Vince Staples’ story is one told many times in hip hop lore. Born and raised in North Long Beach, California, his background is rooted in the neighbourhood’s gangbanging culture. His father was embedded in the drug hustling scene and Staples eventually grew up to become a 2N Crips affiliate. As in many rapper’s stories, however, there’s a shift-changing moment along the way and for Staples it was the summer of 2006. He was then 13 years old.
“It was the beginning of the end of everything I thought I knew”, Staples wrote on Instagram. “Youth was stolen from my city that summer and I’m left alone to tell the story.” Friends got locked up. Others tumbled to bullets and drugs. Others sold their souls to snitchery. A couple of years later, Staples temporarily moved to Atlanta looking to make sense of streetlife’s merciless outcomes. At his return, a new chapter began, offsetting the journey to his rapping career.
Staples is now 22 years old and one thing he’d tell you about such a feat is that he outlived the red roses. Another thing he’d probably let you in to is that rap saved his life. Staples first draw attention after a series of collaborations with Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt in the latter’s Earl mixtape and debut album Doris, and then with Larry Fisherman (Mac Miller producer identity) on Stolen Youth. The Long Beach native’s major debut was at the end of 2014 with the release Hell Can Wait on Def Jam. The 6-track EP stood out as the prologue to one of this year’s most impressive hip hop records: Summertime ’06, the tale Staples was left to chronicle alone.
“Summertime ’06 was me telling the truth because I don’t see a lot of people doing that”, Staples tells me while sipping his white coffee. We’re chatting in a bright, swanky hotel in central London. It’s the eve of his debut performance in the city. “People spend their entire fortune running from themselves. They don’t want to deal with the truth of how we’re looked as individuals, as people and as a race.”
Staples’ hour-long masterpiece is a hauntingly cold and immersive storytelling set to cavernous, minimal beats mainly produced by Chicago’s No I.D. and L.A’s beat scene legend Clams Casino. His nostalgic yarns frame the challenges to overcome preconceptions and stereotypes thrown at him throughout the years. He assures me he never did drugs nor drank and that he’s an old man who doesn’t party, wrapping up his days at midnight.
“I don’t have to deal with a lot of things anymore”, he says hesitantly. “I just moved. My girlfriend is riding my car with no license going 80mph and I’m pulled over because of where I live. Do I have to deal with the cops? No. The PR deals with the cops? Yeah. So it’s not necessarily over, but I’m okay now.” As we chat, a dry pop-pop sound spills from the outside to the hotel welcoming bar room. It’s the week of Bonfire Night in England, but that sound evokes in the different memories from Staples’ upbringing.
Summertime ’06 is Staples reminiscing on his ghosts. It’s as well a broader picture of the rapper’s disfranchised surroundings. Far from glorying the crippin’ lifestyle (you won’t find on him with any gang tattoos or hear him praising feats of street life), his music encloses the daily life of a community grounded on gangbanging, street law and judicial inequality. But the difference in Staple’s rap sheet lays out his intentions: his rap steps aside from the prevalent West Coast gangsta rap label to rather focus on hip hop culture’s role in addressing the reality of the situation in the streets of L.A.
“Real is saying the influence music’s having on drugs within kids in the community. A kid from back home just died off of a drug he knew nothing about a couple of years ago. And I know that because I’ve known him since I was a child. He did not know what Xanax was. So that, combined with some really shitty things he had to take to keep his sanity, killed him. And where did he learn that? From a rap song. That’s real.”
“Many rappers defend that’s just art”, I reply.
“And that’s fine. But lets weigh the art. It’s fine when it’s entertainment but not when it can shift and shape a culture and that’s the problem. Think about it: if we do percentages, not from all time but from a time I can probably remember, we have an entire culture where the majority of rappers were selling crack. I don’t roughly know a rapper – not a popular one – in the area I was growing up who didn’t sell fucking crack. Look at the trap movement… Now, I’m not saying that’s not true. What I’m saying is the fact that there is a majority that is selling crack in 2015. Selling cocaine in 2015.”
On a wider perspective, Staples often voices his views on the institutionalised racism that has been sweeping the US since, well, ever. A status quo deeply entrenched in a country that politically and culturally demonises minorities, condemning them to live inside invisible walls in segregated communities. Narrowing the current outlook to the past three years – matching the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement –, I ask him if he’s sensed any real changes around his area. “Oh you think it has changed since… Fuck no!”
Hip hop has long influenced global culture and rap music, in particular, has been a force of social transformation over the past 40 years. Arguably, it carried Obama to the White House and has been a major influence on the civil rights movement in recent decades. Picking up from Kendrick Lamar’s example, at a time when his soul-reviving ‘Alright’ single is chanted all over the country in black movements’ demonstrations, I ask Staples if he feels that rappers have a decisive stance in leading the change in America.
“People have an important role”, Staples points-out. “It doesn’t matter what you do. Martin Luther King wasn’t a rapper. People have an important role. There are more people than rappers. If you weigh the average you are going to have ten rappers saying something important and a hundred thousand people saying whatever the fuck is The Million Man March. It happened not too long ago and the media didn’t say anything about it. It’s their job to cover these events so why not cover one million black people walking down the street in the nation’s capitol?”
The day after we met, Vince Staples jumped onto one of Cargo London’s four stages. The place is packed, people are pumped as the North Long Beach rapper leads the crowd with the inciting “bounce, bounce” chant he drops at the very decisive moment of each track. Staples delivers an intense performance. He’s all-in, jumping and spitting bars to his lungs, especially on Summertime’s ‘Señorita’ and ‘Norf Norf’. Staples’ constantly engages with the audience. He’s an acidly ironic dude and pokes fun at the fans with blazing subjects. One that has gotten to the crowds revolved around a long-gone cycle in hip hop’s history: the Golden Era.
There’s a story behind this: prior to the concert, Staples had been involved in a blazing exchange of tweets with his followers (including historical rap figures) on the importance of ‘90s hip hop following an interview to Time Magazine. “The 90s get a lot of credit – I don’t really know why.” A quote put out of context (he was asked about ‘90s pop culture’, not ‘hip hop culture’) fuelling hatred among old school and new school hip hop fans and spilling to music website’s. In his defence, Staples pointed out the obvious: he was born in 1993. So did many of his generation’s rap cats, like Earl Sweatshirt or Tyler, The Creator.
“I don’t know if the nineties fit within the new generation”, he explains. “I don’t understand the nostalgia of an era. The interview was about pop culture in the ‘90s. If we’re speaking “pop culture-wise”, then pop culture’s biggest era to write music is Lil’ Wayne’s and Kanye’s and Eminem’s. If I walk down the street and ask a 13 year old kid who about some nineties rappers, he’ll know nothing about the majority because it didn’t penetrate pop culture. We can pretend it did, but it didn’t and that’s just the honest to god truth. Everybody knows who Eminem is, everybody knows who Snoop Dogg is for the most part and that’s not because of Doggystyle. Everyone that knows Jay-Z doesn’t know Reasonable Doubt, that’s the truth. There are people from every era that everyone knows, but if we’re talking about the best time for hip hop penetrating pop culture, it isn’t necessarily the nineties. People say, ‘I was born in 1993 and grew up on ‘90s hip hop, bla, bla’. Good for you! But I’m sure that was an awkward conversation to have at the lunch table when you were in your 4th grade talking about Cormega. That’s the problem with hip hop culture.”
I dig deeper. “What problem is that?”
“The problem with hip hop culture is that we care about all the wrong things. We deem respect for something that literally is disrespectful to women, modesty, homosexuals and our own kind. So what do you want to be respected? No one says anything about the perpetuating violence or perpetuating drug uses to kids, because that’s where they get most of the influence. The problem is you saying you’re not familiar with ‘90s hip hop and instead of the guns and the drugs? What kind of sense does that make?”
As with everything in today’s hyperconnected, slacktivist global culture, the debate sparked by Staples’ quotes soon vanished in the sea of information. Nonetheless, Staples is certainly looking to be part of a bigger change judging by Summertime ’06’s outcome. And besides his mindbending rhymes, if anything, the dispute about the Golden Era has put Staples on the music media’s radar. So by the moment his tweets are reportable, one would think he could keep an ongoing conversation about changing America. Only there’s a much bigger reality happening outside the virtual forums to be addressed.
“Life on Twitter isn’t real. It just isn’t. The other day, one of my friends got three life sentences and 75 years added on for his first offence, a non-violent crime. And how many retweets did that get? 15? 20? That’s scary to me. You don’t have to kill anybody or hurt anybody to never see the light again now.”
Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06 is out now on Def Jam.