Living Legend: Why 03 Greedo Matters

A tribute to one of the greatest artists breathing. #FreeGreedo
By    April 29, 2018

The cop tries to solve his violence by blanketing it with a uniform…It explains why cops will put up with poor salary, public dislike, uncomfortable working conditions and a general sense of bad conscience. They know they are lucky; they know they are getting away with a successful solution to the criminality that they can taste in their blood. This taste is practically in the forefront of a cop’s brain…the difference between a good cop and a bad cop is that the good cop will at least do not more than give his own salted version of events—the bad cop will make up his version. – Norman Mailer

To be a 21st Century rap fan is to be numbed by recurrent tragedy. Reciting the litany of artists whose primes were truncated by long stretches of incarceration doubles as a shortlist of the millennium’s greatest: Wayne, Gucci, Tip, Boosie, Meek, Max B, Mac Dre, Bobby Shmurda, B.G., Bump J, Prodigy, Mac, DMX, Kevin Gates. In most instances, the convictions stemmed from drugs, gun possession, or probation violations. The infractions are usually minor, the penalties disproportionate and malevolent.

It’s a system designed to sustain the gross inequalities of the system: one rooted in oppression and racism, where black people pay more to get out of jail than whites and Latinos, and biased mandatory sentencing laws ensure that the poor suffer more than the wealthy. A trap for those already trapped. The cops first confiscated the guns of the Waffle House killer and promptly returned them to his father. Had he been black, that circumstance is practically unthinkable. The statistics are nothing short of dystopian. Between 1980 and 2015, America’s prison population ballooned from 500,000 to over 2.2 million. This nation comprises 5 percent of the world’s population and incarcerates 21 percent of its prisoners. 34 percent of those in the system are black; more than five times the rate of whites.

For the last two decades, Los Angeles rappers mercifully escaped the trend that befell the South, Chicago, and New York (where a dedicated rap police unit set their sights on seemingly any famous person of color within the five boroughs). Since Snoop’s 1996 acquittal for the murder of Phillip Woldemariam, LA’s most gifted have largely avoided protracted prison stints—a particularly bittersweet irony considering the modern militarized police force can be traced back to William Parker. Instituting tactics and discipline taken from his service in World War II, Parker built one of the most famously disciplined and prejudiced corps to ever oppress an American city. Their war on South Central and Watts directly resulted in the insurrection of 1965, a rebellion triggered by the police beating unarmed motorist pulled over for “reckless driving.”

Parker’s legacy neatly extended to his handpicked chauffeur, Darryl Gates, the LAPD’s infamous golem-in-chief who presided over the beating of Rodney King and the subsequent 1992 uprising. During Gates’ reign of terror, the batter ram was so indiscriminately and cruelly deployed that it inspired Toddy Tee to write LA’s first gangsta rap hit. No less than Nancy Reagan was invited to gawk at the destruction of 14 lives over a few grams of crack.

In the late 90s, the Rampart scandal broke in large part due to the killing of a dirty cop who had been moonlighting at Death Row (and dating Suge Knight’s ex-wife). Many still believe that the killing of the Notorious B.I.G. was carried out by hitmen connected to Rafael Perez and David Mack, two of the disgraced officers-turned-bank robbers at the heart of the turmoil. By most accounts, Chief Bernard Parks prized protecting the thin blue line over reform, reportedly stonewalling the investigation and downplaying the depth of the moral decay. As for the Sheriff’s department, google Lee Baca and “corruption.”

By most accounts, reforms instituted by the LAPD’s current departing chief Charlie Beck mitigated some of the most pressing claims from the community. Yet it’s difficult to find many people raised south of the 10 without at least one horror story or ten about the police. I once rode around the greater Crenshaw district with Schoolboy Q as he pointed out the spots where the LAPD’s Crash Unit (a gang unto themselves) would purposely drop him off unarmed in enemy hoods.

During my interview in Compton with DJ Quik, LA County Sheriff’s deputies pulled up to harass a peaceful gathering with the attitude of an occupying army. Frisking everyone, they arrested several people and handed out frivolous tickets with punitive glee.

That’s the long way to explain the devastating and maddeningly predictable experience of the last several weeks. Shortly after Drakeo was slapped with a staggering array of trumped up charges, 03 Greedo was sentenced to 20 years in a Texas prison. It stems from a 2016 arrest on a doomed stretch of I-40 between Bushland and Amarillo, where Potter County Sherriff deputies pulled over Greedo and a friend. Claiming to smell weed, they forced upon the trunk and allegedly found four pounds of methamphetamine and two stolen pistols.

For the last two years, Greedo battled the charges while simultaneously alighting on one of the most creatively fertile streaks of music in recent memory. With life imprisonment looming, Grape Street’s ordained emissary recorded three volumes of the Purple Summer series, Money Changes Everything, Wolf of Grape Street, and over 600 more songs yet to see release.

Greedo became the soundtrack to the section and the city itself, even if he’d be the first to tell you that Watts is entirely distinct from the rest of the county. It was only last August that he played our free show at the Echo. Now, he’s signed to a multi-million dollar deal, and Kylie and Kendall Jenner regularly blast him on their story. But what should be one of the rare heartwarming success stories has become familiar nightmare.

Faced with the possibility of a 300-year sentence, Greedo was forced to a cop a plea deal. Charged with multiple felonies, the evidence stacked against him was insurmountable. Lone Star state authorities aimed to convict him on first-degree possession of a controlled substance and third-degree unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon—charges enhanced by felonies committed in Los Angeles County. If the most devastating blow occurred in Texas, the sentence’s severity stems from the consistent persecution by police in his hometown. It culminated last week with a Texas judge handing Greedo a 20-year sentence. His team hopes that with good behavior, he’ll be home in five. He’d be 36 years old.

As you’d expect, Greedo summarized the collective response better than anyone else: “the streets shed tears when they heard the news.” For all the immortals to emerge from LA, it’s lacked a Boosie-like figure. Of course, 2Pac, the original archetype, readily springs to mind, but people forget that he only lived in LA for a single year. This was his adopted home not the city that spawned him. Greedo shares similarly peripatetic roots, including stints in Sacramento, St. Louis, and Kansas, but he’s so inextricably tethered to Jordan Downs that he has a cluster of grapes tattooed on his face.

Greedo makes bone marrow music irreducible to analysis, depressive heartfelt laments that strip you of cynicism or remove. Up-from-the-mud anthems that hit raw and sincere, wry and improvised, speaking directly to his people but universal in their appeal. They’re almost entirely produced by him. All hooks, concepts, and aliases could come from no one else. As he told me in our first interview, it’s emo music for gangbangers, pain music that’s popping.

“Touchdown” conveys nuclear anguish before even a single syllable is uttered. It’s first phrases, “touchdown in the field, touchdown to cause hell” are suffused with chthonic agony, reminiscent of Depression-era hymns hummed by Angola prisoners. Only Future, 808s-era Kanye, and Gates have used auto-tune with such woozy debilitating power. It warps Greedo’s nasally trill into a spiritual vessel, a codeine-wracked agnostic prayer, hellhound on the trail rap for the staggering and unwell. When he intones you ain’t never feel what I feel, you realize the impossibility of full empathy, but it cuts across on that telluric current in all of us, the ineffable quality of soul.

It’s video opens with a clip from Greedo’s No Jumper episode, where he breaks it all down: “see where I’m from, you either almost make it or you don’t. N**s almost got signed but caught a case. N**s that almost got here, but died.” It’s blood simple and bone chilling. If Greedo exists as LA’s version of Boosie, it’s not merely because they convey a similar sense of struggle, but because they possess the humanistic gift of containing multitudes. A Greedo song exists for every emotion and every occasion. They’re alternately sweet and raunchy, hilarious and lethal, celebratory anthems and sepulchral threnodies. He’s part of the rarified list of artists who can distill existence into three minutes of melody.

There’s a subtle genius and crooked humor. “Run for Yo Life” starts with Greedo bragging about “sleeping with your girlfriend, the same time you’re doing time.” After a few bars, it immediately breaks into a two bar hook, where he croons, “run for your life…run for my life,” self-consciously referencing the impending stress constantly hanging over him. It’s unclear who’s running from who and what. If the last decade found rappers obliterating boundaries between rapping and singing, Greedo does it as seamlessly as anyone, switching cadences and harmonies from bar to bar. Even in an ostensibly blissful love song, he’ll slip in something like “I was depressed off the drugs and I realized I’m the plug.”

The T-Pain influence is most salient on “Sweet Lady,” but even that starts out “I’m from Grape Street, where we G-Slide.” It’s an unyielding allegiance to the soil. He could never be anything else than what he is. In his extended absence, “Never Bend” will mostly likely be the refrain bumped to keep his memory close. It starts out, “if these project walls could talk…they’d just be like 03,” embodying the unvarnished complexity of the Jordan Downs without the cinematic stylization of Menace II Society. After all, the Hughes Brothers are really from Pomona.

Even his name itself is a tribute to 103rd Street, the central artery that slices through Watts. Greedo nominally makes hip-hop, but you can detect elements of R&B, pop, soul, and the blues. Watts is as close you can get to the South in LA County. Many of the elderly haven’t quite lost the drawl from Mississippi and Louisiana (Charles “Express Yourself” Wright famously led the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, but he was born in Clarksdale, the ancestral crossroads of the blues).

“Never Bend” is a sacral testament to endurance and survival, stickups and strip clubs, shootouts and double crossings. A triumph of will that interpolates Beenie Man. It’s the closest thing since “Lifestyle’ to connect to that slim nexus between euphoria and loss, the need to count blessings because you can’t ignore the existential consequences.

My favorite Greedo song might still be “Mafia Business,” the first one that made me a fan. “Written as a funeral requiem for Watts legend Mafia Ray, it was first unveiled as the latter’s body was lain to rest. It’s emblematic of why rap music bears such enduring weight—this is catharsis to process the trauma, both personal and communal. In its ability to summon the depth of human experience, it becomes something that everyone who feels it can access. You don’t have to know who Mafia Ray is to understand how much he meant. The slang can be incomprehensible but there’s a kinetic sorrow, primordial grief, and desperate desire to bring someone back coupled with sickening reality that that power is forever out of reach.

This is why music is everything. This is why Greedo, a brilliant idiosyncratic conduit, who defied the odds to define his community despite spending most of his 20s behind bars. A genius that grew up in some of the worst institutional poverty in America, who fathered a child as a teenager, attempted to find legal work to feed his daughter, but was forced to become an honest man living outside the law.

To understand him is to understand that there is no one like him. The first time we met was a week after his 30th birthday. In a blunt-clouded room full of two-dozen revelers, he told me about how his father died at 30. It was Greedo’s dream to be free and alive at the same age, but before the celebration occurred, bounty hunters seized him, shackled him in the back of a van, and forced him to piss into a bottle as his wounded leg atrophied. We met the second time for his first substantial interview, smoking blunts on a porch in mid-city that got shot up about a month later. Roughly ten minutes into the conversation, he retreated into the house to retrieve a candle of his murdered partner, Lil Money, so he could be there with us in spirit.

Greedo has spent most of his life institutionalized. He’s watched his best friend slain and innumerable others prematurely buried. He’s survived an attempt on his life and still walks with a limp. When he says you ain’t been where he’s been, it’s not bravado, it’s a reminder that realness and authenticity defy post-modern skepticism. There is nothing fake, immense style but not an iota of artifice—which is why it will permanently resonate. This is Leadbelly in the Jordan Downs, Boosie on 103rd, Greedo extending these primeval truths into dark present day prophecies, the weird lupine oracle of Grape Street, indelible and unforgettable, whose absence will be mourned until the day he returns home.

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