“I’ve been jumping in my motherfucking Aston Martin and flying up the highway like James Bond!” beams Californian rap maverick 03 Greedo of his post-prison lifestyle. “Then when I get home, I jump on that Californian King and watch a movie that really makes me think, like Midsommar or The Butterfly Effect. It’s just good to be living life again.”
The last time I interviewed Greedo he was languishing inside the dimly lit bowels of a Texas prison, serving 20 years for a non-violent drug charge – after being found with over 400 grams of methamphetamine and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon. Behind bars he was subjected to persistent solitary confinement that saw him locked in the dark for weeks on end without human contact. Yet having been released on bail at the top of the year, Greedo is now finally free to return to his hometown of the Jordan Downs Projects in Watts; the Southern Californian hood famously immortalised as a hopeless warzone in the 1993 film Menace II Society.
Greedo is once again burning rubber through the streets and churning out new music for his cult following. The plan, he agrees, is to earn enough money to disappear like De Niro had he survived the City of Angels in director Michael Mann’s Heat – to be the reformed gangster (in previous lyrics Greedo has made plenty of references to the Grape Street Crips) who actually makes it out to the other side. “That’s what we are working on right now: getting me my own paradise,” the 35-year-old explains.
“I want my own farm and horses, where I can just chill with a pretty woman and talk about art all day. I don’t really think there’s much left in the United States for me anymore; just bad memories. Once my parole is over, my dream is to duck to Spain or Italy. I feel I deserve a chance to live my life across this whole planet.”
Over the 2010s, 03 Greedo transformed West Coast rap in his own image with a smooth-like-butter flow, raspy Bleeding Gums Murphy-esque crooner vocals, and an ability to create psychedelic yet bluesy soundscapes that shift between making you feel like you are floating beyond the clouds and being encircled by enemies. Greedo has dubbed this carefully considered blend of euphoria and paranoia as “creep music”, perfecting the sound on cult mixtapes and albums like God Level, The Wolf of Grape Street, and Purple Summer. And it is a musical idea that’s adjacent to “nervous music”, a style pioneered by the late Drakeo the Ruler, an LA rapper who was a friend and frequent collaborator.
Yet the artist who made chantable woozy anthems like Substance and Rude was frequently out of it (“I don’t do hard drugs anymore cuz I used to be so high I can’t even feel shit” he recently tweeted), recording 30 songs a day while on the run from the police and struggling to process still-raw demons associated with once being homeless. These obstacles understandably made fame difficult to enjoy. “It’s kind of crazy I’m still here and didn’t die,” Greedo – who is now enjoying his life sober – reflects. “Back then I was destroying myself with all the substances and shit, but I was taking them so I could stay awake. It felt like I had no choice but to spend every minute making music, so I couldn’t sleep. I can think a lot better now that I’m sober.”
On new mixtape, Halfway There, Greedo sounds totally re-energised. Across 33 tracks he bestows the joys of sleeping in a crisp bed (Made Parole), cutting off fake friends (Industry), and rocking a chain with diamonds that dance like a certain ascendent hyperactive female rapper (Coi Leray). He’s not only a man on a mission to reclaim the throne of Californian rap, but someone savouring the freedom to create without feeling like the walls are closing in. This results in an infectiously giddy confidence, particularly on Paisa, where Greedo hilariously pledges: “Selma Hayek, if you ever divorce /I’ll be your Desperado on the back of a horse.”
Referring to the dangerous area where Greedo grew up, the artist pledges: “With this new music I want to give everybody back there hope. I want to make the people at the bottom feel like: ‘damn, dreams really do come true!’”
THE FACE caught up with 03 Greedo over the phone right after he left an all-nighter studio session with R&B lynchpin Ty Dolla $ign (with whom he’s currently finishing up a collaborative album), where we discussed the idea of soul mates, prison reform, fatherhood, and making it to 80.
What was the biggest societal change that has surprised you since coming home?
Damn, I guess people going to the club practically butt ass naked. There’s a lot more people living beyond their means out here, too. The pandemic created a lot of money for people who never had money before, so they’re trying to keep that up. The kids are also way more violent now. They are on some nasty shit, but this keeps me more alert and tells me others ain’t out here playing.
From 2Pac to Drakeo The Ruler, we’ve seen so many gangsta rappers get out of prison and go back home to a place where there’s jealousy and envy, which has arguably resulted in their demise. Does that risk bother you?
Definitely. I have a lot of paranoia. But what can you do? They ain’t going to let you move around California unless you are affiliated with somebody. It’s part of the extortion! Everyone gets robbed in California, but they don’t tell you that. We never see LeBron James driving through the hood, so why do the rappers stay there? You’ve got to be real careful. You can’t go to the block to hang out anymore; you gotta show your face and then duck off early.
My circle definitely got smaller [while I was in prison]. A lot of people either passed away or exposed themselves, but I’ve always been kind of a loner. Yes, I know how to turn up and have a good time, but I would really rather be by myself and shit, watching a good movie like Blow and putting my feet up. When you are alone, you can do whatever you want; I like that feeling.
In Blow, Johnny Depp’s coke dealer George Jung has this line where he says: “When you’re up, it’s never as good as it seems.” Has that been your own experience of fame?
Yeah, there’s so much bullshit that comes with this shit, you know what I am saying? There’s so many headaches! When I didn’t have much, I was probably more peaceful than I am now with all this chaos in my life and everyone trying to get a piece of my money. My whole thing is, shit, I can go broke again and be absolutely fine. So long as I can still make my art somewhere and have a bed, I’m cool. But on the flip side, life is always going to give you headaches, so I might as well have some money headaches, right?
Maybe some people might have been expecting unbridled anger on Halfway There, but on so many of the songs you’re cracking jokes. Why is maintaining your sense of humour so important?
It’s smiling to keep from crying, and laughing in the face of death. In my projects, that’s just how we do. We spend all day cracking jokes at one another and never take anything too serious. We have fun like a motherfucker! Watts is one of the most treacherous parts of the state, and the country, yet everything is funny to us.
On Never Bend you famously pledged to never give a woman a wedding ring. Has that stance changed? Does 03 Greedo have a soulmate out there?
Love is real. But a soulmate? Hell nah. There’s too many different scenarios for a travelling man like me. If I am in Brazil, I might have to have a Brazilian wife. If I’m in Italy, I want an Italian wife. That’s just how it is. Some of the biggest artists have a lot of babies with a lot of women; Bob Marley had kids from all types of women. He got a kid in every continent, for real! If I had a soul mate she would have to be on the same level as me. I’m not one of those guys who could just date a woman who is a gardener or some shit, living the simple life. Nah. You’ve got to do some artistic shit. Not even fame, but you have to be someone who loves talking about art.
Is campaigning for prison reform part of your future plans?
Hell yeah! I would like to have some type of situation that creates real change, because prison really is some sick shit. They don’t have any super programmes to help with people’s mental health after they leave. They just throw people back into society or give them a cheque. It is all the way fucked up. I don’t even know if I have the power to do something like [prison reform], but I am definitely going to try.
After nearly five years away, it must be beautiful being able to see your daughter again. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from being a father?
Patience. But fatherhood is really something that keeps me sane, you know? It’s an escape from the bullshit. Me and my daughter got a real close relationship. We talk everyday, we can joke, we like the same music. A child is the one thing that shows you unconditional love! They will love you no matter what. They won’t betray you. It’s not just: I’m only talking to you because you bought me something. It isn’t transactional like that. If you are genuine, your child is always going to rock with you.
You and Drakeo the Ruler had such a beautiful chemistry. Talk me through that period where you were creating songs like Out The Slums, 100 and Let’s Go. And on the latter song, when you rapped “03 got some different views /just purchased a condo in the south, cos I had deja-vu”, what exactly did that mean?
At the time we met I was making so much melodic shit, but Drakeo really made me understand not to forget who you really are: a lyricist. Yes, you can do the melodic shit, but don’t forget to rap your ass off, too, because the city needs that! They never give California rappers credit for being lyricists, so Drakeo really wanted to change that. When it comes to Let’s Go, that line was me saying that maybe in a previous life I was a slave in chains in the South, but now I am out here wearing gold chains with this birds eye view from a luxury condo that looks over the city. It was about reclaiming something.
For someone who has never heard an 03 Greedo song before, what can they expect?
A lot of people make music but it doesn’t feel good. My shit? It feels good. You can feel every word. The girl songs? You’re going to feel like you are having sex with me. The street songs? Even if you never held a gun, it makes you feel like you gon’ go ride tonight. The painful songs will make you cry. I can do everything.
On Making Bands you rapped about reaching an old age and proudly wearing jewellery inside your dentures. Is that your mission?
Hell yeah! I want to be 100% me until the day I die. I don’t want to be sitting on no couch, having people feed me food through a straw or any of that bullshit. I’m gon’ be 80 with jewels in my dentures.