Interviews

Young Gully on Balancing Rising Stardom and Oakland Street Life

By David Jenison

East Oakland rapper Young Gully straddles the line between potential stardom and tough city streets. Since starting out as a teen more than a decade ago, the rapper born Michael Watkins narrates his real-life experiences generally skipping the sensationalism and exaggerated personas that characterize so many other artists. Moreover, he tells his street tales through a prolific output of songs, albums and videos that include The Grant Station Project about the Oakland police shooting of Oscar Grant, The Final Destination EP (featuring “Move Like This”) and the three-disc Bermuda series (released over five months between September 2015 and February 2016) that reassesses his street-survival mentality through deep introspection. Epitomizing his output, Young Gully also dropped his latest DJ Fresh collaboration David 2: Michaelangelo in June, and the sixth installment in his Hustla Movement series (HM6) dropped in August. PRØHBTD spoke with Young Gully to learn more.

What is a specific way in which East Oakland shaped your values and outlook on life?

For one, it made me a tougher person. It gave me a sense of strength when it came to outside disappointments and losses because in this city I have endured so many of them. My city is crazy at times, but it's also beautiful. That made me want to cover all angles of how my city is instead of just focusing on one aspect of Oakland. But it also gave me a passion and an edge that I believe I can only get from the struggle. I'm more immune to anything bad that happens because I went through that my whole life. It also made me want more for, not just me, but my whole team and family.

You seem to focus on the pain experienced in the streets rather than glamorize street crime or materialism. What motivated you to showcase reality as opposed to exaggerated narratives and personas?

Well, I have seen so much go on in the streets that I figured I should come at the listeners with a more vivid approach. Sort of like "I go through it so you wouldn't do it after me" mentality. I talk about the crime and the materialism from time to time, too, but my main goal is to embed a message in between that with real stories and situations, so people who want to change or want to find a way out have someone to lead them there instead of keeping them where they are or making them worse. Everything I talk about I've seen happen or even did it or went through it myself, so that's why it comes off that much more real than someone who is just rapping. I don't want to tell a kid or a young adult I'm out here killing everybody and selling drugs all the time when I'm no longer doing that, but I will share my experiences sometimes to show up-and-comers which way they shouldn't go. It’s more to motivate people to do what they have to do the right way, if possible, and show those who don’t know, a) how it really is out here and b) that there is more to life.

You like to tell real stories. What is the most personal story you told in Bermuda: Human?

I think the title track “Human” and “Go Away” were my two most personal stories on that album in particular. But my first two Bermuda albums before that one, the God and Devil versions, almost every track was extremely hard to write. The reason why is because they were true to a T. I cried writing some of those songs. “Temptation,” “God,” “Temporary” and a line of others on those first two albums were the most personal to write. Part 3: Human was a little lighter compared to those two. I really took it there when it came to my personal life, which is something I had never done before. It's scary to give that to the world, but those were secrets about myself that I no longer wanted to hold on to, so I'm happy that I got it out, and look what happened. It became a classic.

What ties the three Bermuda albums together, and why make it a series? And will there be a fourth?

It was something I created called "mood music." God is more spiritual and melancholy yet uplifting as well. It’s more the earlier phases of my life when I felt more innocent. Devil was more my aggression, my pain, my anger, my hatred, money, material things, sex, etc.—those types of things and feelings. It was more focused on a phase in my life where I was doing a lot of dirt. Human was more so just letting everything go and having a good time and learning from everything. Basically just accepting it all and seeing the beauty in my mistakes. Understanding that I wouldn't have gotten to this point if it wasn't for my past.

There are three albums with 11 songs on each one, making it 33 songs all together to show that every phase had the same importance to me. I broke it down to a science. That's why the colors I chose for the covers are blue, red and gold. That represented the mood I was trying to display for each album. So in a nutshell, it's my whole life in a three-part series. I named it Bermuda to play off the Bermuda Triangle, but also to say that at the end of this journey I will be in a beautiful place. I even traveled to Bermuda, performed there and lived like the people out there for five days to make sure I knew that I was on the right page. One of the most wonderful experiences in my lifetime. There are so many other meanings embedded in the album that it would take forever to explain as well.

You’ve been in the game for about 12 years. What was the biggest setback or disappointment?

My only disappointment is wishing I would have made better choices earlier in my career. Wishing I would have trusted more people or at least wishing they would give me another chance to show them my maturity and growth. Everything else I have accepted and moved forward from it. But there are still people in this game who I had relationships with at one point who I wish would just have the heart to sit down with me and holler at me in a real way. Only to sort shit out with them and find a way to work together. Sometimes I feel blackballed by the Bay Area, but I know I wasn't that wrong in my past or I wouldn't even be here.

Oakland blew up with hyphy, but these types of trends rarely last. What have been the challenges in trying to get national media attention following the decline of a massive regional trend?

None actually for me. I've never been hyphy at all. I think the biggest challenge for me, though, continuing this from the last question, is the fact that people seem to avoid me for whatever reason in my region. I have gotten to a very good place almost alone. I don’t really understand it in full, but I just kept working my ass off. I just wish that would change. It’s like too many people hold me accountable for a past I can't change, but I try not to complain because Oakland and the Bay are on the rise again anyway. I'll get where I'm trying to go either way.

Definition of Gas raised your profile nationally. When you recorded this mixtape, did you have a sense that you had made a big step forward?

Honestly, yes and no. (Laughs.) I hated the song, and I hate it even more now because that's all people talk about when they see me. They act like they haven't heard anything but [the song] “Definition of Gas.” The mixtape, though, I loved it. The attention I got was great, too. So I can definitely see the positives in it, and I took full advantage of that. I’m very blessed to have it happen the way it did so no regrets. I'm just trusting God’s plan, but I got way more classic shit out than that.

What is your connection to the Hieroglyphics Crew and what have you learned from them?  

The Heiro crew are like big brothers to me. A lot of artists you see popping today from the Bay came up out of their compound. They helped the whole Bay. They all did cameos for me in the “ʼ93 Till [Infinity]” video, which was huge for me at that time. They put me on my first sold-out show ever, and they always kept me involved in things they did. I can never repay them for that. I learned how to build up my own business and label from them. I learned how to care about more than just myself through them. I learned how to make my team a real team through them and so much more. Much love and respect to them.

Police shootings and Black Lives Matter are all over the news, and Oakland has personally experienced this with Oscar Grant, which you addressed with the Grant Station Project. What can the police do to rebuild trust in the communities, and how can communities help drive positive change in the department?

Well, I think on our side, protesting is great but not enough. We can't just scream at the police and hold signs up or shoot at them all. We have to go to the sources and try to get certain laws and stuff like that changed in a legitimate fashion. We also need people to step up and be leaders. Give people real direction and stop telling them to riot or kill to get their points across. We can't win like that. We can't even get even. The most important thing to me is we have to stop killing each other as well. We are helping the police by doing that. They won’t respect us until we respect us. As far as the police go, we need some of those good cops to step up and out those bad ones. We need more of them to get exposed because killing black men isn't the only thing they are doing. Period. I always felt like it's more about who’s giving the orders to do us like that than it is the police themselves. But someone in these police departments needs to step the fuck up and say something. More of them. If they act like a gang, the people will, too.

Oakland has become a cannabis capital thanks in part to Oaksterdam University and Harborside Health Center. Do you see the potential legalization of recreational cannabis in California as one way to decrease negative interactions between the police and minorities?

No, I don't. I strongly feel like that is a procedure and agenda more so than something that is just happening. It's too consistent. It's easier not to get harassed for having cannabis, though, most definitely. It's also much more lucrative in my opinion for everybody. Now you can do it all the legal way, and people are building empires off of it. That is a great thing though. I don’t think that will have too much to do with decreasing the tensions, but maybe.

Do you have any tracks about smoking?

Well, I don't smoke anymore. I haven't smoked in about a year now for my own reasons. I very much encourage it, though. I used to blow like a dog! Haha! Maybe I'll come back to it soon, but a couple tracks I or my team have either referencing smoking or about smoking are Young Hustlaz’ “Weed Smoke,” Tay off the Top’s “Light Up” and [Young Hustlaz member] AB’s  “Shit I Smoke To.”

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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