Vince Staples: 'We Live In A Space Where Your Name Isn't Enough'

Apr 2, 2017
Originally published on April 3, 2017 10:19 am

Long Beach, Calif., has produced such legendary rappers as Snoop Dogg, Warren G and the late Nate Dogg, all of whom won international acclaim — and persistent criticism — for work that some said glorified gang life. Now, a generation later, the city has a new star: Vince Staples.

Staples first turned heads with his album Summertime '06, released in 2015, about growing up in Long Beach and his time in the notorious Los Angeles gang the Crips. Two years later, Staples is still getting acclaim for his music. Rolling Stone called him "one of hip-hop's true rising stars" — and he's only 23.

Now, Staples is getting ready to release a second album, which he told Vice will be called Big Fish Theory. He's currently touring, and on his way through Washington, D.C., he stopped by NPR's studios to speak with Michel Martin. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

Michel Martin: I take it you're not all that comfortable with the acclaim you've received. I read in one interview that you said, "I'm not a star. I'm a person with a job."

Vince Staples: That was me being sarcastic because, you know, they liked it. No, it's just — the idea of the "magical Negro."

So you're not magical.

No, what a magical Negro means is "Oh, you're smart?" "Oh, you're talented?" That means they're assuming that you're not supposed to be. So they can kind of keep those compliments — they're backhanded.

One of the things that people have noted about you is that you take a lot of the tropes that people are used to and you twist it around. Your short film Prima Donna opens with this stereotypical hip-hop scene, with scantily-clad women shaking their butts in your face, and then within a minute, you see it's a set, it's all made up. And you kind of turn it on its head and offer some really pointed reflections about fame, money and celebrity. You do seem like an old soul, like you've lived a lot longer than your years, and I'm wondering where those insights come from.

Now, this would be my question, just to play devil's advocate. What's the appropriate amount of years to have that insight?

I think it's less about that and more just about what you take from your personal experiences. 'Cause you can learn something in 15 minutes, [that] it could take someone 15 years to learn. So I don't think it's really a timetable. I think it just depends on what you choose to pay attention to based on your experiences. 'Cause we all have opportunities to learn the same things, essentially. Sometimes we just avoid them.

You've also been really open about the fact that a lot of the things you talk about have been real in your life — things that you've seen, things that you've experienced. You've said that gangbanging isn't something you opt into, it's something that's around you. Is that how you'd describe it?

I don't really feel the need to describe it, for the simple fact that you can go see and ask someone that is there. This is my thing: We gotta stop pretending that we care about people, and what they do, if we don't. That's an honest thing — 'cause what it is, is a sense of camaraderie, sense of brotherhood, sense of belonging. The same way if you live in this country, you're American; if you live in another country you can be whatever they call it there. You're a Democrat or you're a Republican. You're this or you're that. You're black or you're white. We all belong to different sects and different — different spaces within something that exists above us.

And there is no difference. There's literally no difference. Because if someone goes to the Army it becomes, "oh, I'm not in the Army, I'm in the Marines." "I'm not in the Marines, I'm in the Air Force." There is a certain sense of belonging that they all get from there. And sometimes those things lead to things that are considered to be inhumane. Let's not speak about crime, let's speak about the thought of, you know, respecting humanity.

This is my thing about that question. That question isn't, "Oh, why do gangs happen?" It [isn't] like, "Oh, wow, why do these black and brown and Pacific Islander — why do these little boys with no structure, no one guiding them, why do they need each other? Why are they trying to figure out life on their own?" That's really what it is. It's nothing else. [But] when you speak about gang structure, people ask about killing, robbing and things that are considered crime. They don't care about anything else.

I feel like it's kind of annoying to hear those things. Because you can't find a Jay Z article where they don't speak about him selling drugs. You can't find a Vince Staples article where it doesn't say, "Ex-gang member, rapper from yada yada yada, Vince Staples says this, this, that and that." Because we live in a space where your name isn't enough.

When you see an article about Adele they don't say "scorned ex-girlfriend." ... but that's us. See what I'm saying? But at the end of the day, no one's asking why.

In your song "Lift Me Up," you say, "All these white folks chanting when I asked 'em where my n***** at / Goin' crazy, got me goin' crazy, I can't get with that." How do you feel about the fact that you have such a large fan base of white people?

I don't feel any type of way. ... When you perform, when you say that line, you see people start to look at one another. And when they look at one another, they self-assess: "Is he talking about me? Is he talking about him? I love black people, I just kinda like the songs. How dare you judge me for listening to your music" — it forces people to think about themselves, which is a very hard thing to do sometimes. And, all I just say is it's a statement. I wonder if they know that we notice it, is really where it came from. It was very lighthearted. Because it happens. You get to a song, certain songs — that's part of the vocabulary. When we get to that part of that song, it's quiet.

Some of the same criticisms that attended to an earlier generation of rappers have resurfaced. Last October, a woman took exception to "Norf Norf" and posted a video response that went viral — she said,"I cannot believe this stuff is on the radio! This is what our youth is being subjected to."

What made a lot of people turn their heads is that you were very kind about it. You defended her, you said that people should--

She was right.

Really? What was she right about?

I don't really care what's on the radio because the radio's kind of secondary to how we consume music in today's day and age. But what she said, "this is what our children are being exposed to"? She's right. That's what the song is about: what our children are being exposed to.

My question is, why can we listen to that and pass it off like it's not a problem? When you see a film and you see a murder scene or a rape scene or something that's displaying an element of trauma, we don't look at it and go, "This movie's f****** great, I'm having a great time, are you?" We feel for that. Know what I'm saying? But it doesn't necessarily happen in that sense when we're speaking about music. So I didn't make that song for it to make people happy. So I don't have a problem with what she said. You got a reaction — isn't that the point, essentially?

But you could have rallied the troops. I mean, there were a lot of people dumping on her. And you didn't do that.

'Cause that's pathetic. It's pathetic to attack someone for having an opinion or feeling some type of way, for wanting her children to not be exposed to something. 'Cause I'm 100 percent sure my mother would have loved for her children to not be exposed to gang life. The difference is it wasn't on the radio — it was in our house, and it was outside, and it was at our schools, and it was at our churches, it was everywhere that we were. So it was kind of a little bit harder. If I have children one day I would hope that they will never be exposed to that.

I hear you.

But when you have people who are able to, you know, just write people off as if they don't have an opinion or feelings or motives behind the things they say, that's the corny part. You're worse than her because she shared her opinion.

She never said one negative thing about me. At all. Her statement was that she doesn't understand how this is getting to major airwaves — which is debatable, it's fair for her to feel that way. And most of [all], she kind of felt bad about the fact that it was possible that these things could really happen. Shouldn't we be, you know, happy that someone actually is considering the fact that this really happens, rather than passing it off as fable or just ignoring it?

So what are you dreaming about now?

I think we just take it day by day, we try to find new methods of creating things and just trying to do something new and — making sure that when it's all over, you know, we've added and not just taken away.

Something that [producer] No I.D. says all the time is that there's no museum for this. There's no — there's nothing dedicated to the quality of art, or the leaps and bounds taken, or the sacrifices and the risks that are made just for the sake of creation. There's no museum for hip-hop, you see, there's no museum for music, essentially. We have a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but that word is what just kind of destroys it all for me. We're speaking on fame, not the aspects of art, the creativity — which kind of can become two completely different things at a certain point in time. So just trying to be the most creative and create something that's never been done before, which is a reoccurring challenge.

Staples' latest single "BagBak" will be featured on the rapper's upcoming album.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the last part of the program today, we're going to visit with two very different young artists who are in the news both because of their music and how others are reacting to their music and to them in this very political moment. In a minute, we'll hear Jackie Evancho, who sang the national anthem at Donald Trump's inauguration. She has a new album out, and she's also speaking out in support of transgender students, including her sister.

But first, a visit with the latest star from a place that has produced more than its share. Long Beach, Calif., has produced such legendary rappers as Snoop Dogg, Warren G and the late Nate Dogg, who won international acclaim and persistent criticism for work that some said glorified gang life. Now, a generation later, the city has a new star and his name is Vince Staples.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NORF NORF")

VINCE STAPLES: (Rapping) Norfside Long Beach, hit the corner, make a dollar flip and split the dollars with my mama children. Folks need Porsches, [expletive] need abortions. I just need ya'll out of my business.

MARTIN: That's "Norf Norf" from the album "Summertime '06" released in 2015. Music writers have hailed it for its fresh, gritty, almost journalistic take on his hometown. Rolling Stone calls Vince Staples one of hip hop's true rising stars. The FADER called him a regular genius and a candidate for the most hilarious intelligent and subversive voice in rap. And he's only 23.

He's on tour before his second album dropped, and he was nice enough to stop by and see us really minutes after he drove into D.C. for a concert. Vince Staples, thanks so much for dropping by.

STAPLES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I take it you're not all that comfortable with the acclaim, and you're probably not all that comfortable with the way I introduced you. I read in one interview that you said I'm not a star, I'm a person with a job.

STAPLES: That was me being sarcastic because, you know...

MARTIN: You are a star?

STAPLES: They liked it - no - it's just the idea of the magical negro.

MARTIN: So you're not magical?

STAPLES: No. What a magical negro means that, oh, you're smart? Oh, you're talented? That means they're assuming that you're not supposed to be. So they can kind of keep those compliments. They're backhanded.

MARTIN: One of the things that people have noted about you is that you take a lot of the the tropes that people are used to and you twist it around. Like, I'm thinking, for example, in your short film "Prima Donna" how, you know, it opens with this kind of - can I just say classic stereotypical kind of...

STAPLES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Hip hop scene with the scantily clad women shaking their butt in your face. And then within a minute, you see it's a set. It's all kind of made up, right? And you kind of turn it on its head and offer some kind of really poignant reflections about fame and money and celebrity, and, you know, what that's all about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIMA DONNA")

STAPLES: (Rapping) I just want to be DaVinci baby, why they want to kill me, baby? Feeling like a pop star, music drive a [expletive] crazy, think I'm finna pull a Wavves on the Primavera stage on some prima donna [expletive]...

MARTIN: You do seem like an old soul, like you've lived a lot longer than your years. And I am wondering kind of where those insights come from.

STAPLES: Now, this will be my question just to play devil's advocate. What's the appropriate amount of years to have that insight? I think it's less about that and more just about what you take from your personal experiences because you can learn something, you know, in 15 minutes. It can take someone 15 years to learn. So I don't think there's really a timetable on it.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you've also been really open about the fact that a lot of the things you talk about have been real in your life. In one interview I read of yours, you said one writer said that gangbanging isn't something you opt into. It's something that's around you. Is that how you describe it?

STAPLES: This is my thing about that question. That question isn't why do gang - why do gangs have to - oh, wow. Why do these black and brown and, you know, Pacific Islander where I come from - why do these little boys with no structure, no one guiding them, why do they need each other? Why are they trying to figure out life on their own? That's what it is. It's nothing else.

When we speak about gang structure, people ask about - they want to know about killing, robbing and things that are considered crime. They don't care about anything else. And that's why those questions are kind of - not from what you're saying. We're talking from what the writer referred to. I feel like it's kind of annoying to hear those things because you can't find a Jay-Z article where they don't speak about him selling drugs. You can't find a Vince Staples article where it doesn't say ex-gang member rapper from yada, yada, yada. Vince Staples says this, this, that and that because we live in a space where your name isn't enough.

MARTIN: But you talk about a lot of things in your work. I mean - I mean...

STAPLES: When you see a article about Adele, they don't say scorned ex-girlfriend.

MARTIN: Adele? Well, I kind of think you do.

STAPLES: That's all of her work though.

MARTIN: (Laughter). I kind of think you do.

STAPLES: What I'm saying is there's never been an article, and if there has, I haven't seen it that says someone's ex-girlfriend Adele, the singer from yada, yada, yada, yada, but that's us. You what I'm saying? But at the end of the day, no one's asking why.

MARTIN: Let's play a clip from your song "Lift Me Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT ME UP")

STAPLES: (Rapping) Finna get this chance. All these white folks chanting when I asked them where my [expletive] at. Going crazy, got me goin' crazy, I can't get with that. Wonder if they know...

MARTIN: You say all these white folks chanting when I ask them where my N-words at. Does that bother you that - I mean, how do you feel about the fact that you have such a large fan base of white people?

STAPLES: I don't feel any type of way. It's a question, so when you perform, there is a lot of aspects of music when you perform. When you say that line, you see people start to look at one another and when they look at one another, they self-assess. Is he talking about me? Is he talking about him?

I love black people. How dare you judge me for listening to music. It makes - it forces people to think about themselves which is a very hard thing to do sometimes, and it's a statement. I wonder if they know that we notice it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFT ME UP")

STAPLES: (Rapping) Life ain't always what it seems, so please just lift me up, lift me up, lift me up, lift me up, lift me up, lift me up, lift me up.

MARTIN: Some of the same criticisms that attended to the earlier generation of rappers and hip-hoppers has resurfaced. Of course, you remember last October, women took exception to "Norf Norf" which we played at the beginning and posted a video response that went viral. I'm going to play a clip from that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I cannot believe this stuff is on the radio. This is what are youth is being subjected to.

MARTIN: Here is what made a lot of people turn their heads is that you are very kind about it. I mean, you were - defended her. You said that people should make a...

STAPLES: She was right.

MARTIN: Really?

STAPLES: What she said - she said this is what our children are being exposed to. She's right. That's what the song is about what our children are being exposed to. My question is why can we listen to that and pass it off like it's not a problem? When you see a film and you see a murder scene or a rape scene or something that's displaying an element of trauma, we don't look at it and go this movie's [expletive] great. I'm having a great time. Are you? Are you? We feel for that. You know what I'm saying?

But it doesn't necessarily happen in that sense when we're speaking about music. So I didn't make that song for it to make people happy. So I don't have a problem with what she said. She got - you got a reaction out of something but isn't that the point essentially?

MARTIN: But you could have rallied the troops. I mean, there were a lot of people dumping on her, and you didn't do that.

STAPLES: Because that's pathetic. It's pathetic to attack someone for having an opinion or feeling some type of way or for wanting something - her children to not be exposed to something because I'm 100 percent sure my mother would have loved for her children not be exposed to gang life - or have to be exposed to those things.

The difference is it wasn't on the radio. It was in our house, and it was outside. And it was at our school, and it was at our church. It was everywhere that we were. So it's kind of a little bit harder. If I have children one day, I would hope that they would never be exposed to that.

MARTIN: I hear you.

STAPLES: But she never said one negative thing about me. Her statement was that she doesn't understand how this is getting to major airways which is debatable. It's fair for her to feel that way, and she kind of felt bad about the fact that it was possible that these things could really happen. Shouldn't we be happy that someone actually is considering the fact that this really happens, rather than passing it off as fable or just ignoring it?

MARTIN: So what are you dreaming about now?

STAPLES: I think we just take it day by day. We try to find new methods of creating things and just trying to do something new and making sure that when it's all over, you know, we've added it, not just taken away.

MARTIN: That's Vince Staples. Vince Staples was kind enough to stop by on his way to a performance. He has a new album coming out.

STAPLES: I don't know when. When it's done, it'll be done...

MARTIN: When it's ready, when it's ready.

STAPLES: Yes, ma'am.

MARTIN: Vince Staples, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STAPLES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.