“Man… At 25, I lost my world and I got the world at the same time,” Ab-Soul said, hours before stepping on stage at his first headlining New York show.
“‘The Book of Soul,'” I say, under my breath. “Yeah,” he says, followed by a deep sigh.
You can’t listen to “The Book of Soul,” featured on Ab-Soul’s second digital independent album, “Control System,” and not meet the affliction the West Coast rapper carries. In one of his most personal songs, Ab-Soul, born Herbert Anthony Stevens IV, gives you two verses of heartbreak and resilience, touching on the loss of his best friend and love, Alori Joh.
Ironically, in the same year he lost a part of his heart, Ab-Soul found success. Top Dawg Entertainment — the independent label which serves as a home to the Black Hippy rap collective consisting of Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock — signed a joint venture deal with Interscope Records and Aftermath Entertainment.
Ab-Soul has had one hell of a year, already.
Before making his way to NYC’s S.O.B.’s for rehearsals on June 21, Ab-Soul sat back, staple black shades on, and walked me through his 25-year life in five-year intervals. As heavy as his life has been, the next five years shine bright before Ab-Soul as he preps for the release of his debut album and embarks on the 2012 Rock the Bells Festival and BET Music Matters tour, presented by TDE.
Five-Years Old (1992)
“I was serious into video games and basketball, at five. But video games for sure. Five… What was that, Nintendo? Sega. Sonic the Hedgehog. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on TV. But I know early on, I really, really liked Michael Jackson, like we all did. Newborn babies loved Michael Jackson.”
Ten-Years Old (1997)
“At ten years old, I got very sick. It was a pretty vivid day. I caught a rare virus called Steven-Johnson Syndrome. And it was very, very life-changing for me. It hindered my vision and my skin configuration. It definitely put a huge dent in my hoop dreams.
I even kept trying to play. I tried to keep playing with my shades on, it was real funny when I think about it now. A lot of my friends were real cool about it. They wouldn’t make me feel different or anything like that, but I just kind of figured… I won’t have the sharp vision for that.
But, I’m still breathing. I’m still here. They were able to stop it before it went too far and I have been healing since. I am still healing.”
Fifteen-Years Old (2002)
“I was on Black Planet freestyle chat, rapping my ass off. Text battle. It is a very interesting world. I think that it still exists online, where you freestyle but you type it. They call it keystyle. I think that is where I developed my rhyming skills. I had been rapping a little earlier, maybe around 12 [years old], but when I hopped online and into that culture, that textcee culture. It really got me going as far as being a rapper.
Other textcees were presenting [rap] in a way that I could read and still feel the flow, like still see how it was rhyming, you know what I mean? It was very interesting to just do that non-verbally. I have always been very comprehensive, very literate. So, working with words in that manner was very fun. It is like scrabble in motion.
I was very, very interested in Twista at the time and how he flowed. It was very fast and cool. I had a single CD where it had the song, the clean version, and the instrumental. I had that and I was like “Let’s give this a shot.” I remember that vividly. I called my homie and was like “I think I’m going to write a verse to this, man. You should write a verse, too.” I’ve just been rapping and writing since then.
My parents saw a bright, college-type future for me like as a lawyer, doctor, engineer, or something of that fashion. They put me in these high, gifted courses in school. I don’t know how they went about doing that, but I was in them. I think with them wishing that upon me, I imagined it early on. I wasn’t too set on being a rapper just yet at 15, it was just some real cool shit.
I was never like, “Fuck this! I’m gonna rap, I don’t care what you say!”
I was in the record shop, that my grandpa owned, every day after school until I got older. I was always trying to work. I fiddled with college for like a semester. I kind of wiggled my way out of that because I didn’t really want to do that. I just wanted to do music and let my family find out what’s going on. Of course, they’d hear little things about me rapping. I couldn’t hide it. Like, yeah, I’m a rapper; I’m doing my stuff online. But, when no revenue from it is coming in it looks like I’m just playing around. Everybody raps in this day and age. We’d work at the record store so my mom [would] see the onslaught of new artists trying to come in and get their stuff on consignment. She’d see this big ass struggle. It’s like, ‘Why would you want to do this? You’re seeing it first hand.’ They never got on me about it but they were like, ‘Do something more reasonable. Go to school. Get a job. You can keep rapping on the side; it’s not going to hurt.’ But, I don’t like homework.
I always liked to write essays in school, though. I didn’t write all the essays I was supposed to write, but the ones that I wrote, my teachers would be like “Oh! This is the best essay in the class. You don’t do anything in class. Why don’t you apply yourself?” I guess I am applying myself now.”
Twenty-Years Old (2007)
“I was broke. I was living with my parents. No shame in that, though. I was broke but not broke in a sense of poor. I come from Carson, CA. It’s the suburbs. So, I was safe. My biological father and my mom separated, but I had a step-father. I had my grandfather. I have a nice, tight family [that] I’m still good with. Everybody worked at my family’s record shop. My step-pop does construction. Good family force; good family unit. Eating wasn’t a concern. Shelter wasn’t a concern. Clothing wasn’t a concern. The love has always been there. But, as far as living life, doing shit you want to do? I was now in my 20s so I wanted to go to parties, eat, drink, you know? I wanted to live the shit you need money for.
It was kind of devastating too because at the same time, by 20 we (Black Hippy) were all living with this music shit. We were all in by 20. So, on one side, I’m like, ‘Man, I know this shit is going to pay off. I just need to wait it out.’ The other side of me was seeing all my homies pulling up in nice rides, chains, and nicer clothes. I wasn’t raggedy. I was cool, but it wasn’t that Gucci and shit. A lot of my homies were real heavy in the streets, doing their thing. I was like, ‘Man, I wish I could get in on some of this shit now.’ But that’s where a lot of artists miss it. You get impatient to the point where you have to tell yourself, ‘Just give it some time. It might not happen, but if it hits, it’s going to hit hard.’
It was the family environment, both at home and with Top Dawg, that kept me away from the streets. We were lucky enough to have Top Dawg extend his services to make sure we had studio time. He kept us busy with whatever we needed. The door was always open, so I was able to go in and do what I needed to do at all times. We got a nice team of producers and got Ali (MixedByAli) on the boards doing his thing. We always worked as a unit and that has definitely made things a lot easier than you hear about.
I came to Top Dawg in ’06 when I was 19 years old. By 20 years old, I was sealed. I dropped “Longterm” the next year, at 21 years old.
I think it’s interesting that we actually organized and worked the Internet. We got in and burst through. We went viral right before it became spam. I’m looking at a lot of transparent groups of people who are trying to do the same things that we are right now or were doing even back then by using the same format for online promotion. I’m gracious and very happy that we got on that in time — just working with the resources of the Internet and Top Dawg. You can get your big record deal and they can get you on the radio and TV, but we did it ourselves.”
Now, Twenty-Five-Years Old (2012)
“Man… At 25, I lost my world and I got the world at the same time.
My world ended and began at the same exact time and it’s very awkward. It’s very difficult to understand completely. Does everything happen for a reason? I’ve asked a lot of questions. It’s definitely been a very interesting year.
I hope I am able to get some type of closure on a lot of things [with the upcoming album]. I think some things are kind of phenomena that our brains might not be manifested to comprehend. I’m just trying to figure life all out.
I really felt like I struck a nerve with “Control System.” It was an experiment. I wanted to mesh the crazy sci-fi, religious, economic, social, philosophical discussions I like to have with manager, Punch, with this current wave of music. But in a way where it’s layered, so it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, he’s super lyrical.’ It can feel good if you’re just playing it in the background. You don’t have to break down every line. But if you want to, it’s great. You’ll have a great time if you’re into that.
But, today, a lot of people aren’t into that. We’re going through a phase where artists are trying to force feed how we feel into people. Like, get people to move like us. I don’t want people to mob with me in the street. This is not a cult. I’m just sharing with people what I think I may know. This is stuff that’s going on in my head. How do you feel about it? Do you think I’m stupid for talking about this? Do you love that I’m talking about this? Am I wrong? Am I right?
I feel social networks and everything online is getting us away from really talking to one another other. We’re saying what we want to say digitally, but in real life we’re not being vocal about it. I was thinking if I was vocal through the music, maybe it would spark a lot of real life conversations. While you’re listening to the music, you can talk to your friend right now and open up the door for more of what you’re used to. Because if you listen to the radio right now, there are only two are three subjects being covered. Even if you don’t listen to the radio, if you have a playlist with the most popular shit in the street right now, you’re going to hear two or three subjects. I wanted to open up the range of subjects in a way that would correspond with the subject matter of today: the two or three subjects.”
In the Next Five Years (2017)
“I’m definitely going to expand on [“Control System”]. This is Martin Luther King’s dream that we, Black Hippy, are trying to do. We’re trying to get everybody together. I hope I can speak for all of us when I say, we’re just trying to unify everybody. It’s not a West coast movement. It’s not a California movement. It’s not a Carson movement. It’s for everybody.
By thirty I want them to say that TDE was probably the most significant dynasty organization, record label in the history of hip-hop. Death Row. Roc-a-Fella. G-Unit. Who else? Cash Money. We’ve learned from all of them. And in five-years, I hope that when we talk again, we’ll be saying, “Yeah, so how do you feel about the LA Times saying TDE is the greatest thing since Death Row?” or something like that. So you got to document this, I said it.”