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At the beginning of 2011, Kreayshawn was uploading homemade YouTube videos, wondering where her rent money was coming from. Now she’s a pop culture lightning rod before she’s even released an album. How will one of the buzz cycle’s wildest creations handle the spotlight?
This feature appears in Complex's October/November 2011 issue.
"Why do I keep getting dissed and gotta ignore it like nothing is going on?”
It’s late July and Kreayshawn is on set at a photo shoot in New York’s Flatiron District. This year’s female white rap phenom has just been told she’s on the receiving end of a verbal attack from Game on his shots-at-everyone diss record “Uncle Otis.” He threatens to shove an assault rifle in her face if she uses the N-word again. “I’ve never said it one time in my motherfucking life,” she insists. She says it’s V-Nasty, her “sister” and partner in White Girl Mob—their brash, perversely fabulous rap trio also consisting of DJ Lil Debbie—who uses the word.
“Everyone thinks I’m Vanessa [V-Nasty] and I have to answer [for her actions] every day in every fucking interview,” vents the frustrated 22-year-old. Apparently Kreayshawn has tried to intervene, to no avail. “I’ve sat down and had talks with her, like, ‘Please, if you took this word out of your vocabulary, it would help your career. It would really help mine.’ She’s just been like, ‘This is who I am. This is how I was raised. I’m not gonna change for anybody,’ and I respect that. She doesn’t have to listen to me. It’s just hard if we’re all mobbing together and everyone thinks I use it, too. That’s when you have to step away or find a way to work around it.”
Kreayshawn, born Natassia Zolot, would like to deal with Game more directly. “I wanna slap a grown-ass man in the face,” she says, defiantly. She then lightens the mood, joking about calling 50 Cent, but gets aggravated when her manager, Chioke “Stretch” McCoy, advises her not to respond.
Am I just supposed to get dissed every day and be a weak ass little white b*tch? I’m tired of people disrespecting me.
She counters with another plan of action. “I’m going to say, ‘Game’s a weak ass Blood, he ain’t about to do shit.’” That also doesn’t go over well with Stretch, a charismatic, hulking black guy whose pedigree includes Mac Dre and Mistah F.A.B. She pushes back. “Am I just supposed to get dissed every day and be a weak ass little white bitch? Fuck that shit. I’m tired of people disrespecting me.”
Cooler—and more media-savvy—heads prevail, and Kreayshawn never responds publicly. She’s still learning that scrutiny and unpredictability are part of the overnight sensation package. It’s been a whirlwind year for Kreayshawn. In January, she recorded “Gucci Gucci,” an insanely catchy ode to independence from designer labels. In May, she uploaded its hipper-than-thou video to YouTube, and it became an Internet sensation, picking up 11 million page views by August. Along the way, Kreay pocketed a seven-figure record deal from Sony, leaving fans and hecklers alike wondering how it all happened.
Kreayshawn is surprised herself. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this,” she says. “I thought I was going to still struggle to pay rent.” One song—admittedly, one damn good song—and a zeitgeist-capturing video, and the tattooed girl from East Oakland’s star was born.
Natassia Zolot was born in San Francisco in 1989. Her mother, Elka Zolot, a second-generation Russian immigrant, had Kreay when she was 18. Dad (whose name Natassia doesn’t know and Elka won't reveal), wasn’t around. Natassia and her mom lived all over San Fran until she was 10. Then they moved to a house in the sketchy “Murder Dubs” area of East Oakland, a 10-square-block stretch in the city’s San Antonio district. Elka, a guitarist, was traveling with her punk band, the Trashwomen, and eventually moved to Canada in 2005 to live with a boyfriend-turned-husband whom she met on Facebook. As a result, young Kreay left home at 15, living with friends for weeks at a time. “I did wrong by not being there when she really needed me while she was a teenager,” Elka says.
I was driving around in a pink Mustang at two in the morning, no license, with like two 15s in the trunk, serving knots. Then these girls I met, they brought me this new idea that was safer than selling drugs.
School wasn’t Kreay’s forte. She left MetWest, a small public high school designed to steer underprivileged students toward college, after less than a semester. She later got kicked out of Oakland High for truancy. She was expelled from Alameda High for threatening to throw a watermelon at a girl, and sent to a continuation school where she failed out. Island High was Kreayshawn’s last attempt at formal education. By that time, she was “over it” and dropped out for good. All of this by her sophomore year. She was 16.
She took jobs at IKEA and the GED work program Job Corps, and got her own apartment by the time she was 17. She says she also picked up some less-than-legal side hustles: selling coke and Craigslist pimping. “I quit IKEA and started trapping full-time,” she recalls. “I was driving around in a pink Mustang at two in the morning, no license, with like two 15s in the trunk, serving knots. Then these girls I met, they were on their hustle, too. They brought me this new idea, it was safer than selling drugs. I posted the links for them, took the anonymous pictures, and set up the dates and prices.” According to Kreay, that gig ended when older, more experienced Oakland pimps took over her clientele, so she returned to dealing full-time.
She maintains that her hustles, both legal and otherwise, were a means for her to pursue loftier ambitions, namely video directing and music. Directing was her first love, a passion that began when her mother bought her a video camera when she was 10. “People were like, ‘Are you crazy? That’s a couple hundred bucks,’” Elka recalls. “And I’m just like, ‘Whatever, let her play with it. Maybe she’ll discover something she likes.’”
By her late teens Kreay had begun to film and edit videos for local Oakland acts like DB Tha General, Nova Boy, and E-Molly. “I was doing music videos for free,” she says. “If you’re editing and filming all day, you don’t have time for a job. My mom was super worried. I was selling weed and stuff and my roommate was getting the hook-up with prescription pills. But our main focus was art.”
She gave up trapping after she landed her first paying gig in 2009. Local favorites the Go Gettas paid her $200 to shoot a video for their single “I Get It In.” Her work around town led to interest from other regional acts, including a kid from Berkeley named Lil B. “She was a dope artist,” B recalls. “I wanted to give her a chance so I let her shoot some videos for me. I put her in the game,” he adds, pointedly.
After she moved in with her maternal grandfather, Stanley Zolot, Kreayshawn’s home life stabilized. She focused on directing and began to experiment with another longtime hobby, rapping. “I have video of a 10-year-old freestyle I did about me eating free lunch in middle school,” she says. “Expressing myself was the main point. I wanted to get attention.”
In 2010, Kreayshawn finally put together a full body of work. She released her first mixtape, Kittys x Choppas, that September, and it went largely unnoticed in the rap community. With the encouragement of her manager, Stretch, whom she met through one of his clients, DB Tha General, she started to take her studio work more seriously. “I slowed down on the directing just so I could do music,” she says.
Last December, she asked her Twitter followers (then numbering 4,000) for beats, and Staten Island producer DJ Two Stacks responded with an instrumental sampling the “One big room, full of bad bitches” line from her mixtape’s standout, “Bumpin Bumpin.” “We were like, ‘Oh, shit. We have to use this,’” Kreay recalls. She did and the outcome was “Gucci Gucci.” Six months after that Twitter solicitation, she’d inked her deal with Columbia.
With overnight success comes overnight hate—just think how quickly Drake went from phenom to pretty boy punching bag. And when the overnight success happens in the genre of rap to a young white woman, there also come questions of credibility.
Do you think a 16-year-old girl cares about where I'm from or what I've done? No, she loves the songs.
“People are so crazy that they’ll make their own fantasy life story of me,” Kreayshawn says of talk that her checkered past is fiction. “People have such passion loving me and such passion hating me, but it’s good to have passion either way.”
Questions of authenticity—and how they relate to how she will be marketed as an artist—don’t rate with Kreayshawn. “I never looked at myself as a marketable person. I just try to let my personality shine through. Do you think a 16-year-old girl gives a fuck about where I’m from or what I’ve done? No, she loves the songs.”
In addition to the questions about her past, there have also been murmurs that Kreay’s lyrical creations aren’t her own. She’s up-front about lacking the desire to be the most technically proficient MC (“I’ve never even thought of that. I never saw that in myself”), but that hasn’t stopped the rumors that underground L.A. artist Speak!, the shaggy-haired bearded guy doing the cooking dance in the “Gucci Gucci” video, ghostwrites for her.
“I never even heard that,” Kreay says in response to the charge. “Speak! is my brother and definitely helped me make the transition from freestyles to bars, but as far as him writing anything for me, that’s not true.” When asked if he wrote or helped Kreayshawn write “Gucci Gucci” or any other songs, Speak! responded, “I took her to the Gucci store here in L.A. and tricked off my entire ironic hipster trust fund in attempts to give her a taste of leisure life. My parents were devastated but allowed me to continue working at their multimillion dollar snorkel factory in Saudi Arabia.” In other words, fuck you very much.
Kreay's also come under fire for a line in “Gucci Gucci” (“Bitch, you ain't no Barbie, I see you work at Arby's”) that was perceived to be aimed at Nicki Minaj. In her first Complex interview, Kreayshawn said that Nicki encourages girls to be “plastic and fake.” Now she insists that Nicki is a “great artist.” Maybe this is a product of the media training book she carries, although she might want to give it another skim. In late August, she told MTV that a line in her Cosmic Kev Come-Up Show freestyle (“You faker than Rick Ross”) was not a diss toward the Miami rapper, who was outed in 2008 for his past as a correctional officer. Three days later, she was on V-Nasty's live Ustream joking about his weight (“I bet you five dollars Rick Ross can't find his dick”) and saying that she wanted to tell MTV that she thinks Ross is fake. “I didn’t know that we were still on Ustream. It was just me goofing off with friends. I don't have any problems [with Rick Ross], but I can see how it looks that way.”
None of this has slowed the Kreay-Kreay train—so far. She’s enjoying the perks that have come with her rise. “You don’t get a million dollars,” she says, “but it’s enough money to change your life.” Indeed. Since inking her deal, she’s splurged on a vintage gold Casio, a Game Boy Color, a new place in Hollywood, and a convertible 1990 Buick Reatta. She’s got famous friends now, too: Drake, whom she met at Andy Milonakis’ house, has become a confidant.
I never made anything with the intention of signing a record deal. It was just for fun. The moment I realized I could get a record deal, was when I got a record deal. I didn’t see myself getting famous.
Her directing career has taken off as well. Soulja Boy has asked her to shoot a video for him, and, according to Kreay, Curren$y wants to collaborate as well. Snoop Dogg already has. Trina and Diamond have reached out, too. Left Brain from Odd Future, who made a cameo alongside OFWGKTA pal Jasper Dolphin in the “Gucci Gucci” video (which Left Brain thought would be a “fail”), echoes the general consensus on Kreayshawn’s directorial chops: “She knows what she’s doing behind the cam.”
Now all she has to do to prove the haters wrong and her celebrity pals right is follow through on the potential she showed with “Gucci Gucci.” It’s a tall order, in large part because of the blitzkrieg press and performance run she’s been on since signing with Sony. She hopes to have her debut ready for a fourth quarter release, but label representatives have said not to expect it until early 2012. “I’m praying for a break for two weeks to finish the album,” she says. “I can only see it from my point of view and my point of view is I’m stressed and I’m busy. Even Columbia says, ‘We’ve never worked an artist as hard as we work you.’ This is crazy. So many people want a piece of you. At the same time I still wanna keep everything like how the old days were.”
It’s clear that going back to the old days won’t be possible, not when she’s got punishing promo campaigns to maintain and veteran (if slightly unhinged) rappers talking about putting assault rifles in her face. Which begs the question: Is this what she had in mind when she was editing videos in her apartment, struggling to make ends meet?
“I never made anything with the intention of signing a record deal,” she says. “It was just for fun. The moment I realized I could get a record deal, was when I got a record deal. I didn’t see myself getting famous.”
“People say, ‘You’re changing the game,’” she continues. “I’m just being me. This is what I’ve been doing.” Whatever it is, it’s worked—so far. But can she keep it up now that she’s been mainstreamed? Stay tuned.
WATCH KREAYSHAWN'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEO:
(PROP STYLING) Ali Gallagher. (HAIR) Taylor Stevenson. (MAKEUP) Victoria Aronson. (MANICURIST) Tracy Dinkel. FIRST IMAGE: Bustier and skirt by Jeremy Scott for Adidas / Shorts by American Apparel / Headpiece and Ring by Marco Marco / Vintage Celine earrings and vintage bracelet from The Way We Wore LA. SECOND, THIRD & SIXTH IMAGE: Vintage dress and necklace by Moschino from The Way We Wore LA / Vintage earrings by Christian Lacroix from The Way We Wore LA / Sneakers by Nike / Mannequin's Scarf by Wendy Gell from The Way We Wore LA. FOURTH, FIFTH & SEVENTH IMAGE: Bustier by Di$count Trash / Shorts and hosiery by American Apparel / Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti / Glasses by a-morir by Kerin Rose. COVER IMAGE: Overalls by Joyrich / Ring by NOIR / Sunglasses by Jeremy Scott for Linda Farrow / Necklace stylist's own.