DJ L
DJ L

Interview: Chicago's DJ L Reflects On The Problematic Evolution Of Drill Rap

 Chicago's DJ L sits down with VIBE for a rare interview.

For a man of his massive physical stature, Chicago’s own DJ L is one of the city’s more elusive, yet highly influential producers. From the shadowy profile picture on his Twitter account and the fact that he's a bit of a studio rat, the Windy City beatsmith purposely keeps his profile low-key. But his work speaks for itself, and he was one of the major catalysts behind two young Chicago emcees you may know as G-Herbo and Lil Bibby. L is a calculating figure who spends his days plotting the next moves in the music business, often alongside his longtime friend, radio promoter, and manager, Blakemore.

After the release of G-Herbo’s critically acclaimed debut album Humble Beast earlier this year, it was back to work as usual. Recently, he made a rare appearance at Andrew Barber’s Fake Shore Dive 10th-anniversary party where VIBE caught up with him.

WATCH: G Herbo Discusses Debut Album ‘Humble Beast,’ Tupac And Conversations With Fans (Watch)

To date, L has worked with a large number of Chicago's legends and new stars, including Dreezy, Common, King Louie, Lil Durk, Lil Reese, Chief Keef, and Tink, among many others. Nationally, he has worked with the likes of Juicy J, Fetty Wap, Project Pat, PNB Rock, Lil Uzi Vert, Plies, Dej Loaf, Kevin Gates, A Boogie With Da Hoodie NBA Youngboy and more.

DJ L is known for his hard-hitting, rapid-fire snare drum loops and ominous soundscapes that not only helped further define the sound of Drill music but modern day rap as well. The producer's sound was influenced by his marching band days, trap music and Chicago footwork.

“Like Bibby used to always say when he heard my beats: 'I need the footwork sound.' That influenced me as well as playing the drums because I was in the Bud Billiken parade four times doing the band sh*t,” he explains. “It was a mix between those two sounds and the trap sound. It was the trap Atlanta sound, and two Chicago sounds, the house music, juke sh*t and the marching band, drumline sh*t. That’s why [some of] my sh*t sounds like its clashing because I’m trying to get all three of my elements in. I want the kick and the feeling of the trap with the drums from the drumline --- and then you go into the feeling and the pace of the juke music.

LISTEN: Lil Bibby Keeps It G “For Real” (Video)

L, real name Londen Buckner, grew up with what he describes as a “proper upbringing." He was born in Hyde Park, a mixed-income neighborhood on the South Side, between Lake Shore Drive and downtown Chicago. Eventually, he and his working family moved farther east to the notorious 79th street in the Chatham neighborhood. By his account, he lived “down the street” from Chance The Rapper and about a mile away from a very, very young Lil Bibby and G-Herbo in the neighboring South Shore community. Like most young people in Chicago’s inner cities, it was not long until the streets came knocking at the baby-faced producer’s door at an early age.

“Chatham at that time was gangsta, but residential. You could play, you could go to the park and it was long big blocks where you could ride your bike and the police were over there and it wasn’t no problem,” L recalls. “Then you started getting to fourth and fifth grade and there’s this new sh*t called ‘G.D.’ You don’t know what the f*ck it is, I was a wrestling fan watching The Rock and now everybody’s calling themselves ‘G.D.'"

Despite this sudden change that Buckner saw among his peers, his environment would drastically take a turn for the worse after his Godmother died. He went from green grass and elderly neighbors to boarded-up apartment buildings, trap houses, and the overall horrific underbelly of the streets where a person, even a child, could be murdered at any moment. It was at that point where his innocence was lost and was forced to grow up… fast.

“I was comfortable walking to the corner store in my old neighborhood. In fifth grade, you scared, you don’t know what to do," L told VIBE. I go to the park and hoop, a ni**a might come and knock your ass out. It got real street, real fast. You realize this the f*cking ghetto and you have to get wiser quicker because you're dealing with people and seeing that everybody’s not nice. Don’t leave your basketball, don’t leave your bike because your sh*t will be gone. Chicago was really that type of city."

As he grew older and transferred into an Afrocentric charter school, Butler developed his cultural awareness as a black man and a much deeper understanding of why his community was the way it was (while maintaining good grades throughout). By the time he attended his freshman year at Hales Franciscan Catholic High School he saw the city for what it really was as he rod the local CTA buses.

“That bus ride showed me how real Chicago was on my own. They were throwing ni**as through the bus stops, it was gladiator school,” said Butler. "You was either a goofy or a man. Anybody who was a savage and tough all the time, their asses are in jail, they’re not here to talk about it."

Throughout his life, he has always been one with music. L started off as a drummer at his local church and elevated his craft by participating in various local marching bands in elementary and high school. While figuring out what would the “pro” level for being a drummer, he came to the conclusion that being a producer would take him to the next where he wanted to go.

In a rare interview with VIBE, DJ L discusses what inspired his sound, how he discovered Herbo and Bibby, the issues he feels drill rap has created, the uncertain future of rap as he knows it and much more.

How did you first meet G-Herbo and Lil Bibby?
I had came back home from [The University of Illinois] and I was doing something important that day. My blood brother [Ace Boogie] seen me when he was riding by and he was like, “Yo, hop in the car”. I hopped in the car and he played me Herb rapping. I was trying to sell beats on the internet at the time, and I was trying to get my brother to put some money into it. He was like, 'man well if you work with my shorties, these are some little homies that I know that’s like my little brothers, I’ll get down.' He played me Herb’s “Ya’ll Don’t Really Hear Me Though” freestyle. He had about 50, 100 n*gga’s in the background. They had guns and them dudes were just like woah. It was hard. At the time, however, I wasn’t initially impressed even though he was rapping.

The next day, my brother comes down and says he could finance my website. He pulls a fast one on me and plugs the phone into the speaker and plays Herb's video. They had a loft downtown near Milwaukee St. They’re playing the song and at the time his name was "Lil Heroin." They’re playing the sh*t through the speaker and I’m like damn, what the fu*k is this? He played that sh*t through the aux cord, “I don’t f*ck with no snitch, No Limit gang,” I was like oh my God, take me to meet this ni**a tomorrow! He took me to meet him the next day, and I pulled up on 75th and Euclid. Herb came out and hopped in the back of the car. I was acting like I was somebody at the time [laughs].

Now Herb, he obviously ain’t the G-Herbo rapper we know now, he was trying to get something cracking. At the time, I don’t know how good the kid is so I asked him to spit something for me. I’m in the front seat, and he’s in the back, and we’re both tall as hell, we’re crunched up in my brother’s small Ford Focus rental. Herb rapped for like 45 minutes straight, just straight bars and I was like "oh my God". I felt like I found Jay-Z!

Keep in mind that I didn’t know who Bibby was at the time either. The first person that I called was DJ Hustlenomics because he had just done Chief Keef’s first mixtape Bang. This is June of 2012 so we had rode to 78th and Vernon. Herb rapped for another 45 minutes back to back. I’m just introducing Herb to everybody I know so the next man I called was Spaceman Music. I called him and Herb rapped for another 45 minutes [laughs]. Anybody who saw that could attest that he was crazy. For him to be that young, 15, 16 years old, it was crazy.

Herb was telling me he had other n*ggas that rapped and said, 'One of my homies is locked up, he gets out tomorrow. One of the guys I be rapping with his name is Bibby. He’s just as cold as me.' That’s how Bibby came into the fold. So now, anything they’re playing I’m really listening to. They played me the video for “Do This Sh*t For Ya’ll” and I was highly impressed by it. All this sh*t that everybody felt about Bibby’s voice, I didn’t get that at first. I was just stuck on his look, like “This n*gga’s look is fu*king crazy, he looks white!” I was like, this ni**a looks white as sh*t! We finna get rich! I felt like I hit the jackpot. So now I got him and felt like I had two for the price of one in the first three days from being home from school I made a decision at the time that I was gonna make it happen this summer or I was going back to school --- and I won.

By chance, I had an affordable studio for them, my brother had some money at the time. He had a car, I had my car and we had the two hottest rappers. They wasn’t quite hot yet but the two I felt like was better than everybody skill wise. But then I started to figure out the inner workings of the scene and how we could manipulate things to our favor.

I think Herb and Bibby’s coming out party was a party two DJs I knew was having on 79th and Vernon at a multi-purpose center and, man, they literally came in there 100 kids deep! They came in and did “Kill Sh*t” and “Gangway”, which is funny because they’re my biggest songs to date and the first two songs we did together. They had ended up beating the security guard’s ass and five other guards that night because Bibby’s verse was on “Kill Sh*t” and Herb was at the center. They didn’t know Bibby had a verse, too, and he didn’t have a mic. Security was telling him to get off the stage, Bibby told him he was going to rap. They threw him off the stage and it was like a swarm of bees. They tore that club up! I won’t say names but some folks outside [shot guns in the air] and was like “'No Limit b*tch!' And that let the street know that we are here --- and we are just as important as the 300 guys.

You and many other people in Chicago often call “Kill Sh*t” one of the most influential songs to come out of Chicago in recent years. How did “Kill Sh*t” change the landscape in rap?
Because it was the first song in the modern era that you could rap completely over the hook and there wasn’t a hook at all. It was the predecessor for [Bobby Shmurda’s] “Hot Ni**a” and that’s how a lot of rap is now. Look at Tay-K’s “The Race,” where’s the hook? YBN Nahmir’s “In The Mirror,” where’s the hook at? Cardi B’s ["Bodak Yellow"] didn’t have a hook at first. We started that and nobody did that for us before the modern era.

What was the rap scene in Chicago like for you around that time?
At the time, Keef and them was the reigning faction and everybody wanted to get down with them, and I was one of them. My mom worked on the school bus with Chief Keef’s grandmother, and I was trying to get some beats to him. I was in Champaign at the time so I couldn’t attack it aggressively. I was sending beats and we’re on the phone, calling each other “cousin” because our parents worked on the school bus together for so many years. But, Young Chop was with him every day. [If his grandmother had a say], I would have had all the beats on Keef because his grandmother would have said “Uh uh, you gon’ work with London!' He was f*cking with me but I didn’t have a name. I had a few King Louie placements but it wasn’t like Chop who was his man. That’s his close homie and he was recording him. Nobody was doing as much as Young Chop. Nobody was doing as much as him, and I always give respect because he caught that wave right on time.

When I saw how Young Chop was moving in that moment, I was like okay, I gotta get some land. What don’t we have? We don’t have lyrical rappers that are in this movement yet so I’m going to go get that. It’s a funny story how that even happened because, at the time, I thought King Louie was the best rapper, who I believe still is. But the problem was Louie was older, he was like 26 and sh*t at the time, and he lost touch with the youth a little bit. But when John Monopoly and all of them came back looking for the next guy, they grabbed King Louie. They did the deal with him and to his detriment, the ni**a Keef literally, a month, two months later after that. Chief Keef came down like a monsoon! There was no way to prepare for that kind of impact. King Louie to this day, his whole career hasn’t recovered from that. He came back a little when I got with him [on the T.O.N.Y. tape].

How does that relate to the eventual rise of Herb and Bibby?
When we came out with Herb, Bibby, and them young ni**as rapping, it threatened Louie and them because they were some young, rapping dudes. Everybody painted the clear distinct difference. Louie and them were really rappers though. Keef and them cool but dude could really really rap. But then you had the shorties who could rap too so now it’s like you’re getting replaced. I think that lit a fire under him because he was going crazy with the raps around that time because everybody wrote him off.

The point is, the sh*t with Herb and Bibby, we came up on a side of town that was not represented and then they had underlying ties with the streets. That’s a faction that’s outside of two warring factions, the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples, so we were already kind of had a lot of advantages. The Moes was not represented so we weren't in a situation were the B.D.s could hate because they were the ruling faction. We were on the sidelines.

How I won with them was that I was going to the University of Illinois, and I knew all of the frats and sororities, the Alphas, Kappas, the AKAs, I’m just knowing what kind of music they liked. From 2011-2012, it went from a lot of lovey, dovey Travis Porter, Drake, raunchy club shit, Trey Songz, college love to ni**a I’m 300. Gangbangin sh*t with the college kids.

From your perspective, how did that impact Hip-Hop?
When Keef and them came out, it completely changed the landscape of hip-hop. That made Waka and all them look crazy and he didn’t even look street no more. It was the hyper-masculinity of black males. Think about the power vacuum that came out of that. From Keef and them coming out, and this ties to Herb and Bibby as well, I was going to the college parties in the Spring of 2012 and started to feel like how a lot of people felt about N.W.A. when they had people in Middle America screaming f*ck the police.

It was like that. People from Flossmoore, Illinois and all these people from affluent communities screaming ni**a I’m 300, I’m B.D., G.D.K. --- all this sh*t. It brought the most ignorant part of the hood to your living room. When I saw that, it made me feel like this was going to open the doors for some crazy sh*t. Now, if you could bring in some kids who could tell the story of why it’s like that, then you’ll have a niche market. I knew right then and there [Drill] was going to change America because it was just too magnetic. Everybody was honoring that sh*t.

I knew it was going to be a problem because it felt like a rat race. I felt like this was going to open the floodgates for later. I felt like people wouldn’t get it then. I went immediately and attacked it early so that’s why we won.

Let’s go back to your early days for a second. How did your experiences as a child and teenager influence you getting into the music scene?
At the time, I felt like I couldn’t run from it. I needed to go to the heart or the source of who was running the streets among the shorties at the time. I felt like running away from it would just make the situation worse. Not for me necessarily, but in general. In order for me to survive, because my mom couldn’t take me everywhere [because] she’s working, I had to fend for myself, but she did a lot for me though.

I started going to the skating rink, The Rink on 87th street. That was pretty much the central location for all the kids that was on the South Side or the city period to come to --- it’s like the cultural center. If you learn the cultural center, you win. The first time I went during my freshman year, I didn't know anybody. By the time I went to my senior year, I knew everybody and everybody knew me. I was popular and I was known. Me and my friends, we’d go in there deep and we learned Chicago. I did the Bud Billiken parade three or four times, too. That’s why we as able to conquer. I had the knowledge of self and I understood the teachings of Hon. Louis Farrakhan and Hon. Elijah Muhammad as far as black people not being together. I had this in the back of my head while watching 200 black dudes jump one another one at the rink. I’m not going to take the typical approach, I can’t just say 'brother you’re not doing this right' because I was a kid. You got to have that in mind and infiltrate to be affiliated with that. I didn’t join a gang because I already knew that it was goofy, but I had to survive that. My whole goal was getting into school, getting into college. That’s why it f*cked me up when Keef and them had infiltrated the schools because it was like 'damn, this sh*t is still going on!'

How do you view what you’ve helped create in the long run?
In retrospect I feel like, would I do it all again? No, I wouldn’t because I feel like we hurt the community so bad. They might beg to differ but I think so. We’re providing, but the kids nowadays, they could say whatever they want to say. They’re not listening to the lyrical content and be like I understand. Even if they understand they’re still out here on some killing their own people sh*t. It’s fu*ked up because I don’t think we’re helping the community. We're not giving any real solutions so I’m conflicted because professionally, I could say it changed my life and opened some doors for me, even in my personal and business relationships. But, I don’t think we’re helping the f*cking community, bro.

Hip-Hop is destroying the black community... when I say that me, Herb, and Bibby make records about “doing hits," some young mothaf*cka thinks it’s cool, and their choices in life are based off what we just said.

Do you believe that the Chicago rappers you’ve worked with over the years have a responsibility to the youth?
Absolutely, because we’re making money off of it. Every time someone plays a song on YouTube, it’s money if you monetize your sh*t right --- you’re getting paid. The thing is, I feel like it’s too late now because if you really think about it, look at how Waka looked after Chief Keef came out. It was like, 'damn we’re at this point?' Look at Young Thug after Keef. Thug came out after Keef and people were like oh my God he’s wearing a dress. Now you got a ni**a in a dress sucking the muzzle of a gun. At this point, how far down the rabbit hole are we going to go? So, of course, Chicago rappers have a responsibility to the youth. You’re making money off these people and in 20 years, we’re going down a fu*king rabbit hole. We’re sending off the culture, and I don’t think it’s intelligent to do that.

In a lot of ways, the culture has literally reverted to the minstrel show days and to be honest, I don’t be into hip-hop anymore. I got all types of other sh*t I plan on getting into that’s going to help, which I can’t speak about just yet. Steve Stoute said it’s getting too random and he left in 1999. The rappers they’re signing is too random, the executives are too random, and this is his word for word quote: “In a business where it’s no determination of whose really good and who’s not, at some point that business will falter.” Because, what would the NBA be if I could play in it? If I could join the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA would be like, man, please. Because there are people in it who take this basketball sh*t seriously as far as practicing and exercising. I get a chance to play at the highest level in the culture and I’m not sh*t, then anybody can do it. And when anybody feels like they could do it, it opens the floodgates for the diminishing of the special nature of what it is.

Rap should take a lot of notes from the NBA because if you really think about it, every part of that experience is monetized. When you got that special sh*t, that’s what makes people pay! Hip-hop is not special anymore. That’s why the money is starting to dry up. It’s still money in it, but it’s too easy for anybody to get it. There’s no clear barometer as far as who’s better and who’s not. It’s like, you could be the worst point guard in the NBA and make more money than LeBron. That’s how hip-hop is right now.

What does that mean for producers such as yourself?
Even with the producers, they're are getting raped right now. You’re at the bottom of the bottom when it used to be the other way around. You used to be the head, and now you’re the tail. And it’s not because the beats have gotten weaker, they’ve gotten better. Technology has helped us make music better. It’s because technology simplified it which means more people can do it, which means it’s a dime a dozen. What do they say in business? Too much circulation makes the price go down. Period. Why the f*ck would I pay you when I have 50 other people who could do it. But, if you have that one LeBron, that one D. Rose, you’re not going to get that again. When you make something that’s so classic, you could sell that sh*t forever because people want that. People want that original recipe, that A1 steak sauce because there’s nothing like it.

The kid SahBabii, I saw a story with his producer, they reached out to him and said we got $7,000 for you” to buy the [“Pull Up With The Stick” beat]. That’s all you get. I wouldn’t even sell beats or complete rights to rappers, unless the monetary value was that great. I’d monetize off the backend. But honestly, don’t even do that. If you’re a producer, sign you a rapper. Do whatever you can. I think it’s over for producers until... if we don’t come together and do some type of union right now then it’s no way for you to eat. Don’t let all these other successful producers tell you “well we got placements." I’m not going to have my life depending on whether or not another person likes my product. Or rather, if they like it or not, trying to figure out where they want to put it out or not. That’s too much control for one man to have over your art. When Derrick Rose and them go out and play basketball, they have a collective bargaining agreement, the veteran’s minimum that you can get. So, he knows that no matter what, he’s going to get a particular minimum. Ain’t sh*t like that in Hip-Hop. The veteran minimum is "nothing ni**a, send this beat, we got 1,000 other mothafu*kas that got beats".

So, I tried to be the “Malcolm X” on the producer’s side and it ain’t get me nowhere so I don’t give a f*ck. I tried to galvanize everybody but you’re not going to get producers in hip-hop on the same page. There are too many varying levels and there’s no value in quality. How can we determine value in it? What’s a good beat anymore when DJ Mustard singlehandedly drove down the value of beats. It's not that he wasn't a good producer because he was the biggest in the game, he was coming with the simplest beats and was making more money than anybody, signed a publishing deal, then that ran out --- now what? Now Metro's the king of the hill and they're not looking for his sound anymore. It's the biggest sound right now, so what happens to him?

The same thing happened to me. I signed a publishing deal, and when my advance runs out, then what? Then you’re looking outside of hip-hop. I’m not looking at rap, I don’t see where the money is at. I am not looking at hip-hop for long-term stability anymore. When you get to 2019, when the hammer really hits, then what?

It’s not about dope lyrics anymore. That’s the battle I tried to fight with Herb and Bibby, but [fans] don’t care about real rap so it’s like a losing battle. Maybe the core hip-hoppers do and some young people, but the majority of pop music is as simplistic as possible. Like, people always want to say that “all this stuff is going to exist in hip-hop and people are going to do them and it’s going to be different,” but it’s too much of the other sh*t. It’s too easy to make a drill record, a trap record. 21 Savage is a direct combination of the musical influence and energy of Lil Reese and Fredo Santana and to an extent --- the drill movement as a whole with an added Atlanta bounce. He’s more commercially successful than any artist Chicago artist from the drill movement, with a possible exception of Keef. How could he take that style and get on with it? But nobody wants to say the sh*t because everyone wants to be “politically correct."

WATCH: Chance The Rapper To Joe Budden: “I Am The Culture”

I can see some similarities too as far as their Fredo’s menacing swagger and Reese’s distinct cadence and flow, but just so I understand, are you saying that he bit those two artists?
I’m not coming at 21, I love 21’s music and I play "Nothing New" every day. I’m just saying that if you don’t think that’s a direct copy and plagiarism of, but maybe I’ll rephrase that. Maybe that’s what inspired that [the same way] Waka Flocka birthed Keef, which birthed [21’s style]. [Atlanta] went back gangsta after Chicago assumed the throne of making the most vulgar hip-hop in the country.

For me personally, I continue to make rap music in the lanes that are open. Like the female lane, I think that’s wide open right now. I feel like you can still come in there and make something special. That’s why the OGs are coming in and trying to do the female rap think like how 9th Wonder got Rapsody. But the male rap game? Man, listen if you’re trying to be a male rapper, you’re better off trying to play basketball and go to the NBA. And that’s like a 1 in 10 Million chance your ass is going to make it. You’re better off doing that because you still have to have physical abilities. It’s still some type of barrier to get in that. This sh*t, it’s too many people and way too demographics. It’s too many niches in this sh*t.

I think female rap is still volatile and it’s still forming because look at Cardi B. She’s the Jackie Robinson of this sh*t bro. The only hip-hop that I really care about right now is female rap.

What can fans expect from Bibby’s Free Crack IV?
Gangsta Sh*t. This is us getting back to—well, me and Bibby never did anything exclusive. It’s funny because we did a sh*t load of tracks but never a whole project. He still has other producers on there but I did the majority of the tracks. So, it’s like how me and Herb did Ballin Like I’m Kobe. I think we gave a lot of cautionary tales and I think it’s the best Bibby project since his inception because I’m involved (laughs). Went for more turn up and if that’s what the fans then we’re giving the people what they want. They don’t really want to be rapped to but he still brings it home with the spittin’ and we know he can rap. But I think if you listen to Herb’s project with Southside, it’s turned up like this is.

Bibby's actually putting out an EP before that called 4Real. It's going resurgence of true street rap and we're providing nothing but street anthems that will prompt our resurgence of Chicago as the capital of street rap in hip-hop.

Lastly, what do you want your legacy to be in hip-hop when it’s all said and done?
Just somebody who was able to change lives, man. And changed my own. I want people to put me in their top 4 among the best producers to come out of Chicago. That’s about it. But, I was mainly inspired by my mother, my brother Ace Boog, my big homie Peanut G, and my life partner Asha. These are the people who shape me thus far and I wanna inspire people the same way they inspired me.

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Lead singles “El Amante” and “Hasta el Amanecer” would go on to receive their respective billions in views on YouTube, while a spot on Jaden Smith’s “Icon (Remix)” sparked the beginning of a collaborative relationship with the rapper’s father and Hollywood veteran, Will Smith. The Lawrence, Massachusetts born singer was tapped to play the official 2018 FIFA World Cup anthem, “Live it Up,” featuring Big Willie himself and Albanian singer-songwriter Era Istrefi.

In the same year, amid an afrobeat wave, Nicky released “X” with J Balvin, under Sony Music Latin. The song would go on to rule Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay charts and, as of today, its accompanying music video has accumulated nearly 1.8 billion views on YouTube. In the time “X” took to climb the charts and make a home on the global dance floor, Nicky conjured thoughts with Will about possibly starring in Bad Boys For Life, the third installment of the classic movie franchise.

On January 17, 2020, Nicky then made a memorable return to the big screen alongside Will and on-screen partner-in-crime Martin Lawrence for the big-budget film. Playing one of the villains, Zway-Lo, Nicky’s dedication to his role went as far as him learning to perform a majority of his own stunts. Bad Boys For Life topped the box office for three straight weekends, raking in approximately $168 million in revenue and a total of $338 million worldwide. In the thick of it all, the father of four managed to drop a seventh studio album, Íntimo, and go on a U.S. tour to promote it.

To call Nicky’s story a comeback would be an understatement. Reggaeton’s reigning cupid is a dissertation on transnational redemption and personal resilience, despite falling victim to the social, psychological, physiological, and financial ramifications of inherited drug abuse.

On March 5, 2020, Nicky Jam will enjoy the homecoming of a lifetime, as he's honored with the Special Achievement Award at this year’s Premios Tu Música Urbano at the renowned José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Puerto Rico. His former Los Cangris partner Daddy Yankee is the only other recipient to have taken home the same accolade. The greater accolade will be receiving his honor in the company of the new leading lady in his life.

Love is, indeed, in the air.

But no amount of emotional ecstasy was going to see Nicky through to the other side; it was the deliberate act of love that would save him. “I knew I had to break these chains,” he says. “To fix my life and my family.”

Bring me to the moment that made you feel you needed drugs.

I think drugs sometimes make you think it can be the fix of a lot of your problems. The problem with drugs is that you go to drugs because in your mind you don't care anymore about dealing with the troubles that you have. You need something to make you feel good.

What were you feeling bad about?

I lost my mom. My mom wasn't with me. In my mind, I was abandoned by her since I was eight-years-old. Then I had a close girlfriend who left me when I was 15 years old. That’s when I touched cocaine for the first time. ‘Cause in my mentality, nobody was stable in my life. Nobody was sticking around. I felt a lot of betrayal from my own mom and from the girl I loved.

I thought, “Why am I going to take care of myself? My dad didn’t handle his drug problems. My mom did drugs too, so why not me?" I mean, I had drugs all around me, and the foundation of everything is your home. It's your family.

The absence of someone you loved, is that at the root of your past drug abuse?

Yeah, basically.

What was the moment you knew you had to stop and that your life needed radical change?

Years and years after the fact. Imagine, I started at 15 years old. So it was about 15 years later around the time I was 30. I said I gotta break these chains. I almost died from an overdose. I knew I had to break these chains. My mom was doing drugs, my dad struggled with drugs—I gotta break these chains! I needed to fix my life and my family. And that's what I did.

What were the key decisions you had to make in order for you to be successful in your sobriety?

Every pain that I had while I was trying to get clean made me not want to come back to this ever again. When you go cold and try to break drugs, you start to get back pains and bone pains and it's cold all the time. Every time I was going through that process I thought, “This is me breaking this evil, this curse. Am I really going back to this curse?” I had to go through it.

Anything that you have to suffer physically for in that way is the only red flag you need. That right there was letting me know, bro, I was a slave to drugs. I didn't want to be one anymore, so I said I'm not going back to that again. I want to live like normal people. I don't want to work so I can maintain an addiction. I'm seeing that I haven't even been successful enough just because I've been stuck in this cycle. I didn’t want the story of my family and my life to be drugs. I didn’t want to die that way.

One of my favorite songs by Kendrick Lamar is called “i.” That song let us know he was someone who battled with suicidal thoughts and urges. I like to think it’s a love song that he dedicated to himself and others like him. The song is about coming to this radical understanding that despite what the world has to say about you and where you come from, you are enough and worthy of all the good things life has to offer. Talk a little bit about your relationship with self when you were on drugs.

I felt like s**t. I felt like my soul was dead. I didn't care about nothing. It got to a point where I loved living that life, that miserable life and that darkness. I enjoyed hanging around people that lived that same life as well. I enjoyed not having responsibility. I enjoyed just hiding away from everything. You know, one of the big problems of leaving drugs is not just leaving drugs. It’s going back to the reality of what made you turn to drugs in the first place. All those skeletons that you have in the closet. That was my problem.

What else don’t people get about drug addiction?

Another thing people don't know about drugs is that you are a slave to your first high. That first high is always the best high in the world. You're always looking for that same reaction and you never find it. You find a lot of good ones, but never like that first one. You could say that is love at first sight. The [high] is like love at first sight. This is what you feel in a moment where you fall in love or something like that. It’s the only thing similar to having something so good in your life. But it’s not good. Not good at all.

In another interview, you talked about the first time you saw people dancing reggae. It was at one of your parents’ house parties, I believe. You also compared that moment to love at first sight. What was it about reggae that immediately caught your attention?

It was just the Caribbean, you know? In the Caribbean you will see people dancing reggae like normal, but in the States you didn’t really see that. Now, yes, but back in the 80s? It was just MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest. People danced to hip-hop, obviously, but not so together. It wasn't really that grinding present. So when I saw people dancing reggae like that in Puerto Rico, and how sexy it was with that Caribbean vibe…

Is that what sparked your love for music?

Yes and no. My love for music began really when I saw the “Thriller” video by Michael Jackson. I remember seeing the premiere and I said I want to do this. I knew automatically when I saw Michael Jackson do “Thriller” as a little kid that I wanted people to fall in love with my music.

What other artists or genres did you consume that helped mold you into the artist you are today? Because you're lauded for bringing romance or the romantic flair to reggaeton.

Yeah, melody wise.

Are you a hopeless romantic?

I'm romantic, for sure, but it's also that I have a beautiful voice. My voice happens to work for that kind of material. So it's not only about my personality; I have a voice that helps create that type of music. What I did was take advantage of that.

I see.

But to answer your question, you can say a lot of music made me who I am. I'm talking about Prince, JAY-Z, Jenni Rivera. I’m talking about country and rock and so much other music that made Nicky Jam. I love that soul—that feeling. That’s what I’ve always been about.

Who taught you how to love?

Who taught me how to love?

Yes.

My kids taught me how to love. They’ve shown me what love really is. Colombia, believe it or not, showed me how to love. Because when I most needed love, they gave it to me. And God taught me love. Por encima de todo, God. God gave me that second opportunity in life where I really recognized that I was loved. I had my doubts.

What is your relationship with God?

God is everything. My respect to God is everything. I’m probably not the best church person in the world, but my connection with God is crazy. He knows that I have conversations with him. We can probably agree that I should maybe pray a little more. [Laughs] I get distracted a little bit because I got A.D.D., you know what I'm saying? But I love God.

You lit up when you mentioned your kids earlier. Who are they?

I have four kids. One is 18 years old and her name is Yarimar. My 17-year-old is Alissa. The 16-year-old is Luciana and my boy, Joe, is the youngest. He's 14 years old.

 

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A post shared by NICKY JAM (@nickyjampr) on Dec 22, 2019 at 8:40am PST

“La Promesa (La Calle)” is a standout cut for me off the new album. Considering some of the things you’re saying here, what was the writing process like?

That's the kind of song I wanted a lot of people to relate to. It’s saying I’m not giving up and I'm just going to do this. My situation is music, but somebody else can want to be a lawyer. Someone might want to be a journalist, a firefighter or a cop, who knows. But you’re saying, “I’m doing this.” I told my mom I'm not gonna stop. I'm gonna work my ass off and I'm gonna do what I'm gonna do so I don’t go back to that dark place. A lot of people hate me, but I see them. I see through them and I keep pushing anyway. I’m not stopping for nobody. That's the type of song that has a good vibe, but carries a strong message.

Would you say music helped save you?

Did music save me? Let me see, ‘cause I know a lot of people say it just to say it, right?

For sure.

Well, I gotta say that music did save me because it's really the only thing I had. I didn’t graduate from college, you know? I knew I had a voice and I knew I had the power to make people listen to me. So obviously music gave me hope and it gave me faith. It also made me want to be somebody and then it made me believe I was actually going to be somebody.

Music, then, also gifted you a world of people who love you, irrespective of your past or shortcomings.

It did. It gave me a platform, it gave me faith, and it gave me people that love me. Music saved me and my family, to be honest. Today my family lives good because of the music. Today my sister got her house because of the music. My mom got a home because of the music. My dad has his house because of the music. My kids got their college funds because of the music. Music saved the lives of my whole family.

What are your fears?

My fear today is not being with my kids when they need me. My fear today is that one of my kids will go through drugs. Because I know today the youth is crazy. My fear is not seeing my grandkids, stuff like that. I'm not saying I'm scared for my life. I'm saying that those are the things that I want to be here for. I want to make sure that I live a healthy life so I can be around for all of that.

You say that you work like you're going to lose everything at any given moment. Do you also love that way?

Of course. I try to give love to everybody that's next to me in the best way I know how. I try to share my life with them in a way that makes them feel like they have everything. That’s just how I operate. I focus on giving love and I focus on ensuring that [whoever is in my life] can walk away knowing that Nicky is a good guy. That I loved them and respected them. I'm the type of guy, I know when I go with God and I'm no longer on this earth, people gonna say, “I miss Nicky.” And that's when you know you made your legacy. When you make people miss you, you make people want to be with you. You make people want to say good things about you. That’s a legacy.

What’s your love language? How do you express your love to someone you care about?

I think the way I show love is by doing whatever it is I need to for my girl or for anybody that I love. You know what I'm saying? “What do you need?” I don't act like I'm this kind of guy, or that I can't do certain things. I don't have any limits when it's about showing love. It’s in the details, the stupid stuff. You want something? I’ll go get it for you. You want coffee? You hungry? You want me to get you anything? I got you.

You like to serve.

I definitely serve. I’m a server. It’s funny ‘cause I know I might not look like it, but that's who I am. That's how I show my love. And I think it's a good way to show it, ‘cause you know it when it’s gone.

And you brought your partner with you. How did you meet her?

I was doing a video called “Atrevete.” I called her agency and I thought she was the perfect girl for the video. It was just love at first sight. [Laughs] I just saw her come in the restaurant and I said, “Wow, that's a beautiful girl right there.” Then we started talking and it was just instant.

Really?

I had never seen eyes like that before. I just went crazy. Yeah, there's a lot of blue eyes, but something about her eyes drove me crazy. We were flirting around and everybody started to watch, and we just didn't care that people were there. We were just at it and it didn’t matter who was in the room. The video was about us. About me trying to win her over, and it worked. [Laughs]

Do you see a life with her?

Yeah. You also have to understand my background, where I come from and how I lost so many people in life. So my mind doesn’t necessarily… I try not to really think about it like that. I just try my best to enjoy [the present].

 

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My goofball ❤️

A post shared by Cydney Moreau (@cydrrose) on Jan 31, 2020 at 1:11pm PST

Is that what your “Life” tattoo is about?

It’s the only thing that matters, life and living it to your fullest. The word is a beautiful word. I don't think there's a more beautiful word. Other than God, maybe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photographer: Jason Chandler, Finalis Valdez

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Dexterity Productions

Wardrobe Stylists: Norma Castro

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Courtesy of Neon

Chinonye Chukwu’s ‘CLEMENCY’ Reveals Incarceration's Hidden Perils

It pays to take note of films that encourage viewers to rethink how much space empathy and understanding take up in one’s conscience—and how to continue to allow more of both in. CLEMENCY, Chinonye Chukwu’s award-winning and thought-provoking film, explores those themes through the lens of capital punishment.

CLEMENCY follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a prison warden, whose livelihood of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on her marriage and mental health. Bogged down with flashbacks of a recently botched execution that occurred under her watch, she must face the psychological and emotional demons her job manifests. This reckoning eventually connects her to Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge)—another inmate she prepares to execute.

Each act in the film is a layer unfolding the intricate complexities of the death penalty—from how it impacts those who implement such acts as their day-to-day, to their community, the victims, the inmates’ advocates, and their own families. CLEMENCY, while leaving you speechless, shows how much more there is to learn about this form of punishment and poses the question of whether it’s even worth it—given the consequences all parties involved suffer over time.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 29 states in America still uphold the death penalty with over 1,500 executions performed since 1976. Of those executions, about a third of the deceased defendants were Black. And just like the case of Anthony Woods in the film, many inmates are wrongfully convicted of the death penalty, where very few are able to get their cases exonerated.

Clemency is the process that defendants pursue, where a governor or member of the executive branch of government can reduce a defendant’s sentence or grant a pardon. This process is especially important for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and have had their appeals denied. Though rare, clemency gives the possibility that an inmate’s life will be pardoned.

Chukwu says that Troy Davis’ clemency case is what sparked her to develop this film. Davis was executed on Sept. 21, 2011, where hundreds of thousands of people around the world protested against it, including a handful of retired wardens and directors of corrections. “They were urging for clemency, not just on the grounds of Troy’s potential innocence, but they spoke to the emotional and psychological consequences they knew, from first-hand experience, killing Troy would have on the prison staff sanctioned to do so,” she explains. “The morning after he was executed, I was really obsessed with the question, ‘What must it be like for your livelihood to be tied to taking a human life?’”

From there, the director embarked on a four-year journey of researching for CLEMENCY. She did her due diligence, speaking and interviewing wardens, corrections officers, death row lawyers, lieutenants and a director of corrections about their experiences working in prisons and death row facilities. She touched base with men currently on death row, including a man who was exonerated from death row after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years. Chukwu also spent time volunteering for nonprofit legal organizations on 14 different clemency cases for women who are serving life sentences as well as initiated a writing program in prisons called Pens to Pictures. Such a deep dive helped inform how humanity is tied to incarceration.

Putting in the preliminary work and paying attention to details the untrained eye would gloss over in this world was evident in CLEMENCY. Chukwu was intentional on drawing parallels between Bernadine and Anthony with her use of color theory, isolation and evoking emotion. “I wanted to show how anyone is connected,” Chukwu says. “They’re both tied to this ecosystem of incarceration—they’re both impacted in some way and so I really wanted to make that clearer as the narrative progresses.”

For Hodge, knowing how much preparation Chukwu did inspired him to do his homework as well. Alongside producer Bronwyn Cornelius, Hodge visited San Quentin Prison with the intent of speaking with men currently serving on death row. “I was only able to talk to the brothers serving life sentences—the warden wouldn’t allow us to speak with the death row inmates,” Hodge says. “How they were treated, their increased sense of isolation from the other inmates was very polarizing—and informative. It shaped my idea for my character’s world. From there, I went into who I thought I wanted my character to represent to the audience, which was hope.”

The actor saw playing Anthony as an opportunity to show people a man beyond his situation, to show empathy in human form. “I wanted the audience to be able to see a man and see something familiar before judging him based off of his situation,” he explains. “I didn’t want them to see a criminal. As it goes, when it comes to black and brown people in this country, I think we are disproportionately targeted, especially by the prison system and the judicial system, because we are still seen as less than human.”

Hodge also hopes CLEMENCY is a conversation starter that helps push the conversation of how American society is pacified by the idea of taking lives under the guise of justice. “What I keep asking and repeating to myself is that as a society, do we have the right to take the lives of those who have taken life? Would that not make us also the same kind of monster? And granted, there are people who do some heinous things and yes there are a lot of folks that need to be put in jail, but jail in the sense of actual rehabilitation—I’m not sure I’ve seen it,” he says.

CLEMENCY is Chukwu’s offering to the viewer, where she hopes they see the humanity of people who are incarcerated while narrowing the gap between those who think they’re not directly impacted by incarceration and those who are behind prison walls. Even when embarking on challenging work that intersects social justice and film, one would wonder how this impacts a director and actor personally. Chukwu notes that she’s still processing it for herself, tapping into being intentional about finding and embracing joy and detaching from ego; utilizing helpful tools like meditation and therapy.

“It was hard to make this film emotionally and psychologically,” she shares. “There were definitely moments where I had to compartmentalize because I had a job to do—and as the leader of this ship, I can’t can’t break down every time I want to. But I stuffed it in and saved it for later. I knew when I needed to let myself cry and really let myself feel all the things and then feel through it.”

Hodge stresses that he was able to separate the two, as he does not carry his character home when working on projects, otherwise he would lose himself in the craft. “I have to be able to step out of it and be able to observe and refine what needs to be worked on,” he says. “My ambition is to increasingly improve every single take; to show this person I’ve built up for the audience to see. I’m also quite ambitious about showing the world what this rawness is—so the harder it is, the more excited I get. Oddly enough, with all those crazy scenes [in CLEMENCY], I was just actually really excited about shooting them.”

The end of 2019 was the time the world could finally see why CLEMENCY was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance Film Festival—making Chukwu, who also wrote the film in addition to directing it, the first Black woman to win the award at the festival. This accomplishment was the launchpad she needed to expand the reach of the film but revealed yet another challenge for her to navigate as the film makes its theatrical runs nationwide.

“I realized that before Sundance I was comfortable in the struggle. I was comfortable climbing up the hill and I realized that I haven’t allowed myself to enjoy the view,” she says. “I think the struggle this year for me was allowing myself to thrive and really align. I’ve been working on other projects and writing. I needed to stop and have compassion for myself and enjoy and say to myself, ‘You did that.’ I’ve been doing the work spiritually to allow myself to thrive and enjoy it and not think that means I’m not doing the work. As a black woman especially, it’s an act of resistance to rest. We work, but we’ve got to rest. And it’s alright.”

As the 92nd Academy Awards approaches, Chukwu was one of the many women and filmmakers of color who were snubbed despite releasing critically-acclaimed bodies of work in 2019. Following her reaction to the lack of acknowledgment after the nominees were announced in January, it’s evident she still taps into joy in the face of willful ignorance.

“I speak on joy because in a world that is more comfortable with my oppression than my empowerment as a black woman, owning my joy is one of my greatest tools of power,” she says in a tweet. “To the many artists who have been overlooked and undervalued, I see you—I see US—and we are glorious!”

CLEMENCY is still playing in select cities. You can see if it’s available for viewing near you here.

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Meet Wande Coal: The Afrobeats Pioneer Who’s Ready To Reintroduce Himself To The World

Before Wande Coal discovered that singing was his true calling, he had dreams of being one of Missy Elliott’s dancers. The artist, one of the few who laid the foundation of the buzzing musical movement we know coming out of Nigeria today, is ready to make another shift of leveling up his global appeal on the heels of his latest release, “Again.”

The 34-year-old Lagos native, born Oluwatobi Wande Ojosipe, is the multifaceted mind behind afrobeats hits we all know so well—including his 2015 collaboration with Patoranking, “My Woman, My Everything,” his prolific linkup with DJ Tunez in “Iskaba,” as well as the groovy track “So Mi So” produced by Juls. Prior to his steady rise, Wande’s musical foundation began in church, where he picked up the piano and learned how to sing.

Nigeria's innovative take on its pop music scene emerged in the 2000s, and it was in 2007 where the singer, songwriter, and producer would join Mo’ Hits Records after its former founders Don Jazzy and D’Banj noticed him as a dancer in his music videos. He then became a fixture at Nigeria’s top record label at the time, penning some of the biggest hits to come out of the label including D’Banj’s “Oliver Twist”—the single that caught the ear of Kanye West, a moment that contributed to the imminent hype that surrounds the genre today.

In 2009, Wande stepped out with his debut album Mushin 2 Mo’ Hits. The classic LP is home to his timeless singles “Bumper to Bumper” and “Ololufe,” where it was also an indicator of afrobeats being well on its way of going global. A year later at the 2010 Headies (the Nigerian take of the Grammys), Wande would then take home a record five awards for that album. Six years later, Wanted, his second LP dropped and it did not disappoint—with “Baby Hello” being a single of note, produced by Maleek Berry. Since 2017, Wande has consistently dropped solo singles and features that showed growth in his sound and would reveal his continued relevance in afrobeats’ global expansion.

REALMS, due this March, is Wande’s first project in five years, as well as his debut under a new partnership between himself, producer Screwface’s Starstruck Management and indie distributor, EMPIRE. The five-track EP is stacked with solid collaborations with producers including Sarz, London’s Lekaa Beats and Melvitto—who produced “Again” with Screwface.

“His process is crazy,” Melvitto shares. “He'll just go in a room and lock the door and just be in there. You'll hear him singing but you don't know what he's doing in there. Then he'll come back with his laptop and there are 30 voice notes in there that are two minutes long, of just song after song. He'll tell me to take them and find something that I like.”

Melvitto and Wande began to consistently work together after they met while “Iskaba” was in production. The producer also adds that “Again” was recorded in New York in August 2018, with parts of the track recorded in London and Nigeria.

“It's definitely a different record,” he continues. “For me, as a fan of Wande Coal, as a fan of music and as a fan of making great music, I always try to push artists to go beyond what they normally do outside of what they know. Wande's voice is so crazy—people don't get to hear it that often since he does more uptempo things. But with giving him the opportunity to have him sing on a slower song, you have to pay attention to his voice.”

Tina Davis, EMPIRE’s head of A&R, wholeheartedly agrees. “It's infectious,” she says. “When you're in A&R, you're hearing [a track] in its rough stages. I love it when I can hear a record from that point and see or know where it can go. Every time I listened to the record I wanted to hear it again—no pun intended. I love what he's saying. I think we need more records about women that are supportive of women, positive and records that show love. I think the world needs a lot more love today.”

Although Wande Coal is renowned, there are still pockets of the pop music market that have yet to get to know him. For Davis, that’s why EMPIRE couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with him to build a higher platform that reflects where he started as well as his contribution to music. “He’s extremely talented and I feel like he hasn’t gotten the shine he deserves,” she adds. “And people are stepping up for him.”

As much as his collaborators sing his praises, Wande, in turn, does the same for them. He’s one who says so much using few words. His humility is one folks can learn from as it truly takes a village—in conversation, he amplifies those around him in lieu of bigging up himself. Admitting he’s a gentle soul and a loverboy at heart, the crooner pulls from life’s experiences, especially moments of heartbreak, to pour his reflections out in a track like “Again.”

When asked when he truly knew music was the right path for him, he mentions fervently, “I feel so, and I know so.” It’s evident that Wande Coal is in tune with his calling and his purpose. It manifests in his music.

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VIBE: How has linking with EMPIRE been for you as you begin to engage with a wider audience? Wande Coal: It's a great move for me because I never had that—this is a first for me. At first, I thought it was a joke, but now, it's becoming a reality. I'm really blessed and grateful.

"Again" is a standout track in your upcoming release. Your vocals and how you approach melodies are a marker of your impact to afrobeats all these years, and it's a track where the focus is on you. What was your creative process putting the song together? My surroundings, what I go through, my environment, my feelings, my relationships—everything around me inspires me. For "Again," I was going through a lot emotionally. I lost a girl and I'm trying to tell her that I want her back, I don't want to lose her and I want life to change and it's never going to be the same [without] her again.

With the REALMS EP, what inspired you to come out with new music now? It's my first time ever having an international major establishment back me, so it's a good look because it's been long overdue. Now I'm just ready to drop that and show the entire world that I got something in me.

You're an OG in the afrobeats game, but for a lot of folks, this will be their first time realizing that they should've been hip to you long before now. Just looking back on your career from your Mohits days to stepping out on your own, what else should new listeners know about you? Besides all of that, I was first a writer. I wrote, "Why Me," "Oliver Twist" [and] I developed Wizkid and Davido. I wrote songs with Wizkid, I gave Davido the name "OBO"—they both used to live in my house. Davido left school in Atlanta and came to my house [in Nigeria] twice using his school fees. Wizkid came by often too because I had three studios and I was inspiring them. I'm glad I was able to be a role model for them. They're big artists now, alongside Burna Boy and Maleek Berry, and the feelings are mutual. I'm glad they're doing so well.

How have you been able to balance being so multifaceted in Nigeria's music landscape? To me, everybody uses the same type of template, so I decided to always create new sounds to stand out and be different. When you check out songs like "Iskaba" and "So Mi So," it's a different vibe to what everyone is singing. I'm glad that people appreciate it and I'm glad to lead the change since I was there from the start. I stay ready to always change the game and create new sounds. I don't like to sing what I sang before and avoid singing the same lyrics.

When you were first starting out, did you ever imagine Nigeria's pop music scene would become as big and recognizable as it is today? Yes—see, I had a vision. When I met Mohits in 2006 they asked me what I wanted to do. I told them I was trying to take this music global. Because I listened to the likes of Usher, Akon, T. Pain, Michael Jackson—they inspired me to be what I am today [as an artist]. I decided to fuse both my culture and American culture together. That's why I sound the way I do.

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