How do we come to grips with the fact that this thing is too real, out of control like some huge snowball rolling down a hill, threatening to smash and kill all in its path, including those who originally fashioned it? –Monster Kody of the 8-Tray Crips
Before I even learned division ... I learnt the missions. -Schoolboy Q
Snowballs don't stop rolling; they melt. And once you've put in sufficient work, you usually only exit the Crips in a casket. But at this moment in early February, Schoolboy Q, the Hoover Crip turned gonzo gangsta rapper, is riding high in a chauffeured Cadillac Escalade, offering a tour of his old 'hood, from Staples Center to the far recesses of South Central.
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"Me and the homies never used to come as far north as Staples Center, even though we lived [close by]," Q says, noting the velocity with which this neighborhood has changed since he was born 27 years ago. "That's how ghetto we was. We never went past USC. Staples was just that place where Kobe played on TV."
A Styrofoam cup filled with rapidly dwindling Easter-pink "dirty Sprite" (promethazine, lemon-lime soda, Jolly Ranchers and ice) rests in the holder. It seems like self-medication for Quincy Hanley, who grew up on West 51st Street and Figueroa. Yet the early afternoon drank is also a celebratory reward: A few hours before, he'd learned that Feb. 25's Oxymoron, his major-label debut, has already sold 23,000 pre-order copies; that's substantially more than good kid, m.A.A.d city, the Grammy-nominated smash from Q's labelmate, Kendrick Lamar, also released by Top Dawg Entertainment and Interscope, which was eventually certified platinum.
Round granny sunglasses rest above a treble-clef tattoo under Q's left eye. He got it when he was on house arrest, as a visible reminder that the only options for a convicted felon were music, recidivism or the grave. It embodies the contradictions of Q — a menacing veneer undergirded by immense, almost neurotic dedication to craft.
"I had a lawyer, luckily, but I still got a strike," Q says, wearing a Dodger-blue bucket hat with the words "Figueroa" and "Oxymoron" imprinted on it. "Shame" is inked across his neck. "I knew I ain't getting no good job with a violent crime on my record."
He declines to discuss the nature of said crime but otherwise is mostly candid. He's savvy enough to realize the importance of coming off humble but has no problem calling himself a genius.
It could be the sluggishness of the lean or the bright sun, but he speaks with a languid growl. The shades never come off. He's not glorifying the turf wars of his past, merely recollecting the troubles leading up to his rap success.
His breakout record was 2012's Habits & Contradictions, which found him rapping tales from the Crips over samples from Portishead and Portland, Ore., indie rockers Menomena. Ranking high on album-of-the-year lists from online tastemakers, it helped usher in a new era of West Coast gangsta rap, one beholden to neither sound nor mood yet dead-set on reminding listeners that people still regularly die in the set.
When asked about what he was like as a child, his only answer is "bad." He doesn't laugh much, a stark contrast to the manic bungee bounce of his raps. His lyrical boundaries rarely extend beyond drugs, drinking and gang life, but he captures the peaks and ebbs of binges of all types. It's party music fraught with peril.
On single "Man of the Year," he describes his blunt filled with "weed, peace, love, enemies."
Onstage, he's a kinetic live wire. In the Escalade's back seat, he grapples with his past.
Q directs the driver to head south on Figueroa, the boulevard that once acted as his umbilical cord. He points out the condos that used to be empty lots, the weed stores that used to be rubble, the basketball courts by USC where he used to hoop and brawl.
Once we get into the blocks numbered in the 40s, the tenor changes. He singles out sets who used to war with the Hoover Crips (one of the largest and oldest Crip sects), and those who were allies. The specifics are all off the record. He might sell out international shows months in advance, but he still returns to the block frequently enough to be unsurprised by the new medical marijuana stores and recently beautified parks. Currently, he lives in a house in Northridge.
"I used to say that I was going to blow up and buy a house in the set, but that would've set myself up for failure," Q says. "It ain't really about colors no more. It's about who you dislike. If your 'hood hate this 'hood and you're all really about that, then you probably going to hate them forever. Bloods is wearing blue now. Crips is wearing red. You can't tell who's who."
Statistics bear out his assertion that gang activity remains on a slow decline. Last year, the L.A. murder rate sunk to its lowest level since 1966 — three years before Raymond Washington founded the Crips. There are Starbucks now, but South Central remains far from idyllic. To prove it, Q points out a prostitute idling on Figueroa.
"The little purse gives it away," he says pointing at a girl in her early 20s, standing on a corner dressed like she's waiting to take the bus to college. "They don't dress like they do in the old days, in the short skirts. They stopped doing it five years ago because the cops knew what was up."
Cops come up frequently. It's unsurprising for someone who got "Fuck LAPD" tatted onto his shoulder after repeated detentions from the notoriously corrupt C.R.A.S.H. Unit. A preferred police tactic, he says, was to pick him up and drop him off in an enemy 'hood without money for bus fare, forcing him to rely on his survival skills to make it home alive.
The car turns onto 51st Street. He points out where he grew up, and a schizophrenic uncle sitting across the street on the porch. Most of the homes are squat bungalows with chipped paint, or rotting Spanish-style, two-bedroom houses from the 1920s. Tyrin Turner, who played Caine in Menace II Society, grew up here. So did ex-Angels outfielder Garret Anderson.
Every stretch of concrete imparts a different memory. There's the library in Inglewood where Q read his first book, Monster, a harrowing gang-life memoir from ex-Crip Sanyika Shakur (aka Monster Kody). There's the Warehouse Shoe Sale where Q had his first job and robbed them blind. There's the park where he got shot, and the Arco gas station where he got robbed. He points at a parked car and mentions it was where his homie's uncle was murdered in broad daylight, point blank.
"People always ask me, 'How did you get into gangbanging, what's the process like?' It's not that easy just to say it. You gotta live there to understand," Q says.
There's Crenshaw High, where he learned long division, one year after first starting to do missions for the Hoover Crips. He also lettered on the school's football and baseball teams. At one baseball game, his team watched a man get murdered across the street mid-inning.
Football was his best sport. He was a wide receiver with a lightning 4.46-second 40-yard dash, which helped him eventually start for West Los Angeles College.
But he still hadn't fully left his past behind.
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While playing community college football, Q became embroiled in a drug ring shifting vast quantities of Oxycontin from L.A. to Seattle. For three years, he and a friend served as runners, until their connection went to jail. Taking over the business, they got rich before things soured when yet another Pacific Northwest liaison got locked up. Stranded in Seattle with a duffel bag full of drugs, Q sold his weight, came home and attempted to give rap a chance.
Introduced to Top Dawg Entertainment through a former West L.A. football teammate, label engineer Derek Ali, Q improved at rap faster than he could sprint. Forced to compete with Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, he carved out an identity as the Carson-based independent rap behemoth's hedonistic, tripped-out Hunter S. Thompson incarnate.
His goal is to keep pushing it forward with Oxymoron. To date, neither of his two singles have cracked the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, yet the presales, sold-out dates and Internet buzz easily make it one of the year's most anticipated.
Q has toured almost nonstop for two years merely off the strength of his last independent release. Oxymoron isn't a make-or-break moment. After all, he's already faced those and survived.