Image: Dan Monick
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Watch For The Hook
Hate if you must, but Waka Flocka Flame is an undisputed hit machine. The hottest Atlanta rapper has had a tumultuous year of bullets, beef and big records. Beware the future.
Words: Elliott Wilson
“The chorus comes to me immediately,” Waka tells me. We’re in the back of a Chinese restaurant in Georgia. “I can make hooks all day.” He’s here for the photo shoot for his first national cover. It’s long overdue. Juaquin Malphurs has created some of the top tunes of 2010. It follows that his name is bashed constantly. Online comments in a nutshell: He’s not an MC. He’s ignorant. Stupid. A passing fad.
He’s the new representation of all that’s supposedly wrong with hip-hop.
Waka is aware of all this keyboard clatter. And with thick skin, he plays into it. He’s smarter than he’s willing to let the general public know, and he doesn’t mind all the attention and angst aimed at him.
After all, he’s moving in the actual world even more than in the virtual one. He’s been shot. Punched in the eye. Battled a BET exec. Waka has publicly declared his problems with his mentor, Gucci Mane—and he has defended his momager, Mizay Entertainment’s Debra Antney, as she stood up to waves of negative press and the loss of her former artist, Nicki Minaj. This is all in the past year.
A jokester with a huge heart, Waka lives by a philosophy revolving around three Fs: friends, fans, family. And Flame doesn’t seem afraid of a lil’ fame thrown on top. Fantastic.
You write choruses that people get energized by and sing along to—a major part of songwriting. Do you feel recognized for that?
I don’t think they understand my art yet. They recognize it, but they don’t understand it yet. They still got mixed feelings. They don’t know if they wanna accept it. Or they don’t. Or they do, but probably their friend don’t like it.
You did an interview earlier this year with Whoo Kid, and you put down lyricism. You know the Internet goes crazy whenever a rapper says, “Oh, I’m not a lyricist.” Were you just tryin’ to fuck with people?
I don’t feel like I’m no lyricist. I’m not in the booth trying to goddamn rap big words. I’m not tryin’ to show off my intelligence. Anybody could memorize big words, put ’em together. I could do that. But if I don’t use the words on an everyday basis, why use the words in my rap?
You’d rather come up with the right hook, the right melody. You sort of articulated that: You want to make big records.
I just like music. I’m a lover of making music. It could be a big record, small record—as long as I’m making songs. One day it’ll pop; that’s how I look at it.
Seemed like it popped fast this whole year. “O Let’s Do It,” “Hard In Da Paint” and “No Hands”—three huge records.
Yeah. What I did in one year—one year—a lot of people accomplish in 10 years. A lot of people don’t like that. They feel I don’t deserve what I got.
Do you deserve it?
I’m a hard-ass worker. And I’m here for a reason. This shit ain’t luck. I don’t believe in luck.
What’s the reason you’re here?
To give my family and my friends a better opportunity in life. To teach them to be rich, or financially straight. I’m an opportunist at the end of the day.
Your mom was already in the business. You felt that need to hold her down too?
Yeah. She needed a lot of help. My mother wasn’t gonna handle it by herself. She’s golden-hearted, so I’d rather help her than watch her struggle through the whole process.
But you had to prove yourself to her, right? She had to recognize that you were serious.
That’s for anybody. She don’t give a fuck who you are. If we can’t make no money, and you’re not passionate about what you do, why work with you? That’s what kind of person she is. So I ain’t never told her I rap. Other people was like, “Yo, Waka’s got some hard shit.” So she’s just like, “You got some music?” I’m like, “Yeah.”
She told me when she heard “O Let’s Do It,” she recognized it as a hit.
I let her hear, like, 15 songs. She heard “O Let’s Do It,” and she was, “I like that song. I don’t like nothing else. I like that song.” One song. I said, “Oh, hell no.” She knew, though.
So what she was doing with Gucci Mane and Nicki Minaj—was that influencing you to wanna be part of it? What was your role when that was going on, and we didn’t know about you?
I might go to the studio with Gooch. Just anything, like little shit. Or Nicki might [need something]. You know what I’m saying?
Just holding everybody down.
It was a big learning experience. I never had a desire to rap. “O Let’s Do It” made me rap. The song popped so hard. I’m like, Shit, I might as well do it!
Your mom was telling me that you grew up in Queens, and you had access at a young age to artists like DMC.
I grew up around LL Cool J, Farmers [Boulevard, in Queens], his grandmother used to live right—a block from me. They used to throw a lot of house parties.
You remember that?
A lot. My uncles knew him. The Lost Boyz, my cousin Malik used to know about them. Run DMC, they used to come to my grandma’s house. One of ’em used to talk to my aunt and made a song about her, “Mary Mary.” DMX, my uncle produced for him, I met him. Slick Rick, I met him. Method Man, I met him. Mariah Carey, when I was younger, I met her. Russell Simmons knew my family. Ja Rule and them used to live up the street. I heard my mama used to know 50 Cent, like, maybe since 50 was a baby. My cousins roll with G-Unit right now.
It’s just a part of who you are.
That’s what it is, man. Then after that, I came to Georgia.
Right to Riverdale?
No, I moved to Southwest Campbellton Road. I lived on Delowe Drive. Back then they had a song, “Who you with? Who you with? Who you with gettin’ crunk?” The guy who sang that was my barber. So it was just crazy.
The slang and the energy, was that an adjustment? ’Cause you’ll say “son” or “real talk,” you’ll throw in what people view as East Coast speak, but you can still tell you’ve lived in ATL a long time. It’s unique.
Yeah. My new music shows a lot of that. Like my last 20 songs, a lot of people were like “Damn, boy. You be rapping good.” I can’t recognize it ’cause I’m the person expressing the words.
Rick Ross got better album to album. It does happen.
I’m lookin’ at it from a point of view of an artist. I used to not be an artist. I used to look at artists like, Oh, man, they fake as hell. You ain’t done nothin’. Y’all niggas just got a good-ass song. Now I am an artist. How do I think of it? I see so much hatred out there. So now I know how the people on the opposite side feel. That’s why when people be like, “That nigga—don’t it bother you?” I’m like, “Hell no. It can’t bother me.” ’Cause I know what they’re really feeling. And after all that, they would fuck around and start liking the music. So basically, it was a sign of you getting attracted to that person’s music but not knowing it. You’re hating on it, but you’re an undercover admirer.
We live in an age where people have big records, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gonna be stars. People love the record and don’t love the person. But your name rings bells.
I got a new song called “Robot Rappers.”
“Robot Rappers.” Meaning you program what they say. And the other ones, they write your rap for you, you just gon’ act them lyrics out. Then when a person has contact with you, you act like your music. Now, it’s not an act, it’s you. So they’re in love with the character in the music. So I’ll be damned if somebody writes something for me. Now somebody might come up with a hook—that’s cool. I’ll take a hook a day if it comes with the beat. But you’re not gonna write my raps, though. Nah.
What do you think it is about you that’s connecting with people? That there’s no persona?
I can’t guess what it is. I’m real.
It’s probably the craziest year of your life, in terms of so much going on.
I swear to God, I never lived 10 years in 12 months. It ain’t over yet. I done got into anything, from getting shot to getting rich…just wild, crazy shit.
Awards-show nonsense, like both BET awards. There was some foolery.
It was all meant to be. But the smoke with Puffy at the BET Awards, I ain’t get mad at it. You know how I felt? I felt like they just kept the people like, Dang, man, why Waka Flocka ain’t show his face? And I was more happy with that. I was happy because I was there. I ain’t give a fuck. I’m on stage. I’m with Diddy. This shit big. I’m-a go home, everybody gon’ call, “I seen you on TV, man!”
How did you feel when you first heard Puff’s verse on the remix?
Hell yeah, that shit was hard. They attacked that quick. That shit—impact quick.
Probably still the hottest remix of the year.
It is. Ain’t nobody fronting. I got the best club bangers ever.
“Hard In Da Paint,” too. That track was around for a while, right? It just needed you to really get the right feel to it?
We were jamming to that shit for a minute. That shit’s a good song. That shit’s to turn us up! We dropped that horn [imitates horns from song].
“No Hands.” With Roscoe Dash on the hook, it’s smooth—it’s crunk, the energy level, but it’s more for the ladies?
Roscoe and them, we planned that. He’s like, “Big bro, you need to get some girls, man! They fuck with you, man. Why you don’t never just make music for them for once?” So we just heard the beat, everybody started putting their ideas together. Roscoe’s got a low-pitched, softer voice. So he put the hook on there. [Snaps fingers] Bang. I start thinking what I want a girl to think. I’m looking at a girl like, All that ass, goddamn in them jeans. I talk my verse out before I rap. I’m talking on the beat.
Do you party all the time? Drinking all the time, fuckin’ with drugs? How hard do you really go? Because live-performance-wise, it seems real rock star.
I’ll tell you, bro, you know on some real shit, I’m grown at the end of the day. I experienced a lot. I smoke, I drink, I tried ecstasy once, a couple of times. But that shit’s not good for you.
There have been reports that Gucci’s had some issues with rehab. Does it bother you to see a friend go through battles with drugs, getting his life in order?
I’d be lying if I said it don’t bother me, but who is me to judge Gucci? That’s my dawg. That man had a crazy-ass life. I guarantee if a lot of people would walk in that man’s shoes, their brain would’ve been fried. That’s a strong guy. I respect that guy for everything he does. He’s got so much pain, anger in him. That’s why we connect so strong.
You went public a few months back, spoke on how the relationship had changed communication-wise…
Mind you, after all that came out, what happened?
You got cool again, went to Queens together and everything?
That’s because he woke up. He seen what’s around him, brainwashing, confusing, took him away from what really loves him. Sometimes the devil wins battles, but it’s your job to go get that person back. If you let their soul fly, you just lost a soldier. So I’ll be damned if I lose someone that showed me the route, showed me the key ways. I’d rather do it with a team than do it by myself.
In September, when you were on 106 & Park, they asked you about voting and you stumbled.
As a man, I couldn’t lie. I couldn’t go on national TV and lie to people like that. That’s not real. A lot of people that died, lost their life for the vote, why would I disrespect them people? My problem was, I need to know what I’m voting for.
Speaking of BET, what happened at the Hip-Hop Awards? What was the mix-up? You did the wrong song, did a different song?
First of all, my DJ, right, we had two BET things—like BET Show Rough, BET Final Show. He pressed the rough. So instead of “No Hands,” “Hard In Da Paint” came on first. And [BET] wasn’t mad ’cause I jumped off the stage. They were mad ’cause I grabbed people out the crowd to bring ’em to the stage, and we had, like, fire on the stage. God forbid they got on fire. I just got a phone call. I had to meet with a big BET executive. I told him what I was doing it for. He respects me better as a young man than before anything else. So now it’s different. He’s cool.
You got a personal connection now.
A person like me, before I got any beef, I conversate with you. If we could talk it out, eye to eye, won’t need to go no further. But if I feel like the conversation can’t go nowhere, then what is level two?
In January you were confronted with a carjack, right?
It was no carjack. More like a trying-to-come-get-the-person-in-the-car.
For the jewels?
The jewels, the money, whatever. I don’t know what robbed me. I thought a dog robbed me, a donkey or some shit. Whatever it was, they just pulled an item out, I don’t know if it’s a paper gun, a real gun. I know it’s real ’cause I felt the bullet. But I thought it was fake. I knew I had to fight like, Let me try to take this shit, maybe you don’t know what you’re doing with that.
Yeah, so it ain’t like I got stripped, like I snatched the chain off. I took it off to use in defense, so when you reach for one of these items the wrong way, I’m-a grab your hand. And that’s what happened, I grabbed him. They was trying to run, but I grabbed ’em back. They turned around, without looking just shot. In the force of me tryin’ to punch, and the force of him—the bullet went up, busted my shoulder blade, busted the ribs, hit my lungs, almost cracked the bone in the back. The doctor said, “He got shot five times with one bullet.” It was like 13 or 14 tubes in my body. I was fucked up. They was talking, “He paralyzed,” all kinds of shit. But it’s all good.
You even called the radio, like you were Tupac or something, from the hospital. Was that tough, recuperating?
The hardest shit of my life. I knew if I could overcome that, what else gon’ stop me. I saw my little brother dead, with his head bust open, brains on the ground from getting hit and ran over. I knew if I could overcome that—I got shot, that’s nothing. Not mentally. That ain’t shit.
You knew you had your life, but you were in constant pain.
Once I knew I was alive, this is the battle to get back to normal.
So how long did it take to feel like you were at full strength?
Like three months. Surgery was like 200-something thousand [dollars]. I had no insurance at the time. I figured my insurance was switching up for like a month, it so happened. In the process of getting shot, I didn’t get no help from nobody. Just me and my mama.
You had to pay for everything?
Just me and my mama. No label yet, nothing. That just let me know. I can’t get no help, but a lot of people want me to rap, want me to make some money. But when I’m down and out—can’t get no help. So now that put me into a predicament, like, I gotta make it.
A turning point.
That’s it right there. Let me grow the fuck up—I ain’t a little boy. I ain’t trying to throw up a certain sign with my fingers representing my area. Maybe I am a role model. When I was in the hospital, that’s all I was thinking about. It was just a lot of shit going through my brain. Like, Will I make it when I come out? Will I be able to rap? Will my voice change?
“I LOVE NICKI MINAJ. I TOLD HER, I’D ADMIT IT.” —DRAKE
Were you disappointed that Nicki severed ties with Mizay?
Nicki? Nah, hell no. Nicki cool as fuck. Nicki, she just felt like, as an artist, as a grown woman, Debra showed me how to tighten my business, what I need. And I feel like we did our job. I think I need to move on and take more control of my business. And as an artist, as a grown-up, I respect her for that. ’Cause after that, she just put her 3-D glasses on and zoned in. She went in. She went fourth-quarter-Kobe in! So I got high hopes and respect for her. Every time I see her, I tell her, “Hey, Nicki, you’re killing it. Don’t stop.” I always tell her, “If you do a show, connect with your crowd. You the best one with that shit, anyway.” She probably learned some shit off me and I learned a lot off her. We’ve been around. That’s what got her blown up—she can connect to her fans.
Take me back to when you first met her.
Everybody was trying to fuck her. Everybody. Nicki wouldn’t mess with anybody. I swear to God, she came here focused. Came all the way here focused. She was smashing tracks. Every track she on, she had the hardest verse.
So her whole murdering guest verses, that’s not new to you.
I’m not gonna lie, she was always with Young Money, though. She was with our squad, but she love her team. That’s why I fuck with her, because she’ll never bite the hand that feeds her. She recognizes who helped her, and Shorty worked. We were stupid, stupid close. Everything, we would always be together, coming over for watching TV. We’d eat Hot Pockets and shit, Nicki’s like [makes weird noise]. She’s just funny as fuck. She cool, though, a relaxed person, a chill person. She’s always on the Internet. She channeled me into fuckin’ with the fans.
You’ve had situations—getting arrested, probation. How are you making sure those things don’t derail your career?
Those things is the past. Past, ignorant shit—thinking I’m above the law.
You always say that your little brother’s death was a turning point, that it made you short-tempered.
It made me more aggressive. Mad at the world. But I got over that. From that point [of his brother’s 2000 death] ’til when I got shot, I felt like, Fuck this shit. Like, Nigga, I’m gonna eat yo’ ass alive, you feel me?
Lack of patience.
I couldn’t control the caged beast that was in me. It was rattling the cage trying to get out.
Just getting into a lot of fights.
A lot of bullshit was my problem, was my fault, and I recognized that. That shooting helped me more than it harmed.
Career wise, it made you have to put everything in perspective. Your path, your past, your life, the way you’re moving, and also money-wise—is this a career you could do? Because now it’s like you have to really earn it. You and your mother, like you said, that’s all you guys have.
That’s all. That’s it. She always told us that you don’t have anyone. You’re not promised anything. You ain’t promised shit but death. You know one thing in life that’s gonna happen, like everybody else, you’re gonna die. So I just live.