California’s (San Francisco) Bay Area has always felt separated from the wider world of rap music. Despite having icons such as E-40, Mac Dre and Lil B residing there, the Bay has never been acknowledged for the trend-setting place that it is.
When Oakland’s Keak Da Sneak coined the term ‘hyphy’ in 1994, it soon developed into a movement rebelling against the ignorance. While many hyphy acts continue to be big stars on a local and cult scale, it is rare to see a Bay Area artist enjoying global success.
Over the past few years though, the focus has moved back to the Bay. On Drake’s 2011 hit ‘The Motto’ (the track which popularised ‘YOLO’), producer T-Minus replicates the signature slapping basslines of the Bay, and Mac Dre’s mother even makes an appearance in the video.
More recently, DJ Mustard, a Los Angeles producer who takes influences from the hyphy sound, has risen to popularity with club hits like Tyga’s ‘Rack City’, 2 Chainz’s ‘I’m Different’ and YG’s ‘My N*gga’, even crossing over into the pop mainstream with Will.i.am, French Montana, Miley Cyrus and Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Feelin’ Myself’ and Jennifer Lopez’s ‘Girls’.
Enter The HBK Gang, AKA The Heartbreak Gang, a crew of young Bay Area rappers, producers and creatives. Dressing in a combination of hip-hop and skate fashion, the group is visually comparable to on-trend collectives like Odd Future, and their two biggest acts have both recently released major label debuts.
Twenty-four-year-old Richmond native and HBK Gang co-founder IamSu!’s ‘Sincerely Yours’ follows a consistent run of critically acclaimed mixtapes as well as production for Bay veteran E-40’s ‘Function’ and Loverance’s 50 Cent-featured ‘UP!’. Fairfield’s Sage The Gemini is the gang’s newest addition, and his ‘Remember Me’ follows the 21-year-old rapper’s club hits ‘Red Nose’ and ‘Gas Pedal’, which have achieved viral status due to their connection to the ‘yiking’ dance craze and have been spreading through YouTube and Vine like wildfire.
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Sage The Gemini, ‘College Drop’, from ‘Remember Me’
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Both have slightly different interpretations of the American Dream. IamSu! tells Clash that he just hopes to be in a situation where he can pursue his true aspirations – making music, putting out his friends’ material and touring – without being bothered. However, Sage feels like it’s not a concept that was designed for him: “Not to disrespect the American Dream or anything, but I only really worry about what my perception of my dream is really. And that’s because sometimes the American Dream probably won’t even work in my favour.”
“The Bay is a big melting pot of so many different things, so our viewpoint is really different from a lot of other places in the country,” explains Su. “I think we’re a lot more liberal.”
Sage agrees with the positivity of growing up in the Bay, but also acknowledges that it’s not all hyphy music and dancing.
“The Bay Area is one of the most fun, and most dangerous places you can be in the world,” he says. “There’s just certain places you have to watch out for, but other than that it’s great. Growing up in the Bay Area for me was very hard. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I think God put me in that situation to make me a very humble person in the situation that I’m dealing with right now.”
He attributes the positive musical output to be directly related to the difficulty of growing up there: “We’re trying to veer away from the negativity because we’re never going to go anywhere if we focus on negative stuff. So there’s a lot of celebration in our accomplishments, based on being from the independent side of the state of California. Because there’s a lot of help and support on the other side of California, but not so much over this side.”
HBK Gang formed at Su’s high school. “We’re just a group of friends; other than Sage we all went to the same high school,” says Su. “We just grew up together. We all come from different backgrounds but we all have the same goal.” Sage was always a fan, citing IamSu! as his favourite rapper of all time. “That’s amazing,” says Su, genuinely humbled. “And that’s what I do it for, that’s what keeps me going. The fact that I can have such an impact on somebody, it’s really beautiful. It’s touching.”
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IamSu!, ‘Only That Real’, from ‘Sincerely Yours’
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The pair met when Sage invited Su to contribute a verse to his self-produced single ‘Gas Pedal’ last year, and soon after Sage got down with HBK. The track has since gone platinum and even has a Justin Bieber-featured remix. It follows another single, ‘Red Nose’, and between the two Sage The Gemini’s name has transcended the Bay, resulting in a record deal with Republic/Island.
However, both songs actually started life as jokes: “If I was to do a song with me really rapping, and saying deep and powerful lyrics, nobody would have paid attention to me,” says Sage. “So I thought, if I made a song where I was just saying anything, people would be like, ‘What the heck? What did he just say? What’s a red nose?’ And sure enough they did and it just spread all over the world.”
The joke paid off; type ‘yiking’ into YouTube or Vine and hit play on a video and it’s likely you will hear one of the two singles. “My big brother Chonkie, he made up the dance,” says Sage, who tours with a team of backing dancers – a rarity in hip-hop since the early-’90s.
“He grabbed a girl’s hips and was moving side-to-side in a gyrating motion kind of like a snake and she started to go along with him and people started to gravitate to that. It’s one of those dances that’s hard to do, so everybody tried it. Kind of like Flappy Bird, you can’t really get it, so it makes it fun. That made the songs that go with it kind of big too. Everybody started downloading them trying to do it, and putting it on YouTube with the song, and it just got big. It’s still going right now.”
While Sage’s rise has focused around singles, Su has taken the mixtape route. Initially recording his first tapes around 2008, he has released mixtapes at least annually since 2010 – although he has upped his game in recent years, putting out an impressive six tapes between 2012 and 2013.
I wanted everything to be really genuine and I wanted to do a lot of storytelling, but I didn’t want it to be too preachy...
“I’m a big fan of Wiz Khalifa and Lil Wayne, and they were advocates of the mixtape game,” says Su. “That got them to the position where they had that consistency. I wanted to duplicate that same thing. Just be super consistent, and then when I come with the album people are all the way familiar with what I sound like, what I look like and who I am.”
His debut album ‘Sincerely Yours’ is what he describes as the “movie version” of his previous work: “Like the Entourage TV series, but the movie has got to take it to another level, so that’s what I had to do.”
Beyond the dance-focused vibes of much of the Bay Area’s output, ‘Sincerely Yours’ sees IamSu! drawing from an obsession with rap music in general. Its influences extend to the likes of Drake and Kanye West as well as the local hyphy heroes who inspired the sparse 808-driven production that runs throughout the record.
“With this album I had a really loose concept of an open letter, so I used that to tie all of the songs together,” he says of its theme. “I wanted everything to be really genuine and I wanted to do a lot of storytelling, but I didn’t want it to be too preachy.”
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Sage The Gemini, ‘Red Nose’
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For every introspective cut like the title track there is a dancefloor-ready offering like ‘Only That Real’, the album’s lead single, which features 2 Chainz and Sage. Although he clearly has a strong bond with his region, his goal is to be more than a local star.
“I feel like there’s so much good music out here,” says Su. “But it’s almost like there’s like a glass roof on top of the region, and we want to be the ones that break out and let everybody know that there’s good music where we’re from.” The balance of Bay Area elements and references to the wider rap world in Su’s music, coupled with his love of hipster girls and streetwear, set him up as a great bridge from the Bay to international stardom.
As part of production team The Invasion, Su has also produced much of his output. With last year’s ‘Kilt 2’ mixtape, his aim was to play more live instruments in his music, and that’s continued with ‘Sincerely Yours’. While he only produced a total of four tracks from the 15 on the album, he was very hands-on as the executive producer. “I would go back and add a lot of music and play a lot of stuff myself,” he explains. “I definitely think that makes it easier [to be able to produce and play instruments as well as rap] just having the whole vision. You can really execute what you hear in your mind.”
But while early indications of success for Su, Sage and the rest of the HBK Gang are positive, neither feels as though they have achieved their American Dream just yet. After all, it isn’t the standard of the music in the Bay that has ever been in question. Sage has other ideas regarding the lack of exposure for the area’s music.
The Bay area doesn’t really have a lot of rich people – we don’t have P. Diddy kind of people, or labels – so we don’t get to sit at the cool table with the international superstars...
“The music industry is kind of like high school: you have the cool crowd and the nerds, and to the industry we are the lower class, like the nerds. The Bay area doesn’t really have a lot of rich people – we don’t have P. Diddy kind of people, or labels – so we don’t get to sit at the cool table with the international superstars. Whatever we do, we have to do it by ourselves, rather than having people support us. It’s a lot easier on other sides,” he explains. “Certain people who run parts of the media decide that it’s not supposed to go national because they don’t sort of like that side of the world.”
Recently, IamSu! recorded a performance of ‘Only That Real’ backed by Sage for The Arsenio Hall Show, his first late-night TV performance as lead artist. The pair has already performed Sage’s ‘Gas Pedal’ on David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. “I usually don’t get nervous before I do shows,” Su tells us. “But before I went on Arsenio I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really nervous right now.’ I was tripping, so it was just a different experience. My mom was there. It was fun. My mom puts Arsenio on a crazy pedestal!”
It seems like the media is finally paying attention to the Bay. And with two great debut albums from IamSu! and Sage The Gemini in circulation, and the rest of HBK Gang poised to follow, perhaps the Bay Area’s glass ceiling can be removed for good.
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photos: Nathaniel Wood
This article is taken from Clash magazine’s American Dream-themed issue (96) – details and purchase links.