“When You’re a Real Artist, You Can’t Draw the Line Between Your Life and Music:” An Interview with YS

Yousef Srour speaks with the young Compton rapper about being a first-generation Angeleno, what his initials stand for, putting your brand before yourself, and more.
By    February 17, 2021

Photo by Milo Lee

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Even though he grew up around the Campanella Park neighborhood of Compton, Justin Lawson remained deeply rooted in Southern tradition. Both of his grandparents were born in the South, and his father specifically was raised in New Orleans, so it should come as no surprise that the artist who raps as YS was drawn to Lil Wayne from an early age. The first song that he recorded was over a “6 Foot 7 Foot” beat, and although he lost the original recording, the sentiment persists. Weezy’s impact is embedded in YS’s expression, from his boastfulness to how vehemently he reps his set. Nevertheless, being born and raised in the Hub City, the cradle of gangsta rap makes all the difference – the beats are glossier, the instrumentals breathe more because of YS’s generous spacing when he raps, and there’s little time for jokes.

YS’s music is centered around the response to trauma. It can make you feel like you’re constantly racing against the clock. This feeling that it elicits comes from a lived-in experience, long days hustling on the block and facing jail for the first time at 16. When YS released his first regional hit, “Welcome to Stanford,” he was sitting in juvenile hall for weeks, battling a pistol charge, unaware that the streets of Compton were celebrating his music and posting “Free YS” and “Free the homie” on social media. Once he made it out, cynicism seeped into his music; they’ve become wary anthems that constantly warn against impending danger. His most popular song to date, “Bompton,”  (and its remix featuring 1takejay and Ogheesy of Shoreline Mafia), projects the darkness often characteristically associated with his city, 

The 20-year-old’s latest mixtape, Cold Hearted, is a vision of stoicism: YS spotlights the grief of losing those closest to him and the paranoia that follows. You can sense the survivor’s guilt lingering in his voice. YS raps about body bags and the death of his uncle, searching for solace in God while still gripping his 9 mm. He raps about continuing to trap because he can’t give himself enough time to cope with the circumstances; if he stops for too long, it might just break him.

For all intents and purposes, Cold Hearted is written like a journal, where YS unloads accounts of the terrors that fuel his sleepless nights. He refuses to subdue his emotions in the studio; there’s no fear of looking fragile. Although YS may seem cold and aloof to his friends and family, he puts up this facade so that he can get through his day-to-day without interrogation. Even then, the title of this new project doesn’t tell the whole story. On any given day, you can find YS giving back to his community. Whether it be backpacks or holiday food giveaways, he’s making sure that the people around him are taken care of, to the best of his ability. 

It’s clear what he’s aiming for: a past that can be remembered, a legacy that can live on, and the respect of the street that he grew up on — Stanford Ave. — Yousef Srour

What has living in Campanella Park taught you?

YS: I actually never lived right there; I just grew up right there. Everyday, day-by-day life just taught me how to move smarter and it taught me how to look at everything from a different point of view, at an early age too. I was young knowing how to move. We grow up and we always learn more, but I had a lot of knowledge as a young kid and I think that played a big role in who I am today.

Where did you live?

YS: I stayed with my grandma. My grandma, she lived on the borderline of Gardena and LA, and it’s the borderline of Compton too.

Growing up, what was it like around the house? Was everyone constantly moving, was there always music playing, or what was the energy like?

YS: I’m the youngest out of five, so it was me, my brother, my three sisters, and we basically had a full house. As far as me growing up: me, my grandma, my grandpa, my siblings [my brothers and sisters], my mom and my dad lived there at one point in time too. Then you have to think about my cousins and shit used to come over – that’s Granny’s house, everybody’s always right there, but I always used to live with my grandparents.

Who in your life has been your biggest influence?

YS: My grandpa just because of how he carried himself and how he made everything happen. All my people, they from the South, so him and my grandma met when they did, and they came out here to California. I didn’t have no family out here; I’m like the first-generation out here. My mom wasn’t born out here, my dad wasn’t, nobody – only me and my siblings. I would say to give us a different life. He was in the Army and all that too, but he was just my grandpa to me. I always looked up to him because he had a lot of knowledge.

What artists were you listening to when you were coming up?

YS: I listened to a lot of people, but I really was a fan of Wayne. I used to love Lil Wayne; that was one of my favorite rappers growing up, if not my favorite. I used to listen to 50 Cent – 50 Cent always used to be gangsta and I like that gangsta shit. My momma and my grandma, they used to play their little oldies and stuff. I don’t really remember the names of them because I was so young, but I grew up around a lot of music. I remember when I was listening to Lil Wayne, and when I got to 6th grade, I just got hip to Meek Mill; I was like 10. I fuck with Meek Mill heavy, and when I turned 12 or 13, I’m on the Chicago drill scene; I’m fucking with Lil Herb, Lil Durk, and all of them. My family always listened to South; they always listened to a lot of people from the South and shit too because my dad from New Orleans; my grandma from Louisiana, from Princeton, so I was always listening to a wide variety of music.

Who’s your favorite rapper in L.A. right now?

YS: That’s crazy because I can’t really call it right now, because I don’t really listen to a lot of people from out here, to be real with you. I always did listen to West Coast shit, don’t get me wrong, but I was the one who was always listening to other people, always listening to out-of-towners – Atlanta shit, Louisiana, all of that. I wasn’t really caught up in the LA shit; I‘m too used to it. It’s not like nothing impresses me, it’s not like that. I’ve been listening to Big Sad [1900] a lot. He’s an up-and-coming artist; he’s got some real West Coast vibes, some real pain in there and some real street shit too, so I be relating to that type of shit.

When did you first discover that you could rap?

YS: I was like 8 or 9 when I knew that I could rap. I always liked music, but I wrote my first song when I was in 5th grade; it was “6 Foot 7 Foot” by Lil Wayne. I got the beat, I found the instrumental on YouTube or something, and then I tried to write to it. I don’t got what I wrote, I lost it, but I wrote that. After that, I did a freestyle to “Moment 4 Life” by Nicki Minaj and Drake, and after that I knew I could really rap, but I wasn’t taking it too serious; I was just fucking around with it because it was always what I liked to do – it was my passion really. I didn’t have to be good at it.

At what point did you realize that you could make a career out of being a rapper?

YS: Probably when I was like 13 or 14. I was playing basketball heavy too, I was heavy in sports before I started gangbanging and shit. I’ve always been around the shit, but I started gangbanging when I was like 14 or 13, but I was 11 or 12 years old saying this or saying that. I slowly started staying away from basketball; I started being in the streets more and shit, and then I started rapping kind of like that. In a way, that made me want to take it seriously. I was going to school to make money, shoot dice, sell weed – I was going to school for all the wrong reasons. Then it just got to a point where I was getting kicked out of schools and shit, going to continuation schools and all that, but I went back, I went to this ugly little continuation school and I just got to do a test and then I’m going to have my diploma. I was a bad ass kid.

How did you get involved with the streets?

YS: Shit, just hanging outside. When you hang outside, you see a lot of shit. You don’t even need to be in some shit to be knowing that something’s going on. Plus, I was losing people too. I started losing people that were already in the streets and doing what they was doing, older than me and shit. I had my crowd, but I always had my older crowd of individuals that I fucked with too. Certain people started going to jail and dying and shit, and as you get older, that shit takes a toll on you. It wasn’t something forced or nothing; it was honestly something that just happened.

When you went to jail on a pistol charge yourself, how did that affect your ambitions as an artist?

YS: The first time I ever went to jail I was like 16, but when I actually went down and got processed in I was 17. I was one of those people who was like, “Damn, I could never get caught.” I’m slick, on some never-get-caught type shit. It really just opened me up to knowing that anything could happen to you in this world. Everybody the same; anything that could happen to someone else could happen to you. It made me tighten up more, and as far as music, I wasn’t in there for too long, I was in there for probably like 2/3 weeks and then I came home. I got house arrest and they put me on probation. As far as my music, it really changed because I have this song called, “Welcome to Stanford,” but I had recorded it before I went to jail. When I went down to jail, I’m in the halls and shit, I’m in juvenile hall or whatever you want to call it. First, they were trying to cook me. I ain’t know how many years I was going to get, what I was looking at or nothing, so by the grace of God, a nigga got house arrest and took 2 years of probation. Really, it slowed me down and made me tighten up and think more.

As far as the music, it helped me because my people [my brother and my cousin] had this song called “Welcome to Stanford,” and they dropped it. We all knew it was a hit. Before I dropped it, I was showing it to my peoples, my family and shit, like, “This a hit. This shit gon’ go.” I’m 17 on this, and it’s brazy because I went to jail and I went down, and they took it upon themselves, on some smart shit, and dropped it. I’m in jai, and it’s people from 5 or 10 years ago saying, “Free YS” and “Free the homie,” and it’s all this fake love going around. They dropped it, and then, boom – it took off. I didn’t even know it was out; I’m in the halls. When I came home, mind you before this song I was only getting 5,000 views/6,000 views, I wasn’t even hitting the 10k yet; I didn’t have that breakaway. After that, shit changed. I come home, it’s like 20,000/30,000 views. I’ve been home, the song hadn’t been out for like a week yet without a video, straight on SoundCloud. I’m like, “Damn. I got to do a video for this,” and it’s still slowly rising up. Once I shot the video, the video took off. Still to this day, the video’s still going; it’s almost at a million. It’s at like 780,000, almost 800k. I was at school when I dropped that shit too; I’m on house arrest, I’ve got to go straight home. I was seeing a lot of shit changing. I was slowly but surely becoming bigger and bigger and bigger, and I wasn’t even noticing it because I just be humble with it. I was noticing it, but I wasn’t letting it get to me.

How old were you when it came out?

YS: I was 17. I’m 20 now.

Later on with “Bompton,” how did you get 1takejay and Ogheesy on the remix?

YS: 1takejay and Ogheesy came about with TK and Picasso; they’re my managers now, but at the time, they wasn’t. They was just fucking with me heavy, and they just showed mad love. Me and 1takejay, we’re from the same city, so we both used to tap in with each other through the DMs on Instagram and shit, supporting, and bro connected the dots and they put that shit together. Even though we’re both from the same city, I didn’t really know bro like that. We know some of the same people, but I didn’t know him until I met him with TK and Picasso. I met Ogheesy the same day. We was in the studio, they already knew they wanted to get us on the song type-shit, so I had put a different verse on it too. I got like 3 versions of “Bompton” out, and I got all different verses on it. The original is a different verse, the one with Ogheesy and 1takejay has a different verse, and I’ve got a remix with 5 or 6 of my homies from my hood and I’ve got a different verse on that one too.

Can you talk a little about YS and what that signifies?

YS: YS, it really stands for “Young Savage,” but I’ve been YS since I was in 6th grade. I used to say both, YS or Young Savage, but I really started YS in 6th grade/7th grade, that’s when I stamped it. I’m from Stanford Ave, so as I got older I started saying “Young Stanford,” but it really just means Young Savage. It can have more than one meaning to it though.

How did In Squad We Trust, the label that you started, come into fruition?

YS: We was all rapping, my cousin Gunna [note: Not the Young Thug protege Gunna], and we was all rapping as kids. As I said, I was in 5th grade/6th grade, and Gunna, he always had the laptops and computers at his house, so we went over there one day and we had a mic. We had the mic that you plug into the computer, and it’s an actual mic, like a karaoke mic. We just threw the sock over the mic and we just started rapping, and that’s how all that shit came about. That’s how we figured out, “Oh yeah, we can do this shit.” We was recording ourselves, we was on GarageBand. After that, slowly growing up and shit, I came across some more people. I met this dude in 9th grade, his name was Theon. We got connected too on some regular shit, just fucking with each other, and he started rapping too, so I told him, “I’m going to take you to the studio with me,” and I stuck to my word and I brought him in one day. It was me, him, and Gunna, and then one of my other peoples and shit, and we made a song called “Get Off.” We put it on YouTube and SoundCloud.

It’s still on In Squad We Trust’s YouTube to this day; if you go back, you will see all the old shit, and it won’t say the names, it’ll say In Squad We Trust because there was a whole bunch of people in In Squad We Trust at one time. It was some shit that we all made. The homies would fall off and they was rapping sometimes and sometimes they not, but I always stayed at it. I was real serious about it; Theon was too, he was real serious about it. Certain situations, things started changing, you know, people go their separate ways, but I always kept the name because that’s what I stood on. I’m not going to change it because whatever happened happened. I still got rappers in In Squad We Trust to this day. It’s a few people that rap in In Squad We Trust, but they just finding their sounds and slowly but surely rising up; they ain’t really all the way popping or known or all of that, but that’s the real reason why I never changed the YouTube name to just YS. It was never just my YouTube, it was all of our YouTubes’ at one point in time. I’m the type to put the brand ahead of myself; you want the brand to be bigger than you. I still got In Squad We Trust merch. ISWT. I still got my LLC, all of that. This is how we got the name: we’re paying the people, we had just got done recording a song and I’m counting all the money and shit – this is when we were paying for all our studio time. I’m looking at the back of the dollar bill and I’m seeing, “In God We Trust,” so I was thinking, “In Squad We Trust, that would be hard,” and everyone was fucking with it. I was like, “We’re going to go with that.” It wasn’t forced, it just came and we just stuck with it, and I stuck with it forever.

Earlier this year, you released Street Icons, the collaborative tape with Ron-RonTheProducer. What was it like working with Ron-Ron only, versus having multiple producers on all your other projects?

YS: Working with Ron-Ron and just him, we already fucked with each other. We was growing a bond, slowly but surely in the studio, just chilling and vibing and he was making his beats. By the time we was done, he was making them bitches from scratch. I be freestyling, so we were just vibing. It taught me, not necessarily to stick with one flow, but it got me better at my flow and cadence, because I was already hard at that shit and knew how to do it, but fucking with bro and hearing all his sounds, it made me open up to the L.A. County sound more again.

For the Street Icons album, you commissioned Gallery Provence for the cover art. Is there a story of how you ended up working with him?

YS: He’s from Russia, right? Where’s he from, Russia or France?

I’ve been seeing him on Instagram, and I know he did the cover for the Drakeo tape [Thank You for Using GTL].

YS: Yeah, I think he’s from Russia or France. Bro’s hard as hell. Honestly, I just ran across his shit on Instagram. I’m telling you, I’m not one of those rappers that be thinking they’re all that; if I fuck with yo’ shit, I’m finna hit you up. I’m not going to have my team hit you up, you ain’t finna get none of that, I’m going to hit your ass up myself and I’m going to tell you, “Bro, you’re hard as hell. You raw. I want some of yo’ shit,” and it really went by from there. I made sure he got the payments and all that, and he got his shit. I’ve seen bro on the ‘Gram and I be paying attention. If I really like it, I’mma do it; I don’t really care what everybody else likes.

Walk me through the origin of your new project, Cold Hearted. Was there a moment in the studio where you knew you had an album on your hands, or how exactly did it come about?

YS: That’s a mixtape, I’m not going to lie, but everybody’s calling it an album, so that’s making me happy. I guess I did real good on it. I knew how I was feeling on this, I knew what I wanted to sound like. I honestly was on some shit like, “I want to dig a little bit deeper on this one. I want everybody to look at me differently after this.” I don’t want to be categorized as no L.A. rapper. I want to show everybody that I can really rap, that I can talk about whatever; I want to have songs for whatever mood you’re feeling.

This project is definitely more sentimental and introspective than your previous work – from talking about the loss of your uncle on “Souls in the Sky” to going through the motions on “Match Your Energy.” What inspires to put your pain on display in your music?

YS: When you’re a real artist, you can’t draw the line between your life and music. You’ve got to really tell ‘em how you’re feeling. Really, I be going off the vibes or how I feel in the moment. Back then, I used to come with some shit already wrote, but when you write some shit at one time and then you go to the studio and get ready to present it, it don’t sound the same to you. You’ll be like, “I’m not in the same mode that I once was when I was doing this”. I just be vibing. When they play the beat, however I feel, I’mma let it out. I know myself, that’s another thing. When you know yourself as a person and as a man and all that, and in life in general, you’re going to be open to opening up. You can’t just be hard all day. There’ll be shit that’s going on, and sometimes you don’t want to talk about it, so the music speaks for you. I don’t really show my emotions or none of that. I got a cold heart; I don’t really live off emotions. The music helps me open up in a different way because I don’t really talk or express myself or none of that. That’s why I feel like the music lets me express myself and lets me tell you what I want to tell you without me talking. I’m still talking, but without me having to have an actual conversation. If you want to know how I’m feeling, you’ve got to listen to my music and then you gon’ know.

On “Shot Caller,” you say that you’re “not taught to show love.” How has being a part of the streets impacted the way you think & move in your day-to-day life?

YS: Always love your people and the ones that love you, but even that shit will fuck you up at one point in time. You can love people from a distance too, and when I say, “We was never taught to show love,” I mean, we in a battlefield; we in a jungle. Everyday some shit occurs, it’s nonstop with this. I know people who have good hearts and want to show love and want to be genuine, but they can’t even be that because there’s so much shit that’s going on – you’ve got to turn off your feelings. You can’t have no apathy in this shit. When I say, “We was taught to show no love,” you can’t show no feelings. You know what they say, “Love will get you killed,” and that shit’s real. You’re going to show love to the wrong motherfucker and that’s going to come and bite you in the ass, or you’re going to get betrayed or some shit. You’ll go through all types of shit – you’ve got to learn how to do it like this instead of like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean turning into a bad person or a bad guy, you just have to know how to really play your cards.

When you say “robbin’ or trappin’ — the only way that we survive,” on “Souls in the Sky,” do you think that rapping was almost like an escape for you?

YS: I do because some of my homies be like, “Damn bro, I wish I could rap.” I got a lot of homies from my hood that can rap, from Campanella and shit, I’ve got a lot of homies that could go crazy, that really be saying some shit too. I got some other homies that really be on the block all day, some real blockheads. I know some niggas that don’t leave; they ain’t never seen nothing different. The only time they leave the block is when they go to jail, and when they come back home, they come right back on the block. I fo’ sho’ think that rapping saved me. Even though I’m still in connections and shit, I still ain’t left. I still be around, floating in the city, I’m a regular citizen in Compton and you’re going to see my face. I’m not an urban legend; you’re not going to always hear my music but not see me. I be everywhere through the city, from my side to everywhere through it. I really just be on some humble shit. I feel like rapping saved me because rapping or trapping is the way a lot of niggas eat. Certain niggas can’t eat unless they do that. Certain niggas do it because it looks cool or because they heard they homie did it; I feel like certain people do it so they can say they did or so they can talk about it. There are certain people that do it because, if they don’t do that shit, they’re going to be hungry. If they don’t do that, they’re not going to have no clothes, they’re not going to have nowhere to stay. I always was a smart person, I could work a job and get my little money and try to invest in shit, but other than music, I would just be thuggin’ with my niggas for real.

What does respect mean to you?

YS: The world. I’m ain’t going to lie, that’s really what I stand on. When it comes to that, I feel like if you don’t show it, you’re not going to get it, but you’ve got to fo’ sho’ earn it, regardless. You can show someone respect, and they can still be big headed and try to belittle you or whatever. When it comes to me, it don’t matter what flag you from, what color you represent, what you throw up, none of that. If you the opps, it’s fuck you regardless. As far as respect, if you show respect, I’m going to give you respect because with where I’m trying to be at and where I’m trying to go with my career, I’ve got to let a lot of shit play out how it’s going to play out without me involving myself. Certain shit, you’ve just got to leave it in God’s hands and leave it like that. I’m trying to do this shit differently. I feel like even if someone is a Crip – if Snoop Dogg wants to work with me, I’ll say, “Hell yeah I want to work with Snoop Dogg.” It shouldn’t matter about anything else but respect. A lot of people be taking a lot of shit and running with it, and a lot of people that’s not from California and LA County too, you know how they look at the gang shit. He a Crip, or he a Blood, you get me, it’s not like that no more. It’s real different now. Instead of foundations [that’s what we’re going to call it], Crips and Bloods – that’s a foundation, there’s more than one of them, but there’s only one whole. It’s really just sets on sets. You could be a Crip and you got Blood homies and they from over there, but y’all don’t get along with them Bloods because they from over there. It’s just sets on sets now, it’s not Cripps on Bloods. Especially the Feds, they’ll take that shit and run with it. Certain niggas, they’re still living to that code, “You a Crip, you can’t come in here,” “You a Blood. Nah,” but it’s not all like that. It’s different now, it’s a young nigga world, for real. We at an all-time high right now; there’s so much young people doing so much good shit, a lot of not great shit, and a lot of bad shit, but it’s a young nigga world right now. We got the world in our hand.

Outside of your art, I’ve noticed that you’ve been doing what you can to help give back to the city of Compton, doing holiday food giveaways and trying to spread the wealth. Where does this desire to support your community come from?

YS: I feel like if you don’t give back, what are you getting this for? You’re going to want to give back sometimes, even if you ain’t even be up on some positive shit all the time. I be on a lot of positive shit, but they don’t notice because of the image they portray, so it’ll go unnoticed. Doing food giveaways, backpack giveaways, toy giveaways, we do it all the time in my area. It ain’t really nothing new, but I’m just giving mine back too. It’s some shit I want to do for the kids. I was always seeing people give back, like my grandma, she was giving back to people a lot, my family, my auntie, all that. I just grew up that way. My older homies too, they give back all the time, so when you’re around certain people, all that shit gon’ rub off. I did a backpack giveaway, but I didn’t put my stamp on it or nothing. I just did it under-the-table, threw some little dollars and I don’t want no recognition, I don’t care about none of that, I just did it because I wanted to. I was like, “Let me do this for the city this year; put it out there that I’m doing this,” just to bring awareness on my page that you could be on some positive shit. I know a lot of the little kids look up to me. I know how big I am, but I didn’t know how many people really looked up to me. I’m soaking everything in and seeing everything different and shit, and I’m just trying to move different too.

In the next five years, what are you striving to achieve?

YS: I just want to achieve being wealthy, not rich but wealthy; I want to be set for life. I want to have everyone around me set. I want to start doing shit way outside of the music; I really want to be locked in on businesses and owning shit, to where even after me, when I’m long gone, shit’s still flowing for my bloodline and my people. I’m trying to be the one that’s the reason why my younger generation got old money. Getting my people out the way and getting my people set. I want plaques, and I want all that shit too, but I want to get money and see all my people and make sure they’re all good; that’s really what matters to me. I feel like I’m already platinum in the streets; I’m a legend. People be telling me that shit and it be hitting different because I’m young as hell. I ain’t gonna lie, all my brothers and shit, all my niggas be gassing me up and keeping my head up; they be telling me, “You a legend.” I got niggas my age right now that’s in jail. People that I started with at 12/13 years old, just hanging around outside as kids, they hit me up like, “Damn bro, you only 20 and you a street legend.” That’s not a bad thing, some things have pros and cons, and I take light of it, but they be telling me, “You really like a legend from where we come from.” God forgive, I could die today and “Bompton” is going to forever be played in my hood until I’m like 180 years old. I got classics for my hood, and now I’m just trying to make classics for the world.

After listening to your new mixtape, Cold Hearted, what do you hope for people to know about YS?

YS: I want them to know that I got way more than one side to me, and they’ve got to stick around and see everything. Don’t judge me on one song, that’s really what I want people to know. I really want them to know to always look at stuff from a different point of view because everybody’s not always going to follow everybody’s path. There’s nothing wrong with following the blueprint and the footsteps of those before you, not necessarily saying that you a follower because you can look up to ‘em and you could be inspired, but me, I’m here to break that cycle. I don’t want them to think that, “You’re a West Coast artist, you’ve got to rap like this.” That’s why I did what I did. I blew up on some gang shit, and once I got everything up there a little more, I’m trying to show them a little something new. I also rap this way, I can also do melodic shit, and all of that. I want them to know, don’t limit yourself to the music. “He comes from over there, but he’s not boxing himself in.”

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