“Always Adapt While Bringing Your Own Flavor”: An Interview with P-Lo

Justin Carroll-Allan speaks with P-Lo about repping the Bay Area, gentrification, and motivational videos on Youtube.
By    July 31, 2017

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P-Lo is an optimist. The music on his new project, More Than Anything—with its layered ambient noise and dreamy keyboard riffs—has two purposes: to make you go dumb in the club, and to inspire its audience. This earnestness is new. The HBK Gang, the group from which P-Lo got his start, made its name by creating Hyphy-inspired bangers that would’ve been the perfect soundtrack for a sideshow, had sideshows not been policed to the point of near extinction by the time HBK picked up their mics. More Than Anything still contains feel-good anthems like “College Girls” and “Put Me on Something,” but it also includes songs like the title track, which is a sincere plea for people to follow their dreams.

Having a positive attitude isn’t easy, especially now. As a country, we’re hurtling toward imminent collapse, and locally, the Bay Area has shape-shifted to the point of being unrecognizable. The parts of the city that birthed some of the country’s most talented and underrated rappers—Andre Nickatina, RBL Posse, Rappin 4-Tay—have mutated into one long Gap commercial. The character of this beautiful place has been replaced with luxury condo buildings, yoga mats, and cold brew. Still, in the face of all that, P-Lo chooses to be a beacon of positivity.

In late May, I met with P-Lo at Haus Coffee in San Francisco. As I waited for P-Lo to arrive, I noticed a standoff between the manager and someone who’d locked himself in the bathroom and fallen asleep. The manager pleaded for a while, then finally used the master key and opened the door. “I’m getting the hose,” the manager said, “please put your pants on.” The manager blasted him; the man jumped up, his face dripping, and began throwing trash—damp paper towels, balled toilet paper, used tampons—all over the white tile floor.

Customers clad in Patagonia and Fitbits stepped awkwardly in between the manager and the trash thrower, covering the tops of their skinny lattes. This, my friends, is about the best distillation of San Francisco I’ve ever seen in my life. After the fracas died down, P-Lo and I talked about the changing landscape of the Bay Area, the importance of seeking new talent, and the eternal relevance of E-40. —Justin Carroll-Allan


You just went on tour. How would you say your out-of-town shows compare to shows in the Bay?


P-Lo: I mean, it’s always a different vibe. The Bay’s a little different, you know? We’re always a little more weird. They Bay is a different place for everybody.


You came of age in the golden era—at least to my mind—of Bay Area rap: the Hyphy movement.


P-Lo: Yeah, I was a pre-teen, I guess. Those rappers were the biggest thing to me. Like they probably weren’t as big everywhere else, but to me, they were it. Know what I’m sayin’? They were the highest level.


Are we talking about Mac Dre?


P-Lo: Mac Dre, E-40, Too Short, Clyde Carson. All those guys. To my eyes, they were huge.


I know what you mean. Obviously these guys must’ve informed your sound quite a bit, right?


P-Lo: For sure. As of late I’ve been expanding the sound, but all those influences are there. A lot of [my music] derives from that sound and that energy.


Were you old enough to go to any sideshows?


P-Lo: No, I was not old enough. My cousin had a scraper. He had a Lexus with like 22s on it. He would slap Mac Dre a lot. His seat would be so low it looked like he was laying down. I remember thinking, “I like that. I wanna ride like that.”


Driving like that must take skill.


P-Lo: It takes a lot of skill. Plus, most of the time he’d be a little drunk, or off some lean, or really high. He was always driving really fast, too. There was some real skill involved for sure.


Hearing all of his stories must’ve really made you want to participate in Hyphy culture.


P-Lo: When I was like thirteen or fourteen, I went to a hotel party by the airport. It was all the Thizz people. I remember we pulled up and J-Diggs hopped out the Range Rover wearing a tuxedo with no sleeves. He didn’t have no sleeves.


That sounds magnificent.


P-Lo: He had two white girls with him. It was crazy.


Would you consider More Than Anything a Hyphy record? According to a lot of people, Hyphy died in 2008, but the Bay’s sounds still seems very much a part of it.


P-Lo: I think Hyphy is damn-near a lifestyle, low key. Hyphy is not tripping off what someone says, Hyphy is being the most free-minded. Hyphy is the feeling when you’re off a pill or something. You know when you go to like an EDM thing and you’re just feelin’ it? That’s what Hyphy is. You’re not tripping off shit. That’s why we dance the way we dance. We’re not tripping off what people will think, you know what I’m sayin’? I’m just doing my thing.

When I go out of town and people see me dance, they look at me weird, like I’m not supposed to be doing that or something. Like I’m not supposed to be having fun, and I’m like, “Naw, this is what I’m used to, this is how I live.” Yeah, people are always trying to put a sound to [Hyphy], but really it’s just an energy. That’s bigger than music.


Now, thanks to BART and the expansion of the sprawl, the Bay Area feels very connected. When you were younger, did your hometown of Pinole seem smaller than it does now, more disconnected from the rest of the Bay?


P-Lo: It did seem a little smaller, but in high school a lot of my friends were from Oakland and Richmond. Not just Iamsu!—just the people I kicked it with. [The Bay] felt really connected. I had so many friends that lived in Berkeley and Oakland and San Francisco that it really just felt like it was just one big clump of people, like everyone’s just one person away from each other, you know what I’m sayin’?


In so many ways, the Bay seems unrecognizable from when we were kids. What are some of the changes you’ve seen?


P-Lo: The tech boom has made certain areas that normally wouldn’t be cool to be at are really cool to be at now. People are just walking their dogs and shit. I’m like, “Man, you wouldn’t normally see that.” I’ve seen things change a lot over a five year span. There’s some parts of Oakland where you wouldn’t be caught dead over there. I remember not long ago someone was out in West Oakland playing basketball at 9 pm like it was good. It was like some techie guys. I remember thinking, “Well, I guess they know something I don’t know.”


No, I don’t think they do. They think they’re still in Mountain View.


P-Lo: [Laughs] Right.


What do you think of the gentrification of the East Bay?


P-Lo: Obviously it takes away from the authenticity of the culture here, know what I’m sayin’? You know, real things start from zero, creativity comes from nothing. It comes from a spark. They talked about this in a Noisey segment [about Bay Area rap]—how gentrification dwindles the music scene because of that.


So what is the role of Bay Area musicians who do stick around? Do musicians have a responsibility to guard their city’s authenticity?


P-Lo: It’s our job as artists to not only keep the authenticity but also bring in new artists that are coming up. They’re coming from zero, which is where I was not too long ago, know what I’m sayin’? They’re more authentic than what I’m doing because it’s newer. They have more spark. If people don’t understand that, then off top [the music scene] isn’t gonna push forward. We have to, like, know that we have to bring in new people. Gatekeepers? Fuck all that. The new energy is going to push the culture forward. That’s the most important part.


The way older rappers foster new ones is a rich tradition in the Bay Area. It’s part of the rap scene’s fabric. Philthy Rich does that. E-40 does that. The elder statesmen of rap here in the Bay take that role very seriously. Did you feel that when you were coming up with HBK?


P-Lo: For sure. E-40 did a [“Put Me on Something”] verse—I just called him and said, “Yo, I need you on this.” And he said “It’s good.” He didn’t have to do it, you know what I’m sayin’? He was acknowledging what I’m trying to do, and for him to do that—that’s one of the reasons he’s always relevant. He’s fostering new guys all the time. He never got corny. He’s a staple.


Nef the Pharaoh once said if he went into a time machine, all he’d need is an iPod with E-40’s latest record and he’d be caught up with the times.


P-Lo: Straight up. And that’s one of the keys of the game: Always adapt while bringing your own flavor.


In this latest record, you call the Bay “home of the slang.” Has anyone contributed to the Bay’s language more than E-40?


P-Lo: No. For sure.


In the video for “Put Me on Something,” I loved that the eye test in the DMV scene is the lyrics to “Gas Break Dip.” Whose idea was that?


P-Lo: That was the set designer. We wanted the video to have those little, little details that really popped.


Playing with language and inventing new words is a big component of rap everywhere, but it does feel like a huge element of Bay Area hip hop. Why is that?


P-Lo: I just think we’re a real progressive area. We’re the most progressive place in the world. We are what the world is gonna be in fifty to a hundred years, right now. That’s how I see it. We’re always ahead. We’re always trying to find the new thing, you know what I’m sayin’? I mean, this is where Apple started. And that [attitude] translates to everything, including music. We take pride in that—we always want to be the first.


You’ve produced for a lot of different people, and you produced a good portion of this record. Is your approach to production different when you’re making songs for yourself to rap over?


P-Lo: No, I don’t think the approach is different. It usually just starts with me making a beat, and then I think, “Oh, I think I’m gonna jump on this.” But there are some times where I’ll go in to the studio and be like, “I think I’m just gonna make some stuff for me today,” or I’ll have Cal-A come over and we’ll get some ideas out. But it all starts with the production side. Every time I make a beat I think, “Okay, how can I make this work for me,” before I’ll think, “I’ll just give this to somebody else.”


Do you think the Bay has a ceiling for a rapper’s success?


P-Lo: I wouldn’t say a ceiling. I think it’s up to the artist, and how big they want their reach to be. Obviously there’s some people that don’t listen to Bay Area music, so if you only make Bay Area music, then you’re not going touch the people who don’t listen to Bay Area music, you know what I’m sayin’?

But if you do other things and do that well, then you’re gonna reach a larger audience. I think there’s a stigma against Bay Area music, even though we’re always the first to do things. People will be like, “Oh, why are you guys doing that?” then a couple years later everyone’s doing it. People always laugh at us first before they say, “Oh yeah, they’re doing shit that people aren’t doing.”


I’ve been trying to convince people for years that Andre Nickatina is the best weed rapper of all time.


P-Lo: Oh for sure. Nickatina’s a legend. Shout out to Dre Dogg.


He’s amazing, but he’s clearly designed his career in his own vision: he’s always been independent—he doesn’t give interviews, he doesn’t have a publicist, his website makes it look like he organizes his own tours—and other older Bay Area rappers have followed Andre Nickatina’s path. Messy Marv comes to mind. They’re regional legends, but they don’t hold the same level of recognition outside the 415. In this day in age, do you think it’s easier for artists to control their own trajectory?


P-Lo: Oh for sure, off top. Artists can control how big their reach is.


One of the more compelling elements of your album is the positivity. You talk a lot about the importance of being optimistic, and you even have samples from a motivational speaker. From where did you get that sample?


P-Lo: I found it on YouTube. I think dude’s name is Denis Waitley? It’s from the Psychology of Winning. I know it’s from that for sure. [Positivity] is something that I always think about: believing in yourself and surrounding yourself with positive energy. It’s probably the most important thing that I’ve picked up in the last year and a half.

I also read this book The Secret, people like to say, “Ah, that’s just whatever,” but I think the Law of Attraction is important. It’s the stuff I tell myself every day. Those are the things I live by, so I wanted to translate that into the music. I want people to be self-sufficient in believing in themselves and be independent thinkers. Those are the people I want to tap into.


Do you think that in today’s climate—I mean, we all know who the president is and all of the madness that he’s reigned down upon us—do you find it harder to be an optimist these days?


P-Lo: Oh, it’s hard, but if it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s gonna be a little tough, but it’s all going to work out in the end. That’s something I really take pride in. It might be worst at first, but it’s gonna be greater later.


Who are some of the younger guys you’re keeping your eyes on?


P-Lo: Nef, and the SOB [x RBE] kids. They’re fucking crushing it. They’re like off some damn near…That’s the most authentic shit.


I’ve heard people call SOB x RBE the next HBK Gang.


P-Lo: Oh, they are. I feel like they’re damn near bigger. That’s something we wanted. Yeah, we were HBK, but we knew that there would be people saying, “We’re gonna do it bigger and better [than HBK],” and that’s the point. That’s Bay Area. We always get inspired by those around us.

G-Eazy, Kehlani, Sage, Iamsu!—they all made people think, “Oh, I’m from here. I could do that, too.” G-Eazy, man. Dude took Nef the Pharaoh on a world tour. That’s unheard of. He hopped on a track with me. Dude didn’t have to do that. He understands that you’ve got to push the culture. He’s done that more than people give him credit for. He’s from here—he understands.