Freddie Gibbs and Madlib's critically acclaimed Piñata is the culmination of nearly three years of recording sessions. Its frisson of delightfully obscure soul and rock samples and hardcore street raps is the result of the two men's starkly different backgrounds. Madlib is a reclusive, wildly innovative producer responsible for indie-rap classics like Madvillain's Madvillainy and Quasimoto's The Unseen. Freddie Gibbs is a rapper who proudly touts his gangsta credentials while burning through major label deals — most recently with Young Jeezy's Corporate Thugz Entertainment, which went south two years ago. Appropriately, Rolling Stone caught up with the two hip-hop artists in different locations: Madlib in an airport somewhere amidst lots of phone reception static, Gibbs riding around L.A. with his manager, Ben "Lambo" Lambert.
How did you guys start working on Piñata?
Madlib: I met him through Ben Lambo. He used to work at Stones Throw. I heard some of an earlier album with Jeezy on it [Gibbs' Cold Day In Hell]. And Lambo wanted to see if he could do something different over my style of beats. That's where it all started… I had gotten over eight CDs worth of music to him, and just let him pick out whatever he could vibe to. I didn't do anything special, I just let him pick stuff that he could write to. I thought he'd pick different types of beats, [but it was] all raw shit. I didn't have to tell him, but that's what he wanted to record.
Freddie Gibbs: Nothing in this shit was really planned out.
Did you record together?
Madlib: No, he recorded the vocals on his own. Like, I handed him all the CDs, and he picked out all the beats he wanted, he recorded them at his studio, then he handed those off to me, then we finished it. I would add little things, like these choruses. That's what usually happens: I let 'em record what they want, then I add stuff as needed after that, like extra horns or whatever… I'm usually working on other thangs, you know what I mean? I don't have time to sit there and coach somebody that just already knows what to do, and that's the kind of people I usually work with… I don't want to sit there like a babysitter.
Gibbs: We two different guys, man. I was still in the streets when I first started that Madlib album. I was, then I wasn't. You can tell the progression on the record, though. You can tell the different places that I'm in, 'cause I did it over the course of three years, coming up with the ideas and concepts.
So you were still in the streets even though you were signed to Jeezy's CTE?
Gibbs: Yeah, man. I didn't have no record deal, man. He never gave me no money. But out of respect, I didn't take any. I wanted to earn mine.
On Piñata that you sing part of TLC's "Waterfalls."
Gibbs: I was drunk doing that shit, so I was just fucking around… I don't think you can be a good musician if you just listen to rap, or just the [type of music] you do. You gotta be open to other ideas. I think the game is getting a lot more open. Nelly did a song with Tim McGraw a while ago, and I just seen Juicy J did a song with Katy Perry, things of that nature. I just want to put my stamp on all kinds of music. Everything I do is going to be gangsta rap, street based, street oriented… I'm from Gary, Indiana, and everybody's damn near at the poverty level. It's a rough city to grow up in, and it's a modern-day ghost town. I can come from that, and be strong, intelligent, and articulate and put this project out, and let you know that, hey, I'm a street nigga, but I can do productive things as well. It's not just a motherfucker that's rapping gangsta shit, shoot 'em up, bang bang. You're going to take something from my record.
You take some shots at Young Jeezy on this album. Would you sign another major label deal after that experience?
Gibbs: I don't know. I'm probably going to be blackballed after that shit, so who knows? I don't give a fuck. I'm with surviving the way I've been making my music, and I love the control I have over my career. I mean, fuck, I'm getting interviewed by fucking Rolling Stone right now, dogg. You think I need a fucking major label? You tell me if I need a major label. I'm cool with doing shows with 2,000 people. I don't have to rap in a stadium. As long as I can provide for my family and my art, and live comfortably and live well, then I'm good. And with my talent level and my skill level, I'll get there.
So I'm not worried about getting no deal, man. I did that the first five years of my rap career. I got a record deal [with Interscope] the first year I started rapping, nigga. So what is that? Then when I went through that cycle, I was like damn, I had to learn I don't rap to get no record deal. Now I make music to get my point across and feed my family, man. I have a fanbase now. And it's going to do nothing but grow. So if a label wants to give me a bunch of money, then maybe we can do something. But if not, I'm comfortable doing it the way I'm doing it, my partners at Empire Distribution and me. I do everything independently.
I'd be a liar if I didn't say I learned things from Jeezy. Hell yeah, I took some things, some pluses and some minuses, do's and don'ts. Unfortunately, there was just too many don'ts for me to be there, know what I'm saying? But to say I didn't learn anything, that would be a motherfucking lie, 'cause I definitely learned some things. Now that I got the knowledge that I do, I got what I needed and moved forward.
Madlib: I don't have beef with anybody. I'm a positive dude. But I respect what he's saying.
There's an interview with Dazed & Confused where you said of your unreleased music, "I'm gonna burn it down when I die… Don't think I'm going to get exploited like they're doing to Dilla."
Madlib: I was just joking. People don't have a sense of humor. I was talking about Lee Perry and joking. I'm a jokester, man. People take things too literal.
What does the title Piñata mean?
Gibbs: How bad do you really want to know that?
Hey, I really want to know.
Gibbs: Don't you know that a "piñata" is stuffed with cocaine, man?
Gibbs: Who wouldn't want that, man? Hopefully someone will send me some "piñatas" in the mail, man.