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Vince Staples is the rapper who tells it like it is, always

Hailing from Long Beach, California, Staples’ lyrics prove he has no time for anything other than matter-of-fact honesty – he tells us why none of this fuckin’ matters anyway

Vince Staples has been spreading nothing but one hundred percent honesty with the world since he emerged with his first mixtape Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1 through to his last album, Summertime ’06. In fact, he’s been doing so his whole life, and it’s easy to tell. Staples’ deep understanding of human potential, worth, and the meaning of success show that he wants to be a part of something more significant than the music industry – and yet, he will tell you he’s no more important than your local bus driver.

It’s not every day you get to photograph, style, make a film (on an iPhone) and have a conversation with someone who has subtly been shaping your sense of self as a black kid since 2011. Only two years older than me at 23, Staples ran laps around my understanding of the world. He’s clearly witnessed a lot – almost too much for his consciousness to cling onto. From everyday life to striking violence in Long Beach and the darkest depths of the music industry, Staples has no time for anything other than the matter-of-fact truth, no matter how heart wrenching.

Sitting down with him, I could already see parallels in our upbringings, despite our childhoods taking place across the country from each other. Before music, Vince remembers not wanting much of anything, only scrounging up the courage to try basketball due to social pressures. I only found the camera through skateboarding, which was a sad product of having nothing to do in the first place. I’m no writer but that day felt like as natural a collaboration as they come. Nervous about my interview, Staples’ manager Corey Smyth gave me a simple antidote: “Talk to him like a regular kid, that’s all you two are anyway.”

Even with the imminent arrival of Staples’ latest offering (a six track EP titled Prima Donna, out August 26 and featuring production from No I.D., DJ Dahi, and James Blake), Staples eschews talking about new music – as he’ll tell you himself, none of that fuckin’ matters anyway.

Let’s begin with your childhood and what it was like – paint me a picture.

Vince Staples: I never wanted to make music. I wasn’t thinking about it. You know how you’re a little kid and there’s always little things you wanna do... like I wanna go to college – that’s all I knew. I wanted to play basketball or something simple. My grandma made me play every sport as a kid – I was a point guard, then I stopped growing. I was like, ‘this isn’t gonna work out.’

You didn’t dream of anything bigger at the time?

Vince Staples: Nah, I didn’t even care about sports to be real. You just don’t question your parents; you tell a kid if you do this, you’ll be rich and blah blah. When you don’t have money, that’s enticing to any child with common sense. You see basketball players on TV with free Jordans. Other than that you don’t care about sports. I didn’t care about sports. I never wanted to do any of that stuff. My dream was to be fucking regular. You know how you watch Beethoven? That was cracking to me. That was the perfect life to me. They had a house, they had a car. They got both they parents and a dog.

In Atlanta my mom never wanted me out the house wearing hoodies. I felt her fear, that drove me nuts. Was there some equivalent to that with you in Long Beach?

Vince Staples: Where we live is not that bad. We kinda make it bad. We could make it nice if we wanted to. It’s like that for any black community. We just let people convince us that all minority people live in bad neighbourhoods, when in reality that’s not the case at all. If that was the case there’d be no need for gentrification and things like that, but we just don’t understand what we have. We have oceanfront property. If it was Venice Beach it’d be worth 10 million dollars. But Venice Beach used to be ‘the ghetto’ too. It’s just black people not understanding that we don’t need anything more than we have. A lot of times, as people, we always want what someone else has. That’s more evident in Long Beach.

“My dream was to be fucking regular. You know how you watch Beethoven? That was cracking to me. That was the perfect life to me” – Vince Staples

Do you think your story and the story is Long Beach, and even Compton and the West Coast, is sensationalised when you’re very matter-of-fact?

Vince Staples: I mean it’s fuckin’ rappers. Why would you listen to a rapper? Of course, they're gonna make it seem like it’s worse. And not in a bad way. There’s no money in telling the truth. You can’t get money in telling the truth.

What about in your music? How do you approach things?

Vince Staples: I don’t lie. I don’t necessarily care enough about music or anything else.

Why do you choose to make yourself so insignificant, when you clearly aren’t? Personally, as someone who listened to you growing up, you were an inspiration.

Vince Staples: I honestly just don’t care because how is music big? What’s big and what’s small? These are things people told us. People told us that you’re important if you’re a rapper which is the reason no kid wants to grow up and be a cop. The cops kill off black people, but there are no black cops because we rappers say fuck the police. Nobody wants to go to school because we say fuck school. Everybody feels like they have to be high because a rapper says, ‘do this drug or that drug’. Nobody wants to become anything in the private sector because you’re not important if you’re not rich. So no one wants to be the mailman.

It’s scary how it influences the masses.

Vince Staples: Everybody loves Straight Outta Compton and Boyz In The Hood but they don’t know who Sidney Poitier is. They don’t know who Danny Glover is. No one has seen The Black Power Mixtape. But we watch Gangland and we watch Locked Up.

In terms of the internet, you’ve been abandoning sharing a lot on social media altogether only to return with a few cryptic tweets or promotions and leave again. I rant a lot myself and find it hard to balance keeping it strictly work and letting out what’s going on in my inner life. Where are you at with the internet?

Vince Staples: If I didn’t have to use the internet I wouldn’t. I didn’t have a phone until three years ago so I don’t feel the need to be on Twitter. I come back because it’s part of my job – I have to.

How does ranting not get the best of you? It does me and has gotten me into trouble.

Vince Staples: I mean I think this is very straightforward. I feel like I can say whatever I want because nobody is gonna do anything. And if they do something, that’s not smart on their part. It won’t end well for either party. I personally don’t care how it ends. And that’s a negative approach to it, but it’s honestly how I feel, because as much shit as I talk and all the things I say on social media, nobody has ever done anything to me. It’s not real. Nobody really cares about the shit they pretend to care about. You know what I mean? Everybody’s full of shit.

You have to, in a sense, use it as a promotional tool. And if you don’t promote your music and the things you do, you won’t make a decent profit margin. And if you don’t make a decent profit margin, you won’t make any money. That’d just be irresponsible, to not make any money. Other than that, shit doesn’t mean anything. We’ve gotten to the point where we feel like we have to be a certain type of way. You should be able to have an opinion and say certain things but most people don’t because everybody’s scared somebody is gonna say something.

“People told us that you’re important if you’re a rapper which is the reason no kid wants to grow up and be a cop. The cops kill off black people, but there are no black cops because we rappers say fuck the police” – Vince Staples

I’ve gone on some rants about certain companies and have been told not to do that. But in the moment I felt like ‘this needs to be out in the world right now.’

Vince Staples: I mean business structure is business structure but at the end of the day you can say fuck the business structure, fuck the machine, fuck what everyone else stands for. And that’ll be okay. Now it might hurt you in a sense.

Are you afraid of that, though?

Vince Staples: No. What are they gonna do? Tell me I gotta go get a job? That’s not that bad of a situation.

Tell me about where your mind is now, in 2016, versus last year when you released your debut album Summertime 06? Is this a different phase of Vince?

Vince Staples: I mean, yeah. Every day you can grow into a different point in your life so I feel like that’s always gonna happen. There’s a kid born today who doesn’t give a fuck about Biggie or Tupac or Michael Jackson and they never will – and that’s fine. But you can’t worry too much about what’s gonna happen tomorrow. It’s a waste of time. Worst case scenario is that it doesn’t work, and what does that even mean?

I love that you seem not to care about having any sort of gimmick or wildly fleshed out visual identity.

Vince Staples: I don’t feel like anyone cares about that necessarily. I just feel like you’re told that’s what you have to do to succeed. And people wanna succeed so badly.

Do you think it’s because of artists like Michael Jackson and Prince who had such distinct looks?

Vince Staples: Nobody’s thinking about Michael Jackson or Prince, people are thinking what happened in the last six months. It’s because if you see a rapper on TV with this much money and with this car and this house and you’re not necessarily in the best situation, you’re gonna feel like in order to get that, you have to do what they did. It’s human nature.

If you see Kobe Bryant on television and you wanna play basketball and you see an interview where he says ‘you have to practice’, you’re gonna feel like you have to practice. It’s the reason why after Allen Iverson became successful, all the basketball players have braids and tattoos and they're wearing sleeves. It’s to have it, it’s human nature to want to become something that you look up to.

What do you look up to? How do you create a sense of identity?

Vince Staples: I mean your identity should be your name and your music. That should be enough. Sometimes it’s not enough, but a lot of people want it more than others.

When all the creative stuff happens outside of the music, how hands on do you like to be?

Vince Staples: It doesn’t matter when music comes out. Nobody remembers what day anything comes out. No one knows the day Drake’s album came out. Nobody knows the day Kendrick’s album came out or anything that’s supposed to be the shit we that we all care about right now. There are very few people who will tell you what day it came out and all that – it doesn’t matter. It’s the internet. Internet doesn’t have days. Internet has 100 per cent battery to 0 per cent battery. That’s the timetable on the internet. No dates. None of that shit.

Are you worried about the same happening to you and your music? Do you worry about it’s potential insignificance?

Vince Staples: No, I just do it. Music and rap and things like that are such a small part of fuckin’ life. There’s so much more to life that we don’t even pay attention to.

What’s bigger to you personally?

Vince Staples: Life. Children. Family. The fact that people are dying everyday. Music is not that fucking important to the grand scheme of everything. There is an entire ecosystem of life outside of this world. You can go to middle of the fuckin’ forest where there is no music and you will see more life than you’ve ever seen on a Soundcloud link. It’s not that important. It’s a part of it. I didn’t grow up caring about or listening to too much music.

When I look in the mirror I see me. I don’t see music or any of that. People trick themselves into thinking that they are their job. This is a job. People spend too much time about how they’re living, how they should be living, and what’s their next step of living, and they wake up one day and they're dead. So… I don’t think about those things. It doesn’t get you anywhere.

You’re signed to Def Jam, one of the biggest hip hop labels with a lot of tradition and history, and you exist within a lot of corporate spheres, for example playing all the biggest festivals and Spotify stages. Do you feel like you’re within a system to beat the system?

Vince Staples: There is no system. There are people that like things and there are people that like things so much that they become very successful and get paid off of it. That’s it. There’s no system, it’s a person with a job who can get fired.

But are you worried they don’t care about creativity?

Vince Staples: The people creating don’t even care about creativity. Michael Jackson didn't write all of his music, does that mean he didn’t care about creativity? But Drake has a ghostwriter and ‘he doesn’t love hip hop.’ Def Jam, Universal, all these people, they might be the system, they might not care, but at the end of the day, they’re feeding people. If every artist had a GoFundMe and it was up to the listener and the listener was sending them money to eat and feed their family, it’d be a lot of hungry motherfuckers out there. So, is the bad guy the system or is the bad guy the dude who steals everybody's music but loves it to death? Who’s doing something worse?

How about Childish Gambino, who leaked his own album?

Vince Staples: Did he leak his own album or did he have other revenue streams to the point where it didn’t matter? Cause Atlanta was getting picked up by a TV network – Donald is a different type of person. At the end of the day, no one likes being robbed. Do you love the music enough to be like ‘okay, it doesn’t matter, I’ll figure out a way’? But it’s no way to save the bad guy. Yeah, the system is fucked up, but the system is trying to keep up with the rampant theft that’s going on. They have to cut deals with these people – the Spotifys and so on. I don’t think you can say that any of those people are bad in a sense. Universal doesn’t need music, they have Fast and the Furious, they’re making more money off of one of those movies than they’re making off a couple years of music.

I know for a fact if wasn’t for Universal or Def Jam, or any of these people, I would not be doing what I’m doing to this day. So I don’t necessarily feel like they’re the bad guys. Universal has never commented on people’s pictures when their parents pass away and say, ‘put out a new album.’ The label doesn’t say ‘fuck you, you’re this or you’re that.’ The label doesn’t demean the artist. The label doesn’t comment on Kehlani’s pictures and tell her to go kill herself.

“Nobody really cares about the shit they pretend to care about. You know what I mean? Everybody’s full of shit” – Vince Staples

People like to point fingers for their shortcomings, especially in music. ‘My album didn’t do that good. Fuck the label for mishandling it.’ Maybe you just didn’t have the hit record you were supposed to have. Maybe you spent too much money on your budget. Maybe it just didn’t work. But at the end of the day, I thought it was about the music, but it’s not about the music. It’s about them, and that’s what people trick us into. People trick people into thinking that someone’s doing them wrong because they wanted more.

It should be enough that your music is out in the world and could possibly help somebody. But at the end of the day nobody gives a fuck about that. People want their credit and their money – they don’t give a fuck that I might have put out an album and sold three copies but those three people that bought my album, I probably changed their life and put them in a better space. They don’t give a fuck about that. They care that they don’t have the car or the house that the other rapper has, and they care that they don’t have the attention the other rapper has. That’s what it’s all based on – I think it’s a selfish place to be. At the end of the day, the music doesn’t belong to you. This is a job where you’re able to display something or showcase your life to possibly help somebody get through some bullshit that they have to possibly deal with. People are trying to get rich and trying to get famous and it’s past that.

If you sat down and told all these kids, ‘hey, there’s a 95 per cent chance you’ll never be fucking drop dead blatantly rich. There’s a 95 per cent chance that you will be forgotten one day and that nothing you did will matter but you can still make the music’, I promise you most of those people would stop this day and go find some other shit to do. You tell a rapper, ‘oh yeah, we like your music but you’re not gonna get rich and you’re not gonna be famous’, they're gonna go find some other shit to do, and that’s the fucking problem. Yeah, the system has it’s flaws but at the end of the day, everybody wants a million dollar budget and nobody is putting out a million dollar single. Everybody wants a million dollar advance but no one wants to pay it back.

That’s what makes no sense. The amount of people who want a million dollar budget and say, ‘Oh if I had that you wouldn’t believe what I would do with it’ – but it’s funny, if someone does get that, how rarely a million dollar product is ever made. There are probably kids who are gonna read this interview and say ‘Tyler’s fucking up, if I had a chance to sit down with Vince I would ask him this, this, this.’

Vince Staples: When you talk about artists that go down in the history of time – and I’m not talking about top five rappers, I’m talking about at the end of the world the people that have contributed to art – how much of the conversation is gonna be about how famous or how rich they were. That’s why there are no museums for this (rap) shit, because it’s rooted in the wrong things. (Producer) No I.D. always says there’s no museum for hip hop, because who in this day specifically is deeply rooted in the artistry? Nobody.

I feel like you care in terms of your message and your purpose.

Vince Staples: I feel like everybody has a purpose and the one thing I hate the most in this world is that we weigh one person’s worth higher than another based on shit that does not matter. Know what I mean?

But you are changing kids lives! Myself included...

Vince Staples: But so are teachers. So are people that feed us every day. So are certain politicians. So is the bus driver that makes sure people can get to work every day. The world is saying those people are different than rappers. If a kid came to his friends and said, ‘one day I wanna be the mailman’, they’re gonna get laughed at. And that’s the problem with this fucking world. Everyone wants to be something that’s above and beyond as people. Us being alive, we’re already going above and beyond because that’s a hard thing to be these days. That’s my main problem with all this. It’s too much. It’s too based on the wrong shit. None of it matters.

“Music is not that fucking important to the grand scheme of everything. There is an entire ecosystem of life outside of this world. You can go to middle of the fuckin’ forest where there is no music and you will see more life than you’ve ever seen on a Soundcloud link” – Vince Staples

As a photographer, I’ve been concerned recently with views of black masculinity. A lot of my work has been humanising black people to the world, when that shouldn’t have to be the case.

Vince Staples: Yeah, but who are we not human to? If you think you’re a human and I think I’m a human, that’s all that matters. My question is why is there a need of approval from white people? People aren’t in Japan wondering if Americans love them. You pick whose opinion matters. Just like how I can say a kid on the internet saying ‘oh fuck you, your music is trash’ doesn’t matter, we can say a person who feels like you’re a nigger doesn’t matter.

But how about people’s actions? They’re uncontrollable.

Vince Staples: You can control people’s actions. Did you know Orthodox Jewish people have their own police force within their communities? So if something happens, they don’t need to be armed because they all know each other. If something happens they call their neighbor and the situation is defused and the cops refer back to them.

So it would be more ideal if we close off and create a community for ourselves as black people?

Vince Staples: That’s what everybody else who ever became successful did. I been saying the same shit since 2012. I got Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1 and 2, Stolen Youth, Winter in Prague, Hell Can Wait, and Summertime ‘06. They all have the same standpoint on the police. I got a review on my mixtape entirely about the cops hurting black people, and someone said it was boring and that shouldn’t be the subject matter, so I have nothing to say about that topic anymore. I’m glad people are paying attention to it. That’s all I gotta say.

Def Jam release Vince Staples’ Prima Donna EP on August 26, accompanied by a short film conceived by Staples and directed by Nabil

Full credits: Directed by Noah Dillon, creative direction Tyler Mitchell, cinematography Noah Dillon, Ben Tan, and David Altobelli, edit Noah Dillon