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EST Gee Is #UpNow

Before becoming one of the biggest industry breakout stars of the last year, EST Gee was George Stone III, a freshman scholarship football star at Xavier High.
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This article previously appeared on Audiomack World.

Before emerging as the first major street rapper from Louisville, before becoming one of the biggest industry breakout stars of the last year, EST Gee was George Stone III, a freshman scholarship football star at Xavier High. The all-boys Catholic school powerhouse recruited the future all-state lineman for his gridiron prowess but immediately saddled him with the soft bigotry of low expectations. From the first day of classes, the administration placed Gee on a special education track, alongside most athletes raised in public housing.

The prejudice didn’t stop him from transcending these perceived limitations. Given the choice to pick an elective, the teenager steeled in the now-razed Clarksdale projects chose creative writing. Until then, Gee had never been much of a reader or writer, but his innate gift for words was evident.

“It was what tapped me into being able to write music,” remembers the hulking 6’1 rapper, who still looks ready to clothesline a slippery running back.

Most teachers treated the lettermen like dumb jocks, but Gee’s creative writing instructor saw artistic talent behind the stoic veneer. She continually asked about his family and where he lived, insisting that he talk to the school’s counselors.

“They told me: ‘Everybody thinks you’re so smart. Why you don’t act like it?’” Gee, 27, says with the solemnity of someone who rarely forgets slights.

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It’s directly after a photoshoot at East Hollywood’s Milk Studios. All the trappings of a young rap phenomenon are omnipresent. Among other blinding neckwear, a diamond “G” chain droops, worth nearly the down payment on a small Kentucky farm. His wrists are covered in a diamond watch and diamond bracelets thick as pythons. In the next room, a large entourage orbits the business of being EST Gee: management, videographers, friends from Louisville.

In that bluegrass turf of Hunter S. Thompson and the Kentucky Derby, Gee honed his rap skills and mastered the art of hustling, while his ability to crack skulls on the football field helped him receive an education at an elite college prep school. Had he languished in the subpar public schools on the Southside, it’s unclear whether he would’ve been pushed to discover his lyrical streak. It was in this creative writing class where he received the assignment that allowed him to understand his possibility.

“We were supposed to write short stories, a memoir, or a poem. And I chose to do poems because it was the shortest thing,” Gee says.

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The collection of 20 poems was called The Diary of Frankenstein, which retold the story of Frankenstein from the monster’s perspective.

“It was really about myself,” Gee explains. “The villagers looked at Frankenstein’s monster as something so bad, but he didn’t ask to be there. He didn’t ask for none of this. He just woke up. I was writing poems about murder, robbery, shit that was really going on outside.”

The teacher hailed it as brilliant and anthologized it in the school’s literary magazine. She even reached out to a performing arts school in New York, who wanted him to contribute to one of their publications. But at that time, football and the streets weighed more heavily on his mind.

“After that class, I started saying rhymes to myself, and it made me look at things in a more detailed way,” Gee says. “The teacher helped me see that less is more. I liked the idea that the less words you use, the more powerful it becomes. She showed me the story, ‘Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.’ I loved that story.”

Past was prologue, but not for nearly a decade. After graduating from high school, Gee accepted a football scholarship to Indiana State, then transferred to Sacramento City, before finally finishing his amateur career at Texas’ Stephen F. Austin. Connections forged on the field helped spur his career in black market distribution. Skipping the petty hustling phase, he says that he was able to get “everything you could ever want, for cheaper than any price you can get.” In Louisville, it created cancerous envy and regional infamy.

This dual existence crashed in 2016. Shortly before graduation, Gee dropped out of college. Soon after, he was indicted on drug trafficking charges, which led to four months on house arrest. Until then, he’d never seriously considered rapping. But one of his first legitimate attempts produced “New Number,” a drugs, guns, and money anthem that dominated the streets of Louisville. Around the same time, he half-heartedly attempted to play in the Canadian Football League; but by then, his rap fate had been secured.

Of course, security is relative. After filming a music video in September of 2019, Gee was shot five times, causing him to nearly lose all vision in his left eye. The next year, Gee’s mother died of leukemia. The following week, his brother was murdered. It’s no surprise that you still see shades of the trauma-scarred teenager who wrote poems from the vantage point of Frankenstein’s monster.

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In the wake of these tragedies, Gee released a pair of 2020 mixtapes whose titles captured his numbed state of mind: Ion Feel Nun and I Still Don't Feel Nun. They catapulted him onto the shortlist of modern-day street rap people’s champs. In January, he signed to Yo Gotti’s CMG imprint. Shortly thereafter, a guest verse on Lil Baby’s “Real As It Gets” landed him on the Billboard Hot 100. But the true coronation arrived last month, when Gee’s major-label debut Bigger Than Life Or Death reached No. 7 on the album charts.

Bigger Than Life Or Death anoints him one of the most cold-blooded Southern voices since his earliest inspiration, Boosie Badazz. Like a young Boosie in Baton Rouge, EST Gee chronicles the dirt and medicated pain of Louisville, outlining the specific perimeters of his territory (“from Newburg Road to Naomi”), the eternal suspicion from police (“All them murders in my city, police put my face on ‘em”), and the hatred and fake love endemic in a small metropolitan area that he brought to national renown. With a snarl worthy of Pusha-T, he snaps, “I’m the one who make sure that that t-shirt get a face on it.” And this is all just in the first few bars of “Real Reason.”

The cameos on Bigger Than Life Or Death double as a statement of purpose. There are those few who Gee views as his legitimate peers (Lil Baby, Pooh Sheisty, Rylo Rodriguez, and 42 Dugg), and the legends he looked up to in the half-generation that immediately preceded him (Future, Young Thug, Yo Gotti, Lil Durk).

While its lyrics rarely stray far from murder, the dope game, and flexing, Gee blitzes with a ferocious intensity, the rap equivalent of a QB sack causing a Grade 4 concussion. No syrupy melodicism nor pop concessions are anywhere to be found. Instead, Gee bludgeons with a ruthlessness reminiscent of the classic mixtape era. You can almost picture buying a bootleg copy of one of his CDs from a man hawking them outside of a liquor store.

In conversation, Gee is wary and observant, but with a curiosity lurking beneath his hardened temperament. He is careful to reveal only so much, and always on his own terms. Smiles are rare, but you sense that he’s generous to the ever-decreasing few that he trusts. The monster will always remain; he’s aware that it’s partially the source of his power. But you also get a sense of a deeper humanity, someone who feels tremendous pain, but understands how to control it and keep it concealed. Someone eternally attuned to the strength of silence, the value of symbols, and the need to stay true.

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What’s your first memory?

I remember bad shit, you feel me? I keep on thinking of bad shit. When I was a little kid, like three or four, I used to cry a lot, ‘cause I used to want my momma. My momma was on some gangsta shit too, though. She had me when she was 22. My daddy was 20.

I wanted my momma a lot. I always remember her dropping me off and tricking me. Like, “I’m about to go park the car and…” you know what I’m saying. I used to be scared of the dark. Real bad. I remember waking up at my granny’s house with a house full of people, and I needed to go to the bathroom. I was walking down the hallways, just yelling, “I love you, I love you,” the whole time in the hall. Hearing noise made me feel more comfortable.

How would you describe yourself as a kid?

I always wanted more than what I saw. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be around there. I’d do anything to get away from over there. I knew I didn’t want to do no regular shit. I could never see myself going to work.

What was the most valuable thing you learned from your dad?

He just taught me how to not be affected by nothing. Like fuck it. He wasn’t no softy. People be thinking I be tripping [because I don’t show my emotions], but that’s just how I’m programmed to be. My daddy, ain’t nothing you can say to make him break. You’re going to see what he wants you to see.

Because of that, do you feel like it’s important to be selective of what you reveal? And how do you think that contradicts the oversharing of modern life?

When you share everything like that, it loses value. The mystery of life is the most important thing. People shouldn’t know and see everything. People want to be amazed and kept in the dark to some degree. That’s why they end movies the way they do.

When you expose yourself, you lose something. When you hold something dear to your heart, if you cherish it enough to protect it, you need to keep it away from the light.

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Does internet criticism bother you, especially in contrast to coming from a small city where if someone said something online there would be potential repercussions?

I live in the real world. If you’re from Louisville, and you know me well enough to where you can have something to say about me, then I don’t have to say nothing back. ‘Cause if you know, you know. You don’t need to do all the extra stuff when you’re confident. That’s why they’re fishing. They want to see if they can get by with it.

I don’t need to get by with nothing. Everybody knows about me. I just want to rap.

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You had a period where you were dealing with the insanity of the American criminal justice system. What exactly happened there?

I got indicted. I had the worst circuit court judge. There are eight circuit courts [in the region], and there’s only one you don’t want to get. My lawyer told me if I had any other judge but him, everything would be straight. And I end up getting that one [bad] judge. So they put me on house arrest for maybe 100 days. And the first offer they made was for 10 years. Like, what? Ain’t no way. He was trying to get me the maximum sentence.

I had to get letters of recommendation. The judge let it drop from a class C felony to a class D felony, which made me eligible for probation because it was a first-time offense. I got sent to a diversion program. I took the plea on that. Boom, pled guilty. Instead of the 12 pounds they caught me with, they dropped it down to five pounds. I don’t even know how they can do that?

They probably just took it and put it back out on the street.

And that’s when I was just starting to put my music out. And it was going crazy while I was on house arrest. Everyone already knew me from the streets. Everybody know Lil Gee. But I couldn’t go to no clubs or nothing because I had on an ankle monitor.

This [judge] was like, “I still want you to serve an additional 30 days in jail as a trial period. If you have any misconduct, then we won’t suspend your sentence. You’re going to start serving your five years.” I’m like, “What the fuck?” I couldn’t believe this shit. But my lawyer’s just going right along with it. Even though I had already did 100 something days on the watch, he still wanted me to go to jail, just because. For 30 days. And I was about to have a baby. It was a bad time. I felt like they were trying to put me in a position where I had to lose. But I’m not losing.

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What was it like being in county for 30 days while you were bubbling as the hottest rapper on the streets?

Folks just wanted to see if I was really like that. But they knew I did it by myself. Everybody was fucking with that. Everybody loved me at one point. They still do though. It’s going to be hard for somebody to do it how I did it. It’s 100 percent organic street shit from Louisville, Kentucky. They chose me… The streets are going to let you know. You don’t gotta say nothing. They fuck with me because I came in looking like a rapper already.

Was writing about the death of your brother and mother a form of catharsis for you?

Writing didn’t help me express my pain. I’m just telling you what was going on. I’ll let you interpret it. I won’t say how I feel about it. My mom and brother are the reason I’m like this right now. I’ve got favors in the universe.

People who died, they really loved me for me. I didn’t have to convince them. I got that type of energy floating around. So I feel like shit’s going in my favor, and I paid my dues. I did what I was supposed to do. I never did no bitch-ass shit. Never. I know it could not have turned out like this. I could have died. I could have gone to jail. I sacrificed for this. So I’m supposed to be right here.

You got shot five times, right?

Hell yeah.

Did you think you were going to die?

Yep.

What was running through your head in those moments?

I was ready to jump out. Just fall out and die. [Rico] was like, “No you ain’t. You got shit to do.” I’m like, “I’m dying, I’m telling you.” Rico isn’t a spiritual church type of n***a, but he just started talking to God. We were riding to the hospital and we got there so fast.

I remember going to the hospital door, I fell out the car and went crawling to the door, trying to wave [for help]. They ain’t see me at first, and Rico went mashing on, and they went out and got me. I asked the doctor, “Am I finna die?” And he was like, “I hope not.”

In your opinion, what do you see as the overarching concept behind Bigger Than Life Or Death?

It’s just telling you what’s going on. And what I got going on right now is bigger than life or death. Can’t nothing affect me or stop me. Even if I die, that ain’t gonna do nothing but make me bigger. I’m not dying until I make a hundred million, make that two hundred million.

Do you believe in God?

Yeah. Everybody believes in God whether they admit it or not.

What does God look like to you?

I’m not really caught up in the physical. I see God as somebody who is a great critical thinker. He had all this shit planned and processed out. I try not to fight the natural. You gotta just follow the energy.

I talk to God regularly. I don’t try to be too formal with it. He knows my heart. Everybody does that, whether they talk to their conscience or whether they consider it God.

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What do you think about before you go to sleep?

A hundred million dollars. Tomorrow, I need to feel myself closer to making a hundred million.

What would you want to do with the hundred million dollars?

Just want to take that stress of money away from people, so they can just be their true selves. So they can be working toward shit they really want to do. Reaching their full potential, whatever it is that they want to be.

How do you see yourself embodying the spirit of Louisville?

It’s something new for people to look at and see. People want that. People have been seeing all these LAs and Houstons and Detroits. They been seeing all that shit for a long time. So this is something fresh. And it’s real, and it’s raw, and it’s rough. It ain’t sweet. It’s not what the industry is known to be getting.

Photography by Raven B. Varona for Audiomack. Shot on location at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Interview by Jeff Weiss.

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