‘Where did the message go?’ is one of the most common complaints you’ll hear from today’s rap fans. Turn on the radio, and yeah, they have a point. But then you’ll go through those same fans’ playlists and sometimes you’ll find some of the most stale, outdated sounds from rappers who clearly should have traded in their mics for some other form of activism. Bay Area rapper Rocky Rivera is giving you the best of both worlds. On her new album, Gangster of Love, she delivers a well-rounded album of motivation, playful dance songs, tunes to ride to, and some hard truths (see “No Love”). And it sounds damn good.
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A$AP’s cool, but our Rocky’s the truth. Check out our interview to learn more about her process and the new album. Also, you’ll never guess what’s on her jogging playlist!
You started out in the industry as a writer but you crossed over to the artist side, can you tell us about that transition?
I will never be 100% exclusively one or the other because there are things I despise about both hustles. But creatively, I have more control over music and I’m not bound to a publication or institution bearing my byline. There’s definitely some ego involved – who wouldn’t want a bunch of people to be rapping your lyrics at your show? A lot of journalists need to just admit that they secretly want to be the one on stage.
Do you remember what motivated you to write your first rhyme?
I had a lot of homies that were banging growing up, so I was like a fake-ass crip because that’s who was reppin’ the neighborhood. I think that’s where I wrote my first gangster rap, when I was 11 in my Hello Kitty diary. I’ve been writing poetry my whole life, but that was the moment I thought I was hardcore. Needless to say, I never breathed a word until almost a decade later, which makes me think “Thank God there was no Twitter or IG back then”.
You pay tribute to Pac on this album through skits, your song “Fallen Soldier”, and even in your socially conscious approach to music. It’s dope to see you carrying that torch. Why do you think there aren’t too many mainstream rappers doing that?
There’s no money in it. There’s some, but nothing compared to the barrels they throw at you when you disrespect yourself.
Do you have any guilty pleasure rappers on your playlist? Any 2 Chainz? Any mainstream rappers you fux with?
You should hear my Running playlist, it’s ignorant as fuck. There’s a lot of Rick Ross, Waka and Rich Homie Quan on that just in case someone wanna accidentally trip me and get beat the fuck up. I’ve included a screenshot of my actual playlist, but I switch up the songs every other month with some new motivational ignorance.
Gangster of Love. Can you take us to the moment you decided that was going to be the title?
It was never really a question because that’s where my namesake is from, a book called Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn. There were so many things I could do with that, thematically.
Are there any things that you tried to do differently from past projects?
I really listened to my fans and what they responded to this time around, which I obviously couldn’t do with my first couple projects. I was just learning my style and testing my limitations, and whatever people responded to, I kept doing more. I gotta give the people what they want, and they obviously wanted some rap shit.
Can you walk us through your writing process? Do you start with the beat? Do you start with a line? How long’s it take you to write a verse?
I start with a really awesome strain of that Cali bud, play beats and let them speak to me. It’s the only way I can quiet my mind down enough to feel inspired, but the beat definitely dictates where I take the concept.
It takes me forever to write a song because I’m a perfectionist about my lyrics. I’m tired of people acting like they Jay-Z and just coming up with 36 bars, no writtens…pfffft STFU. That shit is garbage.
The production on here is great. Can you talk about some of the people you work with?
I was feeling uninspired musically for a long time, so the producers on the album gave me beats that brought back my inspiration. Faint, who produced “Ain’t No Way” was the first to break through that creative block and give me something to work with conceptually. A majority of the producers on GOL contributed to my first project, such as DexBeats, Sabzi, 6Fingers and Fatgums, and it felt very much like a Part 2 with them being involved. And a lot of the new producers I’ve worked with such as Justo, MTK, PM Beatz and Bhonstro created standout tracks that gave me that extra heat and replay-factor.
As my fans know, I’m all about great production. Tayo made “Wake Up”, which blew me away because I only know him to be a homie and rapper on my label, and I never knew he produced. I actually stole that beat from Bambu and Prometheus Brown.
Cover art was fresh too. How did you come up with the paper doll concept?
I thought up that brilliant idea in the shower, where I come up with all my brilliant ideas. A revolutionary paper doll? WHYTHEFUCKKKSSNOT?!!! I was probably blazed too. Chioma Ebinama of thevirgindress.tumblr.com made my steamy shower dream come true.
Glad to see that you reject the term “femcee”. Can you tell us about that?
It’s stupid. Hip Hop needs to grow up.
I’ve seen you live and you have great crowd control. No lie, shit felt bigger than hip hop. Were you always good with that or was there once a shy Rocky in your past?
The one thing I’ve been doing longer than writing and rapping is performing. I tell people this all the time: I grew up with two sisters so that’s an automatic dance group in a Filipino family. Your parents just sign you up for all sorts of shit, talent shows, birthdays, senior centers, my Dad’s Navy ship, and let’s not forget the annual holiday parties where they break out the dollar bills in the hat! That definitely contributed to me being comfortable on stage and still gives me a high I can’t get anywhere else. But to be real, I’m probably more shy when meeting new people. I can’t deal with small talk so I just wait until people approach me or I keep it moving.
When you’re not rapping, you work with a lot of youth. What do you think are some of the biggest problems they face today and what can we do to help?
The same shit that ‘Pac rapped on “Keep Ya Head Up” is still relevant today. We have a Black President and shit is still the same. There’s nothing you can do about it because it’s the society we live in, but if people can start asking questions about why things are the way they are, it’s certainly a good start. And stop wearing blackface during Halloween. That’s a given.
The only feature on the album is Bambu and I think I heard your homegirl talkin’ shit at the end of “Jockin Me” which was great. But was it important to keep the project relatively feature-free?
Yes. My music is very particular and features have become a way for rappers to be lazy and give their friends/label mates free promotion. I don’t play that shit. And I hurt people’s feelings so it was best to keep it in the family for quality-control purposes. For mixtapes, anything goes.
You and Bambu are married but as emcees, do you feel that friendly competition?
Nah dude, we ain’t married. I make several references to it in the album, but I just don’t believe in the institution of that shit. It’s mad oppressive, yo, for both people. As far as competition, I don’t believe there is any because his success is my success and vice versa. We eat together as a family. But there’s a track called “Slick Talk” on my last mixtape that he gets a lot of shit for because I kinda went in – I mean I shot a viral and cut his whole verse out haha – but people were super-excited about my verse in particular. He didn’t let that happen for the Headhunter track on the album, he returned the favor and murked that song. Luckily, those kind of verses are a turn on for the both of us, so that’s how we keep the passion going.
I seen a flick of you and your family Adventure Time’d out for Halloween. Are you a big fan?
Yes! That show is hella profound. It’s my favorite cartoon to watch with my son.
Last family question, with mom and dad being rappers, is your kid showing signs of being good with words?
If it means being a smart-ass, then yes. He gets that from both sides of the family.
There’s been a lot of struggle Asian rappers since forever. I have theories about this, do you? Anybody you’re feeling?
Oh shit, I gotta hear those theories over some banchan and KBBQ in the near future! I have heard a theory from Prometheus Brown about military brats being the best Filipino rappers (and *ahem* I sure did grow up on a military base) but as far as far as struggle rappers, they’ve always been a part of the territory. But online, they are way more entertaining than I am, apparently, because all those dicks have more followers than me.
It’s obvious through your music that it’s important you rep Philippines. What about being Filipino makes you most proud?
We are some colonizer-killing tatted-up headhunters and a couple centuries removed will never change that about us. Fuck what you heard about our “hospitality” – ask Magellan about that.
Anything you want to add?
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