Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson signed with Stones Throw on Dilla’s recommendation and released his debut Ode To The Ghetto last month. He speaks now with Sinden Lee.
It seems like a recurring theme in your work is the life lessons learned as a young man and as a father—doing the right thing and depending on yourself.
I do agree. No matter what walk of life you come from, struggles and life lessons are very important to apply to your art. I try to make that the foundation of what I write.
What were you like when you were ten years old?
I was curious and observant. I was into sports; I was into music, but mainly sports. Sports taught me the aspect of winning, as well as losing. But the fact that you compete is saying enough in itself. Same thing as a rap artist: putting yourself on a plateau to be judged by a whole world of listeners in the game where fans can be so critical of an artist; to be judged and compete with others on that level. Win or lose—the same way sports rules apply. Whether they accept you or not, just the fact that you put your music out there is in fact victory in itself.
What were you like when you were eighteen years old?
Trouble. People were telling me things and I was learning, but you never really know until you experience them yourself. Basically I was chasing girls; probably an occasional fight, more often than now. Even occasional gun fights. Really, whatever it took to survive. It’s hard to live in Detroit where you think you’re going to fight somebody and everyone is pulling out guns. So you have to prepare yourself for whatever may come your way.
Did you carry a gun?
In Detroit, definitely. Anybody that knows me can go on record and say that I did. It’s not anything I’m necessarily proud of, but there were some situations where a gun helped me to be right here, right now.
What’s helped you keep your sense of humor?
My mother. Her name is Terry Jackson. She’s my best friend. She was able to face whatever she was dealing with with a smile. It inspired me. She became a single mother after she and my father divorced; I’m her only child. She was at work when I would get home from school, so I often went to an aunt’s or friend’s house until she was able to come home to cook dinner. The main thing she taught me was that no matter what she went through, she dealt with it with a smile on her face. The stress she was dealing with would never weigh on her face because being a child, I could observe and be influenced by so many things. So she always painted a face of happiness.
What did that smile represent?
It represented hope and her determination to not be defeated by the situation she was going through. Mainly understanding that whatever situation you’re in, you can overcome and that attitude has a lot to do with it. Your problem can be a mountain or a molehill, but if you have a positive attitude, you understand you can come out of any situation. It’s the main thing I learned from my mother and it prepared me for music and just life in general.
What was the turning point for you?
It was growing up in Detroit and seeing a lot of my peers go away to prison or die. These things let me know that tragedy doesn’t have an age bracket; that anything can happen at any given time. When I got out of high school, it prepared me for the real world. Fend for yourself or become a victim. Nothing is promised. My mother expected me to get a job and raise some kind of income on my own, because not everyone is guaranteed a financial structure to achieve whatever he wants. Music saved me from being on the streets doing God knows what to make a living.
Was your father an influence or inspiration?
Definitely. He played saxophone, harmonica and light guitar. He gave that to me at a young age when I didn’t accept it, when I might have thought that music wasn’t as cool as being a jock. Being an athlete was the cool thing to be. He definitely imbedded music in me. I still remember the records he used to play until this day. Certain songs that come on now, I’ll know all the words, even if they are fifteen or twenty years old. I’m thankful for everything that he taught me. We’ve had a rocky relationship throughout the years, but he taught me a lot. I know he loves me—he loves his kids. We’ve had our signals crossed at times. I accept that and I forgive him for it, and for any wrong he may have done to me or against my mother.
Tell me about the inspiration behind the song J. Dilla produced: ‘This Is A Man’s World.’
It’s to my father. It’s not anything to bash him with, but something I wanted to put out because it’s something that was lingering in my life that I felt needed to be addressed.
It sounds like he ruled the household with a heavy hand.
Right. And me being a man now, I definitely understand him a lot better. And I definitely appreciate him. I might not understand his tactics and the extremes he took in certain situations, but the motivations and the pressures of being a man—as a provider in a household and a disciplinarian for your kids—were what drove his actions. It’s not all financial. It’s mental as well as spiritual. But it also has a lot to do with communication. I’m sure I’ve done things to frustrate him, so I’m not here to point the finger at my father. However, I learned from the mistakes he made. It made me a better person—I know when I’m in that same situation as he was, I will deal with it better than he may have had at times.
What makes Kool G Rap your favorite?
It’s the underdog angle. Big Daddy Kane being the front man of the Juice Crew—he’s got the women and definitely had the lyrics. But the way Kool G Rap constructed his rhymes and how hard they were—you could tell he didn’t compromise anything. I think he gave the listener his style the way that they should have it, rather than how some people felt he should have delivered it. That angle in general just makes him a great rapper. I feel like in Run DMC, DMC was the better rapper. I just always liked the person that went behind the front man. Basically to solidify the group as something legitimate—that’s what Kool G Rap brought to the Juice Crew. He’s just hungry in general and I felt it.
What’s your advice for kids coming up?
My biggest advice is don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. It’s not going to be easy. For some, it might come easy. The main thing is if you feel in your heart that you have a genuine love for it and you have the urge to do it for a million dollars or for no money—between that spectrum, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Most people that are successful—that are large in their careers seeing x amount of dollars right now—have gone through a rock-bottom period in their career where they’ve questioned if this is what they want to do. I feel like in order to go to heaven, you’ve got to go through hell. In order to get ultimate success you have to through the struggle, so don’t take your first downfall in this industry as a deciding factor if this is what you’re meant to do. You may run into a lot of disappointments. So the main thing is to stay true to your dream. Stay true to yourself then you can’t go wrong.
What is your own dream and motivation for doing what you do?
To be able to earn a living with something I love to do which is music. And provide opportunities for my people that have gone through the same struggle that I have, with no outlet for your music where nobody cares. My thing is to generate something for them to have a position in this music and we can grow together. I don’t expect a million dollars overnight. I just expect a shot to bring my unit in and create jobs for them so we can learn how to create that million dollars. To be a self-contained unit where I can provide opportunities for my people that don’t have it as easy as me.
STONES THROW, ARTDONTSLEEP, KCRW AND SOUL PEOPLE L.A. PRESENT GUILTY SIMPSON’S ODE TO THE GHETTO RELEASE PARTY WITH HAVANA JOE ON THUR., APRIL 10, AT CRASH MANSION, 1024 S. GRAND, LOS ANGELES. 9 PM / COVER TBA / 21+. CRASHMANIONLA.COM. GUILTY SIMPSON’S ODE TO THE GHETTO IS OUT NOW ON STONES THROW. VISIT GUILTY SIMPSON AT STONESTHROW.COM.