my krazy life: compton rapper yg tells his story of gangs, jail and bitches
Over the last twelve months, YG has risen from “ratchet underdog” to compelling newcomer, fast emerging as one of the most interesting rhymers to hail from California since that young kid and his maad city. i-D meets Young Gangsta in LA and New York to...
Photography Beau Grealy
The first time i-D met Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson was just over a year ago. It was February 2013 and we were in his Hollywood Hills studio, Point 5. "We named it cos it cost one point five million," he grinned shyly, showing us around the dimly-lit, smoke-filled dwelling littered with lighters, blank CDs and baggies of weed. Back then, though he'd impressed with buzz singles like Toot It And Boot It and I'm Good, it didn't seem there was much more to Jackson's story that we hadn't heard already from the likes of John Singleton, Ice Cube and, more recently and with particular eloquence, Kendrick Lamar. Born and raised in Compton, California, Jackson's is a tale we've heard told many times over: gangs (in his case the Tree Top Pirus), 5-0s, 40s, bitches, fighting, jail, murder… Back then YG was just another name among a number of newcomers who might or might not make it.
"I was a bad, bad kid. I was fucking up in school. Everything everyone talks about, the shootings, the gangbanging, the different colours and all that, that's how it is."
Skip forward a year and we're in a conference room on the eighth floor of Universal Records, just south of New York's Times Square. Over the last twelve months, the 24-year-old has worked with Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Lil Wayne, signed to Def Jam via Jeezy's CTE label and had one of the hottest hip-hop tracks of 2013 with My Nigga, his ode to bromance. When he released his debut album proper, My Krazy Life, in March of this year, it quietly ended up at No.2 on the Billboard charts. Given YG's relative lack of mainstream presence, such a chart placing is notable, yet it's his progression as a lyricist and an artist that has impressed most. Spending the best part of a year creating My Krazy Life, YG has emerged as a thoughtful, intelligent, sharp, instinctual rhymer. Backed by brilliant beats from his mates DJ Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign, My Krazy Life is a fascinating journey though the streets of Compton, a gripping account of "a typical day in the hood," as he puts it.
"My concept, my thought process creating the album was to make a classic. I was listening to Dr. Dre's 2001, Biggie's Ready To Die, 50 Cent's Get Rich Or Die Tryin' and Snoop's Doggystyle," he says, chewing slowly on a Five Guys burger delivered by an assistant. "Those were the four albums I had on repeat. I came up to Snoop and Dre, period, and then I studied the storytelling of Biggie and 50. They both made straight-up classic albums, from top to bottom.
"I'm giving you stories, real-life shit. I'm giving you me: YG."
My Krazy Life has a fascinating narrative, reminiscent of those aforementioned New York giants. The album opens with his mother warning her son to stay off the streets or risk ending up in jail like his father, and ends, with crushing inevitability, with YG serving a three-year sentence for burglary. "I was a bad, bad kid. I was fucking up in school. Everything everyone talks about, the shootings, the gangbanging, the different colours and all that, that's how it is," he says. "My family were always trying to keep me out of the hood. My mom moved us out of Compton, but I went back cos it was all I knew. I'd be hanging out, doing crazy shit, gangbanging, robbing. I was doing residential burglaries, breaking into people's houses, and I went to jail for that. Even when I got signed, I was still hanging out, gangbanging in Compton, going to jail. I really stopped, slowed down, just recently. Like, a year ago. It's all I knew. It's what I liked. The lifestyle. The life." So deeply entrenched in gang life and their hatred of the Crips, YG and his Piru pals refuse to use the C word - any C word. Note mixtapes like I'm 4rm Bompton, and Bicking Back Being Bool, a track from My Krazy Life. "We from where we from and where we from we change the Cs to Bs. That's how everybody do in LA. If you repping the right side, you change those C words to Bs. "What's cracking' is 'What's bracking?' 'What's cool?' is 'What's bool?' That's the way we do it."
When he wasn't creating his own alphabet or burglarising houses, detailed in the brilliantly absorbing Meet The Flockers ("flocking" being Compton terminology for house robbery) YG was busy performing at high school parties and trying to get played on the radio. His burgeoning hip-hop career was held up suddenly, when he was put in prison following a parole violation. Upon his release, thanks to her mum who bailed him out of jail, he was signed and dropped street hits like I'm Good and Bitches Ain't Shit, but it was clear on meeting him back in February 2013 that he was keen to rise as a lyricist. He might still be a rookie, relatively, but YG, who boasts tats "from the waist up, kneecaps down", has grand ambitions. "I want to be like [Jay Z and Drake]. I want to be worth a billion, selling out arenas. But I want everyone to respect me as an artist as well. It's my first album, so I know I got a lot of work to do, coming in the game like this. A lot of people thought I was a singles artist but with this album, I'm giving you stories, real-life shit. I'm giving you me: YG. My experiences make me who I am. I want people to respect that."
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Beau Grealy