Schoolboy Q‘s murky past
While the rap world turns the spotlight towards Schoolboy Q, the Black Hippy hedonist is filling the script with tales from his murky past.
‘Black Hippy are the new Beatles and I’m Harry Nilsson’, Danny Brown tweeted in 2012. When later asked to elaborate on the comment in an interview, the wildly charismatic Detroit rapper broke it down like this: ‘Kendrick would be Paul McCartney, Schoolboy Q would be John Lennon, Ab-Soul would be George Harrison and – [laughs] – Jay Rock would be Ringo. I’m like the fifth unofficial member’.
It requires a pretty grand stretch of the imagination to compare a Los Angeles hip-hop collective to the Liverpudlian four-piece who ignited pop culture over five decades ago. Although after a little consideration, it kind of makes sense. Kendrick Lamar – the good kid in a m.A.A.d city – is the altruistic guy who keeps his head amidst the insanity. Like Harrison, Ab-Soul is the group’s most stoic and tripped-out personality, and while there are surely fans declaring Jay Rock to be Black Hippy’s most underrated member, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to overshadow his groupmates any time soon.
So what about the Schoolboy Q/John Lennon thing? Well, Q’s penchant for circular sunglasses is a visual cue for a start. Him and Kendrick are the group’s most prominent members too. And there’s also that comparable antagonistic nature, the focused ferocity that’s sharply articulated in lyrics and interviews. When we ask Schoolboy Q to define the essence of his style, his response is typically unapologetic: “There are details in my music, telling you where I come from. There’s the aggressiveness and the care-free, that’s gangsta rap. And that’s what I represent, for people who don’t give a fuck and are just gonna say what’s on their minds.”
His speaking voice (which is often interrupted by a gnarly smoker’s cough) sounds low and husky down the phone, a stark contrast to the elastic, nasal sneer that he raps with. Maybe he’s tired. After all, he’s right in the middle of a lengthy tour to promote his album Oxymoron, one of 2014’s most highly anticipated hip-hop records, which was delivered in February following numerous fan-frustrating delays and impressive pre-sale figures. Following ￼Kendrick’s 2012 masterpiece, Oxymoron is the second joint album release between Interscope/Aftermath and Top Dawg Entertainment, the latter of which Black Hippy make the core roster.
Schoolboy Q’s 2012 album Habits & Contradictions packed a near-immaculate selection of beats, and it broadcasted Q’s unpredictable flow, bizarre hooks and his ultra explicit, no-holds-barred lyricism to a wider audience. Oxymoron continues Q’s running theme of moral conflict further, broadening and blending grief- stricken introspection and arrogant street anecdotes from the perspective of a cold hearted thug. The drug-addled, orgy-loving Q is also present on a couple of tracks, including the single Man Of The Year, a Chromatics-sampling party banger tailored to be a hit with festival crowds and wasted college students.
“But this album is way more street”, he insists, “I put my whole life into it, everything”. One of Oxymoron’s bleakest – and best – tracks is Hoover Street, which recounts a loss of innocence which resulted in his affiliation with the 52 Hoover Crips by the age of 12. The track’s lyrics include a childlike account of his uncle’s crack addiction (“He sweats a lot, he’s slimming down/I also notice moms be locking doors when he around/ But anyways, his wife done left him and now he’s living with us/My bike is missing, Grandma like to hide her cheque every month”), and the confession that it was his grandma who showed him a firearm for the first time. “She was just keeping it real, like ‘I have a gun’”, he says, with an audible shrug. “And I was like ‘Wow, let me see it!’. So she’d take the clip out, empty the bullets, and then I’d be in the living room, shooting that motherfucker”. The track also references the recurring character Rat Tone; an older, corrupting influence. “He’s from my block”, Q explains, “My grandma showed me my first gun, but he was the first one to show me, like, a big ass gun, like the ones you see on TV”. So what became of Rat Tone, are they still in touch? “Yeah, yeah, that’s my big homie… But he doesn’t do that type of stuff now, he’s legit.”
Due to Schoolboy Q’s brutally honest approach of storytelling, there’s moments on Oxymoron that could shake up even to the most desensitised rap fan. “I grew up on Figueroa street, that’s known for prostitution”, he relays. “I say on Break The Bank: “On Figueroa, close your eyes, might be ya mommy”. Homies would be going to the store, and they see they’re momma walking around that strip. I seen that, I grew up with that, and I grew up with it in my music … I’ve never been a pimp, but my name comes from it, the real Schoolboy in my hood, he used to be a pimp. But it also comes from me getting good grades in school even when I was gang banging and shit, so they started calling me Schoolboy.”
But despite Q’s academic potential and ability to hold down a regular, low-income job, the temptations of criminal life got the best of him, and he found himself locked up in 2007. While finishing off the sentence under house arrest, he realised that – as an ex-con with the words ‘FUCK LAPD’ tattooed across his shoulders – his prospects were severely limited. “You’ve got a song like Blind Threats [on Oxymoron], where I’m in the streets and I’m feeling so bad. At the time, not like now of course, I was in this depressed state of mind, and I was almost losing faith in god. My whole thing was, ‘If god won’t help me, my gun will’”, he reflects.
Funnily enough, it was these desperate circumstances which drove him to try his hand at rapping: the art form which would rescue him from poverty, eventually securing him a membership in arguably the most exciting collective in contemporary hip-hop. So when did things start to look up? “In, like, 2010, when I was Kendrick’s hypeman, I started making some money. I mean, I was only making $200 a show, but I was motivated. And Kendrick put me in the spotlight with him, every time we came out he’d introduce me, like ‘Yo, this is Schoolboy Q!’. And then we rocked a couple of songs together and shit.”
And with Schoolboy Q’s ongoing ascent, it looks like his troubles are becoming an increasingly distant memory. There’s a sweet voice that appears intermittently throughout Oxymoron, acting as the album’s moral anchor. It belongs to Q’s young daughter Joy, his primary motivation for battling an addiction to prescription drugs and striving for success. While the album helps explain why he did all those bad things, he admits that it might be a few years until she’s old enough to truly understand. “She doesn’t know that part of me, the guy I used to be. She was too young when I was doing that. She doesn’t think I’m anything like that, she only knows me as a good daddy”. But despite her age, he argues, she hasn’t failed to recognise that her father is doing very, very well. “She’s happy that her daddy’s album’s out”, he says tenderly. “And she’s proud of it, just like I am.”