Freddie Gibbs Is Proof That Your Greatness Outweighs Industry Rules

The Gary, Indiana, rapper’s story exemplifies the rise of a time that changed everything

Freddie Gibbs performs live at Santeria on November 5, 2019. Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

I try not to put too much stock in award shows. Part of that is because of who decides the winners; part is because many of these shows depend on Black artists for ratings but don’t reward them for their work. The last Black woman to win a Grammy for Best Album was Lauryn Hill—more than 20 years ago. Last century.

That said, I found myself invested in this year’s Best Rap category for the Grammys, in large part because Freddie Gibbs’ album Alfredo was one of the nominees. Nas may have ended up winning for King’s Disease, but Gibbs’ recognition felt like a win for his grind—as well as for the blog era, that uniquely revolutionary period of hip-hop he came from.

I was a writer at hip-hop blog The Smoking Section when I first heard about Gibbs. His mixtape The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs ended up in our editor TC’s hands, and he passed it on to the TSS don, John Gotty. G immediately fell in love with the rapper whose authenticity was as certified as his ability to find the smoothest pocket on any beat he came across. One of the joys of TSS and the blog era was latching on to artists as they were coming up and doing what we could to change the trajectory of their careers. Each of us in the crew had our own artists we believed in; I spent much of those early days writing about people like KRIT, Dee-1, and Mickey Factz. But once we all heard Miseducation, the site became Freddie Gibbs central.

It’s been crazy to think about those times, which I’ve been doing a lot of in the days leading up to the Grammys. We were struggling writers trying to put on struggling artists who were being managed by struggling enterprising managers. And most of us had day jobs.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about one night in New York City in 2010. I was fresh out of grad school and was in the city looking for a job in journalism. One of your favorite hip-hop publications had just offered me an unpaid internship I could never dream of affording. I left that publication’s office and immediately went to the venue where Gibbs was headlining for the first time in New York. His performance was transcendent. I remember the red lights shining on Gibbs, plumes of smoke dissipating in the air above him while he rapped. It felt like I was in the middle of a movie and Gibbs was the star and plot.

Then I went backstage and interviewed him for a TSS video with my guy Devin Chanda. I asked Gibbs what his plan for 2010 was; he compared his status to LeBron James, who had just shaken up the world as the biggest free agent in NBA history. We were both living our dreams and both looking for contracts. (As an aside, the place that offered me an unpaid internship posted the video of me interviewing Gibbs the next day.)

It’s wild to look back on those years when we were all just grinding and trying to figure out what was next in our lives — and the years of successes and tumult that would follow. And it’s just as wild to think back on the blog era, which feels like a whole previous lifetime of going to shows three times a week, scouring the streets and the internet for the acts that would change the game, and trying to write my way to a steady paycheck. But when I step back and take a wider look at what was going on in those years, it was a time of rewriting the rules of how music was consumed and disseminated. And Freddie Gibbs and his ascension embody that era.

He was rejected from the conventional record label path to success; instead, he forged his own road by simply working harder and being better than just about everyone else. His success is a reminder of what we believed in a decade ago: Eventually, the industry that doesn’t think it needs you will come around to your greatness. They always do.

Bonus: I was also particularly invested in Jay Electronica’s chances of winning this year as pretty much all of my blog era days were spent in New Orleans, and the community that embraced me and built with me in those early days is so close to my heart. Especially Lawrence “Law” Parker, who masterminded the album and who put together the below 2010 show that I was able to attend. But all that’s another story for another time.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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