“In my hood, there was no hope,” says the Sacramento MC, “but that turned me into a monster.”
ShooterGang Kony has seen more in his 20 years than many see in a lifetime. Born and raised in Sacramento, Kony has lost many close friends and spent time behind bars on a gun charge, all while managing a burgeoning rap career. But the reality of his situation always made music an afterthought.
"I wanted to play football when I was real little,” he says, “but it's so easy to get your dreams crushed where I'm from. I realized what real life was like by the time I was 12 or 13."
He believes he has an old soul. "I know more than the average adult that tries to tell me about myself," he explains.
Kony transfers that wisdom into words on Second Hand Smoke, his astounding new record, released last month (July 17). The album's emotional core is its lead track, "Off the Dribble," which is a tribute to Kony's late friend, Terryon. Kony says that he’s lost most of his "brothers” — best friends who he's been surrounded by since childhood. This pain is palpable on certain Second Hand tracks, but Kony effortlessly balances these touching tributes with street tales and recollections of hustling.
The entire record is infused with a Bay Area bounce, equal parts Mozzy and SOBxRBE; we get woozy synths and the low-end wallop of 808s, backed by handclaps and high-pitched snares, offering enough space for Kony to assert himself above the beat. He's a son of Sacramento, a regional stylist able to push past his confines and into the national spotlight.
Kony's been an up-and-comer since 2018, when he released three solid-if-not-spectacular tapes. But Second Hand Smoke feels different. It's a revelatory look into Kony's mindset, displaying the ease with which he tells stories. He's a natural MC, loose and free but with a seriousness that comes with honed skills. Second Hand Smoke has odes, bullshit raps, club songs, crime tales, inspirational messages. Kony finesses each with precision and assuredness, proving himself to be more than an amalgamation of the Bay's biggest stars.
As he tells Billboard in a recent conversation, Kony is pushing to keep his dream alive, to honor his fallen brothers and take care of his mom.
The album has been out for a few weeks. How are you feeling about it now?
I feel like it's big. It's more than I expected for it. I love how it's going. The numbers are looking good. I know it's just the beginning, though. I had high expectations, so I like how it's going.
You've put out successful tapes before. Does this feel different?
For sure. It feels like my first real project. This was the most professional record I've ever made — we really organized it. Of course, I always put my heart into everything, but with this one, it's different. I've got songs from two years ago and songs from a few months ago. Three or four albums ago, I was thinking about songs that would be on this album. There's stuff that I've been saving for this.
You have a very distinct storytelling style. Where does that come from?
I just listen to a lot of rap. My favorite stuff was concept-type records. Everyone that meets tells me I have an old soul, that I act older than I am. It's been like that since I was a little kid. It's just the stories I've been through as a child. I've been through a lot. I've been in and out of jail, probation since 13 years old, jail since 15. I know more than the average adult that tries to tell me about myself. So I feel like no one can tell me nothing. I can explain my life better than anyone else, because I've actually been through it.
Who were some of the rappers you listened to growing up?
Snoop Dogg is my main one. "Murder Was the Case" influenced me and how I rap, for some reason. I just love the style and the way he paints a picture. I try to do that, to visualize in that way. Ice Cube is another one, 2Pac too, Biggie as well. A Tribe Called Quest, too. I could keep going down the list.
You put out a bunch of mixtapes last year. Why did you want to take some time and put out your first album of 2019 in the summer?
I was just preparing. Last year I dropped so much, but last year was also the first time I was really dropping music. Last year was a breakthrough for me because I just got my manager [Johntrell ‘Pook’ Dixon]. I wasn't taking the rap shit as seriously until I caught another case and went to jail. I'm talking to my manager on the phone in jail, and he's telling me I gotta get out and do music.
The influence was dropping tapes and seeing the checks. More music means more checks. By the time I had enough money to make sure my mom was good and I was good, I could take some time to drop what I wanted to drop. I'm not hurting, I don't need to trap no more. The money is right there. We not hungry anymore. We can do it the right way.
What's it like to spend time in and out of jail, and now being able to provide for your family?
It's unbelievable. You don't want nobody to take that from you. There are so many people like me, generations where you play sports or rap — especially in my neighborhood. I didn't know any famous people, either. For me to be able to sit there and do that, I feel like a hood hero.
I wanna change everybody else's life, too. I want all my homies to drop music, because we have that space now. It seems so simple, but it's so crazy. The more music you drop, the more you get paid. It's common sense, but we never thought about it like that. Now that it's really in my hands, nobody can tell me what to do. We getting that money legally.
How do you balance making money and being a true artist?
I make slaps. To be real, if we're making all this music, we've got a formula where we can put out EPs and albums and balance good shit on both. We can organize all these riot songs. Some go on the album, and then some go on the EP that also slap, but it sounds like some other shit. We keepin' it unique. The streams are gonna go crazy because we know what people like.
Having unbiased opinions around you helps, because you don't want a bunch of yes-men around you. When someone tells me something isn't album material, I listen to them. I can be over-critical of myself, but I can decide if it's worth an album or if someone can stream it as something else on an EP.
So you have a good team around you? Are you good at taking criticism?
I overthink a lot, but if someone tells me something is good, I'll go back and listen to it a hella lot. Everyone tells me I'm tripping, but it's my art. Of course I'm tripping about it. I got a lot of people around me that listen to different types of music. I know what songs to show to certain people, because I'll show them something they wouldn't normally listen to. If that person tells me it's good, I know it's great.
You wrote "Off the Dribble" after your close friend passed away. Has writing always been cathartic for you?
To be honest, no. My manager used to tell me that I needed to open up more in my raps. When I first started, I wouldn't talk about no pain that I had. I was just talking about bullshit. It got easier later. I don't have too much pain in my songs. I do talk about it, but my album isn't straight tragedy. I got different moods, too. So when I do let that mood out, it comes across powerfully because I don't over-use it. I pick and choose. I don't force the beat. If the beat is right, Ima cry on it. I don't force myself to talk about nothing that doesn't come to my head. That's what makes it really meaningful.
"Off the Dribble" is really the first song I ever wrote in my feelings. Before that I was just rapping, talking about whatever. That was the first song where I sat in the studio and my chest kind of hurt. Anger started really coming up. My first brother died last year, and I've lost four brothers since. When he died, it was the closest death I've had. I really didn't understand. When I heard that beat, I didn't know what I was gonna write about. I heard the piano and I just started typing. I write hella fast, so before the beat was done, I finished the song.
Is a lot of the stuff you do for your brothers that have passed away? To keep their memories alive?
For sure. It gives me motivation. More than motivation, really. My brothers that have died are the same people that have told me I gotta make it. I still hear these n—as' voices telling me that without me there really ain't no other way. I know there's a lot of weight on my shoulders. They're not here to tell me to slow down or take over, so I just gotta do my best. They left me with some answers and I just gotta follow them.
What was it like growing up in Sacramento?
It was so closed-in. It was hella tunnel vision. Even when I got old enough to realize what I wanted to do, I never saw the same shit other people saw. I was never a kid that said he wanted to be a rapper. I wanted to play football when I was real little, but it's so easy to get your dreams crushed where I'm from. I realized what real life was like by the time I was 12 or 13. I was like, n—a, it's a one-in-a-million chance of making it. I realized that everything's hella hard. I realized real life was hard early on. Sometimes people are blind to that until they get way older. Some n—as won't even realize that n—as are really dying out here until they're 16 or 17.
I realized that life is ending when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was around gangbanging and hella shit. By 13 or 14, I was having talks with my brothers about how it doesn't matter if we go to jail for life, because we ain't gonna do nothing. Rap wasn't in the picture. I didn't know one rapper. Where I'm from, we didn't know anyone. Mozzy was the first rapper that I had seen grow up. Where I'm from, it was a place of no hope — not just Northern California, not just Sacramento, but Oak Park. In my hood, there was no hope, but that turned me into a monster. I never would have rapped if I didn't go to jail. The first time I thought about rapping was in a jail cell.
You're only 20, but do you view yourself as role model for kids in your community?
I view myself as a role model to older people, too. People I looked up to when I was younger tell me I'm their hero. People I used to be scared to talk to, the dudes in the hood with all the money who we'd be hearing about since we were toddlers, they now tell me they admire what I do. I'm the perfect example of how you're supposed to do it. To be independent and really push. I have a team and we just go with it. People admire it. I know I'm a role model to older n—as, and I'm a role model to younger dudes, too.
If you could offer a younger version of yourself any advice, what would it be?
Shit, don't waste your life. If you have ideas, go and do that shit. Don't play with it because the longer you wait, shit, ain't nothing waiting for you. When I first started playing around with rap, I wish someone told me, "really do it.' It sounds so simple, but it's already too late for some people! You'll meet the most talented people in prison doing life with so much gas, so many lyrics, but one day could be too late. You could do some shit yesterday and it could fuck you up for the rest of your life.
Don't ever wait to do what you need to do. Life ain't waiting on you. Some people got it better than us, some people got it worse. Do what you're supposed to do.