The PROBLEM With Second Chances

Problem's endured enough problems in the game, but the stars are finally aligning. UGHH chops it up with this artist on the rise.

Rapper Problem has been a relevant name on the West Coast music scene for nearly a decade, yet if there’s one thing he’s learned from the tutelage of Snoop Dogg, it’s that the game comes in waves.  

Every time it appeared that he was geared to reach the proverbial next level, fate would rear its ugly head and bring Problem back to square one. How in the world did Chris Brown and Rihanna’s fight stop his money? You’d be surprised. But with conflict comes clarity, and the Compton native has consistently leveled up with each setback.

With a solid team and a new perspective, Problem hit the reset button in 2016. Starting from the ground up, he began rebuilding the bricks he’d haphazardly laid during the initial height of his visibility from 2011 through 2014; but of course it’s not a simple feat. You wouldn’t know that from watching him, though.

While many artists aren’t even able to get one successful run, Problem’s already knee-deep in his second coming, and UGHH had to know how he did it. We caught up with him recently at his L.A. studio and discussed his new mindset, the choice to remain independent, attending “rap college,” and much more.

You initially signed a deal in 2009, but it didn’t work out. How did that even come about?

I was writing for Snoop at the time, who I’d met through Terrace Martin. He and I knew each other from just being in the streets and the whole LA music scene. Everybody that’s kind of lit right now, we kind of all just had some type of story where they either stayed with somebody or was all in the same spot. But I met Terrace when I just randomly fell into this traphouse we was working in. We had an MPC in there and he just came in one day and just fucked with it. We’ve been linked ever since. At the time, he was getting into the Snoop shit real cool. Snoop needed writers because when he released Ego Trippin in ‘07/‘08, he was moving a whole lot and that was his way of putting new people on. So I wrote a song about his life, and they brought me on staff. After that, my thing was, “Shit, if I’m running around with all these people and I’m around everybody in the industry the way they coming through here…if I can’t work something out of this, then I ain’t hustling.” So my whole thing was like, let me get something going. I remember one night after a session in Atlanta, I played the song “I’m Fucked Up” and Snoop was like, “When we get back, put it out.” I got back and put it out, and about three months later, it’s tearing up the streets out here. Universal reached out and offered the most money for a single deal, so we took it. But it was just a two-single deal.

So once you fulfilled that, you left?

Yep, I was done after that. This is crazy as fuck, actually. So the first single, the radio version of it was called “I’m Toe Up.” Dolla, may he rest in peace, at the time he had a record called “I’m To’ Up.” So, it was a conflict there. Then my second record was called “Whatever You Like.” A week later, T.I. dropped “Whatever You Like.” The label was like, “If you get it to 35 spins, we’ll light it up.” I get that bitch going, and then Tip’s record dropped and it was a wrap. He was the biggest thing in the game, you know?

So the label couldn’t get behind that, huh?

At the time, the Internet wasn’t a way they measured anything. They really just checked BDS. They weren’t able to just type something in and see how lit I had the city. It was more like, it’s not reading good on BDS so it’s not happening. It was more that type of shit. My label was in New York; I was on Universal Republic. They’re not out here, you know? That’s how it went; but like, I learned the system. So I started doing a few other things and me and my homies got together and was like fuck it, let’s just try it ourselves! That’s when I created my label, Diamond Lane.

That’s a lot to deal with at one time. Did you ever start doubting yourself and start thinking maybe another direction would be better for you?

I didn’t get discouraged then because at the time, it was a bunch of different things. I was really doing well with writing for other artists at the same time. After the Snoop Dogg relationship, I got a gig to write for Puff, and then I wrote for Chris Brown. He had an artist called Lil Scooter. Scooter was his backup dancer; 14-years-old. Nigga was supposed to be the next thing out here. I wrote on this song for him that featured Chris and was produced by Polow Da Don—who at the time was the biggest thing going! They were setting up Scooter to be the one: Disney Channel show, reality shit, all of that. They dropped the record…and the Chris and Rihanna incident happens four days later.

What is your luck?!

That’s what was going on, so it got to the point where I can’t depend on nobody else. We gotta put the dream in our hands. My boy Bird, he got the vision on shit like that. So he came with the plan, and my job was to handle the music. He handled the business, and that’s when Diamond Lane got going.

So now y’all get in the groove, and you get a great look in 2012 on E-40’s “Function.” Then the following year you had another hit with “Like Whaaat,” and another in 2014 with Rich Homie Quan’s “Walk Through.” That’s a pretty consistent string. How are you feeling at this time?

I felt like I had the city on lock! It was buttoned up! We didn’t even want to get no deal; we was doing it ourselves. We turned down a lot of money, and a lot of that was because they would want ownership and they would want to control my production or control this or that. But, our thing was like, what we did got y’all this money. Why would you want to come in trying to restructure? Again, it’s not a time like right now where they’ll just come in with the money and let you do what you do. Nah, they wanted to come in and try to control the whole play. It’s about owning your shit and being able to put your shit out when you want. And nah, no amount of money is worth that.

Were there any slow periods between those hits where you started to get nervous again?

Not during that time because “Function” came, and my tape Mollywood dropped the same day the “Function” video dropped, and that started a streak until Mollywood 2 came, and “Like Whaaat” was on that. Then it was a wrap. Then “Bout Me” dropped with Wiz Khalifa, then Eric Bellinger’s “I Don’t Want Her” dropped, and the records were just coming. I had records here and there in little spots, different shit. So nah, it was flowing. What slowed everything down to me was just…that shit kinda just came so fast. You could say you’re ready for something all day, but it comes at you and it’s just me and two others trying to handle it all. You get what I’m saying? It was a lot of decisions that, now looking back, we see so many things we could have handled differently. On top of that, I started getting comfortable. I always felt like, “I could always do another one of these or another one of those,” you know what I’m saying? Then there was the battle of feeling like I have to do club ratchet shit, but that wasn’t in my spirit anymore. I started training, I stopped doing Molly and I was refocusing my life, but they wanted me to do those kinds of records still. I feel like that was just a lot. Then the beefs! I had different beefs with different artists and the temperatures are always changing. You’re hotter than them at one point, then they get hotter than you so they’re controlling the climate and having everyone against you. This game is fickle. It was all that type of stuff mixed with my personal growth and different personal shit.

Then you see YG, Ty Dolla $ign, and DJ Mustard really killing it in 2014 and leading the movement of the West Coast resurgence. Were you kind of frustrated like, “I should be at the forefront too and I’m not as big as them?”

I was frustrated, but it was because of the reason why I wasn’t at the forefront, not because they were at the forefront.  If you look at Ty’s first Beach House mixtape, I wrote five songs off that. Even with Mustard, we’ve all worked together. So we go through our thing and I’m not saying they had anything to do with it, but the fact that people knew it was a thing between us made people choose sides. That’s what was frustrating. I got burned in a lot of different situations, like being taken off the Fast & Furious soundtrack. I got taken out of a lot of situations because people didn’t want to cross them because they were so hot. So that is what got frustrating.

In situations like that, do you start getting jaded?

Not me, because I don’t do music to get famous. I do music because I love doing music. I’m like a gym rat, but with the studio as my gym. I like creating music, and not just rap but music period! That’s what I love to do. So my thing was like nah, I’m not about to stop. I know this thing comes in cycles. I learned from the game I got from Snoop. Like, I really went to rap college! My first big “job” was Snoop Dogg, and DJ Quick is mixing the whole album. All my heroes growing up, they were banging shit in my head every day as an adult about waves and temperature changes and sticking with it and making sure you stay you, and different shit like that. So my thing was, I have bread and I got my skill up; I’ll wait this shit out! Climate change is inevitable for anyone, but only the good niggas stay. I remember when people were talking about how Kendrick Lamar was dead for a minute. What the fuck kind of sense was that? Now he just dropped his biggest album ever. So, that’s just how the game goes, and understanding that kept me going. “Walk Through” was a stay afloat joint for me. I got another plaque; I kind of keep my name up just a little bit. Then I had a couple others like the Rams shit and it’s like yeah, we just have to chill for a bit and we’ll be aight.

So then you had a few years of a quiet period, but in the last year, your visibility has been so much crazier than it had been. What do you think you can attribute to that?

Building a team and starting to really understand how shit works. This is going to sound so old, but I started to really understand Instagram, SoundCloud; I didn’t give a fuck about none of that before. Like, I didn’t understand the power of it, and then I didn’t understand how people perceive it! Like, I’m the type of person that will call you on your birthday if I know you, and to the world, it’s a diss that I didn’t post them on social media! So, understanding different shit like that helped, and the fact that my music—it’s me. That’s me now.

You’re no longer feeling forced to put out a certain type of record?

I like what I’m doing at this minute right now. I definitely felt at a point that I had to do ratchet stuff, but I don’t feel like that anymore.

Have you remained independent?

Yeah, I’m still independent right now. It’s Diamond Lane, no slashes. That’s not a fake independent thing either. We’re not like—not saying anything about other secret deals. I know that comes up a lot.

What would you tell the young Problem who was in the studio with Snoop and them?

That’s crazy. I think I’d tell the younger me: “Don’t assume that people are going to understand what you’re saying or what your message is or what you’re trying to get them to understand about you. Just say it.” There were so many times I’d be getting so mad wondering why they don’t get it, when I could have just been like, “Hey, this is what I was talking about.” A whole lot of shit could have shifted a different way.

Are you happy?

Yeah. I really am.

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It’s 12:54am on a Wednesday, and I’m sitting down with IAMSU and his cameraman in the front room of their hotel suite. Su was in town for a headlining show in Santa Ana, followed by another one the next night in Los Angeles. I had planned to interview the Bay Area rapper at the LA show, but while I was out and about that evening, I’d received a FaceTime call from him, telling me to come and hang. He was an hour out from my house in the Valley, but I still made the trek. We smoked, we hung out with his mom, walked down a highway to get some gas station snacks and then eventually decided, “What better time than now to do an interview?”

I first met IAMSU in 2014, while he was promoting his first studio album, Sincerely Yours. That year, he’d go on a national tour with Wiz Khalifa, following up three insane years that included back to back to back smash singles: a feature on LoveRance’s “Up” in 2011, a feature on E-40’s “Function” in 2012, and a feature on Sage The Gemini’s “Gas Pedal” in 2013. He’s continued to grow his profile in music every year since, while remaining so independent, that I still get a text and an email directly from him for every new song, video, or even a vlog.

IAMSU

His grassroots approach is something you see during the start of a lot of artists’ careers, but now seven years deep in the game, it’s refreshing to see that it’s still not above him. A shift in management following the release of Sincerely Yours likely helped to shape his approach, as he notes that he had to entirely rebuild relationships and almost start over, after not having a representative to speak for him any longer. The setback nearly caused him to leave the game completely, and his hefty publishing checks had him confident that it wasn’t the worst plan in the world. His mother had a different plan, though.

It’s now three years since that album’s release, and Su has definitely rebuilt his career tenfold. He doesn’t need to send those texts out anymore or do his own email blasts, but yet he does, all while likely hanging out with his mom and the crew he’s had since high school; who all are now successful in their own right. He’s really one of the good guys.

On that Wednesday night in Santa Ana, I talked to Su about getting his start in the game, how his mom kept him going when he wanted to quit and much more. The Bay is in good hands.

Take me back to when you put out your first mixtape. It’s 2010, and you’re in college. I know that you had to start doing some online classes in between your freshman and senior year because of the recognition, then dropped out all together.

I was getting recognized for my rapping and my production, because that’s when Big Von from 106 KMEL in the Bay, and My Emotion and Chuy Gomez—they started playing every single song I released. I got picked for the Bay Area Freshmen 10 in 2011, and then after that, I had a song called “I Know What To Do With It” where I sampled Drake and Omarion’s song off of So Far Gone. Von started playing that on the radio, and that was my sound back then; it was like, Auto-tune songs for girls. I was doing that, and then I came with another couple of songs, and every time I sent a song to Von, he’d just play it. They took me to the club right when “Up” was poppin’ too, and I performed my other songs along with “Up.” That really broke me in the Bay.

What inspired you to initially put out your first mixtape?

I actually put out three mixtapes before they give me credit for my actual first mixtape. I was always rapping, but you know when you’re a producer, they don’t really take your rapping serious? I was in a group in high school called the Go Getters, with Show Banga, P-Lo and my other bro. We performed and did hella shit. We were like The Pack! P-Lo made beats and I made beats too at that time. They took my rapping a little bit more serious than P-Lo, but both of us was still being grouped into it like, “You can rap? Cool. But you can go third.” You feel me? It was shit like that, so I was just like, damn. I would get a little bit of anger because I felt like I could really rap, on some, “I need to be respected as a rapper too!” So I would just go in. I made it my life mission to just get good at rapping, so I was just always writing verses.

I’d go to my boy Push’s, and we’d freestyle for six hours. All we would do is freestyle and rap! We had this thing on the X-Box where you could record yourself, and somehow he figured out that if you turn the bass all the way up, you can’t hear the words. So we’d be rapping over hella songs! He figured out a way where if he turned certain things up and certain things down—like you know the EQ—he would take the words out, so it would just be hella bass! I feel like that damn near made our sound, by just having stupid ass bass and everything else is hella low. So it’s just funny how it played out.

You should do a Lost Tapes project or something.

That would be fire because I know I said three, but it’s actually five mixtapes before that time. One was 3, 2, 1 and that was my No Ceilings vibe. No Ceilings hella inspired that. I was chopping my vocals and making it stutter. You remember how Wayne and Nicki’s shit used to do that? I was doing that. I hella wanted to be Wayne, you feel me? So that’s where my head was at. He was music. He super inspired me.

In 2011, you produced and appeared on LoveRance’s “Up,” which would go on to be a national hit. The story goes that it was originally your song and the process didn’t go smoothly. I would say, on a national level, you didn’t get as much credit for that song. Do you think if that situation had been handled better, things would have went differently for you at that point?

I think it worked out for the best. Originally, I was scared of that song because my whole angle that I was pushing when I was making all those mixtapes back in the day wasn’t that. I would rap about sex and all that stuff, but “beat the pussy up” was just a little bit too outspoken for me at that time. So I was scared of it. I was only 20, and my mom heard all my songs. So I was just not comfortable putting myself out like that, so I told ‘Rance like, “Bro, this is your vibe. Go crazy.” Really, that whole situation came about because me and him went to school together. We went out that day, and he had two girls with him, and those two girls came with us back to Chief’s house and instantly started talking shit about sex. We come up with that song in front of them, saying what’s gonna happen. And that’s where that came from.

Was it that song that caught E-40’s attention and led to your guest spot on “Function,” or was that relationship already ongoing?

It definitely came from the attention from that time. It was “Up” and like I said, I was putting out a lot of music. So during that Bay Area Freshmen time, me and Chief would record a song and put it out every day for months. Maybe it was like two or three months while the voting process was going on. We would spam online too. So E-40 saw my work ethic at that time, and he came at me! A number called me and I just didn’t know who it was, and he’s like, “It’s E-40.” At that time, that was the biggest thing that ever happened to me. He’s a legend! It was like wow, I just met 50 Cent but E-40 is literally the president of the Bay Area, culturally. He was like, “I wanna get you on this song, nephew! I see you doing yo’ thang.” I’m like, “Daaamn!” So I do the song, and that’s when I noticed my stock rose as Iamsu! “Up” was kind of like, I’m poppin’, it’s cool, but THAT moment was when everything really changed. It was big for all three of us on the song—myself, Problem, and YG. That was mine and YG’s first time performing on national TV. We were on 106 & Park.

After two big hits in 2011 and 2012, the following year you got another hit with Sage The Gemini for “Gas Pedal.” Did it ever bother you that you were seeing your most success as features and not as the main artist, or did you feel this was only building you up for your next win?

Honestly, it did bother me, but I had to realize that my situation is hella different. All of those situations were major label-signed artists. I’ve never been signed to a major label. I was signed to Warner for my album process, but it wasn’t like I’m an artist on their roster. It was just a straight distribution deal. So, I’ve had to take everything with a grain of salt. Like, I’m seeing hella shit, but it’s not me that’s the front guy and you’ll never feel what it’s like to be the front guy until you’re the front guy. So being a supporting cast but really playing a big ass role while shit is happening, it kind of made my vision different. I don’t know. I see things differently now. I think it just makes me work harder.

Has there ever been a point in your career when you were considering getting a regular job?

Ooh, a regular job? Nah, but I’ve had one way back, but that was when I was like 19. So before all the “Up” stuff, I was really hustling hard with beats and verses and shit, so I was cool. I dropped out of college before any of that shit happened. So I didn’t have a point where I wanted to get a regular job, but I had a point where I wanted to quit rapping. At that point, I thought I was just good for life and didn’t see how far I could go. I was looking at my publishing checks like, “I’m straight! If I just stop right here, I’m good forever!” I was producing hella shit and at that time, I was on the biggest songs in the country back to back to back. So I’m like, fuck it. It was a point after my first album that I was really gonna quit and just be like, “I’m good. I did what I was supposed to do.”

So what re-motivated you?

I just got thrown in a crazy situation over the course of a year. I had some family members that passed away, I went on a tour and it got really stressful on the tour. Some of my closest people had to go home. It was weird shit going on. My mom came in the picture as management, and she really just helped me get my head together and my life together. So that’s what re-motivated me. It reminded me why I love music and why I even wanted to rap, and that’s where I’m at right now.

Why did you decide to leave Warner?

I just decided to stop because the management team I’d been with, I stopped working with them, and my deal came by way of them. I had tried to re-approach the distribution team, but it was just too much complication. So I wasn’t able to put music out for about 11 months, and you know 11 months in rap is an eternity! I’m an artist that’s always putting shit out. I was able to put shit out for free, but it doesn’t have the same impact. People were like, “Why aren’t you selling this? I just bought your first album! Shit’s not adding up.” I didn’t have the same access, I had to rebuild relationships on my own because I’m not having people doing it for me. I’m not having management calls every day, or a digital marketing team or any of that kind of stuff. So it was a setback, but it made me learn. I had to work ten times harder, and I think I needed that at the time. Now every success is so much bigger because I made it happen myself.

A lot of young artists don’t set up their money right, especially in the beginning. Did you get a financial planner that helped you with all of that?

My mom! I’m telling you, my mom is like Cookie, bruh. My mom can do everything. She gets all my shit straight. Before I had my mom in the picture, I was spending a lot of money a month, honestly. Even when I was signed, I was spending like 30 bands a month on marketing and publicists and stuff. I was paying that myself. Well I guess I was really independent if you really think about it! I was paying for the whole team and everything and still having money, so I was earning a lot. But once my mom came in the picture, I still had a lot of money just tucked. I hadn’t been buying hella cars and chains or anything. So I invested a lot of money. I bought a house, I got a retirement fund, I started my companies. I did a lot of shit. Now I’m in just a bit of a different position, so if I went to a label, they would have to really make some shit shake. I need like a Jay Z deal, like a life-changing situation. Fun fact: I almost signed to 300, before it even was 300. I had a breakfast meeting with Lyor [Cohen] and he was talking about starting 300, but I didn’t do it for whatever reason. My manager just told me we weren’t going to do it. It probably wasn’t enough money or something.

How’s 2017 looking for you?

So I released two mixtapes this year, Boss Up 1 and 2. I’m very proud of them. It’s just fun music. I make a majority of my beats, and I put them both out on my record label, Eyes On Me LLC. So I’m pumped about that. That’s four releases in one year! I’m about to put out another mixtape called You Can’t Ban The Sudi Man. And then I got my I Am Summer show I do every year in the Bay. It’s been getting bigger every year. I’m doing a full week this time, so it’s gonna be poppin’.

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