David Duff's body was on the floor when police arrived at his Richmond, Calif. house shortly before midnight on Dec. 30th. Only 23 years old, Duff was dead of a single gunshot wound. Three days before Duff's murder, another man was shot and killed at a Richmond intersection. And two days before that, on Christmas night, five people, including a 19-year-old mother and her 2-year-old daughter, were shot at (but not killed) in the city.
Duff's death marked the last homicide in Richmond during 2015, bringing the death toll to 21 last year (in a city whose population hovers around 107,000), almost two times the rate of 2014. The city consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., with 2015 marking the highest death toll since 2011.
“[In Richmond], a beautiful Tuesday night can turn into a deadly Wednesday morning,” says 27-year-old rapper Wantmore N8 (née Nathaniel Flentroy, Jr.). “If you stand outside for 15, 20, 30 minutes, two things will either happen: Somebody comes by shooting or the police comes.”
Despite these harsh realities, N8, who grew up in a south Richmond neighborhood the locals colloquially call “the backstreets,” has never left. “There's no way around it,” he says. “It's home.”
On Dec. 19, one day after another man was shot and injured in his car in Richmond, N8 dropped his debut album, Blame The Funk: The Final Draft, a 13-track project that tackles the perils of urban life and the struggles and pain that one experiences living in a troubled city. Richmond grapples with neighborhood factions and rivalries, most of which are generational, and sometimes lead to shootings and other violence. “There are so many negative things that go on in this city,” N8 says, “and a lot of the time, we are our own worst enemies.”
Blame The Funk, which pairs minimalist, piano-laced beats with bracing lyrics, is N8's response to Richmond's turmoil. “I feel like there's no turning it around,” he says. “It's too deeply ingrained. But I'm hoping the album can wake people up to what really matters in life and inspire them to want more.”
N8 is a relatively new rapper with a low online profile. His SoundCloud page, which has only 105 followers, describes him as a “Rapper, Poet, Philosopher, Author, Journalist, Historian, 'Conspiracy Theorist,' [and] Real Nigga.” When I spoke with N8, I learned that history is his favorite subject and that he considers rap to be poetry. From skimming his Twitter (511 followers), I learned that he's a Trader Joe's customer, an aficionado of VICE News documentaries, and a fan of Netflix's Making A Murderer. But as someone who cannot describe herself as a “real nigga,” I had to ask him about this title.
“You don't got to be a gangster or a thug in order to be a real nigga,” he explains. “A real nigga is just somebody that's going to stand up for what they believe in.”
A real nigga is also someone who donates to Wikipedia. “I'm always Googling stuff and I'm always on Wikipedia, so when they ask me for a few dollars to keep the site going, for me to just keep x-ing it out and acting like I don't see it, that's not me being a real nigga.”
Real nigga though he may be, N8 readily admits that he's a man of contradictions. He doesn't fit the stereotype of a modern-day MC, let alone one from the hoods of Richmond. He doesn't smoke weed, for example, nor does he have any tattoos. His shirts and pants aren't baggy or sagging, and the only jewelry he wears are diamonds and gold nugget studs. Though he claims to carry a gun in his songs, he also owns two crystals (a rose quartz and an amethyst) and says things like, “Everybody knows that the sun sign affects your personality” and “You've got to open your third eye and make sure your pineal glands aren't clouded and your chakras aren't closed, per se.”
He also drinks lean (cough syrup mixed with soda) and is keenly aware of (and concerned about) the fluoride added to our water. He advocates getting an education, even though he dropped out of junior college (in a Twitter post, he jokingly thanked Google State and YouTube University for “teaching [him] a lot”). He won't eat pork, beef, or fast food, but he pops Percocets. And though he went to jail when he was 22 (for riding in an unregistered car that also contained a gun and marijuana), he advocates “being smart next time,” not “changing your ways.”
Therein lies N8's appeal: he's a soap box, not a paragon. Using his own vices and faults as examples, he speaks for others and says what many of us feel uncomfortable saying. He fesses up to feelings of vulnerability and sadness in his song “Cry By Myself,” and talks about loneliness and having nobody to talk to in “Fully Charged Phone.” He's also non-judgmental, although a huge portion of his album (not counting his song about Hudson jeans or his distrust of debit cards) focuses on black-on-black crime.
“Some of us are in the street life and have no other choice,” he says. “I'm saying that if you are in the street life, just be smart about it.”
It took N8 — who works by day in the “government service industry” — years to actually release an album. Though he started rapping in his late teens for fun with his friends, he was a procrastinator. “I was lazy,” he says. “I would do two songs in a year and maybe do a feature on three other peoples' songs and that would be it for the year.”
The motivation for creating Blame Funk was, appropriately enough, his cousin Funk. N8 and Funk used to rap together until Funk was imprisoned for 25 years to life for attempted murder and carjacking. On the rare occasions that N8 talked to Funk, his cousin would always ask what he was doing to further his rap career. “He'd be like, 'Cuz, we was supposed to do this music thing together,'” N8 says. “'So quit playing and do it for me because I'm not able to do it right now.'”
Around the start of 2015, Funk's admonishments sunk in, and N8 was finally ready to give music serious attention. “As inner city African Americans, they don't even give us a chance,” he says. “As soon as we're born, we're already considered a statistic. So I felt like, especially coming from the Bay Area, we needed another representation to fill the void. We needed a lyricist who was actually willing to talk about something.”