Days after signing to one of the most famous music labels in the world, AR-AB traveled to Brooklyn to talk to me about his new deal, his influence in Philadelphia, his relationship with Cassidy, and more.
The North Philly entity walked into the basement studio with his entourage. Before sitting to interview with me, he made himself comfortable. He played a game of chess with Lorenzo, the studio manager. AR-AB won. According to Lorenzo, “it was down to the wire.”
If you’re not familiar with the rapper, he is one of the most notorious figures from the Commonwealth state. Approximately a decade ago, he entered the battle rap scene and joined Cassidy’s group: The Larsiny Family. Soon after in the summer of 2008, he released his debut mixtape, ‘Welcome to Trap Street’. Five years later in the midst of a healthy buzz, AR-AB turned himself into authorities. That year, Complex Magazine named him one of the ‘15 Unsigned Rappers Who Should Get a Deal After SXSW’. Two years before that, he survived ten gun shots. He has served time for drug trafficking (crack cocaine). In the past, he was linked to murder and other crimes.
Famously, Toronto’s flagship artist Drake mentioned his name in a diss record (“Back to Back”) for Meek Mill. To which he released his version; warning his fellow Philadelphian that he would send shooters his way. The “AR” in Abdul Ibrahim West’s name stands for Assault Rifle.
While those things are relevant to his character as a street rapper, Mr. West isn’t to be dehumanised. Like several individuals with troubled pasts, there is a softer side to experience. He was very comfortable and kind. When we sat next to one another, he held my phone and used my leg for elbow support. As a child in grade school, I lost a lot of my male friends to gun violence and the prison system. I felt like I interviewed someone from my past or my brother.
What it was like growing up in North Philly?
North Philly is probably one of the worst parts of Philly. Where I’m from — it’s sell drugs, carry guns, and shoot. That’s the mentality where I’m from.
Was it always like that?
It’s always been like that. You have different neighbourhoods in Philly. Some are known for selling drugs and getting money. Some neighbourhoods are known for robbing. My neighbourhood is known for shooting. When I rap, I talk all of that shooting stuff but in my neighbourhood, it’s like “So, we all do it.” If you see 20 guys around me from my neighbourhood, at least 18 of them have shot somebody. So it’s not like a big thing, it’s typical. They don’t praise me for that in my neighbourhood. My neighbourhood is like “AB raps or AB getting to some money.” The shooting stuff is only a big deal when I’m not in my neighbourhood.
Richardine: Do you see it changing?
AR-AB: Yes, I plan on changing my neighbourhood because they have never seen any success. I’m going to bring success to my neighbourhood.
Richardine: Good. How long have you been recording rap music?
AR-AB: Recording? I want to say it got serious in 2007 when I came home from prison. I just called Cassidy from the jail phone and was like “Yo, I’m going to do this.” I came home and I moved with him and after that, we were just trying to make it work.
Did you guys grow up together? Are you from the same hood?
AR-AB: Yeah, Cassidy is from North Philly but he moved when he was nine-years-old to the suburb part of Philly. Originally, he is from like three blocks up from me. I never really hung out with those guys but we all [went] to the same schools. Around a month before he went down for the murder charge, we were hanging out every day.
Richardine: Is he still present in your career now?
Richardine: Is North Philly the only place you have lived?
Richardine: Other than the shooting, what other stuff do you rap about or would like to rap about?
AR-AB: I don’t just rap about shooting. That’s my neighbourhood. I rap about street stuff, about selling drugs and all that. I mean, that’s all I know. I grew up in that environment. I also grew up Muslim though; I grew up in a very religious household. The block I grew up on is a crack block. You'[ll] see 100 crackheads on the block all day long. All the transvestites and prostitutes. My block was filled with them because that’s where the crack was at.
When you were coming up, which rappers did you listen to?
AR-AB: I grew up in a very religious household and we couldn’t even listen to music. I listened to music on the radio and stuff like that but I didn’t have any tapes until I was around 14-15. When I was old enough to get my own music, that’s when I started listening to it. DMX, Ma$e — stuff like that but when I really started listening to rap heavy, it was The Lox, Beanie Sigel — all that generation.
Richardine: Okay, and who are you listening to now?
AR-AB: I really don’t listen to rap like that now. I don’t really like the things they’re talking about now. It’s a commercial industry now and I’m not knocking it, get your money but that’s not how I grew up. I don’t really know anything about that. I know about being in the slums. That’s all I know is being in the slums. We all got guns on us and we’re trapping. That’s how we’re getting it. I don’t know about yachts, etc.
Richardine: Is that something you aspire to have?
AR-AB: Yeah, I would love to take my ‘hood on a yacht or in a mansion, or swimming in a pool. I would like to do that. Hopefully, if Allah wills, it will happen one day. I’m working right now to get us to that place.
Richardine: The situation with Birdman, can you speak on that? Like, how did you guys connect? What are you releasing this year?
AR-AB: What I can tell you is that I and Birdman did songs together. What I can tell you is that I got introduced to Birdman through Compton Menace. What I can tell you is, it’s about to be big. We are working hard. He is backing me 100%.
The record with Kevin Gates, how did that come about?
AR-AB: It came from me being down at SXSW. But I’ve talked to Kevin Gates a couple times before that. He’s a real nigga and he sees that I’m a real nigga, and we have some of the same beliefs. So when I saw him down there, we talked like “Man, come on I can help you out.”
Did you guys record it in a studio together?
AR-AB: No, we recorded it in his hotel room.
Can we talk about your style? As far as music goes, do you think you have influenced any of the young rappers in your area?
AR-AB: Yeah. I wouldn’t say my style influenced them. They see the clout I’m getting from this, the recognition, the money I’m getting. They see that and they love it. In my hood, they aren’t used to seeing that. They never saw anybody make it. Nowhere.
Richardine: How many projects have you released? And are there any collaborations that you’re looking forward to having?
AR-AB: I want to collab with anybody who can help me make more money or help my buzz grow. It doesn’t even matter but I have a couple of people I really really want to do a song with. And so far, I put out around seven mixtapes since 07-08.
Out of all of your songs, what is your favourite so far? Where do you think you were most vulnerable?
AR-AB: I think my most vulnerable song is called “2 Minutes;” I was talking about my mom. When I wrote those two, I was going through a tragic time. They came from the heart, and I was really letting my emotions out.
For those people who look up to you, the people who want to do some of the things you are doing like rapping or being a businessman, what kind of advice can you give to them?
Save your money and don’t get caught up with what everyone else is doing. People be in competition with other people. They’re always trying to catch up, and people go broke like that.
So basically, go at your own pace?
Yes, go at your own pace. I don’t care what this guy got. I like mine in cash or property.
Is there anything about you that people should know? Things they have gotten messed up in the past?
AR-AB: People think I’m just some type of mean, vicious, and violent person. I’m probably the nicest guy in my circle. The nicest, a lot of people don’t know that about me. You ask the women that know about me, they will say “AB is a sweetheart. He’s like the nicest guy I know” but when it comes to guys, I usually give them a harder way to go. I grew up with mothers, sisters, aunts, around a strong woman, so my respect for women is through the roof, through the moon. When I was shot up and couldn’t wipe myself, a woman did it. There are some strong women out here. Their love is different.
Richardine: Any music videos coming?
AR-AB: Yeah. I, Birdman, and Compton Menace are about to shoot a video.
Richardine: Are you doing a video for the song with you and Kevin Gates?
AR-AB: Yeah, that’s coming and I also have a single coming soon. There’s a big budget video for that, so it’s gonna be crazy.
Just to further express what I experienced, I asked his friends to share their thoughts about AR-AB. Each and every person replied with a genuine a response, in front of everyone.
Friend 1: He’s an honorable guy. One of the most genuine and sincere guys I know. Everybody think[s] he’s mean and all that but it’s just, if you’re not family then, you’re not with us.
F2: One thing I can say is, AB got a big heart. If he’s down for you, he will give you the shirt off his back, a place to stay, whatever. Because of that right there, I have a lot of respect for him. I’m older than him but he is always protecting me. He was one of those guys from the other part of the city who people were scared of. He was only 18-19 years old at the time, and the older guys I was with, were backing down from him.
AR-AB: (And I won the gun war with them.) Google my mixtape, ‘Who Harder Than Me’. I have all these new singles coming out. I could be a brain surgeon if I wanted to, but I choose the streets.
F3: How people look at AB when they see him on TV, he’s that guy but when you know him, he’s just the greatest dude. If you have a problem and he has nothing to do with it, he is still there and for that, he got all my loyalty. Anything the man asks me to do, that’s that.
F4: The new music is crazy. I think one of the best things about him, is him being the person he is. He won’t let the people he loves, do stupid things. He opens doors, so we don’t have to be in any of those places. He takes us away from trouble, so we don’t end up locked up or anything like that.
AR-AB: Before I got locked up, I used to go to the studio and the whole neighbourhood will come. It would be like 100 and something people in the studio with me. There was nobody out, standing on the block. So when I got locked up, I felt like was letting everyone down.
All images provided by the outstanding Nick Perry, a photographer from Orlando, Florida who is now based in Brooklyn, New York. See more of his mesmerizing work on his website. Special thanks to Roseville Music Group and !llmind for allowing me to interview AR-Ab at the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn headquarters.