The first time Schoolboy Q met his labelmate Kendrick Lamar, he says, "I couldn't believe he wasn't big yet." It was 2006, and Q had just started working with the fledgling Top Dawg Entertainment. Eight years later, Kendrick's success has made TDE the hottest team in hip-hop – and Q is next in line.
The night before his major-label debut, Oxymoron, is certified as the Number One album in the country, Q is chilling in a posh hotel room on Manhattan's Lower East Side, killing time before a sold-out show. The 27-year-old Los Angeles rapper has bought out the whole floor for his crew, but right now he's alone except for a bodyguard who introduces himself as Bear. "Everything's so bright now," Q says, puffing on a fragrant blunt. "I wanted my album to sound dark. It's my past, present, future life, all of it."
Oxymoron is packed with adrenaline-soaked tales of Q's come-up in South Central L.A., where he became a member of the 52 Hoover Crips. "When you're a kid, everybody's nice to you – you don't know who's a Crip and who's a Blood," says Q. "Then you hit seven or eight years old and start noticing they treat you a little different now. You just adapt to it and live."
Q was a smart kid, but education didn't interest him. "I knew school was stupid since the fifth grade," he says. "The public school system in L.A. is fucked up. I cheated my whole way through, from elementary to high school. I didn't learn anything that mattered. You're telling me about Christopher Columbus? What the fuck is that going to do? How can I survive tomorrow?"
He put more effort into sports, drawing interest from college scouts during four years of high school varsity baseball (shortstop and second base) and eventually playing some college football. He was also a serious hip-hop fan, favoring East Coast acts like Nas, Jay Z, Cam'ron and State Property. "I would ditch school if my CD was scratched up or I couldn't get batteries," he says. "I wasn't trying to get on the bus and not be listening to music."
It wasn't until later that Q got serious about making his own music. In the meantime, the pull of street life was stronger. "Shit, you're born into it," he says. "Whether you know you're in it or not." Even after linking up with TDE, he was making good money hustling Oxycontin pills, and simultaneously battling his own addiction issues – a divided life he recounts on the new album's gripping emotional centerpiece, "Prescription/Oxymoron." "I went through my ups and downs," he says now. "School athlete, drug-dealing drug user, gang member, work a good job – I done did it all. Rap was the last resort for me."
Q was the final member of TDE's core four-man roster, joining Kendrick, tripped-out conspiracy buff Ab-Soul and hardened Blood affiliate Jay Rock. After a stint as Kendrick's hypeman, Q followed him to a joint deal with Interscope Records around 2012. "Then I was in the game, and shit just kept going good," he says. "Up, up, up and up."
Now that he's made it, he's not planning on slowing down any time soon. "Kendrick's, like, a pop star," he says. "I want to blow up to that next, next level." Q says he's just now reaching the kind of fame where people recognize him on the street. "People look at me and keep walking – but you can tell they know who I am," he says, ashing his weed on a coffee table as he gets up and heads out for tonight's gig. "I want them to bug me. It's gonna be a sad day when they don't."
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This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Schoolboy Q: From South Central L.A. to the Top of the Charts