“At the End of the Day, the Music Speaks Louder Than Me:” An Interview With Ramirez

Yousef Srour speaks to the San Francisco rapper about growing up in the Mission, being introduced to Memphis rap by his uncle, and his new album, 'THE PLAYA$ CIRCLE.'
By    July 15, 2020

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Ramirez is comfortable lurking in the shadows. His records are etched with paranoid cadences and eerie accounts of murder and mutilation. Over the last few years, the self-proclaimed Silver Back Gorilla has crafted a singular blend of 90s Memphis horrorcore and Bay Area rap that turned him into a star among those raised on Soundcloud. His verses are drug-induced fits of rage, fueled by percocet and promethazine; his flow is as rapid-fire and staccato as a semi-automatic. 

His conception of self is deeply rooted in San Francisco’s Mission district, a place where Ramirez quickly shouts out all the best food joints, and where he soaked up game from the city’s greats. He thinks of Cellski as a father figure, and remembers Andre Nickatina as the first rapper that made him really want to rap. But Ramirez has always pulled influence from every region too. His brother introduced him to Houston rap and Screw’s woozy chopped-and-screwed productions. His uncle gave him old Three 6 Mafia tapes, offering Ramirez his first taste of the underground Memphis rap scene that heavily inspired his flow.

A founding member of G*59 Records — the $uicideboy$’ New Orleans-based record label — Ramirez met Ruby da Cherry and $crim through Twitter in 2015 and they’ve collaborated ever since. It’s a union that has allowed them to build a cult following for their gritty catalogs. Influenced by $uicideboy$’ sacrilegious tendencies, Ramirez has expanded upon them to construct his own canon of violence and self-medication. 

His latest, THA PLAYA$ MANUAL, shows Ramirez to be everything but a purist. Working alongside singer-songwriter Rocci, it’s a work carefully constructed to the story of a gangster. Ramirez displays his range as an artist by setting fire to G-funk beats, while simultaneously upholding his “Mosh Pit Killa” persona — a nihilist who tortures his adversaries and hangs them on the crucifix.

This might be his most sonically diverse offering yet. “Brown Eyes,” and “Gold Thangs & Pinky Rangs” are dynamic but optimistic, reminiscent of cruising past Pismo Beach on the PCH. His usual, piercing hi-hats are swapped out for R&B-inspired basslines and airy vocals layered atop each other. The schizophrenic murder episode, “Red Dot” reminds us that the Central-American rapper’s days of belligerence aren’t over. In general, it favors nostalgic production and a slower, more laid-back flow, capturing the essence of the G-funk era. THA PLAYA$ MANUAL supplies immersive storytelling, melodic funk, and radio skits on the album that take you back to Snoop Dogg’s 187.4 W-Ballz. 

When I speak with Ramirez, he constantly reminds me of how the people around him, especially his grandmother, have shaped him to be the man he is today. When he talks about culture, he sees the impact of being the only Central American rapper on the block, having to work harder to achieve any level of respect. When he talks about friendship, he describes how the $uicideboy$ pushed his sound to the next level. Ramirez has been carving his own lane in hip-hop, and if this is his car collection, then THA PLAYA$ MANUAL is his ‘64 Impala. Yousef Srour

What was it like growing up in the Mission and the Tenderloin area?

Ramirez: It was just like any other place. You’ve got your good areas, you’ve got your day-to-day violence, just normal shit. Any person that lives in an urban area, or any spot that’s inner city, would understand how it is growing up in San Francisco. I got into some shit when I was younger, had to sell a couple things I didn’t want to, but it made me into who I am today. I can’t complain.

What’s it like there now? Has anything changed since you left?

Ramirez: I know it’s more gentrified because a lot of people are coming in. Tech companies from Silicon Valley are moving into San Francisco, and they’re bringing up the prices of the buildings and the houses. There’s a lot of gentrification going on with the shit I grew up around.

Is there anything you particularly miss about your old ‘hood?

Ramirez: The food. I live in Miami now, and I miss the food for sure. It was crackin’. I’m Mexican and half-Central American, and they’ve got good restaurants over there that I used to eat at with my friends. Mainly the food, the homies, and the culture – the culture’s dipping where I’m living at now.

I love the food in the Mission, I always eat there when I’m in San Francisco. What were your go-to spots when you were trying to grab a bite?

Ramirez: El Farolito, Las Tinajas on 16th, and El Toro Tacos was slappin’. There was this little deli market where I would get a sandwich after school — that shit used to slap. They took it down last time I went, so it’s not there anymore.

What’s your first memory, growing up in that area?

Ramirez: I used to breakdance when I was 6 years old. My grandma, and my great grandma when she was living at the time, would egg me on to go on the street and put out a little hat and dance.

Did your grandma come to America from Central America or Mexico?

Ramirez: My grandma that I was raised by is from Central America, she’s Nicaragüense, so I’m more Central American than I am Mexican, and the same with my mom. We’d always be with my grandma; we lived with her for a certain time when I was younger. My grandma is a huge part of my life, and she’s someone I really hold close to me.

You mentioned your mom earlier. What’s your relationship like with her?

Ramirez: We used to not talk and not get along for a certain amount of time, but now it’s getting a lot better and we talk more. She knows that I’m a grown man, I’m taking care of my shit, and that I’m not out here fucking around like the people I grew up around. Everybody has some little shit with their parents, but at the end of the day, they’re your parents.

How about your dad and your siblings? What are they up to?

Ramirez: I don’t speak to my dad, so I don’t know what the fuck that nigga’s on. My sister’s working at some hospital, my older brother’s working at some construction spot, as well as my younger brother. I’ve got 3 siblings and I’m the middle child, the “black sheep.”

Do you feel like that being a Central American artist made it harder to get respect from your community?

Ramirez: Not really. As a Hispanic kid, it’s hard to get seen in the rap game and get any type of respect. I never let that shit stop me, even though I recognize it. At the end of the day, the music speaks louder than me. If you’ve got good music, why would you let anything stop you? I’ve been doing music for almost 8 years now, so I feel like I’m in a position where I’ve earned everything I’ve gotten. Any individual accolades, they’re cool and all, but I just want to be respected and taken seriously as an artist.

Can you talk about how you co-founded G*59 Records in 2015. You must’ve been around 17 when you started the label.

Ramirez: I didn’t even start it though, that’s the $uicideboy$. I was just a part of it since the beginning. They started it in New Orleans; there’s a highway right next to them called Highway 59, and the G came from “Grey.” When you put it together, GREY*59. They started it in 2014, and in early 2015 they hit me up. We were working on a song, I was going through my messages, me and Ruby were chopping it up, and he was like, “I’m thinking of adding you to G*59.” I was like, “Fuck it! Let’s do it.” I was the first artist they put in the group.

What’s your relationship with Ruby da Cherry and $crim?

Ramirez: They’re friends; we met through the internet and we’re strong. When I was making music back in 2015, I was bigger than them and a little bit higher up on the totem pole. In the underground world, I was more well-known. I tweeted out that I needed a beat with this sample, and $crim (the producer) was like, “I got it.” They were excited to work with me, and I was excited too because they had a fire-ass sound. We met there, we talked, we chopped it up, and we ended up having a cool-ass relationship. They’re my brothers. I love them to death, and I’d take a bullet for them. We ended up meeting for the GREYSCALE tour in 2015, in these shitty-ass, small-sized venues. A lot of people (a lot for us at the time), maybe 50 or 70 people, would come out and show mad love. We were like, “We’re going to keep doing this shit.”

How did $uicideboy$ influence your career, and more specifically your music?

Ramirez: It was seeing the drive they had. Seeing both of them work on each other and work with each other. Seeing people who are humble, and when one person falls back a little bit, the other person will carry them and tell them, “What the fuck? Let’s get it together. Let’s do this shit.” They’d amp each other up to get shit done. Being around them and seeing how they were with each other – seeing how they’d never let each other fall back, that was cool.

I know your new project is very nostalgic, so who was the first rapper that you fell in love with?

Ramirez: The first one that really stood out to me was Andre Nickatina. When I first started listening to him, he was known as Dre Dog. It was him, RBL Posse, and Mac Dre – a Bay Area legend; but my music taste goes all the way out to the South. I have an uncle that influenced me a lot. He used to live in Memphis, and I remember I got all these tapes from my uncle with all the old Three 6 Mafia shit, DJ Sound production, DJ Spanish Fly, DJ Q-Tip, and all these Memphis legends that my uncle would listen to when he was younger. It influenced a lot of my sound that came from the South/Memphis area. I remember at the time when I was speaking with my dad, when I was 12, he was living in Texas. My older brother went to go visit him for a year, and when he came back, he brought hella music with him – Big HAWK, DJ Screw, SPM, and all these Texas rappers that I had never heard of, up until my brother brought it over to me. That just opened up another fucking world to me, and another sound that I was amazed by.

How did your taste in rap, and your taste in music in general, change as you got older?

Ramirez: My taste hasn’t really changed to be honest. I stick to listening to the old shit, and that’s why the album I dropped sounds so nostalgic – I wanted to pay respect and pay homage to the sound that I was listening to as a kid. I wanted to emulate that as much as I could and put it into one album. In one album you don’t have that many chances, and there are only so many sounds you can play with.

You talked about Mac Dre and Andre Nickatina. What is your favorite 90’s rap album from San Francisco?

Ramirez: A Lesson to Be Learned by RBL Posse, Back in the Days by I.M.P., and Canadian Bacon [& Hash Browns] by Cellski, another Frisco legend. There’s so many. I’m actually working with Cellski right now, which is fucking mind-blowing to me because I grew up listening to this man, looking up to him as a father figure. There’s so much music, it’s hard to pinpoint just one album.

How about Oakland and Vallejo? You said you were listening to Mac Dre, so how into the Hyphy movement were you?

Ramirez: I’m from the Bay Area, so you know that shit is a part of me. 2005/2006 was the peak of it, so I was sliding shit, out the whip with it, on my bullshit. The Hyphy movement was a big thing for the Bay Area, especially for music, because the Bay Area doesn’t really get a lot of love from the music world. It’s crazy because the Bay Area has influenced a lot of the sauce in rappers and a lot of slang.

Why is 90’s hip-hop, and more specifically G-funk and gangster rap, so notable to you? How did those eras inspire your album?

Ramirez: It’s because these people that are rapping are spitting real facts about their neighborhoods. They’re not speaking about façade shit like how much money they’ve got or how many diamonds they have. It’s real life shit that they went through – they see shit, and they put it into words for other people to listen to and envision. Gangster rap and G-funk was that for me. I could sit there, listen to a record, and it could paint a whole picture inside of my mind of what they’re rapping about. I would listen to that, and that would impact me more than anything now, or anything I would listen to when I was growing up; and it’s still pulling me in. There’s a lot of music that I still haven’t listened to from the 90’s, and it’s crazy. Every day I’m finding new shit from that era and that type of sound, so it’s captivating to me.

This new album is very different from what you’ve put out in the past. Was there a moment in the studio where you decided that you wanted to take a more laid-back approach?

Ramirez: When I was finishing up Son of Serpentine, my album from 2019, I thought to myself, “I’m doing all these hard-ass, in-your-face songs. I’ve never really fucked with my soothing sounds or my more chill sounds on one album.” I would always do a couple songs that were chill, and some G-funk or gangster rap or old shit, but I would never do that sound for the album. I would always backpedal to the hard-hitting sounds that I usually do. So, after finishing up the album back in 2019, I was like “Fuck it.” I recorded that album in Italy, and by the end of the trip I was contemplating. I was going through my mind, talking to myself like, “I’ve never put out a project that has a real 90s sound,” and that’s the type of music I listen to most of the time. So, I was like, “The next album that I work on is going to be some real summer, G-funk nostalgia.” I don’t really see many people touching that kind of music, and I’m like, “Why?” I understand you have a brand of music you have to support, but I’m the type of person who likes to look back at fond memories and tries to put that back into the now.

What’s the story of you meeting with Rocci? How did that come about?

Ramirez: I had a homie that was working with us, Brandon, who was talking about Rocci a lot. Rocci was living in LA at the time, and Pouya was working on his album. Brandon was like, “Rocci is going to come out to meet you guys because I really think you guys can do something crazy.” All of us were on board because you can’t say no to another creator, someone who makes shit from nothing. He came out, a cool dude, and we got to meet each other. He ended up moving out here, and he lives with me at the moment. The relationship was there. We were already making music together, so we were like, “Let’s make a 15-track album, knock it out real quick, and see how people react towards it.”

What was it like working with him, since you co-produced the album together?

Ramirez: He says that I’ve put him on to different sounds, which is cool because I like sharing music with people. It’s like when you’re growing up and you show your friends a sick-ass song you’ve heard. Making an album, I’d make references, and he’d be like “I’ve never heard this. This shit is crazy.” I was opening up his world to different sounds, which is crazy to me. I was baffled, like “What? You’ve never heard of this shit. What the fuck?” For the most part, it was bouncing ideas back-and-forth; he brought his sauce to it, I brought my sauce to it, and we both made it sound beautiful.

What was your state of mind when you were recording this album?

Ramirez: My state of mind was that, “I’m going to have to catch this sound as much as I can, and I can’t fuck it up. I’ve got to respect it.” It was me on my tiptoes, making sure that I do this right, not fucking it up, and just bringing out the real.

THA PLAYA$ MANUAL is based around a gangster’s homicide. What’s the origin story of you doing a record like this?

Ramirez: Just watching gangster movies like Blood in Blood Out, South Central, and shit like that. It’s painting a picture, trying to put the person who’s listening there in that moment, and being really decisive with which words make that picture come to life. I think of my albums as movies, where you sit for however long the album is, and listen to it from front to back and picture it the whole time you’re listening to it.

I noticed in the first half of the album, there’s a central theme of love. Is this inspired by your personal life, or were you trying to paint the gangster in your album as “a lover and a fighter.”

Ramirez: It came from both worlds. I have a special relationship that I’ve been in for almost 6 years – the person that held it down for me when shit got dark, so I was painting that picture as well as showing that I’m not someone to fuck with. I’m trying to give them [the fans] something real and something raw. At the end of the day, your music speaks about yourself and speaks to who you are, so that’s something I had in mind.

The last songs on the album are much darker and trap-heavy than the beginning of the record, culminating with the homicide on the track, “Red Dot.” Why did you choose to have the album end this way?

Ramirez: First, I wanted my fans to know that that sound isn’t dead. And second, it’s a crazy rollercoaster ride from the beginning of the album to the end. You’ve got the nostalgic, 90’s-summer feels with the player pimpin’, knocking a bitch off real quick, making some money, and getting some food. And at the end, you’ve got the “Alright, we’re going to go strap up and hit a lick,” part, putting on the ski mask and robbing somebody. It’s a rollercoaster. This isn’t an album where it’s just sunshine and full grams, it’s something that’s in your face. You can rock with it or you can hit a lick on someone with it.

What are you most proud of with this new album?

Ramirez: I’m proud of catching the essence of the 90’s and catching the vibe that I was going for. I’m happy that the product came out the way I wanted it to, and the way that Rocci wanted it to. I’m glad that we touched every aspect that we could. At the end of the day, this is one of many more projects to come. I’m happy that people are receiving it well – I’m glad about the fact that they understand it and love the music just as much as the music I’ve been listening to.

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