Vince Staples: 'I started gangbanging because I wanted to kill people’

A member of the Crips in his teenage years, the reformed California rapper now spends his time stripping the glamour from gang culture. He wishes the media would do the same

When you think of Californian hip-hop, you flick through cliches like a Grand Theft Auto programmer: bouncing cars, guns being held sideways, blunts the size of folded umbrellas. Vince Staples, a 22-year-old rapper from Long Beach, is at pains to point out the difference between this cartoon and the flesh and blood of his streets. “Boyz N The Hood, Menace II Society, all that shit – it’s robbery,” he says. “I don’t know who benefits from that shit. You’ve just seen lowriders and Dickies suits and niggas Crip-walking. That’s tap-dancing, that’s coonery. Nobody’s told the real story.”

Except perhaps him. Staples’s double debut Summertime ’06 depicts his teenagehood spent running with a Crip gang, selling drugs and dodging police. His tracks aren’t chestbeating club bangers or ruminative boom-bap, but full of precise raps over claustrophobic backing from producers such as the Kanye West and Jay Z affiliate No ID. His frankness and pin-sharp flow makes it one of 2015’s best albums, made of kitchen-sink steel instead of gilded with bling.

Does he feel part of the hip-hop culture that’s currently celebrating him? “No. At all. I do not at all. I didn’t grow up with people breakdancing; I come from gang culture.” He quotes what A$AP Rocky says about him: “Birds of a feather flock together; you be by yourself, B. You ain’t like these other niggas!” Rocky is right: Staples is a bit of a lone wolf roaming around a hyperlocal patch. After he non-specifically “got in trouble” during his Crip days, it took his mother sending him for a cooling-off period in Atlanta, and time spent knocking about with the Odd Future crew, to divert his path on to rap. His ascendance since then has been impressive, touring with Rocky and Schoolboy Q and guesting on tracks for Common and Earl Sweatshirt. He now lives down the way from his home town in the more affluent Orange County: “I will live in Long Beach [again], but right now I’ve done too much stuff. People don’t forget when you’ve done things to hurt them.”

Vince Staples.
Vince Staples. Photograph: Gonzales/Tord Litleskare/The Hell Gate/Corbis

He won’t tell me what he did, only that he was fixated on violence. “I started gangbanging because I wanted to kill people,” he says, matter of factly. “I wanted to hurt people. There’s no reason: it’s a bloodthirst. The same reason people join the army: because they want to kill. A lion doesn’t make an excuse to kill anybody, he does it because he wants to.” Most people join the army for employment, though, and we like to think we’re more considered than lions. “Well, they’re not the ones destroying the planet. We’re not better, we’re probably worse than fucking animals.”

We’ve got off to a rather bleak start: is he really such a nihilist? There’s a dog-whistle of wry humour as he bats back my question: “No, I definitely gave a shit about my life. I just didn’t give a fuck about nobody else.” Sleepy from a long flight to the UK, he broods horizontally in an easy chair; during our hour, he can lapse into being blandly jaded. But when he begins to dig into the detail, Staples’s eyes grow like a kid in a Disneyland ad, and the jetlag melts off the sides of his face.

In the Hollywood version, a gang is something you grimly join when shit gets real, your jaw set like Vin Diesel trying to do a kakuro, but Staples says that’s another distortion. “If you live in Long Beach, gang members are going to be your friends regardless. You don’t get ‘sucked into’ being an American, for example, you live there! Gangs are just part of southern Californian culture, they’ve been there since the late-1800s; the gang culture sets up the schooling, the little-league sports... What are the Boy Scouts? A group of people with a name who do stuff together. It’s just when it become illegal that it becomes a problem.”

Vince Staples.
Vince Staples. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Guide

Of course, gang violence stems from deprivation, and deprivation from racist oppression. Staples, however, takes an unfashionable view on this. “Slavery wasn’t that long ago,” he says. “And, come on: that shit worked. As soon as black people started to get themselves together, it was: ‘Kill them, give them crack.’” He almost sounds nostalgic for antebellum America. “When there isn’t an enemy, we look stupid if we fight them, right? You just live in a piece of shit and are unhappy with yourself. If you ain’t got no money, you’re not leaving, so why would you care about the next person?”

Staples is no fan of the authorities: when I saw him at Reading festival this summer he led the crowd in a chant of “Fuck the police!”, arms ranging like an emaciated Stretch Armstrong over a word-perfect moshpit. But, like Kendrick Lamar, who drew ire for suggesting that the black community – as well as the racist police – needed to improve itself, Staples argues that “as someone who has been deemed a criminal in his life, I know why police are scared”. He says the black community needs to “broaden certain issues to make them more familiar [to white people]. Do we want understanding, or do we just want sympathy?” And he says police brutality isn’t simply driven by race. “It’s also a class thing. When it’s time for it to really go down, the white boys from the black neighbourhoods are black in the eyes of the aggressor. It’s a clash of cultures. Money changes everything: I got pulled over without a driver’s licence the other day and they were like, ‘Be safe, get home safe.’ If I was in Long Beach, they’d have pulled me out of that shit and taken me to jail. You don’t have to do anything to get to jail; when they want to pick you up and take you, you’ll go.”

This ’hood life is then sold back to the masses by dishonest, inauthentic rappers. Staples is careful to praise hip-hop’s entertainers: “Kool Moe Dee dressed like a cowboy. The Furious Five looked like dominatrixes. Showmanship has always been a part of hip-hop. I’m not Drake, he’s the entertainer – and that shit’s amazing. He’s very heartfelt, and personal in his music.”

It’s the fake gangstas that Staples is more scornful of. “It’s the reason why people like Mission: Impossible, there’s something captivating about danger. But it’s not fun when it’s real. People die, bro. This kid got killed a week ago at a car wash, and people were posting pictures on Twitter of his dead body; this kid I know died six days ago, shooting a music video. He was from these places. It’s not some shit you sign up for.”

For Staples, he’s neither pop star, academic or thug. “I have to be a ‘conscious rapper’, or a ‘gangsta rapper’, when I’m neither,” he says, eyes bulging again in exasperation, about how others try to pigeonhole his music. “None of that shit is real, it’s just music. It’s like money: this piece of paper worth $20, and this one is worth $1, but it all started on the same blank sheet. It literally means nothing. So I’m not worried about hip-hop culture. I’m worried about people, and where I come from. I don’t really care to be a rapper – I’d rather just be myself.” He shakes my hand goodbye, winging away from the flock.

Summertime ’06 is out now on Def Jam. Vince Staples plays Cargo, EC2, on Thursday 5 November


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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