Dream big, be big

Dream big, be big

Award-winning US rapper Kendrick Lamar tells Leon Lee how his passion for music helped him break free from the curse of his hometown

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Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar
Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP
The city of Compton, California, in the United States, is synonymous with gang culture and crime. It's the birthplace of gangsta rap, and legendary rap acts such as N.W.A, Dr Dre and Ice Cube, whose music told of the dangers of the city in the 1980s.

Although crime rates today have fallen drastically, they're still high compared to the other US cities. Gangs, violence and drugs can still be found in the area. But it's not all bad news - after all, the city is home to rising rap star Kendrick Lamar.

Lamar, who was in town with Dr Dre last month to promote Beats headphones, says his childhood was no walk in the park.

"Growing up in Compton is definitely hard because you're surrounded by trouble," the 26-year-old musician says. "Everybody's influenced by the gang culture. And that gang culture brings a lot of destruction. Destruction that you get used to. Destruction that you start to embody as you get older. To get out of that, it's very difficult."

For Lamar, his love of music proved a helpful distraction. His passion was evident during his interview with Young Post: right before it began, he was fiddling with his phone and put on a track; and then right after it was done, his hands were on the phone again, searching for another song to play.

"It took a long time to find something to keep me out of trouble. At least until I was, like, 21, when I really found my passion for music," Lamar says. "I always knew that something was there, but from the moment I really found out [music was] what I wanted to do, that's when things started to get a little bit brighter for me."

The articulate, mellow rapper got his start by releasing mixtapes. His fourth, 2010's Overly Dedicated, caught the attention of legendary producer and rapper Dr Dre, who promptly took his fellow Compton native under his wing and signed him to his label, Aftermath Entertainment.

"[Dr Dre] is definitely a perfectionist. You have to be on your A-game. He doesn't deal with anybody that's not," says Lamar. "And it's not just the music I'm talking about. It's everything - whether it's the company, the business, the music.

"I [took] the studio lessons as life lessons," he says, adding that the support of a huge star was no excuse to do things by halves. "I wanted to do [my first album]. I don't want to half-do it just because I'm signed with Dr Dre, or [think] it's going to sell because I'm signed to him. It doesn't work like that."

With that determination and Dr Dre's tutelage, Lamar released his debut studio album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, to critical acclaim from both rap and non-rap fans alike. The record has sold over 900,000 copies and led to numerous awards, such as Best New Artist and Best Male Hip-Hop Artist at the 2013 BET Awards. MTV has named him the number one Hottest MC in the Game, and Dr Dre and rappers Snoop Dogg and Game have dubbed him the "New King of the West Coast". Lamar feels privileged to have earned these titles, but believes that he is just a student of what his predecessors have already done. He says he's just telling things from his generation's point of view, with his own twists.

Lamar knows that if he can make it out of Compton and be successful, so can anybody that listens to his music.

"The circumstances around us make [people] believe [they'll] never be a Kendrick Lamar, because I was thinking I'd never be a Game," says Lamar. "And that's what the environment does to us.

"What [you] need to do is travel beyond yourself, like an out-of-body experience, to believe that you will definitely be out of [your] circumstances. People think it's based on talent, but it's not just that. It's really [the power] of being visionary. You have to tap into a whole other mind of thinking - of dreaming."


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