G Herbo Talks Debut Album 'Humble Beast' & How Music Saved Him From the Streets

G Herbo, 2017
Courtesy of Machine Entertainment Group

G Herbo

Most artists succumb to the pressure of releasing a debut album, but G Herbo soars above it. He wasn’t fixated on creating the “best” album in the two years it took to piece together his official debut, he was solely focused delivering one thing: his story.

“I didn’t feel pressured to get it out or make the best [project].  It was more me wanting to make it true to me, true to everything that I am and where I come from,” he tells Billboard about creating his debut album, Humble Beast. “Making it true to me was my major concern and letting it tell the best story of me as possible.”

The Chicago native’s candor and humility on Humble Beast is a result of his experiences growing up in his hometown, and the violent street life he witnessed on a day-to-day basis. Typical rap braggadocio takes a backseat to the passion and pain that are smeared across the 15-track effort, noticeably on gritty street anthems like “Red Snow,” “Street” and the poignant “Malcolm” – a clear standout cut on the album – where a pensive Herbo delivers a nearly five-minute tale on the life of an average Chicago black male.

Billboard caught up with G Herbo to discuss what it means to be a Humble Beast, how his experiences in Chicago molded the content on his new album, and which rap legends he looks to for inspiration. 

Billboard: What inspired you to pick up the mic?

G Herbo: Real-life events. When I was in the streets, just the stuff I was going through and seeing on a day-to-day basis --  losing people around me and just seeing stuff like people getting hurt, shot... it inspired me to talk about it. I always knew how to rap a little bit, but I never took it seriously. I was in the streets still going to school, playing basketball -- [collaborator Lil] Bibby started rapping first, so I gotta give him some of the credit as motivation for me to rap -- but it was honestly me going through a whole bunch of stuff and having something to talk about; it was a stress reliever. 

At what point did you realize you could actually pursue a career?

I mean I started realizing I could make something of it probably around 18, 19 but I still wasn’t taking it seriously until now.

Really? Why now?

I had to understand that if you’re doing something, especially music, you gotta take it seriously at one point. Not saying I was trying to procrastinate, but I ain’t really have no motivation. Something in me told me I gotta focus on music 100 percent or it’s not gonna work.

Is that why you decided to drop your debut album now?

Yeah, the timing was perfect. I wouldn’t say that’s what made me drop it now. I always wanted to drop it. I was anticipating on dropping it as soon as possible. So the timing just worked out for the best.

How did you know you were ready?

I just felt it. I knew I didn’t want to drop another mixtape. I knew it was time for my debut album. There was never a day when I was like, "Alright. I’m ready." I just knew I couldn’t keep dropping mixtapes, and my fans been waiting on the album for too long.

You named your album Humble Beast. What does it mean to be a humble beast?

Being in the streets, you gotta be humble. You gotta approach every situation humbly because you never know what you’re gonna have to do to get out of that situation. It’s possessing that humble trait, and still being a beast to get yourself out of any situation by any means, being fearless -- that’s me. Growing up in the streets -- the “jungle” -- you’re gonna turn into a beast. It’s gonna turn you into an animal. But you gotta approach a situation humbly, because you never know when you’re going to have to use that trait.

Pain and passion are evident throughout the entire project. Where does this pain come from?

My life, and what I was going through early on. I lost a lot of people close to me to the streets, to jails, so I’ve been through a lot. I’ve seen a lot. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. So if I go back, I’d do it the same exact way.

On “Street,” you say, “Keep the plate, I’ll wait for the feast.” Do you feel like you’re just getting started or that you haven’t quite accomplished enough yet?

My mixtapes were stepping stones that just lead me up to my album. My partner was telling me that if you’re trying to do anything on a high scale, you have to build your foundation first to make sure everything is solid so “Welcome to Fazoland,” “Ballin Like Kobe,” those were introductions of me to the streets and the world, but Humble Beast was an introduction of me on a higher standpoint and it’s telling those stories times ten. It’s telling my story from being a 17-year-old, 18-year-old, 21-year-old being humble, being in the streets, being wild – you get all that in Humble Beast.

Aside from feeding the streets, what else were you trying to accomplish with this album?

My main goal was getting it out and feeding the streets, the numbers will speak for itself but I just wanted to tell a story with my debut album, everything else I feel like is a bonus. All the good reviews from XXL, Pitchfork and even being here with Billboard is all a token of working hard. I wanted to just capture the streets, so everything else on top of that is just bonus.

On one of the tracks, you shout out JAY-Z, Jadakiss, and Meek Mill. What do you admire most about their artistry?

I feel like with hip-hop, if you study hip-hop or study rap music and you’re telling stories about your life and real-life situations, you have to respect Nas, Jadakiss -- you gotta respect those guys. Growing into the artist that I am, I go back and study those guys, those were the guys that I listened to regularly. [Lil] Wayne, Hov, Juelz [Santana], Jadakiss -- that’s the music I listened to before I even decided to rap. So me as a rapper, I go back and I listen to old Hov and old 'Kiss and just try to pick up as much as I can.

[I'm] not tryna bite their style or anything, but learning different patterns and wordplay, understanding how they did it in the '90s and trying to do it in the [21st century] in my own way. You gotta respect those guys. Even Meek, with him being a newer artist, I just got a lot of motivation from him too.

How did the entire album come together?

I started probably about a year and a half, two years ago, but not mainly like, "Let's focus on the album." It was just doing records, and then I was like “All right, yeah, this could make the album.  Lets put this to the side.” We just built it up, no rushing until it was exactly what we wanted it to be. So, it was over a two-year span; my fans been killing me all over the ‘Gram.

What’s your recording process like?

I might go into the studio and feel a certain way and just freestyle. I might want to tell a story, so then I’ll write. Some songs like “Malcolm” took me about two and a half hours to make, three tops -- and that’s a very long time to spend on a song.

Who is “Malcolm?” What’s the story behind that song?

“Malcolm” is a little bit of me and my homies. “Malcolm” is basically the life of a 17, 18-year-old in a Chicago inner-city, poverty-stricken neighborhood who is surrounded by a world of violence and only possesses those tools to make through the world, and ends up finding himself in a situation he didn’t want to be in, or couldn’t get himself out of because he’s using the tools that he learned negatively. That’s the story I was trying to put out. I was trying to compare his life to how it would’ve been if he had been from the suburbs or anywhere else.

It’s literally like a story of me and my homies and what we were going through, what we saw on a day-to-day basis. It’s series of events that can or cannot happen growing up in Chicago being a 17, 18-year-old black man.

How’d you end up linking with Lil Uzi Vert on “Everything”?

That’s my homie, man. I’ve known Uzi for three years through my big bro, who is super close with [DJ] Don Cannon.  When I met [Uzi], there was a connection and he comes from what I come from – he’s just from Philly and I’m from Chicago. We were in the studio – we got a lot of records – and I was like, "Hop on this record," because I knew it would be a big record and I wanted it to go on my album.

Are all the tracks going towards a joint project?

Yeah, we’ll probably do an EP or something.

You shot the video for "Red Snow" a few months back. Talk a little bit about that song.  

That’s an important record. It’s me talking about life in Chicago because everybody in Chicago has had someone close to them die or seen someone get killed – it’s so common in Chicago that you’re literally immune to it. Death is so close to you and so common that we don’t dwell on it. People mourn deaths for about a week, a month and not saying you don’t care about that person, but life goes on and it’s going to be the same situations and obstacles over and over.

“Red Snow” was me talking about death being so close to me in Chicago. We have “Red Snow” throughout the winter. Summer is full of murders, but the winter is even more murders. You think it’ll calm down because of the weather, but more people get killed in the winter than in the summer. That record was me shining a light on what’s going on, to say, "That’s not how we’re supposed to live." There could be people walking the streets that have killed kids, killed mothers, and killed grandmothers. So they could be listening to the song and say, “Damn, he’s talking about me.”

How has growing up in Chicago and seeing all the violence from a young age shaped you as an artist and how you approach your music?

It shaped me as a man and an artist, just losing people and watching people die right in front of my face. It does a lot to you and it made me think differently; it makes you aware of your surroundings. It makes you numb to pain -- heartless, unsympathetic -- and it’s not good to think like that. It makes you immune to violence, it makes you want to be violent. Unless you have business in Chicago, it’s really not a place you want to be.

With fellow Chicago artists Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa using their platform to raise awareness about what’s going on in Chicago from violence to education, what do you hope your music adds to this dialogue?

I believe you have to speak on a situation in order to fix it. I am from the streets, I am the streets, I am everything that comes with the streets. I’m talking this way to try to convert you from that to this or to live a different way, be in the streets to get out the streets. I ain’t never think I was gonna be anything but a street n---a. So for me to be able to think differently, and use my brain on a level I never even thought I could -- especially at such a young age -- and know that I’m still learning and progressing is a blessing.

What was it like working with Lil Yachty and Jeremih for “This n That”?

Yachty, that’s my bro, too. It’s all about genuine relationships, that’s the type of artist I am. I like building genuine relationships. I gotta call you my homie before anything. If I have a song with you and you’re not really my homie, then it doesn’t mean shit to me. I have to genuinely fuck with you as a person and as an artist. Jeremih, of course, he’s from the city. He’s always reached out to me and showed love. So I have previously recorded records with Jeremih, I have previously recorded records with Yachty, those weren’t my first songs with them. Nothing on the album was forced.

Let’s throw it back to 2014. You linked up with Nicki Minaj for “Chiraq,” what did that cosign do for you?

It did everything. I was honored and humbled to work with her. She reached out to me and I don’t even know how she got my number. I was in the studio, like 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and she called me like “This Herb?” or something. Next thing I know, I wind up on a plane to Los Angeles three days later. Just being able to work with her, it did a lot for me as an artist. It opened a lot of doors and gave me a lot of exposure.

The only thing with that situation was not making the best of it the way I should’ve. If I never had a song with Nicki and I got it now? I would be working the fuck out that Nicki verse. Back then, my mindset was elsewhere. I was in the streets. My business wasn’t in order. I wasn’t as hands on the way I am now.

Who are some artists you wish to work with?

I’m going for the big dogs. JAY, Rihanna -- I love Rihanna. I want to work with Chris Brown.

What would your life be like if you hadn’t picked up the mic?

If I hadn’t picked up a microphone, my life would be crazy. I would be out here doing a bunch of illegal shit. I wouldn’t be working a 9-5, I wouldn’t be in college. I got shot when I was a sophomore, so I wasn't playing basketball anymore; I’d probably be in jail or dead honestly. I would’ve just been in the streets heavy. Music saved my life.