You might know him as Lil B, The BasedGod, or Brandon McCartney. Whatever the case may be, if you know him, you know that he’s an East Bay legend—both a product and a purveyor of Bay Area culture. So it’s no surprise that he’s a fan of Street Spirit, which he’s seen being sold on East Bay street corners for most of his life. After he dropped the song “Street Spirit Newspaper” in February 2020, we connected with him to talk about his life, career, the song, and more.
Lil B is a Bay Area rapper and public figure, born in 1989 and raised in Berkeley. He grew up in affordable housing on Hearst Avenue down by Fourth Street, a complex of townhomes now called Ocean View Gardens. “I came from zero,” he said a handful of times during our two-hour long conversation at the end of December. He describes his childhood as rough, but equally, blessed. “I mean, you’re born into this jungle. Folks are gettin’ stepped on out here…and to raise a kid to the point you can survive and you know have a fair shot, it’s a beautiful thing. You know, from a cocoon to a butterfly,” he said. One of Lil B’s many trademarks is his positivity—a philosophy he describes as “imposing the positive” in his book, Takin’ Over by Imposing the Positive! My Personal Rap to You (2009).
“What is BASED? It means just being who you are and not being afraid of that,” he writes, explaining the meaning of his notorious alias, The BasedGod. “It means getting comfortable with yourself and your friends and moving on with our lives to a place where we can trust and love ourselves.”
Lil B went to Albany High School, then El Cerrito High. It was during this period that he began making music, and along with artists Keith Jenkins (aka Stunnaman), Young L (Lloyd Omadhebo), and Lil Uno (Damonte Johnson), started the hip-hop group The Pack in 2004. The group made music in a home studio at Young L’s house and performed at venues in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and beyond. They quickly started gaining traction locally, then nationally. In 2006 they released “Vans,” a track they first posted on their MySpace page and was soon number five on Rolling Stone’s 100 best songs of the year.
After his days in The Pack, Lil B’s solo rap career took off. He quickly developed a cult following—a low hum of fame on the national scene, but around the Bay, his celebrity reached a fever pitch. He is a prolific music-maker: At the age of 22 he claimed to have released 2,000 songs—a believable feat if you pay attention to his catalogue of music. He often releases huge volumes of music online for free. In 2020 he released at least 438 songs across five albums. He has never signed with a major label or gone out of his way to capitalize on his fame—intentionally, it seems, staying on the fringe of the mainstream. Instead, he has defined his own brand, keeping fans close and wearing his heart on his sleeve.
“Rap and life ain’t about guns or knives or WEAK shit like that anymore,” he wrote in his book. It’s about bein’ tough enough to be BASED and imposing the POSITIVE.”
In turn, the media has never quite known what to make of him. In 2015, he appeared on ESPN’s SportsNation wearing a lacy dress, dangly earrings, and a big floppy hat. There are countless photos on his instagram page of fans with the words “I <3 Lil B” written on their feet. In 2012, The New Yorker called him “the strangest rapper alive.” All of this gives him an aura of authenticity that is rare—particularly for someone who has been famous since his teens.
It is for this reason that, to his fans, he feels elemental to the culture of the Bay Area. Despite all his successes he has always stayed close to the people. “That’s kinda the theme of my lifestyle,” he told me. “Yeah I’m in a club but you’re welcome in it too.”
The people, what he describes as the street culture, is what informs his music: Whether that be Telegraph Avenue, the Ashby Flea Market, or the vendors selling Street Spirit. In fact, he even plans to sell this issue of Street Spirit himself alongside our regular newspaper vendors.
“Street Spirit to me is Berkeley. It’s Telegraph. It’s Ashby. It’s dignity. It’s promotion and marketing with love. It’s people getting out there and word of mouth,” he said.
We connected with Lil B at the end of December. During our phone call, he walked and biked around the East Bay while we talked about homelessness, growing up in the Bay Area, the fight for a better future, and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Alastair Boone: Let’s start from the beginning. Can you paint a picture of what life was like growing up in the Bay in the ‘90s and early 2000’s?
Lil B: You know for me, it was amazing, unique, rough. I think every kid, no matter the amount your parents got in the bank or what you got or what you don’t have, I think it’s rough for all kids. You gotta compare kids and grownups to baby animals.
I mean, you’re born into this jungle. Folks are gettin’ stepped on out here… and to raise a kid to the point you can survive and you know have a fair shot, it’s a beautiful thing. You know, from a cocoon to a butterfly.
Growing up, [born in] ‘89, you know it like growing up in a real blessed time. The technology boom, stuff popping up out of nowhere like the internet… You know, Berkeley, out of anywhere, that’s where it’s possible. All the thinkers in Berkeley. That’s why I love being from Berkeley and representing Berkeley cuz it’s like… It’s consistent thinkers. The thinkers rule out Berkeley. You could look however you want to look but it’s like what are you offering from the mind? People are really just unique and do- ing their thing and I love it. And that’s why the music comes how it does
cuz it’s like, I‘m just really givin’ the people how I feel.
And for me too, growing up low-income in Berkeley was just unique. Where I was stayin’ is now probably worth millions or whatever but it was low-income.
There’s a lot of different ways to live life. A lot of people born into a
lot of situations. Some people born in foster care, being adopted. Some people born with things passed down to ‘em, whether it might be real estate or family business. Some people born from zero. Nothing. Have to figure it out. Some people are born and die. There’s so many situations within this beautiful life…it’s like all I can do is be happy for today and not look at anything like I’m better or I’m worse…or this person’s better or they’re worse… people are just people, they got where they got. The main thing is you’re human. I never seen money or anything change that.
I’m blessed to be now, be alive here, and just experience what I have experienced in my life. I’m happy about it…just how I feel about making it from a kid because that’s the roughest. This is not easy. You definitely have to protect the children, respect the children and protect them. You really gotta pray for ‘em, cuz they have to have will to live. They gotta wanna live and the parents and the community has to work on having the foundation and support system and a place that they can grow and live.
AB: Berkeley has changed so much since the ‘90s. Between 1990 and 2010 there was a 50 percent decline in the Black population in Berkeley. Have you noticed a big change in Berkeley from when you grew up?
LB: Nah for me, beside the white people, there’s always been other races, whatever that means. Like I said I was low-income but I was stayin’ on Fourth Street. I was lucky enough, the apartment I was staying in was literally on top of commercial real estate. So stuff’s going on downstairs, shops are being built. Seein’ Fourth Street being built, it was a beautiful community of people. I was embraced, growing up.
I didn’t feel Black as a kid until I got older, then I realized what bein’ Black was. And not even being Black, just kind of being the situation I was born into. In reality, if you Black you Black in America. And that means whatever you want it to mean. And that goes for the person that’s receiving the information and the person that’s sayin’ the information. Cuz you know if you say “ay, you Black in America,” that matters to how you perceive it, and that’s something for the listener to think about. Cuz in my mind I could be like ay, Black in America, that’s amazing. Which I do [think]. At the same time, Black in America, that can mean Jim Crow laws. Bein’ locked out of wealth.
I started from zero. I asked my grandma, her mother was born in like 1913, damn near the 1800s. And it’s rough back then, there was real stuff going on. I think my grandma, she was really doing that labor, you know what I mean. That’s not that long ago. My grandma and her mother really came from the struggle, so it’s like, her kids gonna come up in struggle, and then that gave me a way to kind of make it and do my best. But you know, I was still coming from zero. You know it’s like…why am I not in Rockridge? Why don’t my family members got a spot in Rockridge? Why am I not in Montclair? Why wasn’t I born into Montclair? Why do I have to work to get there? [But] that comes to what’s going on in America, what happened in the past.
It ain’t like [Black] people just comin’ out booty ghetto, comin out the coochie sayin’ cuss words and saggin’. It’s like, we was locked out. The government and everybody, they played us. They played they people, they played the people that built America. But I get it, why would you want to help the people that you played.
I’m not mad about nobody, I’m happy. It’s like shit, you know, I’m startin’ from where I’m startin’ from and I’m leaving something to somebody
AB: I want to know about your high school experience, because that’s when you started making music. What was the scene around the East Bay like when you were in high school? What was it that led you to making such resonant music?
LB: It’s amazing times, the radio playing a lot of Bay Area artists, there was so many. Hearing The Team, Clyde Carson, Kaz Kyzah, Too Short, E40, Mr. Fab, Nump, Turf Talk, Eddie
Projex, Luniz, there was so much goin’ on…which was fueled by the streets. The street culture. Just seein’ the colorful cars and the different styles of how people were dealin’ with cars, or people around the hood’s interpreta- tion of the English language. Creating their own slang or their own dialect within the English language was very interesting to me. And you know just the look, how people looked.
I always say the day that changed my life, where I said I wanted to be in rap or come up from the streets and have a role within the streets within music, [was when] I went to a rap dance in South Berkeley. This was like middle school, I went to Longfellow Middle School. They was playin’ hip- hop and I walk in and it was all dark and I was just seein’ a bunch of kids my age dancing. Girls, dudes, and it just really looked like a movie. Strobe lights goin’ on, green strobe lights.
All dark. And it was very Bay Area specific dancing that you can only find in the Bay Area, and I went in there seein’ folks sagging, dreadlocks, you know…peacoats and pants backwards, turned inside out, that represents something. People wearing Gap hoodies, all the different type of shoes, and it was just like man…this is what I’m tryin’ to do. It was so, so theatrical. That’s why I be explaining it through my art and through my production and my visuals because it’s like I really seen everything differently. I really seen the beauty in everything and really… it was just a game changer for me from then and there.
AB: So you wanted to be part of it, making music.
LB: Got to. Got to. First it was about getting a name locally. It wasn’t even about music first. I wanted a name locally. Because that’s how it starts, the foundation. That’s why you see a lot of young people getting in trouble for different things, because a lot of people are looking for a name. That’s why I understand where people are coming from, young or sometimes older. If you look at it as entrepreneurship, because you have to make a name for your business, right? So it’s just about who’s gonna turn that name into a trusted brand. Some kids, they might be doing some robberies or violent crime, it’s extremely sad. But they grow their name within the community and now they got a name and it’s like, well what are you going to do with it? Some people don’t make it. Some go to prison, they lose they life. Some people take it to the next level and…they put everything behind them. That’s the street. It’s always going to be different for everybody.
And there’s a different type of streets for Black people, right. The Black streets is like underground railroad, oppression. That’s the real streets. But then there’s other race’s streets—once again, whatever race is, because we’re all one people. You could be white in the streets. White folks’ streets. But at the end of the day you still white in America, so it’s like folks will understand you more even if you poor. You might just need to clean up, put on a suit or something, figure it out. Folks will want to look at you because you white in America and you got that lineage and history.
“The main thing is you’re human. I’ve never seen money or anything change that”
But comin’ from the bottom, the Black underground, it’s like prison waiting for you right there. To me, when they say go back to Africa, that’s prison. Nobody going back to Africa, I’m from America. That’s why there are so many prisons. Who are prisons for?
AB: It seems like you’ve known about Street Spirit for a minute. I want to know what your relationship with the paper is like. What does the paper represent to you?
LB: Street Spirit to me is Berkeley. It’s Telegraph. It’s Ashby. It’s dignity. It’s promotion and marketing with love. It’s people getting out there and word of mouth. That’s where I found out about Street Spirit, word of mouth. People sayin’, “check this out, it’s Street Spirit,” holding the paper.
Speaking of Brandon McCartney— not Lil B, not The BasedGod, because this before rap—when I was seeing Street Spirit I was just a random kid from Berkeley. A random spec of dot on the huge earth from Berkeley, making sure just that I’m not forgotten about. Trying to figure out if I scream “help,” people will care. I’m making sure I’m just not thrown away. From then until now, Street Spirit’s been there. When I hit the streets…people representing. It was a beautiful thing to see the people representing a publication.
When I say the people I don’t want people to assume I’m just talking about Black people. And when I say the streets, I’m not just talking about Black people. I’m talking about all people. It’s who you guys think. It’s who you think is on the streets and the people. We are the people. All y’all. Everybody the people.
So when I seen the people with this [newspaper] and representing it… it’s like, Street Spirit is just as much as Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee is to Berkeley to me. Peet’s Coffee, Star- bucks, Hear Music, Street Spirit, Café Au Coquelet, the Berkeley Theater, Cal Berkeley, the Ashby Flea Market, Street Spirit, it’s all that. All that’s important…That’s real Berkeley.
AB: How did you decide to make a song called “Street Spirit Newspa- per”?
LB: Really just came from the heart. I’m documenting…When I create sounds, I sequence music how I do… it’s just done to bring people closer to who I am and closer to the truth and what’s goin’ on…just making sure that they hear me.
With the music I’m making, my intent is love, bringing people together, history. Pushing the culture forward. Experimenting with music, being creative, you know, really trying to get to that point where you can taste sound. You know what I’m sayin’, that’s where I’m trying to get to, where you can taste it. I’m working with folks within the technology field…I’m trying to push stuff forward. I want to eat it. I want to eat what I’m listening to.
“Street Spirit Newspaper” the song had to come out in 2020 over The BasedGod production. It couldn’t have been over somebody else’s beat, it had to be from The BasedGod because that’s authentic. You guys had to hear the funk and my interpretation of what I see and it’s coming out of my body which is transferred to the sound. I worked hard to engineer that sound and to bring it to the people so it’s like with that song I’m bringin’ folks closer to Lil B. And some of this stuff is even close to Brandon McCartney.
Every sound, that’s the art of bringing y’all closer to me. But it really comes from the struggle, like, underground railroad, not far removed from it. Felt like a generation or two.
Like [I’ve] said this is just the start. I’m working on learning jazz piano so if there’s any readers that teach jazz piano or teach funk piano or teach different instruments that wanna help me out, hit me up, @lilbthebasedgod hit me up on Twitter, send me a DM, Instagram, @lilbisgod, by email], firstname.lastname@example.org, you know. If you local and you love music, let me know. Let’s work.
AB: How do your philosophies— the ones you wrote about in your book—play into modern social justice movements? What does a brighter future look like to you?
LB: We need some people that’s up, right, people that’s in the position, like a Buffy Wicks that’s elected. Shout out to Buffy Wicks, I sent her some information cuz I voted for her so I’m like, alright well now what can you do for Black people specifically.
Whatever I can do to support Black…I support with my music, I support with how I feel, not judging people like, really loving people like, and that’s what I’m saying. I’m not even helping enough how I want to help. I need to help more people. It’s more that I need to do. There’s more things I need to do to show how I really love people. I need to go to plant trees in the wealthiest communities, in the middle-class communities. I want to help the kids that was born into money. I want to be there for them. I want to be there for the middle class. I want to be there for the poor. Because I’m here for the people. I’m not excluding people because there’s a lot of people that they feel excluded. They be like “how are they getting benefits, why is there this Black student union, where’s my union,” or whatever. And it’s like no, I ain’t forgot you. Lil B, The BasedGod, Brandon McCartney, I haven’t forgot y’all. I’m not one of them folks that forgot anybody. So I’m not forgetting folks.
Can’t forget about nobody. Can’t forget about…like…everybody’s welcome. And that’s kinda like the theme of my lifestyle. It’s like yeah we got a club but you’re welcome. Yeah I’m in a club but you’re welcome in it too.
AB: I noticed that you have a couple music videos that include homeless people. I’m thinking specifically about the video for “Giving Up” where you’re panhandling and you’ve got some unsheltered folks in the background behind you. What made you decide to do that? And those are real people, not actors, yeah?
LB: Yeah yeah. [They are real people.] Bring- ing people closer to my environment in Berkeley, letting people see what’s going on. And to let folks know like, just as easy I could be one of those folks. It’s just like that. Just getting the chance to experience you know, having a sign up and panhandling. It was nice actually seeing some people give me some money. [And other] people just ridin’ by. So you see the beautiful part of humans, and that was a beautiful time for me to do that video and just experience that for a little while, not fully, but just to experience that for a little while. Just to let people know that I could be there too.
Just reminding people, we here. Homeless people on the street, I don’t feel no different. I don’t feel no different from them because we’re human, no matter what color, no matter any of that.
I been honored to collaborate with Street Spirit and support y’all, and we finally got to this place where I could be one of those vendors, you know. When this is out, people are gon’ see me on the street stand- ing in solidarity with all my human family that’s out there, either vendors or even just people that read it, read it and support it.
AB: To me it feels more like homelessness—what’s going on on the street—impacts the culture in the Bay Area. How do you think the culture of people who live on the street impact everyone? How does it impact the whole culture of the Bay Area?
LB: It’s perspective, you know. It’s perspective. I think that those that represent that culture and that experience…they have a whole different perspective that deserves to be understood and supported. It’s all perspective, being able to bring that in and share it. And you know I’m down with it all, besides the fires which happen to even people that are not homeless on the streets. Fires happen, people make mistakes you know but it’s perspective. I think that’s what they bring.
AB: Right, that’s a great point. Especially now with all the wealth disparity in the Bay.
LB: It shows human life and it reminds people, this isn’t yours. Regardless of how much land you got or how much money in the bank account or what is passed down, or what you don’t have, or what you rent, we’re all sharing this earth. Somebody could be asleep right on the corner and you gotta respect it. We sharin’ it. And if that corner Is filled up with people to the point that you can’t walk, that’s just what it is. That’s earth, that’s life, that’s what’s going on down here. I mean hopefully the wheelchair people can find a way, but you know it is what it is.
AB: Anything else on your mind before we wrap up?
LB: This is only the beginning. This isn’t the last time. I appreciate the historical essence and the legacy that you guys are keeping continued and it’s a blessing so congratulations for another paper because we can’t forget that’s American… That’s the history, that’s the culture.
Lil B music, lifestyle, [there’s] a lot more in store. Just know I’m coming, and I’m just taking my time and it’s coming from an authentic place. I don’t force anything, I let things happen when it should and when it’s supposed to. I’m just thinking about all y’all. I’m focused on how I can help more than music. Just know that we here. God bless.
Listen to the uncut audio here
In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit. Elias Domingo is a 23-year-old San Francisco native and Bay Area enthusiast. (He loves Lil B!)