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Who says Waka can’t get his paper up and stay all the way turnt up?
Waka Flocka Flame has only one rule: Do whatever you want to do. It’s what he tells a hired videographer on the set of the music video shoot for “I Don’t Really Care,” the Trey Songz–assisted second single from his sophomore album, Triple F Life: Fans, Friends, and Family. The videographer, who’s trying to capture behind-the-scenes footage as part of Warner Bros’ Waka marketing blitz, wants to know if it would be OK to record the six-foot-four rapper getting his dreads touched up before shooting the first scene?
The question arises because—before sitting down with his two-person hair team—Waka went on a minute-long rant about how he’s not really the kind of dude who gets his hair “dipped up.” He’d rather rock out with it the way it is. But, alas, this is show business, and Waka relents. Still, he tells the videographer: “If you want to slap a girl’s ass, Do it. Do whatever you want.”
It’s a chilly spring night at this warehouse on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. If it wasn’t for the faint but persistent smell of weed, the police squad cars circling the block like buzzards, and the parade of tour buses blocking traffic so they can fit like Tetris blocks into the parking lot, you wouldn’t know that one of the world’s biggest rap stars is gearing up to shoot a music video. But here he is—white Tee’d, dreadlocked, and ready to work.
After his hair is right, it’s time for wardrobe. Waka and his 1017 Bricksquad crew—consisting of his road manager and assistants, his brother Wooh Da Kid, producer Southside, and rapper B-Hoody—move into a larger space that’s been transformed into a sort of green room/dressing room for the night.
His stylist and her assistant have all the outfits for the video ready, hanging on a chrome clothing rack beside a wooden table that holds an array of expensive European sneakers. A pink-and-black silk cardigan anchors the first ensemble presented to Waka. It looks like Versace—something Rick Ross or Tyga might wear. Waka pauses, looks at his stylist, and shakes his head. “Nah, I ain’t doing this,” he says.
His stylist tries to reassure him that this is what’s cool now, and besides, the first set-up is being shot in front of a black seamless backdrop. He needs to wear something that will “pop.” Waka won’t hear any of it. “This shit is a hell no,” he says.
The wardrobe standoff brings the shoot, already running behind schedule, to a standstill. A decision needs to be made quickly. For what seems like the fifth time in an hour, a producer comes into the dressing room to tell Waka he’s needed on set immediately. Ignoring his pleas, Waka concentrates on the wardrobe rack.
The producer tries again, telling Waka that he needs to be on set in 15 minutes. Snapping out of his silk-cardigan daze, Waka focuses his attention/anger on the producer—who’s really just trying to do his job. “Aye, bruh,” Waka says to all in attendance. “Someone tell this man to get the fuck out of here before something happens to him.” The room falls silent and everyone turns to look at the producer. Befuddled, and no doubt slightly nervous, he retreats back to the set.
Before sitting down with his two-person hair team—Waka went on a minute-long rant about how he’s not really the kind of dude who gets his hair 'dipped up.' He’d rather rock out with it the way it is. But, alas, this is show business, and Waka relents.
The room remains quiet as everyone waits for Waka to cool down. The videographer asks whether he should stop recording. “Hell yeah, motherfucker,” Waka snarls. “What you think?” The videographer puts the camera down and takes a step back as Waka lets out a laugh. “Nah, I’m just fucking with you,” he says, breaking the tension.
The mood in the dressing room is once again light. Waka returns to going through clothes with his stylist and settles on a white leather vest with BSM—signifying his crew, 1017 Brick Squad Monopoly—emblazoned on the front and back. He throws this on over a black T-shirt and dark denim and makes his way to set.
Halfway through the first set-up—a black seamless with light flashing every which way—the crowd that was once intensely focused on Waka’s performance turns around. Even Waka himself briefly loses focus. Trey Songz has arrived. After the end of his take, Waka walks through the crowd excitedly to dap the multi-platinum R&B star. They compliment each other’s jewelry and Trey soon joins Waka on camera.
Contrary to what MTV’s Making the Video might have you believe, making music videos is a long, arduous, and altogether boring process. If you’re not actually working on the video, you’ll find yourself sitting around bullshitting, waiting for the producers to call lunch. Of course things can be more eventful with an artist as popular as Waka. You’re likely to see a couple stars pass by to say what up and show respect.
Tonight, Houston, Texas’ own Trae Tha Truth comes through with his son, and Young Money’s Lil Chuckee hangs around for the most of the shoot. But the biggest star to grace the soundstage is Waka’s mentor, close friend, and labelmate Gucci Mane.
Much has been written about the relationship between Gucci, who’s now considered an elder statesmen of ATL rap, and Waka, his young protégé. The two had a brief falling out in August of 2010 after Gucci fired Waka’s mother, Debra Antney, as his manager. Waka went as far as saying that he would never again speak to Gucci.
Tonight, however, all is well. Waka and Gucci display a familial bond—cracking inside jokes, discussing goings-on in the ’hood, making summer plans. Gucci tells Waka that he’s feeling the new music and that “I Don’t Really Care” is hard. Waka returns the compliment by saying he wants to get him on the remix. “I don’t know if that’s for me,” says Gucci. “Nah, man, you gon’ kill it!” says Waka reassuringly.
Gucci tells Waka that he’s feeling the new music and that 'I Don’t Really Care' is hard. Waka returns the compliment by saying he wants to get him on the remix. 'I don’t know if that’s for me,' says Gucci. 'Nah, man, you gon’ kill it!' says Waka reassuringly.
As Waka walks away to change for his next shot, Gucci tells me about his new mixtape. “It’s called I’m Up, ’cause that’s how I feel right now. I been away for a little while, but now I’m up; everything’s going good.” As Gucci begins to break the tape down song by song, Waka starts grumbling over the fit of his suit. “I can’t wear this shit!” he screams. “Look at my arms!”
“Those are the sizes I was given,” says his stylist, adding that Waka has to wear it because, well, the shot calls for him and Trey to wear suits. Again, Waka relents and begins to get dressed.
Gucci’s aware that things may have changed in his absence. For one thing, his former sidekick has become one of the hottest rappers in the game. But Gucci’s hoping to get back to where he left off before his two most recent jail stints with this new mixtape. He says I have to come down for the May 31 release party, that “it’s going to be all the way turnt up.”
“What’s going to be turnt up?” asks Waka, who’s now wearing a black button-down and black slacks.
“I was telling him about my mixtape,” says Gucci.
“Oh! When’s that dropping?”
“You know that’s my birthday, right, bruh?”
“Word?” Gucci replies. “Oh, damn—we gon’ have to have a birthday party and a release party.”
Three years ago, the fact that Waka’s birthday coincided with the release of Gucci’s mixtape wouldn’t have warranted any change of plans. But in 2012, the 26-year-old’s success has earned him top billing on the Mizay Entertainment roster.
Back in 2009, few people had any idea who Waka Flocka Flame, born Juaquin Malphurs, even was. All anybody knew was that Gucci Mane was rolling around with a young dude with a penchant for yelling his rhymes (and non-rhymes) over beats that could make a trap-house crumble.
At the time rap had begun trending away from the bass-laden party cuts that seemed to sprout from the South every few months. Lil Wayne secured his “Best Rapper Alive” crown with a dizzying string of tightly packed releases. Drake’s lyrical, emotional and melodic mixtape So Far Gone was the talk of the industry.
Then came Waka’s first smash: “O Let’s Do It.” Opening with the now famous, “I fucked my money up, now I can’t re-up” line, “O Let’s Do It” was an extension of Lil Jon’s crunk, only this time a trap star was the one throwing the party. As soon as the record came out it was suddenly everywhere, and yes, it was “all the way turnt up.”
Now, Waka’s working hard to go from being a trap star to a star—and it shows. Two weeks after the video shoot, he’s scheduled to stop by the Complex offices for a sit-down interview at 10 AM. Many rappers don’t even wake up until around 1 PM, so for Waka and his entourage to show up by 11 AM is as surprising as the guest artists on his new album: Drake, Nicki Minaj, and Flo-Rida, to name a few. Yes, Flo-Rida, the poster boy for rap’s dance-pop revolution, is trading bars with Mr. Bricksquad on the track “Get Low.” But, according to Waka, ain’t shit changing.
I respect Flo-Rida for what he do. He respects me for what I do. And we respect each other for bringing our music together. Nobody’s trying to be nobody.
“I ain’t tryna be no fucking cyberspace-rapping nigga,” he says while breaking down a Dutch. “I respect Flo-Rida for what he do. He respects me for what I do. And we respect each other for bringing our music together. Nobody’s trying to be nobody. That’s why I love the song.”
Think of it as Waka taking his career to the next level. While he doesn’t want to make as extreme a deviation as his friend Nicki Minaj—who’s also featured on “Get Low,” along with her YMCMB labelmate Tyga—he understands her need to push boundaries.
“Nicki’s just developing. She’s going through every genre of music,” he says as he breaks down his weed. “She’s trying to touch R&B, rap, and pop. That’s a lot of people in the world. People make it out be like she’s jumping from music genres—she’s conquering them all. If you can rap on pop, rap, rock and R&B, how the fuck somebody going to stop you?”
Fair enough. Being the “Queen of Pop” is a more than respectable goal for Nicki. But what about a rapper known for going “hard in the muthafuckin’ paint.” Surely Waka doesn’t plan on being the king of pop.
“My end goal? I’m just an artist working towards a catalog of excellent songs. I’ll have an angle when I have, like, 10 good singles. Then we’ll have a conversation about what’s my angle. If I don’t got 10 good singles, then what the fuck I need an angle for? I’m just a nigga making music.”
Before notching his first three Billboard hits— “O Let’s Do It,” “No Hands” featuring Wale and Roscoe Dash, and “Grove Street Party” featuring Kebo Gotti—Waka may have seen himself as just that. To hear him tell it, his ambition wasn’t to become a rap star at all. Waka says he planned to stop making music after his first album, Flockaveli.
It’s a story often told by “hustlers” who say they're just rapping to make some quick change. But Waka’s deadly serious when he explains that his real goal was to put his best friend and protégé Slim Dunkin on and fall back into a leadership position. “That was the plan from jump,” says Waka. “Dunk had more charisma and more drive than anybody. I guess he was hungrier.”
You can’t be selling computers in your raps then talking about killing somebody and taking your girl to the movies in the same verse. You gotta stick to the script. You gotta know who you are.
When Slim started out, he had no idea how to put a rap together, so Waka showed him the ropes. “We’d be in the booth and he’d be like, ’Damn, I can’t rap. They gonna chew my ass up.’ I’d tell him, ’Nigga, they ain’t swanging harder than us. We’ll beat their ass.’ Just wild young shit like, ’Man, we’ll fuck their girl.’ Just wild shit. Man, we rapping about fighting and getting crunk. He was like, ’Fuck it, that’s all we do anyway.’ I just showed him to put it down.” They did a pair of mixtapes together, Twin Towers and Twin Towers 2: No Fly Zone and Dunkin was featured on two tracks from Waka’s debut album.
One lesson Waka imparted to Dunk was the importance of “sticking to the script.” Of not deviating away from the person you’ve presented yourself to be on record. Or, in Waka’s words: “You can’t be selling computers in your raps then talking about killing somebody and taking your girl to the movies in the same verse. You gotta stick to the script. You gotta know who you are. You gotta know what you want to deliver. We just delivered ourselves.”
But all these plans came to a screeching halt on December 15, 2011 when Slim, born Mario Hamilton, was shot and killed inside an Atlanta recording studio by another rapper named Young Vito who had grown impatient while waiting to use the studio. His friend’s death shook Waka to the core.
“I felt like that was my Christmas present,” he says. He puts the Dutch down and looks at me. “We had a crazy year and you offer that? A corpse, my nigga? Going from calling that nigga, doing shows, going to studios, going shopping, from partying to playing basketball, getting him anything—any simple thing—to none of that. That shit is over with. Like, rap? That shit was a dream we had; not that I had. That shit crazy.”
Despite—or maybe because of—the death of his best friend, Waka is now determined to succeed. If not for himself, then for Slim and for all the people on his team who depend on him to do well. But in order to succeed, the man who loves to do whatever he wants will have to concede a bit, to play the game, to leave a little of his old life behind him. Even though he says part of him wishes he could have caught Slim Dunkin’s killer himself—“He happy he in jail though. He turned himself in. That’s a smart man"—Waka says he understands the big picture.
You have to come to a realization with yourself like, ’Yo, where I wanna be? Do I want to hang in the hood? Do I want to help my n*ggas sell drugs? Do you really wanna run this corner? They gonna build a playground on some sh*t that we died honoring.
“I think as a person, you have to come to a realization with yourself like, ’Yo, where I wanna be? Do I want to hang in the hood? Do I want to help my niggas sell drugs? Do you really wanna run this corner? So when we die we ain’t nobody but some niggas that lived it. They gonna build a playground on some shit that we died honoring. That’s fucking crazy. You know how many neighborhoods I go to now, that when I was a kid them shits were wild as shit? Now them shits is tourist spots. Or fucking supermarkets. It’s like, Damn, that nigga died for that area right there? So you just a nigga representing a corner that you don’t even own.”
Throughout his career, Waka discovered something else you can’t own: A sound. Say what you will about Waka Flocka Flame—and rap critics have said a whole lot, complaining that he can’t rap, that his lyrics lack depth—but when he burst into the game, he did so in a lane he carved for himself.
Mixing the menace of trap rap with the party vibe of crunk, Waka—along with producers Southside and Lex Luger and his engineer KY—crafted a musical identity that was as easily identifiable as his iced-out Fozzy Bear chain. From “O Let’s Do It” to “Hard In The Paint,” Waka’s chest-rattling sound was unmistakable. But as any super-successful artist can you tell you, success doesn’t just breed envy—it breeds imitation.
Lex Luger produced one of the biggest rap songs of 2010, featuring the young producer’s signature horror movie synths over a rumbling bass line and scattered, pounding drums. Only the track wasn’t recorded by Waka Flocka, it was Rick Ross’s “B.M.F.” Kanye West also employed Luger to produce “H.A.M.,” the first single off of his and Hov’s massive Watch the Throne album.
Waka—who claims to have came up with the word "HAM"—says he felt relieved by the similarities. “What are y’all gonna say now?” he says when asked about these songs. “Jay-Z stupid as hell? My sound is wack? You gonna say that? They love the sound. They can’t run away from it. That shit re-sparked niggas’ careers. My sound put life into a lot of people’s careers. I feel like my sound changed hip-hop. Period. It’s crazy when I came out with it everybody laughed at it, but the next year everybody’s doing it. They getting credit for the shit you started. You be like, Damn, how is this nigga a genius for doing something I started?”
My sound put life into a lot of people’s careers. I feel like my sound changed hip-hop. Period. It’s crazy when I came out with it everybody laughed at it, but the next year everybody’s doing it.
Kanye is known for keeping his finger on the pulse of the moment to create something greater. After “H.A.M.” he moved on—there were no other flourishes of Waka-ness on The Throne album. But Rick Ross delved deeper into the sound, co-opting it as his own.
“That’s crazy,” says Waka. “But what you gonna say? This nigga out here making 30 fucking songs with your sound. He watering it down, just putting words together that sounded good. Shit would be harder if it was the truth.”
If you think Waka might be supremely pissed about the imitators, you’re right. He is. “That shit made me tight,” he says. “Niggas built labels off our sound—like, literally. You know how many niggas sound like Lex Luger and Southside? I go in niggas’ studios, all their beats sound like my producers. I be like, What the fuck?” But above all he tries to maintain perspective: "You can't be mad at something you can't control."
When it comes to the next generation of rappers, Waka is more understanding. Take the Chicago sensation Chief Keef, for example. His songs, which include “Bang” and “I Don’t Like,” have a rambunctious style reminiscent of Flocka’s. He even has a “bang!” ad-lib that’s very similar to Waka’s “bow!”
Still Waka’s got nothing but love for Keef. “That nigga remind me of me. Like a motherfucker,” he says. “That’s the homie.” He’s not just passing platitudes, either. Waka digs the dude’s music so much he hopped on a track with him called “Murda.” Their chemistry felt so organic, Keef would seem to make a good addition to 1017 Bricksquad.
But Waka’s more focused on his own project at the moment. With his sound no longer exclusively his own, he returned to the studio this time around with his mind set on creating a broader album. He says he’s not as angry as he was when he recorded Flockavelli, so there’s not as much vitriol being spewed. He wanted to expand his new effort—both topically and sonically. Waka’s especially proud of the song “Power of the Pen,” in which he reflects on the ills of the ghetto and the pitfalls that come with trying to make it out. He hopes the song shows people another side of him.
“I want them to hear facts; to hear how I feel sometimes,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t say certain shit. Or I don’t touch certain topics. I just wanted to give them another side of me other than money, cars, clothes, and hoes.”
That’s not to say Waka’s about to start rapping circles around fools. Nah. He still doesn’t believe that he needs to; nor does he want to. The way he sees it, there’s been people like him all throughout rap. “From Lil Jon back to Doug E. Fresh,” he says. “That’s the same shit. You always got your party people, the dance people, the lyricists,” he says. “That’s just how shit goes. It just so happens I’m the nigga at the party. Lyricist niggas always got the wackest job—they’re boring.”
If there’s one thing Waka is not, it’s boring. After our interview, he leaves to embark on yet another press run that culminates with a Spinmagazine party at the Bowery Hotel. Swanky, curtained, and quiet, it’s not the sort of place you’d normally expect to see a guy like Waka do his thing. All the terraces on the second floor are buzzing with people on this warm spring night. Dressed in a white wifebeater and shorts, Waka stands head and shoulders above everyone. Right now, he just seems happy to be in NYC around some cool people. Still, people seem surprised to find that the guy who made that song “Fuck This Industry” is so chill. He's been working on it.
You're not invincible. You bleed the same. You get thirsty just like another person. You feel pain. You get stressed. It's like with me—you don't know what tomorrow holds. So that's why i keep a level mind right now.
"It's like, the more money you get, the more you think you're invincible," Waka said back at Complex. "You'll be a red light and you'll think, 'I don't even gotta wait for this shit. I'll just pay the ticket.' You get out of control sometimes. You gotta put a meter on it and you gotta check it and see the person you are because the person you used to be you're probably going to lose contact with. And coming from all the way up there to coming back down is like reality check. You're not invincible. You bleed the same. You get thirsty just like another person. You feel pain. You get stressed. It's like with me—you don't know what tomorrow holds. So that's why i keep a level mind right now. I always try to be calm, always try to be easy. That shit's crazy though, man."
With five minutes to go until showtime, Waka makes his way to the stage. Despite its small size, you could power all the iPhones in NYC with the energy building in the room. Clouds of weed smoke float through the air.
The opening synths of “Hard in the Paint” ring out and the crowd begins to mosh together as Waka flails his dreads to the beat. It’s obvious he’s worked on his stage performance. He’s more controlled (for Waka) and raps more of the song that he did in years past. He works the stage better, too, interacting with people on both ends.
This guy’s nearly got this star shit down. For “No Hands” he brings a few ladies on stage to dance with him. The stage, already packed with Waka’s people, is not big enough to accommodate many more people, but Waka doesn’t care. He does what he wants.