Inside a spacious barber shop on an unassuming block in his hometown, Saviii 3rd, the upstart rapper from Long Beach’s East side, bounces out of a chair, still swiveling.
Saviii, now 24, looks like the smallest player on a college football team, all lean muscle and intensity. The bandana that he often ties in the front, the way 2Pac did, is understandably missing.
Saviii has recently distinguished himself as one of the most magnetic young stars in hip-hop, someone able to make grim stories motivational and upbeat songs sound like they have teeth. He’s here with six or eight friends, all of whom look new-cut crisp, none of whom are wearing jewelry comparable to Saviii’s. The rapper is quick to tell me that one of the joys his burgeoning success brings is the ability to affect “the faces on all your friends, the smiles and shit.” He prizes “little things: I’ll have a pocket full of money and pull up in the turning lane and get some flowers from the Mexican right there and take them to my mama and my granny. If I do those little things, they can make a big difference.”
The conversation ping-pongs from new music to old, to the changing block the barbershop sits on, to the way Los Angeles and Long Beach gang politics are represented in the mainstream. This is right when another young Crip rapper, Mid-City’s Blueface, has seized the nation’s attention, setting internet comment sections on fire with debates about his deliberately off-kilter flow and cartoonish persona. Blueface had recently signed to a West coast division of Cash Money Records, the legendary label from New Orleans. When we meet, Saviii is signed there as well.
Someone points out that across the country, most people still think gang allegiances out here can be reduced to red or blue clothing. This, of course, is not the case: for decades now, L.A. area gangs have also expressed their affiliation through merchandise from pro sports teams. Saviii talks about this in general terms, then turns specific. “The crazy thing is, that hat you’re wearing…” at this, everyone assembled — barber included — cracks into laughter. I’m a transplant from Minneapolis who grabbed a Twins hat on my way out the door for this interview; Twins hats, with their interlocking TC insignia, are worn by the Rolling 20s Crips. By contrast, the set Saviii frequently claims on records, the Baby Insane Crips, wear Cleveland Indians and L.A./Oakland Raiders gear. As Saviii points this out, one of his friends jogs over to drape a Raiders starter jacket over my chair, facing the window.
We’re now decades removed from the gang wars that were sensationalized in the national press during the latter half of the ‘80s — and led to the nakedly racist gang-code laws used to lock up or extend prison sentences of Black and Brown Angelenos to this day. Saviii notes that his experience with the Crips has been about brotherhood and creativity: “We start the trends: lingo, dressing, all this shit. [Outsiders] don’t get how we wanna express ourselves. It’s really just us being us.” But he also acknowledges a lingering danger. Later on, when I ask him if he feels more safe now that he’s gotten a deal and the money and attention that comes with it, or if he feels like those things have made him more of a target, he treats the question as a rhetorical one. “Who knows who wants me dead? I’m not worried about that.”
Long Beach has the idyllic beaches from the tourism brochures, but much of the city — especially as you drift up from the coast — is dogged by the same external forces that gnaw at much of L.A. County: aggressive gentrification and displacement, over-policing, and pollution that hangs heavily, mostly away from the white neighborhoods.
Saviii grew up here, between his parents’ homes. His mother (“Mom’s just a hustler — never really seen her with a job or nothing”) played Carl Thomas, Musiq Soulchild, R. Kelly around the house. Plenty of oldies, plenty of slow jams. His father, a musician and producer in his own right, would throw barbecues and play the requisite Snoop records. Saviii says he “heard everything” growing up, where “growing up” ends around the age of seven. That’s when he heard Dr. Dre’s 2001. More specifically: that’s when he heard Dr. Dre’s 2001, figured out how to access e-sharing websites on his parents’ computer, downloaded the instrumental for “The Next Episode,” and wrote to it. When Saviii tells me this anecdote, he’s a little annoyed that he can’t remember how the rhyme went.
From there he lived on LimeWire, downloading the records that shaped rap fans of his generation (Thug Motivation 101, everything Lil Wayne touched, etc.) and any instrumentals he could get his hands on.
Rap was at first a private pursuit. He was writing to beats on his own, not showing anybody or recording finished songs. The first time he put together something resembling a proper record was the summer of 2009, right after his freshman year at Long Beach Poly. Saviii’s friend, Goon, had built enough of a buzz as a rapper to score some beats from JHawk, the producer from Leimert Park who was a key architect of jerkin’ music –– the playful, minimal sound that swept L.A. around the turn of the last decade, and was defined in large part by the dances it facilitated. (At one point while he tells me this story, Saviii looks at me very seriously and says “I never danced.”) Goon went to jail. Saviii and some friends, including Goon’s little brother, took one of those beats and made a track. Saviii wrote not only his own verse, but the song’s hook; when it came time to record the latter, he couldn’t get it right. So he passed the lyrics to a friend, who laid them himself. “We was kidding around,” he says, but “then everybody clung to the hook. Nobody knew I wrote it. So it was like a personal fun fact for myself.”
The next step in most origin stories goes like: Then he bought his own mic, worked hard, promoted himself, and made it big. But that’s not what happened to Saviii — he was interrupted. A few months after he recorded that first song, he was knocked for armed robbery and sent to a juvenile boot camp “way far in the mountains.” He had wanted to take another option laid out by the judge — a felony and house arrest — but his parents insisted he do what he could to keep it off his record. “They were looking out for my future,” he says. “You know me, I was a young hothead trying to get back to the streets.” He was at that camp way far in the mountains for six months. He filled up composition book after composition book. When he came home, he switched to a high school in Carson, but bore down on the music, making his first solo track and, when the feedback for that was overwhelmingly positive, a whole mixtape.
While the songs themselves had a romantic pull for Saviii, he realized quickly that the machinery around them would have to be cold, efficient, and built by him. Online platforms offered the opportunity to dump whatever half-finished or ill-conceived creative project into the ether, but he saw that he needed to slow down and pay for whatever little edges he could get, and to teach himself what couldn’t be bought. “I knew I couldn’t make my own mixtape covers anymore,” he says. “I couldn’t go to just any studio. There were vital necessities that I needed in order to elevate. I took those steps: the video camera, professional photos, even the way I posted things [on social media].” Money comes slow and recognition even slower. He didn’t waver. “It was my hunger that kept me going. I wanted it bad.”
That might sound pat, but “hunger” is the first adjective you’d reach for to describe Saviii’s music. You hear it in “Another Day,” his breakthrough hit from 2018. He starts with what sounds like an off-hand lament:
“I’m like, ‘Damn cuz, the spot’s gettin’ hot’ / I can’t trust the homegirls, they be fuckin’ on the opps / Eliminate my enemies with shots / It’s a jungle when we rumble on that 2-100 block.”
But by the time the first verse is over — this is after he’s rapped “Now my niggas goin’ stupid, ‘cause I’m tellin’ all our story” and, in the video, turned to face his friends, who raise their arms in the air — you realize that that shrugged complaint is actually the hook, that Saviii is going to bring this level of venom to everyday gripes, that he’s decided the homegirls fucking on the opps is a sort of Shakespearean offense, which of course it is. He raps about flocking instead of wearing khakis to job interviews and pulling up to stores where everybody understands his tattoos.
“Another Day,” like much of Saviii’s music that’s been released so far, is the product of another incarceration. In September 2017, he was released after doing four years for a burglary conviction. While inside, Saviii wrote this and countless other songs to beats he could only hear in his head. (The second verse of “Another Day” was written to a memorized version of the Nipsey Hussle and Game song “They Roll,” which you can tell by the cadence and which is why Saviii opens his verse with “Grey Converse, nigga” where Nip had opened his: “Blue Converse, nigga.”) The song was recorded at a crossroads in Saviii’s life (“At that moment, when I got out of jail, it was like I either do this music, or — that’s my only option”). It’s also a celebration of his East Long Beach neighborhood, and his close-knit circle. In the video he’s bare-chested, draped in gold, and then he’s wearing Raiders and Indians shirts like all of his friends. It’s not his only video to feature the interlocking street signs for 21st St. and Locust Ave., but it’s the only one where he perches on top of them so menacingly.
He often peppers his videos with aerial shots of Long Beach, which show smog and sprawl and suffering but almost never the ocean.
This is the “Batter Up” video. There are pit bulls and iced-out Indians chains. There are custom baseball jerseys and Ziploc bags of weed clamped in front teeth and aluminum bats and stoic young men ignoring beautiful young women to wave gray or blue rags at the camera. Sometimes it’s in black and white. The hook lapses into a group chant, but the bridge that comes after is the most entrancing element of Saviii’s music: a strange, sung passage that’s tightly constructed and sounds like death. The top comment on the YouTube page is “hook so dam hard boi sound like a demon.”
While the tone of these records is furious, there is a pained streak that underscores nearly everything. One of Saviii’s most arresting songs is “One of Them Nights,” which sneers and swaggers all while being an ode to male friendship: buying hotel rooms for friends who have nowhere to stay. In the video he crouches on the roofs of houses and stalks across the machines in a laundromat, all while rapping — in a scowl — about how hurt he was to see his friends go to prom without him. But then he’s shifting the stakes to being stuck on 55th with no gun on him, or putting himself in the hotel-room-less position by dropping, out of nearly nowhere, this stunning scene:
“I say ‘I’m waiting on a ride’ / She knowin’ that I got pride / Gave me a plate and blanket and told me to get inside.”
Saviii is the kind of rapper whose work is so urgent as to seem like it comes directly from the id, but is really interested with tracing all that id’s ripple effects through his life and his social circles, and in the ways he’s tried to curb it to stay loyal/get money/survive. His recent mixtape, Snowboy 2, filters all of that tense-jawed energy through his warping melodies. The second half of the tape in particular is a masterclass: the stretch from the Shordie Shordie-aided “Walkin Licc” through the end is slinking, snarling, mercenary.
When Saviii broke through, it seemed as if rap in L.A. County was entering a new golden age. The Watts-bred 03 Greedo was synthesizing sounds from here and from Baton Rouge to make music that was paranoid but pop; Drakeo the Ruler, from South Central, was turning under-the-breath mutterings into a wholly singular rap style, deeply rhythmic and full of biting wit. G Perico, another South Central native, was revitalizing G-funk, and rappers like Frostydasnowmann and AzChike were making flows stranger, sometimes quieter, more unique to their neighborhoods.
By comparison Saviii is something of a classicist, interested in linear autobiography and unambiguous language. He is indisputably a product of and advocate for the Eastside of Long Beach, but has also soaked up enough digital ephemera for three lifetimes — the bandana mentioned earlier, the one he sometimes ties like Pac, is actually an homage to the Harlem rapper Juelz Santana, a fixture of 2000s music videos. He seems steeled for this era, but not exactly of it.
In the past year and a half, though, that particular wave of exhilarating young artists has been hamstrung, largely by the police. Greedo is serving time in Texas on drug and weapons charges (enhanced by supposed gang ties, of course) while Drakeo sits in Men’s Central Jail for years on end, awaiting retrial for a murder he was acquitted of, but which lingers due to one of the arcane, aforementioned gang laws. Frosty has been locked up as well, and Blueface, who briefly seemed destined for the A-list, saw his Cash Money debut make little to no impact in the city or online.
Saviii also had issues with the label, but he was able to extricate himself from the contract on a technicality. Today he says he’s happy to be independent, having furthered the study of the music industry that he described from the launch of his career.
Back in the barber shop, Saviii explains that the money and attention he’s recently come into have given his raps new subject matter. “I’m [still] writing about street shit definitely,” he says. “I’m writing about being inside, behind the wall — all the tragedies I went through and overcame. But sometimes I get in my bag, write about some rich nigga shit, too. Cause I know how it feel now.” Where complaints about fame and fortune often turn pat, Saviii is surprisingly raw in his descriptions. “I blew a $100K in a month,” he says, “and honestly I don’t feel good about it at all. But it was a good learning experience to do it one time.”
This, too, is telling of how Saviii sees the world. Where many songwriters attempt to jump back and forth between grand struggles and mundane reality, his day-to-day minutiae is given seemingly impossible stakes. And in turn, the work itself plays an outsize role in Saviii’s life. “Music was something I could get happiness from,” Saviii says of his relationship to the art going back to his career’s earliest stages. That happiness “was hard to find it at that time in my life — I was dealing with the law, dealing with all types of teenage shit,” he goes on. “Music was my only escape.”