Young rap loves hip, old rap definitely doesn't. Chal Ravens investigates who's right out of the lovers and haters, and just how god-like the BasedGod is.
“Ellen DeGeneres! Swag! Ellen DeGeneres! Woo!” Flanked by a brick wall of security muscle, a snake-hipped Californian, little more than 5ft 7”, is whipping the crowd into a froth of flailing arms and pumping fists, blue light glinting off his gold teeth and shades as he announces himself humbly as the ‘BasedGod’. It can only be hip hop’s most divisive figure for a generation: Brandon McCartney, or as you probably know him, Lil B.
“First I park my car, then I fuck your bitch!” he chants in the nasal drawl heard on his most banal and ridiculous tracks, as his fans lurch forward as one to swamp the stage for the chorus of ‘Wonton Soup’, B’s biggest hit (where ‘hit’ means ‘most viewed on YouTube’ – eight million views and counting). Tonight’s set is weighted heavily towards his most notorious meme-spawning material, including ‘Green Card’, ‘I Own Swag’ and newer, um, songs, like ‘Ima Eat Her Ass’ and ‘Please Respect the Bitch’. The big guys on stage get tough with the invaders, tossing them back into the throng and twiddling their earpieces as if the crowd want anything more dangerous than to pogo along with their hero, screeching, “Swag! swag! swag!”
Before wrapping up at 9.30pm (the early slot is necessary for the hour-long meet-and-greet session afterwards), B tries out one of his ‘Based freestyles’, this time a pretty hopeless example of his notoriously hit-and-miss improvisations. He tests a few lines, grinning at a successful rhyme but reverting to the chant of “Young BasedGod” when he fails to tease a couplet from his brain. While half the crowd lose their minds at the front, a significant proportion of attendees are skulking further back, sizing up B as a foreign curiosity rather than a demigod. When he announces the last song, there’s a decisive dash for the exit among the lone gig-goers who’ve heard all they need to hear. The patient devotees, on the other hand, queue up for an hour to get their souvenir snap, to be tweeted immediately in the hope of a retweet from @LilBThePack1 himself (verified; 431,800 followers and rising).
In that moment, the entire Lil B narrative is neatly illustrated. A rapper with a million fans and nearly as many haters, Brandon McCartney’s journey from skate brat to underground superstar has attracted no small amount of controversy and column inches along the way. No longer considered a young buck in the game (he was named in U.S. hip hop magazine XXL’s ‘Freshman Class’ feature last year), B’s influence can now be heard in mainstream rap and chart pop, while critics from blogs and broadsheets ruminate on the meanings of ‘Based’ music.
Many listeners, though, are bewildered by the hype, arguing that he plain can’t rap and has no business calling himself a ‘god’ of hip hop, ‘based’ or otherwise. It’s time to find out more, so we wait patiently backstage while the fans get their starstruck moment. An assortment of over-dressed hangers-on pace around behind the curtains, flashing shiny varsity jackets, wrist-to-wrist tattoos and freshly purchased snapbacks. Lou Pocus, a producer from Bedford who’s made a few beats for B, has brought his crew in and waits to shake hands with his collaborator and pass on some contraband, which is gratefully received. Gatecrashers and groupies line the walls as security guards vainly attempt to weed out imposters.
In the midst of chaos, B’s manager floats calmly, packing up the limited equipment they’ve brought with them. A true San Franciscan, long-haired and impossibly relaxed, he also sorts out the backing tracks during the set – no hype man or DJ on this tour – and shepherds B towards the various interviews, taxis and flights using a paper plate, on the back of which are the phone numbers for XOYO [the venue we’re in] and Addison Lee scrawled in green. By the time we pin the rapper down for our post-show interview, it becomes obvious we’ll be lucky to steal 20 minutes of his time. They’ve got an early morning flight to catch and, by the looks of it, the night is young for B.
In scruffy basketball shorts, yellow knee socks and a pair of tatty Vans, B cuts a modest figure, with the exception of his full grill and chestful of tattoos (the centrepiece reads: Lord, protect me from myself). He greets everyone enthusiastically and seems pleased with the show: “One of my favourites, definitely.” A film crew ask how he prepares before going onstage. Perhaps we were expecting vocal exercises, or liquor and blunts, but this is San Francisco’s Lil B we’re talking about. “Just meditate,” he says, “and get my high right.”
It’s not the orgiastic nihilism you might expect from the guy with “four diamond rings, two big-ass chains”. For every ‘swag’ there’s a ‘based’ – once a term of abuse directed at ‘basehead’ crack addicts, now reclaimed as the linchpin of an entire philosophy of sorts, a brand of positive thinking that betrays his upbringing in the hippy homeland and college town of Berkeley.