Lil Yee’s voice commands its own sense of gravity. It’s the perfect vehicle for his hilarious stories and analogies. When talking about his childhood, he recounts scamming in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, where he told would-be customers that he was selling chocolate bars for a made-up basketball team. When he began to freestyle as a teenager, jaws would drop and the room instantly would become silent. He is the proverbial big brother, the type of person to jokingly tell you to “cheat back” if he heard that you got cheated on. The type of person to put you in your place if he heard you on some bullshit. And If tragedy struck and he lost you, he’d keep you in his heart forever.
He’s proudly from the Fillmore, a place where everyone’s each other’s cousin, so having a tight-knit community means the world to him. At its heart, his latest album Unbreakable is gospel written for the Fillmore – it offers insight into community building, it’s a reminder to love thy neighbor, and it compiles his personal revelations about how to cope with the death lingering in the air.
Born Stacey Gilton, Lil Yee was surrounded by music from a young age. His father was part of a group with his brothers called G-Affair, where they would sing together at funerals. Early on, Lil Yee understood that music would be his lifeline until the day he died. He was drawn to the honesty of gangsta rap, so it was fitting that Rappin’ 4-Tay, Messy Marv, and San Quinn were his hometown heroes.
A product of Black and Puerto Rican ancestry, his grandparents bestowed upon him the same lessons that his musical influences stood on: family ties, how to find solace in an overbearing world, and how to put your pride aside. Rapping came naturally after that. His cousin pushed him to speak his truth and to record with the sole purpose of attaining peace of mind. By the time he set foot in his friend’s studio in Vallejo, it was as if he had just attended his first therapy session.
In 2016, Lil Yee independently released his hit single, “War.” On the hazy L-Finguz beat, he sounded stoic. Recorded in his friend’s garage, the song garnered millions of views and set the tone for his debut, Cita Son, with lyrics like, “I’m so used to all this pain I can’t even cry.” It introduced the world to the mental turmoil that he faced daily. Cita Son remains a story of reclamation, with a protagonist searching the Fillmore to find safety for himself and his kin. His next project, Live 4 It, Die 4 It, somberly perfected his use of autotune, foreshadowing the detached sound that marked Lil Yee’s years to come.
Loss is a resounding theme on Unbreakable. The album is a composite of self-love and newfound confidence. Struggling to find purpose in the two years since his last release, Lil Yee was forced to reevaluate his priorities. He didn’t see himself as an artist, so he turned back to the streets, putting his rap career on the backburner. The music felt too personal; he would go into the studio and vent, but with the loss of his uncle, ChiAli, he struggled to get himself to step back into the booth. The death of his cousin was the final push for the release of this project.
Over the course of recording, Lil Yee transformed his anguish into hope, giving the project its much-needed optimism. One day, he might recite the darkest lyrics of his career, but a few days later, he would discover a morsel of light. These studio sessions rehabilitated Lil Yee, enabling camaraderie by forcing him into a room with his peers. He decided that withholding music was no longer an option; he recognized the beauty of raw sentiment. Now, consistency is his new mantra. Let the music speak for itself; the people will listen regardless. – Yousef Srour
Yousef: What’s your favorite memory from living in the Fillmore?
Lil Yee: Being a kid in Fillmore, you have so much fun, but it’s so different now. It’s so gentrified. I remember me and my boy used to go to the richer parks in San Francisco and we had a paper that said we play for a little league basketball team and needed help with donations. We used to walk with donation papers and get free money. We didn’t even play for a team; we were just doing it for the money and shit. All my partners would have a competition like, “I just got $35 today.” One time, one of my boys made $200. We were going so hard. We were like, “What? We can make $200.” We were printing out more jerseys, all types of shit. That was one of the good memories from back in the day, and that’s Fillmore for you. Anybody you meet from Fillmore, they’ll try to twist you in their favor. If a motherfucker is trying to get over on you, right out of the blue, you’ll be like, “Bro, you from Fillmore?” *Laughs*
Yousef: What do you think it is about San Francisco that separates it from the rest of the Bay?
Lil Yee: We had the hyphy movement, but we didn’t really indulge in it like Oakland and Richmond and Vallejo. We didn’t have the Keak da Sneaks, the E-40s – not to say they were bubblegum rappers or anything like that, but our rappers were really spitting facts. Messy Marv, San Quinn, Rappin’ 4-Tay – we were just on business.
Yousef: Do you think that living in San Francisco, and more specifically the Fillmore, influenced your perception of the world?
Lil Yee: I lived in Fillmore for 14 years. All my family, born and raised. Everybody. Being from Fillmore, you can’t fake being from Fillmore. It’s not a neighborhood where you can come out of the woodworks and be like, “I’m from Fillmore.” Nah, everybody’s gonna know you’re not from Fillmore.
Yousef: What role did your mom and your grandma play in your life?
Lil Yee: Those were two of my biggest role models. My mom’s mom, she’s full-blood Puerto Rican; my mom’s full-blood Puerto Rican. My mom was born in Puerto Rico and moved to the East Coast, so most of my family is from New York. They played a big role in my life. They taught us to keep it family-oriented. We had Sunday dinners every Sunday at my grandma’s house. They taught me to be there for my family no matter what. People go through ups-and-downs, but at the end of the day, we’re all we got. We always got to have each other’s back. My grandma’s still around; she’s my best friend. Me and her, we’re a day apart on our birthdays, so me and her got a little special birthday bond. My dad’s mom, she passed away, but that was my real dog. I was her first grandchild. She loved me hella much, she gave me that tough love, taught me a lot, gave me game. Grandmas give you that game, that season, that love, and you can’t do no wrong in your grandma’s eyes. I don’t think no grandchild can do wrong in their grandmother’s eyes. They want you to keep going and take the next step.
Yousef: Music’s in your bloodline, right, with your dad being in G-Affair. Were you seeing him perform at a young age, or what was it like growing up with him?
Lil Yee: With the G-Affair shit, my uncles used to sing at people’s funerals, make a special song and sing it at your funeral, so it was nothing crazy. I just come from a family full of music. Motherfuckas were big music critics. For people to even take me seriously, I had to show to mothafuckas that I could actually do it. I had to impress my household before I ever thought about impressing the world.
Yousef: Your entire family is talented too. Your brother is an NFL rookie, playing for the Steelers. What was it like to be part of such a talented family?
Lil Yee: We came a long way. We’re breaking generational curses right now. This shit wasn’t easy or handed to us at all. We’ve been through the rain, we’ve been through it all. We never were homeless or nothing like that, thanks to my mom and dad, but as far as struggling, we struggled. My mom passed away, she died of cancer. One of the hardest times of my life was when I was 18. I had just graduated from school, my mom passed away, and my dad was in the feds – the federal penitentiaries. I had to strive and figure shit out on my own. But I’ve got aunties and uncles, and everybody helped me with all the effort.
Yousef: Being family-oriented, like you said, is knowing that your family has your back. How about your twin daughters, what have you learned from them?
Lil Yee: It taught me how to be a man. Not to overreact on certain people. Mothafuckas say something and I’m ready to wild out, but in the back of my mind, “Shit, I’ve got to make it home to these two little girls.” It taught a nigga a different perspective on life. If you’ve got kids at home, you’ve got to think of them before you think of yourself. When I’m going to the store, I can’t be having on the flyest shit if my kids don’t got nothing. I can’t be eating five-course meals and sending my kids cheeseburgers. Everybody’s got to eat. You’ve got to show them the bullshit in life and the hidden secrets that they keep away from us – shit where we gotta “wing it,” shit we gotta figure out when we’re grown, or some shit my whole life I was blind to, where as soon as I was grown I was like, “Damn, I wish I’d known that.”
Yousef: With that, has being a father changed your approach to the game?
Lil Yee: It’s made me more serious. I wasn’t necessarily going to give up on music, but I got to a point where I was making money elsewhere and music was the last thing I was doing. It was “Let’s hustle, get some bread, fuck with my kids, then the music.” Right now, I’m just trying to reevaluate everything. “Let’s make music and my career the first priority” for at least a couple of years so I can get in a position where when my kids ask, “Dad, what happened? Why you ain’t been home?” they can understand that, “This is why I haven’t been home, so that I can be home with y’all later.”
Yousef: Can you describe your first time stepping in a studio? What was the feeling like? Did you want to record? Where were you at?
Lil Yee: My first time recording, my boy had a studio in Vallejo, and he just said, “Come through, bro.” We started talking about it, and I was telling him that my cousin always wanted me to be a rapper, so I was like, “Fuck it.” I took it upon myself to go to the studio by myself, and once I went I started to make little songs here and there. I started developing a sound – I recorded the entire Cita Son in a garage. “War,” one of my biggest songs to this day, “We Livin Hopeless,” “So Lost” – I recorded that in my boy’s garage. At that time I was so hungry to prove that I could do it, that’s what made me become that rapper at that time. Once everyone knew that I could do it, I laid off and started doing other things. On my new album, on this Unbreakable tape, I tapped in and it was like another breath of fresh air. I’ve got to show people that I can do it again, and this time, once I get it, “Okay he can do it. Get it. Keep going.” That’s what it’s all about: consistency in the music. That’s what I lacked in my whole career, the consistency.
Yousef: How do you think the success of “War” and Cita Son changed the trajectory of your career?
Lil Yee: It gave me a platform. It gave me a fanbase, and some people are still here and still listen to that shit everyday. If I never drop another song again, people are still going to have “War” in rotation. It opened the eyes of people. When I did the “War” record, my uncle got on me, my uncle Chi-Ali, rest in peace, he was like, “Man, show your worth. We understand you can rap, we understand you got the flow, you got the harmony, you got the melody, but nigga, do you have wordplay?” Lyrically, “War” is one of my best songs because I tried to do that shit. I put in effort. Now, I rarely write. If I write, it’s a statement. I’ll be in the studio and my brothers are sitting next to me and I’ll be like, “Just fall back, nobody say nothing. Just wait.”
Yousef: Speaking of your uncle, what was your relationship like with him? I know you dedicated a song on the project to him?
Lil Yee: That was my dog; that was my uncle. He played every position in my life. He was my role model. When my dad went to the Feds, he was my father, he was my best friend, my big brother. That’s a touchy situation. Just the realization of him being gone.
Yousef: What was your mindstate when you were working on your new album, Unbreakable?
Lil Yee: I was just recording. I kept recording and making better songs every time. I’ve got a whole ‘nother project; I just put that shit together. I was going through shit, every day. I just lost my cousin two or three months ago, September 17th, my big cousin got murdered. He was big on Unbreakable; he wanted me to do that shit hella bad. That name, that title, he was like, “Man, that shit’s hard.” That added fuel to the flame, me losing him. My recording process for Unbreakable was more personal. Originally, Unbreakable was going to be Cita Son 2, but me and Ghazi talked about the whole scenario, and I was telling him, “I want that one word. A powerful ass word. I want to do merch and do all the shit that I never did.” I always just got by by making good music or by being a good rapper. I never did all the extra shit that artists do. I’m not knocking anybody; I’m knocking myself because I needed to do all that shit. The merch, the tour, everything; I never did any of it. I was pushing myself so hard because I was thinking I was a rapper just because I was making music. Making music was more like a venting process, a way I was coping with myself, something I’m going to do for life. Whether I’m big or not, I’m always going to make music. It’s a healing process. I never was big on listening to my own music, but now I can listen to myself like, “This shit is really good.” Once an artist can listen to their own music, you’re almost there.
Yousef: Why did you decide to drop Unbreakable now? It’s been two years, what’s been the final push?
Lil Yee: That reason right there. The two years since I’ve dropped. I’ve been rapping for four or five years now, and I only have two projects out. How seriously are people going to take you if you’re not dropping any music? You don’t want to be going to people’s studios and wowing people. It’s like, “Wow, you can rap like this? Why is shit not happening?” I got to the point to where I’d pop up into a studio session and niggas would come in and be like, “This nigga goes too hard,” but that shit ain’t never come out. I was recording music like a venting process. This Unbreakable tape was more personal. I’ve got people depending on me and I lost people that I love. I know what the people I lost wanted to see me do. I knew that I was capable of doing it.
Yousef: The album also seems to have you singing more than your past couple of projects. Was this intentional or is it a side-effect of you building your own style?
Lil Yee: Yeah, you can say that. I’ve got like a hundred, maybe more, unreleased songs of me singing harmony, catching that pocket, then flow, then bars, then catching that little uh-uh. I’ve got so many of those songs, I was thinking of dropping an R&B tape. It’s really just me finding my flow and elevating my music and taking it to the next step, and these are the best songs. But I still feel like I’ve got better songs that I recorded but didn’t make the tape. I was over the process of overthinking the situation and holding music. “Oh, I’ve got better songs than that;” that’s just going to make me not drop it.
I got to a point where I was like, “Let’s just put this shit together. Let’s put it out.” When I got that attitude, I started going to the studio and recording. I was recording songs, and after the studio session my engineer, my brother Darius – he’s a big part of my career right now, he helped me a lot – he was like, “This shit is hard as fuck. You’ve got to put this on the album.” I’m like, “Alright, let’s put it on there.” Then, boom. A week goes by, I make another song or two, and he’s like, “Bro, both of these songs are hard as fuck. This has to go on the album.” “Alright, let’s do it.” Me and him picked my whole album.
Yousef: You talk a lot about loss and your mental health on this project. How do you cope with the world changing around you?
Lil Yee: Death took a lot from me. Nine times out of ten, my music is inspired by what I went through or what I’m going through at that time. That day I might be feeling sad and want to go to the studio and vent and I’ll play the saddest beats. In light, it still comes out; I wasn’t having that bad of a day. It might have been the worst day of my life – I lost my cousin and I feel sick. I went to the studio and recorded, and two or three days down the line, I’ll listen to the song and I’ll be like, “Damn, I was really going through it, but right here, I brought the light back.” I don’t write; I freestyle. I listen to a beat and I’m like, “Let me put a hook down,” boom, but the hook won’t even be the hook, it’ll be the verse. It could just be some powerful-ass shit. On the “Unbreakable” song, that wasn’t even a hook. What I came with, that was more of a verse, so it was hard for me to remember it.
My engineer was like, “This is a strong message that you can bring back, and people are going to say it again.” You need that constructive criticism. All that shit leads back to letting people help you. I was big on, “I can do this shit on my own,” because I thought talent was going to get me over the edge, but talent means nothing in this world with so many rappers. I lost my mom. That was the worst shit in the world to me, but it was also one of the best things in the world that happened to me because it helped me cope with death. It helped me accept the fact that we’re all going to die. It helped me accept the fact that I can’t just sit back and linger.
I’ve got friends that lost their mom and sit back and mope about their life. I’m from a neighborhood where I’ve seen people’s mamas get with drugs, people’s dads get killed early, niggas don’t know their dad; there’s not too much in life I haven’t seen, as far as the bad. Right now, I’m in a position to strive for the good and make a better future for my kids, so I have to take advantage of that. I put in the time, but I was more passionate about hustling or making money than the music. I shied away from the music, but I always made music. I stopped seeing myself as some big artist that I could be and I am and that I could be; I started seeing myself as a nigga that could get money and trap and do that. With this whole project, I started seeing myself as an artist. I put my pride to the side. I paid for features, I’d go through ropes, I’ll take the criticism, so I know that through all the shit I was going through, it will prevail one day. I did that just so I could get to this point right here, and now that I’m at this point, I’m not going to stop.
Yousef: Do you consider yourself to be a religious person? I know you discuss “Allah” and questioning God on this new project quite a bit.
Lil Yee: I grew up with my dad, grandma, they were all Christians, but one of my uncles went to prison and came out a Muslim, and he was a heavy influence on me. He believed in Allah, and he taught me a little about that shit. There’s no such thing as a fake religion or a real one; there’s a higher power, for sure. There’s got to be. Growing up, you question life a lot. When I pray, I pray to the Lord, but I’m more spiritual than religious. My cousin that just passed away, he got buried in the church but he was a Muslim. He prayed, he fast; he just started being a Muslim for about a year, and everything happened so fast that he didn’t get to let people know that. You don’t know when you’re going to die. You’re not like, “In 30 days, I’m gonna die. Make sure everyone knows I’m a Muslim and bury me as a Muslim.”
We don’t think like that, even though death is the only thing that’s promised to us in life. A lot of people are scared to die and go into the unknown, so it brings a lot of fear to you. “I’m established in this life. I love this life.” Then you have to question, “When I die, am I going to meet my mom again?” There’s no one on this earth that’s come back and has been like, “This is what happens.”
Yousef: What does loyalty mean to you?
Lil Yee: Everything. Loyalty means more than love to me. Loyalty will keep you out of trouble. In life, a lot of people don’t have loyalty and they don’t realize it either. Switching up on your friends or crossing gangs or talking about your boy behind his back, that’s not loyal. Even to pursue a woman that your bro is trying to get with, that’s not loyal. Loyalty is lost. It’s something that’s so big but so lost because motherfuckas not loyal nowadays. Motherfuckas don’t even know what loyalty is. Motherfuckas will do some unloyal shit and say they’re loyal. Everybody’s tit-for-tat nowadays. If you cheat on your girl, she’s got to cheat on you back. Two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s just for instance. I’m not saying if you’re cheating on your girl, your girl should cheat back, hell nah. It’s a situation that’ll show a motherfucka’s loyalty. A motherfucka will show their loyalty fast.
Yousef: Being 28 now, there’s new talent coming out of the Bay that’s younger than you. What’s the most important piece of game that you have learned thus far?
Lil Yee: Be yourself. That’s the only game I can give to the younger dudes coming up. Be yourself, find your lane, milk it, get yourself some money, and check yourself at all costs. Right now, we’re in the time of information, so there’s not much I can tell you that you can’t just go on the Internet and look up. I just tell a motherfucka, “Make sure you’re happy at the end of the day. Don’t base your happiness on another person because they’re going to let you down.” Respect yourself, that’s what it starts with. Self-respect, self-love, and when you get that, then you can start spreading it. Especially, don’t depend on anybody.
Yousef: When people think of Lil Yee, what do you want them to know about yourself?
Lil Yee: I’m a made-man. I’ve been through the storm, I’ve weathered the storm, I’ve been through the struggle, I’ve lost people, I’ve seen people go to jail, but I’m unbreakable. The title Unbreakable means a lot because if I can do it, you can do it. I come from nothing. I come from where people kill their cousins, families hate on families, nobody wants to see you do better – people want to see you do good, but nobody wants to see you do better than them. I come from that type of shit, but I still show love, I still chime in with the bottom because that’s where I come from.