Rapper Speak Has Had an Insane Few Years
If all you know about rapper Speak is that he co-wrote "Gucci Gucci" for Kreayshawn (and that he got pretty screwed on the deal), you're missing out on one of the most compelling and consistently entertaining personalities in hip-hop.
The Moreno Valley MC originally made waves in 2011 with his reference-heavy debut Inside Out Boy, mixed by Syd the Kyd of Odd Future. But he's now turned the conversation inward with his new album Gnarly Davidson vs. The Marlboro Man, a gleefully frank exploration of his professional and personal relationships.
We talked to Speak about his frustrations as a ghostwriter and, you know, throwing a refrigerator out of a hotel room window.
Has the "Gucci Gucci" association hurt you in any way?
No, it never hurt me. Even when people found out, the most hardcore hip-hop rap fans or industry people were like "Wow, that's so great that you were able to do that." I've never gotten negative backlash from it. If anything, people have rallied behind me like "Yo, you're dope because 1) you can rap your ass off and 2) you can write a catchy ass song. You can do both." And that's a hard thing to do. There's a saying that not every rapper's a good songwriter and not every songwriter's a good rapper, so being able to do both excited a lot of people. If anything, by taking so much time between projects, I've been able to detach myself from it. Its never followed me positively or negatively, it's just, "There's Speak, he makes dope shit," which is what I always wanted. For me, it's not a milestone, it's a footnote. It's not like I cured cancer or climbed Mount Everest. I wrote a catchy song for someone and it got really hot. It's just another weird instance in my very random life.
The visual components of your work always seem well thought out, especially the "Mouth" video.
Thanks, I appreciate that. I like "Mouth." I'm not one of those guys who says "I think of everything my fucking self." That's a play on the old Rocky Horror Picture Show and goes back to my love of pop culture. That song was called "Mouth," the beat was called "Mouth" and I'm kind of mouthing off on it, so it made sense. Mouths are really fucking creepy when you think about it. Even if you have really nice teeth and nice lips, your mouth is always moist because it's like a cavern for bacteria and skin cells. I thought, let's do something kinky, nasty and strange. My homegirl, who's a stripper, memorized this verse. We shot it and tweaked it out. I want to make cool looking things, cool looking videos, designs clothes, I want to do it all.
You refer to yourself a lot as "The Craigslist Killer." Where does The Lifetime Network's Craigslist Killer movie rank amongst your favorite Lifetime movies?
It's pretty bad. My favorite Lifetime movie is actually called Starving For Attention. It's about this chick who has bulimia and anorexia. I'm a piece of shit for knowing that. The Craigslist Killer movie's not that good. When I came up with that, and there's been multiple Craigslist Killers, I remember seeing the original Craigslist Killer was a med student who just liked getting bitches off the internet, robbing them and merking them off. I just thought that was so interesting that this doctor who was good looking and probably has bitches, why would you do that? I've always been super-fascinated by serial killers. Not the brutality or the murder aspect, but the motive. What would drive somebody to do that? Then, you always find, these people were really fucking crazy.
How different has the release for Gnarly Davidson been compared to Inside Out Boy three years ago?
Man, it's been a lot different in terms of process, recording and having a solid plan to release it. With Inside Out Boy, I recorded that at Syd's house at the height of Odd Future blowing up. I would come in on Mondays, she would give me a whole afternoon and evening to record there. There was no plan at all, we two-tracked everything and knocked it out super quick. There was no plan for videos or to properly promote it. I just threw it out to the world. It kind of coincided with everyone finding out I wrote for Kreayshawn and worked with Juicy J, so the release was big in Los Angeles. But then, after that, it kind of just faded to the annals of Datpiff and Tumblr history. There was no real plan.
With this one, I learned so much in recording and fine-tuning the rough edges and I learned so much about songwriting in sessions with people who were way better than I am, I kind of applied that to my music. If I was really going to make a go of it, I can't just throw it to the internet and then look to the sky and hope a record deal falls in my lap or that I make the XXL list. There was a whole lot of thought put into it.
What was the most valuable thing that you learned?
Probably just kind of condensing my thoughts and structuring a song properly. Before that, it was just two tracks. Here's the beat, here's 16 bars, here's a chorus, here's 8 bars, here's a chorus. I've always been enamored and fascinated by good songwriting. But, everyone knows I can rap, I wanted to show everyone not only can I rap, but I can write a super dope song. Not just for someone else, but for myself. Everyone just kind of pegged me as crazy, long-haired swag-swag-swag rapper. They don't really realize, I'm a songwriter, I'm a musician. If was important for me to really fine-tune those rough areas.
On the new project, there's a theme of deconstructed relationships and human interaction. Is that something that fascinates you or does it come from a place of catharsis?
I think it was just me relating my personal experiences and how I was interacting with people, friends, family members, lovers and trying to capture that time frame of everything since the day after the Inside Out Boy release party to now. It's like, ok, it was Inside Out Boy, you got a gold record for writing "Gucci Gucci," you traveled all over the world, then what? It was just me documenting what had happened in that time span. It's hard to really rip open your chest or open your mind. It's easier to write crazy punchlines, but I wanted to relate to human experience and show it's more than your perception of me. It wasn't conscious, I wanted to make something honest and people connected to that. When I wrote "Let Downs," me and Vince Staples had a shitty apartment in Koreatown and this was supposed to be the most exciting time of our lives. Vince is buzzing, I'm buzzing, had a little bit of money in my pocket, but you just feel empty and miserable.
What had you feeling empty and miserable?
I wasn't happy where my career was going. I wasn't happy with the expectations people had of me. I never wanted to be a songwriter really, other than for myself. I kind of fell into everything by accident, which is kind of a recurring theme of my life. It's really charmed and really cursed at times. During the Inside Out Boy time, I was doing sessions at major labels and I would show them the Inside Out Boy songs. They would say "Yeah, that's cool, but you should write a hook for so-and-so." It was like no one took my artistry seriously. The only thing people wanted out of me was to make a hit for someone else. I have no problem writing songs or creating things. Hearing a song you wrote on the radio is pretty fucking cool, but it was very discouraging to play a show in L.A. with 600 people there and lines wrapped around the building, and I couldn't understand how the people who cut the checks and run the labels, why they couldn't understand that. I'd invite them to chill, tell them 700 kids were there, Frank Ocean showed up, media showed up, and they would be like "Yeah yeah yeah, now about this hook for Plies." And I'd be like "What? Really?" I wasn't happy. I didn't want to just be pegged as a writer. I wanted to do everything. When you've people in the glass offices saying "Well maybe you should just write," I was like "maybe you should fuck off." I didn't understand it. There's something there, it's not an act of my imagination or delusions of grandeur. This isn't some online or hashtag thing. Kids are fucking with me, they're buying up all the merch. When I walk around L.A., sometimes I feel like a superhero, kids are fucking with me. I understand it now, but I couldn't understand it at the time why they couldn't see what was going on.
Why do you think they couldn't see it?
Primarily because you can't really put what I do into a box. I remember flying out to New York and having some meetings. They said "Yeah man, you could be just like Yelawolf or Mac Miller" and I don't want to fucking be Yelawolf or Mac Miller. No offense to those guys, you can't box it up. It's easy to look at someone like Iggy Azalea or A$AP Rocky and be like "Damn, that's what a fucking star looks like." Good looking, they dress cool, they're easy on the eyes and happen to make some bangers. I'm a hard sell because I'm defiant. It's hard for them to sell what they don't understand.
On the new record, you mention dealing with industry suits and things at one point going awry.
I think it really went awry when I had a moment of clarity/breakdown and I decided "I'm not showing up today. I'm not answering emails or showing up to nobody's sessions. At this moment, I'm not for hire." In a sense, it kind of reminded me when I quit my job at In-and-Out Burger years ago. I woke-up and decided "I'm not going anymore." It all came down to being happy, and sanity. Instead of taking a mature approach, I just freaked the fuck out and it got really ugly really quick. I think that's where the reputation of being self-sabotaging or difficult to work with [came from]. Anytime you put your foot down you're automatically "difficult to work with," which makes no sense to me. Oh, and I also threw a refrigerator out of a hotel room in New York.
That was real?
Of course. Everything is real. It's not glamourous, it's just a moment of immaturity I had. There's a misconception that I'm bi-polar. I'm not. I'm a human, I have moments of intense humanity. I'm not an egomaniac or a control freak, but in a recording setting, it's like I'm directing a film. I want to be in control. If the suits wrote a report card on it, at the bottom it would say "does not work well with others." But, I got along fine with the people that I worked with. I just don't respond well to "Let's throw him in a room with a random producer and random songwriter and crank out a hit." When you make music, that shouldn't be the pretext. That irked the fuck out of me. I'm not some crazy purist who doesn't want to give any ground or compromise. I want it all, I'm like Warren G. I want my music heard at the highest level, be a complete blockbuster and affect as many people as possible, but I'm not willing to sell out everything that I am. Not selling-out in the sense that you "signed a deal." That's not selling out. A deal is that you're officially an employed musician. It's the compromised of turning your back on everything you stand for and represent, and I'm not willing to do that, but I do want to be successful. Them saying I don't want to play in the big leagues is them trying to discredit me because they don't understand.
The way you weave subtle references into your music really stands out. Is there any reference you wish someone had caught that no-one seems to have gotten yet?
Oh yeah. On the new record, "Death By Misadventure," that's how Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones died. His cause of death, and Amy Winehouse's, were "death by misadventure." I wrote that song when the Rolling Stones came to L.A., a pal of mine had front row tickets, so I thought fuck it, let's go. I saw the Stones and I noticed, in the career retrospective video montage before they came out, they totally omitted Brian Jones who founded the band. He played on their first few records, he was in the band while they were huge. I noticed they omitted him, and that really bummed me out because they erased this guy's legacy. He died and they just decided he wasn't worth talking about or mentioning anymore. When I wrote "Death By Misadventure," that song's about if I die, will anyone give a shit? It's very personal, and there's a line in there "Heavy like the Rolling Stone who sank down to the bottom / of the pool when his friends forgot him / It's cool moved on without him / but me, it's cool, I play that Mr. Jones / hollow in my heart and bones / memo from that God you love, everybody dies alone." Nobody caught that. I was relating that there's a chance that might happen to me, that all this cool shit that I made will one day be forgotten and I will have never existed. That's the perils of morality. That bummed me out because I really like that line, [and] people get erased all the time. How could you do that to someone you call a friend, who's so important to the history and the culture of what your band was.
Do people ever confuse you with the Hungarian rapper Speak from that viral video ten years ago?
Yeah! Occasionally you'll get the fan who's like "Yo, is this you?" And it's obviously not fucking me. They'll send me a link of this strapping Hungarian guy, and that's fucking hilarious.
You mentioned that the first record you ever had was "The Super Bowl Shuffle." On there, who do you think came off the nicest?
Jim McMahon. He came the hardest because "I'm the QB," he has his headband on, and they won the Super Bowl that year. That fool was not joking. That's why it's tight. I love rap for the entertainment value, but the best rap is the autobiographical stuff you can feel. And McMahon was like "Look at me, we're about to win the Super Bowl" and he just came out here swaggin'. But the best athlete rap song is that Shaq song with the Fu-Schnickens. I'm a huge Shaq fan. I'm going on record, Shaq is the best athlete/rapper of all time, followed by Deion Sanders.
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