Oct 19, 2009 - 4:08 PM
Santiago Leyva sits on the scorching hot front porch steps of his mother’s house in Fresno, Calif. He’s waiting to see minor league baseball team, The Grizzlies, play their opening game. A rusted ice cream truck cruises down the street blasting its music. Santiago rhymes to himself over the nostalgic jingle: “Fuck my outside attire; it’s my soul that writes with desire.”
Better known as rising emcee Fashawn, he snickers when people confuse his name with “fashion,” because he’s never been able to afford the latest trends. “When you’re broke, you wear whatever the fuck you got, whether it’s a 7XL white tee, some bummy ass jeans or whatever. But since muhfuckas been giving me free clothes and shit, I be thrashin’ shit now,” he says.
Fashawn is part of a new breed of young talent emerging in the hallways of hip-hop. Artists like Kidz in the Hall, Wale, Kid Cudi and Blu represent the resurrection of the cool and conscious. But if these artists are the leaders of the new school, Fashawn is the transfer student.
Listen to "Life As a Shorty"
Download: Fashawn - "Life As a Shorty"
The newest of the new guys, Fashawn doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of his contemporaries. He comes from the middle of nowhere—Fresno, the valley desert land wedged between LA’s cinematic cocaine glam and the Bay Area’s herbal tech intellects. Fresno, aka The Grizzly City, is Central California’s underbelly, teeming with violent gang rivalry and rural methamphetamine labs. The harsh realities of his grim environment shaped him to become a level-headed emcee, one with equal parts street knowledge and book smarts. Well-equipped with fierce poetic artillery and an unmatched rhyme caliber, he poses a threat to any emcee.
Grinding harder than ever for the past two years, Fashawn has gone from a local legend to an international familiarity, and all before reaching legal drinking age. The 20-year-old already has six solo mixtapes and three tours under his belt, along with co-signs from artists like Talib Kweli, Evidence and Alchemist. [Ed.'s note: He's currently on tour with Ghostface Killah, with an SF stop on 10/20. More info below.]
“By the time I was 16, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Fashawn says. “I grew up around a lot of knuckleheads, some roughnecks. But I liked to read and I had a bigger vocabulary than the average nigga around my hood. That’s what made me stand out—not trying to stand out.”
Fashawn’s debut, Boy Meets World, produced entirely by Exile, one of LA’s finest underground beat technicians, will be released on October 20. His passionate verses are spit from the heart, revealing an old soul with an innovative mind. A tasteful and refreshing blend of hood tales and street scholar, Boy Meets World is a future classic providing only a glimpse into the wunderkind’s genius.
Exile, who collaborated with emcee Blu on 2007’s Below the Heavens and dropped his instrumental project, Radio, to critical praise earlier this year, became an instant fan of Fashawn when Fashawn’s manager sent him a few songs. The two were later introduced at a concert in Fresno in 2008 where they decided to collaborate on an EP. “He sent me like five beats and I blazed ‘em,” Fashawn says. “He was like, ‘Fuck that, we’ve got to do a whole album.’ ”
Influenced by his mother Veda Gibson, who was a singer and poet, Fashawn was raised with a heavy dose of soul, blues, gospel and pop music. “I was always into poetry. My mom taught to me express myself through writing,” he says.
The practice sharpened Fashawn’s skills and wit, and freestyles soon turned into written verses. When Fashawn first heard Fresno rapper Planet Asia’s metaphorical block talk on “Fresno State of Mind,” he became confident in rapping about his hood. “I never heard a nigga paint or describe the area where I’m from in such an eloquent, descriptive way,” Fashawn says. “That’s what birthed me to talk about where I’m from and not be ashamed about it, ‘cause niggas be like, ‘Fresno?!’ I’m like, ‘You don’t know about Fresno man, home of the Three Strike Law!”
In 2002, at a local hip-hop event hosted by future manager DJ Hecktik, a then 13-year-old Fashawn got to see Planet Asia perform. A few years later, Hecktik, a local producer and DJ, would feature Fashawn on a mixtape track remix of “We Takin’ Over,” featuring local legends Planet Asia, Diego Redd and Shake the Mayor. Shortly after, Hecktik became his manager—a pivotal step in accelerating Fashawn’s career at rapid speed.
It was through Hecktik that Fashawn met Planet Asia. “Planet Asia is the big bro in this rap shit,” Fashawn says. “I was like, ‘Wow!’ Then a few years later I’m on a track with him. It’s pretty cool.” Planet Asia later introduced Fashawn to L.A emcee/producer Evidence and they hit it off.
“He was surprisingly humble, real cool,” Fashawn says about Evidence, who’s featured on “Our Way.” “The next day, he laid down his verse and was like, ‘This is gonna be hot, it’s gonna be a banger’—it was classic.” Evidence recorded more tracks with Fashawn, introducing him to producer and emcee Alchemist. The three appear together on “The Far Left,” a song off Alchemist’s The Alchemist’s Cookbook. They later brought Fashawn along to play spot dates as an opener on the California leg of Method Man and Redman’s Still High tour in the fall of 2008. Evidence then took Fashawn with him on his World Layover Tour in Europe. Upon his return, Fashawn was added to the West Coast Rock the Bells lineup.
The last year alone has been a whirlwind for the young emcee. He’s no longer the kid rapping on his mom’s porch but a young man poised to dominate the rap world. But as he awaits the release of his debut album, he’s already thinking ahead.
“I feel like I’ve evolved from a boy to a man,” Fashawn says. “It’s more challenging to write now, even more than before. I’m praying that God gives me the energy to connect to people through music. But I don’t want to stay the same my whole career. Sometimes I just get bored looking at myself in the mirror everyday. I want to evolve into different things.”
Fashawn’s Boy Meets World drops Oct. 20, 2009. He supports Ghostface Killah with Souls of Mischief, Strong Arm Steady and Deep Rooted on Oct. 20 at Slim's in San Francisco. For concert information, click here. For the latest on Fashawn, visit www.fashawn.net.
Jessica is a 23-year-old pirate-mouthed, chain-smoking insomniac. Indulgences include: shoes, dope art, live music, cheap beer, expensive liquor, drunken banter and bootleg snacks. Oh, and the daily chuckler.