Twenty-three year old Kendrick Lamar is such an anomaly. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, crystal-clear and concise, the Compton, California native has the mindset of a man twice his age. He is firm in what he believes to be the truth, a characteristic that he totally (and frequently) credits his father with influencing. Growing up in one of the most notorious neighborhoods in L.A., was never enough of an excuse for young Kendrick to get caught up in the intricate web of gang activity his dad had warned him against. He was born into this neighborhood but he would never have to become it. Lamar had taken to calling himself a “good kid in a mad city,” which is what he was, essentially.
The anomaly in Kendrick though, comes in his content, his approach to this rap industry. Despite his surroundings as a child, despite overexposure to the undesirable, Kendrick Lamar has made it his business to walk the line, maintaining neutrality, when he could’ve easily picked up where Compton’s “gangsta” godfathers left off. He’s candid about the life but he’s gifted in that he doesn’t cling to the lifestyle his city’s known for. Kendrick Lamar’s got a book of tales, while many from his hood have one story. We had the opportunity to talk to Kendrick about the origins of his flow, feelings of inner conflict and receiving praise from a hometown hero, Dr. Dre.
HipHopDX: In what ways did having a dad active in your life affect your school of thought?
Kendrick Lamar: He had a big role. I think, one of the biggest influences in my life, just off the fact of growing up in Compton, and having all these peers around me with no fathers, and even seeing my homies, the way they grew up and the route they went in, but I couldn’t do nothing to stop it. You know, as a kid, the biggest influence on you is your pops. Not only that, but your pops being an active pops, I grew up around all types of bullshit. My whole family is Crips and Pirus, you know what I’m saying? I always had that right there, but out of respect for my pops, I never jumped into the gang life that was around me. Just outta respect that I have for him. I still got into my ignorant shit and did my rebellious shit, that almost fucked my life over but he was always right there to yank me back into a reality check, you know? He ain’t the most perfect dude in the world, he been through a whole bunch of shit, he just didn’t want me to follow the same steps he went through. So it was a big influence on my thoughts and my music, having him in my life.
DX: What did your father specifically say to you? What did you guys talk about to make you think and rap the way you do?
Kendrick Lamar: Well, shit, I can start back… six years old, him telling me, “All you have in this world is me, your mama…” ‘Cause at the time, I ain’t have no brothers and sisters, so it was just me and them. “At the end of the day, none of these motherfuckers gon’ care about you like we care about you. I know you gon’ grow up and have your feelings about whoever, whether it’s homies in the streets, or whether it’s a female, at the end of the day, all you got is us to fall back on. So if you won’t listen to what I got to say, and you rebel against me, you’ll learn. You’re gonna learn eventually, then you’re gonna come back, and break down what I told you.” And I think that goes for anything as far as life, it goes for choices… That’s my biggest thing, it all goes back to choices that I’ve made, you know? Him telling me that at six years old and me being able to comprehend it.
DX: It’s been noted that the two rappers that inspired you to Rap were Tupac and DMX. Both were arguably the most conflicted Hip Hop artists of our time: in tune with the streets but aware of a greater purpose to this life. Do you feel as conflicted?
Kendrick Lamar: I do. That’s why I can appreciate DMX and Tupac’s music so much more now that I’ve matured as an adult. When I was nine, I used to listen to 'Pac right? But it was because of the people that were around me, that was all we used to bump, shit, the east coast/west coast beef was going on, “This who I’m riding with.” You know what I’m saying? Ignorance is bliss, I ain’t know no better. I was riding to it, ‘cause it sounded good. But when I reached that age, turned about 17 or 18, a teenager growing up, I started going through the trials and tribulations of just living life, I learned to appreciate it even more. The music, the spirituality, feeling torn between what’s good and what’s bad. Wanting to sin and knowing it’s wrong but still gotta do it. Just all types of shit that you can appreciate as a person through music, ‘cause we can all relate. Same thing with DMX, it was a void that was there when 'Pac passed, I didn’t know, everything was all partying shit, but when I heard DMX’s [It's Dark and Hell Is Hot] at the time, I ain’t know, that shit just sparked my creativity up to start writing, ‘cause I felt him that much more. So I can relate to the music much more now that I’ve matured as an adult and started doing music myself and started putting pain inside of it.
DX: How big of a role does your spirituality play in your music?
Kendrick Lamar: It plays a big role, ‘cause it plays a big role as a part of me, you know? I’m not gonna say I’m the most religious person, or the most “holier than thou” type person, it’s me tryna find myself and find what’s right and what good in the world. I don’t know the answers to everything, in fact, most of my music it’s me wanting to know the answers you know? I can’t shy away from that, waking up in the morning and tryna rack my brain to figure out, “Why I do this?” or “Why do other people do this?” and “Why’s this?” and “Why ‘s that?” So I just put it in my music and speak to God and it comes back full circle at the end of the day because I end up eventually, finding the answers in myself. So I just put it in my music, put it out there like that and people relate to it.
DX: You were 16 when you dropped your first mixtape, Youngest Head Nigga In Charge. How’d you hear about it gaining local attention?
Kendrick Lamar: I started going around to different neighborhoods and people used to always talk about this young dude from Compton that’s doing his shit…
DX: [Laughs] You didn’t think they were talking about you…
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah, I didn’t know I was who they were talking about. I didn’t really have no pictures or nothing on the disc. It was just a bunch of blank discs rolling around. A few had pictures on it but… A lot of motherfuckers were like, “Yeah, there’s this young kid, this nigga sounds just like he’s Jay-Z!” [laughs] And at the time, shit, that’s who I was patterning my flow after, I ain’t give a fuck, I was happy they were calling me that and shit. I ain’t know. But that, and just word of mouth, people talking ‘bout it. People were talking ‘bout it at school, Centennial [High School], people were talking ‘bout it at Compton High, just a lot of motherfuckers at school talking about it and it got back to me, and I was like, “Damn, my shit is really making an impact on the city and go full force with this shit.”
DX: It’s funny that you say people thought you sounded like Jay-Z, you flow like him for a minute on “The Heart Part 2.”
Kendrick Lamar: When I was 16, and I first started writing, I used to go by "K Dot." I basically just picked out the greats. The ones who I thought were the greatest, Jay-Z, Nas, I went back to [Notorious B.I.G.], of course 'Pac, and just taking little niches from their style you know? And developing my own as the years went past. When I turned around 21, 22, I figured out, “You know what? It’s time for me to come up with my own. First step: I want motherfuckers to know who I am directly. What is an artist if you don’t know them as a person? So first thing I’ma give you is Kendrick Lamar. This is me, this is my life, what my family been calling me forever, so you can have a piece of that.” So when you hear my music, you can hear a little piece I took, from people I respected, and just brought it to my own self and made it into my own niche.
Another thing about “The Heart Part 2,” you sounded like crazy emotional on there. You were going so hard and sounded so affected and passionate… It didn’t even seem like you were finished when it ended. You just started coughing.
Yeah, truthfully, I had 60 more bars left in that song but… You can ask my engineer, I done cried in the booth many times. Plenty of times. Nah mean? Working on a couple projects, a few special songs that I got, that people hear and I let people know what songs those are, ‘cause they hit the heart that much. Like, when I Rap my shit, I like to visualize, I don’t like to have my eyes open. I don’t like no paper in front of me, I just like to be hands free, and really visualize what I’m talking about because shit is that real and that powerful to me. I think the biggest misconception is that people don’t really understand the struggle of a good kid in a mad city yet you know? And I can’t really blame them for that ‘cause I ain’t put out enough music for them to catch on but it’s a lot of shit that I’ve went through in my life and my friends and family done went through. That’s the story I wanna get out, so I just think about that shit when I rap these lyrics and really try to dig deep you know? And sometimes it might get a little emotional, where I might need to step out of the booth or I can’t finish the last eight bars, 16 bars of the verse, so I just say, “Fuck it.” You know what I’m saying? “They gon’ take it how I give it to ‘em.”
DX: What’s it like being an artist based in neutrality, but being raised around Crips and Pirus?
Kendrick Lamar: You ever watch Menace II Society?
Kendrick Lamar: I always tell people, my lifestyle and my household was like [the character of] Kane when I was little. That was me, I had cousins, my moms and pops, smoking, drinking, cussing, gangbanging, shootings outside, type of wild shit. It’s on camera actually. That’s what a lot of people don’t know. I got a lot of footage of that shit coming up. My pops had so much of a big influence on me that he strayed me to the right path but… Still couldn’t stop me from the influences of my friends that I was coming up with, that’s why I say “good kid in a mad city.” There was shit that I had to go through ‘cause these were kids that I went to elementary [school] with and as a kid around people who you know and feel are your homies, and they had as big an influence on my life as my pops did. Had me getting rushed by six, seven niggas, shot at where I had to react like an animal, when you live in a jungle. You know what I’m saying? Police, fucking you over, taking you out the car, smacking you over the head when you’re 15, 16 years old, that shit ain’t cool. It’s hard as a good kid in a mad city, it’s hard to escape the influences that’s around you. I always got straight fucking ‘A’s in school but as soon as I walk off that campus, I gotta go through the ignorant shit. People know the good kid part, but they don’t know the bad city. And that’s my life, and that’s the shit I’m putting on paper, and it’s hard tryna grow up and put that shit in the music but I found a way and people accept it.
DX: Was it surprising when Top Dawg Entertainment approached you about signing off the strength of that first tape?
Kendrick Lamar: Aw man. I thought it was a muhfucking honor, for him to even respect my music, ‘cause locally, in the city he was the man. That was the person you wanna get your muhfucking music to. Me and my dude Dave, we had plans of getting it to him, but he just so happened to run across it before we even caught on. He gave us a call. We went in the studio, he made me freestyle for about an hour in the booth, but it worked out.
DX: What’s changed about you musically since then?
Kendrick Lamar: I basically do what I feel [now]. I was so confined in tryna have a hit record, or tryna be like "this" artist that’s winning or "that" artist that’s winning where I really lost touch of what I really wanted to do and what I planned on doing from jump. So, a lot of my old songs are basically, me catering to the radio and whatnot. Now, I’m just doing what I feel and you’ll fuck with it or you not. I’ma still be me at the end of the day. If I win or lose on it, I know you ain’t take my integrity away, you know?
DX: You said in a recent interview that you had gotten to a point where you felt “I’ma give the people what I want and if they don’t like it, fuck it. I’m doing me.” What was the occasion that changed your thinking to that?
Kendrick Lamar: It was… I don’t remember what label, but it was a meeting that Top Dawg [Entertainment] took me to… We had a meeting prior to that, they were like, “Take this beat, put your lyrics on it. It sounds just like this. And bring it back to us.” I did that, they played it, they liked it, boom, “Okay, we gon’ move on it.” Next thing you know, another sound came out. They didn’t move on it. Three months later, they were like, “Okay, do this beat and let’s see…” I was like, “Aw, come on man. Fuck this. What happens when I do this beat that I really didn’t want to do, and I’m gone now. Instead of doing what I really wanted to do, win or lose, I could still say I did it. If I won it’d be that much greater.” That was a point in time… The industry really fucks you up, you be confined to what other muhfuckers is doing because they’re winning, and not doing what you feel, nahmean? A lot of these label execs, they don’t know no better, know what I’m saying? They took our culture and flipped it and made it politics and all types of business savvy politics around the shit, which is wack to me. Once we start taking control of our own music and doing what we want, they’ll start catering to us again, just like how it started in the beginning.
DX: You Tweeted the other day that you were in the studio with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. What were you guys doing in there?
Kendrick Lamar: Aw man, shit, Detox. Finishing up the last cuts on that. That was like, a moment I’ll never forget. I remember vividly, I will always remember vividly. That shit was just so crazy to me man. Just… Two legends man, giving a nigga game. Not just on music but just on life period. Just sitting me down and telling me what it is and what it ain’t, you know? And I’ll honor and commend them forever for that.
DX: What was it like to build your career without looking for a co-sign from anyone, and receiving an unsolicited one from Dr. Dre?
Kendrick Lamar: That was huge for me. I always had the mentality that I can always do this, even without… And that’s still my mentality. I’m not gonna go in a situation… Even if I go into a situation with [Dr.] Dre, I’m still gonna have the mentality that I’m gon’ push with or without you. And he respects that, for me to have that type of grind and that type of hunger to go get it and not wait on a Dre beat, or however it comes. I’m still appreciative about it, that a legend can see my music and know my vision and wanna take it to the next level, it’s just, I love it man, and with my hunger and my grind, I think it’ll match perfectly, nahmean? I actually sat down and told him what I said in one of my raps: “Do I need a co-sign from Dre or Jigga / It could make it much bigger / But do I need ‘em though?” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s dope. That’s how you supposed to think young man.”
Kendrick Lamar: Yup. Yup.
DX: How confident are you in saying that you’ll possibly sign with Aftermath Entertainment?
Kendrick Lamar: It’s a great possibility, but I don’t wanna get into the situation. I mean, it’s a good possibility. It’s an ideal situation to sign with a Compton legend. I’m from Compton and he sees my vision and wants to take it to the next level. It’s a great possibility but it’s some other shit too, but of course the idea of me and Dre… We’ll see what happens by the top of this year.
DX: How close are we to hearing the tracks you’ve got with J. Cole?
Kendrick Lamar: How close? Probably in a couple weeks, or it might be less than that. It might be a snippet of something. We’ve got some crazy shit, man.
DX: Wow. Are you guys seriously considering a collaborative effort?
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah, I mean, what it’s looking like right now, we can do one right now with the material we got, with as much of the material we got. We’ve got a nice bunch of songs that’s locked in the archives right now. What people don’t know is I’ve respected J. Cole… J. Cole respected my music when I first put out the Kendrick Lamar EP. Before I put that out, nahmean? That’s what crazy, ‘cause a lot of people are like, “Aw, J. Cole fucking with you now ‘cause of Dre.” Nah, that’s been my dude. I’ve been going back and forth over the phone, and texting, before a lot of muhfuckers even knew who I was from the jump. When I was begging internet sites and blogs to put my music up, he respected me lyrically and as a man period. So I’ll never forget that from him. That’s always been my dude. And we got to the studio… We finally got up, he had a busy schedule, I have a hectic schedule. We finally got up and we locked in that muhfucker for a few hours and just banged out this shit man. A few records. Then we’ve just been going back and forth, little spot dates, and we’ve just been doing our shit.
DX: What percentage of Good Kid In A Mad City is ready?
Kendrick Lamar: Oh shit. I can go with it right now. I’d say like, 90%. I could go with it right now. I don’t know if I’ma keep the title, I got another idea. It’s just the fact that… The thing with me is, I hate missing… I don’t know when I’ma come with a better record than what I just laid. I’m always recording for it, but I could go with it right now.
DX: Is the Setbacks tape your project?
Kendrick Lamar: Nah, that’s my dude Schoolboy Q, my labelmate at Top Dawg. He’s finna drop that Setbacks. That’s gonna be a crazy album. I’m on two of the tracks on there. It’s gonna be a big project too. That dude is incredible. That’s one of the cats who inspired me in the studio along with Ab-Soul and Jay Rock.
DX: How much creative control do you have with your projects?
Kendrick Lamar: One hundred percent creative control. The thing with me is, my people already see my vision so it’s never really no conflict when we talk about the music. They already see what I’m tryna do, they respect what I’m tryna do and they just let me go full circle and I just turn in the project and at the end of the day, they give their ideas, and whatever their opinions should be, I work with it and we move out like that. It’s never no conflict when we making music you know?
DX: You just got off tour with Tech N9ne right?
Kendrick Lamar: Yes ma’am. That shit was retarded. I’m talking ‘bout an independent dude, with fuckin’ 4,000 people in the crowd, for days, knowing every song line for line. Fuckin’ meet and greet before the show, 300 people, $100 a pop to come see Tech N9ne and they’re all there… It just took my my thoughts of grinding to a whole ‘nother level and I mean, made me feel like, I’m not doing enough. I’m not on my shit, these dudes are doing this without no muhfucking major label push. Started from the bottom to the top, Strange Music, and I just commend Tech for just holding his own and taking his shit to the next level. The shit was just crazy, you know? It’s a lot of major cats who can’t get 4,000 people in a muhfucking spot, I mean every night! I’m talking, we were on the road, um, 48 days, 44 shows, we only got four days off, and those were by accident, nahmean? [Chuckles] So it was crazy…
DX: Why’d you screw a couple of those O.D. tracks? Was there any significance to that?
Kendrick Lamar: Just having fun and being creative. I just wanted to do some different shit, I only did that on a couple tracks that actually sound like they should do that. I don’t smoke, but I know a lot of muhfuckers that smoke hella bud, they listen to my music, so I gotta do that for them you know? [Laughs]
DX: You still stay in Compton?
Kendrick Lamar: Yeah, my family stays in Compton, my moms and pops, they don’t wanna leave this muhfucker. [Chuckles] I gotta get ‘em out though. I’m right down the street though, I’m in L.A., so I come and see them like, every other day.
DX: What’s behind this new movement you guys have coming out of Cali right now? What with you, Fashawn, U-N-I, TiRon, Dom Kennedy, all dropping joints that are so different from the music you all grew up with… What prompted the change?
Kendrick Lamar: I think we got to the point where we got tired of hearing muhfuckers say, “The west coast only has one sound.” All we have is the loud ass snare crash, the twang on the drums, and the laid-back, muhfucking gangsta, nahmean? Six-four hoppin’… We’ll always have that in us. I got that in me, I know Dom [Kennedy] has that in him. U-N-I got that, that’s where we come from, but now we wanna take this shit to the next level and say, “You know what? We can think outside of the box. We got other styles that come together in LA that makes up different shit.” Nahmean? And I think that’s where the movement starts from, we all branch out off each other. I might be motivated off some shit U-N-I did, like, “You know what? That’s dope. Why I ain’t think of that? I’m glad somebody took it to that next level and I can finally express myself the way I’ve been wanting to express myself.” And once everybody starts thinking like that, on that type of scale, that’s where you get the different music and this new wave of muhfuckers just saying, “Yo. The west coast got something else to say, rather than what we used to hearing them say.”