I. Smooth Seas Do Not Make Skillful Sailors
“If you find me a rapper to sign that’s not from Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New York, I’ll give you an A&R job when you graduate,” Joe “3H” Weinberger told UC Berkeley sophomore and Interscope intern Ben “Lambo” Lambert. It was a simple mission that required scouting the invisible, to search in cities criminally neglected and often overlooked by the gaze of major rap labels.
Searching along the margins led to an unknown, but striking talent born and bred in Gary, Indiana. Without physically being there, from behind his computer screen, Lambo discovered a 22-year old Freddie Gibbs. The limitation turned out to be a fruitful restriction; Freddie wasn’t the only artist discovered during the scouting, but the one Joe wanted to sign, and ultimately Gangster Gibbs inked a deal with Interscope in 2004.
“He was my claim to fame at the time,” Lambo said with a laugh, reminiscing on Berkeley days 12 years behind him. “The whole time when I’m in college, all my friends know who Freddie is. I had found this guy and got him signed to a major label. [I thought], he’s going to blow up and I’m going to have a Platinum plaque in my college dorm.”
Becoming an Interscope A&R and hanging a Platinum plaque for Freddie’s debut on his dorm room wall would’ve been the outcome in the Disney original movie of Lambo’s life. But, in the real, cruel world where mice don’t speak and dogs don’t goof, a dream will die as it floats within the grasp of your fingertips.
When “3H” received a job from Warner Bros. and decided to leave Interscope, he promised to take Gibbs with him―he didn’t. Shady Records had a “First Look” clause that allowed Eminem and Paul Rosenberg to sign Freddie within his first six months at Interscope―they didn’t. January 2005: The Game’s The Documentary was being hailed as a successful, West Coast classic. March 2005: 50 Cent’s The Massacre sold an uncanny 1.5 million in its first week. Gangsta rap was experiencing a commercial renaissance, but the industry was shifting, and Interscope didn’t have a vision for a gangsta rapper from Gary, Indiana.
Freddie Gibbs was dropped as he entered the second year of his contract, with his debut growing cobwebs on Interscope‘s shelf. These early shortcomings paralleled Lambo―there was no A&R job waiting after graduation. Both shared the sentiment of “What am I going to do?” In failure, the scout and artist remained friends, keeping in touch despite distance and tribulations.
It was Lambo and the late Josh The Goon who brought Freddie back to L.A. during a chaotic post-Interscope period and encouraged a renewed focus on rapping. Gibbs slept on Josh’s couch and recorded in his bedroom, all while he played the role of engineer. At the beginning, Lambo was a friend who just wanted Freddie to succeed, and so he searched for a manager who could help the upstart talent. Interscope had assigned Barry Williams, but as a newly independent artist, Gibbs needed new management.
Eventually, following one unsatisfied meeting after another, Gibbs asked a simple question: “Why don’t you manage me?” He trusted Lambo, and believed in him as much as Lambo believed in Gibbs. It was the beginning of their time as artist and manager, creative collaborators, and business partners.
“I just knew Freddie was special. I grew up listening to enough music and enough rap. I valued my taste enough. I knew he was undeniable and needed a shot. I didn’t think it was fair he didn’t get that shot the first time around. I just wanted him a chance to have another one. It’s cool I got a chance to do it with him. And I was able to have a second shot, too. You know things don’t always go as you envision them. You have to be flexible.”
They needed a deal. Before blogs blossomed, SoundCloud skyrocketed, and social media made virality a middleman, the process was much more complex: catch a single on a mixtape, try to solicit a deal, and hope for the best. They weren’t successful in their pursuit:
“To be honest, we had a lot of meetings. We met with almost every major label, and they all pretty much passed on [Gibbs] for another artist, or they didn’t think he had radio records. That pretty much came up in every meeting. I think out of necessity, it pushed us to figure out an alternate route. We were determined, no matter what, to get to a certain place. We are still determined to get to another place. If they were going to close the door on us, we have to come through the backyard. We have to parachute in from above.”
II. At the Bottom of Patience, One Finds Heaven
Using crayons as an example, Lambo described what it was like trying to present an artist of Freddie’s wide-ranging caliber to narrow-minded labels:
“When you don’t have those industry co-signs, they’ll write you off. They won’t fully understand what you’re trying to do until you’ve done it. You go to Crayola wanting to invent a color, but it’s not created yet. You still have to mix the other colors to make it, and they don’t understand. They want to put out more green crayons or yellow crayons.”
Lambo’s accurate analogy defines the safe maneuvering of music’s biggest labels and the complete lack of fearlessness to push for the creation of a new color. Understanding their place as outsiders, Lambo and Freddie maneuvered mixtapes within the blogosphere―a new foundation still in its larva state at the time but quickly taking form. Street albums and mixtapes created feverish acclaim around the gritty goliath with a rapid-fire flow and intense explosiveness that rivaled only an automatic weapon. Gibbs was blowing up online, and fans, just like Lambo, were discovering him from behind their computer screens.
They made the industry pay attention. Independence wasn’t a choice, but it gave a fiery incentive to win on their terms. From the 2009 release of the rapper’s The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs mixtape to today, the pairing has stayed true to their idea of building a catalog—the slow burn over the quick flash.
“Freddie was on the XXL cover with a lot of very big artists and that was 2010, eight years ago. He’s way more popular now compared to then. You can have fast food or you can have a slow-cooked meal. They’re both good in different moments but that’s the route we chose. First out of necessity and then after figuring out we can do this ourselves.”
When asked about how they got their start as a business independently, Lambo mentioned the operation of trading favors—doing verses for verses, giving producers verses for beats, not spending a lot of money but still making smart, strategic movies with the art. “Freddie might make a song, and take the money from the royalties and make a video,” Lambo said. “It’s not like a lot of situations where you can waste money. When you’re playing with house money it’s different than playing with your money.”
Patience and belief are the foundations of their business. Freddie Gibbs met Madlib in 2008, and the two began working together in 2010, but their acclaimed collaborative album, Piñata, didn’t come out until 2014. The two were connected through Lambo when he was an employee at Stones Throw Records. Lambo knew an entire album with Madlib would be special, and he encouraged Gibbs to finish the project during the timeframe of their relationship with Jeezy. (Freddie didn’t formally sign with Jeezy’s CTE label, though there was an announcement in April 2011. There was no paperwork and no deal, only a close association and support, similar to Pill’s relationship with MMG.) Gibbs had the Jeezy co-sign, an affiliation with a superstar, but Lambo always believed more in the early stages of Piñata.
Lambo’s intuition was correct. When Jeezy and Gibbs ultimately went their separate ways in 2012, it didn’t disturb the bigger project being quietly built by a duo from two different spectrums. When Piñata finally hit the web in 2014, the rave reactions were 10 years in the making. The long-awaited project didn’t disappoint.
While the music was booming, the focus began to shift toward touring around late 2010. Lambo admits that the first few shows were decent, but returning again and again built up Freddie into a superb showman, and touring has been crucial to long-term success.
Gibbs and Lambo’s aim was to create a critically acclaimed artist with a timeless brand who packs out shows; in the lineage of Modest Mouse and The Grateful Dead, Pavement and Fugazi, but within hip-hop:
“We’ve been building Freddie’s touring repertoire for the past 10 or so years. He’s never been afraid to go on the road and really connect with his fans. He can go out by himself, on his own tour, and sell out shows all over the world. Russia, Israel, Europe, Canada, China—literally anywhere. We’ve been able to maintain this longevity and buzz by having fans that love Freddie for who he is, rather than for a hot song or moment. It’s all about the long play for us.
“One time, a major label called us in for a meeting, and we thought they were gonna offer us a situation. We sat in their big conference room with like 15 staff members and the president of the label. When the meeting began, they grilled us on how we do our touring, how we do our merch, how we sell out all these shows, and how we have been able to maintain it for so long. They were dumbfounded.”
III. If You Want to Go Fast, Go Alone…. If You Want to Go Far, Go Together…
International touring wasn’t new to Freddie, but in 2016, while in Europe for the Shadow of a Doubt Tour, he was arrested in Toulouse, France on charges of sexual assault that allegedly occurred in Austria. Almost three months after his arrest, he was formally charged and faced up to 10 years in prison.
After four months of international imprisonment, Gibbs was acquitted, cleared, and rightfully set free. It was a trying time, a trial that not only affected him but his very close friend. “Business was the last thing I was thinking about. I was trying to get my friend out of prison in a foreign country. I don’t think I ever thought about business during that entire time,” Lambo said, going further to explain how he worked with the 11 lawyers they hired, going over spreadsheets and case files, and doing his best to handle the language barrier. It wasn’t just helping a client, or supporting his artist—this was his best friend, one of the best men at his wedding, and most importantly, a man he believed was innocent and who deserved freedom.
They stayed quiet throughout the trial. No interviews were conducted and there were no major outbursts on social media. Proving innocence and moving forward was their only goal.
The case in Austria is just another, albeit extreme example of Lambo and Freddie’s relationship. The duo talks every day, mixing casual with business. Input isn’t separated by creator and assistant to the creation, it’s harmonious. Lambo went through the 15 Madlib beat CDs alongside Freddie, narrowing down what eventually became Piñata. It took becoming a one-stop shop to truly be independent of any label, going above and beyond.
When asked if they would sign a deal so late in his career, Lambo replied, “Before, [we] felt like they were taking a risk. Now, we are the ones taking a risk doing business with new people. We’ve done something a certain way that works for us. We have a catalog that works for us. We look back on Tribe, De La, OutKast and Ice Cube, all these great artists. All those guys were building catalogs.”
The long road of independence worked for them, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t taking meetings. They’re still open to opportunities. 2017 was about reciprocating, behind-the-scenes meetings, and allowing Freddie the chance to get his side of the story out on You Only Live 2wice. In 2018, they’re back to business, ready to get the gears moving again.
“People are going to tell you ‘No.’ Things aren’t always going to go your way. Not every day will be your best day. But you have to keep going and keep believing in what you’re doing,” Lambo told me, cliché but honest advice about being in the industry and approaching the game without a label.
It’s refreshing to hear those words from someone who never gave up, who heard nothing but denial and entered hip-hop failing before he found success. Lambo saw it through to the end alongside someone he never stopped believing in. They were patient, persistent, and passionate; determined to be a shade unlike any other, to exist outside the crayon box, and still be as revered as your favorite color.
The story of Freddie Gibbs and Ben “Lambo” Lambert is about belief and creating a path when all roads appear to have reached their end.
By Yoh, aka The Miseducation of Yohddie Gibbs, aka @Yoh31