Interview: Vince Staples on Ian Curtis, religion and more

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Perfectly fitting a spot between the 2.0 cynicism of Odd Future, Earl Sweatshirt’s land-locked introspection and Kendrick Lamar’s maximalist art, Vince Staples is one of the most skilled MCs and vivid storytellers in West Coast hip hop right now. Coming from a long lineage of gang-affiliation, young Vince only became an MC after returning from a brief stint in Atlanta, with his hopes of going to college in shambles.

Establishing friendships with Taco, Mike G, Syd Tha Kid and Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future, Vince made a name for himself with guest appearances on Earl’s breakout mixtape and debut album Doris and a full-length solo mixtape produced by Mac Miller under his Larry Fisherman guise. But it was not before signing his first proper solo EP Hell Can Wait to Def Jam that he unleashed his full narrative potential.

Working with Chicago OG producer and Kanye mentor No I.D., Vince’s debut album Summertime ’06 is an intricate mix of highly percussive post-Neptunes beat science, hyphy and psych leanings, and street tales that alternate seamlessly in perspectives, characters and register. In this excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview, Vince talks about religion, Ian Curtis and much more.

Vince Staples - Señorita

The thing that strikes me as interesting about your recent material is that you put yourself into a position way before you even started rapping. Is it hard for you to emotionally connect with that time?

It will never be emotionally hard for anyone to connect with their past if they accept it. You have to understand the importance of your path and where you came from, whether it’s coming from glory or coming from hardship. Because where we all come from matters in the grand scheme of things, and the minds of these other people that we all are put on this earth to touch, because we’re put on this earth for each other.

I feel like you can’t be afraid to tell where you came from, and it isn’t just music. There are women that speak about such things as rape and sexual harassment to help other women that have been through it. You have people that have been alcoholics and addicted to drugs speaking on their path to help other people. It’s a common thing in our culture that we should embrace.

It’s crazy you’re 22, but already have experienced so much that you can write a double album, basically coming to terms with your teenage years. No one I know could.

You know what, you could. It just takes stepping outside of yourself, which is something that we’re not really taught to do often. It’s something I learned how to do just recently. I’ve always been very observant, recognizing things that were going on around me. I think by me doing that, it helped me be able to write the songs that I write. Make what I make. That, I guess, is a gift and a curse, in a sense.

There’s not much that we find about your time in Atlanta. Did that episode in your life happen after the period of time you discuss on the record?

It was definitely after that. It was 2008 when I went to Atlanta, and it was a difficult time for me because one of my friends had just got killed. So I kind of felt like I was running away. There was a lot of turmoil going on in my life around that time. Yeah, the album is definitely before that, the bliss of it, the ignorance of the situation.

What age were you when you met Odd Future’s Mike G and Syd tha Kyd?

I was 15. They were my early friends within that group. Me and Taco were also always very, very, very close. I used to sleep at their house all the time. It was me, Syd, Mike, Earl [Sweatshirt] and Taco. All of them more than Earl. I knew him the least out of all of those people.

Back then, you were never really trying to become a rapper.

No, my motivation very much came from my friends. When you’re a kid, you do what your friends do. That’s what, you know the drug culture in Chicago is so big right now, because other people’s friends are doing it and that’s how things translate through the youth. At that point in time all those kids were making music, so that’s what happened to me. It was either that or go get in trouble with my friends, and that wasn’t new to me. I’d been doing that since my middle school years, so that wasn’t something I wanted to do again. Not necessarily do again, you know... Everybody needs a break from things. I got bored of it.

Vince Staples feat. Hardo & Mac Miller - Heaven

How did you get introduced to Mac Miller?

He was putting beats on Earl’s album and I introduced myself. I was like, “I’m Vince.” He’s like, “Oh yeah, I know.” I was like, “Oh yeah?” He’s like, “Why don’t you make more songs?” I was like, “I don’t have any beats.” He said, “Here’s my number, come over here next week.” And that’s how that happened.

He definitely has a mind for music. He doesn’t get enough credit as a person. He’s a very good person, he’s very open-hearted and embraces people with open arms, open mind. He’s just a good dude.

You’re still friends?

Yeah, I talked to him yesterday. He was trying to figure out whether he was going to come out here [to Europe], but he had to go to New York. He’s one of those people that says, “Where you at? I’m going to come out there.” These tickets are thousands of dollars. He doesn’t care about the wrong things in life, which is why he’s a very important friend of mine. He’ll always be my friend. My first tour was with him, his DJ Clockwork and his security guard, Dave. They taught me a lot. Schoolboy Q too. I’ve been surrounded by very good friends. Q, to this day, randomly gives me advice. Mac, he can’t go a day without trying to help me. It’s just good to be surrounded by those people.

Vince Staples Shares Advice Given To Him By Mac Miller and Freestyles

I remember when you were on tour with Schoolboy Q, you were at Sway In The Morning, and you told him that you don’t believe all stereotypical gangster rappers, because you actually know what indictment means. In that sense, is Summertime ‘06 an actual gangster rap record?

Definitely. I don’t care about going to jail. At all. My album paints definitely a scenery. If that can get me in trouble, it’s going to get me in trouble with other people from that scenery, and I’m already in trouble with them anyway. What’s more important, your safety or your message? It comes down to that, because I definitely say things I shouldn’t say. Definitely say things that can anger people, but I understand the importance of it being said nowadays.

It’s just the whole, “I killed him, and I sell this amount of drugs, and I do this,” Really, bro? I know how much we get paid. It’s not a lot. Why do you do this if you sell so much cocaine? It’s just the allure. You show me a crackhead nowadays. I know their drug dealer must have a record deal, because that’s not popular anymore. Let’s be honest, it’s not fucking popular.

There are hundreds and hundreds of rappers in the state of Georgia. Hundreds. They all sell cocaine. If everyone’s selling the cocaine, who’s buying the cocaine? Is it just a circle, all the rappers sell cocaine to each other?

You guys know the Mexicans, in Mexico? No, you don’t, because they would not sell that to you. Because I know how the Mexicans work. We have a lot of Mexicans where I come from, and they don’t do that with black people. But to each his own, man. I understand the story and the mystique of it, but it’s kids listening to this music, man.

Future raps about selling drugs, but he will also rap about heartbreak or uncertainty. He’ll rap about a lot of things that people do not give him credit for. At all. He gets no credit for being innovative when it comes to sonics. That’s not his fault, it’s just how we interpret things, and how we digest the music. It’s kind of wrong.

B.B. King and Ian Curtis sing about the same things. Literally.

That’s why I’m asking if Summertime is, in that way, a gangster rap record, because it deals with these topics in a much more thoughtful way.

Put it like this. B.B. King’s music is about heartbreak, right? Is that post-punk?

Probably not.

Exactly. B.B. King and Ian Curtis sing about the same things. Literally. Know what I mean? It’s all life. In hip hop, specifically, everything is sectioned off. Someone told me, “This album’s closer to art rap than what you’ve usually done.” I said, “What is art rap?” Isn’t music art? But what’s “art rap”? Is Muddy Waters a rapper? No. Was he singing? No. It’s all music, man, we got to get back to that. That’s something that we created, hip hop created that. Because we live in a day and age where rock music is potentially over nowadays. Who’s the rock star? Ed Sheeran? Jack White? That’s not Mick Jagger, that’s not Steven Tyler. Who is it? Kanye West. That’s it. So why are we still trying to limit ourselves?

You just mentioned Ian Curtis. Is the cover art for Summertime nodding towards the Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover?

In the style of it, yes. As far as the placement.

As a reference?

Yeah, definitely. Not really a strong one. It’s not as strong as people try to make it seem. “It’s the same thing.” No, it’s not. Even if it was, that’s not even their logo. That’s out of a science book. Public domain. Come on, man. I know what I’m talking about, trust me. [laughs] But yeah, that influenced a lot of the things I was going through at the time.

One thing that’s hard to figure out about you as a writer, an artist, is what role religion actually plays in your life. You use the imagery a lot.

Oh yeah, I know I’m going to hell. I talk to my grandma about it all the time. She’s like, “I can’t wait to die and go to hell,” and I’m like, “Me too.” It’s a running joke. I don’t believe in any of that stuff. That stuff’s not real, man. Somebody wrote those books. If I write a book and put it in the ground, and in 500 years somebody finds it, it’s the truth.

These are still powerful words, though.

Yeah, definitely. You got to understand the power of words, but as far as words, I’m not speaking on God. Religion and God have nothing to do with each other. But if you write anything you want on a piece of paper and you bury it in the ground, and people find it hundreds or thousands of years later, it’s the truth. It doesn’t matter what it says, because it’s old. That’s why religion works.

That’s why everybody thinks Scientologists are crazy, because it’s new. One doesn’t sound more crazy than the other. Aliens, virgin birth, it’s all crazy, but one’s older than the other, so it’s like it has to be true. We only know what we’re told. You’ve been told your whole life that a picture frame is black. What if someone came and said, “No, that’s turquoise.” You’d say, “You’re fucking crazy.” But it’s just a word.

Religion just teaches you about power when you grow up. It taught me a lot about people controlling other people. It’s not fair. It’s not cool. Because of religion, people will deem you a whore, a sinner, a demonic... All these bad things. I’ve never seen once where Jesus was like, “She’s a fucking whore.” Show me the place in the Bible where Jesus says, “She’s a whore if she killed her baby.” Did Jesus kick it with a prostitute? Mary Magdalene, best friend. The Da Vinci Code says it was his wife. Where are the books of the Bible written by women? The Jewish people have them. Isn’t the Bible based off their texts and their knowledges? You just took it out?

So you’re worried about the editors?

Who is the editor? That’s my thing. The fact that it has an editor is why I can’t fuck with religion. Because if you look at everything, in theory, Islam is beautiful. Christianity is beautiful, Judaism is beautiful. Once you put people in things, things get bad. Just like the environment. All these trees, water and animals and fish and beautiful things were here, and then they gave it to us and we fucked it up. That’s just what we do, we mess things up. You just can’t trust people, we’re crazy.

Vince Staples feat. Snoh Aalegra - Jump off the Roof

In “Jump Off The Roof,” you have this mantra of “I pray to God cause I need him,” repeated by someone who’s about to commit suicide, right? Can you tell me a bit about that track?

Well, in the hook it’s “On 3,” like in the sense of “1... 2...“ But “I pray to God cause I need him,” is like the only reason that anyone does. That song is about my dad doing drugs. Gives you seizures, makes you crazy. How drugs can fuck you up. When I say, “Life’s way too hard. Am I dreaming? Only way to tell if I’m breathing, on 3 let’s jump off the roof,” that kind of symbolizes throwing yourself into a situation. That song’s all about a leap of faith.

Is commercial failure something you fear?

I don’t give a fuck. It took the Ramones 50 years to go gold. It took Obie Trice a week. Walk around the streets, ask people if they know who the Ramones are, and ask them if they know who Obie Trice is, and we’ll see. That’s no disrespect at all, that’s just the honest-to-God truth. Sorry, Obie. Love you.

I was talking to A$AP Rocky the other day, and he said, “These are things that they use to put us on the bus. They use these things to embarrass us, so they can control us.” No one’s ever cared about that shit. I’ll say this: I guess my overall score’s like a 89 out of 100. My whole critical acclaim thing, the 4-out-of-5’s, I appreciate all of those. I even appreciate the lower ones. I appreciate everything, but once those numbers come in, all that can change.

It’s not an easy choice to make the music I made. But it’s not about making the easy choice, it’s about making the appropriate one.

You think that the critical acclaim will go away as well, when the sales are not that high?

Well I don’t know what they’re going to be. They could be high, they could be low. I’m not going to even look, to be honest, but that just shows the system we live in. But I jumped off the roof, so to say, with the music I made. I could have done it easy. Pay for a feature on the first single, shoot a video, do some club appearances, sell 30,000 records. At the least. That’s how these things work.

It’s definitely not an easy choice to start off with a double album.

It’s not an easy choice to make the music I made. But it’s not about making the easy choice, it’s about making the appropriate one. We don’t need another Kanye West or another Jay Z or another Drake. They’re here already, they’re doing well, they’re thriving. We don’t need a A$AP Rocky, we don’t need a Travis Scott. We don’t even need me, but I’d rather present this to the world than a knockoff version of someone else, because everyone I just named is great in their own right (and so are other people I didn’t name).

I’m not sure that “need” is the right word, but you certainly fill some sort of void. Summertime ‘06 hasn’t been done in the current state of rap, as it is.

Yeah, it’s funny, I had an interview, and dude’s like, “If I had to reference your work, it’s very Kendrick Lamar-esque.” I was like, “Why, because it was good?”

I don’t like to be looked at, I don’t like these cameras. I don’t like to be on stage. I hate all those things.

Good, West Coast, young. That’s why everyone goes, “Yeah, he’s in the wake of Kendrick.”

Yeah, but it’s not very him. Because I could never do what he did, and he probably could never do what I did, because we’re two different people. But it’s funny, I was like, “Man, listen. Find something to tell me what my music sounds like at this point in time, what my new album sounds like, because I want to know.” Older people and younger people, no one can really find anything that they feel like it would sound like, as far as another album. That’s good, to me. I know I’m doing something right.

One review of my album said that “the vocals [are] mixed too low.” And I’m like, “That’s perfect!” Because that says we’re based on hearing something a certain way. We went into this album, and we were like, “I don’t want my voice to sit on top of the beat.” I want my music to sound like music. It’s not my voice over a beat. Everything plays an important, equal part, because I feel like – as people – we all play an important, equal part in life. That’s not the fake humble approach. I know a lot of people do that, but that’s just really how I feel. I don’t like to be looked at, I don’t like these cameras. I don’t like to be on stage. I hate all those things. But I like when people say that something affected them, because I wish something was able to affect me when I was younger. It would’ve saved me a lot of headaches. Lot of trouble.

Is there a specific mood that you feel wraps up the whole album?

What I learned in that summer was the power of fear. You’re young, you grow up, you all have friends. Your friends are white, black, purple, blue, Mexican, Asian, Indian, Native, everyone. You’re a kid, everyone’s fun. You learn separation, whether it’s in class, race. You learn separation. Sometimes it causes you to feel bad about yourself. I came from a particularly bad area. We never had sleepovers at my house. No one ever came to my house.

I learned that power of fear, and that’s how I carried myself from that day forward – to have people be afraid of me. Because it helps you feel better about yourself. That led me to a lot of trouble, but that’s basically the mood of the album: understanding the power of fear that you engage in. The mishandling of power.

There’s a lot of anxiety on that record.

Yeah, man.

By Julian Brimmers on July 14, 2015

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