Unfettered by the polorazing sonic histories of either coast, yet firmly centered in cross-country thoroughfares, the Midwest – and Chicago in particular – is fertile ground for innovation. However, the creative expressions of the city’s most prolific native sons and daughters have often been overshadowed by its violent reputation. 23-year-old G Herbo is part of a new generation of Chicago artists whose true-to-life lyrics embody the nuanced narratives of the influential city. Highsnobiety caught up with the rapper in Los Angeles to talk about his forthcoming album and his long-term plans to uplift Chicago’s youth.
In the era of social media where success feels like an overnight endeavor, G Herbo might (at first glance) seem to fit the rapid-rise model. Young, calculatedly indie, and hailing from one of Chicago’s most embattled neighborhoods (it’s been dubbed Terror Town by some), the rapper’s full-throttle 2018 would, for all intents and purposes, indicate a career turning point. In March 2018, Herbo freestyled over the beat of Three Six Mafia’s “Who Run It”, sparking a viral challenge that brought his long-simmering buzz to a full boil. The freestyle built on the groundwork of his debut studio album Humble Beast, released September 2017, and also set the tone for the nostalgia-tinged Swervo, which dropped July 2018.
Featuring production from TM88, Young Chop, London on da Track, Pi’erre Bourne, and Swervo producer Southside, Humble Beast received critical praise for its balance of raw, introspective lyrics and more celebratory easy-listening. The album went on to peak at 21 on the Billboard 200 charts and sold a very respectable 20k its first week – almost 7k of which came from traditional sales. For a self-funded independent artist, it was a solid freshman effort. Despite that, the project still flew below the radar for nominations, year-end lists and other such accolades.
Fortunately, Herbo has never quantified success in traditional terms, and it is precisely this reluctance to apply metrics to his cultural impact that has helped cultivate such a fiercely loyal fanbase, one that has been with him through two EPs, four mixtapes, and three studio albums. “I started doing music when I was 16,” he tells us. “The first song I ever recorded was on a flip phone. You know how you record the voice memos and stuff like that? I recorded a 60-second verse because I needed to talk about the stuff I was going through. I come from the East side of Chicago, one of the roughest neighborhoods. Getting out of that in any way is not easy. Whether you do music or play basketball or go to college – you have to be really focused to make it out of that kind of environment.”
Herbo’s forthcoming album PTSD revisits some of the themes that inspired his first attempts at rap, unpacking the psychological impact of environment-induced paranoia and trauma. “I love Chicago and I feel like if I hadn’t grown up on the East side of 79th I wouldn’t be the artist I am. I understood that early on, but I also understood you don’t really make it out of where I’m from. There are people who are 30 and 40-years-old who have never seen anything in their life outside of 79th and Essex. If you put a lot of those people in a room together and asked them, a good majority would say they have PTSD. Even me, I was in the streets early so I grew up early. I’m only 23 but I’ve had to carry myself like a grown man since I was 15.”
Unsettlingly grim singles like “4 Minutes of Hell, Part 3,” “Kill Shit,” and “Hood Cycle” – for which the rapper released a gritty lo-fi video in February – illuminate the harrowing realities that are all too familiar for many black boys in any of America’s racially segregated and marginalized communities. By 19, Herbo had lost over a dozen close friends to gun violence. One of the most difficult deaths was that of his best friend, Fazon Robinson, whom his 2014 mixtape Welcome to Fazoland commemorates. In a time in which rappers have become the bedrock of popular culture, some will undoubtedly glorify Herbo’s sobering reflections, but his intention isn’t to romanticize street life; the music began as, and remains, a form of self-catharsis that others in similar scenarios can find solace in.
“Before I started getting money and being in the streets I was playing basketball and going to my local youth center,” he reflects. “Everybody went there. We’d all come together, even the toughest people in the neighborhood – it was something we did to stay out the streets. One summer it got shut down and that’s when we started getting into fights and people started shooting at us and stuff – we were only 14.”
For Herbo, the loss of the Rebecca K. Crown Center signaled a premature end to a childhood already abbreviated by circumstance. In April 2018, the rapper welcomed a child of his own, and suddenly, the absence of community spaces in some of his hometown’s most beleaguered neighborhoods felt even more personal. “I have a son now and I have nephews who are still in Chicago,” he shares. “I’ve always said that I will never take my son on 79th and Essex unless it’s safe and not violent. He has to be safe. I have to be safe. I have to not feel like I have to look over my shoulder. The smallest adjustments, like making sure there are places where kids can play, could do that.”
Since 2014, Herbo has involved himself in the creation of one such space. He and his two managers, Joseph Bowden and Mikkey Halsted, whom he has worked with since the age of 17, are quietly revitalizing Anthony Overton Elementary School. Located in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood – a black mecca since the Great Migration (the mass exodus of African-Americans from the rural South between 1916 and 1940), it was one of 50 mostly African-American serving public schools shuttered by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013 as a response to the city’s $1 billion deficit. Though the school sits on several acres, Herbo is concentrating on revamping the Child Parent Center specifically. The finished structure will boast a media lab complete with music studio, audio and video editing rooms and management services for burgeoning musicians.
Herbo also hopes to offer skills training in production, graphic design and other creative disciplines. “Building up Chicago has always been part of my mindset,” he says. “When I was in the streets every day when I woke up I knew I could potentially die or go to jail. I don’t want my nephews or my son or any of the kids in Chicago to go through that, so I’m trying to do what I can to change it.”