Freddie Gibbs is in a good mood. He’s in New York to visit his new label home, RCA/Keep Cool, with which he inked a deal in March to release a new collaborative album, Bandana. It will be his second with Madlib, and follows the pair’s acclaimed 2014 set, Piñata. For Gibbs, the upcoming major-label release is not a victory lap — it’s the shot he has earned after more than a decade of grinding as an independent artist.
In 2006, Gibbs, then a baby-faced MC in his early 20s with a reputation for harrowing street tales, signed with Interscope. He was dropped a year later, before his debut was released. “When I was at Interscope, I didn’t have a plan,” he says. “They were testing the waters to see if I could make music to their liking. I didn’t have any leverage, because I had nothing to stand on.” Now, the 36-year-old born Fredrick Tipson in Gary, Ind., insists that working with RCA/Keep Cool “is a totally different situation. I went into this knowing what I had to do — and knowing what we wanted to do.”
Bandana, out June 28, stands in stark contrast to today’s SoundCloud rap scene. The duo pushes songs over three minutes, with Madlib switching beats mid-track. With his unfiltered, in-your-face attitude, Gibbs mirrors the grime and grit of 1990s rap. “We up there with [’90s hip-hop duo] Pete Rock & CL Smooth,” he says. “We the best doing it [today]. You got Run the Jewels, and I love what they do, but what me and Madlib do? It stands alone.”
After he was dropped, Gibbs independently released a flurry of mixtapes including 2009’s acclaimed The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs and 2010’s Str8 Killa EP. In 2011, the gruff-voiced MC signed to Jeezy’s Corporate Thugz Entertainment label and dropped two projects before exiting in 2013, citing creative differences, to begin his independent label ESGN (Evil Seeds Grow Naturally), on which he finally put out his first full-length of the same name — it reached No. 24 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
The 45-year-old Madlib (real name: Otis Jackson Jr.) was born into a musically inclined family in Oxnard, Calif.: His parents were musicians; his uncle is jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis; and his younger brother, Michael Woodrow Jackson, is rapper-producer Oh No, who has landed production credits for Action Bronson, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Madlib himself boasts an impressive résumé of collaborators, including Kanye West, Erykah Badu and Anderson .Paak. But the notoriously private producer is most enthralled with Gibbs and his razor-sharp street edge and charisma. Says Madlib: “He’s gangsta.”
He and Gibbs first teamed up for their series of joint EPs in 2011, with Thuggin’, which they recorded under the name MadGibbs and released on the producer’s own independent label, Madlib Invazion (the producer himself is signed to Los Angeles indie Stones Throw Records). MadGibbs dropped two more EPs (Shame in 2012, Deeper in 2013) before hunkering down on a proper full-length. The soul-stirring Piñata, which featured boom-bap masters like Raekwon, Mac Miller, Danny Brown and Earl Sweatshirt, debuted at No. 39 on the Billboard 200 and peaked at No. 7 on the Top Rap Albums chart.
Gibbs and Madlib vowed to release an edgier follow-up. But before they even had a chance to enter the studio, Gibbs was arrested in June 2016 prior to a concert in Toulouse, France, for an alleged rape nearly one year prior. He spent two weeks in jail, posted bail and was then extradited to Austria for his trial. In August, he was charged with sexual assault. In September, after spending over a month in jail, he was acquitted of all charges. Speaking to XXL in 2017, Gibbs said that while he was cleared of the charges, he was well aware of the fact that people in the industry were scared to go near him. “Young rappers with shit like that on their name don’t give a fuck, the hip-hop world don’t give a fuck,” he said. “But not me. I had to patch things up.”
Gibbs wrote 80% of Bandana while in jail, using the beats that Madlib had given him before he was arrested. “I had no music player or anything like that in my cell, so all I had was memory. I’d think about the subject matter, and all night I just played the beats in my brain.” Says Madlib: “We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. I didn’t even know if there was going to be a second album.” All the while, Keep Cool co-founder Tunji Balogun was connecting Gibbs and his manager, Lambo, with lawyers to help navigate the process. Once the charges were dropped, Gibbs and Madlib had one goal in mind: finish the album as soon as possible.
Three years later, the duo did just that. Unlike its predecessor, the release not only has the backing of a major label, it sees Gibbs reckoning with his past. The somber “Practice” addresses his own infidelity, and over Madlib’s ominous production on “Situations,” he openly addresses how murder, theft and drug-dealing tore his family apart. But it’s “Soul Right” that stands out most, thanks to Gibbs’ newfound optimism: “I can’t hold no grudges, my hands are too busy catching blessings.”
“This is what we’ve been waiting for and what we’ve been grinding for,” says Gibbs. “[It’s] an opportunity to compete with the best. I could run circles around these little independent n—as all day. I want to be up there with the top-echelon rappers, because that’s what the fuck I am. Madlib gives me the ingredients, and I make the gumbo.”
Let's Make A Deal
Keep Cool’s Tunji Balogun on helping Gibbs trust the major-label machine.
How did you convince Freddie, who had a long-standing career as an independent artist, to join a major?
It wasn’t a strategic thing, it just made sense. There was no convincing. It was really like, “Yo, let’s try this and see if it can make sense businesswise,” and we got it to a place where everybody was happy. I’ve been friends with Freddie and his manager, Lambo, for over a decade now and watched them build a really solid career for Freddie purely based off the quality of his music and his consistency. With Madlib, it was the same way. It was something that I wanted to have the opportunity to work on and help them get it to the world. It was a long time coming.
What was the biggest challenge?
I was scared because I thought [this album] was going to have 100 samples and be super hard to clear, but we developed a strategy and managed to get it all squared away. Our team at RCA, they spent almost a year painstakingly clearing these songs.
How do they stand out from other hip-hop duos?
For them both to be veterans, but this is only their second album, it still feels fresh. The first album did really, really well on basically a shoestring budget because they put it out independently. The format that they’re using is nonexistent elsewhere in the industry, other than Run the Jewels. We’re charting new territory; keeping a sensibility of them as an underground act, but also using the power of the label to get more eyes and ears on the music.
Is Freddie now exploring a long-term relationship with the label?
Obviously if this does well, we would love to do more. I know Freddie and Madlib are flirting with the idea of doing another project together. So if that happens, we would love to put it out.
This article originally appeared in the June 1 issue of Billboard.