Amid the 10-year anniversary of his KILT mixtape, Iamsu! spoke with Okayplayer about the project and HBK Gang’s impact on Bay Area rap.
Although Los Angeles is likely where one’s mind goes to when they think of California rap, Northern California has forever been a hub for inventive artistry through the rap game.
From a teenage Tupac releasing his first album and rap supergroups like the Hieroglyphics creating their own festival and record label, to the more popularly known pimping, slanging, and turfing that was introduced from Bay legends like Too $hort, E-40, and the entire Hyphy Movement, the San Francisco Bay Area has not only played a part in the success of transplant rappers who consider the place home, but has built a successful independent market for rappers, too.
In the 2010s, Iamsu! and HBK Gang became a part of that legacy with 2012’s seminal KILT, and rose to lead the region’s next wave in ways that have since added a new generation of voices, personalities, sounds and trends in their wake.
After emerging in 2012 with the hit single “Up!” — a track that reached national prominence and featured 50 Cent — Iamsu! and HBK have been shmoppily trendsetting their way to the top of the Bay Area’s vibrant scene. With their fun-loving lyricism, defined by a high-energy style of minimalist 808 production, their trademark brand has heavily shaped the past decade of rap, lifestyle, and fashion for Baydestrians — providing an undeniable Young California flare.
In their 10 year run, HBK has been responsible for a renaissance in Bay Area hip-hop that has ushered the rise of generational talents like Kehlani, P-Lo, Sage the Gemini, and G-Eazy — who have all either collaborated frequently or been officially listed under HBK at early stages in their careers.
Ten years later, they’re still doing their thing.
With his latest releases, Sudi and A Real Boy Story, the Richmond rapper Iamsu! continues to spit with the ease of a smooth veteran who has confidently established himself as a leading figure among today’s lyricists.
“HBK Gang we forever lit, I make a living off rap, word to Philthy Rich,” he says on Sudi standout “Flows,” a bar that simultaneously alludes to East Oakland rap legend, Rich, while repping for his hometown squad, the Heartbreak Gang.
Both EPs are six-track projects that play as odes to Su!’s origins; Sudi even features a cover image of the rapper attending Youth Radio in Berkeley as a teenager. In 2022, Su! is no longer an unknown teen. He’s a prolific artist who has carried the torch for an entire generation of Northern California talent.
But it all started when Sudan Ameer Williams — who would eventually become known as Iamsu! — enrolled at his local community college in Contra Costa, working as an after school educator, attending classes, and recording audio productions whenever he could scrape together free time as a busy student.
“A whole class of kids just remember me as Mr. Williams,” he joked during a phone call. “We [HBK Gang] were recording after school, in between classes, it was a team effort. It was a culmination. The intentions were to make something classic.”
Su! credits Chief, Jay Anthony, Kuya Beats, and Kuya’s younger brother, P-Lo — among others in his inner circle of East Bay collaborators — who would hit the studio and go to work around the clock back then. Su! was mostly interested in rap production at the time, influenced by “a gumbo pot of inspiration like Timbaland, The Neptunes, and those big department store producers at the time.”
The lyrics came later for him but it was the sound and vibe that he and HBK Gang were searching for in their beginning years. Over time, he was encouraged to step into the booth. Then, in the summer of 2012, Su! and HBK dropped KILT — a mixtape that raised the bar at the time for how it blended old school with new tradition. HBK’s style of tie-dye smiley-faced, cool-party-kid music arrived with this rejuvenating mix of Bay Area textures that echoed vibrations of mid-’00s Hyphy and early-’90s Mobb Music — the under appreciated predecessor to G-funk.
The rest is Heartbreak history.
“Man, I remember leaving school to go to the airport to perform in New York at the VICE offices, and doing interviews for The Fader and just being fresh in the scene. I was just growing up,” he recalled. “I look back at those years like fuck. But we manifested it. That was first level. After that, Suzy 6 Speed dropped [in 2012] and felt like I really arrived and I was hella more confident from there.”
Only one year after A$AP Rocky had dropped his viral debut mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP, and around the same time Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era released their debut project, 1999, Su! and HBK were assembling their own version of a West Coast movement that would represent the Bay in the way Tyler, the Creator’s Odd Future repped for LA at the time.
In an era of these major group projects driven by the rise of internet-fame and social media, Su! and HBK needed their own classic to put themselves (and the Bay) back on the map. They struck digital gold with 2012’s KILT (originally titled, The Take Off).
Standout tracks like “Over,” “A Milli,” and “Canceled Plans” introduced HBK’s obsession with swervy synthfunk, harmonized vocals, and playful lyrics, with the project ultimately catching the attention of future collaborators like E-40, YG, Clyde Carson, Problem, and Juvenile.
“It was so crazy because that was pre-streaming,” Su! said. “We’ll never know how far it could’ve gone today. But I look back on that as a dope moment. That gave us a platform and conviction to be rappers. I was secretly a backpacker and just wanted everyone to know I could rap. I ended up doing three mixtapes that year.”
Choosing to remain independent, Su! went on to release five studio albums (highlighted by his breakout debut, Sincerely Yours, in 2015), nine mixtapes, and 25 singles, including “Famous” featuring Dej Loaf and K Camp, “Only That Real” featuring 2 Chainz, and “Bout Me” featuring Wiz Khalifa. In addition, his closest brethren have ascended alongside him, becoming some of the most definitive artists of their time.
To honor this journey and the legacy of HBK, Su! is planning to re-release KILT this May. The project will include all the original tracks available for the first time as a digital stream, a format that hasn’t been made available until now.
Now, this decade’s artists are ready to carry the torch forward that Su and his Gang have been keeping lit. Acts like Lil Bean, Lil Pete, and Kaylin For Real For Real are just a few of the rising names who have HBK in their DNA, according to Sudi. It’s time for these young Heartbreakers to remix the game — and they have the necessary blueprint with KILT.
“People were shown how to create their own brand and push it,” Su! said. “[After that moment] more groups formed their own logos and a movement came from the HBK tree. I think it was the beats, the Rhodes piano, 808 percussions, a synth flute, a little bass, the core progression that gave the Bay that base element, that melodic sound. Now they have that strategy to build on. They’ll add their own shit and that comes out every day.”
Alan Chazaro is the author of This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and Notes from the Eastern Span of the Bay Bridge (Ghost City Press, 2021). He has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, Oaklandside, SFGATE, 48Hills, and other publications, and is on Twitter and IG being a useless pocho millennial @alan_chazaro.