Rebel Yell: Waka Flocka Flame
After the mainstream left him disenchanted, Waka Flocka Flame is happy to walk a more independent path
Waka Flocka Flame is a dog-lover, and he doesn’t let you forget it. Over the course of an afternoon in London, rarely five minutes goes by without the rapper showing off his 12 French bulldogs with the hundreds of videos and photos he keeps on his phone. When a couple strolls by across the street with a Frenchie on their lead, Waka dashes over the road, charming them with his expert knowledge and cradling the dog affectionately during our photo shoot.
The New York-born, Atlanta-based artist has long been public about his passion for animal rights, having worked with PETA to campaign against cruelty to dogs as far back as 2011. The move showcased his sensitive side, perhaps shifting perceptions of an artist playing a major role in the mainstream breakthrough of trap music, the intense form of hip-hop named after slang for a drug dealer’s den.
Since having an epiphany during his first trip to London five years ago, he’s been keen to extol the virtues of healthy eating, although he’s recently conceded from a vegan diet to pescetarianism. “I lost my sense of direction, my drive,” he remembers of his days with a carnivore diet. “I think when you’re older, you gotta eat differently – you don’t break down things as quickly, or can’t produce things like you used to. You just gotta respect that.”
Today, the 31-year-old is in a jovial mood, every bit the charismatic charmer that got him signed up to VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop reality TV series alongside his wife Tammy Rivera. Our interview’s been set up partly so we can discuss Flockaveli 2, the forever-delayed sequel to his 2010 debut album. Largely considered a classic, Flockaveli spawned Hard In Da Paint – an intense battle cry of an anthem that showcased Waka’s husky tone and explosive ad libs as well as the melodramatic, orchestral Lex Luger sound that would, for a while, mould the trap music archetype. But Flockaveli 2 doesn’t arrive on the suggested late-March release date, and instead we get The Brickhouse Boyz, an eight-track collaborative project with veteran trap beat-maker Zaytoven and fellow Atlanta rapper Big Bank.
With a certain degree of pride, Waka tells me that – aside from a distribution deal with Entertainment One – he’s now operating independently. He’s been loudly critical of the mainstream music industry since the beginning of his career. In 2015 he took to Twitter to blame Atlantic Records for allegedly shelving Flockaveli 2, even offering to buy himself out of his own contract. While his last retail album, 2012’s Triple F Life, saw him enlist commercially successful collaborators such as Drake, Flo Rida and B.o.B, Waka insists that Flockaveli 2 won’t pander to the pressures of big name guests.
In recent years, the collaborative aspect of contemporary hip-hop hasn’t been known to guarantee creative chemistry. Prolific rappers often trade hastily-recorded verses to create eye-catching tracklists and to keep their names afloat online. Waka admits labels have tried to force dud collaborations on him in the past. “They’ll be like ‘Hey, get Migos on the phone, they hot!’ But they just want money. When people say that, it just makes me not want to do music. That’s what drew me away from music – not because they don’t believe in me, but because they don’t even like the artists, they just like the money I’m bringing in. Fuck y’all. It’s not genuine.”
The Brickhouse Boyz EP is out via Brick Squad Monopoly, the subsidiary of Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad imprint owned by Waka. Gucci and Waka were introduced by Waka’s mother Debra Antney, who managed Gucci from 2007-2009 alongside a promising rapper from Queens, New York going by the name of Nicki Minaj. Before becoming bitter rivals, Gucci and Waka were best friends. Gucci christened Waka with his stage name, encouraging him to start rapping in 2008 before releasing his debut mixtape Salute Me or Shoot Me a year later. Under the 1017 Bricksquad banner, they would enlist fellow ATL trap rappers like OJ Da Juiceman, Frenchie, Wooh Da Kid and the late Slim Dunkin to churn out a relentless stream of hard-hitting mixtapes, becoming a dominant force in the Atlanta scene with their exhilarating charisma and raw depictions of the trap house lifestyle.
“It was like we always had a point to prove. All this [Atlanta] shit ain’t about soul food, farm houses and getting crunk, we got some gangstas down here,” Waka says of the early Bricksquad crew. “We were respected in the streets – music happened after. People do background checks, that shit came back with flying colours.” He lets out a devious laugh.
Close associates have speculated that Waka Flocka Flame and Gucci Mane’s relationship began to sour when Waka was becoming a breakthrough star off the back off Flockaveli, and Gucci had ended his business with Debra Antney. Although Gucci could proudly watch his influence on a new generation of Atlanta artists like Future, PeeWee Longway, Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan and Migos, around this time his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic, keeping his name in the headlines for all the wrong reasons and landing him stints in county jails as well as a psychiatric hospital. Following insults and accusations thrown around in a bizarre Twitter rant in 2013, Waka vowed to never work with Gucci again. Although Gucci Mane’s remarkable reformation has since given him wholesome celebrity status, the pair have firmly refuted the idea of a reconciliation. Waka made his feelings clear on last year’s hostile diss track Was My Dawg, the cover art of which depicted Gucci’s silhouette.
Around the time that the original Bricksquad movement disintegrated, Waka Flocka Flame became one of the prominent rappers to fully embrace the somewhat controversial trap-EDM crossover trend. The era counted producers like Harlem Shake producer Bauuer and – on the slightly more leftfield side – Lunice and Hudson Mohawke’s collaboration TNGHT (feeling uneasy about the scale of aggression their music was provoking at their sets, they put the project on indefinite hiatus). Excited by the moshpit-inspiring potential of a trap-EDM hybrid, Waka toured with cake-throwing EDM giant Steve Aoki, collaborated with Flostradammus and teased work with Skrillex and Diplo.
The labels don’t even like the artists, they just like the money I’m bringing in. Fuck y’all. It’s not genuine
While EDM’s bubble has burst, for rappers, the North American festival circuit is booming, becoming more of a priority than ever before. Waka claims he was the first to open those doors, but tells me that he’s chosen to dial back on the festival thing. “I’m over the money,” he says. “It’s cool, but there’s no fun in the money – you can’t enjoy the festivals. Artists are so fucking boring. I’d love to do festivals if security wasn’t allowed and artists couldn’t come with more than two people. People come with five securities, 10 people – it’s wack. Sometimes people don’t even come out of the green room. There’s no vibes.”
Waka Flocka Flame seems to have endured the most dispiriting aspects of the music industry, and although he’s a significant figure in the story of contemporary hip-hop, at this point it looks unlikely that he’ll be ranked as a mainstream musician in the foreseeable future. But he carries the air of an artist who’s fully content with independence and constantly inspired by the energy he sees in the crowd at his live shows. While hip-hop gossip sites have been eager to report his disagreements with SoundCloud rappers like Lil Pump and Lil Xan, he insists he takes no issue with the younger generation, and he enthuses about the slick new styles in the Atlanta rap scene.
“It’s drip-hop,” he says of the new wave. “It’s swag-hop. It’s ice, it’s flexin’, it’s vibey. Fashion, swag, money, cars, it’s the glitz and the glamour of drip-hop. They say you drippin’, they mean you stylin’, you profilin’. Like ‘oh them motherfuckers drip right there',” he points at my trainers. Converse All Stars are drippin’? “Yeah! You know why? They sauce. Your sauce drippin’, when you’re walking, you’re spillin’ right now.”
And no matter what the future brings to Atlanta, this was the city that shaped Waka Flocka Flame. It’s where his heart is, and he’s staying put. “I ain’t never gonna move,” he declares. “Why leave? It’s the mecca. It’s home.”