To paraphrase Baby Ray, there ain’t nothin’ like The Town. The radical, psychedelic politics that came to define the Bay Area in the 1960’s found a permanently captive audience in diverse, blue collar Oakland, where people swing baseball bats at bank windows with devout zeal and swang muscle cars through Downtown with reckless abandon. Despite Oakland’s penchant for civic venality—the police department is particularly troublesome—it’s a progressive city, albeit more rough-hewn than neighbors San Francisco and Berkeley. Oakland’s intertwining threads of leftist revolution and unyielding violence are reflected in its music: rappers are of the people, for better and worse.
Young Gully is from 55th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, in the heart of East Oakland. In many ways, he embodies Oakland’s contradictions and complexities. He’s been convicted of a gun charge and he dedicated an entire album (and its proceeds) to the late Oscar Grant; he came of age with Hyphy but his career was kickstarted by a chance visit to Hieroglyphics’ recording studio. Though he has an abiding affinity for the pomp and squeal of sideshows, Gully’s penchant for intricate lyrics set him apart from his thizzing stuntmen peers—he’s seen and done too much to be a conscious rapper, and he’s too self-aware to be a gangster rapper.
With DJ Fresh (the San Francisco-raised super-producer and creator of the revered Tonite Show series, not the blond, English one) handling much of his production, Gully’s newfound centeredness has helped solidify his place among The Bay’s very best. On his 33-song Bermuda triptych (God, Devil, and Human) he loosened his flow and expanded his pop appeal, but, with David 2: Michelangelo, Gully proved that he’s still capable of running roughshod over Fresh’s glimmering, funky instrumentals. With I Don’t Wanna Rap No More recently out on iTunes, he’s hoping to see more of the world and less of The Town.
TORII MACADAMS: Can you describe 55th Ave. & Foothill for someone who’s never been there?
YOUNG GULLY: All of Oakland is rough. I’m from East Oakland—you’ve got one side where I’m from, the hood, and the other side, Downtown Oakland, where it’s cool to be, but that’s still the hood. Everything in Oakland is the hood. You’ve some cool little parts here and there, but from Funktown to The Deep—that’s what we called East Oakland—it’s all hood.
You can probably go up a hill, and it’ll be cool, and as soon as you come down those hills it’s way wild. A lot of times when people out here from other places, they gotta know somebody. I’ve lived over here for almost my whole life.
Would you leave Oakland again if you could?
I would like to stay out here. I want that to be my end result, to live out here. I’d definitely leave if I get to a point where I can get spots other places, I would. But I’ll always come back to Oakland—even though parts are bad, there’s still plenty of good things that happen out here. I love this city—it’s diverse enough for me, and there’s too many memories for me to leave... [My] whole family’s from Oakland. When I was born, we lived in Alameda. My whole family lived in the same project—Bella Vista Projects, which got closed down a little after we left—and we’re all [still] close-knit now we’re in East Oakland.
Young Gully and crew filming the music video for “We Ain’t Hearin That” ft. Birch Boy Barie and Birch St. Witit, directed by Cassius King.
I interviewed Ezale, and he claimed that people grow up “cold-hearted” in Oakland. Would you agree with that?
It depends. How I do music, I don’t want everybody to think [that] when you come to Oakland, you’re coming to a death trap or a kill zone. There are places that are embedded with a lot of violence [and] cold-hearted people. It’s a lot of good stuff that goes on out there. You’ve got your dudes who are wildin,’ doin’ this and that, and you have people who are positive, trying to make a living, and you have your in-betweeners, and that’s what I would call myself. I dabbled in the bad, I dabbled in the good, and I’m trying to keep a straight path now that I got my stuff rolling.
“Sometimes you don’t have a choice coming where we’re from… We were just born in it.”
What put you on your current path?
You kind of don’t have a choice. Sometimes you don’t have a choice coming where we’re from—Ezale’s right, on that note. We were just born in it. Some people wanna get out of it, and some people don’t. When music started taking off for me, I wanted to take advantage of that. I’ve been getting a lot of looks lately, and it’s been helping me travel and move, and do what I gotta do. I don’t wanna move, but I wanna get out of here and travel, and see other things. I’m having the time of my life. It makes me happy to do that. To be able to do that is a blessing.
Growing up in Oakland, what was the music scene like? You were about in high school when hyphy was hitting, right?
Hyphy kind of built the culture, to be honest. A lot of things that we do is based on that music, even to this day. It’s a little more diverse now [but]when hyphy first hit, that’s all it was. It was surprising I could even get my music floating off the ground, because I’m totally different from hyphy. I’m a part of that culture, though—we’d have sideshows, big events where people were swangin’ cars—and when people come here, they’re like, “Oh, shit, y’all really do this?” That shit used to be a weekly thing. Cops would try to stop it, they might catch a couple cars, shit, but we’d drive somewhere else, keep that shit going all night. We made our fun.
Why do you think Oakland’s sound has diversified so much?
A lot of us were in high school when hyphy was popping, but we saw it fail, too. People like me looked at it like, “It might last, it might not,” and some people just chose not to do it because their lives were really a little bit harder. It wasn’t too many people at the time. Hyphy was emerging, speaking for the dude that can’t get his lights on, or [for] the dude whose mom is sniffing coke—I spoke for those people, because that’s the way it was for me. I’m kicking it with these people every day. A lot of people used to say that, and it drove me to talk for the hood side, for the people that don’t do hyphy shit every day. It’s a whole ‘nother side of the Bay Area that people didn’t even acknowledge at that time. That’s why a lot of people who’re finally hitting their stride are coming with a different twist. I’m one of those people.
You’ve said in other interviews that you’re a New York-style rapper.
I kind of came up off Jay Z, Nas, [and] 2Pac. I didn’t like Biggie too much. I thought Nas was the best back when I first started rapping. That’s kind of how I got my name—I got my name in the streets on one side, and on the other side, when I’d rap in high school, I was extremely lyrical to [my classmates]. Hyphy was simple as fuck, so when they’d hear me rap, the first thing they’d think of was: “Oh, you sound like a New York rapper. You East Coast.” They ended up calling me ‘Gully,’ ‘cuz that was slang out there. I’ve rapped like that since the beginning. I just finally found my sound, where I can flip it and switch it around.
“[Writing] got me out of a lot of trouble… The paper was my best friend.”
What’s your favorite Nas album?
It Was Written. For some reason, everybody likes Illmatic—I didn’t like Illmatic like that. It Was Written and Stillmatic. Those are probably my favorite two. I used to go back and forth listening to those, listening to “Take It In Blood” on It Was Written and on Stillmatic I’d go through the whole album. That was a classic to me coming up.
That’s one of my favorite albums—a lot of people didn’t like it, but it painted something that I was seeing. That kind of molded my skills; the way I wanted to rap was because of that. I wanted to be extremely lyrical when I first heard that.
What made you want to start rapping?
Stuff I was going through. I used to write little short stories when I was young—I would say going into middle school—before I really knew I could rap. I was already going through a lot then. I was just figuring out [that] there was a lot of stuff going on in my household with my pops and my mom, and [short stories] were my outlet to write about stuff. It would be shit I wouldn’t let anybody know. I got hella stories in my drawers right now from back then. I would just write it out, and I felt calm off of it.
For a while a strayed away from the writing. I started taking the anger out into the street. When I figured out how to rap, I got so excited knowing that I could do it… I used to practice, practice, practice every day. I got so good at it, and so happy with doing it, it got me out of a lot of trouble. It was kind of an outlet; when I was feeling some type of way, or something was going on, it was a way to vent. I could get it off my chest. That was literally what it was for at first. I didn’t even care to let people hear it. It was like an ahhh, my paper was who I could talk to... The paper was my best friend.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t rapping?
I might’ve been dead, I might’ve been in jail. I went to jail before—first and last time I fuckin’ go—but that was a weak experience. I did like two months for a gun charge in County. And, just having to be controlled, waking up at six in the morning to have breakfast—shit was weak. Once I experienced what that was like, I was like, “Ah, naw, I can’t do this shit. I’m cool.” That was another thing that made me catch my second wind with music. Once I got in there, I started planning and thinking about other stuff, and by the time I got out I knew what was I was gonna do. If I had any doubts [before], now I’mma get this shit done while I got the chance.
Birch Boy Barie, Young Gully, and Birch St. Witit
You linked up with Hieroglyphics and the Hiero Compound when you started rapping, right?
I was in this program called YMR [Youth Movement Records], and I really don’t wanna give them no publicity because it was a bullshit situation. They were taking advantage of kids. It was me, Los Rakas, and a couple other people out here still doing their thing now, and we had this guy come and speak to us who took me and Raka Dun [from Los Rakas] outside and told us, “‘These dudes are taking advantage of y’all, making a whole lot of money. Are y’all making anything?” We were like, “Shit, c’mon”—I was 17, I wasn’t thinking about makin’ nothin’. That woke us up. Me and my boy Jamon Dru left. [Jamon] ended up getting into [the Hiero Compound] because he knew Livewire, Beeda Weeda, people like that.
“Speaking for the dude that can’t get his lights on, or [for] the dude whose mom is sniffing coke—I spoke for those people, because that’s the way it was for me.”
How’d you meet DJ Fresh?
Same way. Through Jamon Dru. When we left YMR, it was my boy Jamon Dru who was making all these plugs for me. He locked me in with DJ Fresh, and he’d [already] heard me; we talked on the phone and he was like, “You’re one of the dopest I’ve ever heard! How old are you?”
I used to do all my [recording] at Jamon Dru’s house. [DJ Fresh and I] knocked out about six, seven songs the first day. And after that he was like, “Okay, this dude’s serious, he’s a workaholic.” That’s how I felt about Fresh—he pushes me to work, [and] every time I work with him I gotta do at least seven songs with him before I leave. That’s a lot of fuckin’ work, especially with him, because he don’t like to send beats. He’d rather do everything on the spot.
You went to Bermuda for a few days last year. How was it?
That was an amazing experience. First time out the country. I went out there to perform, and also to live like them. I made a triple-disc called Bermuda, which did very well overseas, so all of a sudden I was getting these people hitting me on Facebook and Twitter from Africa, Japan, and I’m like, “What the fuck?” I didn’t know it reached that. A girl that just-so-happened to be from [Oakland] that was a fan of me had moved to Bermuda, and they called me saying they wanted to do a show. I hopped on that opportunity quick; I got my passport, went out there, and my main goal before the show was to live like them.
They live kind of different out there. It’s a British Territory, so the driving is on the opposite side of the street—I was driving scooters out there—[and] they gave me a back house with a big view of the beach. I’d be on the beach all day. The weather’s crazy out there (it’d be hot but raining). Great food. Terrible-ass weed. I was shocked, I didn’t know what to expect whatsoever: the black people talk like Brits. I’m thinking they’d talk like Jamaicans. I’m like, “That’s crazy!” The people are extremely friendly. They rock like us in so many ways; when you go to the clubs they’re playing all the new shit that they play out here. I would definitely go back, but the flights were terrible. The experience was amazing, [and] I’m glad I got to perform for those people and actually live that before I put out the rest of my Bermuda project.
“Talk 2 You,” a single off Bermuda, Part 1: Human.
You put out the mixtape for Oscar Grant. Have you positive changes in Oakland since his murder?
When I did [the mixtape], there was a couple changes: they ended up getting a movie, I gave my proceeds to the family, I basically gave the album to [Oscar Grant’s] uncle. Me and his uncle have a great relationship. Shout out to Uncle Bobby, he helped me a lot because I was the only person who thought to make an album—I didn’t even know Oscar Grant. He was kind of amazed by that. He took it and did a lot with it. On the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] maps, it doesn’t say “Fruitvale Station,” it says “Grant Station,” and that’s cool.
As far as that shit still happening—aw, man, it ain’t gon’ stop unless we go about it a different way. Protests won’t stop it. I like the way they went about it: they actually got something done for his family, and that’s what was supposed to happen. I was angry by a black person being shot by a BART cop—that’s crazy. People labeled me a conscious rapper once I did that. I was never a conscious rapper. I cover all grounds. I never wanted people to expect me to be like that all the time.
The changes are more negative than positive. It’s still the same.
“There’s not a lot of stuff [in Oakland] for kids. The youth matter more than we all do, because they could be the ones who spark the change.”
What would you change about Oakland?
There’s not a lot of stuff out here for kids. The youth matter more than we all do, because they could be the ones who spark the change. If I had the money, I’d make more youth centers with study halls, computers, athletics, that they can get into at an early age so they can take those skills and become something. We don’t have a lot of that out here. Back when I was growing up, you used to see kids outside every day. You don’t see kids outside with social media. That’s all they know—Instagram, Facebook—and they don’t get the full life that I had.
Even though I came up in hard times, I still had the skills to navigate through life, and I don’t think kids these days have that. They come outside and they wanna sell dope, pimp, and do shit that I used to do that brought me no results in the long run. I just wanna change that. There’s no stuff where they can have regular, typical fun—they wanna be grown at age 9. I didn’t even think about being grown at that age. We need more stuff for them.
This is all they know. They don’t have after-school activities. You never know what goes on in their homes. I come from there, where I’d come home and shit would be going on here, and that’s too much for a young mind. There shouldn’t be so many young kids [that are] stressed out. They should have a place to have some fun before they go home.
Do you feel like, growing up in Oakland, that you weren’t given the tools to succeed?
Not really. It helps to be smart and have a good family around you. I’m one of the few in my camp that had a mom and dad, so I had a more straightforward approach, it was easier for me to make decisions. Some people didn’t really have a choice. There was a point I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t get the tools.
The school system’s fucked up out here. There’s a couple good programs, but at that time, I was so involved in street shit that I wasn’t even listening to my teachers, and they didn’t give a fuck. They’re just trying to do their job and leave. They don’t really care what you do after. In high school I almost didn’t graduate. I had to go through a couple different programs to graduate because my grades were so messed up from leaving and cutting, but this one teacher always used to see me cut, and she flat out told me, “You’re not gonna be shit.” I thank her for that because I think she was the only one who cared. She either thought she was gonna make go further that way, or she was gonna wake me up and make me prove her wrong. The latter happened. I got pissed off, and I’ll never forget her saying that. It changed my life. I love to prove people wrong.
All photos by Oakland-based photographer Damien Maloney.