In the fall of 2010, I had the courtesy of interviewing a young rapper, largely unknown out of serious hip-hop circles, named Kendrick Lamar. The interview was for a 300-word profile to be published in XXL magazine, what I believe was the first piece of print journalism done on him.
At the time, he was on the Independent Grind Tour with Tech N9ne, performing a mere 20-minutes each night alongside labelmate Jay Rock, promoting his now-classic mixtape Overly Dedicated.
He was thoughtful and self-assured, wise beyond his years. Though his voice barely rose a register, he saw himself one day being mentioned amongst the legends. Many young artists say this. Few, however, make it come true.
This was our conversation.
Paul Cantor: Tell me a little about your musical background, the role music has played in your life.
Kendrick Lamar: I was told the day came from the hospital, my pops was playing Big Daddy Kane. From the day I was born, music always been around me. From oldies to regular 90s R&B, to hip-hop to Gangsta Rap. I can go from the Isley Brothers to Tupac. My moms and pops, they partied every Friday, with everybody over. I got tons of uncles and cousins, just drinking, smoking, having tons of fun. It makes you grow up fast.
Paul Cantor: Did your parents stay together?
Kendrick Lamar: My moms and pops from Chicago. They came out to California in 1984. I was born in ‘87. They came straight to Compton. Ever since then, they stuck through that shit. They wasn’t no perfect mothafuckas. My pops did his thing. My moms did her thing. In the streets, you know what I’m saying? Together. They stayed with it for the sake of me. I’m their first born. Growing up in a crime infested neighborhood, I was all they really had, to guide a nigga up to the right way and be responsible, living in the city. I was blessed from the jump to have my two parents together.
Paul Cantor: Do you have siblings?
Kendrick Lamar: I’m the oldest. I got two brothers and a little sister.
Paul Cantor: Do they do anything musical?
Kendrick Lamar: My little brother trying to get into beats. My little sister, she might wanna rap too. She only 10. She got a ways to go.
“I studied all the classics. The Jay-Z’s, the Biggie’s, the Nas’.”
Paul Cantor: When did you first record something?
Kendrick Lamar: I jumped in the booth at 16. I wrote my first rap at 13; I was inspired off the first DMX album. I been a Tupac fan from day one and when Tupac died there was a voice missing in hip-hop. When DMX came with that album, I got inspired and started writing. After, I knew I had a passion for hip-hop; I studied all the classics. The Jay-Z’s, the Biggies, the Nas. I decided to jump in the booth and display my skills off of their niche, and that was at 16. I dropped a mixtape when I was in 10th grade, just a local mixtape called the Hub City Threat. Hub City is the nickname for Compton. YNIC — I was calling myself the Young Nigga In Charge. It spread locally and caught a few ears, most ultimate, the CEO of Top Dawg entertainment.
Paul Cantor: What did you rap about as a 10th grader?
Kendrick Lamar: I had a old soul. I was raised off Tupac and eventually started listening to Biggie and Jay. From listening to their music, I felt I got to talk about my life and talk about something people could actually relate to. I was a quick learner.
Paul Cantor: How did it get the attention of Top Dawg?
Kendrick Lamar: That’s the independent label I’m with now. It got the attention, me just doing the legwork, just 300 copies and spreading it out through the city, wanting to be heard. And going to all these little small cities in southern Cali. Los Angeles, Long Beach, Compton, Carson, wherever I was at, just dishing my CDs out. It reached him and I been down with him since. They believed in me from the jump.
Paul Cantor: What happened after that?
Kendrick Lamar: A mutual friend had gave Top Dawg my music, the CEO of Top Dawg. The day I met him, he threw me in the booth. I freestyled for two hours. He saw I was worthy. I was a young nigga too. I was kind of nervous. I played him a few records. He saw I had an ability to write songs and melodies and it was on.
“…It’s a cutthroat business. At the end of the day you got to go for self and do what’s really true to you.”
Paul Cantor: Your labelmate Jay Rock got signed to Warner Brothers and was, unfortunately, sitting on the shelf there for a while. What did you do during that time?
Kendrick Lamar: I was just focusing all in, at the same time working on my craft, working on my penmanship, soaking it all in. Looking at his situation and seeing how these labels go and how these CEOs and music execs work, just soaking in the business side. And really seeing it’s a cutthroat business. At the end of the day you got to go for self and do what’s really true to you and not let nobody come and corrupt your shit. The industry is fucked up, nobody knows what they want. It was an experience for him but more so for me too, just looking at it from being under him
Paul Cantor: Top Dawg’s CEO is Dude Dawg, correct?
Kendrick Lamar: Yes, Dude Dawg.
Paul Cantor: You had a self-titled EP that dropped last year. What projects lead up to that?
Kendrick Lamar: I put out the first [mixtape] locally, Hub City Threat by HNIC. That was before Top Dawg; then I got with Top Dawg and put out a tape called Training Day. Just me having fun over industry beats, displaying the rhyme skills. Let it bubble. After that I just stayed working, stayed trying to perfect my shit. It leads up to the Kendrick Lamar EP a few years later.
Paul Cantor: Did the Training Day mixtape get the attention you wanted it to?
Kendrick Lamar: It got a bigger reaction. Prior to that, I was on The Game’s mixtape. I forgot the title of what it was. Of course Game was on a scale that he was at at the time, and me jumping on this tape was quite the exposure. After that is when I dropped Training Day. There was a lot of attention coming my way.
Paul Cantor: How did you wind up on Game’s mixtape?
Kendrick Lamar: That’s through Dude Dawg. Street ties. This city is small. Compton, Watts, Dude Dawg, he from Watts, Game from Compton, they was affiliated from the streets. I’m from Compton as well. It’s only right around the corner we meet.
Paul Cantor: Do you have any relationship with Game?
Kendrick Lamar: Game’s cool. I ain’t talk to him in a while. But that’s a good dude. I appreciate him giving me the opportunity to get on a mixtape, I’ll never forget that. I was on his LAX tour, when he had it. That was my first experience on tour. Just getting a taste of what’s to come.
Paul Cantor: How did that all come together?
Kendrick Lamar: The makings of that was Jay Rock had put out one of his singles. Jay Rock was on the bubble, and we just reached out to Game, Jay Rock put out the single, we’d be much appreciated if we can hop on the tour, get this exposure. He was with it. I tagged along, I performed a few joints. It was just crazy to see the reaction, so it was all love.
“I don’t want to be just another typical rapper out there. I want people to know me, my life and know my story… I don’t think you can become a legend or be amongst the elite if people don’t know who you are as a human being..”
Paul Cantor: On the west coast it seems like there’s more of a conscious vibe now, not so much hardcore Gangsta Rap. How do you think you play into the dynamic of what the perception of a typical west coast typical artist is, if at all?
Kendrick Lamar: Truthfully, my music, I don’t like to classify my music at all. I don’t really believe in just saying one particular music is conscious music. I like to think all music is conscious music. I think everybody got a conscience if you have a pulse. As far as Gangsta Rap, street music, I don’t feel it should be separated into threes. My music represents all of that. I’ve lived in Compton, California my whole life; I done seen it all, been around it all to the fullest. So that means I should only just talk about that? I think people classify you and expect you to just talk about that, or when you don’t talk about that, it’s because you don’t know it. I tend to talk about whatever’s going on in my life. My whole story is about a kid growing up in a city, Compton or wherever you at, trying his best to escape the peer pressures of wherever you coming from. I think everybody can relate to it at the end of the day.
Paul Cantor: Switching gears, what do you think the Kendrick Lamar EP did for you?
Kendrick Lamar: Me being at Top Dawg Entertainment, through the years, all I was doing was developing. People was hearing me but the response I was getting was: okay, he’s just another kid that can put some good words together and get some lines off. I sat back one day and was like — damn, the thing is, I don’t want to be just another typical rapper out there. I want people to know me, my life and know my story. That was the whole purpose of the Kendrick Lamar EP. When I went about recording it, I wanted to give people me. I don’t think you can become a legend or be amongst the elite if people don’t know who you are as a human being.
Paul Cantor: What were the standout songs?
Kendrick Lamar: “P and P.” Pussy and Patron. It sound like it could be some radio catchy jingle in the club shit but the song is — through the verses, I’m kicking it about going through the woes of just living, the ups and downs, whether it’s bills, when you can’t make it through the day and just need something to relax your brain.. people relate to that because that’s just everyday life. It’s a recession, ya dig. The other one, “Wanna Be Heard,” was basically me just giving off the passion of what I’m trying to do, just in life. Music is my passion, and I need you to listen to my music because that’s what my life is about right now. The ultimate response I get is to a song called “Faith.” It’s more on the spiritual level. My whole story is about kids trying their best — the black male or people in general trying to avoid the circumstances that’s around them. This song represents that. I’m actually talking about how I was almost — I was faithful. I went to church one day and I got the word and it changed my outlook on life. Then I walked out the church and got a call that my homie just got killed. So now I’m back on the bullshit. It’s a true story.
“J. Cole, he hit me on the text and told me to keep pushing, I’m gonna be amongst the elite.”
Paul Cantor: Did anything specific — something positive that you can think of — come out of having released that EP?
Kendrick Lamar: Aside from touching the people, just the amount of legendary people reaching out and saying I have quality music. I was on Twitter one day, Q-Tip had posted up a record and told everybody to watch this kid. Recently, 9th wonder reached out. J. Cole, he hit me on the text and told me to keep pushing, I’m gonna be amongst the elite. I appreciate that.
Paul Cantor: And you’re on this tour now with Tech N9ne, how did that come about?
Kendrick Lamar: Through the relationship between Tech N9ne and Jay Rock. I always respected his grind. Looking at where he’s taking the music, taking it back to the independent side. The tour is called the Independent Grind tour. He’s doing this whole thing from the go. It’s packing out shows everywhere. We couldn’t help but respect that. Just seeing where the industry is going, why not follow a plan that another man has masterminded.
Paul Cantor: Who else is on there with you?
Kendrick Lamar: Tech Nine, the whole Strange Music crew, Jay Rock, E-40, Glasses Malone and myself.
Paul Cantor: So now you’ve got Overly Dedicated out. What went into making that?
Kendrick Lamar: I went from the Kendrick Lamar EP to the Kendrick Lamar OD. It’s basically an extension of me. Giving myself more to the world and letting them overdose on me. I sat in the meetings with Top Dawg and the whole Top Dawg administration and from the jump I never wanted to put the shit on iTunes. I felt it was limiting the spread of the music. At the end of the day, I want to keep building more followers and more believers, just giving the music out for free. I could care less about recouping a few dollars off it. The higher powers and majority ruled over me. The actual outcome was positive. It landed #8 out of all the rap records around the world.
Paul Cantor: And I saw on your Twitter you are giving it out for free now?
Kendrick Lamar: I had to really stress and be vocal about it and press the CEO, to give it to these people for free. The people who love the music is loyal and say they’ll buy it but at the end of the day I just got to give it out for free. I can only go so far with just selling already. People still need to hear me. I want everybody to believe before I start recouping anything off this because it’s really a passion.
Paul Cantor: Did you approach Overly Dedicated any different than your previous work?
Kendrick Lamar: Not at all. I basically just wanted to give people more of me; more situations in my life, more things they can relate to. I already have another project in the works. It’s all within the same field of what my mindset was at, just letting people relate to me as much as possible, because I’m just as human as everyone else.
Paul Cantor: Needless to say, the project has gotten a lot of attention. But a lot of artists drop projects, so why do you think you have been able to cut through?
Kendrick Lamar: I think it’s just consistency. Keep pushing it, keep showing them that it don’t slow down, that I can keep doing this quality ass music. The world is so trendy, once you fall off, they think he don’t got no more in ‘em, he’s done. I’m reaching to make quality music to compete with the top elites — the Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s and Andre 3000’s. That’s what I’m going for with my music.