"He got shot." Blunt but with a quiver in her voice, V-Nasty recalls the day her best friend died in her arms. The grisly incident happened on Coolidge Avenue in Oakland, when the rapper born Vanessa Reece was 15 years old. An East Oakland native, Reece says the death of her friend was the most traumatic experience of her childhood. But pressed for details on the murder, she says she doesn't want to comment, adding only that the incident threw her into a period where "there was no holding me down."
Last year, the 21-year-old Reece, a member of Kreayshawn's White Girl Mob, struck Internet infamy through a combination of cuss-laden, slick-talking songs, and her controversial, casual use of the n-word. But as she tells it, there's nothing contentious about her music or choice of slang — it's just a natural outcome of an upbringing peppered with tumultuous events like seeing friends get killed and watching police raid her house. That rough-and-tumble background is still with her today: Reece was meant to kick off a six-date cross-country tour in San Francisco on Feb. 1, but canceled all the shows due to what her publicist calls "probation issues" stemming from a stint in Santa Rita jail last year. So when she says, "You gotta be from the 'hood to know what V-Nasty's talking about," Reece might have a point.
Growing up on 35th Avenue in East Oakland, Reece describes her home blocks as filled with "a lot of diversity." (That's after she cracks a joke that the area is full of "fucked up streets that need to be fixed 'cause they be messing people's rims up!") She says, somewhat counter-intuitively, that her videos and songs are littered with the n-word largely because she came of age around such diversity. "It's just something I grew up saying," she says nonchalantly, claiming that her use of the word has never "touched anybody I've been around in a negative way." Outside of her immediate Oakland circle though, she's received a heap of flak for it — so much so that she decided to banish it from her raps (but not her daily vocabulary) earlier this year. "I just want to show people that the n-word does not make me," she says.
As Reece would have it, she's simply the product of an East Oakland environment. And for rappers, invoking the culture of a particular place to deflect criticism away from controversial music or language choices is nothing new. In the early '90s, gangsta rappers under attack from conservative censors and hip-hop elitists defended their subgenre by claiming that listeners had to have passed through war zones like Compton to relate to songs about drive-by shootings. Ultimately, gangsta rap's explanation passed muster, at least for the white, suburban listeners who became some of its biggest fans. Reece, whose appeal so far has been focused on Internet gawkers and teens mimicking her fashion and attitude, is looking to pull off a similar trick and take her gritty background worldwide.
Whether she'll succeed is unclear. But like her comrade Kreayshawn, Reece is mining the online fascination with extreme personalities. She recently released the BAYTL project with Southern megastar Gucci Mane, her favorite rapper. The album was a profile-booster, but its songs were panned by most critics. With her high-strung, excitable flow, Reece came off more like a giddy fan than a composed rap peer (it didn't help that Gucci Mane is no lyrical genius), and the collaboration was more of a spectacle than an enjoyable record.
Building a spectacle, though, is in line with Reece's online career to date, where she's still principally known as the white girl who uses the n-word. Search for her name on YouTube and the highest ranking result is a video titled "A Day with V-Nasty." It's a three-and-a-half minute clip that largely consists of her swaggering around Oakland yelling at people (often referring to them as "nigga," regardless of race), freestyling, and smoking a blunt. She comes off as either odious or sassy, depending on where your sympathies lie.
At first, Reece flipped out when she read negative comments about herself online: "I was getting mad because I had a lot of negative energy coming toward me and I was really actually pissed off," and she responded in characteristically profane terms. But as the viewing numbers increased — "A Day with V-Nasty" has been watched over 1.5 million times — Reece realized the benefit of her brash persona. It remains her main draw, and it's a powerful one: Without a debut album proper, or record label, she's amassed a following greater than many major label-signed up-and-comers. "You got to have a personality that you can get people to love you with," Reece explains.
By now, not even a year after she was first mentioned in Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci," she's learned that her painful background has become a kind of asset. That realization has not softened Vanessa Reece: "I don't give a fuck what people think about me," she says. "I think that's what brought me and [my fans] together — that personality, our personalities. You know what I'm saying?"