Vince Staples On… Encarta Escapism, Long Beach Living and Why Beethoven Is More Relevant Than Boyz N the Hood

March 04, 2015 Interviews, ST023

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Photography BRYAN SHEFFIELD
Words PAUL THOMPSON

If you had to describe Vince Staples in one word, it would be “disarming.” The 21-year-old rapper is from Long Beach—he’ll never let you forget that—and has been witness to and participant in some grisly things. But he’s also slight, gracious and soft-spoken. “Hands Up,” his scathing response to police brutality, might be jarringly prescient, but most nights, the kid just wants to play Playstation and lob insults at Chris Paul.

self-titled recently sat down with Staples at a Hollywood studio where he was holed up with Clams Casino, the New Jersey producer best known for his work with A$AP Rocky and Lil B. His first Def Jam release, the Hell Can Wait EP, had only been out for a few weeks, but he was already back to his old routine: fielding collect calls from jail and writing songs with no instrumentals. We talked about gang culture, family ties and why he prefers Beethoven over Boyz N the Hood.

self-titled: What was your first memory of the police?
Taking my dad to jail. It was the day before Christmas; he knocked down the tree. I was probably in kindergarten or first grade. I vaguely remember it… My sister came over; she and my dad got in an argument; he chases my sister down the steps; some weird shit happens; then the police come out. He was in for a couple years.

Was that difficult?
Nah. It was normal.

Lots of people think Long Beach and LA are one big city. How would you tell them they’re different?
It’s 40 minutes without traffic on the freeway—not close at all [laughs]. I hadn’t been to LA until I was basically grown, unless I was going to church with my mom or my grandma. I’d never been to LA on my own until I started going to Syd [tha Kyd, of Odd Future]’s house. It’s just different. [Long Beach is] the suburbs—not in the sense of safety or of how it looks, but in the sense of how it’s set up. Everyone knows everyone; it’s a small place, not one you get out of. And it’s really difficult, whether you talk economically, racially—it’s not the same as LA at all.

Who did you live with for most of your childhood?
My mom and my grandparents. And my aunt. My mom worked a lot, but I was always with my mom. She was never in any deadbeat situation, ever. Even my father, he just went to jail a lot. My mom would try to separate him from us for our benefit, which I understand now that I’m older. I had a decent family.

How young where you when you realized that your mom was absent because she was working to provide for you?
It honestly never crossed my mind. “Where’s your mom?” “Oh, she’s at work.” I was always at home by myself. My aunt had a house that had two back houses. My mom used to pay two, three hundred dollars a month; my aunt only charged her that much so I could go to private school. It wasn’t a crazy good school; it was a five hundred-a-month school called Optimal Christian Academy. That’s the best school I’ve ever been to in my life.

So my mom was paying up to eight hundred dollars a month. I have an older sister and an older brother who’s sick. She’s always at work, but I just thought everyone’s situation was like that. You watch TV and they’re at work. I felt like it was normal. Until you know someone else’s situation you don’t know the circumstances of yours. Even my dad—he never went to jail for himself. It was always to provide for us.

How did your dad react when he heard “Nate”?
Um, I think he’s heard it. Somebody else told me he said some of my music was funny in a good way. But I don’t really talk to my dad. I don’t know my dad’s phone number. I don’t know his address. When I see him, it’s like, “What’s up? You good? Alright, see you later.”

When you’re a kid, and you’re alone, what are you doing?
When we lived on the east side of Long Beach, I used to play Playstation all day. Or I’d sit in the house on the couch and watch Martin. I would go outside and play with some of my friends. When I got to be older, fourth grade passed. We had the AOL 30-day free dial-up.

Yeah, I was born the same year as you. I remember that. Fourth grade?
Yeah! We were on that! We had a thing called Encarta encyclopedia, and it had this thing where you could go to a map and bring any part of the world up, and you could go back through different time periods. I used to do that all day. I did that, because I really couldn’t go past my gate. My aunt lived on Oak Street in Compton, down the street from Oak Park. And the majority of my family is from that area. That’s where they do their—whatever you want to call it. I don’t like to talk about shit like that. That shit is deep rooted in my family, since the beginning.

The majority of my family is immigrants from Haiti. They lived in Canada first, on the eastern part. Then they went from Canada to Louisiana. They were thinking they could get cheaper land, not knowing anything about slavery, any of that shit.

“That’s not real. We watched Pokemon. We skateboarded. We did everything everyone else did.”

She met my grandfather when he was 16. He got to the country when he was a little boy; he didn’t know how to spell his name [in English]. In Haiti, there’s indentured servitude—still legal to this day—where you sign a contract if you need to pay for kids or something. You’re just in, essentially, slavery. It happens with women a lot. My grandfather, he went to the army to help support his family. When he came back, his favorite baseball team was the Dodgers, and he saw the interview with one of the Dodgers, who had said he lived in Compton. And it was a really nice area at the time, and regardless, my family had seen a lot worse in their life.

So my family got adopted into a lot of the things that were happening [in Compton]. Lots of gang shit. They hid that from us when we were younger. You’re going to end up doing this eventually—but not now. Stay in the house and get smart, so when you do have to do it, you don’t go to jail. So I used to stay in the house on the computer, on fucking Encarta.

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So you couldn’t go outside the gate, but you were looking all over the world.
It’s funny; my brother and sister are older—they’re twins—and they used to be able to go to the neighbors’ house. My brother actually ended up getting in an incident and he’s been hospitalized since I can remember. After that, my mom and my dad were a little more scared for me. When my mom found out she was having a boy, my dad kind of went crazy because of what happened to his first son. So I was kind of sheltered for my own good, but I was still able to see things I wasn’t supposed to see.

Was the assumption that you were going to fall into the same thing?
On my end. My grandfather died when I was 12 years old. So seeing my grandfather’s funeral, and seeing my family members who I wasn’t supposed to see, I didn’t think it was anything wrong. All I know is that I come to this funeral and there are hundreds of people there. “That’s who I wanna be when I grow up.” I didn’t know if he was a doctor. I didn’t know if he was the mayor. I didn’t know who he was. He was my grandpa and everybody liked him, so I wanted to be like that when I grew up. Everyone’s regular people.

Kendrick Lamar said this in an interview the other day: “All the people making songs about guns and shooting and shit, it’s not reality.” And I’m glad he said that, because he’s on a way higher level than me. That’s something that I try to say all the time in my music. That’s not real. We watched Pokemon. We skateboarded. We did everything everyone else did. I remember when I was in high school, T.I. was catching flak because he said his favorite TV show was Friends. Why does that not make sense? Where I grew up, the white people were across the street, the Asians lived two houses down, the Mexicans lived right here. We were all from the same neighborhood. We all did the same things.

That’s why you have a lot of situations where someone says, “They’re faking because they’re not black,” or “They’re faking because they’re not white.” That’s not real. If your dad’s a mechanic, you’re probably going to be a mechanic. Your mom’s a nurse, you’re probably going to be a nurse. Well, my parents were gangbangers.

When did you make the conscious decision to do something else?
I never made a conscious decision. [Music] happened by accident. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to film school, even after I dropped out of high school. I was trying to finesse a situation where I could go to a college, but none would let me in.

What kind of movies did you want to make?
I didn’t want to make movies; I wanted to be a cameraman, or do editing or some shit. I’ve never wanted no type of attention in my life, ever. I just wanted to have a job. Growing up you see movies like Small Soldiers, Beethoven, shit like that. I didn’t like Boyz N the Hood or shit like that. That was corny to me. That shit’s not real. I wanna watch Beethoven because I don’t know what that’s like. That seems fun to me. And all of them had a job. My whole life I wanted a job in an office. That was my perception of what being okay was. There were no Wolf Of Wall Streets when I was growing up to make you feel like you needed a lot of money; that’s some new shit. When I was growing up, we just wanted to be regular.

I played sports like a motherfucker when I was younger. I played football, basketball, baseball. I was the best at football, but I liked basketball the most. I got bins of trophies at my grandma’s house.

I saw you tweet at Chris Paul the other day.
Fuck that nigga.

Are you a better ball player than he is a rapper?
I’m a way better basketball player than Chris Paul would be a rapper. I miss when the Clippers were bad. When I was younger, my mom worked for Toyota, and when you did well, they didn’t give you raises. They would give you Clippers tickets. We would be in the box at the Clippers games, they’d be getting blown out, but I’d be having fun. Darius Miles jerseys, Cuttino Mobley jerseys. It was crazy. I’ve never really been a fan of a team, because we’ve never had a good team. But my whole family likes the Clippers. I was happy when they got good, but when they traded for Chris Paul, I was like “that’s a mistake.” You saw the playoffs last year. Did you see the game last week with the timeout, the Chris Webber?

I was there.
He’s goofy. Look at his playoff records. I’ll argue with my friends—“Chris Paul never really had a good run in the playoffs, he never had a good team.” And I’ll be like, “Listen, man, he scores like a motherfucker in the playoffs, but his turnovers are crazy.” State Farm is bad luck.

Who were your earliest musical influences?
I’ve never listened to music from an artist’s standpoint. People ask me “Who are your favorite rappers, what’re your favorite songs?” They always get mad at me. My tour manager is a real New York dude, used to work with Black Star, favorite rapper is Big Daddy Kane. When we’re in the car and I’m listening to music, I listen to Nina Sky and Wayne Wonder and Ja Rule. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” [Laughs] “I don’t understand how you can make the shit you do.”

My earliest memory of music is probably my dad listening to the first Goodie Mob, “Cell Therapy.” Stankonia. The Michael Jackson album where he’s a stone statue [History, Book 1]. That’s all he had in his car. I didn’t hear Illmatic or none of that shit till I got older. I’d never heard any Jay Z CD except The Black Album before I started making music. I had, like, four Lil Bow Wow CDs. I had Nastradamus.

Oh, man.
I love that CD though. Love it. I hadn’t heard anything else. I like “Project Window,” I like “Shorty Owe Me Ice” [“You Owe Me”], I like [starts rapping]…

“Come Get Me.”
Bruh, I’m telling you. But music’s always been around, it’s just something I pick up and put down. I’m not fucking Stanley Kubrick and I’m not going to pretend I am. I just make songs.

When did you start to take rap seriously?
When I met my manager. I only put out Shyne Coldchain because people were bothering me on Twitter.

Were you surprised at how many people liked it?
I don’t even know how many people liked it. I know Speak and my DJ, Westside Ty, checked the link and it had, like, 80,000 downloads after a minute. Not right away, but word gets around. People still say that’s my best shit ever—which is a lie, that’s not my best shit, Stolen Youth’s not my best shit—but I understand the fan’s perspective. “Kanye will never be better than College Dropout” is a lie.

I have people from my neighborhood who, to this day, see me and go “Oh, you rap now? Cool.” I don’t tell anybody like that. I have people calling me from prison, “I see you in XXL, how come you didn’t tell me you rapped?” Why would I tell you? It’s cool, though.

What’s your average day like?
I wake up. My girl goes to work. I hang out with my sister, then take her to work too. I come back home, then my girl gets off work. In the middle of that, I might go to one of my homie’s houses, or play Playstation. Maybe talk to my grandma on the phone. The majority of my money goes to Global Tel Link. [Laughs] I spend like $150 every week to answer calls.

“You don’t want to see people get shot, die. That shit’ll be fun for six months.”

When are you writing?
I write when I get beats, or sometimes I’ll have songs that are done, then I have to find the production for it. [I write without a beat] most of the time. It’s a bad habit of mine, or so my manager says. But I don’t really focus on music. The majority of my time goes to figuring out what shoes I want to buy, or how I want certain videos to come out. I try my best to stay normal. I’m not like that, I’m not going to pretend I am. It would do me better if I was, but I’m not.

Some of these people spend their whole life wanting to be a rapper, then they get there and they have nothing to talk about. I’ve never felt like I had to be a part of that. I come from a place where nobody is successful, where nobody makes it out. I am the most successful person from my area of Long Beach, except for Snoop Dogg. That’s it. I’m talking about regular jobs and all of that. If you work at the oil refinery, you made it in Long Beach, and you still live there.

Do you feel like a role model?
Hell no. I don’t want anybody to do what I did. I stopped going to school when I was 15, I was broke until I was 20 years old. My mom had cancer. You don’t want to do that. Why would you? You don’t want to see people get shot, die. That shit’ll be fun for six months. You talk about the civil rights struggle and things, the one thing that keeps people going is an enemy. During the ‘60s, the enemy was white people. During the early gang struggles, it was equal housing. Well, this is a town where the Mexicans and the Asians and the white people and everyone are right there. In Long Beach, you’re not from your color. You’re from your street. I got a homie named Chris, way older than me, and no one cares that he’s white. All we care is that they’ve been here. We trust them. We have the same struggle. Who’s your enemy? He can’t be. That’s your homie. Not having an enemy is the scariest thing in life. Who are you fighting? What are you living for? You live to overcome.

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Hell Can Wait was your first release on a major label. Did you worry about reactions from critics and fans? Do you read Twitter?
I ask my mom if she likes my stuff. And I got a friend named Jermaine Bell. I ask him if he likes it, and nine times out of ten he says no. [Laughs] Sometimes he’ll sit there and say “Nah, it’s cool.” You can’t ever really care how people perceive it, because that messes up what you do. Maybe your point isn’t to be successful. Maybe your point isn’t to sell a million records. Your point in life is always going to be to be you, so whatever that is, you’ve gotta learn how to accept that. I learned how to do that a long time ago, way before I was doing music.

When you mention people who are giving you input, it’s always family or friends, not label people.
I don’t got no label people.

What was it like making Hell Can Wait? Was Def Jam very involved?
No. I didn’t even try to give it to them, they just asked for it. I love Def Jam. If it don’t work, it’s because I didn’t do something right, not them. The real shit about record labels is you get paid regardless. You sign a contract, and you can get paid regardless. But you have to work with them. They’re making an investment in you—it’s a bank. You can’t get a car note and not pay your end of the lease, then get mad when they take your car.

Every rapper makes $30,000 a year [from a label]. It might be a big check, but you might only get one every three, four years. You sign for $100,000 for three years, you working McDonalds.

Does that scare you?
Eh. I didn’t graduate from high school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I never thought rapping was going to work; I thought I was going to go to jail. My best friend went 25 years for shooting up USC—allegedly. They can’t even prove it was him.

How often do you talk to him?
All the time. Just sent him some money before you walked in.

The best review of your record talks about the grim world that has to exist to create gangsta rap. Your music has consequence.
I ain’t never had a khaki suit on in my fucking life. I’ve never crip-walked before—that’s corny. I’ve never been stupid. I never felt like I had to do nothing. My name is Vince where I come from. I got a name, but I don’t tell people that. They know I live over there, but that ain’t where I’m from over there. And they know what I’ma do and what I have done, but what does that mean at the end of the day? What does that really mean? I have homies with Yankee tattoos on their face. What would that mean if they left Long Beach? In my music, I can’t pretend it means something to you, but I can tell you what I learned from it.

I stopped caring about life when I was 15 years old and my homie got killed by a grown man. And his dad still calls to check on me, to tell me he’s proud of me. He says he cries sometimes when he hears my songs. That’s what means something to me.

Do you want to be rapping in 20 years?
Hell no. I can’t be rapping in 20 years. I’d be so far removed from my purpose. I would work in music, but I wouldn’t be rapping unless I had to to provide for my family.

MC Eiht or Spice-1?
Spice-1 for albums, MC Eiht for features.

Amerikkka’s Most Wanted or Death Certificate?
Death Certificate, easy. I hate all that [starts rapping] “I’m a black man!” It’s a thin line between uplifting and being racist. Black people never get called out for being racist. My grandma is from a little ass island and she don’t like nobody. [Laughs] I can’t listen to it because I feel like one of those people. I’m sure [Ice Cube] was coming at it from a different perspective, but that’s just how it makes me feel.

The Chronic or Doggystyle?
2001. [Laughs] I don’t like a lot of early West Coast music. I hate “Funky Worm”. I hate lowriders. I’ve never seen that in my life. I love Chronic 2001 though. All those newer Snoop singles were just—you know, you were there.

You’ve talked a lot about leaving behind the fame, the music career, and just disappearing. Where would you go?

I still think about it. I would go somewhere cheap where it’s quiet. My sister lives in Riverside—that’s the dream to me. Fucking Arizona or something. I don’t need the attention. San Diego. But I get talked out of it sometimes. My mom or my girl will tell me I’ll never leave Long Beach, but like, they might be right. I won’t even move to LA. //

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An Afterword By Vince Staples

What am I trying to overcome now? I don’t know. I have to take care of my family, because nobody else is going to do it. But being in the streets, the thought of fighting for no reason… we know it’s for no reason. We know it. That’s the thing people don’t get. You can get put on when you’re 15. You can beef with “them” for 50 years. You don’t speak to them over there, “Fuck them because fuck them.” You get put on because you want a hat, you want something to put in your AIM bio. Your Myspace name. You don’t have a nickname. “Fuck it, let’s go together.” These are your homies.

But then somebody you know dies. Then it matters. Then there’s stakes. It’s always been “Fuck them,” but is it really “Fuck them”? Now it is. It never makes sense, it’s not supposed to. You do it until you die. And nobody leaves. Like I said before, it’s not like “I want to be like the white people,” because they live right here, too. You go to the middle school around the corner, you play ball at the park right down the streets. The park peewee teams are the hats that the niggas who hang out in the back of the parks wear. The baseball team is the Yankees—you wear that. The football team is the 49ers—you wear that. Long Beach Browns, your colors are brown. You don’t think about it when you’re younger, but it’s colors all the way down.

It’s funny; I was with my cousin, Joey Fatts. We were looking at these little kids, saying “Look at this little kid with this fat-ass backpack.” But this kid is in ninth grade. When we was in ninth grade, we thought we was grown already. So you’re outside when it’s ten o’clock at night, and they look at you crazy. The parents in these environments always tell you to be safe. Your parents tell you to watch out. So when you’re coming home late, a grown person looks at you funny at the bus stop, and you think it’s because they’ve got a problem with you. But in reality, it’s like, “Why is this little-ass kid outside this late?” They don’t care where you’re from. They just know how young you are.

So your only enemy is the kid you’ve never seen before, because he went to the middle school around the corner from his house. So you finally meet him when you’re 16, and you think ‘This is who I’ve been looking for my whole life.’ Then it’s real.

Nobody do nothing in Long Beach but gangbang. People who aren’t from there say “Oh, they got white people, they got this, they got that, they got a big gay community, it possibly can’t be that bad.” But you ask Schoolboy Q, you ask Tyga—the first thing Tyga said to me when I met him was “Oh, Long Beach, I don’t like it out there. My homie got killed out there. I got banged on in Long Beach when I was like twelve years old.” But we’ve been doing that our whole life.