It’s Saturday night everywhere in Los Angeles except the recording suite hidden along a deserted stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard.
The clock is inching toward quitting time — 2 a.m. — and 03 Greedo has been grinding since early evening. Exhaustion and overindulgence have slowly but surely picked off person after person, and most of the dudes excited to be here in the studio are now fully passed out on the couches placed here for precisely that reason.
A few men remain standing, but only the engineer still looks fresh-faced. Even 03, who’s determined to record as many songs as humanly possible, has started to wilt, his eyes lean-lidded. He’s emerged from the booth after laying down one last immediately catchy, freestyled hook about a robbery and is swaying next to the boards.
“Play everything we made tonight,” he instructs his engineer, then slumps into an ergonomic chair, sunglasses on and legs splayed so that the word “MONEY” stamped on his drop-crotch sweats is fully visible. The kid obliges, cueing up the first of a handful of tracks. Someone in the corner yawns.
A thick, thudding beat oozes out of the speakers and saturates the room. 03 has built a melodic playground of a hook over this backdrop, and his helium-puffed voice, all whispery and wispy, climbs and dips and slides down it.
Suddenly the studio bursts to life. Heads are bobbed, a magnum of Hennessy is sipped, blunts are sucked and smoke is blown into Instagram Live. Joy is palpable; everybody seems to bubble with it.
With one exception. 03 stays seated, and soon it’s not apparent that he’s listening, his distinctive face tattoos — a cluster of grapes on his left temple and the phrase “Living Legend” scrawled in cursive across his cheeks — obscured by dreads as his head bends toward his chest.
The night is bittersweet for him. In less than two weeks, as June draws to a close, the latest hope of Los Angeles hip-hop – the gangbanging oddball of an artist who, just this year, broke through to a new audience with his cartoon-colorful sprint of a mixtape The Wolf of Grape Street – is due to turn himself in to authorities at the Potter County Detention Center in Amarillo, Texas, and begin serving a 20-year sentence stemming from gun and drug trafficking charges. The same week he turns himself in, he’ll release his best album to date, GOD LEVEL. About a month into his time, he’ll celebrate his 31st birthday.
No one suffers any illusions about the implications of his upcoming prison stint. “What he’s doing? It’s like death,” his friend and creative director, TK Kimbro, says matter-of-factly.
“It’s cool to go to jail – that’s how ignorant we is as a culture,” 03 tells me earlier. “Watch when I come home. They finna think I’m the king of the streets. ‘Oh shit! You kept it real!’ You took yo’self away from your family.”
Without missing a beat, he shifts to an explanation of his moral code. “But shit, I wouldn’t ever fold. I’ma die like this, fuck all that shit. Show me where my bed at. I got all that gangsta in me. My mama used to tell me when I was young, ‘Stop tellin’ me you a gangsta.’ I swear to god I’m a gangsta. I ain’t never stop saying that shit.”
Jason Jamal Jackson’s father was killed by a car when he was only a year old. The kid who would grow up to become 03 Greedo spent years bouncing around the country, from the Bay to Atlanta, St. Louis to middle-of-nowhere Kansas. As a child, he wanted to be a cowboy, he says, because he loved playing with toy guns.
When his mother moved them back to L.A. and into the notorious Jordan Downs projects, the barely-teenaged young man had no time to dwell on music, only survival. New to the hood and without older male family members to vouch for him, he was an outcast. Simply gaining acceptance by the Grape Street Crips would have been a massive feat, but 03 went hard, then even harder, determined to prove himself. His mama might have kicked him out of the house for his rebelliousness, but he reached what was a near-impossible goal for him, the gang’s top echelon.
“I don’t never, ever try to exaggerate my life, [but] that’s the shit I really liked to do,” he says. “What I say on the new song? ‘Drop some dollars to my mama, bitch, I got like 16 of ’em / Got a lot of fallen soldiers, so I gotta be there for ’em.’ I got mouths to feed. Dead homies. That shit hard as fuck, though, when I be pulling up to the mama house of my homie who locked up. I’m a rewarding motherfucker — if you did good, I’m gonna reward, but if you did bad, I’ma kick your ass.”
His status didn’t save him from, as he once said in an interview, “eat out the trash can, sleep on the park bench homeless[ness].” When his girlfriend got pregnant, the 17-year-old 03 began selling drugs in order to provide for his baby. By his early twenties, he’d begun accumulating a scroll of a rap sheet with stays in the Los Angeles County Jail for gun and drug offenses.
“People ain’t applying themselves. They living in a fantasy world. I was too, at a point in time. When I was lying down broke as fuck, getting drunk, getting high, tryin’ to be on the scene, trying to be the coolest nigga, the nigga that always had the newest strap …” he says, trailing off. “That’s lame, though. I got six gun cases, and that’s why I gotta go [to Potter]. I don’t even wanna talk about that, but that’s just what’s going on.”
Still, his skin pricked with the sense of a bigger destiny. When his dream of being a cowboy died, he replaced it with being an entertainer. “My mom said I’d be in the bathroom mirror rapping,” he says. “The first thing I wrote was a beef. Dude in my school was rapping. I wasn’t, but I was just the class clown, so I did. That was when people started saying [my raps] were hard.”
In 2009, he left county after serving 10 months for getting caught with a firearm and set about getting out of homelessness and into music. He couch-hopped to houses of friends with recording studios and ended up releasing six mixtapes under the name Greedy Giddy. He hadn’t yet fully grasped how to articulate his now-singular identity as a melody-obsessed, street-certified artist whose rubbed-raw voice, pulsing with pain, curls into the hearts of gangbangers and girls alike — but his approach was already piquing interest.
His style, even then, was set apart by more than just veracity. He might not have had stability, but there was an unexpected creative upside to his nomadic childhood.
“My music’s so colorful cause I’ve lived [all over]. I never really listened to hip-hop. I went to school with mostly white kids. BG and Hot Boys? You can talk about that in the hood, but in white schools, you gotta keep up with the Joneses,” he says. “I was listening to Kanye’s new song, and it went to some girl named Jorja Smith. Her shit was hard as a motherfucker. That’s the shit I like. Lana Del Rey … I wanna listen to everything. That’s my job. I gotta keep up. I’m like the football niggas watching film.”
Any real career as a rapper was put on hold in late 2013, when 03 pled no contest to two burglaries and two felony firearm charges and began serving two years in state prison. Once there, however, he found out he could channel his restlessness into writing lyrics.
That resourcefulness will prove useful again soon. In June 2016, 03 and a friend were driving in Texas when a Potter County cop stopped them. Allegedly catching a whiff of weed, he searched the car and said he found four pounds of meth in the trunk and two stolen pistols in the cab. After spending eight days in a cell in Texas, 03’s $20,000 bail was posted. Returning to L.A., he began recording and releasing music under his new moniker, 03 Greedo.
“Going to jail and bailing out and getting extradited to Texas and shit? I came out and did [2016’s] Purple Summer and [2017’s] Money Changes Everything and First Night Out, and it was like ever since my name was 03 Greedo, my music just documented a nigga on the run or fighting life, you feel me?” he says. “Going from being a regular gangbanger in the beginning of the story to showing my more human side. The more pressure got on me from certain situations, I have to show the world I’m the hardest nigga or else I won’t be the hardest nigga.”
Particularly alarming was the worse-than-death knell 03 soon heard ringing in his ears: a federal indictment and six potential life sentences. So even though he maintains his innocence, 03 pled guilty this spring to having over 400 grams of meth and possession of a firearm as a felon. The 20-year sentence he received as part of the plea bargain felt like a gift.
“Yeah, I believe in God. I don’t believe in religion, but I believe somethin’ going on,” he says. “All I know is I beat six life sentences, shawty. I got what? 18 albums that’s been dropped and they all been hot, hot, hot? My shit still going. As soon as I get a phone [in prison], I’ma still be rapping circles around these dumbasses, continuing to tell the story of what’s going on in my head as a father, lover, as a nigga tired of niggas hatin’ as usual.”
It’s the night before 03’s studio session, and he’s just performed on a Red Bull-sponsored bill celebrating local producer LaRon “Ron-Ron” Robinson, one of the architects of L.A.’s latest sound. The venue is sweltering, and backstage feels so airless that the artists are milling around in the back alley instead. 03 has retreated to a cool, darkened basement with a group of friends and his girl, who’s beside him wordlessly rolling a blunt and to whom he will propose the night before he turns himself in.
“Niggas be hatin’ [on me] like, ‘Aw, this nigga weird,'” he says. “But my stories come from real life. Back in the day when I listened to trap music, niggas was talking real measurements.”
“Cookin’ up dope in a crock pot’ — you cannot cook dope in a crock pot,” pipes one of 03’s friends. “You need fire to do what it do. Drug kingpin cookin’ beans up in there. That’s it.”
I ask if that means an artist can’t say something not true in their lyrics, just to be inventive.
“I don’t say nothing that ain’t true, even when it’s not good for me. Shit, I be tellin’ on myself,” 03 says. “If I don’t be myself, that shit burn my skin, I’ma melt like something in the movies.”
Clearly, his conviction is resonating. The house tonight seems at capacity, and most of the people here are kids dripping with sweat, not industry types intent on spinning hype. During 03’s set, the crowd starts chanting his name.
“We brought a new type of cult following, fandemonium. Like, fuck how it sounds. It sound crazy and weird. I made a gang of hard-ass sing-alongs cool enough for street niggas but still emotional enough for females. That shit hard, on Grape. Nigga, I’m the sing-a-long man,” he says. “I don’t be talkin’ shoot ’em up, shoot ’em up. You think a nigga wanna be tough? Life is tough. Bitch, I wanna chill. You think a nigga gon’ do all that time, whatever it is, and wanna be tough when he get out? Naw, I’m going to Disneyworld. I’m going on a jet ski. I’m finna go see ass and titties, probably my wife’s, but I’m finna go home. I don’t wanna be mad.”
With his days on the outside dwindling, 03 has no interest in discussing the details of his case. But it’s late, and he didn’t sleep last night. He’s taken off his ever-present sunglasses, and his eyes, unguarded, transmit so much non-verbally that it’s like a superpower. I’m abashed to be wasting any second of his last hours of freedom. The air gains weight; time both stretches out and speeds up at the same time, and I feel sure he’s committing every millisecond to memory so that in two weeks, two years, 10 years, he can close his eyes and spirit himself back into the unlikely movie his life has become this past year.
03 appraises me for a moment and seems to sense what I’m thinking.
“I’m the king of the city on this shit, I swear to god. [But] it’s like I can’t go to ‘not-too-much’ nowhere,” he starts, his voice dropping. “It’s cool. It’s cool. But sometimes it’s just — can I get to the food that I’m trying to get to in the store now? We got to go, but you can’t tell them you gotta go.”
Sure, I nod. Sometimes you just want to eat dinner in peace.
“Naw,” he says, shaking his head. “Sometimes I don’t even wanna be 03. I got a few days left out here. Sometimes I just wanna be Jason. You feel me?”