Exclusive: Baton Rougue native Kevin Gates explains why it's better to be Luca Brasi than Don Corleone and the true price of being loyal to friends.
If you listen to enough third world rapper complaints, you might just get fooled into thinking some of the following are actually problems: being misunderstood by critics, being hounded by fans, the constant glare of paparazzi and no shortage of hands that want a piece of your earnings—blah, blah, blah. On a 90-degree day outside of HipHopDX’s Hollywood offices, Baton Rouge bred rapper Kevin Gates is about as un-Hollywood as one can get. Gates is decked out in a Bread Winners Association sweatsuit and a Louis Vuitton scarf. While the cameras begin to overheat and the staff sweats profusely, Gates comfortably talks at length about writing, his work ethic and his past. The latter makes any typical rapper issues sound rather small by comparison.
“I came up in a very impoverished environment,” Gates explained. “It was a very poverty-stricken environment…There were a lot of us, sometimes it was 19, 20 of us in one house. I don’t feel like I had it hard, I guess. But I could say this. I did come out of my struggle, and the things I did to get out of my struggle may not have been the right things.”
Those things led to Gates being funneled through Louisiana’s seemingly bottomless penal system. And while the ink on his face would lead to some instantly lumping him in with the hundreds of other [t]rappers flooding the marketplace, he’s probably one of the few that would rather talk to you about Rudyard Kipling than moving a brick. It’s a complicated dichotomy, no doubt. But, after being reintroduced to society a scant 18 months ago, if convincing people that his story is one worth hearing is Gates biggest problem, then he’s already separated himself from the crowd.
Kevin Gates Describes His Louisiana Upbringing
HipHopDX: You’re from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. What’s it like coming up in that area?
Kevin Gates: My experience coming up in Baton Rouge was a little different from anyone else’s experience, being that I came up in a very impoverished environment…a very poverty-stricken environment. I gravitated toward individuals and aspired to be like the individuals I saw. I saw no doctors, I saw no lawyers, and a lot of the individuals I aspired to be like were individuals that may have did a lot of the wrong things with the right intentions, being that they were products of the environment.
I’m very, very fortunate, because even coming from a situation like that. The first time I ever got arrested, I was 13 years of age. If they would’ve just pulled up to the jail, left me in the police car, never took me inside and just took me back home, I don’t think I’d ever have done anything else again. But what it did was—by me going into jail at such a young age—all it did was criminalize me in a sense. It kinda steered me in the wrong direction after getting there and settling in; it took the fear of jail away from me.
And the more you do time, the easier and easier it becomes to do. I was reinserted back into society 18 months ago. I did close to three years. And it was in this time that I was incarcerated, upon being reinserted, I had a different outlook about my life in general and the things I wanted in general as an individual. I guess I could say that the vacation stopped being as fun, because I had other things that I cared about.
DX: How was your family life?
Kevin Gates: I came up in a situation where my mother had me, and I guess she did the best that she could do as a parent. But my grandmother really raised me for the most part, so I never had a family setting. In the household that I lived in—what’s typically shown, such as a father and mother, children, Christmas—I didn’t have that kind of setting. It was just a bunch of us cousins and children from different walks of life. My grandmother was a very loving woman, so anyone could just come stay with us. There were a lot of us, sometimes it was 19, 20 of us in one house. I don’t feel like I had it hard, I guess, but I could say this. I did come out of my struggle, and the things I did to get out of my struggle may not have been the right things.
Responsibility was placed on me at a very young age. I guess, in short, I lived life at a very, very accelerated pace. At the age of 16, I took my ACT and scored a 31 on it. The word “recretive”—it isn’t a word—but it sounds better than me saying I do a lot of recreational reading. So I would prefer to make it a word. I do a lot of recretive reading. I’ve also always had a love for music and a natural love for poetry, with Rudyard Kipling being one of my favorite poets.
Kevin Gates Explains His Musical Influences
DX: What were you listening to while all of this was happening?
Kevin Gates: As far as music, my aunts, they were very eclectic. They listened to a wide range of different types of music, so it wasn’t just one genre. It wasn’t just Hip Hop; it wasn’t just Soft Rock…it was everything. It was Reggae, Reggaeton, Soft Rock, Punk Rock, Heavy Metal, Hip Hop, Rap…it was all of these things. And so music is something I always had a love for. I guess it’s exhibited in the music I make now, because I don’t make just one genre of music.
The thing about me is, I got tattoos. I’m covered over my whole body, and just looking at me on physical appearance, one would assume, “Okay, being from Louisiana, he’s a rapper.” But if anyone were ever to YouTube me up, WorldStar me, go look at my shows and just see the diversity, you’d just see the range of people: White, Black, Mexican, Spanish, Arab, Asians. You see all of this at my shows. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m very honest with my fans about everything that I go through in life, so to say. I went through a time where I guess I gave up on everything. And by me giving up, what I mean was this: I didn’t care. I didn’t care if I lived or died, and I didn’t care if I went to jail. I didn’t care. At all. But I always made music, you know? In and out of the time I might be hustling or whatever, I’d always find time to make a couple songs, then I’d go back to what I was doing. I didn’t take it serious, but upon being reinserted back into society this time, I already had a buzz. I was already doing paid shows before being incarcerated. But my buzz had just grown tremendously. So the way my buzz had grown so tremendously, when I came home that I just really took it serious. I was like, “This is what I want to do.” I apologize if I was long-winded, but it’s hard for me not to go into elaborate detail, just me being who I am as an individual.
DX: What were you arrested for the first time…when you were 13?
Kevin Gates: I believe it was joyriding. The first time I was arrested, I was just a passenger in a stolen car. Did I know the car was stolen? Maybe. I live by a code. And the code is, “Don’t tell.” We could say joyriding, but I’m an accessory, because I was in the passenger seat. I was just having fun.
DX: Your buzz is crazy. How are you able to reach so many people?
Kevin Gates: You want me to be honest? I’m still baffled. But I can say this: I’m a firm believer that whatever is meant to be is meant to be. So it was meant to be. Like I said, I had been putting mixtapes out in the street, and I started in my neighborhood. My only wish or prayer, or whatever you ascribe to believe in, I just wanted to hear someone riding down the street playing my music. And I heard that for the first time; I heard somebody riding playing my music in the car, and that was it for me. I was on top of the world.
How Jail Repeatedly Interrupted Kevin Gates’ Musical Pursuits
DX: Which track was that?
Kevin Gates: Lil Wayne had dropped a song, it was called “Bottom Of The Map,” and I freestyled over that beat. And I heard a guy who was kind of successful in the hood—he had a name for himself—and he was really rocking out to what I did. I was like, “Yeah,” that was the best feeling. When I saw that gray Cadillac playing my music, that was the best feeling I had in the world. And then before being incarcerated, I started hearing cars, just everybody passing by, playing my music. This is what they was playing. And it just took me to a point in the game that I was like “Yeah, this is what’s up.”
[At that point, I’m] still not taking it serious. The thing about me is that, I had everything that a lot of the rappers had at that time on my own. I had no job...no nothing. Just feel free to let the imagination assume now; feel free to make assumptions now. The watches and everything that the rappers had, I had those. And it wasn’t just me by myself, it was me and a few individuals…my team. We really had our neighborhood on lock. Then we locked down the city. It was short-lived, because I got incarcerated. The street life is so fast. I loved the life; I’m not going lie.
So then, I started really just going to the studio in 2005. I’m in the streets, locked up in ’07, locked back up in ’08, and then I had to lay down for a little. I laid down, I ain’t tripping. I’m a man. Whatever it is, I’ma lay down...I’m guilty. But I want the Rap game when I come home. You never know how much something means to you until you can’t do it. And I really deal with depression. I really, really deal with depression. And my only release is making music and getting tattoos. So, I’m not the type of artist that the label has to say, “Hey Kevin, you need to be in the studio.” Nah, you don’t have to tell me that, I’m gonna be there. And I don’t approach things like I’m working on a project. Because a lot of interviewers say, “Well, what project you working on next?” I’m not working on a project. I’m just working on music. Whatever fits the project goes on the project, whatever doesn’t, we’ll save it for another project.
DX: Were you able to write in prison? Tupac always did those interviews back in the day, talking about how when he was in prison he couldn’t flex his creativity until he got out. What was that like for you?
Kevin Gates: That was home for me. It wasn’t in the verses or anything that I’d write, but I did a lot of writing anyway…whatever was on my mind. One thing that I did to entertain myself, I always wrote novels, books and stories. And what I’d do is I’d write a little bit, and I’d mail it out to my partner. And then my partner would add to the story. That’s something I did besides reading. Like I said, I do a lot of reading. I don’t really watch TV. I couldn’t tell you what team whoever played for, because I’m not into sports. The most famous basketball player could come in right now, and I wouldn’t know who he is. No disrespect, but that’s just not what I was into. I’m an outside person. I like to be outside at all times. And that’s just who I am as an individual.
Kevin Gates On His Fans & “IDGAF”
DX: You mentioned earlier that you’re touring, and this isn’t your first time out in LA. Describe the crowd response you get. You said it’s a diverse group of people, but what’s the energy level like?
Kevin Gates: The best way I can describe it is, I’ve had fans tell me, “Kevin Gates is my religion. Kevin Gates is my Bible.” I’ve had fans say that. I’ve seen people pass out, and I’ve seen women cry for me. They doing this for me. But I’m so honest in my music and everything I do that people relate to it because of my honesty. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Like I said, I don’t really do anything besides go to the studio and gas stations. So by the time the fans finally get to see me, whatever burst of emotion that they may have, it all comes out at that time. It’s a beautiful thing. But anyone who hasn’t heard of me, just type in “Kevin,” and I promise the rest gonna come up in the [search] bar. Go looking, and see for yourself. I don’t like to toot my own horn. I don’t like to wear my own flag, and I like to let the work speak for itself. I’m a more laid back kind of guy. I don’t really like to do anything extra.
DX: When did you write your song “IDGAF?”
Kevin Gates: That situation? I wrote “IDGAF” the night it happened. That situation happened one night. Everyone says, “I don’t give a fuck,” but I really do give a fuck. I don’t think too many people love harder than me—whether I’m with a woman, or one of my partners…my homies. If it came to me breaking the law? I would do that for any individual I’m around. Truth be told, I always felt like I had to protect the people I love. I protect them financially, in any way, form, or fashion. I’ll let somebody do whatever to me, but the people I love? I don’t play with that.
My older cousin, he’s no longer here; he’s no longer with us. He told me, “You pick your family in the streets.” And a lot of times the love that I’ve shown to different individuals, I don’t get that love in return. A lot of times I’ve gotten the short end of the stick, and I can’t remember a relationship I was in that I wasn’t burned. I’m loyal. Any partner that I got that go to jail, I’ll never touch your girl. Never. Not even if that’s your old lady, and these other women are just women that you deal with. I’ll never touch anything that belongs to you. And that’s just the love I have for people. Anything you need, money or whatever, if I don’t have it, I’ma make sure that I have it. If I don’t have it, I’ll make sure you have it by the end of the night, by any means necessary. I’ll risk my freedom…whatever. That’s just the loyalty that I have for people. And I’ve never received that back. Never.
DX: How’s that feel?
Kevin Gates: Like I said, I deal with depression. I really battle with depression, and the only reason I’m able to speak with you like this is because I do music. I was in the studio at 10 p.m., and I left at 9 in the morning. And no one told me, no one forces me to do that. This is what I do.
DX: Who is Luca Brasi?
Kevin Gates: Luca Brasi was a character in the movie The Godfather. He wasn’t the head of the family, and he wasn’t the don. He wasn’t Don Corleone. He was the protector, the enforcer for the family. That’s more the role that I would play. I didn’t come in the game and say, “I’m Kevin Gates, I’m a don,” which I could’ve said. I could’ve come in the game and really said that and meant that. I am a boss. I was a boss then, and I’m a boss now. But I prefer to see myself more as the protector.
How “The Code” And The Music Industry Influence Kevin Gates
DX: What was your relationship to music while you were in, did you hear it?
Kevin Gates: Not really. For a few months, I was on lockdown. I had nothing for myself, and I’d beat on the wall or I’d beat on my chest. I’d do things like that to keep myself entertained, because I could be in a room by myself, and my time would go by fine. Sometimes I’d talk to myself, but that’s me. I can say that while being incarcerated, my brain went to a different space. That’s why I developed the style I have. The new style that I came with, I developed that while being incarcerated. I always keep one track on every mixtape for the people that may be incarcerated right now, but I don’t target them.
Because, like I say, society’s interpretation of being incarcerated is totally different from being incarcerated. And there’s a certain code that I live by. I believe what happens in jail stays in jail. So when I see a lot of people come out here and just giving a lot of the plays up and the game up, it don’t always be correct to me. What is it like if, say I got five years, but the dude next to me got 30? No one talks about time in jail. Everything is routine, everyone sticks to whatever their routine is. Say I go home in two months, but he goes home in 250 months? I always conduct myself in a certain manner. A lot of individuals that I see in the game that speak on a lot of different things are really ignorant to what they’re speaking about, to tell you the truth.
Being incarcerated, I have met some of the most intelligent individuals that you will ever meet in your life. But I’ve always been like that. I always ran with older cats. All my partners right now, they’re in their 40’s and 50’s. These are real convicts, but men of moral…men of principle. I have an uncle that’s been incarcerated 17 years because he didn’t fold. Morals. Principles. You stand for something, and if you don’t stand for something you fall for anything. So I respect individuals that live by a code, and that’s just me.
DX: You’re on Atlantic Records, and you just dropped your debut. How’s that going?
Kevin Gates: If I could be honest though, I’m signed to Bread Winners Association. Really, I have a lot of music to sort from. It’s gonna be hard. Every time I go in the studio, the last song has to be better than the song I made before that. If I’m only as good as my last song then I’m not really that good.
DX: What does Kevin Gates look like five years from now?
Kevin Gates: I don’t look that far ahead, big brother. I feel like whatever’s meant to be will be. And that’s just how I live my life. I treat people how I want to be treated…all people. I don’t see race, and I don’t see color. I don’t see religion or whatever any individual around me subscribes to. I have different friends, and they have different beliefs. But fundamentally we all live by the same morals and the same principles. That’s the type of individual I am. Live and let live. I stay in my own lane. I won’t go outside of my element to go work with another artist. If it’s meant to be it will be. If not, no worries.