by Ben D-L
Photo courtesy of Khalil Whit
Nowadays, it seems like half the teenagers in Oakland are aspiring rappers. With so much quantity, some quality every once in a while is refreshing. In this post-hyphy phase of Oakland hip-hop, a group of talented young artists is emerging. A shining example of the potential future of Oakland hip-hop is Greg Belvin, better known as Sleepy G. Sitting on the trunk of my car on a cold evening, we caught up to discuss the state of the art, and music scenes in Oakland and Sleepy’s vision for the future. Read the exclusive interview below and listen to his music here.
WSP: When did you first start rapping?
Sleepy G: I started rapping in the tenth grade. One weekend my dad was trippin’ on me, and said I couldn’t go outside. He said I couldn’t go out with my patnas – they were going to San Francisco or something – so I just was writing, and I came back that week and I rapped for my patnas. They said I was good, so I’ve just kept with it.
I know you’ve been doing debate for a while. How do you think that ties into lyricism and rapping?
Well I think it just helps me organize my thoughts. And besides organizing my thoughts, it helps me get my shit out in a timely manner.
What is your process? Do you write?
When I first started rapping, I was writing, and then I got challenged by my engineer Ghost. Shouts out to that nigga. He told me I should stop writing and just do my shit in my head, so I was like, “All right, whatever.” I’ve been doing that for a few months now.
I know you love UGK, but what are some of your other influences- musically and non-musically? I feel like your personality really comes out in your music. Where does that come from?
I read a lot of books, and I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve been in church most of my life, so I’ve always had that optimistic look to life, and I think I got that from there. I think I’ve learned a lot of other things academically just from reading books. I love Dr. King. In debate I hear about different arguments, politicians, and theorists, and I fuck with that too. Just the way people think about the world.
What are you reading right now?
I fuck with Machiavelli the most. I want to shout out Machiavelli one time. Not even because I’m on that shit but because so many people are. It’s a real diagnosis.
Switching gears. What do you look for in a woman?
Recently, I’ve been looking for someone who was into debate. So I said that out loud. [Pause] She’s got to be nice you know? She’s got to be confident about herself, but besides that, like extracurriculars, I want her to be able to help me with my shit. I need someone that’s going to challenge me in that way. I haven’t found that yet.
As far as the music, what’s next for you? I know you linked up with Ahyve from Ontask on your last song.
Shouts out to Ontask. With Ahyve it’s just a matter of time. I think he’s down to work with me, and I’m down to work with him. I’ve been working with Ghost. But in terms of what I’m trying to do, I want to put out a tape. I want to put something out that really represents me, and represents what I’m feeling right now as a person.
Is that what you tried to do with your two previous mixtapes as well?
Let me say this about my old songs: they represent where I was mentally at that time. But I haven’t put anything out in a minute, and I’ve changed to a certain degree where I feel like it’s appropriate to put out something new… I’m trying to get it poppin’ though. I’ve trying to get these rappers to be doing shows. What I’m really trying to do with this is get a real fan base locally before I put out music. It’s supply and demand. I’m working on the demand side of this.
You mentioned you want to bring artists together to perform. How does that relate to what you think are some of the problems that young people experience in Oakland right now? How do you think your art – and the art of people you respect – can help us deal with these problems?
If we were all united and really having parties for the people, then we could get them motivated to try and do something. I think right now, what’s missing is that motivation. Everybody’s hyphy and they got energy, but there’s no guided, “Okay this is what we’re going to do.” A united front amongst the music of the people will get them moving in a direction, whatever that direction may be. I trust myself to set a nice direction. After that direction is set, someone’s going to have to actually lead them like a political figure. That’s supposed to be Obama, but we’ll see. That’s debatable. But the music is key.
There’s always been a thriving Bay Area music scene, and we had some national attention with the Hyphy Movement a few years ago, but then it just died down. I feel like there hasn’t been anything that has followed that.
But when hyphy was in you have to think of what worked with that. They were making songs about being hyphy, people were going out and partying to that shit, people were living that shit. It was real to them. So you have to make something that’s real that they can live.
Oakland has definitely changed since then to me.
But the rappers haven’t. I think it’s time for that though…I just be chillin’ though [laughs].
Do you think it’s important for people pursuing hip-hop to really know what came before them in order to turn out a better product?
I think if a dude who’s rapping right now doesn’t know about Al Green, who used to rock the girls back in the day, I think the nigga ain’t worth his weight. You have to know about that. You got to know what moves people ‘cause if you don’t know what moves people then it’s just artificial music. It could be so much more.
Recently, we’ve seen some young Oakland acts like Main Attrakionz getting a lot of attention. I feel like your crew has been putting in a lot of work as well. Where do you see your crew and yourself in the next five years?
Listen, I’m a made nigga, and I got made niggas with me. We’re trying to put in work right now. We’re trying to set the foundation so that we can really be getting money in the future. If I stay in the Bay, it’s going to go crazy out here. We’re going to own the club scene, and we’ll be performing. We’ll own the picture scene because of Khalil. We’re going to own all the media: cover art, videos. I want be fucking with singers. I want to be writing songs for other people. In five years I want to write songs, and I want you to hear my shit. I also want to be playing an instrument in five years. I want my music to be on a different level by then, so when I say music it’s so much more than just, “Oh, I’m going to keep on rapping.” As far as the art scene, there’s some shit to be done there. I don’t necessarily know what yet, but I want to figure that out in five years.
The increasing amount of gentrification has affected those music and art scenes in the past few years. How do we bring it back and make it represent all of Oakland?
We have to make some shit that represents us in such a way, that people outside our community will want to buy it. I heard that from a professor at UC Berkeley Hastings Law School. He was on some shit. He told me, “You just have to make a product that people outside that community will want to buy.” And I was like, “Yeah. That sounds like some music shit. That sounds like some artful shit.” It doesn’t sound like no cookies and cream, they can get that from anywhere. We got to make some music from the hood, and we can sell it and empower ourselves.
At the same time, I know some suburban kids that listen to Oakland rappers like J. Stalin. Is that the answer?
Those rappers are putting in work, but what are they really saying? It’s not that it’s bad or that it’s good. It is what it is, and they’re putting in work but the question remains: what are they saying? Ask yourself that when you’re listening to them. If it ain’t no good shit, then why should we be bangin’ it?
How do you want to craft your music so that what you’re rapping about is relevant to people in those different areas? How do you make it relatable across the board?
Let me say it this way: I have to talk about how the experiences that I have here affect greater issues than are just here. There’s bigger shit that goes on here like how the port operates in Oakland affects so much around here. There’s a lot of money going in and coming out. I want to focus on bigger issues than just issues going on in the hood that you and I see. Issues that affect everybody like what’s going on with Internet right now, like how we treat each other. That type of shit translates more than, “I’m in the hood. I smoke weed ‘cause I’m from the hood, and I skip school ‘cause I’m from the hood.” That’s cool to a lot of people, but there’s other shit that’s cooler to more people. I think if you get the moral high ground then it’s good, so I’m trying to get that right now in my music. I’m trying to say some shit that’s worth hearing and say some shit that will help the listener, so that you’ll want to hear it no matter where you’re from. I try to do that with my lyrics, I try to do that with the composition, I try to do that with everything so that you’ll just want to hear it.