Photos by Bobby Viteri
Five minutes into our first conversation, the Baton Rouge, LA rapper Kevin Gates mentions that he suffers from severe depression, a prognosis he came to terms with while earning a master’s degree in psychology in prison. Two minutes later, he’s laughing as he sings part of a Taylor Swift song and admits his love for Ed Sheeran on his more emotional days.
Things are looking up for Gates these days. His latest in a string of stellar mixtapes, By Any Means, has found a warm reception amongst rap fans, and he was recently honored with a placement on XXL’s Freshmen 2014 cover. But for the prodigiously talented Gates, this seems coincidental more than anything else. He’s been rapping in between his stints in prison for years, earning a cult of devoted fans along the way. By Any Means oscillates between extreme braggadocio to earnest admissions of hurt feelings in a matter of a few bars, and Gates acts the same way in person. To him, being a hopeless romantic and a ruthless drug dealer aren’t diametric personality traits; it's all part of the enigma wrapped in a Taylor Swift lyric that is Kevin Gates.
Noisey: Do you remember the first track you listened to when you were younger that you really liked?
Kevin Gates: It was probably something by Snoop Dogg or Dr. Dre. Like as a child it was probably the first thing I ever heard was Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. I just wanted to ride on the handlebars of bicycles. I thought that was that was just the coolest thing, when Snoop Dogg was riding on the handlebars.
Did you try it out after that?
I had already been doing it! Somebody else was doing it, he was doing it in the video, right on the handlebars. I thought that was the coolest thing ever, like I felt like he was from my hood.
What do you think sets you apart from other rappers?
I don’t just listen to rap. Some people are like, “Who’s your favorite rap artist?” I’m like, “I don’t have just a favorite rap artist.” There’s certain rappers that I’ll listen to and I like certain songs by certain artists. I’m not a fan of just one specific artist, and everything that that artist does I like that. Lifehouse, “Hanging by a Moment,” I love that song. You know what I’m saying? Like Taylor Swift says, “And my daddy said stay away from Juliet,” I can understand what she meant by that metaphorically, like, she was the princess. I’ve been through that situation. I was courting, going through the courtship phase, you know, the lady’s father intervened, he didn’t want her dating me and things of that nature. But I was a knight in shining armor, so I had to fight for her.
It resonated with me and the other part of the song that was like, [singing] “Do you remember, we were sitting there by the water? You put your arms around me for the first time.” I love that. It’s so realistic. It’s simplistic. And when I listen to that song it reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Nicholas Sparks. He wrote The Notebook. I love The Notebook. One of the main characters said, “There won’t be any monuments for me after I’m gone, and I won’t be given any special medals of honor when I’m dead, but of this I’m sure: that I love this woman with all my heart.” And it’s just one of the most beautiful lines I’ve heard in my entire life. It’s beautiful to me, you know what I’m saying. I love being in love.
There’s a dichotomy, in that sense, with your music, where if I you read certain lyrics alone they could sound like a Taylor Swift song. How do you put that side of your music in with the rest of your content?
I don’t try to put it together. They just coexist, they coincide, because music is therapy for me. I deal with a severe case of depression. And I advocate for that because there are so many other people that suffer from depression but they’re afraid to talk about it for fear of how others may view it. Like, “He’s depressed, he might come over here and kill everybody and kill himself!” “He’s a ticking time bomb!” and things of that nature, but it’s not really that. A lot of people suffer from depression and don’t know it, probably.
How have you become comfortable talking about depression that openly?
Because music is my release, and I notice that once I started the conversation, then other people are like, “Well, Kevin Gates uses music to channel his depression.” Other people may be like, “I use basketball to channel my depression. I channel my depression through running, I channel my depression through yoga, I channel my depression through meditation,” or whatever it may be, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I just advocate that because it’s okay to suffer from a certain ailments. It’s how you treat those ailments, it’s how you deal with those ailments that matters.
What have you been reading lately?
I’m re-reading The Master Key System by Charles F. Haanel. I read it, but I missed some things because I rushed through. I was in a rush to get the insights I was getting from it. But I’m an avid reader, so I read a lot.
And what’s your playlist looking like?
Abel and Cain. Lifehouse. Taylor Swift. Ed Sheeran. Gucci Mane. It depends on what mood I’m in. I might be like, “Damn I want that Gucci.” I might be reminiscing about the time that I was in love and play some Taylor Swift, let’s get it. I want to be in my feelings and listen to Ed Sheeran.
When did you realize you were a pretty great rapper?
I believe in 2011, when I became incarcerated. I was like, “You know what? I love the way my mind works. And I’m a fan of Kevin Gates also.” I’m a fan. Like I still go back and listen to some of the older music and I’m like, “Come take it, baby.” It was me and it is me.
There’s a lot of buzz around you this year and with this mixtape. Do you feel it building up?
I don’t feel like that. I feel like it was the same as it ever was. I get frustrated hearing the word “potential” because the definition of “potential” is “capable of being but not yet in existence.” I can go to the airport. If I can’t go to the airport, then we doing something. If people wait seven days for me to come like a Beatle, then we’re doing something. But we’re not doing nothing yet. We’re barely scratching the surface. We got a lot of work to do.
Meher Ahmad works at VICE and hates Drew Millard. She's on Twitter - @_meher