix his album Inside Out Boy. In January he started a weekly routine of commuting into the city from his house in the Inland Empire to work first with Syd and then with Kreayshawn, who had relocated from Oakland to a Koreatown studio apartment.
Inside Out Boy is now finished, and he is self-releasing it for free on November 14. It was engineered by Syd and has several beats from Odd Future's production duo the Super 3. Speak's rhymes are collisions of pop culture references and emotionally vulnerable revelations, all held together by a catchy collection of hooks.
"When I put out my album, will the world care? Probably fucking not," he says, trying to coax the corners of his mouth into a smile. His eyes look liquid. "That's humbling. It's depressing to have the world sing along to your every fucking word, and not care about you."