Throughout Vince Staples’ 22 years, the North Long Beach, CA rapper has avoided all boxes, whether pine or figurative. He’s a gangsta rapper with a conscience, a Clippers fan who can’t stand their star player, a Crip who wears a Metallica “Ride the Lightning” T-shirt. He has no visible gang tattoos because he’s too smart to betray his affiliations to police. He’s signed to Def Jam, but don’t ask him for a “radio single.” These contradictions aren’t hypocrisies in Vince; they’re marks of complexity.
When we meet up for an interview at the rooftop bar of Downtown L.A.’s Ace Hotel, he appears restless. It’s happy hour, but he’s never had liquor nor smoked—residual wisdom learned from watching his father wrestle with addiction. The occasion for our meeting is his debut album, Summertime ’06, though the rapper from the city that brought you “Summertime in the LBC” isn’t aiming for cookout anthems. Executive produced by No I.D., the album is heavy with blunt-force chronicles of stick-ups and street pharmaceuticals, wrathful condemnations of police brutality, and prayers that his enemy’s bullets miss. Vince says he’s not trying to be righteous; he’s trying to make people pay attention. It’s hard not to.
Most major-label artists put out singles that fit radio formats, but you haven’t released anything remotely in that vein. Have you felt any pressure to make a hit?
It’s changed. The last two years, no important artist has had a “single.” Drake doesn’t have a single. J. Cole doesn’t have a single. Jay Z doesn’t have singles. They just put out music. OG Maco had a single. OT Genasis has a single. You can’t predict the singles. So the fact that labels are still trying to market singles is weird to me.
No one listens to the radio anymore. We got auxiliary cords, Sirius, Pandora, and Spotify. Who wants to hear clean versions of music? In our phones is what’s important. The radio’s not breaking singles. Vine is breaking singles now. Twitter’s breaking singles.
When I die, no one’s going to play my single. You feel me? The question is, “What did this person stand for?” I feel like my songs are things I stand for. I’m trying my hardest to paint a picture with the music, because without these pictures being painted, you fall by the wayside.
You first came to people’s attention through appearing on songs with Odd Future. What were you thinking when that was all blowing up?
I don’t care about none of that shit. I worry about myself. People think I was from Odd Future; people think I was from Raider Klan. People think I was from all sorts of weird shit. I don’t do none of that, bro—I’m by myself. I ignore that shit because you can’t really control it. I’d rather stay at home.
I’ve been a gang member. I’ve dealt with that structure before. At the end of the day, I’ve been here for a minute, so I try my hardest to let the music speak for itself. I’ve seen people get big and then fall off. Even some of my very close friends were some of the biggest shit on earth and now... That’s scary. We’re trying our hardest to stand the test of time because no one can do that. Every album release that we’ve seen recently has been talked about for a week.
Even the Kendrick album.
They didn’t give a fuck about the Kendrick album, and that shit was culturally something, at least to me. That shit sounds like a moment in this time period.
“I don’t care about rap music like that. I don’t sit at my house looking at vinyls. Shit don’t mean nothing when there’s people out here dying and starving with no hope.” —Vince Staples
Do you think the culture has shifted?
Hip-hop culture has. It’s not appreciated. You get too much of it. When you’re a kid, you don’t appreciate home-cooked meals. You want to go to McDonald’s because your mom always cooks. You want Chicken motherfucking McNuggets.
Do you think hip-hop gets taken less seriously than other genres?
Hip-hop is the most imitated, most influential, most creative, most underappreciated, underrespected music form there is.
Do you think that’s a function of black art not being respected as much?
Yeah, but it’s more. It scares white people. I say that as part of the problem. That’s where I want to be, on this side of the wall.
How important is it for you to show the harsher side of gang life, which might otherwise get glamorized or exaggerated for commercial appeal?
This is the thing—I really did all of that, so I know it’s not fun and cool. It sucks. Nobody likes that shit. I got homies calling me from jail telling me they want to get home and get their shit together, and I know they can’t. That sucks.
What was it about the summer of ’06 that made you write an album about it?
It was the most intense time. We were in the seventh or eighth grade and getting away with everything, until one of my best friends ended up in jail. He’s there right now, for allegedly killing a little girl.
In gang culture, the summer is when people start dying. Everybody’s outside or at the beach with their shirts off. Now you can see the tattoos, those sleeves. “Oh, what’s that?”
This year my little brother turned 18. He got a 15-year [sentence] when he was 15. Little niggas is getting 15-to-life, 20-to-life, when they get to be 16 or 17. But when we were 15, we were getting away with shit. It was us against the older motherfuckers.
Did you watch the Baltimore riots closely this spring?
Yeah. I get it. In Baltimore, they saying, “Fuck the police.” They’re really fighting against the police. My whole thing is everybody wants to bicker and complain, but nobody wants to take action. Whether it’s violent or not, take action. If you so mad at the police, go kill one of the police.
What do you think about the way the media portrayed the people in the streets?
People got to understand this. I am a thug and animal in the general description of the words. We live in a motherfucking zoo. They watching us on TV, but they’re not going to go to Baltimore. Motherfuckers in Iowa don’t know no better, so what are you going to do? Are you going to enlighten them on the area? Or are you just going to be like, “Fuck it, it’s hard,” and do nothing? They don’t give a fuck because we don’t really give a fuck. As far as police things, take action if you believe in it, but understand that these people don’t understand where you come from. As much as people listen to YG, they wouldn’t go to Compton.
Most people in L.A. have never been to Compton.
How realistic is it that they would? People have lives to live. It’s about before this shit happens, before Baltimore goes up. Why aren’t we letting people know about these neighborhoods? It’s documented about gang culture in these neighborhoods, but nobody sees it. You can watch the news all day and see and hear about terrorism or the war going on. You’re never going to care until you feel it happening close up, until we get a 9/11, until ISIS threatens, or there’s North Korea and nuclear threats. That’s what this album is to me.
I understand where people come from when they say, “The police do too much.” I also understand it when people say, “It’s okay for us to kill us, but they can’t kill us.” At the end of the day, a life is a life no matter who takes it. Now, is it wrong because of who died and what color they might be? Or is it wrong because somebody got killed?
Why do you think there hasn’t been a riot in L.A. since ’92?
If the police come out to Long Beach, trying to shoot the wrong people, we’re not playing no turn-over-a-car games. Niggas is shooting at the police right now. So they don’t really wanna play that game with us, because I promise you that we don’t care about going to jail. You’re getting life for bran- dishing firearms nowadays. You’re getting life for gang allegations. Niggas don’t care about going to jail. We’re dying.
“I might be okay now, but I’m not really okay, because nobody else is okay.” —Vince Staples
Do you feel like all this violence is a cycle that can’t be broken?
What people need to realize is that we’re all in this together. These niggas I used to grow up with were all like, “Fuck that nigga. I’m going to kill that nigga.” And I see them and I feel bad for the motherfuckers. When certain people do unforgivable things, I can’t help but think about the way that my life has changed. I understand what I was wrong about and where I was lost too.
I just want to help people understand that we don’t get to pick, bro. We don’t get to pick where we was from. That ain’t how it works. How does it stop? If we knew how it would stop, it would stop. I know that no one really wants to go to jail for life.
You’ve said before that you don’t go in the studio everyday because you need to live a normal life to have things to rap about.
Because, bro, I don’t care about rap music like that. That shit means nothing to me. I don’t sit at my house looking at vinyls. Shit don’t mean nothing when there’s people out here dying and starving with no hope. That’s what matters, so you don’t want to get jaded and lose sight of where you came from. I might be okay now, but I’m not really okay, because nobody else is okay.