Rapper Gifted Gab on music, the Central District and that elusive work-life balance

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"I’m very observant. I watch other people, and I go to a lot of shows. When I go out it looks like I’m kickin’ it, but I’m really studying."

Seattle’s rap scene has a kind of Yin and Yang complex. On one side are the shining intellectual Paladins, “message” rappers like (duh) Macklemore, The Blue Scholars and, to some extent, Shabazz Palaces. Moor Gang (often caps locked as MOORGANG) sits across the aisle — on a pile of cash, in a cloud of blunt smoke.

The tension between these two camps — one politically correct, one deliciously provocative — delineates the biggest stylistic rift in Northwest hip hop.

The banner of Moor Gang’s website reads “Seattle’s Favorite Bad Guys.” The music this collective of rappers and producers releases never minces words. It’s brash braggadocio, full of slick wordplay, blatant sexuality and drug fantasia. It is also wonderfully creative, inextricably woven into the expanding tapestry of Seattle’s rap scene.

Moor Gang counts more than a dozen members, a boy's club with one exception: Gifted Gab.

The 24-year-old artist has been compared to Queen Latifah, and deserves comparison to  Missy Elliot as well. Her songs sound like they could have been released last month or 10 years ago. She raps with as much swagger and aggression as any Moor Gang member, and often surpasses her male peers in lyrical complexity.

Surrounded by caffeine-fueled college students at the U-District Cafe Solstice, we discussed her near-future career moves, opinions on the changing Central District and the ever-challenging work/life balance.

Let’s talk about some musicians you’re interested in.

I really like Royce the Choice, I’m glad he’s now getting the shine he so deserves. I really like UGLYFRANK from Tacoma a lot. He’s in the group ILLFIGHTYOU. I like all of them, but Ugly Frank … he’s tight to me. Also The Moors, and The Physics.

Tell me about the recording process for your debut album. Who do you like working with production-wise?

I’ve been working with JayB Beats. He did all the beats on “G Shit,” the last EP I dropped. He did some s*** on “Girl Rap” as well. I like Blvck Sinatra, he just changed his name to Hanzo beatz. I believe, he’s from from Tacoma. And of course Rob Skeetz from Moor Gang, he does a lot of the beats. Pretty much those four. I’m trying to branch out now, the next [project] I have coming out I have a lot of different producers.

So you’re not attached to one main production team the way your fellow Moor Gang member Nacho Picasso is with Blue Sky Black Death? You like to switch it up more?

Well, yes and no. [Hanzo Beats] and Skeetz are the ones who actually know my sound. They’re the type that could send me a beat pack and I’ll like half or all of them. Other people, it’s kind of hit and miss. People think they know. They’re like ‘you’d sound great on this!’ and I don’t hear it at all.

Could you tell me what your “sound” is in terms of beats? What do you like?

When I say ‘these producers know my sound,’  I mean they know I like to switch it up, and they can keep up with me. [An older mixtape] “Queen La’Chiefah” was a little more mellow. I’m not really on that anymore. “Girl Rap” had more hard hitting beats. Someone I really admire a lot is DJ Quik. His beats are really West Coast, as in you can sing on it or rap on it. Right now I’m on some grittier stuff. What really inspired me is J. Cole’s new album [“2014 Forest Hills Drive”]. He had a few beats on there that made me say ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’ I wish someone had made some of those for me before he got to it (laughs).

You sing the hooks on some of your own songs. Did you grow up singing?

Yes I did. I grew up in the church, so I was singing at a helluva young age.

Would you ever release an album or mixtape where you sang instead of rapped?

“G Shit” was the closest. When I put it out, I was still in the process of working on some other stuff, so it’s just three tracks. These days people’s attention spans are shorter. Even a couple years ago, you could make four-minute tracks and people would listen to them, but now not so much. People skip through.

I noticed that although you have a lot of material out, the lengths of many tracks are shorter.

I’m very observant. I watch other people, and I go to a lot of shows. When I go out it looks like I’m kickin’ it but I’m really studying. You can put out an album of 13 or 14 tracks that are four minutes long, but Bandcamp has these stats that show your plays and the number of people who play [songs] all the way through. There’s a lot of people who only listen halfway through. It just makes more sense to release a project of five to 10 songs where each song is only three minutes.

I don’t know if you’re a Kanye West fan, but his latest album “Yeezus” was like that. He took the punk rock approach, he’s in and out in 40 minutes.

I definitely admire Kanye. It’s all about the EP’s and stuff. My next project is going to be a full album, but the three-minute song is where I’m at.

I noticed that Moor Gang has a mission statement which says “familial pride is as common to the members of Moor Gang as self-sufficiency.” Could you explain that?

So Moor Gang is named after the Moor tribes of Africa. They were some cold dudes ... They were self-sufficient and did their own thing. We take a lot of the same values. There’s 12 or 13 of us, and we’re all a family pretty much. A lot of us are blood-related or grew up together. We’re all intertwined in some type of way but we’re all individual artists. At the end of the day, it’s all about the unity.

How did you get involved with this collective? How do you know these people?

So Nacho [Picasso] and Jarv [Dee] are the creators of Moor Gang. My older brother and Nacho grew up together, but they’re like six years older than me. I caught on [to Moor Gang] right when [Nacho and Jarv] were putting it together.

And you would have been around 18 at the time?

I’m 24 now, so that sounds about right.

Another part of your mission statement is about “forming deep roots in a swiftly-changing city.” You see lot of graffiti tags calling out gentrification. How do you see this city changing?

Seattle, just like all over the US, is going through this now. Myself, I’m involved in saving the Central District. I just attended a community meeting trying to come up with some solutions. I was born and raised in the Central District, and over the course of less than 10 years it’s become unrecognizable. A lot of the mom and pop businesses, and a majority of the black-owned businesses are gone.

That’s what the meeting was mostly about. The area on 23rd Ave and Union Street is in danger of being bought by big-time executives. Like Uncle Ike’s across the street — I f****** hate that. I can’t support it. It’s exactly what’s wrong with the Central District. They already bought the car wash next door, and they’re trying to push the church out. They’re building some apartments kitty-corner from the pot shop, and I heard from a few different people that they own that too. They have everything we don’t: the lawyers, the money, the power.

How would you like the city to change, and how do you see your art and your peers’ art playing a role in that?

They have a 20-year plan for how Seattle’s going to look, called Seattle 2035. But talking to people who have been to meetings, the black people, the artists, the minorities, the people at the lower end of the totem pole, they aren’t a part of it. We need to keep the culture and diversity. I remember Capitol Hill … it’s unrecognizable compared to back in the day. There are all these useless stores now.

There need to be more art hubs too. I remember there used to be a lot of artist lofts, but I tried to get into one and there was like a two-year waiting lists.

I’m curious about how you write your lyrics. Do you have a set time you write every day, or is it more spontaneous?

I really don’t have a process. My s*** is everywhere. I have about 600 notes on my iPhone. Some of them have full songs, some of them just have a bar or two. I just write whenever I feel inspired. I’ll hear a beat and if I’m really feeling it I’ll write a whole song right there. There’s times where I can sit there and think I’m writing something but don’t like it and delete it all. It’s pretty haphazard.

Right now I’m working on writing songs for some singers. I write all my own stuff, but this is another lane, you know? … I’ll write some songs and be like ahh, I couldn’t do it justice. I’ll write from other people’s perspective, like a guy’s perspective, where if I were to try and do it people would be confused.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6zG08RyI7U

On “No Days Off” you talk about how it’s challenging to succeed in the music business and take care of your personal life. What are some of the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest changes is that I’m really f****** busy all the time. I have friends and family that just don’t understand it. I work four days out of the week from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. If I have meetings I have to do them before or after work. I’m off on Saturdays, except not really because there’s always shows or something I have to do.

And I’m definitely getting noticed everywhere I go. I don’t mind it, but it takes getting used to. You get the passive people at the bus stop who stare at you and be weird about it. Don’t be weird about it. I’m hella regular, you can come up and talk to me like anybody else.

One day, I’ll have all the time in the world, but it’s a lot of grinding, a lot of comeuppence. Especially being a female in the game; that’s a lot of extra hurdles. A lot of people come up to me saying they need this, or lying about dumb s*** … I would love to pass them my shoes for a day, or any other female’s in a male-dominated game.

Sounds like you’re working a full-time job and swimming up-stream in a misogynistic industry while trying to take care of friends and family.  

I’m more about grassroots and taking it slow. I don’t really have any desire to sign [to a label] right now. It’s already stressful ... if you don’t know how to handle [signing], you’re going to drown and your career will be very, very short. It’s an entire lifestyle change. I’m still in my artist development stages, still studying. This is my life.

You’re not like Diddy, or Jay-Z who are self-admitted hip-hop entrepreneurs. It sounds like you’re trying to stay true to your writing.

There’s always different intentions. Some people want to get rich quick, or the fame. Some people just want to f*** b****** all day. That’s fine. But those aren’t my intentions, so please stay out of my lane. People hit me up all the time to do collabs, and it’s cool to get the money, just for the simple fact that at the end of the day, I’d do it for free … but I’m an artist. If I don’t like the song, I don’t care how much money you give me. I have my job, but with my [music] career, I’m the boss ... I love it! (laughs).

You did a very funny interview you did with The Stranger where you said, at one point, that you weren’t much of a feminist. What did you mean by that?

I don’t even put a title on what I am. I’m a woman. I want to see other women succeed. But once you put a title behind it, you have these expectations. I talk about bitches and pimping in my songs. I’m all for women’s power, but [the title] just changes s***.

  

About the Authors & Contributors

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Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

Joseph is a full-time landscaper, part-time journalist and full time culture junkie discovering the hidden joys of life as a UW graduate in Seattle. When not taking care of plants or writing, he spends his time in the company of good friends enjoying film, music and the great outdoors.