[Interview] GQ talks “Death Threats and Love Notes,” the stigma of basketball players rapping, and working with 9th Wonder

Interview by: Martin Bauman

Allow me to introduce you to Jamla’s latest artist, GQ. The Oakland emcee (also known as Quentin Thomas) has been steadily making a name for himself in hip-hop since signing with 9th Wonder back in 2009, all while dispelling the notion that basketball player’s can’t rhyme. Before his hip-hop career began, Thomas played under Roy Williams at the University of North Carolina where, as a freshman in 2005, he was a member of the National Championship-winning team. Nagging injuries may have put an end to his basketball career, but they also allowed him to focus on honing his craft as an emcee. Since then, he’s released a three-part mixtape series titled Blended, followed by his first project under Jamla, the Trouble Man EP. Now, he’s prepping for a big 2013 with the release of Death Threats and Love Notes: The Prequel, followed by his debut album later this year. The Come Up Show caught up with GQ to discuss his latest project, the stigma of basketball players rapping, working with 9th Wonder, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: You just got back from Japan. What was that experience like?

GQ: Man, it was amazing. It was an eye-opener for me to go to another place in the world and see amazing things, and this amazing culture. And having people embrace us, as far as Jamla and what we’re doing as a whole, was great. Being out there with my family, as far as 9th [Wonder] and Rap[sody], that was just great, man.

TCUS: I want to go back to the beginning. You found your passion for music at age nine. What was it that got you into hip-hop?

GQ: It was just the love of listening to music, [and how] it made me feel. Even at a young age, I could tell that you could be having a good day or you could be having a rough day, and listen to a certain song, and it could make you feel better. [It could] help you get through a situation. But it was just music as a whole, [and] the hip-hop culture… My mom grew up playing gospel around the house, or going to church on Sundays, and my dad played jazz around the house, so music as a whole was just a part of me and my family. We just loved music.

I had a passion for it, but never thought I’d be a part of it. Artists as far as Snoop, Tupac, Biggie, Ice Cube, Jay-Z, Eminem, OutKast… the list continues of artists that I was inspired by at a young age. I just loved hip-hop as a whole.

TCUS: And when did you first get into performing?

GQ: My very first show [was] I wanna say probably in 2009, back home. I was at this place called Luka’s Lounge in downtown Oakland. That was my first show. Other than that, I’ve just been trying to get better as a performer, and get better as an artist.

TCUS: They say that “things are different across the bridge.” What was it like growing up in Oakland?

GQ: It was fun [laughs]. I always say the Bay Area as a whole, but definitely the city of Oakland, is just unique. A lot of times, we’ll get a lot of attention for the negative stuff, whether it be violence, or crime, or what have you. But there’s a lot of positive stuff. A lot of positive people, a lot of great people have come from here, away from music. Just as an individual, growing up, and bringing back to the community – or going somewhere else, and giving to other communities and other people. There’s a lot of beauty in [Oakland]. So in my music, I just want people to see that there is a lot of bright light in the city where I come from, the city where a lot of us come from.

TCUS: Here’s a piece of trivia for you: What’s your connection to Huey Newton?

GQ: That’s one of the founders of the Black Panthers, other than Bobby Seale, and that’s actually where we got the [Death Threats and Love Notes] cover from. It’s Eldrige [Cleaver] and his wife, Kathleen. Rap[sody] came across the picture one day when I wasn’t at the studio, in Carolina, and she showed 9th. And 9th really brought down the idea to me, and when I first saw it, I thought the picture was dope, but I honestly didn’t know who it was. So he broke it down for me, and I started doing research on the Black Panther movement in the city of Oakland, and how powerful that was, and at the same time, what they stood for: doing right for blacks in the community as a whole. They had to go through a lot of stuff. They literally dealt with death threats, and also they got praise for what they were doing – they got love notes, so to speak. It really made it better for that. And it came full circle with the title.

TCUS: I was going to go with a much more basic connection between you and Huey Newton. He’s actually a graduate of Oakland Tech.

GQ: Yeah, that too. Well, you knew more than [me]! I didn’t know he went to the same high school I went to.

TCUS: What can you tell me about the Bulldogs?

GQ: Ahh, man. I love them. I’m a Bulldog for life. I love Tech [laughs]. High school was one of my [greatest memories] for four years of my life. But school was also something that… there was a lot going on, you were exposed to everything in high school – and also in the city of Oakland. I feel like Oakland is one of those places where – another reason I used Death Threats and Love Notes – you gotta take the good with the bad. No matter where you lived, no matter your household, your upbringing, you were gonna have to deal with the reality of Oakland at some point. Whether you were going to school, whether you were going to work, or just running errands – whatever you were doing.

But that was the beauty of it, man. Adversity in the city, but overcoming that, and doing great things after you grow up, or when you get older and you can help others, too. Man, high school was great. I love Oakland Tech. I always go back to the school and talk to as many teachers, or my assistant principal. Her name was Miss Whitt, but we called her Auntie. So I go back to school all the time and check on those people, man. They did a lot for me and other students.

TCUS: You were a member of Roy Williams’ first recruiting class at UNC. What was it like playing under him?

GQ: It was great, man. An experience, you know? College basketball, like anything else, it has its ups and its downs – especially for me. I had to deal with unfortunate injuries, some games I would play, some games I wouldn’t play. But mentally, I was strong enough for it. And I think in the long run, it helped me beyond basketball. I think that’s where the blessing in disguise came from, as far as playing basketball my whole life, and picking up small things such as work ethic [and] being on time for certain stuff.

When it comes to music, being in the studio for unlimited hours, or constantly working, or getting back from Japan or London and going right back to the studio – that’s something that I see in Rapsody, that’s something that I see in 9th and other artists on our label: HaLo, [Big] Remo… I see that type of stuff – and that just transpired for me personally through sports. In college, definitely, playing at UNC helped a lot. Being on time for practice, being on time for meetings, and giving your all at any time. It was a great experience, man. Not to mention being fortunate enough to be part of a National Championship team, [and] going to the Final Four two times. Just a lot of great experiences, man. A lot of great memories.

TCUS: I know you won the National Championship in 2005, but aside from that championship game, what’s the most memorable game of your college career?

GQ: Clemson. The Clemson game at North Carolina, going into double overtime. It was memorable for a few different reasons, one being that it was my senior year, two being Ty Lawson had gotten hurt to games prior to that against Florida State, we had just lost to Duke, I believe… So it was just something that was a great feeling at the time. We had a lot of unfortunate injuries that year, so we were going against adversity, too – and we had never lost to Clemson. Still to this day, Carolina has never lost to Clemson under the Dean Dome [editor’s note: the streak is currently at 56 consecutive home wins]. I think we were 53-0 that day. So, to be down by 20 almost throughout the whole game, and to come back and be down by 11 with three minutes left in that game, and to come back and win in overtime, that was a great feeling.

TCUS: Getting back to the music side of things, how did you first meet 9th Wonder?

GQ: After I had graduated, I wanted to continue playing professional ball, but I couldn’t due to my knees and having injuries and stuff like that. Probably a week before my graduation at Carolina, Coach Williams was able to get me into a Lakers camp, and have a tryout with the Lakers for the Summer League. But my knee was bothering me and hurting me a lot, so I couldn’t continue.

This guy that knew 9th also went to the same barbershop that I went to when I was in college, and he was talking to my barber, and my barber was like “man, I know this guy that can rap.” And the guy said, “well, what’s his name?” And [my barber] was like “Q.” He was like “Q who?” And he was like “Quentin Thomas, that played for UNC.” And the guy was like “nah, I don’t take that seriously.” You know, just the stigma on ballplayers trying to rap. There’s really only been one successful one, Shaq. But long story short, he told 9th, and actually the day I was in LA and found out I wasn’t going to be able to continue with the tryout, 9th texted me and was trying to find out where I was at. I told him where I was, and I told him I’d be back in Carolina in a couple days. He said, “well, when you get back and settled, come down to NC Central,” the campus where he was doing his hip-hop class and also recording music at the same time.

So I went down there with a teammate of mine, gave him a CD with some music that I had recorded while I was at home – you know, just playing around on some stuff as a hobby – and he would up liking it. And then he asked me, “man, what do you want to do with it?” I had no idea. I had never even thought about doing music, or rapping, or being a part of hip-hop in any shape or form. I just told him, “man, we’ll just record and see where it goes.” Being around him, Rapsody and everybody else, just getting that great vibe and recording with those guys, the next thing I know, I had a song on NBA Live 2010 with David Banner. And now, to date, just getting back from somewhere like Japan, and putting out Death Threats and Love Notes, and working on my first album, it’s a great feeling for something that I never thought I would be a part of. It’s just been a blessing, man, being around 9th and those guys.

TCUS: What significance does Jean Grae have on your career?

GQ: Jean Grae is somebody who I’ve never really sat down and talked to a lot. You know, she’s close with Rapsody and 9th and all those guys. But she’s a talented, talented, talented artist. And just the small time I’ve been around her, listening to her music, I’ve picked up small things from her, as talented as she is an artist. Jean Grae, 9th, Rap[sody], [and] Young Guru [are] a few people that I’ve been fortunate enough to be around, just being around 9th and Jamla as a whole. I can see their work ethic and their craft, and how serious they take it. [To witness] those people who have already accomplished a lot of things in their career and their life, yet still have the work ethic to still be driven day in and day out to do incredible things, it’s just good for me. It keeps me humble and keeps me working hard.

TCUS: Speaking of Jean Grae, I read that she was actually supposed to record with 9th Wonder that one day, but she ended up leaving and you got some studio time as a result of that.

GQ: Yeah! Randomly, we were there at the same time. This was like when I first got down there. And she had to leave for whatever reason, I don’t know what the reason was, but that freed up a lot more time where 9th was like “alright, well, we can see what you can do for a little bit.” Fatin was there – a producer that’s part of the Soul Council. Fatin gave me some beats, 9th gave me some beats, and we just worked. In a week span, two-week span, we got a lot of recording done, a lot of positive music. Actually, a song that’s on Death Threats and Love Notes, “This Is Me” with Carlita Durand, was one of the first songs that I ever recorded with 9th. We recorded that back in ’08, and it’s just now that it’s surfaced. So it was a great experience, man. With her leaving for whatever reason, those couple days gave me some time to just work hard and really get it in.

TCUS: Speaking of that song “This Is Me”, you have a quote that goes: “The wins felt good, but the losses made me great.” Can you talk about this?

GQ: It was kind of like a double [meaning]. As far as me playing ball, it’s easy to feel good after a win, but when you lose, it really makes you reflect on your game and what you need to improve on. And the same thing with life; good days, having good report cards, or just positive things happening in your life, but also the negative things, whether it be losing a close friend, losing a family member, making a wrong decision in life, those are the things that I feel make me a better man today than the positive things. I learned a lot more from [the negative] things. That’s why that line has such a strong impact for me.

TCUS: I want to go back to something you said earlier. You talked about the stigma against ballplayers rapping. What’s your experience been with that?

GQ: It’s always funny for me, because I’m pretty confident in my craft, and I know I have a gift and have the ability to rap, and get words out to an audience where they can relate to them, hopefully. When people first hear it… and 9th used to [do this], I don’t know if he still does, but he used to play tricks on people. They would come to the studio, and he would just play my music and he wouldn’t tell them who it was for like two, three songs. And then finally, he would tell them. In the state of Carolina, especially at that time, just being either a Tarheels fan or an ACC fan, you kinda knew the name Quentin Thomas at the time. So they’d be like “the ballplayer? Nah, that can’t be him.”

So it’s always a good feeling when people don’t think that you can do something well, or don’t really have any anticipation of you excelling or succeeding, but when they hear it, there’s nothing like it. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback – I’ve even gotten some replies [laughs], one time, I was on Facebook, and I got a message from somebody who was like “man, I shouldn’t be messaging you, because I’m the craziest Duke fan ever. But I came across your music, man, and I love it.” He was like “it’s probably going against the code, but man, just keep up what you’re doing, and best wishes to you.” Just hearing stuff like that, and other small things from people on the positive side, keeps me pushing and driven.

TCUS: Getting back to Death Threats and Love Notes, we spoke about the Black Panthers earlier, and that theme continues on your single “The Town”, with the intro to the song. Can you explain the significance of that speech?

GQ: The [Bobby Seale] speech was also something that I had heard before, but didn’t really key in to it. 9th brought that [speech] up again, and after that, it really stood for the message I was trying to get through. Because when we recorded “The Town”, it was basically like “this is the sound that we’re looking for for this particular project.” That was the first song me and 9th recorded for Death Threats and Love Notes, and when we did it, it was just a magical feeling in the studio.

We didn’t have a title for it, and he was like “man, name it “The Town”. That’s where you’re from: Oakland, California. That’s what you guys call the town,” and actually, “The Town” is me just talking about the beginning. You know, where it all started, at home. Real feelings, [for instance] in one line, I talk about: “Pop, look at me, I persevered/ My mom looked at me and burst in tears.” That was all real. It was all authentic, so what better way to start than with home? So that’s how “The Town” came about. And the speech at the beginning was just perfect, how 9th set that up.

TCUS: This is a quote from “Repetition”: “What’s not for them is life to us.” Can you elaborate on this?

GQ: I feel like a lot of times in life, we get so caught up in looking from the outside in. It’s easy to judge somebody, no matter what situation they’re in. We can look at somebody and be like “why do they talk like that?” Or “why do they live like that?” But if it’s not your life, you don’t really know the situation or why an individual does what they do. For me, it was just more like “what’s not for them is life to us.” Alright, they don’t feel it, or they don’t really think highly of it, but it’s for us. We can’t worry about them, let’s just focus on us. So that’s another line that you can look at in different ways, but that was the main purpose when I wrote it.

TCUS: This is a quote from “Last Breath”: “Devil on my shoulder laughin at me while he’s crackin jokes/ Angel on the other side sayin he’s just mad you’re close.” Can you elaborate on this?

GQ: Good and bad [laughs]. Death Threats and Love Notes. And it’s funny, I’m real animated as a person and real comical, but I always feel like I have a good and a bad side right there. My conscience is telling me, “you should do this,” or “nah, you should do that.” A lot of times, we get discouraged in life, especially when we’re going through hard times [and] adversity. And you constantly feel like you have the devil or somebody just there, laughing, like “I told you it wouldn’t happen,” or “I told you you wouldn’t be able to get this job,” or “I told you you wouldn’t be able to get this car,” or “the rent’s due, how are you gonna pay that?”

And there’s always that other side, patting you on the back, like “you’re gonna be alright. Think about all the other stuff you already overcame, there’s a lot more positive stuff in store.” So that’s where that line came from. It’s crazy that you said that, because I think that’s one of everybody’s favourite lines out of “Last Breath”. I’ve noticed that a lot of people like the song, but I’ve definitely noticed a lot of people key in on that line.

TCUS: Despite the progress you’ve made, you’ve admitted to still feeling so far away from everything. Can you talk about that?

GQ: I just think I’m my own worst critic. I always want so much, and there’s times where I can be in the studio making music, and then I’ll come home, and I’ll be like “man, I gotta take care of this.” Or being away from home, being in North Carolina and having to come to Oakland, California like “ahh, my family’s still dealing with this,” or “I have close friends dealing with this.” That’s why I always say that I’m so far away from not only where I wanna be, but where I want my loved ones to be. My main goal in life is just to be happy and have the people around me taken care of with wants, but more so needs, and not having to stress off little stuff. That’s why from time to time, I’ll be like “man, I’m so far away.” And also, just to keep me humble, and keep me grounded to work [harder]. I never want to get complacent in anything I do, whether it be music or anything in life. I just want to continue to keep striving. That’s my main purpose. One thing I always say – I’ve never really told anybody else, but I always think of this – I always tweet “ODS.”

I just started tweeting more and more now, but I always put “ODS” and it stands for “One Day Soon.” It’s something that me and a close friend of mine started saying maybe a couple years ago. Everything will happen when it’s supposed to happen. The hardest thing I think, just for us, the human nature versus being patient, is doing what you can while you can, until that time comes. Other than that, man, I’m just enjoying the journey.

TCUS: This is another tweet of yours: “Don’t let success become your fear.” Can you explain?

GQ: I feel a lot of times, fear is something that keeps us away from stuff, but I feel also that the responsibility of success keeps us away from things even more. A lot of times, we’ll think “yeah, I wanna do this in life,” and when we really take the time to think about it, we [don’t think about] failing, but more so the stuff that comes with [success]. You know, like “ahh, I have to deal with this for a long period of time, or for the rest of my life.” And that’s just a responsibility that comes with it. I feel success can sometimes hinder us, or misguide us away more than fear does.

TCUS: What’s on the horizon for you later this year?

GQ: We’re putting out my debut album later on this year. We don’t have a date; I would think somewhere towards the end of the summer, beginning of the fall, right around school. August, October, I’m not sure on the date. So I have that coming out, and right now, I’m just working, man. Hopefully I’ll do a lot more shows, and go to different places, and keep travelling, if everything’s in order… just have fun and enjoy the whole time. Jamla Records has a lot going on; the vision that 9th has for us is great, so I’m just real happy about the place that we are right now.

TCUS: What can you tell us about the actual album?

GQ: The album will be titled Rated Oakland. The album will have features, we have some names right now, but I won’t give those out. The vibe will probably be something that people can relate to again. It’s kinda hard for me to critique my own stuff, as far as how it sounds and everything, but I definitely feel it’ll be something people can relate to and will enjoy, hopefully like people are enjoying Death Threats and Love Notes right now.

TCUS: That’s all from me, is there anything else you’d like to say?

GQ: Right now, if someone wants to get in contact with me through social sites, Twitter @LifeofGQ, they can follow me on there. Also, I have a website that I just started, lifeofgq.com. We just got it up and running, so we’re doing a lot of different construction on that. And follow Jamla Records, man, and all the artists. Rapsody, that’s my big sister right there. She has a project coming out called She Got Game, hosted by DJ Drama, with different artists featured on there such as Wale, Common, Big K.R.I.T., and others. She’s a talented artist. Again, just look out for Jamla Records as a whole, and all the artists. Shout out to the Soul Council, the producers of all our music. What 9th is doing with this vision of his, he’s helping all of us reach our dreams, man.