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Gifo is a rapper based in Sioux City, Iowa and his new release, Hell Bound, is out now. In our discussion we connected on ideas around creative growth, the Hometown Heroes collective, Latino and Hispanic representation, and “Tears,” which is one of seven new tracks on the EP.
villin: The two of us connected this week to talk about his new release, titled Hell Bound, which was engineered in Sioux City by Dylan Foote. While “Tears” was produced by 8teen, Hell Bound primarily features production work by NINETY8, who’s based down in Texas. While the sounds are from beyond Iowa’s border, the lyrics on Hell Bound focus on subject matter much closer to the heart for the MC.
Gifo: Lyrically, I do talk about some things that are going on right now as far as my journey and what I’ve been experiencing so far with this small amount of traction I’ve been getting. Like, how things have been changing for me, with how I look at relationships with other people and how I’m going to approach my life.
villin: A few months ago Gifo was interviewed on the Nasty Collective podcast and he spoke to something that caught my ear. I’m quoting him in that interview where he said, “In the past I did feel a little bit slept on at times.” He continued, “Anytime that you kind of feel like that you have to evaluate what you’re doing to bring to the table for people to notice you.” This jumped out at me because it portrays a mature bend towards creative growth opposed to something more reactionary, where other people’s opinions are taken too personally and leveraged against your own evolution. I asked him to speak on this.
Gifo: I definitely would say that Psychedelic really helped me—Psychedelic Sidekick really helped me—in my musical journey, in just being a big brother to me and giving me great advice and feedback along the way and just pushing me to be better. Having a friend like that has helped me a lot with just being able to even think that way. I definitely believe that if it’s not resonating then obviously you’re not doing something that you need to be doing. And it is an opportunity to take a look at yourself and be like, what can I do differently, what can I do better?
villin: And when speaking of doing better in our conversation, any sense of that was one associated with rising up with those around him, including several of his friends and collaborators who have gathered in the Hometown Heroes collective. The group, which also features Psychedelic Sidekick, Johnny Marz, Sifu the Sensai and producer AMMixes, was featured by Iowa Public Radio this spring, and they made their live debut earlier this month at the Saturday in the Park festival.
Gifo: Johnny got to play Saturday in the Park, which is like, in Sioux City that’s a big deal once you get to do that. He was kind enough to let us come up there and show some of the stuff that we’ve been working on through the winter and up to now. We’ve just been spreading the love, you know, and that’s kind of what Hometown Heroes is all about.
villin: While fresh to the scene as a whole, Hometown Heroes isn’t Gifo’s first experience creating with others though…
Gifo: Prior to this—I keep saying this last year, but really it’s coming up on over a year and a half now—I used to work with one producer who would make all my beats and then he would do the engineering stuff for me as well. His name was Skylar Mann. We went by the Enigmas, or Enigmatic Records, for a while. And we didn’t have a falling out, or anything, I just kind of wanted to start branching out, and not limiting myself to one source. For so long I was branding with him and it really started as a large collective. A lot of our friends are still involved in music. One of my friends is a music teacher now; actually, two of them. They used to co-produce all together, then it just kind of—like you said, life happens—and it just came down to us two. Branding that way really left me a clean slate to brand myself.
villin: And now pushing ahead with his own music, Gifo has released several tracks and EPs over the past two years including Never Late is Better, which only just dropped in March. Digging a little deeper into his motivation to create, conversation also touched on personal heritage, with Gifo explaining the meaning behind his moniker.
Gifo: Well, it’s a nickname that some friends of mine came up for me in middle school. My last name is Rengifo. I don’t know, I used to be kind of insecure about my last name, just ’cause growing up in Iowa, it’s not like a lot of people’s last names. I guess I just wanted to reclaim it and make it my own. Also, most of my life it’s just been me, my mom, and my brother, but my name comes from my dad’s side of my family. And I think also that was a piece of it, too, reclaiming my name as my own. Just starting my own path with it.
villin: This reminded me of one of his facebook posts from January, which read, “Last year I made it my goal to work with as many Latino/Hispanic artists as I could, for the culture and to create representation. I can proudly say I’ve done what I set out to do.” I was curious what motivated that and whether this sort of thinking continues to inspire Gifo’s approach now.
Gifo: Mainly, my focus at the time was thinking about wanting to do that and making that an intentional thing, there’s a huge demographic of Latino and Hispanic people in Sioux City. And there’s definitely guys that are older than me that have been rapping, or doing things, but I just felt like trying to be that person for a lot of these young dudes that are trying to get into anything but trouble—if they’re trying to make music, or whatever their lane is, just representing somebody that… you know, I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been not in a great situation before, but if you just believe in yourself and surround yourself with people that are going to elevate you as a person, you can do whatever you want. I wanted to show these kids that don’t, maybe, have the best home situation, or one of their parents around, or something like that, that you can do it, too.
villin: And whether intentionally or not, this theme carries over into the track that led off this episode, “Tears.” As Gifo explains the song is a direct reaction to the current cultural vibration which has left its imprint on all of us the last few years.
Gifo: “Tears” is talking about the climate that we all face in America, no matter where you’re at. Things are crazy out here, just trying to survive on a daily basis, for a lot of people, anyway. I guess, just trying to have some fun with things even in that, right? Just finding ways to not be scared of what could happen to you, and letting anxiety go, and just grasping—or basking in the moment, rather.
villin: As he continues, the track is also a reaction to a realization that if he didn’t make a change in his life, he might lose the opportunity to keep going.
Gifo: On “Tears” there’s a part where I was talking about thinking that I would be one of those people, you know? When you look at hip-hop, especially a lot of people that I look up to, or used to look up to, they’re not here anymore. People like X [XXXTENTACION] or [Lil] Peep or Juice WRLD or… I think that’s probably one of the scariest realizations that I had, was like “wow, that’s where you’re going,” you know? Before I decided that I needed to change things in my own life. There’s a part where I say, “I always thought that I would be the one to die young but I’m grateful / I made it to this point every day I wake up thankful.” That’s one of my favorite things that I wrote. I thought that would definitely be me and I would be the next person that went too soon. And that was a really scary realization for me at the time, you know?
villin: I respect the ability to funnel this sort of message and spirit into a piece of music, using the platform as both an acknowledgement of how life once was, but also as a vehicle to express how he wants to proceed with living in the present. Trying to move forward from a troubled past is the hard part, but when it fully aligns what communicates is a sense of authenticity, which has in and of itself, become part of the reward from Gifo’s own artistic process.
Gifo: I hope that people fuck with the music and hopefully it resonates with some people. I’ve been putting everything I can into the music and just giving people a good product. But, just being authentic in that process, too. Hopefully that translates—it has been, which is the most rewarding part.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]