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Darnell Williams has been through hell and back. The Detroit-bred, LA-based artist always wanted to rap but became a film major at Columbia College in Chicago and got his first break working alongside Illroots creator Mike Waxx and Mike Carson. The three worked closely together on a ton of ideas and Darnell ended up contributing to some of rap’s most successful videos in the early half of this decade.
Life took a wild turn when he parted ways with Waxx and Carson and in the blink of an eye, Darnell went from living in a Hollywood home with a swimming pool on the roof, to being temporarily homeless before crashing on a friend’s kitchen floor in South Central. He had lost everything but a pair of shoes, and he struggled to get by each day as he watched his former partners lavish in the limelight. Darnell Williams had hit rock bottom.
He channeled his frustration into his first passion, rapping. He used his environment as motivation and today he’s here with an excellent video for “South Central.” Combining his ability to direct and edit with powerful lyrics and a commanding delivery, Williams gives us an honest look at what he’s been going through the past few years.
One of the first things I noticed is that you directed and edited the “South Central” video. What’s your experience with being behind the camera?
Basically, as far as videos, I went to school in Chicago at Columbia College and studied film. Mainly because I was already making music and didn’t want to pay for school and get charged for stuff that I already know how to do so I picked up film and started working on that.
Then I met Mike Waxx from Illroots, and Mike Carson before he was involved with Illroots. We used to just to hang out in the dorm room and think of ideas, and then we started shooting them for people. Over time, we got better. The first one we did was Big Sean’s “Too Fake” with Chiddy Bang. It was cool and it got a million views so we just started turning up from there.
So basically, videos you saw on Illroots from 2009 to about 2013, I had a part in. It was a three-man team. First we started in Chicago and then we moved to New York once they started working for G.O.O.D.. Then we moved to LA and started doing it out here. I also was Big Sean’s cameraman during the Rolling Papers Tour. That was a cool experience.
But yeah, that’s pretty much my background in film. I started off going to school for it because I thought it’d be a cool extra skill to have, but it started taking off to the point where I had to put my music on the back burner. Then I started working full-time with Illroots.
Do you still have a working relationship with Big Sean?
Occasionally I get calls. The last thing I did for Big Sean was when I wrote the ending of “Sierra Leone.” Other than that, Carson works with Sean. He’s the full-time visual guy. We both branched off from Illroots and Waxx stayed there and runs it on his own.
What was the creative process of making “South Central”?
To be honest, I hate to keep talking about my past and Illroots, but I was working with them. We eventually got into disagreements over ownership, and Waxx was my roommate at the time, we had an apartment together in Los Angeles. I went to visit my family and came back to LA and the locks were changed. The locks in the office too. I was pretty much pushed out of the company.
From there, I was just crashing around, couch-hopping, and my homie from Detroit happened to be moving out here for school. I thought he was living in Mid-City, but I found out it was South Central so I started crashing on his kitchen floor and kinda made it my room. From there, I was still going back and forth to Hollywood trying to get my connects back up and stuff.
A lot of people stop fucking with you once you aren’t attached to a brand. You start to see who was really fucking with you, and who was fucking with you for the opportunity. It was frustrating because I didn’t come to LA to move and fucking live in the hood again. It was like I was in Detroit again, just a different scene.
Before I was living in North Hollywood, had a swimming pool on my roof, all kinds of shit. To go from that to my homie’s kitchen floor changed my whole mentality. It changed how I looked at things. When I came to LA I saw the best side all of the time because I was in the industry making moves. Then when I came out of that and came to the real life of LA, it just inspired me. I ain’t gangbanging or none of that shit but at the end of the day, I’m still dealing with the same shit as everyone else living there every day.
It was just the whole experience man, the shit I was seeing just came out in a song. It’s crazy because I didn’t know how I was going to get respect in music and be working for a blog at the same time, but all of that shit fell apart and put me into a place that gave me “South Central.”
Are you still living in South Central right now?
Yeah, the house in the video is where I’m staying at. I mean I got a little more money in my pocket, but I’m not in a situation where I can be spending $1,000 a day to live somewhere.
I saw that this is the first single from your upcoming project; can you give us any info on that?
I don’t have too much info on that, I know that it’s 75% complete. I’ve been working on it for over a year. Not gonna be too many features, but it’s gonna be a couple people on there that no one would expect. It’s just homies, like the people I did videos with still are really cool with me and look out.
Yeah I saw a couple of pictures of you with guys like Jesse from The Neighbourhood and Casey Veggies.
Yeah those are the homies, as well as Travi$ Scott and Chance the Rapper. Those the homies too. With Illroots it was about supporting the fresh artists, so when we were doing that I met everybody before I left the blog circles.
Being born and raised in Detroit, what was it like growing up there and how is it different now that you live in LA, or similar living in South Central?
It’s definitely way different, the people especially. If someone doesn’t like you in Detroit, you’re gonna know. Where I come from, you can get robbed, someone can run up on you with a gun, get $50 off of you, steal your phone or whatever. Out here in LA, someone will shake your hand, pat your back, and rob you for $50,000 and by the time you realize it, it’s too late. So I can’t really say which one is worse. They’re both kind of grimy.
Detroit kept me grounded. Gave me appreciation for life, because it’s so many losses of it out there. I remember coming to LA, and it was weird because I didn’t feel that tension that you feel all around you in Detroit. We have good days, but you always know at any given moment you could be going to the gas station to get some gas, or even going inside to get a soda, and that could be your last time. Shit happens all of the time. I just lost my cousin Sandy, he got killed on some dumb shit in Detroit.
What made you decide to get into rapping?
I always wanted to be a rapper. I got a goddamn journal from like fifth grade that says, “When I grow up, imma be a famous rapper and make billions of dollars.” I was trying to rap before I even knew enough words to put together. As I got older, I didn’t really know how I was gonna do anything and was just rapping in high school. But then the college thing came up and it was like I needed to have a career because you need a backup. So I decided to do film and it just worked out.
I think the thing is, people who do film or edit and do music, if your rhythm is really good, you’ll be good at film. It’s all about the rhythm. Like I just did a video for this girl group Bahari from Interscope. They just dropped their first video, “Wild Ones.” I want people to check that out because I want people to know that I’m really a director. I’m not a rapper who kinda tells someone an idea and they put it together. I’m there from the treatment to the final edit. I’m the guy sitting at a computer dying to get this art out.
Who did you grow up listening to?
Eminem was my favorite rapper to be honest. I got my first Eminem tape in fifth grade, I had it on my Walkman. I used to listen to that a lot. Definitely Kanye too. I had a bootleg of The College Dropout in my bookbag for months and never listened to it. One day I forgot all of my other CDs and it was the only one I had so I put it in and bruh, it changed my life.
From there I was just on a hunt for soulful music, I went back into all of the older artists. I had a Dilla phase, like I grew up in Detroit but Dilla wasn’t what everyone was talking about like that. But The College Dropout just opened my eyes to so much, and kind of gave me a lane. Now it was like man, here’s another guy like me who is from the hood who isn’t in the field shooting motherfuckers and shit, but he was still cool as fuck, still swaggy, still cocky. It gave a lot of people a lane to steer towards.
What was the moment when you realized that this can actually work for you and that you can do this for the rest of your life?
It was hitting rock bottom. Once I became homeless overnight and I didn’t have the business behind me, the support, I felt alone. It was literally rock bottom. I had no bread and when I moved to this spot, I had all of my clothes in a suitcase and I kept it in the trunk of his car, thinking, “Oh I won’t be homeless too long.” So I would get clothes from the suitcase in the morning and go shower and get ready for the day.
One day, I took a shower and went to get my clothes and the car was gone! I was left with one pair of shoes. Then, I had my own car shipped out from Detroit but Illroots had a ticket, and we usually paid all the tickets for the company, but this ticket was unpaid. So cops took my car and now I’m really stuck walking blocks to the train station, experiencing real life. Bumping shoulders with everyone in South Central.
Then it was just seeing all this shit on Instagram, I’m dead ass broke and hurt but had to look and see people I used to work with on IG on private jets with Skrillex. I’m at the bottom of LA with nothing and seeing people take pictures of the fanciest meals. Meanwhile I’m splitting cheeseburgers at Burger King. Eating so much Burger King that you can taste the shit before you walk into the place.
It was the frustration, knowing that I can make it, knowing I’m not supposed to be this fucked up with this much knowledge and this much talent. I was going crazy, not sleeping. I made “Boss Up Den Flex,” edited that with old footage and new footage. I did that shit for three weeks straight, no sleep. My heart was going crazy one night, might’ve been the weed, but my niggas called the ambulance and they told me I need rest and that I’m sleep deprived. Coming out of the ambulance I just asked God to get me through this and I promised I wouldn’t let Him down.
When I left there something in my head told me to finish the video for “Boss Up Den Flex,” no matter what. I had to finish it, and finish it quick. So that’s what I did. Finished it, dropped it, then Travi$ tweeted it out and that’s when all of the shit started happening. I got discovered by Tim James and they gave me a studio to record test trials in and see how it was, and from there we built a relationship and they’ve been rocking with me ever since.
What advice would you give to that kid that feels that same frustration or feeling of being at rock bottom?
I would just tell them don’t stop, you can’t stop. It’s pretty much as simple as live or die. Do you wanna live and do your shit and do what you want in life or do you wanna do something else and wait around till you die? I also wanna tell the kids in the ghetto who don’t have shit that if you have the vision, you got it. If you can make it out of there, you can make it out of anywhere.
If I would’ve came from a silver spoon life and lost my job and shit, and ended up in South Central with no money I probably would’ve blown my fucking brains out. Even being a person who didn’t grow up rich, there was days I felt like that or thought about it.
If you can make it out of your hometown, you can make it out of anywhere. The best advice is to just get the fuck from home, and when you got some shit going come back and help the rest. But you definitely gotta get the fuck out of your hometown. Don’t sit around thinking someone’s gonna come discover you at a talent show or some bullshit. You really gotta get out here on your own and just get it.