Illustration and Animation by Andrew J. Nilsen
Adam Giacomini remembers the very first time he heard Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci." Giacomini, known to listeners of Bay Area radio station KMEL as DJ Amen, was eating lunch one day this spring with a local hip-hop manager at Original Buffalo Wings on Lombard Street in San Francisco. The manager, who goes by Stretch, cued up the song on his iPhone. Even through tiny speakers, the marauding beat and Kreayshawn's impetuous yapping about fashion-obsessed bitches and Barbies who work at Arby's struck a decisive blow.
"I was just like, 'What the hell is this?'" Giacomini remembers. He laughs, recalling the song's most memorable line: "I got the swag and it's pumping out my ovaries."
KMEL soon added Kreayshawn — a virtually unknown white female rapper from Oakland — to its annual Freshman 10 list of promising local artists. (She was the "wild card" 11th.) In May, the equally perplexing video for "Gucci Gucci" — white girls in thrift-store bling passing blunts with black boys — racked up more than two million YouTube views in two weeks. Shortly thereafter, Kreayshawn became the latest Bay Area rapper to join a major-label roster, signing a deal with Columbia Records reportedly worth more than $1 million. With the ensuing orgy of exposure, millions more would soon hear "Gucci Gucci" and face that same confusion Amen did.
"She had something that was so different that people were either going to love it and accept it, and look at it as the next hippest thing to come out of the Bay," Amen says, "or it was just going to be too wild and out there and they wouldn't understand."
Kreayshawn upends much that is expected about hip-hop. She's white. She's female. She raps about bisexual encounters. Her visual style comes off more hipster pixie than ghetto queen.
Her crew, the White Girl Mob, is also bewildering: Group DJ Lil Debbie's narrow body, bobbed hair, and pale countenance so closely resemble Kreayshawn's that the two were confused for each other before they met. Their looks clash with the fact that they talk and behave like rappers raised around the rough parts of Oakland. Third member V-Nasty has even sparked controversy over her unrepentant use of the word "nigga." She and Kreayshawn (who doesn't use the word) explain that in the neighborhoods where they were raised, it was used casually, without regard for the skin color of the person on the receiving end. Many blacks and whites who know her agree. But others, especially outsiders, are enraged at what they see as a white girl tossing around a cutting slur with a painful history.
Kreayshawn's innate shock value — her seeming visual and sociological contradiction, and the freedom it implies — is key to her appeal. Along with Berkeley rap provocateur Lil B, she's at the center of a new hip-hop generation that pairs reckless creativity with online mythmaking and ignores the old rules about who you should be, what you should wear, and what you can become. But as with the last generation of Bay Area rappers to flirt with national fame — the hyphy movement — it's not clear that the outside world is ready.
To understand the hip-hop exemplified by Kreayshawn, Lil B, and the L.A. collective Odd Future, you must understand "swag" — that stuff Kreayshawn says is coming out of her ovaries. Track after track, swag emanates from the mouths of these emcees, most of whom are barely out of their teens. Hashtagged, it punctuates fans' tweets. Chanted, it booms from the throngs at live shows. Swag is a boast, a confirmation, and a commendation; it is usually a noun or verb, although it works as a modifier, too. Technically short for "swagger," the precise meaning of the word seems to elude even those who use it regularly, but what can be said is this: Swag today often refers to an attitude, a poise — one that allows for the joyful havoc wrought by hip-hop-making kids in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
Originally, the term referred to trappings of hip-hop masculinity — status symbols like cars, jewelry, and clothing. So-called swag rappers such as Jay-Z and Lil Wayne bragged about what they got and how they got it. But for a younger generation, swag took on a broader meaning. Raised in the Internet age, these kids feel free to appropriate fashion, language, music, and attitudes stripped of historical and cultural contexts. The materials they used to construct self-images no longer had to be colored gold or chrome or gangsta. Swag evolved into an encouragement of this freedom. Like a Tumblr blog in which each photo, scrap of text, or embedded video is posted without context, contributing a single point to the overall aesthetic, the swag life encourages you to take cultural artifacts that speak to you — be they punk rock or crunk rap, secondhand sweaters or designer shoes — and fit them like novel bricks into the multicolored wall of your own image. Swag is about attitude and originality: Even though "Gucci Gucci" might seem to attack high-fashion labels like Louis Vuitton, Kreayshawn — who owns some Louis herself — says she's just against wearing them like everybody else does.
"It's an emotion; it's how you feel," Lil B says. "Anybody can have swag ... it's just about what you think. That could be wearing a piece of tape on your ass and ripping it off and there's that little line [without hair] and you walk out with it. And it's like, 'This is me. The people that respect me respect it.'"
This liberalizing attitude toward self-definition allows for the rise of an artist like Lil B, an acquaintance of Kreayshawn who worked with her on a few videos. Through his persistent online self-promotion and without label support, he has elevated himself to international notoriety. He's built an obsessive fan base and attained grudging acceptance from the mainstream rap world, all while challenging attitudes at the core of the culture. That's what he would call "swag."
Most people agree rapping is about rhyming words together. Not Lil B. His musical style, which he has termed "based," consists of largely stream-of-consciousness musings haphazardly expressed over a basic beat. Some songs' themes are positive and universal. Many others push the virile persona of hip-hop stars to an absurd extreme. "Pretty Bitch" does this and adds a vain twist: "Damn based god, I'm a pretty bitch/I'm iced out/Iced-up bitch with your girl on my dick." In any song or "based freestyle," it's not unusual for B to suddenly contradict himself, change points of view, or fall back midthought on a few reliable refrains. One of those is, not surprisingly, "swag."
In the flesh, though, Brandon McCartney doesn't seem so audacious. As he steers a broad-shouldered black Mercedes S550 into a parking lot near San Francisco's Sutro Heights Park, the 21-year-old known as Lil B barely rises above the doorsill. He arrives clothed like a grungy undergrad: blue Cal-Berkeley sweatshirt and dirt-streaked jeans hanging far below his hips, with athletic shorts bridging the gap between the top of his pants and his boxers. Tattered white Vans dangle from his feet, a memento of the hit song "Vans" that briefly got McCartney (and his mates in Berkeley rap group the Pack) on the Jive Records roster before he could drive. The tattoos streaming down his neck don't stand out much in the blue-gray afternoon light.
Today is busy, because tomorrow, Lil B leaves to tour Europe for two weeks. It will be his first time on the continent, and he can't quite recall all the cities he'll be playing.
Ask McCartney a question, and his answers will often wind their way back to one of a few select phrases like "one life to live" or "spread the love, spread the positivity." These are meta-instructions for the actions of the Based God. He's far more inclined to follow these guidelines than anything else — even in the face of heated resistance. "His music is TERRIBLE, his persona is honestly an embarrassment to hip-hop," one commenter wrote on an early interview with Lil B. "I'm a pretty bitch? I'm finer than Nicki Minaj? WTF? That's gay dude."
Lil B is used to this kind of talk. "I've already done a lot of rapping how most of these rappers are rapping now," he says calmly, from behind pink-rimmed sunglasses. "But I've been rapping for eight, nine years now, and I'm not going to rap the same forever."
After the Pack's success petered out, Lil B pushed the group's "based" ethos ("just doing what you want, not really worrying about what people feel or say about you") into a new approach to music and fame. First, his self-recorded songs could be largely improvised, casual, and more about feeling than precision. This allowed him to release more music than anyone else: One mixtape this year included a bandwidth-hogging 676 songs, while its tracklisting was a four-page Microsoft Word document.
Second, Lil B adopted the persona of a sort of hip-hop Internet deity, building support for the Based God through digital omnipresence. He started more than 100 MySpace pages. He began spending 18 or more hours per day online. He follows, as of this writing, more than 165,000 accounts on Twitter, and regularly retweets messages from his more than 272,000 followers.
Lil B filled these streams with memes largely of his own making: There was the cooking dance, an absurd gyration that imitates the chopping and stirring of kitchen work. There was the phrase "Thank you Based God," which has been pasted atop images of famous men weeping (Barack Obama, Kobe Bryant, and James Van Der Beek), as if they are in awe of his powers. The ultimate nod to his stature: Some male fans, motivated by one of his lyrics, have invited him to have sex with their girlfriends.
In terms of shock and self promotion, Lil B is a lot like notorious Oakland rapper Too $hort, who hand-built his fame by selling tapes out of the trunk of his car. "It's always been the Bay Area way of hustling your own music," says "Prince" Aries Nuñez, a local hip-hop DJ and producer of hip-hop TV show Distortion2Static. "Right now, the trunk just happens to be the Internet."
As with Too $hort, Lil B was seen as a kind of a Bay Area freak at first. Then he grew into an underground curiosity. Starting last year, the ever-present din of Lil B's relentless online self-promotion grew too loud for the mainstream to ignore. He was booked into slots at South by Southwest and Coachella. He made XXL magazine's Freshman 10 list for 2011 — and its cover — as another 11th pick. As he began to earn respect, so did his new approach to fame. "Lil B is a master at marketing," DJ Amen says.
Yet there remains disagreement that Lil B's nonrhyming shower of half-sensical musings, splattered over beats with few hooks, counts as a legitimate hip-hop. "A lot of people, they're like, 'He can't do that,'" hip-hop DJ D Sharp says. "But he's like, 'Fuck you, I can.' And people don't like that."
This hardly troubles Lil B, who munches on chunks of watermelon as he ponders the issue. "A lot of people in hip-hop are followers," he says. "They're afraid to do something new. It's a lot of rules I'm breaking."
One rule he breaks is the hypermasculine image demanded of male MCs. He has joked about being gay, and once Tweeted that he would force anal sex on Kanye West unless West agreed to a collaboration. Then, at Coachella this spring, Lil B — who says he's straight — announced that his upcoming album would be called I'm Gay. Responses came quickly — some as death threats.
The notion of it being a Bay Area rapper who dares to challenge hip hop's latent homophobia seems natural. But is I'm Gay an act of protest or an act of attention-grabbing?
"I knew I was challenging what people in hip-hop and a lot of people in the world still have stereotypes on," he says, implying allegiance to the cause. After the initial I'm Gay uproar, though, Lil B added the explanatory subtitle "I'm happy."
Even in a one-on-one interview, it's hard to tell what he means to say. "I respect gay people," he says. "And 'gay' is just a word. Of course I love gay people because they're human. I love babies and new people and anybody that's on Earth as long as they've got a good soul and they're not thieves."
And so Lil B wriggles back into his mythology, leaving it up to his interpreters to decide which parts of his answers came from Brandon McCartney, the skinny marketing genius, and which came from Lil B, the hyperactive online deity.
Whatever the title of Lil B's album, all the graphic sex he depicts is with women. Natassia Zolot, on the other hand, is a nationally known rapper signed to a major label who actually shows herself in videos getting with people of the same sex. But Kreayshawn, as she's better known, refuses labels like "bisexual" or "occasional lesbian" — partly, she says, because accepting one could spark prejudice against her in the hip-hop community. "Titling keeps us separate," the 21-year-old says. "I usually just say I'm a free spirit."
Even without emphasizing her sexuality, Kreayshawn has raised a considerable uproar just by being who she is: a creative-minded rapping white woman raised in the "murder dubs" of Oakland — and a reminder of the unusual people produced by the urban milieu of the Bay Area. Since signing with Columbia, she has been on a nonstop press tour around the U.S. and Europe. On the day she speaks with SF Weekly, she's already done four interviews. She says all this has only underscored the uniqueness of home.
"Being from the Bay, it's kind of like we only understand each other," says Kreayshawn, who moved to L.A. in February. "It's kind of multicultural, and there's a whole bunch of subscenes. It makes sense to me, and it makes sense to people who were raised like that. But there's also going to be people who don't understand it."
She was born in San Francisco to a 17-year-old girl who played in a band — so by the age of 5, Kreayshawn was already a rock 'n' roller. There's a recording online of her shouting "Boys are toys!" over fuzzy surf-punk from the Trashwomen, a Berkeley outfit in which her mom, Elka, played guitar. The child's playful shrillness anticipates the spirit Kreayshawn now brings to lines like "Basic bitches wear that shit, so I don't even bother."
By age 10, Zolot was freestyling over beats made on her mom's boyfriend's DJ equipment. She gravitated toward hip-hop and stations like KMEL, but she even made country songs with her friends. In her teen years, she bonded with V-Nasty over video, graphic design, and music — and a desire to avoid the troubled lives many of their peers ended up leading. "We both grew up white girls in Oakland, which is really hard, because some girls, they go down the wrong path," she explains. "They end up becoming hos."
About a year ago, Kreayshawn started taking herself seriously as a musician. Partly, she was inspired by meeting Lil B, who was putting everything he made — no matter how ridiculous — out for the world to hear. Then Kreayshawn met Stretch, who encouraged her; she'd soon finished a batch of songs that included "Gucci Gucci." She and Stretch showed the track around to mixed reaction. "People would say stuff like, 'This is never going to be on the radio,'" she remembers. Then "Gucci Gucci" hit the airwaves.
Prince Aries had heard an earlier Kreayshawn song called "Bumpin' Bumpin'" before, and he wasn't impressed. But the first time he heard "Gucci Gucci" on KMEL, he knew it was what he calls "a milestone in hip-hop."
"It kind of encompasses the next generation of hip-hop — in sound, in attitude, and shoot, you could even say in race," he says. "It's more widely accepted that white folks are rapping now. She's a female; she's got that swag, that Bay Area swag, in the way she talks."
Yet for everyone heralding Kreayshawn as a new brand of rapper, there are skeptics — even haters — saying her flow isn't up to snuff or that her sound is too out-there. Other critics have taken on her race. One writer for Clutch magazine dismissed her as the latest example of whites appropriating black culture. A local feminist blog insisted that "dismissiveness and denigration of black women animate her success." Many have speculated that the White Girl Mob must be suburban kids acting black to get famous.
Her supporters give little credence to these arguments. "People started hating on her when she first dropped, like 'Look at this white girl, stealing our culture and making wack songs,'" D Sharp recounts. "But if you really listen to 'Gucci Gucci,' that shit kinda dope. The beat and her delivery on that shit? I mean, it's a dope record."
Perhaps the biggest controversy isn't of her own making. Wherever Kreayshawn goes, she gets asked about White Girl Mob member V-Nasty's habit of using the word "nigga" in everyday speech — often by people who think Kreayshawn uses it, too. In one recent interview, Philadelphia radio personality Tazz Daddy hammered her:
Tazz Daddy: A lot of people are very upset with your free use of the word "nigga."
Kreayshawn: I don't say that. That's V-Nasty.
Tazz Daddy: ... Do you talk to her about it?
Kreayshawn: Well, when we're in Oakland ... before everyone was staring at us, it was like, 'Yeah, I don't care if she says it, that's Vanessa.' But now that everyone's freaking out about it, thinking I'm saying it ... Now I'm like, 'Vanessa, come on, please.' ... She doesn't get it. Now I'm onstage and I gotta answer this question, and it's V-Nasty's fault.
Tazz Daddy: Pretty much! Because the black people's like, 'Tazz, we're going to kick your ass if you don't ask her. I don't listen to her music, man, but ... ask her!'"
Kreayshawn: Is someone going to sock me in the face right now? 'Cause I'm feeling a little intimidated.
Tazz Daddy: Why, 'cause I'm all big, you all little, I'm all black, you all white — you feel intimidated?
The word upsets people in Oakland, too. Davey D, a prominent Oakland hip-hop journalist, doesn't even like it when black people use the word. "So I'm certainly not going to give them a pass to do it," he says. "If you stand in front of me, I'm certainly going to say something to you."
The question with Kreayshawn, then, seems to be: Will people eventually accept who she is — especially those outside of the Bay Area?
She has already won acceptance from the likes of Snoop Dogg, who collaborated with her on a song, and Drake, who called in to flirt while she was on a radio show. Yet Kreayshawn's swag-filled ovaries are an unusual product of a unique place — the diverse streets of San Francisco and Oakland. And the last hot rap movement to come from those streets went cold very quickly.
The Mercedes sedan glides into the drab intersection of 45th and Market streets in Oakland, its arrival heralded by a strip of metallic lavender along the bottom and a gleaming sea of gold above. The huge fuselage rolls up next to a curb and out of the driver's side rises a tall, thick figure wearing a blazing red T-shirt, a Young and Reckless baseball cap pointed mostly backward, and impossibly baggy jeans fastened somewhere just above the knees. Around his neck hangs a long golden chain with a diamond-encrusted medallion at the end. "Mistah F.A.B.," it reads.
On his home turf, this Oakland rapper seems to know all and be known by all. He tells the neighborhood kids hanging around to put the bottle of champagne they're drinking in a paper bag. He discusses plans for a block party with passersby. He encourages a 13-year-old to get through school and keep his grades up.
A few years ago, F.A.B. was one of the figureheads of a Bay Area rap movement called hyphy, which seemed poised to be the next big thing. With a likeable goofiness, hyphy advocated "going dumb." It employed a lexicon of alien local slang, and made famous the practice of putting a moving car in neutral and getting out to dance on the hood. (F.A.B.'s biggest hit was about this move, called "ghost-riding the whip.") But hyphy didn't blow up nationwide — at least not the way F.A.B., his peers, and the execs who signed them to major-label deals expected. The movement simply didn't find a large enough appeal.
After things fizzled out, Mistah F.A.B. retained his local stardom and, crucially, his freedom to release music independently. His life experience has arguably made his music more interesting. This year he released a song called "Blame Me" — a biting, sarcastic missive to fans and critics who blamed him and other Bay Area rappers like E40 and Keak Da Sneak for hyphy's failure to go national. "The Bay died, they blamed me," F.A.B. raps. "I got banned, criticized, and ridiculed. Media scapegoat, humiliated like a fool."
Now, Bay Area hip-hop stands on the verge of what many see as another revival — thanks to artists like Lil B, Kreayshawn, and other talented rappers like Roach Gigz. "We're definitely in the beginning phase of a new generation which is about to explode," Prince Aries says.
Yet even among supporters, there's concern that swag rappers like Kreayshawn and Lil B could suffer a similar fate to hyphy. The outrage over V-Nasty — or the death threats Lil B faced this year — could be evidence of that. "A lot of people outside the Bay look at us as crazy," DJ Amen explains. "From dancing on top of cars to Lil B, the outside world hasn't really seen what the Bay Area is all about." Amen continues to be wowed by Kreayshawn, but he also admits that, "outside the Bay, I think it's going to take some time before they understand it."
Mistah F.A.B. isn't so concerned. He's involved in this new movement both as an artist and a mentor: He helped Kreayshawn by supporting her — and as one of the biggest names in local rap, that lends considerable credibility. "She's a superstar," he says. "Her originality is so easy and obvious." And while hyphy was largely a male take on 'hood life, Kreayshawn's image and attitude seem to appeal to a broader, younger, and more female audience.
F.A.B. also released a video this summer explaining why he's okay with V-Nasty saying "nigga." Part of it, he says, is that the word has lost much of its racist dimension after being tossed around so much. And part of it is that V-Nasty's language reflects who she really is. "It's not a fake, it's not a facade," he says that afternoon on the Oakland street corner. "She's earned the right to socialize in that form."
The 28-year-old rapper and father also throws his name behind Lil B, whom he encourages in semiregular phone conversations. "Nowadays, everybody looks like everybody. You've seen one, you've seen 'em all," he says. "And in rare cases, such as Lil B, such as Kreayshawn — shit, such as myself. ... We're bringing back the days of individualism, when people weren't afraid to be themselves, when people weren't afraid to do what it is they love to do."
That individualism makes it difficult to lump Kreayshawn and Lil B, or any of the rising crop of Bay Area rappers, under a specific style. They're of the same generation, work largely through the Internet, and are undeniably controversial — but their music and images are vastly different.
That's exactly why Mistah F.A.B. likes them. He knows there's more to a career than the quick upward rise. He may not be a regular on MTV, but he plays all over the country, recently released a radio-friendly single with Auto-Tune king T-Pain, and records new music constantly. He's a potent force on Twitter himself. And he's still got plenty of that quality that seems so essential to a long-lasting rap career. He calls it individualism. Lil B and Kreayshawn would call it swag.