Kembe X is just like the rest of us, a human being who struggles with mental illness. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, Kembe has battled it. Born and raised in a small suburb of Chicago’s South Side called South Holland, Dikembe has long treated music as his therapy, an outlet to articulate his deepest thoughts and feelings.
Recently, he released his new project I Was Depressed Until I Made This, a title he chose specifically so people wouldn’t ask him why he chose that title. While it may seem self-explanatory, the album was merely an outlet for him to let go and do what he loves most in this world, make music. At age 13, Kembe was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, yielding trying moments and flashbacks he touches on throughout the project. On “Voices,” he sings on the chorus: “Voices in my head, push me to the edge / I didn’t take my meds, smokin’ dope instead.”
The musicality in these records is spectacular, pairing live instruments and hard-hitting production with the message he delivers. Kembe’s ability to convey his story in such a visceral way could be one of the reasons that lead to his joining the TDE family. The Chicago artist became friends with Isaiah Rashad over the internet and eventually moved to LA with him when Zay was brought into the fold at Top Dawg. The crazy part is SZA lived in their house, too — along with about seven other people.
Kembe X arrived at The Hundreds headquarters in high spirits, surrounded by close friends. While he may have just got kicked out of his ex-girlfriend’s house, he didn’t let it affect his mood. Although he admits to thinking about the recent incident with his ex on the car ride over, the “Scoreboard” rapper accepts life for what it is — he is blessed, humbled, and grateful to be where he is.
What was it like growing up in South Holland?
Once you pass the Altgeld Gardens to the projects, you go through this place called Riverdale, then you go through Dalton, then you’re in South Holland. I was pretty sheltered growing up. About 70 percent of the time, I was with my mom because my parents were separated. I was going to church, after school shit, basketball practice, football practice, baseball practice, church and repeat. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap. With my dad, he had all these properties on the Westside in the hood. All his tenants were Section 8 tenants, that was his hustle. He flipped properties, renovated them, got them picked up for Section 8. I spent a lot of time over there.
I’d be scared when I was little and my dad would be like, “No Kembe, you can’t be scared of people who look like you. Just because it’s not as nice as where you’re from, speak to people and be nice. If there’s ever a problem, I’ll handle it.” When my dad was doing really good, he’d spoil me. But he gave me more context. He’d let me listen to anything, watch any movie. My world view was shaped by the amount of time I spent with him. I went to private schools until I was a sophomore in high school, then ended up dropping out when I was a junior.
Why did you drop out?
Honestly, because I went to four schools in two semesters.
Were you a bad kid?
I wouldn’t say I was a bad kid, I was just a very passive student. I never did bad in school but I never did my homework. As soon as I started liking girls at 11-years-old, my hormones switched up. I started becoming a class clown. I asked questions. I was an inquisitive kid. Teachers always said that about me but they’d always get on me about: “you in the real world, you have to do things you don’t want to do.”
I was also stubborn. ”Why am I at school for 10 hours if I’m about to go home and keep doing school?” I never got that through my head. The first school I left because I wanted to play baseball and my GPA was too low, so I went to another school. That school was like a daycare, it was five teachers and 200 students. I learned all of the gang shakes, saw fights every day. I made some of my best friends there. That’s when I really started spending more time in the city, my first school in the city on 49th and Cottage.
But my mom wasn’t happy with the school. Then, I went to my first public school, that shit was worse than the school in the hood. That’s when I found out the nature of where I lived for real. Because I always saw it as the suburbs but I didn’t realize I was being sheltered from what it actually was. I saw fights all of the time but it’d be grown ass men from the neighborhood beating up 16-year-olds with bricks and shit. N*ggas from other schools breaking into the school, beating up kids at lunch. It was a lot of fighting and n*ggas on crutches because they just got shot.
For me, I didn’t care anymore. I stopped being shocked.. At that point, I didn’t take school seriously. It was all about the drama, I was always trying to get out of class. I got a lot of in-school suspensions for leaving class, walking around the school, finding my friends or leaving outside the building.
When did you start rapping?
When I was 15, right before my junior year. I started rapping that summer of 2010. I went back to another private school in the city, but they held me back a grade. I told my mom I was going back, she’s like “okay if you really want to take this seriously, let’s go to a good school.” I went to De La Salle, that’s where I met Chance. At one of the football games, Him and his best friend Justin Cunningham were passing out mixtapes when they still went by Instrumentality. In November, I remember being like “fuck I’m not about to stay in school if they’re about to make me do this shit again,” so I asked if I could test out because I knew I could test out. My GPA was a C-, they’re like “no your GPA is too low. If you test out, it’ll lower our image for standard of difficulty.” It’d make them look bad, I’m like “fuck ya’ll.”
I told my mom I was done. At that point, a whole bunch of shit had happened at my house. My dad had came and left. Just a very rocky home and I think my mom had gotten used to me not going to school. I told her no matter what, I was going to get my GED as soon as I’m old enough — which I did. I got my GED a week after I turned 17. Two months later, I dropped my first mixtape that got on Forbes Best Free Albums of 2011. It was a fast turnaround from when I started rapping.
What’s your relationship with Chance like?
We’re definitely cool. I’m one of those people where I could be around somebody for a long period of time. We don’t fall out, we just don’t speak much anymore. But whenever we do link, it’s good. If I ran into Chance somewhere and reached out to shake his hand, he’d give me a hug like “what’s wrong with you?” If you know my parents and I know your parents,, I consider you family. It’s mutual.
What was it like seeing his career blow up?
Watching him blow up was very inspirational and surreal. Because I was with him a lot in 2012, and I’d never seen anybody blow up. I’d seen people get popping and start bubbling, but I’ve never seen anybody become that famous.
Did you kind of aspire to that? I’m guessing you wanted to be an artist on that caliber.
Kind of, yeah. A lot of shit I do and the way I see things is patterned after Chance. More so philosophically, though. I’m not saying I do what I saw Chance do, maybe the way I used to perform at a certain period of time. When I was on that tour, I was very inspired by how I feel Chance exudes his energy and sends it to people.
Which tour was that?
The Hippie Sabotage tour where I sent you that picture [rocking a striped The Hundreds tee]. The main thing with Chance is his attitude of “I want to do this.” He’ll have a really big idea for something he wants to do, so he’s going to find the biggest person he can ask. If that person says no, he doesn’t scale his idea way back, he just goes an inch down to what’s the next best thing. Usually him being that ambitious works out very well for him. That really inspired me at the beginning of this year, how I was moving and reaching out to people.
What made you move to Los Angeles?
I moved out here with Isaiah Rashad. I’ve known Isaiah Rashad since 2010, we met through Youtube comments. [Laughs] Before I put out my first mixtape, I put all my songs on YouTube and they’d get 700 views. He came across them like “yo, I fuck with your music. I respect your opinion, I want to send you my shit.” This was before I was with Chance all the time. I didn’t have any peers in music who inspired me or made me feel like “fuck, I have to get better.”
I heard his shit like “dude is way better than me.” That’s how I felt at the time. I told him that. This was the first shit I heard from someone I’ve never heard of, that made me feel like I needed to step my shit up. I also gave him critique like “you sound a little bit like J. Cole.” [Laughs] He appreciated that in me. We started talking on the phone two or three times a week for an hour or two at a time.
What were those conversations like?
Just about music, fashion, the culture, where we’re from. Zay’s whole thing was “I don’t care about fashion.” A lot of people I’m around and get along with are opinionated people. A big dynamic of our friendship is that we disagree about a lot of shit — but we go into detail about why. It helps develop perspective.
I was recording and Jean Deaux, another dope ass artist, walked into the studio with her phone and handed it to me: it was Isaiah. This was May 2013, he’s like “bruh, you going to do this with me?” He’s like “man I just met with Dave Free from TDE, I’ma sign next week.”
I was in Chicago. Kendrick’s my favorite rapper of all-time so I’m like, “hell yeah, I’m tryna do that.” It didn’t happen for six months. Then one day randomly, I was laying in the back of my manager at the time Script’s truck. Shout out to Script, we’re driving back from a festival in Detroit and I was sleeping in the trunk. I woke up to a call and a text from this LA number: “Yo, this Moosa champ. What up champ? I’m trying to fly you out tomorrow.”
Just out of the blue?
Out of the blue. I had given up on even going to LA. It’s not that I wasn’t going to go, I just wasn’t going to be concerned with whether it’ll happen. Because it’s kind of a tease. I was supposed to come out here for a month and just ended up staying. Shout out to Top Dawg, he let me stay in the house for a long time. I lived with SZA, Isaiah, Matt Miller (Zay’s manager), Chris Calor, and The Antidote, who produced that joint SZA has with Rihanna on ANTI [“Consideration”].
What was the energy with SZA being the only female in the house?
That’s a really good question because it was a lot of us in the house. It was a three bedroom with 10 people. She was there 65 percent of the time, always going back and forth home. When I moved here, I got into astrology and numerology. I’d go to her to talk about it because nobody else wanted to talk about it. It was cool. She’s really, really, really nice.
Were you not used to that kindness?
Back then, I wasn’t as sociable as I am now. I was surprised she thought I was cool.
What did TDE see in you?
What do you mean what did they see in me? What does everyone see in me? Greatness. [Laughs] I’m tight… humbly. I’m good at what I do. Once I started to develop a stronger work ethic and vision, it started to make more sense to keep me around. Even not being signed, I’ve been around for so long that I earned a spot. I was able to do a lot of shit for a long time just being affiliated. I wouldn’t even tell people that, people just knew.
What made you name your project I Was Depressed Until I Made This?
I wanted this title to be very straightforward. I picked the name so people wouldn’t have to ask. It’d be so self-explanatory, I was convinced that people weren’t going to ask but it’s a really good title so people want to know. Essentially, I was getting drunk as fuck all of the time. I was doing mad drugs and not realizing it. When I was trying to connect these songs to create a concept, all the shit I’m talking about was stemming from the issues I’m trying to figure out. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression when I was 13 or 14-years-old and I rejected it.
It’s not that I don’t feel depressed or don’t have stretches of feeling bad, I just don’t identify with feeling bad — because I know I’m going to feel good again eventually. I have this thing where I don’t identify with my feelings. When I’m happy, I’m not like “oh my life is happy.” When I’m sad or depressed, I don’t just feel like my life is sadness and torture. I try to stay in the middle and remind myself if I stay centered, I’ll be able to handle happiness without taking it too far. I’ll be able to handle being down without taking it too far.
What makes you happy? What is happiness to you?
Happiness is an emotion. Laughing is the most important part of my life. We have a lot of serious real conversations, it’s sprinkled into everything but most of what we’re doing is joking. Having a good sense of humor about things and not taking myself too seriously allows me to be okay. I don’t ask myself “am I happy?” I ask myself “am I okay?” Me counting my blessings, praying, talking to God, taking time for myself just relaxing, that makes me feel happy. When I think of happy, I think of joy. Doing a whole bunch of dope ass shit. Honestly, getting drunk and being faded is still fun.
Were you nervous at all to share such a personal part of your story?
No. I get a lot of relief from saying all the shit I’m scared to say, or that’s supposed to be embarrassing. Because you find out you’re not alone. That’s my whole purpose: finding out that I’m not alone and also showing other people they’re not alone. I have this image in my head of what it means to be an artist. I’m on the stage and everyone else on earth is in the crowd. They’re sitting down, I speak my truth and say “if you feel me, stand up.” Everyone’s not going to stand up, but way more people than I’d expect will stand up. That’s my motivation.
Me getting kicked out of my ex’s house, I’m thinking about it on my way over here. Do I want to talk about this? Do I want to tweet about this? That’s really what’s going on in my life. I made a song about it two days later, one of my favorite songs I made. Since I’m nervous about talking about it, it’s probably one of the most important things I could say because it’s true. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. That’s my approach, I’m the type of person that will speak up about something.
Why are Kendrick and Young Thug your favorite artists?
At this point in my artistry, it has a lot to do with their voices. Kendrick is the storytelling, the theatrics and the execution of concepts. Young Thug is more the blunt, eccentric shit that he says, then the shit he does with his voice, too. Young Thug is a spirit animal, whereas Kendrick is more a role model.
What is your favorite Thugger song or line?
Probably “Killed Before.” Right now, it’s “Me Or Us” off the Beautiful Thugger Girls album.
Nothing off So Much Fun?
He’s my favorite artist, I could go through a long list of songs. From So Much Fun, I love “Bad Bad Bad,” I love “Hot” obviously. I love “Cartier Gucci Scarf.” I love when he does that fucking Cookie Monster rap he did on “Harambe.” It was right after I moved out here when he dropped “Danny Glover” and “Stoner,” “Danny Glover” especially. I just realized how many of his songs are love songs. It’s a lot of emotional vulnerability in his songs. On “Danny Glover,” he’s like, “Okay, cool, okay, bool, I love her / I’ma save her, yes, like Danny Glover” — that shit’s hard to me. I love that shit.