Photo: Empire

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Back when 4-Tay was fresh Off Parole, the Niners were Super Bowl champs and the Presidio was an active military base, Geneva Towers was where folks went to get active. This was a corridor of San Francisco, deeply neglected and redlined, that became known for drug hustling, poverty and police shootouts. The Towers, 576 units built with federal money in 1967, were originally private mixed-income housing, according to the San Francisco Bay View. But the units were converted into public housing a few years later. Management of the privately-owned property received Housing and Urban Development funding, but they still neglected the building and its tenants, leading to total dilapidation. By the 1990s, Geneva Towers was a joyless “tough on crime” dog whistle for elected officials and rich white assholes. The Towers were demolished in 1998. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi negotiated $700,000 in federal appropriations — a small fraction of the embezzled HUD money — for “expanding community revitalization efforts in Visitacion Valley in San Francisco.” Needless to say, material conditions did not improve for most people after their apartment units were demolished. “There will be a rebirth, but for whom?,” the Bay View’s Lee Hubbard penned in ‘98.

Lil Bean is one of the few surviving elements of Geneva Towers and its community, an unknowing archivist of history and consequence in San Francisco. Born in ‘96, Bean was just two years old when his Geneva Towers home was knocked down. By his persistence and success alone, he’s one of the few things Silicon Valley gentrification couldn’t fully get its tentacles around. And Bean represents a thriving and supremely tight-knit rap scene that’s kept the Bay sound healthy through the third decade of the new millennium — syncopated flows and slippery bass, tales on the blade and from the parking lot, frequent collaborations and independent releases through Empire, Ghazi Shami’s music distribution company headquartered in San Francisco. With Still Campaignin’, his latest full-length scheduled for August 20, Bean continues to share the stories of demolished neighborhoods and stolen souls.

Icy and direct throughout these new tracks, he dedicates Still Campaignin’ to his late homie CGz, whose passing forced Bean to break from recording and performing altogether. Straight up, it’s the finest Bay Area campaign effort since Ronald Dregan’s landslide win in 2004. Bean’s sense of melody is finely manicured and belies his youth in the game. He finds a way to control tides and float throughout Still Campaignin’ without sacrificing the project’s discipline or wasting any time. It might recall a grimier Ty Dolla $ign or a genuinely more compelling Gunna, but Still Campaignin’ is very much its own thing. True to its locality, much of the album’s production is bass-driven, wildly percussive and otherwise minimal.. But Bean takes several shots outside of his comfort zone: “The Hope” with San Francisco’s Lil Pete is club-ready, “Perfect Timing” is a bluesy shadowboxing session and “State Prop” is some proud shit-talking. Just one of the 20 songs on Still Campaignin’ is longer than three minutes. Bean’s locking in on a reliable formula and he clearly knows it.

PoW spoke with the Frisco rapper to discuss death and loss, his changing city, growing up on Mac Dre, the direction of his new music and what’s next. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All photos are provided courtesy of the artist and representation. – Steven Louis

What’s good Bean? What’s goin’ on?

Lil Bean: Chillin’, chillin’. I’m at the crib just coolin’ in San Francisco.

How much have you seen your city change, from growing up here to having your own spot now?

Lil Bean: It’s changed a lot, man. A lot. Even shit like the busses have changed. My neighborhood now is completely different. It seems like all the housing projects got torn down and rebuilt. I think that 10, 20 years from now, everything about this neighborhood will be different. Won’t nothing be the same. Hoods are getting knocked down and rebuilt everywhere, and they look completely different.

I think a lot of that has to do with a specific law in California, called Costa-Hawkins, that prohibits rent control and encourages building owners to tear down old structures to rebuild for max profit.

Lil Bean: That shit is crazy. Yeah, it’s all such a big, big difference from when I was a kid. I know my uncles are looking at the city now, like, super crazy.

You were young when Geneva Towers went down, but tell me about growing up there. What do you remember?

Lil Bean: It was fun, growing up there. But when you get to a certain age, you know what’s going on. As a kid, you think everything that happens to you is normal. Going outside and seeing people sell drugs, using drugs, loud people, whatever. To us, that was normal, we was just going outside to play. When you start going to school with other people, and realize they don’t have that going on in their neighborhoods. I would say that growing up in the Towers was fun. But it started getting real at a certain age. You learn lessons and it makes you grow up fast.

Around this time in July, summertime, what did the hood look like, sound like and smell like?

Lil Bean: My dad really ran our neighborhood. He was the man of our neighborhood. So in particular, Fourth of July was really big in my neighborhood, because my dad got so many fireworks. Families around the block, kids everywhere, poppin’ fireworks, it was really a lot of fun because my dad put on such a show. Summertime was always fun. Here, it’s really the only time you get some type of heat, so folks was having water fights. In San Francisco, 80 degrees is hot as fuck. We’re used to fall weather and shit, so 80 degrees feels nuts. So yeah, lot of water fights.

I imagine kids feeling like they were in the middle of desert heat, and it was probably just like 78 degrees, hah.

Lil Bean: [Laughing] Bro yeah, like 78 or not even. When I talk to people in like Sacramento or LA something, I tell them that in San Francisco, I never go outside with a shirt on. You can have a sweater on in any weather here.

Photo: Empire

Did your pops put you on to music? What did you and your people grow up listening to?

Lil Bean: A lot of Mac Dre, man. And Messy Marv. When you’re a kid in my neighborhood, shit, that’s all you knew. San Quinn, Husalah, The Jacka. That’s what it was growing up. It wasn’t until like high school when I started getting into music myself, once I got a car and I’m sitting there with my own shit. My inspiration, my favorite rapper, was Meek Mill. Meek, Nipsey Hussle, that’s who I really looked up to when I started gravitating to music on my own.

And as you said on “Water”somebody tell your pops you’re onna song with 40!

Lil Bean: [Laughing] Yup, E-40 too, that shit too crazy. I’m happy I got that line on that song. The person recording me, the producer, Remedy, he came up with me through my whole journey. He’s part of my process, he’s from my neighborhood. So when I said it, we was both like, “ooooh.” We looked at each other, thinking this shit is so crazy.

Are you still adjusting to making it out with your folks and being at this level now?

Lil Bean: Yeah, I’m still adjusting for sure. I’m never going to forget where I came from, so I’m always going to be adjusting. Everything is new from that.

Do you remember the first time you felt like this was an achievable dream? Was there a moment you realized you could do this for a living?

Lil Bean: It’s funny, out of all my friends, I’m just the quietest one. So they all think it’s crazy I’m a rapper, the people who actually know who I am. We just did back-to-back shows in the city. And I’m hella quiet! I don’t know. But for me, once I put out music and I saw how people grasped it, I think I knew. My family were the people who really drove this into me. I’m more laidback and nonchalant about it. The city got behind me real early, and like I was saying, my dad was known. So people know me, they already knew who I was. I was hella good at basketball. Not everyone knows that. My senior year, I was player of the year in San Francisco. The city knew me, so it was nothing to get everyone behind me. Especially because I’m making good music. [Laughing] If I was weak, I dunno.

You hooped? What was your game like?

Lil Bean: Man, I was a point guard! I could do anything. My senior year, I damn near averaged a triple-double. I was cool, I was decent for sure. I played junior college ball at City College, and they’re like the best juco in the country, you damn near have to get recruited to go there. So I played two years there and we lost one game. I won a state championship with them, and I even had some Division-II scholarship offers. But like I’m saying, my upbringing was different. I lost my dad, and that was our everything, you know? So now I had different responsibilities than others. I was already paying my mom’s bills at 16. I couldn’t just leave and go off to school. I have two little sisters, too. It was different, I was always juggling responsibilities. But I was good at basketball. I wanted to go with it, but life didn’t have it in the plans for me, I guess.

Photo: Empire

After your father passed, how did you carry him with you?

Lil Bean: I feel like in every way. I think he’s really living through me. If he could see now, like if he could see those two shows in the city I was talking about, man…my dad’s friends all still check up on me. His friends still call me all the time, talking shit.

How did you link up with ZayBang? It seems the two of you are on the same trajectory and have a lot of chemistry.

Lil Bean: Zay, that’s my brother, man. A lot of folks, their relationships come from this music shit. But I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Zay. We went to the same school since the first grade. Then he moved to my hood. I was just outside one afternoon, playing as a kid after school, and I saw Zay on our block. Like, what you doing here? He said, I moved here! That’s my best friend. We stay together. We tell each other all the time, if one of us blows and the other one doesn’t, that’s all good, the other will just be security. [Laughing] It’s a blessing that we’re both doing something hella positive right now.

Does having a collaborator like that push you? Do you improve Zay’s stuff? If you were a point guard playing ball, I’m sure your goal now is to make folks around you better.

Lil Bean: Hell yeah, I push Zay and Zay pushes me. He lost a lot of time due to prison. Him coming home, I’ve got to get him back focused, positive and pushing. I think we definitely motivate each other to do better. I’ve kinda seen the bigger picture of all this, but because he was locked up, he couldn’t see it. Now he sees it. Even before we did these back-to-back sold out shows, he was real iffy about it. I said fuck that, we gon’ go on stage and do these songs and everybody’s gonna fuck with it. Then we hit that stage and now he’s in love with it. He’s embracing it and now he wants to do another show.

Zay was that young when he was locked up?

Lil Bean: Yeah, we had been going to school together since the first grade, but by the seventh or eighth grade, he was already getting locked up and going to jail. There was a long point of time where I didn’t see him. All throughout high school, all four years, I didn’t see him. He lost a good six or seven years of his life to it. Four in high school, then I saw him like twice in a few months after he got out, and then he was back down doing another three years. So when he got back out this next time, I told him that we couldn’t keep doing this. I mean, he’s one of my closest friends from my childhood and I wasn’t even seeing him. And from there, we got back focused.

It sounds like you’ve had a lot of people stolen from you.

Lil Bean: Yup. And like I said, I’m quiet. So when I do make music, like, that’s the way for me to vent. That’s why I rap the way I do. I rap about what’s actually going on in my life. I don’t even write nothing down. I just blank out, for real, talk about what’s going on. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to say, the beat helps me get it out.

Can you tell me about CGz and what that relationship meant to you?

Lil Bean: CGz, man, that’s my cousin. But that’s really my brother for real. He had been with me every step of the way, the closest person to me and that’s no exaggeration. I grew up in his house. His mom is my second mom. We lost his brother, Trey Deuce, back in ‘08. That’s where 08 The Label comes from. That was CGz’s brother, and that’s who we were doing it for. CGz, that’s who we were doing it with. Now, it’s fucked up, I dunno. Life is crazy. He was the one that really told me I should be rapping in the first place. His loss broke me, for real for real. For him to not be here and see the success, it’s crazy. Now, we’re just trying to keep the whole family strong. CGz had two sons, and one was at the show with us, dancing on stage. We gotta show the family that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It’s been a really big wake up call. His mom calls me like every day and keeps me going, keeps me staying positive. Because honestly, bro, we could throw all this away in a second.

What’s been giving you light and inspiration these days?

Lil Bean: I just gotta keep everyone alive. Him, Trey, my dad, my brother, I gotta keep folks’ names alive. If they’re living through me, then I’ve gotta put em on the map.

How does the new music try to do that?

Lil Bean: It’s my first solo tape in a long time, since Campaign 2. So I’ve been working on it for a minute, but these are new songs focused on everything that went down. It’s a different mode. People have to hear this. And I feel like it’s our time.

On the verge of dropping this project and leveling up, what would you tell the Bean from three years ago about the whole process and the industry?

Lil Bean: Be prepared. Have your business in order. Seriously, that’s the biggest thing. And stay you, don’t change and keep your sound. I would tell him that you’re the wave, control your own wave. I’m glad I took the route I did. Some people come out with one big song that carries them, and then they die out. I got to slowly build it out, a core fan base. That means a lot more than, say, me signing to a label. This means I’m on the ground level, that I’m the one doing the work.

For fans reading this and excited for Still Campaignin’, what’s the hottest song to come?

Lil Bean: I would say the last one I recorded and added, called “Range Rover.” Yeah, that’s the hottest one right now. The first song, “The Campaign” is hot too. We’re shooting the visual for “Range Rover” in Vegas this weekend actually. [Laughing] I’m tryna do it hella big for that one, we have a few Ranges in rotation. I’m working on hella videos. And then I have a song with Jackboy, we gotta get a video in for that too. The song came about crazy. I was just in the booth at the studio doing my own thing. I popped out and asked if I should add a second verse on this song or not. And Ari [Simon, from Empire] and my engineer both said that Jackboy was in the far corner room in the same studio. So we came together and that shit just came together.

Now, in that same energy, let’s manifest the dream collab. Who do you want to work with? Who would be most exciting to you? No limit, let your imagination run.

Lil Bean: See, for a dream collab, I wanna do a song with someone like Mary J. Blige or Ashanti. Because that’s something that would make my moms go crazy. [Laughing] Somebody like that. In terms of rap, I look at someone like Lil Durk. That’s someone who has been through so much, taken so much, but he’s still here and still winning. That gives me so much motivation, considering what we’ve been going through.

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