Last year, Los Angeles’ biennial homeless census revealed that the county’s homeless population had risen 12 percent since 2013. Asad Ill spent innumerable nights curled up in abandoned cars, but friends, family and co-workers had no idea he was part of that percentage for an entire year. He concealed every sign of indigence.
“I kept my clothes clean. I wasn’t looking like I was homeless,” the 22-year-old rapper explains when we meet at a small Jamaican restaurant in Leimert Park.
Today Asad is clad in thrift-store chic, a démodé black Nike windbreaker on his shoulders and crisp, clean Nikes on his feet. An IT specialist for a local tax service company, he now shares a home near Hyde Park with his girlfriend and younger sister.
“I had that option damn near the whole time,” he says of his current living situation. “I just never recognized it.”
A practicing Muslim, Asad’s voice is soft but impassioned, a mix of the serenity and zeal afforded to the devout. Still, his religiosity and hardships haven’t stripped him of sense of humor. All exchanges are affable, and many are punctuated by Asad’s infectious laughter. He saves his severity for the studio.
Asad’s debut album, Manifest Destiny, drops Friday via the Order Label, the rap distribution arm of Alpha Pup Records. An assured and singular album, it’s riddled with intense rhymes detailing the conditions — racism, police brutality, gang violence, discriminatory socioeconomics — that create despair, destitution and the potential for homelessness. Backed equally by warm, emotive soul loops and subwoofer-searing electronic suites courtesy of Alpha Pup-affiliated producers (Nobody, Taurus Scott, Eureka the Butcher), Asad's politics are offset by a penchant for clever and aggressive punchlines reminiscent of early Nocando.
Unlike many debuts, Manifest Destiny is not autobiographical. “I wanted to make a statement first. The next album will be more personal, the story of why I wanted to make the statement,” he explains. “Everybody does their biography on their first album. I like the mystery that doing it this way brings.”
Born Assad El, Asad was raised in Baldwin Village, the historically violent, gang-ridden section of the Crenshaw district that many know as “the Jungles.” One of 10 children, including five half-siblings, Asad bonded most with his older brother, who now raps under the name Osbe Chill.
After an adolescence spent listening to Little Brother, Dead Prez and the music of their father — who both rapped and produced when he wasn’t rising through the ranks at H&R Block — Asad and Osbe formed rap collective Witchkraft. Before long, the brothers and their friends began performing and throwing parties at 5th Street Dick’s, the now-defunct Leimert café their father once operated.
Shortly after forming Witchkraft, a chance meeting with Dizzy Wright’s mother led to an opening performance at the Funk Volume rapper’s Golden Age mixtape release party in Las Vegas. “That was the turning point for us,” Asad says. “That’s when I started working on my solo music.”
It was around this same time that Asad began battling every rapper he met in Leimert Park. “It didn’t matter who you were. If you called yourself an MC or rapper and I’d never seen you before in Leimert, we had to have that verbal fade.”
That competitiveness begat to back-to-back titles in the short-lived “16 Bar Bout,” a contest held in Leimert in which rappers performed their best rhymes a cappella before peers and a panel of judges. On the eve of winning his second title, Asad caught the attention of L.A. rap luminary and Order Label co-founder Self Jupiter (Freestyle Fellowship) while freestyling before the contest. Signing to the Order Label was his victory lap.
With his debut finished, Asad is doing his best to look ahead. He’s working on his second album and will perform at Low End Theory for the third time next week.
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No matter what happens after that, he never wants to relive those transient nights. “I can’t go back to that," he says. "One bad decision and I’ll be homeless again.”