“Off What I Like to Do, Not What I Have to Do”: A Night at the Roxy with Zoe Osama

Steven Louis talks with the ascendent South Central rapper about “Underrated,” Los Angeles gang culture, the carceral system and respect for Nipsey Hussle.
By    October 18, 2022

Image via Zoe Osama/Instagram

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Steven Louis also don’t know nothin’.

It’s as if the password to the green room tonight is a spirited shout of “B*TCH I’M UNDERRATED!” And it’s best to oblige, because you for sure want to be with Zoe Osama at the Roxy tonight.

Ensconced by the West Hollywood bend of the Sunset Strip, the Roxy Theater is a stomping ground for historically-sauced entertainers. David Geffen was an original partner in the club, which opened in 1973 to three consecutive shows by Neil Young and the Santa Monica Flyers. It’s where Frank Zappa recorded the titular Roxy & Elsewhere and where the Pee-wee Herman character was birthed. George Benson, Richard Pryor and Bob Marley all released live Roxy albums. But tonight, the building’s in the gold-plated grasp of Zoe Osama, a rising rap star from the East Side of South Central. And seemingly everywhere he goes tonight, Zoe is met with raucous “B*TCH I’M UNDERRATED” calls mimicking the flow of his breakout local hit. “Underrated” has been played on radio at Power 106 and is hosted by No Jumper on YouTube. The jam’s been shouted out by both DJ Carisma and Cripmac. The hood went up for it all summer.

It’s a veritable who’s-who of contemporary rap tonight, but you’d be forgiven for thinking Zoe is the biggest star in the club. He’s grinning, swinging a cognac bottle, dancing in and out of flows and flanked by a boisterous crew of cousins and day ones. Kalan.Frfr is excited to say what’s up to Zoe. Chase N. Cashe chops it up in a Klan Busters hoodie. Infant J Stone says he appreciates the energy and independence of Zoe, who is a devout Marathon Runner since his South Central youth. DJ Drama and Seddy Hendrinx, in town for the latter’s Well Sed tour, are all smiles. When Zoe hits the Roxy stage, he invites a crew of women to dance alongside him. His huge contingent of family, and teammates at music/business collective The New Cartel, shout all the words. This is indisputably where the party’s at.

Talking to Zoe, you get the sense that this moment was long in the making. Zoe now lives in a home studio he built in the desert, and finding parking in West Hollywood is an exhaustive mission. But big picture, Zoe Osama was prepping for this back when he’d burn beats to blank CDs and record freestyles off his Playstation. He was imagining opportunities like this since the days of spitting around the halls of Taft High School. He’s been rapping for a decade, and watched fellow South Centralites like Drakeo the Ruler, Bino Rideaux, Blxt and BlueBucksClan blow up meteorically while he was searching for traction. Judging by how deep the crew is tonight, though, South Central never wavered in its belief in or vision for Zoe.

“I was in South Central during the Dre and Ice Cube days. The thing is, they got a trick. They didn’t read their contracts,” his homie 2Times tells us. “Zoe is nothing but positivity for a place like South Central. Young guys are dropping,” he says, referring to the murder of PnB Rock at a South Los Angeles Roscoe’s restaurant just a few days prior to Zoe’s show.

Another homie, C-Rag, shows me a video clip of a cop dancing to the “toot it up/boot it up” refrain from “Underrated” while securing the rotating bottle of Hennessy for Zoe. “He’s got that old school/new school swag together. If you really listen to what he’s saying, he’s talking about everything. Where he comes from, the money, the politics. But the way he puts it together, he’s carrying LA on his shoulders right now.”

Zoe’s rhymes are punctuated and sharply-pronounced. His flow, like his speaking voice, has a sort of strained Southwestern drug cowboy quality recalling 03 Greedo. While the G-funk elements of “Underrated” make for an old school/new school crossover like C-Rag described — the plush keys, rolling bassline, minimalist hood presentation and Magic Johnson throwback jersey — other songs are decidedly harder to pin down. “No Nothin’” is aggressively uptempo, a self-described jam for Black-Hispanic unity replete with drone shots and detailed new whips; he’s also adeptly freestyled over Drakeo and $tupid Young’s “Lil Boosie,” Akon and Baby Bash’s “Baby I’m Back” and even Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.”

He tells me he has a tape with RonRon The Producer coming soon. And as radio is finally getting hip to the game, Zoe says he’s making at least one song a day and feels like he’s getting better at his craft. After all, he explains, he taught himself how to engineer, mix and master his own music out of necessity – to make the money work. There’s still space to evolve. And, as Power 106’s DJ Carisma tells me, there’s even more ample space for someone like Zoe to fill a vacuum.

“The music has just become so dark. Kids talking about killing each other. We need change,” Carisma says. “We need vibes, slaps, party music for the West Coast. As DJs, we get approached by tables at the club if we play the wrong song for the wrong neighborhood. It’s a dangerous time in hip-hop, but Zoe’s energy really leaps out off these records. We need the change he’s representing, simple as that.”

After a shot of Patron from the bar, Zoe and I stepped outside to go on record about his career, his upbringing and his view of the city’s creative outputs. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity, primarily because folks kept approaching Zoe and yelling “B*TCH I’M UNDERRATED!”

How have these songs been coming to you? What’s your writing and recording process like?

Zoe Osama: Look, I don’t write. I go off straight emotion. If we hit the studio right now and I’m feeling drunk, I’m gonna rap like I’m at a party. That’s how “Underrated” came about. I got back, like 3 a.m. from linking with my friends and cousins, and I had been sitting on this beat from Zeke, that’s my homie right there. And I knew it was a hit, from the moment I heard it, but I had no words yet because all them days, my emotions were different from this beat. So yeah, come back drunk, everyone’s asleep at the house, woke the kids up with the speakers. I made the song, passed out on the futon, woke up and forgot I made it. A few days later I posted it on IG and it starts getting love from, like, DJ Hed, DJ Justin Credible, DJ B Eazy, so I just put it out. And now I’m here. Man, now I’m at the Roxy.

Do you reflect on, like, putting a decade of work into your career, and then one random drunk recording catapulting everything?

Zoe Osama: That makes me think, bro. I knew I would make a hit. I just never knew what it would be or sound like. So to see it come on a song you didn’t think much of, that you forgot you made and then was gon’ delete the next day? It shows that people want true emotion. Nine times outta ten, listeners are going through the same sh*t we are going through. And people like to have fun.

Do you feel like you’re “Underrated?”

Zoe Osama: I named it “Underrated” for a specific reason, because if you really listen, I only say the word “underrated” once in the intro. It has nothing to do with the song, I don’t say “underrated” for the rest of it. I probably should’ve called it, like, “Boot It Up” or some sh*t, because that’s what I say in the chorus. I named it “Underrated” and named a whole project after that because all these rappers really know I’ve been here. They’ve always known, they just needed some undeniable sh*t. Even the dudes that don’t f*ck with me, this is something they still bobbin’ their heads to. Music touches my soul, and this is what I do. I’d be doing this whether I was broke or had a million dollars. I wanna make it off what I like to do, not what I have to do. I’ve been making music since I was seven years old. Check it out, so my cousin Slim, free Slim. He’s from the West Side of South Central. He’s coming home, he’ll be out soon.

Hell yeah, free Slim.

Zoe Osama: And I used to copy everything he did. My demeanor, I wanted to be like him. I have about 10 cousins, brothers and sisters, and he was the oldest out of our big family. I wanted to be just like him. We have a few songs together, he raps under the name Inky Slim. He’s the reason I am rapping today. And he’ll be out soon, just a couple months.

Still, man, that’s stolen time.

Zoe Osama: I used to want to go to jail. All my cousins and family members were in jail, so I wanted to experience that sh*t too. I was doing all types of sh*t, trying to get caught and go to jail, and it wasn’t working. Then I eventually went into juvenile hall at like, 11 or 12, with my other cousin Sleep3rd. Me, Sleep and Slim are The New Cartel, that’s the group and the record label. But back then, we were just kids.

What got you caught?

Zoe Osama: We didn’t do nothin’! One of them cases, we came out of an apartment, walked across the street, the Sheriffs pulled us over, racially profiled us because they said we looked like gang members at 11, 12 years old. They hemmed us up, took us to Sylmar Juvenile Hall. That was the start of my f*ckin’ jail career right there. Because once you get in, it’s real hard to get out. Easy to get in, hard to get out, that’s what I learned from my grandma and my dad. I was in trouble from 11 to 18, and then once I turned 18 I had my record expunged. I caught some legal trouble at 24, did that time, and have never been back. Music saved a whole part of my life. Something that I want to do actually saved my life. When people look at my outer shell, they see a criminal. Until I open my mouth, and they realize I’m brilliant. First impressions last forever.

What does “criminal” mean to you?

Zoe Osama: A “criminal” is what the government labels us. A lot of people do sh*t to feed their families, support their people. If you leave someone with no option but to rob and steal, because they lack education or went to a school that couldn’t afford books, what the f*ck do you expect? People robbing and killing to get money for their families. It’s really a double-negative, you hurt one family to benefit your own, until you get locked up, then both families hurting. And that’s the choices you got. Ain’t it crazy how nine times outta 10, if you take someone out the ghetto and put them into a better opportunity, they become successful? And in the ghetto, it’s like one outta a million, and you have to use your brain and your hustle to be that much better. So, a “criminal” is just what the government wrote in a book to define it. If you ask me, they do the same exact sh*t, just in a more gangster way.

Have you read any of the reporting about the murderous gangs within the LA Sheriffs Department?

Zoe Osama: Bro, people don’t understand, literally the first gang in Los Angeles was not a Black or Hispanic gang. It was a Caucasian gang in South Gate called the “Spook Hunters.” They were against integration and sh*t, and that’s how all this stuff came along. Black people were then just trying to defend their neighborhoods, which were already so segregated. Gang bangin’ was not originally Black people killing Black people over what side of the street they’re on. It was for protection and unity. I did my research. The whole time, Black folks and Hispanic folks and minorities in LA, we’re just responding or copying what we’re seeing around us, what’s provoking us.

Their whole agenda was built on, “f*ck everything that ain’t us.” That’s a cold world to live in, but we adjust to it. It’s not cool, we might not like it, but we adapt. Minorities can adapt to literally any situation. If you sit in sh*t for so long, you stop smelling it. So when the hoods got flooded with drugs and weapons, we adapted. When gentrification came in, we adapted. Now, folks are killing people over what zip code yo momma pays rent in, beefs and grudges that are 40+ years old. Like it’s not even their own motivation. And no one cares what the reason is at the end of the day, because if you can go to jail, they can make money off you. Their job is to keep your stupid ass in jail. That’s what they see a “criminal” as.

So, you’ve found yourself adjusting and adapting since you were young?

Zoe Osama: We don’t play with anyone we’re not familiar with, and that’s because of the environment we came up in. It’s sticky. Everyone I came in with tonight is family. We’re not on that type of time, but we can get on that type of time if we need to, because the goal is to make it home and keep our family together. That’s it. We learned, before these 2000s babies and this new generation out here, that you’ll end up doing some sh*t you didn’t even want to do to. So we learned to adapt in the sense that we learned to walk away, because it’s crazy out here and there are consequences. And at the end of the day, we’ve seen that one person can’t change nothing out here. If you do start a change, you probably not gonna last long!

So my advice is, if you know death is around the corner, walk the f*ck away. That’s my mentality with the hood, with the LAPD, with life itself. It’s why where I’m from feels like Stage 4 cancer, you know? When we get some chemotherapy in here, it’ll extinguish, but right now it’s just money and violence and it’ll keep growing. That’s that. I can’t help everyone, but I can help a few with this mindset. If you’ve touched the stove twice and you don’t expect to still get burned that third time, I feel bad for you. Once, you didn’t know better. Twice, you’re trying to do what didn’t work the first time and find a way to not get caught. But the third time? You’re a f*cking idiot. The state lets you know exactly what you can and cannot do. So know the laws, stay out the way if you understand, and if you don’t, take that ticket on the f*ckin’ chin.

What do you wish you had, in terms of opportunities and resources, when you were young and learning all this? What will you make damn sure that your kids have, because you didn’t have it when you were young?

Zoe Osama: Me, bro. Me. I had a father growing up, but I would’ve had a dad more involved in what I did. He was there, yeah, but that’s it. Just there. My kids treat me like a friend too, like they actually want to be around me. Only thing I wish I had was a united family with mom and pops in one house. But then I would’ve been a different person. I probably wouldn’t be a rapper, but a doctor or therapist or social worker or some sh*t. But that experience taught me exactly what parenthood is and what kids need, bro. It didn’t break me, it made me.

Do you think about leaving Southern California with them?

Zoe Osama: I think about leaving all the time. It’s like, I would leave because I’m not a people-person. People love me and I do love people, but I am fine alone, I don’t give a f*ck about that.

What do you consider to be the true beginning of your career? Or, the first time that you made something worth sharing.

Zoe Osama: I made this song called “Bucc 50” in like 2017, I said “I feel like Pac, thug life” and it did some thousands of streams the next day on SoundCloud. People knew I rapped, but from that day and that moment, I’ve had that gas. I used to record on GarageBand back then. One song was on a Future beat and it went viral but it got taken down.

What artists inspire you now?

Zoe Osama: Nipsey Hussle, bro. He gave us the blueprint. I’ve always wanted to go on stage and be in front of a camera, but before Nipsey’s music, I never once thought about the black-and-white paperwork that goes into that. How to get your money and your residuals from this sh*t. I didn’t dig into all that until I was listening to Nip, and I wasn’t looking for it directly, I just knew he was from the same life experiences as I was, him on the West Side and me on the East. But in 2022 I’m at the Roxy off his blueprint, off what he laid out and explained to folks. I know a collaboration is still possible, because of all that work he put in and all those verses still unreleased. DJ Drama just told me to tap in, you saw that, he can tap us in!

As you’ve finally broken through, has anything surprised you?

Zoe Osama: No, bro. I’ve been ready, I was reading everyone’s interviews for years so I could try to know what to expect. I’ve always had willpower and I’ve never been a f*cking follower. Nothing in this industry creeps me out, because growing up I done seen everything already. I have a high tolerance for sh*t freaking me out. I’m also not a nosy person. I don’t doubt that creepy sh*t happens, but I think I have a vibe where people know I’m not goin’ for it. Like, he’s really from over there, he ain’t goin’ for that sh*t. We are here in Hollywood right now, I can’t call it, but folks know I ain’t goin’ for all that.

What does success over the next 365 look like to you?

Zoe Osama: Oh, I’m gonna be 10 times bigger than this. Once y’all gave me the recognition, I knew what I was going to do with it. Me and the New Cartel, we’re here as a family and a crew and a motherf*ckin’ business.

I have to ask you about Drakeo the Ruler. One of my favorite tracks of yours is your freestyle over his “Lil Boosie” beat.

Zoe Osama: Long live Drakeo, man. I did that freestyle when he was still alive, too. And I connected with his producers [LowTheGreat and Duse Beatz] after they heard my version on their sh*t. Now, I have a project with RonRon coming out. I’ve been rapping since all these guys were coming up, I just wasn’t the first to blow. I gotta keep that energy alive though, long live Drakeo for real. He had South Central, and he will forever have LA. What he did in that time frame is legendary. What happened to Drakeo should have never happened. I’ll say that over and over again. I gotta show homage because no one has been as big in LA since him and Nipsey. Them two was LA, Nipsey and Drakeo. I want to take that torch.

How do you reconcile both of them being murdered in LA?

Zoe Osama: Here, the element of surprise is everything. Even the hardest gangsters, from Osama Bin Laden to Malcolm X to whoever, they’re not immune to the element of surprise. No one is. No one expects to get done in by people they trust and love. And no one expects to be in the wrong place/wrong time in their own city. By definition, enemies are people you know. When you’re from LA, the jealousy don’t surprise you. It ain’t about a code no more.

Do you feel people getting jealous of you now?

Zoe Osama: Folks been jealous of me my whole life. This is why I move with family out here. If you’re trippin’, like, I’m gonna go tell auntie! I’m ‘bout to go box you in the backyard right quick before we drink and smoke and talk it out. I’m bringing everyone here with me. 50 folks in this building tonight, all family, all coming with me. It’s deeper than rap. My voice is distinct and people might wanna listen to me because I can vocalize sh*t, but what I’m rapping about is the experiences we all have. I’d have nothing to rap about without these folks. I’m one of the only rappers getting booked in LA who’s affiliated with anything because I’m respected, not hated. I’m from a place where I can go anywhere. And now we’re here, independent with LLCs and without a f*cking manager. And I own all my sh*t. ALL of it! It’s in my name, right there, so no one is short-changing us.

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