The sticky-sweet smell of Pink Sugar perfume permeates the air. A Latina girl with bottle-blonde streaked hair crouches on all fours, looking over her shoulder, and pouting her frosted fuschia lips. She arches her back and slits her eyes, and Freddie Gibbs reaches out to knead her ass cheek. Ten or 15 fresh dollar bills flutter from his hand before a cocktail waitress taps his shoulder and passes him his Patron and pineapple. By the time he turns back around, the stripper has stood up, and she starts chatting with Gibbs like they just bumped into each other at the grocery store. A dude interrupts to say how big a fan he is. Jeremih, the R&B singer from Chicago, a hop away from Gibbs’ hometown of Gary, gives him daps. A song from Piñata, his collaboration with musical wizard Madlib originally titled Cocaine Piñata, comes on over the loudspeaker
“They always play my shit here,” he says. “I’m a gentle giant. I only come in with one or two homies. I just like strippers.”
It’s the wee hours of the morning of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and we’re at a bikini bar in a grimy stretch of Downtown L.A., Sam’s Hofbrau Haus—last year, two men had their legs amputated after a driver rammed and pinned them against another car in its parking lot. The club is about to close, and Gibbs contemplates going to another strip club, Secret Sundayz, which will be open until 3:30 but doesn’t serve alcohol. In the end, he scratches that plan in order to smoke blunt after blunt after blunt in his car while playing me his next next album, Eastside Slim. It’s classy. A little less street thug, a little more Mafia don. Fitting. Before we’d headed out for the night, Gibbs had pulled a Superman. Disappearing into his room in silver athletic shorts and a t-shirt, he’d emerged a few minutes later smelling faintly of cologne and wearing in a slim-cut gray suit, sky-blue striped shirt and royal purple tie with white polka dots, a diamond-encrusted gold Rolex glinting on his wrist and large diamonds sparkling in his ears.
Looks like Freddie Gibbs, the real-live gangsta-turned-rapper pretty much responsible for keeping gangsta rap alive, might be growing up. The 31-year-old has been in the rap game for almost a decade now, since he was signed to Interscope in 2005. His projects are consistently excellent (listen to The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs or Baby Face Killa or ESGN for proof). He’s made records with everyone from legends like Bun B and Scarface to hot up-and-comers such as Earl Sweatshirt and Problem.
He’s been through enough industry shit to qualify him as a veteran. Still, Gangsta Gibbs is a moniker known largely by aficionados of word-drunk street gospel delivered by OGs. Instead of distancing himself from that audience, his latest album, the soul-drenched Piñata, openly courts it. The record is produced by Madlib, an underground king who’s shrouded in such mystery every interview he does includes the adjective “rare.” The two seem like an odd couple, but they have one huge thing in common: neither gives a fuck what anybody thinks about him.
We’re waiting on Madlib. Having read other interviews with the “famously secretive producer,” I’m worried he won’t show—but his manager texts to say they’re late because of him, not Madlib.
“He’s a weirdo,” Gibbs says of Madlib. “I love him, though. Like a brother. He’s a genius.”
The old cliché “opposites attract” applies here. A couple years ago—Piñata was made over the past four years—Gibbs himself told me he was working on a project that would surprise everybody, with a guy people in Gary probably had never heard of. Madlib is a soft-spoken, sweet-natured, and prolific producer who’s said he barely answers his phone. Born Otis Jackson, Jr., the 40-year-old Oxnard, CA native grew up following his father, a session musician, into the studio. “I would check out his records, looking at the producers, [who did] the instrumentation. I was a nerd as a kid. Quiet, wild imagination. And I’m a Scorpio. [We’re] forward-thinking people,” he says. No shit. He collaborated with J Dilla as “Jaylib” and MF Doom as “Madvillian,” and ate a bunch of mushrooms and let his tripped-out alter ego, the squeaky-voiced Quasimoto, create critically acclaimed albums like The Unseen that skyrocket you to outer space even if you’re dead-ass sober.
Gibbs has no censor chip, making no secret of his crack-selling (recent) past, leading his signature call-and-response, “Fuck police,” at every show and lobbing shots at Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy, to whose CTE label Gibbs was signed for a year and a half before a much-publicized, acrimonious split. Though Jeezy has remained silent, Gibbs has been vocal about Jeezy not supporting him or honoring his side of their business agreement. (No doubt Gibbs is serious, but many reports have exaggerated his tone. “I’ll beat his ass in my church shoes,” Gibbs says, but he’s half joking. “If he just apologized it’d be all over with. It’s not that deep.”)
“That’s one of the only mistakes of my career,” he says about his signing to CTE. “I loved Jeezy so much, diehard fan. I looked at the musical possibilities—if we were together, damn, we would make such great music. But only one of us was into it. You know another thing that made me get with CTE? I was feeling like rap was getting kinda clique-ish, like you’d be on the outside looking in and you was by yourself. Now I know how to stand on my own two. When I left Interscope, I didn’t know. When I left Jeezy, I knew.”
Madlib arrives, all smiles, and orders a grapefruit juice and eggs benedict. He and Gibbs actually seem like cousins, together just enough not to get on each other’s nerves. Madlib laughs at almost everything Gibbs says; Gibbs seems egged on. I ask what their favorite part of working together is. “When we ain’t working,” Madlib replies, and they both start snickering. “People think I’m serious, but I talk a lot of shit." "I don't fuck with too many people," Madlib says. "[But] I trust what he's gonna do."
At first, Gibbs was worried Madlib wouldn’t want to work with him because of his Jeezy association, but Madlib was drawn to his Gibbs’ style. “Before I even knew him, I was doing stuff [for him] cause I listened to his music. He's a cool dude and he can flow. That's enough for me,” Madlib says. “He had the knowledge to get on the stuff I do. It's kinda hard for a gangsta rapper to rap on my shit. My shit will change at any minute. He catches it all,” he says. Besides, Madlib adds, “I don’t care what anybody thinks. I just do what I do.”
Mostly, they recorded Piñata separately, with Madlib sending Gibbs a ton of silky-sounding beats and allowing him to choose which he wanted to use. “I didn’t do much,” he says. The modesty doesn’t seem false. “I don't fuck with too many people. I trust what he's gonna do. I don't sit there and tell him what to do: ‘One more time!’ No babysitting.”
They’re perfect foils, and neither has to prop the other up. Madlib calls himself the “background dude,” and Gibbs takes center stage, both in shows and at the coffee shop. And as opposed to the last “collaboration” Gibbs entered into with Young Jeezy, here, there was both mutual respect for the other’s work and strong desire to work with each other.
“There are so many rumors right now about me in the industry,” Gibbs says. “One guy said I hung an A&R out the window, one guy said I shot up somebody’s car.”
It’s a few hours before our January strip club outing, and we're at his spot in the Valley, a small house in a quiet, nondescript residential neighborhood about half an hour’s drive from L.A. (“Too many people knew where I lived in L.A.,” he says.) Gibbs is sobering up from a day drunk achieved while watching the NFL playoffs. Empty bottles of Mike’s Hard Lemonade and a canister of Girl Scout Cookie weed sit on a TV tray in the middle of the living room. Occasionally, you can hear his two pit bulls thrashing around outside. Otherwise, it’s the picture of tranquility. “People just got a thing about me. Afraid of me. I honestly don’t know why. I’m about my business, but I’m not gonna violently hurt anybody. People sue you!” But considering the stories he’s told both on his songs and in interviews, their being scared isn’t that crazy.
He grew up in the troubled Gary, Indiana, a city about 25 miles southeast of Chicago that greatly deteriorated following Big Steel’s decline. Its reputation is weak today - the median family income is $32,000, roughly half of the national average, and last year, Forbes named it #19 on its list of America’s Most Miserable Cities—but in the ‘90s, it was known as the murder capital of the country. His mother worked at the post office, and his father was a police officer. He was already getting picked on for being a “weird-looking little kid,” but having a cop for a dad in a city known for violent crime upped the ante.
“[They] called me snitch and bitch. It put fire in my stomach for me to go hard. When it was time to fight, when it was time to shoot or whatever, I would go above and beyond just to prove myself,” he says. He started gangbanging and selling crack. There were a string of chances to get out of Gary, but he blew a football scholarship and was dishonorably discharged from boot camp. “My little brother is about to be a doctor. A real doctor. I could’ve been on Sportscenter. I didn’t have to turn to what I turned to. I did it trying to be cool, trying to be down,” he says.
When it comes time for the photoshoot for this piece, Madlib is the first to show up. If the notoriously reclusive producer agreeing to do an interview for the album weren’t enough proof this collab isn’t just some industry suits’ puppetry, his showing up sans manager or publicist dragging him here is. “I’m never early,” he says, as surprised as anyone.
Gibbs strides in about 15 minutes later, offering an apology and cracking jokes. By the time Gibbs rolls a second blunt, we’ve lost Madlib, his head buried in the house’s record collection.
Earlier this week, Piñata saw its release. There have been a handful of reviews already published, and the album is competing for attention with the Def Jam-pushed debut of YG, which will be released the same day. But neither Gibbs nor Madlib seems very concerned about any of this. “We’re the tortoise in this race,” Archibald "Archie" Bonkers, who co-manages Gibbs with Lambert, says.
I think back to something Gibbs said on the way to the strip club.
“I’ve been wearing these suits lately,” he’d said. “I get my car valeted and pulled right up front. I get service to my table. They don’t think I’m a street guy, they think I work somewhere. ‘C’mon, that guy wouldn’t harm a fly.’”