In 2008, the San-Francisco–born rapper Roach Gigz visited New York City. He went out to Southside Jamaica, Queens, the area 50 Cent and his G-Unit crew mythologized in rhyme. He visited Harlem, where he bought two small pet turtles for $10. And he fueled his trip by wolfing down $1 slices of pizza. For Gigz, the voyage was a chance to play the rap tourist. But on his next visit to the networking center of the hip-hop world in 2011, his schedule is all business. Touching down in N.Y.C. after the Presidents' Day weekend, the 22-year-old is seeking face-to-face connections with industry folk. It's a fist-bumping approach he hopes will convert the hype he has cultivated online into a shot at real-life stardom as he gears up to drop his debut album, Therapy Sessions, later this year.
Lounging in a bar in Brooklyn, Gigz sounds eminently confident about the mission ahead of him. He's in fine spirits, having earlier visited the MTV2 studios to record a spot for the show Sucker Free. "Once people back home in the Bay Area see me on MTV, they're gonna be like, 'Damn, it's possible to go out there and do shit and really make a name for yourself,'" he gushes. He beams when he reveals he's recorded a song with Lil B, the increasingly ubiquitous Berkeley-based Internet rap phenomenon — a name that can only help raise Gigz's profile. ("We just said, "Fuck it, let's make some hyphy shit!'" the goateed Gigz enthuses.)
To date, Gigz's reputation has been forged by two installments of his Roachy Balboa mixtape series, named in honor of his love for the Rocky films. (Gigz owned the complete collection on VHS in middle school, but he's never been a boxer.) The free mixtapes showcase the rapper's quick wit, skewed humor, and punchline-laden lyrics over beats rooted in his Bay Area heritage. "Goomba Pimpin'," from the first tape, is based around a gargantuan synth riff and minimal bass and snare hits. The song kicks off with Gigz finding a cure for writer's block by hitting up a woman over the Internet; by the end, it's clear he has the potential to marry the club-friendly swagger of hyphy with the mainstream appeal of Eminem's early slick-talking.
For an upcoming rapper, Gigz has been doing all the right things — and is starting to be rewarded for them. His more recent YouTube videos like "Can I Rap," and "Respect It" have hit more than a quarter of a million views — a fine payoff for the long trail of music he's given away. His name is established enough to grant him a presence on the important hip-hop blogs. He'll soon share a stage with the Bay's rap godfather, Too $hort, at a show in Petaluma, where he says he was treated like "a superstar" at earlier shows. And despite obvious pride in his career arc, Gigz is also aware that free music as a promotional strategy can get him only so far. On "Can I Rap," he confesses, "I'm seeing no cash in this."
The young, Internet-era rapper plans to address this problem by putting his faith in the decidedly old-fashioned, pre-Internet aim of scoring a major record deal. "The biggest people are on labels, so that's where my goal is," he says. "I'm not saying I'm going to be independent for the rest of my life. No, I'm going to make my mark independently and then prove that the Bay Area can do it on a major scale."
It's refreshing to hear an artist reject the pretense that simply releasing reams of free songs will magically turn him into a star. "Some of the greatest artists, like the Notorious BIG, came out with only two albums," he says. "Now you have to come out with damn near 500 songs before you're even noticed." The pressure to churn out those 500 songs brings with it the danger that quantity obscures quality. Today, Biggie's brilliantly economical guest verse on, say, Supercat's "Dolly My Baby" remix would likely be lost among the daily mass of 40-plus track mixtapes released by a gaggle of upcoming artists. In another era, Gigz's "Can I Rap," a furious statement of intent, would likely have garnered enough hype to score him a deal.
Gigz's decision to travel outside of the Bay and forge industry connections in person taps into the trait that will be key to his overall success — his personality. In the bar, he tells anecdotes about being asked to sign fans' body parts in Petaluma, muses on bringing a $1 pizza franchise to San Francisco, and brags about his skills in the ancient art of Connect Four. It's an only slightly tempered version of the same cocky-but-likable personality that one finds in his songs. "Rap is about taking your best qualities and, fuck that, exaggerate your best qualities," he says. Gigz may have used the online world to get him this far, but it'll be his real-world personality that will decide his next step.