As recently as a year ago, Miami rapper Gunplay was better known for a clip of him snorting cocaine outside a restaurant in Medellín than he was for his music.
In recent months, however, the cofounder of Rick Ross's Carol City Cartel (AKA Triple C's) has flipped his image as an unhinged goon. His exuberant work on "Cartoon and Cereal," by emotive Los Angeles MC Kendrick Lamar, as well as "Power Circle," from Maybach Music Group's recent Self Made, Vol. 2, are among the year's most compelling rap cameos, featuring big, blustery, eminently quotable verses that overshadow those of his better-known collaborators.
In the past, Gunplay had been forced to play the background on Maybach Music projects for contractual reasons. (MMG albums, not including Ross's solo work, are released on Warner Bros., while Triple C's remains locked into a deal with Def Jam.) But now he has his own freshly minted solo contract with Def Jam and a growing profile as hip-hop's most entertainingly out-of-control MC. So while Ross might be celebrating his fourth number one album with God Forgives, I Don't, his longtime lieutenant's unlikely second act is the most compelling story in Miami rap.
"My lane is wilin' the fuck out," Gunplay explains, describing his niche within the Maybach Music Group and hip-hop at large, before a session at Huge Music Studio in Doral. "Have fun, get money, blow that shit, fuck it." If MMG is the new Wu-Tang, he would clearly be its ODB: the reckless, hard-living loose canon.
With his white tank top and brown work pants, Gunplay could pass for a vato on this particular night if not for the unkempt mane of dreadlocks sprouting from the back of his head and the massive, sparkling Maybach Music chain around his neck. He keeps his shades on, preventing eye contact, yet he's disarmingly forthcoming.
"I don't do coke no more," the rapper offers. He claims to have quit the drug on Memorial Day 2008, though this timeline doesn't account for the footage of his Medellín ski trip. "I relapsed," he admits. And yes, he's already planning another "relapse" to coincide with the release of his solo debut, tentatively titled Medellín. "I snorted coke in Medellín, and they said my career was over. So now they gonna go buy my album titled Medellín... Cocksucker, Christmas is canceled!"
But aside from the occasional cocaine slipup, this divorced father of a 7-year-old boy doesn't party much these days, generally preferring to stay in and play Call of Duty: Black Ops. "All my gamers know: Nuke Tube... Boom!"
Recalling his wilder days, Gunplay barks, "I would beat the shit out of you anytime, anywhere, for whatever." He says it in a deliberate, firm tone that lets you know he's not kidding. "I don't want to go there [anymore]. I'm tired. Look at my damn hand! My knuckle gone... You can't throw a ball with your son." The rapper shakes his head. "Why? 'Cause you're still doing the dumb, young shit."
However, as spending just a few moments with Gunplay makes clear, he still hasn't lost his edge. Not even close. "I pop pills now. That's like my new coke," he explains between sips of Heineken. "As a matter of fact, [I] got a little something right here." He pulls a plastic bag of what he says is MDMA from his pocket and drops a tab of "Molly." He's just getting over some "fucked-up" stuff that he says made him sick a week earlier. And he's "gotta get right for the night!"
Gunplay was born Richard Morales Jr. 33 years ago in Texas. At age 9 he moved with his mom to Miramar after spending the early part of his life in New York City. It was the lyric-driven New York hip-hop of the '90s that piqued his interest in rap.
"The first artist that really had me stuck on stupid, like, 'Damn, that nigga's nice,' was Nas on Illmatic," Gunplay says of the Queens MC's revered 1994 debut. "If you was to play just the intro right now, I would spit the whole album. Down the road, you see what's really going to get the money. Just being a dope rapper? Nah. I started seeing people buy into the lifestyle."
And the lifestyle Morales was living, he says, involved lots and lots of guns. "Hanging with the older fools, they always have their fire on them. And monkey see, monkey do," he says. "After I bought my first gun, it was like crack: I bought 100 guns. Some worked, some didn't. I had 'em, though."
Thus, his rap persona was born. "I took pieces of your Nas and your Jay-Z intellectual shit, your ODB I-don't-give-a-fuck [attitude], your 'Pac Black Panther mentality, your JT Moneys, your Trick Daddys, Pimp C," he explains, "and mixed that with West Coast flavor, snorted a line and smoked a joint and took a shot of some 151, and that's how you got Gunplay."
He and Ross first crossed paths, he says, in the late '90s, while both were in the orbit of a Carol City label called MIA Productions. They formed the core of what would become Triple C's with a number of rappers no longer in the picture. A few years later, they added New York-born Torch. The group's fourth active member, Young Breed, wouldn't join until a decade later.
Though Gunplay is calmer in person than you might imagine after listening to his mixtapes, he's obviously pretty volatile. His voice frequently rises to a frothy shout while he stomps the ground to emphasize his points. And talk of the nameless rappers who passed through the Triple C's in the early years gets him really worked up.
"You ain't never seen me claim this gang or rap label... I've been Carol City Cartel from day one," he says calmly before exploding. "The older I got, I started seeing how nobody's really loyal. It's a myth. The only nigga that I really stay with from day one was Ross. Do you know how many people came and left that was supposed to be down? That type of shit disgusts me. It sickens my soul."
It would be nearly a decade between the crew's formation and Ross's breakout success with "Hustlin'" in 2006. In the meantime, Gunplay says, he made his money as a drug dealer and later as a pimp. "When the dope game dried up, my next best thing is the bitches. So my next move was po'-pimpin'."
Soon, though, the record-industry cash trickled down to Gunplay too. On both debut album Port of Miami and 2008's Trilla, Ross made a point to include tracks ("It Ain't a Problem" and "Reppin' My City," respectively) featuring Gunplay and Torch. Then, based on the triumph of those LPs, Triple C's also secured a group deal with Def Jam.
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But even as Ross's stock as a solo act surged, the Triple C's 2009 major-label effort — the guest-overloaded Custom Cars & Cycles — ended up being a flop, creatively and commercially. Looking back, though, on the eve of Medellín and his own expected solo success, Gunplay isn't mad.
"I was just happy to put an album out and let the world know I'm alive and I know how to rap," he says. "Thanks! Go buy my album!"
Read Part 2 of New Times' Gunplay feature next week, when he talks about why he's starting an escort agency and explains the controversial swastika tattoo on his neck.