The Streets Know from Richmond to Vallejo: An Interview with ZayBang

Jayson Buford discusses life and death, gentrification, and the mentality needed to survive with one of the Bay's best young rappers.
By    March 10, 2020

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Late capitalism has turned San Francisco into a ghoulish, app-glutted, cultural husk. Housing is so expensive that homelessness has multiplied to cataclysmic levels. The working class and people of color have been progressively exiled from the city that ostensibly has progressive values. A restlessness and anxiety pervays the remaining working class and poor people clinging to rent controlled apartments in the Bay Area.  This is the often forgotten part of the city, who supply it with much of its remaining soul. There are still folks fighting to survive — the ones you don’t see on the cameras at Chase Center. 

Out of the Geneva Towers in the southside of SF, Zaybang represents some of the city’s angst and indomitable spirit. ZayBang brings world-weary raps infused with hood nihilism and a sense of despondency. He’s endured family tragedies, prison time, and the self-medication that many young black adults use for the pain. He also represents the attitude and confidence so necessary when you come from a rough place. He doesn’t let us forget it; his street tales are direct and evocative.‘

Take his breakout hit “No Relations,” which made POW’s end of year songs list; it’s the type of track that introduces you to an artist that you know you’ll be listening to forever. His voice is slow and somber, all too aware that people never receive their true credit until they are gone. He invokes his late brother and his grandmother,  who kept him upbeat and blessed. There’s a reason why his clothing line is called Better Off Alone: other people are the opposition. You’re just trying to get him jammed up. You hear the cracks in his voice at the beginning of the song and you see the cracks in his life.  

There’s ‘’Sleep Talkin.’’ a two-minute song that lists all the strife going on in his life: his lack of a father figure, wanting more than what was given to him, and the need for his sins to be forgiven. One of the hardest things to do in rap is to be direct without being corny, to convey emotion without trying to impress people with how well you can say words. ZayBang has that down. 

His debut album Caught in the Crossfire is full of pain, exuberance, and classic Bay Area charisma. It is a 30-minute listen but never feels short or brief. It’s filled with personal narratives, and bangers that contain depth, whether solo or with his similarly gifted collaborator, Lil Bean. His latest, The Streets Blame Me, is even better, one of the most complete albums from a Bay Area rapper over the last few years.  In our conversation, Zay seems focused and eager for the future, proud of who he has become based on the hand that he was dealt. He speaks with a combination of humility and confidence. We talked about his life growing up in San Francisco, his collabs with Lil Bean, the death of his brother, and his mentality going into Streets Blame Me.Jayson Buford

Let’s get right into it. I saw another interview where you said that you decided to pump yourself up in jail as opposed to being down on yourself, so where does that mentality come from?

ZayBang: It just really comes from really struggling, really going through something that you can’t control. It’s just really when you don’t got no control over it. It’s just without no backbone. It’s just something that I feel like a wise man would develop. When your back’s against the wall  if you’re a punk you’re going to go out but if you’re back’s against the wall and you’re a real man you’re going to stand up and fight your battles.

I was dealing with shit and knew what it was supposed to do for me. I knew what they’re goal was, so I told myself, “Am I going to let them accomplish this on me?” “Am I going to let them feel like I’m another one in the bank? No.” They can lock me up, but they ain’t going to change nothing, they ain’t going to stop me. I’m going to grow. When they let me get out, they tried to grab me for a little petty case, and they threw on an ankle monitor. I’ve been on ankle monitor for about a year now. I’ve been doing good, having a good name with this music for about seven, or eight months.  I feel like they wanted to just hold me back and when they didn’t have any time for me in jail and I got out, and I was doing good they still, I had a job and shit, but they pushed up on me about some dumb shit. But I was making it happen. I was able to make music, and make music videos and shit. I’m like, “Bro, I’m going to just do whatever I can do,” to stay humble.

Was there ever a moment, where you felt that you could not be positive?

ZayBang: Yeah, hell yeah. Hell yell. I was young, and from when I was about 12  until when I was 18, I just didn’t care. It was just all negativity. It was my environment, it was what I was growing up seeing. I had a good ass household. My grandma took care of all of me, and my brothers and sisters. We had all the good food. We traveled, we’ve been all over the place, but when we came back home and we went outside, our environment was crazy. You automatically grow up with this. What people don’t know, that’s what I had told this PO. He was judging us and shit, and I’m like, “How you going to judge us, when we kids, growing up in a horrible environment, that we taught what’s right is wrong, and what’s wrong is right. We acknowledge the dudes on the block, selling dope,” They slinging, or doing whatever they doing, but we’re laughing at the dudes that’s going to school with the glasses on, that’s trying to be construction workers. This is the mentality that we grew up on. We didn’t have no choice, we just had to adapt to it and then growing up, as a man, you’ve got to turn that all the way around. You got to do a 360. It don’t mean you not who you are. I’m still the same person, I think different though.

Right, yeah. It’s a fact. San Francisco has become one of the more segregated cities in America, what was it like growing up in that?

ZayBang: Man bro, it was dumb as fuck, but to be honest, you mean as far as how many hoods, like our hoods and stuff?

Yeah. Stuff like that, and the demographics? It’s also gentrified OD too.

ZayBang: Yeah. Oh, it’s definitely crazy out here, but I always knew how to carry myself. I was good anywhere. There wasn’t nowhere I couldn’t go far. It’s all about what you make it.  Life is what you make it, bro. I got partners that don’t like certain motherfuckers. I don’t know bro, sometimes you got to mind your business. You can’t not like a motherfucker, because this motherfucker don’t like him and you ain’t got no reason. That’s how niggas get killed. I don’t know, it’s all about what you make it. It definitely is bad in the area though.

In your music, are you trying to show another side of the city because when people think about San Francisco, they think about tech, right? They think about the Golden Gate Bridge, they think about all the beauty, so are you trying to show the other side, when you rap?

ZayBang: Not necessarily. I just be giving them me.  This is my life. This is the shit I’ve been through. This is how I grew up. This is my mentality. It’s just me. I always heard, growing up, if you just be you, you’ll get far. When I was growing up, I was a follower. I really was loyal to some shit like my niggas, my hood, my day ones. I’m really loyal to that shit, but like I said, I didn’t think then. I was a follower, you know what I’m saying? I used to want to do everything that everybody else was doing, that was cool, that was the crowd. Now, it’s different, bro. You got to just think bro. I ain’t no follower, I’m a leader now.

Did those stints, that you had in jail, kind of build that mentality up? It kind of relates to Better Off Alone, right? That, you’re a leader, not a follower, so did that really change you?

ZayBang: Nah, because even growing up, I felt like that, I already felt like I stood out. I always felt like I was different. I always wanted different shit. Jail, it kind of stamped it. It stamped it, but being growing up in my hood, and where I’m from and shit, it was always mainly like Jimmy. We caught felonies over there, but motherfuckers kill each other from the hood and shit, all over the place, you know what I’m saying? A nigga always something’s happening, but just going to jail and really having to swing for myself and really have to be myself and deal with myself and really grow into a man and still learn how to be responsible without responsibilities if that even sounds right. It’s just, I don’t know bro, jail definitely, stamped it. It stamped it for sure.

Yeah. You’ve done a few collabs with Lil Bean. How long have you two known each other and how does he bring the best out of you when you work with him?

ZayBang: Lil Bean, that’s my day one nigga. We was first friends before we even had any, so his pops, Bing, had residence in the hood, but I never had no residence in the hood before I was four, or five and shit. He was my first friend. We went to the same elementary school. We went to every school together up until I went to jail. We’re from the same hood. We’re family, that’s really my brother. He brings the best out of me and he brings the best out of me because it’s real energy. It’s genuine energy. It’s not fake.

It was like, “Bro, we can do this shit together. We’re going to just have fun though.” I feel like that’s how we’ve been able to make a little name for ourself because we just be us and just have fun with this shit. We don’t think we’re better than nobody. We don’t downplay nobody, or nothing. We motivate each other to want to do better and do more and it’s not even just about music bro, it’s about life. Outside of that booth, you have to deal with real shit. We motivate each other to stay positive and don’t let nobody trip about our spot. We know how we’re going to give it up, but it’s like how many times is we going to give it up before we can’t do nothing more about it? It’s weird. You probably don’t really get what I’m saying, but I’m just basically saying…

A lot of people are out here doing op shit, trying to get rappers caught up, trying to go viral doing clown shit, snitching. How do you do your best to stay clear of that and stay out of trouble?

ZayBang: For real, I just try my best to mind my business and not respond to shit no more. If a motherfucker’s speaking on you, or whatever the case may be. If something’s going on around you, like shit happens around your city, you know what’s going on, instead of calling around talking about it, mind your fucking business. It ain’t your business. Everything don’t need a response. For real, because if you respond to everything, you’re going to have some shit to respond to at all times because it’s going to always be shit. If you’re going to let a motherfucker get to you off what a nigga say. As long as a motherfucker don’t put their hands on you, or nothing physically, you should mind your business. I just mind my business, bro. I learned how to just not respond to everything. Even if a nigga be like, “Oh yeah man, that nigga a bitch ho,” or whatever the case may be, a nigga can’t even really say that. Not no real nigga because the streets know. From Richmond to Vallejo. I got niggas that I know everywhere, from being in jail, the streets.  Just getting back to what you were saying, I just mind my fucking business and I feel like that’s the best thing for everybody because everybody wants to be a part of something.

You lost your brother in 2012, how has that affected your music and your life?

ZayBang: Well, honestly it affected my life here for real bro, not even over-hyping it or nothing bro. That was really my nigga bro. I got seven brothers and sisters. Out of all seven of us, me and him got the same momma and daddy, same middle and last name. We done always took baths together. We done always shared the same room, wore the same clothes. I’d always get in trouble and go to group homes and shit. He come and pick me up from the group homes when I’d run. I’d come home, he got fresh stitch for me, we’d get high. Then he would talk to me about shit, like that was really my mentor, that was my father in another form. That was my everything bro, because I didn’t really have nobody else. When I lost my brother it was kind of like I lost my mind, literally. I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. That’s like just getting dropped out of a fucking helicopter.

What the fuck are you going to do? That’s really how I felt, like I was just falling from the sky bro. I didn’t even think like, no matter what I do, it wasn’t going to change it bro, he ain’t coming back. That was the whole thing. It’s like bro I can get mad, get in my head all these things, my nigga ain’t coming back bro. How I kind of coped with it a little bit is just remember all the good shit he used to say and just pursue the shit that he used to want me to do. I was always out here hot-headed thinking I was somebody. He used to always tell me, “Little brother, you worth more than that. You tight bracket bro. You’re the hardest rapper out of all of us, bro.” I’m like nine, or 10 years old. He used to always tell me, “Brother these nigga only fuck with you bro because you sick, because you on lock.” “Niggas only fuck with you because they can call you, but as soon as they can’t call you for something, nigga they going to talk bad about you. They going to talk about you. Niggas don’t care about us. Niggas don’t really fuck with us. Certain niggas do.” Then he used to always give me game so, when he passed and shit I just always just replayed all the game he used to be giving me bro because I couldn’t help but to speak about my nigga, like really because I was a hard loss.

I’m from a real section. Really I done lost a lot of people. I done lost uncles, you feel me, cousins, you feel me, brothers. I done lost niggas bro. It’s different when you really lose your flesh and blood, your momma and your daddy child. When we kids my grandma would make us both a bowl of cereal and put us down. It’s really shit like that. You know what I’m saying? That shit killed a nigga, bro. For real, for real it made a man out of me because it let me know that you can’t get too comfortable out here because shit ain’t going to never be perfect. It’s going to always be something that’s going to be sideways. By my brother being gone, it can’t get no worse than that, so I’m already prepared for everything. I’m already knowing, you feel me nigga, shit going to get bad one day. I’m already knowing. Really I’m ready for all this shit, so just by my brother dying, but that was probably the biggest lesson I ever learned in my life, bro. Life is really what you make it and you got to get the heck out of this shit. You’ve got to really want something out of this shit because if you don’t want nothing you ain’t going to get nothing.

That was really a big lesson to me bro and it was crazy. It was horrible, but it made me who I am today and if you ask me how it inspired my music, when I make music I try to talk about real shit. I try to stay around some real shit. I’ve done been in prison with a lot of motherfuckers, YA, Santa Rita,  County jail. I just be trying to relate to motherfuckers. I say shit that I know motherfuckers can relate to, but life that I’m really living, so I ain’t perpetrating, or faking. You know what I’m saying. He just keeps me motivated, bro. My brother keeps me positive because I feel his energy around me every day. He motivates me, but that shit bro, I don’t know. Like I said, the shit in life that happens to you, it’s supposed to kill you bro, but that shit made me. All my struggles really basically, that shit build me.

You just spoke about how you’ve lost a lot of people growing up, where you came from. That’s like a very underrated part of growing up in the hood, is that at any moment you could lose somebody.

ZayBang: Right.

Is that constantly in your mind throughout the day when you think about the people you’ve lost, is that constantly in your mind?

ZayBang: Hell yeah. I think about that shit all day, every day. It’s like I’m still in my city life. Sometimes I just open my front door and just look out and just take a deep breath in and like, “Damn bro, I lost a lot of motherfuckers.” Even motherfuckers that’s not from my hood that I know like, “Really?” I knew motherfuckers that’s from my enemy’s hood, like I really knew them. When we was kids we used to play with them and shit like that. It’s like I look at everything overall. I just be like, “Damn bro, you never know.”

That’s why you’ve got to really get in. You’ve got to really get it in bro. You’ve got to really get it in for yourself and your people because you never know. It motivates me. Like I said, really all my struggles make me. That shit makes me want to do something, so I can leave something behind. For my people. My great-grandma died. She had hella money, so she had houses and money to leave behind. Buying houses and shit with the money. You know what I’m saying? It don’t always got to be devastating. You got to learn that you’re going to lose people out here and you got to learn that shit. Its just about your response and how you take it.

On a lighter note, you spend a lot of your music videos dancing. Other people are doing that too, but I think especially with you, I think you have a good time with it. Do you think about the dances you’re going to do before shooting the video, or do you just go out there and let the music move you?

ZayBang: I let the music move me for real. I’ve been through a lot of shit you feel me, but I always had a smile on my face.  I’ve never let my smile turn into a frown. It has been times when niggas have been down, but I just jump right back up. I don’t have no choice. It’s just something in me that’s on fire. Like I said, I never really try to let my smile stay a frown. You know what I’m saying? I always be feeling myself. All this shit bro, I always feel myself bro. When I walk into a party, or something, I used to be the life of the party. I don’t party no more. That shit’s weak though. I want some money now. I just stay moving, I stay dancing, I always got to do something.

Your music had a lot of humor to it, particularly for somebody who’s been through a lot of stuff as you have. Like you said, that’s always been a part of you. You’ve always had a smile on your face. Has that gotten harder lately?

ZayBang: No, it’s getting easier because I struggle more. I go through more and more shit.  Like I said, I don’t know if that makes sense, but my struggles really make me. I take everything as a lesson. I take everything, I mean everything, like my girlfriend think I’m crazy. You know what I’m saying? It was a situation where I had a car, it was parked in front of my house. The car, I came outside one day and the motherfucker was gone. I don’t know if it got towed, somebody stole it, I didn’t know what happened.

I had money. I bought another car and put it in the shop, got it fixed. Two days later, when I got the car out of the shop, first time really getting to drive it because when I bought it, it needed work, I crashed the motherfucker. Totaled it. I didn’t care, I kept my head up. I’m telling her, “It was a reason why I didn’t have that car. I probably could have got shot up in that car, or something.” It was a reason all of this shit has happened to me. If you believe that God got your back and you trust in your struggle, you trust in your process, shit gets better. What do you know? I get called for a little check, We have to go get me another whip, chains, all types of shit. Giving my son shit, give granny money. You just got to stay down, bro. You got to stay motivated for real bro, because it’s like you’re going to see shit falling apart in front of you, but little do you know that’s just the beginning of something.

That’s just how I look at shit bro. For real, bro. It’s like I’ve done turned crazy behind these struggles, bro. Anything happens bro, I take it as a blessing. One of my brothers got popped. I told that nigga bro, “Jimmy you got to take your signs and run because nigga we got put on ankle monitors. Take your ass to the house.” We don’t want to listen. Lollygag around thinking shit going to happen. I ain’t saying change and be a snake, but bro, it’s signs bro, we get them every day. We just got to take them and run with them. We ignore our signs. Somebody will die, or something and it’ll traumatize a motherfucker and it’ll throw them all the way off. You don’t even see what’s happening ahead of you. You don’t even see what’s in front of you. You got to really keep your eyes open because no matter what’s going on, don’t stop. It’s only you. As long as you’re here, you’ve got to keep it moving. You got to keep it moving.

You mentioned that you were a dad. I knew that before the interview, but that’s a perfect segue to another question. How had being a father changed your life?

ZayBang: It made me think more, like I said. When I was in jail I used to always just picture sleeping with my son, holding him. I used to picture him slobbing on me, just hella crazy shit. You know what I’m saying? I used to picture playing with him, telling him his breath stink and just crazy shit that I couldn’t do. I told myself. The police, or the district attorneys, the judges will never understand really why we live how we live and they ain’t really with us. I’m saying that to say, I know how I have to do, but at the end of the day I said if it’s been my end, I ain’t leaving my son no more. Because he means more than anything. I wasn’t think about no bitch. I wasn’t thinking about the streets. I was thinking about him. I was thinking about him bro, like how can I get it to where him and I have that real relationship. I was intimidated by my child. I did so much time, nigga I came home, my son told me one time, “I hate you.” Kids get mad, right? They do it to parents that they’re with every day. I didn’t know this.  I was new to this shit.

When he told me that, it hurt my feelings and it kind if scared me and I wanted to leave it alone like, “Oh damn, I ain’t ready for this.” I had to man up and double back and come stronger and really build a real relationship with my son. Just because you were a sperm donor doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a father, so I had to really build a relationship with my child to become a father and by me becoming a father I learned that it’s not about me no more. You know what I’m saying? Fuck what a motherfucker think about me, what they got to say about me. It’s about him. He ain’t ask to be here and now you just jumped up in his life. You feel me that he didn’t choose this life either, so I don’t want him to go out like me.

I spend my days thinking about, “What can I do to put myself in a situation to where he doesn’t have to go through this shit that I went through?” I want to make it to where I can buy a apartment. I want this motherfucker costs $3000 a month for a condo or some shit. If I’m making money and I can do this, y’all are straight.  I just want to make sure my son ain’t stuck up in that environment. By being a father, it makes a man out of you. Some niggas be ditching. A lot of niggas don’t care about they children. By me being a father that shit makes you think. I just always think about my struggles and what I went through by my father not being around. My daddy had money. My daddy got married nigga and took care of his wife and her kids. We had never had a room in my father’s house. RIP to my father, but we ain’t never had a room in that man’s house. His wife’s kids had everything. When we’d come out there, we’d get sent home with 10 dollars. He wouldn’t even fuck with us like that. He made it seem like to motherfuckers, but he ain’t fuck with us like that. My brother ended up getting killed out here. I end up doing all this time and shit, but my daddy had money.

He was in the Air Force and if he would have did what he was supposed to do and didn’t fuck his shit off, or whatever he was doing, you feel me, our lives probably could have turned out better, different, you know what I’m saying. Now that’s my job. It’s never too late. It’s my job from here on out to try to pave a way, to make sure I can get somewhere in life to where I can carry my son as a parent and the teach him some shit. Show him how to work this life. I ain’t really have no role models. All I had was my brother that died.

Your flow on “No Relations” is a bit slower than usual. Was that on purpose considering that the song is full of personal lines about your life?

ZayBang: To keep it hundred bro, Yeah, I just know I wrote that song just being different. That’s why I started it off with the bars that I started it off with. You got to treat me like a boss, bitch I’m stunting on your father. It’s something different, like niggas ain’t rapping like that. I just basically said I’m about to be a little different. Didn’t mean I wrote it, but I didn’t record it. I was recording with my brothers, with Lil Bean and I rapped it for him and he was like, “We’re going to the studio right now, nigga we recording that.” We recorded it, had it in the chamber for a minute, then I stumbled across a video and shit. I was able to shoot a few videos and shit. Shoot that, right there. Really I shot that motherfucker, but honestly I didn’t even know what it was. I just was going bar for bar. .

Caught in the Crossfire has a lot of heat on it. What do you have planned for us next and is your next project going to be something that you build on, or will it be completely different then the last ones?

ZayBang: I would say I feel like this new tape I got coming out March 1st, I don’t know. See with me, I just kind of flow different to every beat. I get a beat and I just catch a vibe. I don’t necessarily be like, “All right, I’m about to make this tape.” I just make an X amount of songs and be like, “Oh, I can make a tape.” It was not really planned. It’s hard to really commit. I don’t know, like I didn’t really think my songs was flashing like that, so when I jumped Caught Up in the Crossfire and I seen the response it was getting in my music videos, I was shocked. To be a hundred, I can’t even say like, “Oh, I come in harder this time” because I don’t be knowing. I just make music. I love music so much that I just make the shit. You know what I’m saying? Regardless if a motherfucker like it, or not. That’s why I’ve always got so many songs and so many different types of songs. I’ve got all types of different flows. I’ve got No Relations, then I got the song I made for the bitches called “50/50.” Then I got “Street Talking.” Then I got “In That Ring.” I got struggle music, I can make music about a female, I’d just rather not.

Yeah. What’s the next album going to be called? Can you share that?

ZayBang: My next album is dropping March 1st and it’s going to be called The Streets Blame Me. I’m going to be having 15 tracks on there. I was giving it all of me, so honestly if y’all like Caught Up in the Crossfire, y’all might like this one too because I’m giving it me.

Would you like to expand on The Streets Blame Me? Why is that the title?

ZayBang: I’d just say because it’s part of my life, like Caught Up in the Crossfire, don’t let me forget this because I’m way high, I might forget, so I’m going to say Caught Up in the Crossfire, I used that because that’s really part of my life if you look at the cover that’s me and my brother that passed on there and shit. I feel like we live in the hood and we are caught up in the crossfire. He got killed, I ended up doing time and living a life. I’m in a life that a nigga ain’t really choose, so thought of Caught Up in the Crossfire. The Streets Blame Me is because I always had a name way before rap. I was fighting when I was four years old, so that’s why I say the streets blame me because I always had a name, you feel me, before this music shit.

All right, so one more bonus question for you, are you a Bay Area sports fan?

ZayBang: Nah, I’m not into sports at all. The only reason why I’m not into sports though is because I did so much time and motherfuckers be so bored in there that that’s all they’re in to.

Yeah,  I feel that. You were like, “All right, I can’t talk about this so much times.”

ZayBang: Fuck nah, bro. We used to come out for breakfast chow and nigga yard and everything they talk about, motherfuckers really had arguments about Tom Brady, and who going to do what. I’m cool. I didn’t want nothing to do with it.

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