Another One Bites the Dust … Sorta

The Bay Area loses HBK rapper Iamsu! to Atlanta, but he promises he'll be back.

In the last few years, a hot topic of conversation has been the mass exodus of musicians leaving the Bay Area for other locales, thanks to increased living costs, a shrinking artist’s community, and the infiltration of tech. SF Weekly covered the epidemic in a 2014 cover story, John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall discussed their decision to leave San Francisco for Los Angeles with Pitchfork, and, earlier this year, SPIN published a tome about the creative greats who have left our region.

And now another Bay Area artist has decided to move on: the nouveau-hyphy rapper and HBK Gang founder, Iamsu!

When I reach the 6-foot 4-inch emcee (born Sudan Williams) by phone on a Wednesday afternoon, he tells me that he’s in the process of moving into his newly purchased, six-bedroom, five-bathroom, three-story house in Atlanta.

“I just got checked for termites, I got all my locks changed, and I set up my cable and my internet today,” he tells me. “I also talked to 2 Chainz, and he’s going to help me build a studio in my house.”

Only a few days prior, the multi-talented 27-year-old — who, in addition to rapping, also sings and produces — signed the papers for the house, which he purchased from his grandmother’s best friend after she decided to move when her husband died.

“Me and my mom talked about it,” he tells me, “and we thought it was a good idea.”

But just because he bought the house — perhaps mansion would be a better word for it — Iamsu! assures me he won’t be turning his back on the Bay Area any time soon. He plans to fly back and forth between the two coasts on a regular basis — “It’s no big deal,” he says. “I already travel a lot.” — and turn the Atlanta home into a hub for the other members of his HBK crew, who have already told him they’d like to record albums at his soon-to-be-built home studio.

Since forming in 2007, when Iamsu! was a student at Pinole Valley High School, HBK has grown to include a number of key Bay Area artists, like Sage the Gemini, P-Lo, Kehlani, Kool John, and Jay Ant. And now, by creating an outpost for the hyphy and party-banger collective in Atlanta, Iamsu! believes they’ll be able to take the movement even further.

“We’ve got the whole Westside of the map locked down,” he says. “And now it’s time for the South.”

While purchasing a house is a big deal, it’s far from the only achievement Iamsu! has experienced in 2016. In the last year, the rapper, who has performed at every KMEL Summer Jam for the last five years, has gone on two tours, unveiled a music streaming app for both Android and iOS, formed his own record label (Eyes On Me LLC) with his mother-slash-manager Maxine Harris, landed at least one hit single on the radio, and dropped two albums, Kilt 3 and 6 Speed. He’s also started changing some of the ways he approaches music. Though Iamsu! starting making music in high school, it wasn’t until 2011, when he produced and spit bars on Loverance’s Billboard-ranking “Up!”, and later appeared on a verse in E-40’s certified gold slap “Function,” that he began making headlines.

In the years since, he’s remained committed to helping other artists by lending his voice to their songs, and this year alone, he’s appeared on tracks for Mistah F.A.B., Mozzy, J. Stalin, Kool John, Mally Mal, Bobby Brackins, Problem, AD, and Rayven Justice.

But when it comes to using featured artists in his own music, Iamsu! has become increasingly reluctant to do so. Out of the 12 tracks on Kilt 3, there are only five songs with guest artists, and in 6 Speed, there’s even fewer.

“Going into 2017, as far as getting people on my songs, I’m not really feeling that,” he says, adding that his upcoming album, which he estimates will be his ninth or 10th project, will only have two features. “I really want to showcase my style from my production to my songwriting abilities to just my overall character. I want to show that I can carry stuff on my own.”

Part of Iamsu!’s decision to keep the spotlight solely on himself stems from the disaster that was his 2014 debut studio album, Sincerely Yours. With at least 10 featured artists and dozens more working behind the scenes, the record ended up being a mish-mash of disjointed sounds, flows, and styles. In fact, Iamsu! was so unhappy about it that he took it offline.

“It’s kind of a blessing,” he says. “I didn’t want to be remembered for that work.”

At this point in our interview, I decide to reveal something to Iamsu! that I had been keeping hidden: I hated the album, too, and in my review of it for Hot New Hip-Hop, I gave it a rating of 63 percent, calling it “not a work of artistic genius.”

Fortunately, my dirty little secret doesn’t miff Iamsu!, who turns out to be more understanding than I’d expected.

“Honestly, it was pannable, you know what I mean?” he says. “What’s weird is if you look at my older music from before that, I always kind of sang and rapped. But for whatever reason, when I went to go do the major debut album, I didn’t do anything that I initially did to get to where I was at. I was so caught up in trying to make a big studio album that I kind of lost sight of my sound.”

With the fiasco of Sincerely Yours behind him, Iamsu! has since learned not to let others’ influences and opinions color his music and how to take more control in areas outside of just rapping and singing. He’s now more involved in both producing and mixing his albums and points to Kilt 3 and 6 Speed, with their bouncy bass, glossy synths, and bombastic hooks, as evidence of him “going back to [his] original sound.”

“I’m really more involved now,” he says. “I’m really more detail-driven.”

With a mammoth-sized house to furnish and the promise of a new album dropping “sometime” in 2017, Iamsu! has a lot to work on in the next few months. But there’s one thing that takes precedence over everything else.

“I’ve still got to get a flat screen TV,” he says. “My mom’s gotta have one in her room.”

Iamsu! plays at 9 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16, at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz. $27.50-$30;

Jessie Schiewe is SF Weekly’s music editor. Follow her on Twitter @j_schiewe.

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