In his late teens, Schoolboy Q had a routine. In the morning, he'd chop up an eight ball of crack before heading out to ply his trade. When he arrived on his block in South L.A., he'd slouch against a wall amid faded signs and barred storefronts, waiting for business to get under way. To be safe, he kept his baggie of crack tucked into his cheek. Hiding his wares in his mouth was protection in case the police came, he reasoned; if they gave chase, he could spit it out as he ran, and the cops wouldn't see him toss anything.
But business wasn't that great, and he was getting antsy; everyone knows a hustler's career span is short. And so he began to consider new lines of work. In one bout of inspiration, he decided joining the Los Angeles Police Department was a sensible, feasible option. After all, he figured, they're always hiring.
There was just one problem — his tattoos. Underneath his left eye was a treble clef, but a different bit of ink was likely to disqualify him, the one crudely carved into his trapezius muscle that said "fuck lapd."
"What were you talkin' about, idiot?" he now says to himself, with a laugh. "You got 'fuck lapd' on you. How you gonna be a cop?"
It's Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2012, and the slightly husky, affable 25-year-old is hanging out at his manager's house in Carson. His gangbanging days are behind him and his music career is gathering speed. Habits & Contradictions, his second album, was just released by L.A.-based label Top Dawg Entertainment, which is also home to L.A.'s latest rap king, Kendrick Lamar, whose Section.80 was named 2011's best rap record by many critics.
Though he hates comparisons to his crewmate, there are stark contrasts between the two: Where Lamar is more cerebral, Schoolboy Q runs on his charisma. The almost unhinged persona chanting gritty street tales could damn near induce delirium.
"He raps the way I wanna rap, and I think I rap the way he wanna rap," he says of Lamar. But Q has created his own identity; last year he sold out his first headlining show at the Key Club, and he recently was profiled by British newspaper The Guardian.
Right now he's relaxing on the couch, absentmindedly jiggling the asthma inhaler in the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie. He's just returned from the gym and, after smoking a blunt, settles in to tell his strange life story. It starts with his given name, Quincy Matthew Hanley, an odd one considering that no one else in his family shares the surname.
Before his birth — which was on an Army base in Germany — his parents decided they weren't staying together, so his mother chose a last name for him at random. His father remained in the Army, but his mother took Q to Texas for a couple years, before coming back home to 51st and Figueroa streets.
She eventually began a job as a AAA night-shift dispatcher. Thus in his school years she and Q barely saw each other; she'd leave money on the kitchen counter in the morning, and food in the microwave at night. "I used to leave the house, be gone until 6 in the morning, and my mom never even knew," he says. His grandmother stood in for his absentee folks as much as she could, but he nonetheless began gangbanging at 12. Four years later, he was heavily involved with the 52 Hoover Crips.
He was still managing to get good grades, however, so much so that the older gang members nicknamed him "Schoolboy." But his senior year was a washout. He spent more time selling drugs and working as a truck driver than paying attention in class. In fact, he mostly just went so he could play football, basketball and baseball, sports he'd excelled in since t-ball days.
Near the end of his senior year he learned he wasn't on pace to graduate; his GPA was a paltry 1.0. Thankfully, an industrious security guard (whom he paid) altered his transcripts somehow, and he was able to graduate.
Q shakes his head, flicking open and closed an elaborate nail file, which looks like a knife. "They need to have gangbanging classes, real-life drug classes, 'How to Survive When You Have $100 to Last You a Month' classes," he says. "History is cool, but at the end of the day it's not gonna help me live my life."
Recruited to play football at West Los Angeles College, Q continued to skip class and sell drugs. In 2007, he was arrested for a crime he won't disclose and says he was sent to jail for six months, half of which he finished on house arrest.
He'd once dreamed of going to the NBA or the NFL, but now he was simply an ex-con. His girlfriend got pregnant, and his job prospects were dim. He remembered hearing 50 Cent advise anyone leaving jail to get into the rap business; he had a few verses under his belt but had never seriously considered it as a career option. Now, however, it looked like all that was left.
A quick study, he dropped his first mixtape, called Schoolboy Turned Hustla, in summer 2008. It presents a developing rapper experimenting with vocal patterns, trying to keep the songs sonically unpredictable despite their typical gangsta themes. Another mixtape followed the next year.
On the strength of those tapes, Dude Dawg — CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment — signed Q to a roster that included Lamar (who then went by K. Dot) and Jay Rock, an up-and-coming MC from Watts. By the time Q's first album, SetBacks, was released in early 2011, he'd quit gangbanging altogether.
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His style had begun to take shape, with his penchant for stretching vowels like Silly Putty or slurring a word and then snapping back into double time. He even murmurs sweet, atypical thug pillow talk on "Groovline Pt. 1": "Fresh out the shower, lemme smell your hair/Garnier Fructis got my knees weak/Let's cuddle in these sheets."
Hip-hop careers can be fleeting, of course, but Q and his team believe they've devised a strategy for longevity. On each album, he includes a song or two for the critics, such as Habits & Contradictions' "Sacrilegious" — in which a man's hypocrisy haunts him — and also reveals his tender side, often by referencing his 2-year-old daughter.
In the hours before his sold-out, headlining show at the Troubadour recently, Q is more subdued than usual. That might have to do with the bag of weed and bottle of Hennessy in his hoodie's pocket. Or perhaps it's the brass knuckles he's carrying. When he bounds onstage a couple hours later, however, the pensive mood is gone. He establishes an easy rapport with the crowd and relishes calling up his buddy, the blogosphere's rapper du jour ASAP Rocky, who throws his arm around Q's neck.
At the same time, however, there's a distance from all of this, a detachment. Even though he's left the streets, they seem to plague him. "My nigga just lost his son. ... Whatever you need, yo, I got it," he raps on "Blessed." "Whether it's money or some weed or puttin' in work, fuck it, then I'm ridin'." The corner of 51st and Fig is far away right now, but clearly only in distance.