INTERVIEW: Lil Berete turned his pain into infectious bangers and now, he's taking it from Regent Park to the world.
Hip-hop culture comes from grassroots beginnings and it's a tradition that's carried on through the generations. Creating music has always been a platform for artists to tell stories that reflect their own otherwise-silenced communities.
Lil Berete's no different in that sense. The 18-year-old rapper from Toronto's Regent Park is making waves on an international platform but the inspiration comes from the life he lived in Toronto's housing projects. His debut project, Icebreaker put a spotlight on his name as he detailed the paranoia, fear, and betrayal of growing up in Regent Park. "Run a milli up, yeah, I count it how I live/ Keep a semi tucked 'cause they don't want to see me rich," he raps off the top of his latest project. "I can't trust a soul, I ain't ready to go."
The rapper has been in and out of Toronto in recent times, since signing to U.K. label New Gen -- a grime focused branch of XL Recordings. Icebreaker was recorded across Toronto, Los Angeles, and Paris but issues with the city's authorities have also played a factor. Police have shut down his concerts and Toronto's housing projects sent a letter to his mother's house threatening to evict them if he didn't stop recording music videos in his neighborhood without a permit. His latest video for "Chase Cash" with Deno was filmed in Ethiopia.
Lil Berete chopped it up with HNHH this summer and he got candid about Regent Park, the Toronto - U.K. connection, the late Smoke Dawg's legacy, and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
HNHH: What type of music did you grow up listening to, both during your time in Guinea and Regent Park, and how did it help mold the way your career is going right now?
Lil Berete: When I was younger, my hood was a place where people we’re up to date on everything. They were always listening to the [latest] music coming out before other people. Akon, T-Pain, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and all those guys. Back in the day, I used to just sit and watch BET.
I’m trying to bring the old school type of rap back into the game but I can’t just do it right away because nobody feels you on your first try unless you do it five times. I’m doing what people like right now. Later on, I’m gonna be doing what influences me and what I used to listen to and what I’m comfortable making.
With Icebreaker and this follow-up project on the way, you mentioned that you’re experimenting with more international sounds. Are we going to see you go into the lane of what you want to do more?
You guys are gonna know me more once I drop my album. There’s rapping, rockstar type music, there’s R&B, grime rap, different types of styles. Once you memorize how to sing and use afro-beats and do that hip-hop shit, you can do anything in the world. There are artists right now that people think are the best in the world but probably can’t go make a song for international people, for African people.
There are a lot of similarities between the UK and Toronto right now. Working with artists like Nafe Smallz and signing to a UK label, what is the connection between the two places? Music or otherwise?
The swag. The wordplay. People in Toronto like to mumble rap, that fast type of shit. That’s the same thing UK people do but we rap about different shit. They talk about their lives and the struggles that they're living that are different than [ours]. For us, we have different laws. People go to jail for a burner for two years but for them, they get ten years for a burner. We have different ways of explaining ourselves. With the type of lifestyle I live, the only way I can explain myself is slap on [some] auto-tune, get a beat that will put me in my zone and just go on it. You can’t just play regular rap shit and tell me to go on it. That’s not me. I like to show people what I live so people understand me.
That’s an interesting part of your music. For me, your music wasn’t something I found on blogs, it was more word of mouth because that's what the young boys are listening to.
That’s because the young boys see me in the vids. They don’t see me with bent knees or fifty-thousand dollars in cash. They can’t relate to me if they see that. If they see a kid wearing regular clothes in videos, not showing racks, not doing the most, they’re like “Yo, I can relate to this.” Other people say, “I got this, twenty thousand this, blah blah blah,” but it’s all cap. With the shit I spit, I’m talking about my dead homies, metro housing trying to kick me out, trying to get out the hood. That’s why kids feel me. That’s why they listen to what I say and they come up to me and appreciate me.
People are getting that inside look to Regent Park and the struggles of being a young black man in a city like Toronto. I wanted to talk to you about the video that went viral last summer with the jaywalking and getting that letter from the Toronto housing people.
That letter didn’t hurt me, it just showed me “Don’t take too long to get out of here.” How do you just send a letter to a kid that your own kid listens to? I’ve had cops tell me their kids listen to me. They’ve told their kid that they’ve arrested me. These guys feel cool doing shit to me because of who I am. I can’t live like a regular guy anymore. When they sent me that letter, I got amped like “I’m different, I’m the only guy that got this. Why did I get this? Because I’m doing good.” They’re telling me I can’t shoot videos like “Where do you want me to go?” I can go on the block and shoot videos. They are telling me I can’t shoot videos in the hood. What do you want me to do? Go to a public place somewhere I don’t even know, I never grew up in? When I’m explaining my story in my hood, and other kids see that, it motivates them. I’m not in a white neighborhood talking about the struggle. I’m in the jungle talking about the jungle.
That’s why I was laughing too. I don’t make music where I’m talking about murders. I make music where shit already happened and I’m telling you how I feel about it or how it really went down. I don’t just say anything in my songs. If you compare my rap to people who used to rap in my hood back in the day, these cops just don’t want to see me win. They are trying to bully me.
I feel like that’s a common struggle with a lot of Toronto rappers who rap about their reality. When booking shows, do you find that it impacts your ability to make money in the city?
If I knew rapping like this would get me canceled from shows, rapping like this would get cops investigating me every day, I would’ve just been a singer. But I also have that mentality where I don’t give a fuck what anyone says, I have a story to tell. If no one's gonna say it then I’m gonna say. Every other rapper from my hood is a rapper, like straight rap. I think I’m the only one that sings and tries to do something different. On some Juice WRLD-type shit. My first show with Juice WRLD, they canceled me. Rebel [Night Club]. I don’t know why they canceled me. It’s probably because someone was at the show that they didn’t want me to run into.
I have no charges, never got caught with anything in my life. Every charge I have is probably from when I was sixteen or seventeen so you guys are gonna hold a grudge on something a sixteen-year-old did when he was younger and didn’t know better? I’m trying to do better and get my money. I’m doing shows to get money, I’m not selling drugs, and you guys are trying to cancel that. That’s why young rappers go crazy. I’m not even famous. I’m just a little bit popping and cops are doing this. I’ll quit rapping and say fuck it. That’s why young black people in Canada, America and other places in the world that have talent don’t get to speak. They feel like if they rap, it’s gonna be worse. Music should make you feel better. When I listen to my own music, sometimes I cry because I feel what I’m feeling.
I apologize if it’s a sensitive topic but I want to ask you about Smoke Dawg. It’s been a year since his passing and I was wondering if you had any thoughts you wanted to share about his importance to Regent Park or your career.
He’s a good man. I couldn’t feel how he feels because I wasn’t at that position but now, I’m at that position so I get the way he used to move and not come to the hood a lot. It all makes sense now. You can go crazy off the people around you. People don’t think of it like “You’re the next artist, you’re the gold of the hood.” They think of it like “Oh we have a star, we have to protect it. Anyone who talks shit has to get it.” When your friends are on that type of mentality, it’s hard to stay on your rap shit. You’re thinking “if they’re street, I’m street too.” But if the people around you are thinking “Yo, we got to go to the studio every. If we’re not getting booked for the club, we’re not going,” it’ll be different. Smokey was a big influence in the rap game in Regent because he was young, he had swag, he knew what he was doing, and he was different. He doesn’t rap like anyone from Toronto. He has his own voice. When I see that he’s from Southside-- if a Southside guy can do that and rap, I think I can do it too. So, I went to the studio and started recording.
Is there a part of you that feels like you’re carrying the torch in a way?
I’m forever carrying the torch. My hood, Regent Park is the torch. Regent Park is forever out there. Even if it’s Smokey or other rappers that passed away from the hood, I’m still carrying people’s torches. Point Blank, Sick Thugz, all of those guys. It’s because of them I’m in the position I’m at right now. If they weren’t rapping, I don’t think I’d be rapping right now. I’d be in the streets doing whatever I’d be doing. There’s a couple of hoods where there are no rappers because everyone grew up being a crazy kid doing whatever they wanna do. My hood grew up with people that wanted to rap and had the talent and had a sense of humor and had a mentality to get out of the hood and not stay doing this forever. Once Point Blank set a trend rapping, those guys made it far, so Regent always has a path to success for us. If I’m in the neighborhood and my OG’s never sold dope before, I’m never gonna sell dope in my life. If my OG’s never rapped in their life, I’d never rap in my life. This neighborhood is full of talent and supports music. The only person on top of me was Smokey. It was a good feeling actually having someone on top of you. You could go to them for advice no questions asked. I think the lifestyle gets to a lot of people’s heads and they go crazy. I haven’t gone crazy yet but the lifestyle I’m living, I like it, but sometimes you get post-traumatic stress and shit. You start overthinking. That’s when you have to travel. That’s what makes your music better.