From Portishead to Scarface: Vince Staples on his favourite songwriters

He’s the rapper and former gang member who resists every gangsta cliche – so his music taste naturally extends from Depeche Mode to Lil Boosie and 99 Red Balloons

“You can’t please everybody,” says Vince Staples. “Luckily, I’m not the sort of person who has ever cared about pleasing anybody. I like it when people don’t like my music. It’s funny.”

The razor-sharp, 23-year-old Californian rapper delights in swerving away from expectations. His audacious second album, Big Fish Theory, features Damon Albarn and Justin Vernon alongside A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar, with electronic beats from producers such as Sophie and Jimmy Edgar, and he doesn’t care if some of his old fans are disappointed that he is not rapping about gangs any more. “Somebody told me once: ‘We want that G shit back.’ Oh, you don’t want to do that with your life, but you want to listen to it?” He shakes his head. “People are fucking crazy.”

Given his constant sonic subversion, we asked Staples to tell us about his 10 favourite songwriters – and got a predictably off-beam list, as he digressed into memories of his childhood at a Christian school in Compton; his opinions about art, influence, fame, fandom and stereotyping; and why simplicity is underrated.

Portishead

“Sometimes music gives you a kneejerk reaction. You hear it and it makes you feel a certain way. That was one of those things; I hadn’t heard anything like it. I feel like the songwriting was very honest and also had a lot of depth. But music was never something I thought long about when I was a kid. It was just in the background of my life. My parents listened to gospel music and that wasn’t my thing.”

Sam Cooke

“My mom liked that shit. I like A Change Is Gonna Come, I like Chain Gang. Frankie Lymon, too. Frankie Lymon’s tone of voice reminds me of Young Thug.”

André 3000

“The only rap album my family had was Outkast’s Stankonia. André is a great songwriter. He’s the best. It’s a unique writing style. It’s not a duplicate of anything; it’s the way he structures his sentences and delivery. It’s not directed by the punchline, there’s no crescendo – it’s just like: this is what happened. It’s very conversational, kind of like SE Hinton when she writes a book. Everything is a conversation. It never feels impersonal. Do I wish he did more? No, not at all. If he wants to be an artist, then that’s his art – take it or go home. No one’s going to say it out loud, but most people want product. It’s a very selfish thing to be a fan because artists create the narrative for your life; it’s only natural for you to want more because you hold it so dear. But I want him to do whatever he wants to do.”

Depeche Mode

“When I was a kid I used to watch I Love the 80s on VH1 all the time with my mom. I like 80s pop music such as Depeche Mode, Erasure, Duran Duran. People Are People is my favourite. It sounds like a video game. I liked that wonky, quirky sound – I would have been hot in the 80s. Back to the Future was my favourite movie, and I played PlayStation all day so I didn’t want to hear church drums. I still listen to crazy shit. That’s why people think my beats are trash, because they’re wonky. Based on the general consensus of how people want to hear hip-hop music, I fully understand that. It’s like if you go to a vegan restaurant and a motherfucker throws a steak on your plate. It doesn’t mean the steak’s bad, it just means you should probably take it elsewhere. I’m for sure a steak-at-the-vegan-restaurant type of person.”

Nena

“99 Luftballons is one of my favourite songs ever. Not the English version – I hate the English version. That’s the only song I’ve ever heard by her, that’s all I need. I like listening to the same song all day. The other day I was listening to White Lines by Grandmaster Flash for, like, 45 minutes. If you’re ever in my car, you’ll want to go home.”

Scarface

“I remember hearing On My Block for the first time on the music video channel in my house. I never forgot it. I had to wait a month for it to come back on. It was so descriptive that you can’t miss a detail. The voice is so unique and the delivery is so matter-of-fact. It kind of reminds me of Sam Cooke, in the sense that every word has its own spacing and, based on the spacing and the pace, it’s almost impossible to miss out on what he’s trying to convey if you have the patience to digest it. I knew Scarface used to be with the Geto Boys. You know things like that because, being black, this is our culture. We’ve got the point where hip-hop culture is dominant, whether you want to admit it or not. Nobody cares about pop music or rock music on the scale that they care about hip-hop. That’s why Katy Perry brings Migos with her. Taylor Swift calls Kendrick Lamar; he doesn’t call her.”

Kanye West

“I heard The College Dropout in sixth grade. He’s an artist, where there’s no trajectory, and you can make whatever you want. We call musicians artists, but we don’t treat them like they are, because you can’t tell an artist what to do. Imagine walking into a museum and telling Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Robert Longo, Jeff Koons: ‘You should have done this different. I would have used red paint.’ Do you know how crazy they would look at you? I would never in a million years question someone’s craft. I appreciate it for what it is.”

Amy Winehouse

“I don’t know a weak Amy Winehouse moment. She was always creatively strong. Look at Stronger Than Me, Fuck Me Pumps, anything from Frank. It’s always been there. She was honest, and honesty is important. She showed the evil within people, especially within fans. Fans are the worst people ever sometimes. Just look at the way she put her life on display and asked for help from people that supposedly cared about her and you see what they did to her. They killed her. Literally. I hope everybody who booed her at a concert or called her a crackhead feels like shit for the rest of their life. She probably just needed a hug.”

Lil Boosie

“I don’t like the concept of lyricists. We use that to separate and put down: you’re a lyricist and you’re not. If Little Richard says ‘Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom’, is he a lyricist? If a rapper said that they’d be like: “You’re not saying words. That’s not lyricism.’ It’s a separation point, like the word ‘conscious’. You take a select few and put them above everyone else and it ultimately demeans the whole genre. You say: ‘Oh, they’re different. They’re the good version of whatever this is.’ I’m not about that. You can listen to Lil Boosie and learn about the prison-industrial complex, but he’s not a ‘lyricist’, so most people wouldn’t look for that.”

Daft Punk

“Around the World is one of the best-written songs ever. You got to understand how talented you have to be to make a song and say, ‘Damn, what should we say on this? We should say: around the world, around the world.’ Nobody’s turning that off. Nobody’s ever like: ‘Man, when are they going to stop saying it?’ That’s lyricism.”

Big Fish Theory is out now on Def Jam

Contributor

Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 100 best albums of the 21st century
We polled 45 music writers to rank the definitive LPs of the 21st century so far. Read our countdown of passionate pop, electrifying rock and anthemic rap – and see if you agree

Ben Beaumont-Thomas (1-50); Laura Snapes and April Curtin (51-100)

13, Sep, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 100 greatest BBC music performances – ranked!
As the Beeb celebrates its centenary, we take a look at its most memorable pop moments, from the birth of grime to the first sightings of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, plus TOTP goes Madchester and countless classic Peel sessions

Guardian music

06, Oct, 2022 @12:12 PM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-1
Look back on our complete countdown of the greatest UK No 1s, from the Beatles to Baby D, and So Solid Crew to Suzi Quatro

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alexis Petridis and Laura Snapes

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Pharrell Williams’s 30 greatest songs – ranked!
It’s 20 years since his band NERD released their debut album – but the rapper-producer-singer-songwriter has been responsible for an avalanche of hits. As he and co-pilot Chad Hugo get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, we count down Williams’s 30 greatest bangers

Alexis Petridis

10, Mar, 2022 @2:00 PM

Article image
Big Boi: Boomiverse review – glitzy bangers, bold flavours and lowrider bounce

Harriet Gibsone

15, Jun, 2017 @8:30 PM

Article image
Vince Staples: Big Fish Theory review – dazzling flow makes grim truths glitter

Kate Hutchinson

23, Jun, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Afrofuturism takes flight: from Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe

Lanre Bakare: A new generation of artists are exploring afrofuturism – Outkast and Janelle Monáe take the philosophy to the mainstream, while Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces push jazz and hip-hop to their extremes

Lanre Bakare

24, Jul, 2014 @5:00 PM

Article image
Best albums of 2016: No 4 The Life of Pablo by Kanye West
By turns brilliant and shambolic, breezy and anguished, Pablo was a perfect reflection of its maverick creator’s mindset

Nosheen Iqbal

13, Dec, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
Kanye West – every album ranked!
As the rapper’s new album arrives on the usual sea of ego and controversy, we rate everything he’s done so far – from The College Dropout to The Life of Pablo

Alexis Petridis

31, May, 2018 @11:00 AM

Article image
From Dukes of Hazzard to Kanye West: the curse of the Confederate flag
Lynyrd Skynyrd flew it, Ludacris stamped on it and Spike Lee compared it to a swastika. In the era of Black Lives Matter, what do these battles reveal about the American South’s Confederate flag?

Steve Rose

27, Jul, 2020 @5:00 AM