Vince Ash is giggly for a gangster rapper. He’ll giggle about his first recording––a freestyle over The Cool Kids’ “Black Mags;” he’ll giggle about stealing sneakers from a former employer; he’ll giggle about his childhood affection for Gucci Mane’s “Black Tee;” he’ll giggle about quitting his job making car door handles at Illinois Tool Works to return to what he opaquely refers to as “doin’ bullshit.” The 21 year-old Hammond, Indiana native, whose on-record baritone rumbles with an ambient violence, is his state’s most promising rapper since Freddie Gibbs. They’re from the same hollow, rust-bitten expanse––Ash’s Hammond and Gibbs’ Gary abutt one another in the northwest corner of Indiana, a half-hour’s drive from Chicago and decades removed from the prosperity brought by steel manufacturing. Like Gary, the east side of Hammond is a hard place to live and an even harder place to leave.
“Do you feel like, when you were growing up, options for success or happiness were available to you?,” I ask.
“Shiiit––naw, not really. Not for what I wanted to do. I wanted to do music. Ain’t no programs going on,” Ash tells me over FaceTime Audio. (Why FaceTime? “A nigga phone off at the moment.”) “Ain’t really too much in the 219. You either gonna go the school route––get up in college and study what you gon’ study––and fuck around still end up back in Indiana, doing some regular-ass 9-to-5. Or, you’re gonna go the street route and that’s gonna end up with you fuckin’ round, gettin’ robbed, killed, or up in jail. Or, shit, you’re gonna go the worker route and end up in a factory. That’s all that happens. And that’s all that’s been happening.”
School never held much allure for a young Ash––the only classes he regularly attended were gym and English––so, after earning his GED, his options were limited to “the street route” and “the factory route.” He knows both routes intimately. His assembly line job at the I.T.W. factory was “depressing as hell” because his coworkers were “fiends and old people.” And, even after quitting, his criminal activities allowed little time for pursuing his lifelong passion. “When you doin’ bullshit, and you gettin’ money from it, your top priority ain’t gonna be something that’s not payin’ you. Especially as a kid.”
But Ash is grown now. His debut EP, Do or Die, is 22 near-relentless minutes of thundering, gritty post-Drill rap—and Noisey is premiering the video for standout track “Solid.” On the EP, his palette is gunmetal; his voice is subterranean; his demeanor is stony. With the exception of a brief sojourn in Georgia, he’s lived his life in bleak Rust Belt environs; Do or Die is, with little exception, a spiritually and sonically bleak experience. So I ask Ash what Hammond sounds like to him.
“Shit, it sounds like my tape. You get a little bit of everything: it’s dark, it’s a whole bunch of gangster-type stories. Most of the shit that goes on is robbin’ or servin’. I’m not just talking about Hammond in general––I’m talking about Hammond, I’m talking about Gary, I’m talking about [East Chicago], the 219 as a whole. That’s what it all sounds like.”
The opening lines of “Solid” offer a précis:
To live this life we live to die
It’s ‘do or die’ for real
It’s you or I, you gotta keep the steel
“What inspired ‘Solid’?,” I ask Ash, momentarily forgetting about its second verse, in which he, with no small amount of venom and few details spared, raps about one of his close friends snitching on another member of their circle.
“You heard the song, right?”
“It’s exactly what I talk about. I’m gonna give it to you how it is. One of my homies ended up getting locked up and some shit like that happened. The climate of dealing with niggas and the––” he pauses to laugh again, maybe from nerves “––the business that niggas dealt with. It’s alotta snakes. Fuck around when you out doin’ bullshit and you gon’ deal with niggas who ain’t on shit but bullshit.”
He doesn’t punctuate that metaphor with a giggle.
Torii MacAdams is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.