“How many of y’all got good grades?” asked rapper Freddie Gibbs to the crowd gathered at Sproul Plaza on March 31.
His tendency to shoot the shit served to highlight the differences between his culture and that of the UC Berkeley student body. To be fair, these differences can be perceived from the Gary, Indiana, rapper’s music alone. Plenty of musicians performing on elite college campuses detail lifestyles that are far removed from those of their students. But Gibbs’ dogged and detailed exposition of the street life in his music doesn’t let listeners forget it.
“And I remember / When the broads used to put me out, cars I was sleepin’ out / Pill habit heavy, hella bars I can’t even count / L.A. County jail, ain’t got my moms here to bail me out,” Freddie rapped in concert opener “Rearview,” the song that also opened his last album Shadow of a Doubt. He rapped the first verse of “Thuggin’” a cappella before cueing the song’s intricate beat. This being one of the big singles off of Piñata, his lauded 2014 collaboration with auteur producer Madlib, the Gibbs fans in the crowd, many of whom weren’t Cal students, shouted along with the lyrics. He followed with more of that album’s big songs such as “Harold’s” and “Deeper”.
Some students had just come on a whim for the free ASUC SUPERB concert; they wouldn’t be as engaged during the songs off of Piñata, which, because of Gibbs’ dense rhymes and Madlib’s dusty loops, reward careful listening. The sun was also still shining during this first half of the show — not the ideal setting for music better geared for late night drives.
But some interesting moments came when Gibbs started talking to the crowd between these songs. He reflected out loud on the irony of his presence at this prestigious educational institution. He got kicked out of college for criminal activity and his DJ didn’t go to college. (“He stupid,” Freddie cheekily added). He put his DJ on blast for “giving his bitch 200 dollars a week,” shaking his head and asking the crowd to join him in vocally disapproving.
Several rappers such as Big Sean and Action Bronson have been met with outrage after being booked for shows on college campuses in recent years. Their misogynistic lyrics have especially been cited as cause for protest. But it seems like the conditions that give rise to controversy take into account a number of factors: the school itself (the controversies appear to happen more at elite private colleges), how popular the rapper is, the number of other redeeming qualities their music has and the socioeconomic situation from which they hail.
In a normal UC Berkeley space, Freddie’s comments would certainly have incensed some people. But the audience seemed nonplussed. The lack of objection can’t entirely be attributed to self-selection bias either, since there were plenty of folks in attendance who were unfamiliar with his music. Whatever the case was, Freddie and his entourage come from a different place than most of the UC Berkeley student body, which, of course, has plenty to do with who is privileged to access certain opportunities in society. The encounter was, if nothing else, informative.
As dusk approached, Freddie’s song selection veered into the harder-hitting style of the albums he recorded before Piñata and his releases since. “Pronto” turned up the crowd and, unsurprisingly, people went wild for “Old English,” a track he did with Young Thug and A$AP Ferg. He did an entire verse of “Rob Me a Nigga” without the backing beat at a breakneck pace, showcasing his breath control as well as his rock-solid rhythm. He continued to rag on his DJ for something or other between songs, and he led many a “Fuck Police” chant.
“How many of y’all smoke weed?” Gibbs asked midway through the concert. Just about everybody in the crowd cheered. For a moment, some sociopolitical boundaries were bridged.
Contact Parthiv Mohan at [email protected].