The day is wilting, a rare humidity having sapped it of any crispness. But sauntering up a strip of Sunset Blvd. congested with rush-hour traffic, Ab-Soul seems an oasis. Preternaturally cool and self-assured, the 25-year-old Carson native glides more than walks. He wears sunglasses almost constantly due to his sensitivity to light, a lasting result of the life-threatening skin disease he suffered as a child. Tufts of his crinkly black hair puff out of his hat, which is emblazoned with ‘Top Dawg Ent.,’ the South Central label that houses him, Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. The four, who rap individually but also as the group Black Hippy, have slowly and steadily become the lyrically strongest and most intellectually challenging collective coming from the West Coast. Ab-Soul was the last to receive a solo push, recently releasing the very good Control System, flush with complex rhyme structures questioning the powers and methods used to control us. Considering his incredibly chill demeanor, it’s a captivating contrast. This interview by Rebecca Haithcoat.
You want a margarita?
Nah, I been sipping lean. I’m not sure if I should mix that. It’s great if you wanna get some good sleep. But it’s definitely a terrible, expensive habit.
You’re naturally a thin dude, but it seems to make a lot of people plump.
For a lot of reasons. It’s a very expensive drug, so bosses usually drink it the most. Bosses usually sit around on their ass and eat. You feel me? You feel what I’m sayin’? I definitely don’t see myself as a boss. I don’t want to control anybody like that. All I do is ask for favors. I just drink it cuz it tastes great. Tastes great! And it does give you some great sleep.
Your boys were mixing it with Mountain Dew. I thought that was a Southern soda.
Oh, I like Mountain Dew. I drank it up until the thing came out that it made your … did you ever hear that?
Noooo … what?
The thing came out that it made your … um, penis stop growing or shrink.
That’s not true!
For sure, for sure not true—probably. But as a kid you’re like, ‘Heck no! I’m young! Don’t cut me short early!’
What were you like when you were a kid? I remember reading something that struck me due to your word choice, that you called yourself ‘quite peculiar.’
When I was 10 years old, I [starts to explain contracting Stevens-Johnson syndrome]—oh, you know? I’m finally getting to that point where everybody KNOWS everything now. I was hospitalized for a good amount [of time], so when I got out, it was the summer before going into middle school. In my healing process, I had to take steroids to get my weight back and I had to wear shades, and my lips were still healing. I looked like something was wrong with me. People showed that. I could tell. You could catch people just looking at me like, ‘What happened to him?!’
That’s a really awkward time for that to happen. 12, 13 years old?
Yeah! For real. The shrink thought I’d be traumatized. I didn’t think about it as a kid—I was always surrounded by love. My mom and everybody were [at the hospital] with me everyday. I had real good friends, and my school did great shit for me. I was a confident kid! I realized I looked different and weird, but they told me I would heal and I was like, ‘Whatever, so what.’ I didn’t take it that hard, which is amazing, being 25 looking back. The day I was about to leave the hospital, they sent a psychiatrist. He was talking to me like, ‘So, Herbert …’ ‘What’s wrong with you, bro? I can’t wait to get back to the homies! I wanna play basketball!’ I been laying around in this hospital forever, I just learned how to walk again, I’m trying to get back on the street. I had to reteach myself how to walk cuz I was laying down so much, like for two or three months! For like half my fifth grade semester, I was hospitalized. Lying in bed. So much that I had to relearn. It wasn’t hard—it was just that my legs weren’t working. It’s crazy, I look back at it like, ‘We coulda got paid! That’s what he was doing! He was trying to see if I was crazy. All I had to do was play stupid!’ [Laughs] But I had some strong friends, and my teacher at school did some nice things. She sent a recording of all my friends saying, ‘Get better, Herb,’ cuz I was cool. I was always real cool. I remember my Day 1 homie, Josh, like, ‘Herb, if you die Ima kill you!’ Elementary school, right? [Laughs] I was always around good people. Middle school is when you really wanna get into with the girls, wanna be a man.
How are you with girls?
Sixth and seventh grade I was very peculiar, so it wouldn’t have been too cool to mess with me. I understood. I never cried about the shit or nothing like that. But I was just being observant, which I’m very grateful for now. I just really became friends with everybody. I was real cool with the girls, to the point where they eventually just liked [me]. By the time ninth grade rolled around, I was healing and cool. Maybe not top-shelf, but I was cool.
One of my mentors has this theory that you have profound experiences that shape you as a person every seven years of your life—so what do you think yours are? 7, 14, 21?
Lemme think. By 7, I was confident I would play in the NBA. For sure, without a doubt. I knew I was going to be able to play with Shaq. I was very decent, I was healthy, that was my passion. By 14, all that stuff [with my health] had happened. I lost my vision—well, my vision isn’t completely gone, but it’s not 20/20, not basketball-sharp. So my hoop dreams went away and I picked up the pen when I was like 12 or 13. By 14, I knew I was a dope rapper. I made the connection—I always wrote great essays, and I saw I was good with the rhyme, too. I didn’t know I wanted to pursue it as a career, but I knew I was real tight and completely in love with rap. Twenty-one—what year was that? 2008, Longterm [his first album] came out to the world. We gonna keep going? Uh, 28? Oh, I’m not 28 yet. We’ll see.
One of the things I like so much about your music is that it appeals to my nerdy—
Your journalism. I wrote the best essays. My teachers were pissed. They were like, ‘He writes the best essays but he doesn’t do shit!’ That was my plight in school. I just didn’t like to do work. If we had to do it in class, OK. I’m not gonna go home and do it. I’m with y’all six, eight hours a day, man. My mom read to me as a baby. My favorite cartoon of all time is probably Charlie Brown. Think about it: I didn’t even realize what was going on as a kid, but looking back, I was like, ‘These motherfuckers were adults to where they didn’t even hear the adults!’ Genius. So words, reading, I took pride in being able to read. When it was your time to read in class, and the one next to you was kinda stuttering, you’d get the book and do it like the teacher.
You were already performing.
Exactly. I remember when Kriss Kross came out. I wasn’t really all into rap like that, but I really liked them cuz they were kids and it was tight. Me and my cousin had memorized all their lyrics and put on a little concert. I thought that was tight.
They were speaking to us as kids—‘I missed the bus, heyyyy.’
Real talk. That’s why I loved it. As a real baby I loved Michael Jackson. My mama says she’s gonna save that for VH1. But I always loved words. The connection, what they could get you into, what they could get you out of.
You talk about libraries and how education should be free.
That’s always been my thing. Buying education sounds retarded. I learned half the words I know from watching Charlie Brown! I was just always listening, you get that for free. I’ve said this before, but this is the best analogy I can use. Doctors are the highest paid profession out of college, right? So that means whoever the forces that be are trying to imply that it’s very important to stay alive. So if it’s so important to stay alive, why isn’t that just taught in regular school? Shouldn’t we all be trained in helping people if they’re sick?
But really, the health care system here is more about keeping you sick.
Exactly. Exactly. But that’s a whole ’nother conversation. Why are we paying for education?
I think I know this, but what book has most impacted your life?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And I didn’t even read the whole thing. Cuz I knew the ending! [Laughs]
Why’d you pick that book up?
I started getting on a Black Power tip. Think a lotta guys go through that. I got real deep into that white man shit, and [Malcolm X] was the tightest figure to me. I still get it. It still applies. He exposed the flaws of religion. He didn’t even have time to crack the code but he was on his way, and that’s what got him killed, in my opinion. Just my opinion! I took it hard cuz I grew up in the church. And after I read that book, I asked myself why I had to go, why my mama wanted me to go so bad. Later on I realized she just wanted me to go cuz her mama made her go, but break the chain! Making people do what they don’t wanna do takes away the value. When people make other people feel like they HAVE to do something, they’re trying to change them. I’m just not into that.
If we all do what we want to do, we’ll devolve into a state of chaos. So where’s the balance? Your album Control System speaks to this a little bit—but we have to have some system in place.
Absolutely. The actual Constitution is cool, don’t you think? But it just doesn’t end up happening that way. There’s a lot of double entendres and metaphors and analogies, so it’s like, in the court of law, it can be taken different ways. Control System is really me just asking these types of questions. Cuz I really don’t know. I don’t know what’s gonna help. I wish there were some way we could be happy and live in harmony, but I don’t know. I made that album to raise those types of questions and maybe get people thinking about them. I’m with it if we could all come together and figure it out, but I don’t even know how we’d go about doing that.
You said you gave up on voting. Why?
Man. I was looking at the inauguration. Barack Obama was the first president I ever voted for. I was very excited about that, my grandmother was very excited about that, and I respect that to a T. She came from a real segregated time, so for her to see a guy who looks like her in that office was probably out of this world. But I asked myself, ‘Who does the guy who reads him the inauguration work for?’ Cuz THAT’S probably the president. I tripped out. Who does that guy work for? That’s the question I’ve been stuck with ever since. So I’m not participating in any of that until someone can tell me who his boss is.
You still reference God on this new record. Do you believe in God?
I believe in the idea. The idea is true. It’s the most consistent thing in everybody. We know it, that’s why we hold on to it so tight. ‘God’ is the most recent word we describe that idea as. I respect the fact that our human mind probably isn’t designed to comprehend that idea. But I’m still learning, still reaching.
Remember that study that said we only use ten percent of our brain? But it’s also the idea of finite vs. infinite. Our minds deal in the finite—something begins, it ends. The concept of forever is difficult to grasp. Like, how do you put words to ‘forever’?
How do you even put a word to the idea of God? What gives you the right to tell someone what His name is? I don’t want to even say it’s a He. I think we really need to stop acting like we know. Admit we don’t and that we’re all just trying to figure it out.
A lot of people really like the song ‘Pineal Gland’—but I don’t know how exactly to pronounce it.
It’s shaped like a pine cone. The Vatican has a big-ass statue of a pine cone in it for some reason. The guys who pronounce it ‘PIN-eal’ are, well, number one, probably don’t know it, and it looks like that. But they’re trying to get you away from the root of it, the pine, the symbolism.
Well, after I told you that, you’re probably gonna see a lot of pine cone symbolism, if you look back into ancient shit. I YouTube a lot, watch documentaries. I just like to learn about shit. Old ancient things shape today. Go back to the source, read about it, see what they did, see the parallels.
You believe if you don’t study history, you’re doomed to repeat it?
No. Because a few family lines will make sure they don’t repeat the same mistakes. Different cultures still around pass the information on to their families, and they’re prepared for what’s going to happen. Just because you study history doesn’t mean it’s not going to repeat, either.
Do you think people are more attracted to light or dark?
Beautiful question. [He calls over to his friends and repeats the question.] I think night and day, light and dark is the foundation of everything. Good and bad. You look out into space, what are you going to see more of? Dark. Why I say this is a great question is I kinda just recently asked myself this, and think that might be the metaphor for us trying to get back to God, get back to the light. Maybe when the light is greater than the dark, that’s when the game is over. All these religions are about finding the light, stepping into the light. I don’t know, really. These are great questions but I never want to come across as a know-it-all, you know?
You don’t come across that way. You seem like you have that curious spirit. So—outside of a person, what’s the last thing you loved?
That’s a great question, too, cuz I think I’m actually starting to understand the concept of ‘one love.’ That was my first tattoo, and I got it cuz me and my girl were getting our tattoos at the same time, and I couldn’t afford the one I wanted. [Points to his arm] This one, Soul Brother number one, on the Afro-Sheen bottle. I’ve been thinking about ‘one love,’ though, and I think that’s true. I saw somewhere that love is the law of vibrational energy, and that made a lot of sense. I think love is just a frequency that we understand. We should have that frequency for everything living here. When you say you love this but not that, it throws off the harmony. How I was raised is—a war’s going on outside, we’re gonna lock the door and stay inside. Getting older, I think that might be a system of control, keeping us all in our little houses. When you fill out applications, check ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘Asian’—keep people in these little boxes. That’s where the chaos is gonna come from, cuz we’re all separated, still. We thought we were integrated but we’re not. We can walk down the same street now, might even say hi. But I can’t bring a white girl home. I mean, I would, cuz I’m grown, but there would be an issue due to how we were raised. Not to disrespect [my family], but that’s a perfect example of how the harmony is off. I heard someone say that unconditional love is loving all things equally. I’m with that. The sun doesn’t rise and set on your ass. Anything is possible, but nobody is special.
Schoolboy Q told me you’re TDE’s Einstein.
Q is that dude who, when I start talking about that shit, is like, ‘Man, shut the fuck up, smoke some dope.’ [Laughs] ‘What the fuck is Nibiru, dawg?’
What is Nibiru?
You’re gonna have a great night. Look up ‘Nibiru.’
You’re being a teacher right now.
That’s what Control System is really about. Finding a way to share with the homies. Since Q really liked the song ‘Pineal Gland,’ he had to hear that shit he don’t like me to talk about. He had to hear it. [It was] trickery, almost. Once you [rap along to lyrics] so many times, if you don’t know what they mean, it’s just human nature to wonder. Keep asking questions. Keep getting people to ask questions.
AB-SOUL’S CONTROL SYSTEM IS OUT NOW ON TOP DAWG ENTERTAINMENT. TOPDAWGMUSIC.COM.