Growing Up Kendrick: A Compton Story

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Kendrick Lamar witnessed his first murder at age five. “It was outside my apartment unit,” Lamar remembers. “A guy was out there serving his narcotics and somebody rolled up with a shotgun and blew his chest out. Admittedly, it done something to me right then and there. It let me know that this is not only something that I’m looking at, but it’s something that maybe I have to get used to.”

Three years later, Kendrick would see his second murder. This time it was at the Tam’s Burgers on Central and East Rosecrans, just six blocks from where Kendrick grew up. Though it’s now closed, it was an iconic Compton hangout spot known for its cheeseburgers. For the opening of his Reebok commercial, Kendrick is standing on its rooftop, and he also calls it out on “Element” from DAMN.: “I be hangin’ out at Tam’s, I be on Stockton/I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton.”

It’s also notorious for being the spot where Suge Knight plowed down and killed Terry Carter in 2015, and, like most things that have to do with Compton, its memory is bittersweet for Kendrick. “Eight years old, walking home from McNair Elementary. Dude was in the drive-thru ordering his food, and homey ran up, boom boom—smoked him,” Kendrick says.

Kendrick is a supremely gifted craftsman and storyteller. He is perhaps the greatest hip-hop lyricist of his generation, and his songs touch on universal themes of dislocation, spirituality, and personal integrity. But Kendrick is also a product of a specific time and place, a city and era where violence was commonplace and the degree of poverty was nearly unimaginable for most of us. It’s amazing that Kendrick didn’t succumb to this. These experiences have shaped him, and his power—both as an artist and as a human—is tied into this narrative.

“Everyone know Kendrick Lamar for who I am now,” Kendrick offers. “They feel like I have a whole bunch of insight, but, in order to gain that insight, I had to come from this place of loneliness, darkness, and evil. Nobody knows that.”

The roots of this violence are very deep. His family’s gang affiliations stretched back even before they moved to Compton from Chicago in 1984, three years before Kendrick was born. Kendrick’s father, Kenny Duckworth, was raised in Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project on the south side of Chicago that was notorious for its gang violence and poverty. During the 1970s, rival gang members would throw objects from the top floor of the buildings, intending to hit their rivals but frequently striking children. And, at one point, 95 per cent of its residents were unemployed.

An interior photograph of Robert Taylor Homes

As a young man, Duckworth was reportedly running with a South Side street gang called the Gangster Disciples, a Chicago gang led by Larry Hoover, the legendary Midwestern gangster who Rick Ross immortalized in his 2010 song “B.M.F.” Hoover is currently serving six consecutive life sentences. “My parents don’t come from the Black Panther side of Chicago,” Kendrick says. “They believe in certain things, but they were just trying to manoeuvre through the cracks.”

Sensing that the threats, Lamar’s mom, Paula Oliver, issued Kenny an ultimatum. “She said, ‘I can’t fuck with you if you ain’t trying to better yourself,'” Kendrick recounts. “‘We can’t be in the streets forever.'”

They stuffed their clothes into two black garbage bags and boarded a train to California with $500. “They were going to go to San Bernardino,” Kendrick says. “But my Auntie Tina was in Compton. She got ’em a hotel until they got on their feet, and my mom got a job at McDonald’s.”

Kendrick and Paula

For the first couple of years, Paula and Kenny slept in their car or motels, or in the park when it was hot enough, both working a series of disposable jobs at fast-food joints. “Eventually, they saved enough money to get their first apartment, and that’s when they had me,” Kendrick says. Though they had fled Chicago so that Kenny could escape the gangs, that lifestyle found the family again in Compton. Kenny started dabbling in street life again, two of Kendrick’s uncles were locked up on robbery charges, and his Uncle Tony was shot in the head at a burger stand. “My whole family is Crips and Pirus,” Kendrick states.

There’s a context for this. Violence was endemic during that period in Compton. In 1995, when Kendrick was eight, the murder rate in Compton was 81.5 out of 100,000 people. By comparison, New York City, with a murder rate of 2.2 per 100,000 people in 2015, looks like a playground. Even Chicago, which is the current strawman for violent crimes in modern America, only had a murder rate of 8.52 in 2015. It’s not as bad in Compton as it once was, but it’s also not particularly great. The per capita income is still just a little above $13K, a fraction of the $58,030 US average.

For Kendrick, the violence was at times unrelenting. At the age of 15, he would be beaten down in front of his mother at the Avalon swap meet—an incident he would later relay in “Element” from DAMN. And then there was the time his mom found a bloody hospital gown among Kendrick’s clothes. Kendrick was initially cagey, but he eventually admitted that it was from being in the ER with “one of his little homeys who got smoked.”

Or there was the time Paula found him curled up and crying in the front yard, and figured he was sad about his grandmother’s death. “I didn’t know somebody had shot at him,” she said. And then, one day, the police knocked on their door, claiming he was behind a neighborhood incident. His parents promptly kicked him out for two days.

Kendrick’s childhood home, 1612 137th St. Compton, CA.

It wasn’t just gang violence that Kendrick had to worry about. One of Kendrick’s first memories was of the ’92 riots, which began after the acquittals of four police officers who had assaulted Rodney King. The chaos lasted six days—from April 29 to May 4—and resulted in 63 deaths, 2,383 injuries, and over 12,000 arrests. Over 3,700 buildings were burned, either partially or completely destroyed, and damages totalled over $1 billion. Eventually, the national guard was shipped in to restore order, but those six days would scar the community, in both big and small ways, for decades to come.

Kendrick was four when it went down. “I remember riding with my pops down Bullis Road, and looking out the window and seeing motherfuckers just running,he says. “I can see smoke. We stop, and my pops goes into the Auto-Zone and comes out rolling four tires. I know he didn’t buy them. I’m like, ‘What’s going on?'”

Years later, Kendrick would reference this story in the good kid, m.A.A.d. city bonus track, “County Building Blues.” The second verse almost exclusively captures Kendrick’s impressions of the riots: “Couple stolen TVs and a seat belt for my safety/ Played the passenger I think it’s five years after ’87/ Do the math, ‘92, don’t you be lazy.”

All of this nearly broke Kendrick. “We used to have these successful people come around and tell us what’s good and what’s bad in the world,” Kendrick says. “But, from our perspective, it didn’t mean shit to us, because you’re telling us all these positive things, but, when we walk outside, we see somebody’s head get blown off. And it just chips away at the confidence. It makes you feel belittled. The more violence you’re exposed to as a kid, the more it chips away at you. For the most part, the kids that I was around, it broke them. It broke them to say, ‘Fuck everything, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do to survive … Before I let it chip away at me 100 per cent, I was making my transition into music.”

The seeds for Kendrick’s music career were also planted very early. Kendrick was born Kendrick Duckworth on June 17, 1987. As his parents drove him home from the hospital, his father played a track from the legendary old-school rapper Big Daddy Kane. “[My mom] was telling him, ‘Cut that music down, that shit too loud,’” Kendrick recalls. “And he was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. He gonna be listening to music when we get home, when he grow up, and forever.’”

As a child, his father would take him to the Compton Swap Meet at North Long Beach Boulevard and Orchard. “As a kid, that’s where I used to get all my cassettes, all my CDs,” Kendrick says. “My pops, too—he’d buy music. I’d get my Nikes there. You might see Suge Knight, other folks from Compton.”

But it was one time in particular that proved to be foundational for a young Kendrick. In 1996, he watched Dr. Dre and Tupac film their video for the remix of “California Love” at the swap meet. Just a few months later, Tupac would be killed, gunned down on the streets of Las Vegas, but at the time he was the world’s biggest hip-hop star. “When Tupac was here, and I saw him as a 9-year-old, I think that was the birth of what I’m doing today,” Kendrick says. “From the moment that he passed, I knew the things he was saying would eventually be carried on through someone else. But I was too young to know that I would be the one doing it.”

Kendrick quickly immersed himself in hip-hop culture. When Pac died, he gravitated to DMX. Like Pac, DMX was a supremely conflicted character, with songs that threaded the line between hardscrabble machismo and stark vulnerability. “That’s the first album that got me writing,” Kendrick says of DMX’s seminal 1998 album, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. “That album inspired me to be a rapper.”

While DMX inspired Kendrick from a distance, there were important people closer to home.  “I was in seventh grade, I had an English class and a teacher by the name of Mr. Inge and he would give us these poetry assignments, and there was one particular homework assignment that I didn’t do and I said to myself, ‘When I get to school I’m going to write it as fast as possible’, and I did,” Kendrick remembers of his time at Vanguard Learning Center. “I had like 10 minutes until I had to turn it in, so I did it and I turned it in. Later that day, he was passing out the grades and I was looking at my friends going, ‘Man, I got a D, I got a C,’ and I looked at it and it was an ‘A.’ From that moment on, I knew I had a gift to put words together and draw my inspiration out on a piece of paper.”

Vanguard Learning Center

The hobby quickly turned into a passion, to the surprise of Kendrick’s parents. “We used to wonder what he was doing with all that paper,” his dad says. “I thought he was doing homework! I didn’t know he was writing lyrics.”

“I had never heard him say profanity before,” recalls his mom. “Then I found his little rap lyrics, and it was all ‘Eff you.’ ‘D-i-c-k.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God! Kendrick’s a cusser!'”

Soon, Kendrick began attending Centennial High School. The school is firmly considered “Blood territory,” with a graduation rate lower than 60 precent. (Federal-government guidelines for high school graduation rates dictate that all schools should be at 83 per cent.) But it’s also a school with some notable alumni, including the legendary G-Funk producer DJ Quik and, most significantly, Dr. Dre.

It was here, in 2003, that Kendrick met Dave Free, who would go on to be Kendrick’s manager and president of Top Dawg Entertainment. “Me and Kendrick go back since the beginning of 10th grade,” Free recalls. “I was the local DJ at my school and I used to have rap battles during lunch. And my boy Antonio, he was like one of the best rappers at the school. And he was telling me that he had this friend that was the craziest. I was intrigued. I set up a makeshift studio in my house… and I remember he had this line like, ‘I ship keys like a grand piano.’ And I just thought that was the most amazing line for someone his age.”

“We had a little sock over the microphone” Kendrick remembers. “Did a bunch of freestyles over that little mic, gave it to his little brother who was producing at the time, and built something more than just people working together, built a friendship, built a brotherhood over the years.”

Around the same time, Kendrick would have another life-changing event. As with many of the landmark events in his life, this one is rooted in violence. “It was a situation, an altercation that happened. One of the homies got popped,” Kendrick says. “And, [afterwards], we was walking the side parking lot, and this older lady walked up to us and asked us, ‘Was we saved?’ We believed in God and everything, but at the same time, we don’t know what it means to actually be saved with the blood of Jesus. But… she blessed us right then and there: ‘Close your eyes and repeat after me.’ And it was said and done. And from that moment on, I knew, it’s real people out here that really care.”

Later in 2003, Kendrick and Dave would put out Kendrick’s first release, Y.H.N.I.C. (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year). It’s only remarkable for the the fact that it was created by a 16-year-old. The rhymes sound like rote regurgitations of a radio rap hits, but it did what it needed to. After putting it out, Dave began shopping it around, though he really only had one person in mind: TDE leader Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith.

Kendrick in a 2003 promo photo for Y.H.N.I.C.

Though just a neighborhood label, TDE was the “closest thing we knew to the industry,” according to Kendrick. But Tiffith wasn’t particularly receptive to hearing a mixtape from a 16-year-old. “I tried everything to get around the dude,” Dave says. “One time, I posed like I could fix his computer and the whole time I was playing him music and just taking apart his computer, and he started paying more attention to me. And I came over and joined the company, and brought Kendrick in, and we started grinding from there.”

It was a grind that would take him to the top of the hip-hop world within a decade, but Kendrick never forgot his Compton roots. His childhood, however bleak, serves as the backdrop for his music—it’s there in nearly every song and in every interview. “What happens is it invites people in to get another perspective,” Kendrick says of the role of Compton in his music. “It brings a whole ‘nother side to the world of Compton, to this backyard and say, ‘Okay, these are actually people.’”

And Kendrick also stays plugged in through much more tangible ways. In 2013, shortly after the release of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, he donated $50,000 to Centennial’s music department, and much more for the various sports and community programs. His contributions to the music department made it possible for the school to buy new instruments, and establish both string and jazz ensembles. LA Weekly recently named it one of the top music programs in America. According to its director, Manuel Castaneda, 95 per cent of participants in the music program went on to four-year colleges on full or partial scholarships—an amazing number considering that less than 10 per cent of Compton residents have a college degree.

Shortly after his contribution, the California State Senate honored Kendrick Lamar for his donations, bestowing upon Kendrick a “Generational Icon Award.”

And two years later, in 2015, while shooting the video for “King Kunta,” Kendrick returned to the Compton Swap Meet, the same place where he had seen Tupac and Dr. Dre 18 years prior. “All them kids were out there looking,” he remembers. “And a good friend said, ‘You was one of those kids looking at Pac up here when he was doing that, and now they’re looking at you.”


Related Reading:

An In-Depth Conversation with Kendrick Lamar
Chicago Gang History: Robert Taylor Homes
Video: Kendrick Honored On Senate Floor
Kendrick Lamar: “I Am Trayvon Martin. I Am All of These Kids.”
Kendrick Lamar’s Guide to LA
Bounty Hunters (Bloods)
Video: Jay Rock: Only Blood in Crip High School
Jay Rock Talks About Living in Nickerson, Watts
NPR: Kendrick Lamar: ‘I Can’t Change The World Until I Change Myself First’
Rolling Stone: The Trials of Kendrick Lamar
Noisey Bompton: Growing Up With Kendrick Lamar