Chicago is one of the most popular destinations in North America and the third most populous city in the entire nation. Analysts and outsiders see it as a hub for many industries given the diversity of economy; locals describe the crime rate and systematic traps designed to keep the oppressed where they are. The duality in the city is clear to see and nobody embodies this more than Herbert Wright III, better known to you and me as Midwest rap sensation G Herbo.
His brand of street rap is as high-octane as his storytelling suggests, given that he flows off beat with a frantic urgency yet still manages to hit pockets that you wouldn’t think possible. Lyrically he stands out in comparison to his peers as his raps go beyond mindless glorification of a dangerous life; G Herbo offers perspectives from both sides with an eerie realism that is refreshing and polarising at the same time. We saw these qualities on his acclaimed 2017 debut album ‘Humble Beast’, before he linked up with famed rap producer Southside to create this year’s ‘Swervo’ – a 14 track collaboration album that introduced the world to G Herbo’s outlandish alter ego.
Given the fact that he’s in the middle of his Swervo Tour, getting the young rapper to meet for an interview in the first place was always going to be tricky, but thankfully we catch him in LA for a shoot and then a few days he chops it up with us over the phone to London. G Herbo is at ease when we exchange pleasantries, expressing how grateful he is to be here today. Congratulating him on the birth of his son, I kick off by asking how fatherhood has been treating him so far. “Thank you bro! It’s been crazy because whilst I’m on the road I’m working, I’m tryna figure out when I can see him and be with him. Fatherhood is great, but he’s getting too big too fast… and I work too much!”
He refers to tour life and rapping as ‘work’, his tone suggests that he takes it seriously but is surprisingly humble when I ask about how he thinks his tour is going. “Tour has been treating me good so far. It’s been kinda more lit than I expected. I be humble and modest, I don’t really know what to expect but the fans have been coming out every night. So I put my all in when I get up on stage. One of my main focuses when I’ve been working has been trying to perfect my shows so I’ve been looking at things like my production and seeing how my fans take to it in comparison to other shows. So far it’s been going good.”
G Herbo sounds nothing like his Swervo alter-ego, the confident showman whose motivation in the booth was seeing $200,000 in cash on the floor of a studio and being told to rap. The synergy displayed by G Herbo and Southside is evident to see all over the ‘Swervo’ album, so I press him on how working with the famed 808 Mafia producer was different to working with others. “It’s good working with him because it’s like our friendship, our brotherhood is one thing but when we get to work, we both take it to another level. He takes being a producer very seriously and I take being an artist seriously too. I’m really intricate with this rapping stuff, I try to tell stories because that’s my style of art. With Swervo, I’m still telling stories but they’re not the stories that my fans are used to hearing. This is more being able to enjoy working hard, being able to really reap the fruits of our labour. Catching all these fans, making money, really being able to express that. That’s Swervo and that’s something that Southside channelled in me. He really wanted Swervo to paint that picture.”
Chicago is still my favourite place to record, I just can’t have my guard down there.
We make a distinction between the contrast of styles between ‘Humble Beast’ and ‘Swervo’ and the narrative is clear in Southside’s influence. “Usually when I’m in the studio I’m with a few producers, but with Swervo it was really just me and Southside. I locked in to show the fans that I’m G Herbo. I’m a humble guy but I’m Swervo too. I can be energetic, I can… maybe not boast but show out a little bit, flex a little muscle. There’s nothing wrong with that. For me it [the alter ego] is really like a motivational thing, showing these young kids that are 16, 17 that they can do this too.”
The kids he refers to, he sees often in the Chicago streets, running around and doing things that G Herbo himself experienced growing up. Still only 23, he talks as if he’s seen many moons given his calm demeanour. Once saying that you can’t have your guard down in Chicago, I ask if he prefers to record elsewhere. “Chicago is still my favourite place to record, I just can’t have my guard down there. I can’t have my guard down anywhere but especially in Chicago. I would say one of my favourite places to record is in L.A. I like to record in L.A. so I’m here right now. I get a lot of good songs done in New York though, probably 60% of Swervo was done in New York. I’ll record wherever I’m at, as long as there’s a microphone!” We both chuckle instantly, as he acknowledges he’s a self-confessed studio rat.
I ask if his work ethic extends to being hands on with the production side of things, “I’m really strategic with who I work with so I’m very hands on with the production. I like a lot of upcoming producers from Chicago and other people’s producers, but I just work best with my producers. I don’t go out and go after a certain sound, the producers I work with already know me [and how I wanna sound]. [Producers] I fuck with like Maaly Raw, Chase Davis, Chase The Money, Southside of course, DP [Beats]. I can name producers but right now, Tay Keith, I got some production from Tay Keith coming. I need some production from Sosa [Chief Keef] though.”
Tay Keith is one of the hottest producers out right now and boasts production credits with artists such as Metro Boomin’ (Don’t Come out the House), BlocBoy JB (Look Alive, Rover) Travis Scott (Sicko Mode) and Drake (Nonstop). Understandably, I am more enthused at the prospect of G Herbo working with the creator of one of my favourite albums in the influential ‘Finally Rich’. He didn’t have to tell me who Sosa was! “Me and Sosa gon drop an album. He might produce 50-60% of the album.” I express to him how crazy this news is as a chunk of people in the UK have seen Chief Keef come up and influence a generation of ‘Soundcloud rappers’. “Chief Keef might’ve been the guy that got dropped from Interscope but to us out in Chicago, he’s a billionaire. He was the first one from out here to get a major deal like that.”
Despite basking in the fruits of his recent efforts, G Herbo is constantly looking forward, thinking of his next move musically and he admits to liking the reception that his ‘Swervo’ album received. His eagerness to get back to basics is apparent so I’m curious if he plans to stay in Swervo mode. “I’m gonna go back to G Herbo mode. I’ve been in Swervo mode for a minute but I want to get back into G Herbo things and work on a new album to drop next year. I might go back to Swervo mode and drop an EP but I really wanna get into album mode and focus on my next album.”
People aren’t gonna create opportunities for us, so we have to create them for ourselves.
We come out of album mode in order to discuss mental health; a topic that is not only dear to G Herbo but something that touches home, especially for young people given the wave of knife crime experienced in London this year. Given his experiences in Chicago, he brings first-hand insight into what needs to be done for young people to overcome these challenges and move forward, “The first step to overcome is to accept our wrongdoings and the roles we play. I’ve lived the majority of my life doing wrong things. I’m blessed to have gotten millions of fans, millions of streams, millions of views. I’ve done songs with Nicki Minaj, but I spent the majority of my time in the streets. I was heavy in the streets, I wasn’t able to move my momma out of the streets of Chicago just being a known rapper. I was focused on the streets, but I turned my life around. The first step is to accept the wrongdoings and then change our behaviour. People aren’t gonna create opportunities for us, so we have to create them for ourselves.”
Showing depth beyond the madness that he documents in his city, G Herbo is clearly keen to do his part and plans to collaborate with fellow Chicago artist Chance The Rapper in order to address mental health. In response to my question asking why he felt moved to contribute in this way, he states “It’s because I’m a voice for the youth, I’m a voice for Chicago. I’m someone that people look up to. A lot of kids they behave a certain way because they see me in my videos. So I try to talk to a lot of these kids because they know what’s going on in the streets. They know there’s all types of ways you can die out here. I try to talk to them about finding ways to get out of it [the streets]. When I was in the streets, all I thought about was getting out and I did. You just have to have a dream and follow it.”
They say art imitates life and over the years the scope of Chicago rap has showed diversity given the amount of acts that are breaking out. The age of the internet and streaming gave us the likes of Mick Jenkins, Saba, Lil Durk, Noname, Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Ravyn Lenae… I’m forgetting people but you get the sentiment. “Chicago is in a good place. We got all different kinds of rappers like Chance The Rapper, Lil Bibby, Grammy award winner Kanye West, Lil Durk, Sosa. Juice WRLD. There’s so many rappers you can name that are telling our story and catering to the art, so we’re in a good place.”
I point to Chief Keef’s recent feature on ‘Pitbulls’; a track by popular UK Drill duo Skengdo and A.M. It showed recognition of the UK Drill scene by a pioneer in the Chicago Drill movement and earned praise from UK and US audiences. G Herbo isn’t as open to the idea of a collaboration across the pond though. “Ummm I can’t say that I’ve really listened to much of it. I’m an artist that’s strategic with my work but at the same time any relationships or collaborations gotta happen naturally. I can listen to it [UK Drill] but I ain’t really on it. I’m not tryna offend nobody but I’m really just tryna focus on G Herbo right now.” Despite the disappointment of that soft curveball, G Herbo does at least end the interview with a silver lining in response to me wondering when he will finally tour in London. “Oh man, really really soon. As soon as I can get there, I’m tryna get stamps on my passport right now! [laughs] If you know any booking agents, tell them to get at my people, let’s make it happen!”
‘Swervo’ can be streamed on all major digital platforms.