DIY hustle brought this Bay Area MC a hit record without a label. Is the spotlight not far behind?
Jamil Davis, co-manager of rapper G-Eazy, bursts through a dressing room door on NBC's 8th floor with exciting news.
"They just approved," he says. "You can say 'bitch' and 'slut.'"
The rules of late-night TV are justifiably a little foreign to 25-year-old Gerald "G-Eazy" Gillum, a six-foot-four white guy who looks less like an emerging Bay Area rapper and more like a chiseled, slick, Fifties retro-rebel from a Lana Del Ray video. Today's appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers is his first on national television — currently his highest traditionally demarcated signpost of "fame" in a seven-year career obsessed with attaining it. How high this crescendo will go is still anybody's guess, but success hasn't eluded G-Eazy. His debut album These Things Happen (released indie but distro'd via RED) debuted at Number Three, handily outselling new releases from established, media-dominating acts like Phish, Mastodon, Ab-Soul and Riff Raff. A whopping eight of his music videos can boast more than 2 million views on YouTube. The outlets that generally cover hip-hop generally don't cover him, and he has yet to see a print feature from a major magazine, but regularly sells out shows across the country.
TV, however, is a new challenge. Eazy couldn't sleep that well last night and didn't sleep the night before. He says he's experiencing shakiness and has a weakness in his stomach, but he doesn't seen especially nervous, sinking into a chair, legs and arms splayed. "Oh God, I'm fucking shaking in my boots right now. I'm as cold as ice and I'm going to knock it out of the park but I'm nervous as fuck," he says. "It's all muscle memory. I've played so many shows. I've probably performed more than most rappers at this stage of my career," he adds. "I've played over 250 shows for sure, four 40-day tours… Whatever, this is all familiar territory, this is just a different platform."
Since 2007, G-Eazy built from the ground up, starting with a splash of MySpace virality around the saccharine Auto-Tune trifle "Candy Girl" and slowly evolving into his current minimalist aesthetic, constructing a hyphy-centric sound and building a dedicated audience the old-fashioned way — touring relentlessly, working hard and dreaming big. You can witness the discipline of Gillum and the Eazy machine as he sound-checks. For the second chorus of the bounce-woozer "Far Alone," Eazy puts his hand to his right ear. Is this an "I can't hear you" to the hypothetical audience or an "I can't hear my monitor" to a very real soundman? As he runs through the song a fifth and sixth time, it becomes clear, yes, this is instinctual. Co-manager Matt Bauerschmidt approaches Eazy and HBK Gang's Jay Ant (he's helping on the chorus), and suggests how to time their giddy mid-song jumps. Back in the green room, Davis approaches Ant and says — like a command, not a suggestion — "We got 'bitch' cleared for a reason, so you gotta say it." Indeed, when the explosive performance airs on Seth Meyers that evening, you can see G-Eazy's hand to his ear, the timed pogo and hear Jay Ant's swears.
G-Eazy's been on the grind for a while. "I had a job since I was old enough to work, since I was like 14," says the MC, who spent his teens working at mom and pop chain of restaurants, Top Dog. "That's the only way we brought money in. My mom was a single parent. She taught at two different schools part time and so if I wanted something I had to go and work for it." His mother, artist Suzanne Olmsted, helped him discover the fame monster too. He remembers, early on, her showing him Beatles films like A Hard Days Night in which the Fab Four were chased by screaming fans.
"I was like 'those guys are super cool,'" he says. "I was never the coolest kid growing up, but I wasn't a loser either, I was somewhere in between, but I always liked the prettiest girls. And I don't know, I wanted to be that quarterback-type of person but I was never any good at sports, I was into music instead. I never looked at it as a hobby. I looked at it as my career from day one and people would say I was foolish for that. But… I wanted to take this to the moon because why not?
He saw the Pack — friends and fellow Berkeley High students — turn their high-school hustle into radio play, tours and MTV with their sproinging 2006 hit "Vans" and promptly began producing and selling his own mixtapes. "It was very much a fake-it-till-you-make-it thing. Because I had examples in front of me that were pretty real," he says. "And I think hip-hop is very much a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of genre and culture. I can't act as broke as I actually am, I have to portray this image of a winner who's killing it. So I'm designing my own album art and making it look as official as possible. I even put the parental advisory logo at the bottom. I would print out covers and burn CDs and sell them out of my backpack. Five bucks. On a successful day I sold like 20 of them. I was pretty good at hustling people. But a bad day was I sold two. I went home with 10 bucks and I could get lunch."
Upon graduating high school, Eazy moved to New Orleans, enrolling in Loyola University's Music Industry Studies program, taking classes on production, business and marketing. The mixtapes and singles started flying — self-produced, self-designed, self-released. In 2008 "Candy Girl" took hold on MySpace and pretty soon the gears of the industry began turning. RCA met with him, but, as Eazy admits, "I had goals but I couldn't fill the shoes yet." In another turn, a management team flew him across the country in hopes of impressing a producer. "We made a song that's very forced and very rushed," G-Eazy recalls. "One day they tell me they believe in me and want to sign me, and the next day I'm being asked if I have any friends in L.A. because the thing with the producer isn't working out. So I'm being told I'm going to leave and go to L.A., and I basically got dumped there. There was nobody for me to work with, nobody for me to stay with and I'm calling friends to crash wondering if I'm supposed to be waiting in L.A. I wasn't so I just went back home after four days feeling totally dismissed.
"I'm thankful every day that it didn't happen then," he says. "Because I had to kind of get chewed up and spit back out to know that it wasn't that easy and it wasn't going to come that easy."
The regrouping process called for a reinvention. Soon G-Eazy shed the chain-link dookie rope, the fitted cap, the DMC glasses and the baggy hoodies. He emerged as a hip-hop heartthrob that transforms the late-Fifties/early-Sixties American Graffiti aesthetic to the American Gangster era — leather jackets, varsity letters, suspenders, all the color of Fellini's 8 ½. And of course that haircut, slicked back, James Dean-style, thanks to Cool Grease pomade.
That haircut is why we are furiously Uber-ing in the NBC lobby, since G-Eazy wants to get a trim downtown during the four-hour window between soundcheck and callback. His publicist assures him they have plenty of time to run this particular errand. "It's not about that, bro, "G-Eazy says," it's about getting a good haircut 'cause I'm gonna be on TV."
Eventually, Uber was abandoned for the F train. G-Eazy and his crew were a little geeked after wandering out of 30 Rock, drummer "Blizzy" Blake Robinson joking about taking his $1,000 bag on the subway, and two members of the entourage (and RS' cameraman) furiously snapping pics. After the excitement quiets down, G-Eazy starts reflecting and breaks the tension. "Shit is real. Shit is hella real."
G-Eazy arrives at Frank's Chop Shop, the vintage-gone-hypebeast boutique whose classic straight-razor and straight-talk vibes make it a destination by everyone from Jake Gyllenhaal to Rick Ross. G-Eazy wagers this is his 20th cut there, the last one as recent as three or four weeks ago. Though Eazy looked perfectly dapper at the studio, OG Kevin — in white fedora, sharp goatee and scissor tats — toils for maybe a half-hour on what he calls "a real classic gentleman's cut."
"Well it's minimal, really simple," G-Eazy says, explaining his style. "Just wearing all black comes from Johnny Cash. I'm on the road so much that if I wear all black my clothes never get dirty. You can't tell if I've worn the same shirt twice."
Around 2011, G-Eazy hit the road running with his new style. He would miss family functions to play concerts. He toured with Drake for a stretch. "I don't even know if Drake really, himself, knew I was on the bill," says G-Eazy. "I wasn't advertised and we'd make the most of it. We'd get out there and try to steal fans and take that opportunity to benefit." He had to bow out of extra dates after one of his professors at Loyola threatened to fail him if he missed one more class. After graduation he toured with Schwayze, traveled with the 2012 Warped Tour and joined Lil Wayne, T.I. and 2 Chainz on the 40-date America's Most Wanted Music Festival. He did all this without technically having a "home," crashing on couches, living on a tourbus, and recording in New Orleans, L.A. and New York.
He sold most of his earthly possessions, including two dozen or so pairs of sneakers on eBay, reducing his life to about a laptop and two suitcases full of black clothes. "Some sneakers are hard to find, but chances are you can find them," he says. "But this window of achieving success in music is not something you can just go out and get anytime. I was like, if I make it from point A to point B, I can go get another fucking couch. What costs the world to you as a working kid fresh out of college, costs nothing to you as a successful musician… I felt like the idea, the creative content, was so much more valuable than any physical content. Like if this works, I could buy 100 couches."
G-Eazy and his entourage meander over to the 169 Bar, one of the last few proudly divey (or in their parlance "funky") bars in lower Manhattan, where he orders a PBR and an iced coffee. "The coffee keeps me awake through the day, enough to have some personality and perform," he says. "And the PBR because you can't be at 169 Bar without ordering a PBR." For someone who's made it to national television and sells out shows without the help of press or radio or a label, it all begs the question: Why are you even here talking to Rolling Stone at all?
"The thing is, I've always wanted to be a star, I've always wanted to be an Elvis Presley or a Tupac, like a huge icon," he explains. "I've seen what you can do in this grassroots, do-it-yourself world and I've seen how far that can get you. To be iconic you still need the gatekeepers to open the doors."
G-Eazy won't be content in life as Tech N9ne or a Slug or an Insane Clown: independent dudes who make more money than a lot of more traditionally "famous" rappers, thanks to their ability to build and maintain a fanbase on their own. Why not?
"Because I have an addictive personality and fame is the most addictive drug there is," he says. "I want to be a star. I want to be a fucking DiCaprio of this shit. I don't want to be a small time independent successful rapper. The ultimate challenge to that equation is finding a way to play the game but by my rules. To bring my music without dumbing myself down and making bubblegum pop in exchange for becoming famous. I want to bring my world to the major leagues."
With that in mind, G-Eazy recently signed a major label deal with RCA, the label that originally rejected him years ago — which he claims gives him complete creative control. He calls it, "the deal of the decade."
Earlier in the day, G-Eazy wandered past Saturday Night Live's set on the 8th floor and Davis pointed at the framed photo of Drake sitting between John Goodman and Melissa McCarthy.
"One day, G," Davis joked.
"Fuck you," G-Eazy laughs.
"This is destiny fulfilling itself," he says moments later. "This wasn't a pipe dream. It was like, if we're going to do this, let's go all the fucking way. When he says, that'll be you one day, and points to Drake… We joke about that shit but we actually firmly believe that at the same time. Yeah, why not? Because when you swing for the fucking fences, then you just keep swinging, then eventually you'll hit a ball over the fence."