Pop Culture

Lloyd Banks, Rap’s Master Technician

The G-Unit punchline king discusses his new album, his origins with 50 Cent and Tony Yayo, and the secret inspiration he took from Layzie Bone.

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Lloyd Banks.Courtesy of Anthony Geathers.

50 Cent’s 2003 debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, instantly made him one of the biggest musicians on the planet, but rather than follow it immediately with another solo effort, 50 leveraged his new fame to make his next release a group effort: Beg for Mercy, the first studio album by G-Unit, the rap group he had formed in his native South Jamaica, Queens, with his friends Tony Yayo and Lloyd Banks. Where 50 was the charismatic group leader with a savant-like ability to rattle off pop hooks even on mixtape tracks—and Yayo’s hypeman absurdity was chopped, imperfectly, into 16-bar increments—Banks was a consummate punchline rapper, staking his reputation on two- to four-bar bursts of wit and wordplay.

In the nearly 20 years since Banks followed Beg For Mercy with his solo debut, 2004’s The Hunger For More, the rapper has attempted to refine and deepen this style through a zealous writing regimen. “You think I’m here ‘cause of talent?” he asks on one song from The Course of the Inevitable 2, his fifth solo album, which is due out today. “It was the repetition.” GQ spoke with Banks over the phone about his childhood in Queens, his adjustment to the first wave of G-Unit fame, and stepping away from music to focus on his family.

You mentioned getting into a lot of different creative mediums during your youth: music, poetry, visual art. What activated that side of your brain?

There are a lot of elements in hip-hop. My uncle used to take us out to Brooklyn, and I used to see them breakdance on the cardboard, break down a bunch of boxes and be right in the square. And then graffiti drew me into tagging, be it in school where I’m not supposed to be doing it, or outside, or just in my notebooks. I was drawn to the art of graffiti, which led to me drawing characters and things of that nature. Even when The Boondocks used to be in the newspaper, I would take mental snapshots and then create my own characters. And then the poetry started to form when I got into hip-hop. I was heavy on a lot of lyrical-driven artists, the Rakims and Big Daddy Kanes and Nas’s. I wanted to be a writer. When I was in school, when I was supposed to be doing work, or if I’d finished my work fast enough, I would start writing. And then it went to me walking around, reading the dictionary. So I can’t really point out one thing, I just feel like I’m a person who was heavy into art as a whole.

What name were you tagging with?

LAYZ.

Like lazing around?

Nah—I’ve never told nobody this except the actual person I adopted the name from, but it was Layzie Bone. I was a big Bone Thugs-n-Harmony fan. Actually, the night 2Pac passed away was the first major concert that I went to, at Nassau Coliseum. It was Nas performing, The Firm, The Fugees, and Bone Thugs. That was my first time seeing them perform. A few years back, in Texas, I was actually on tour with Bone Thugs, and I got a chance to tell them that I kinda adopted that name from that.

Wait, was that concert the one where Nas stopped his set to bring Ed Lover on stage to announce Pac’s passing?

Exactly. I was at that concert with my cousin and my mom. It was crazy because at that time there was no internet. So driving to the concert from Queens, I believe Angie Martinez was on the radio and she had announced it, and everybody on the Long Island Expressway was pulling over to the side of the road, outside their cars, honking horns. It was unbelievable. I remember that very vividly to this day. This is probably a half-hour before we made it into the building. And once we got there, Nas was the headliner. We had to sit through Keith Sweat, the Fugees, Bone Thugs, and the Firm performance before Nas. It was probably another two hours before people who had been in the building [when the news was broken on radio] knew. So when he announced it, you could literally feel the building sink. It felt like we all fell down just a little.

How old were you at this time? Did you have much of a relationship to Pac’s music?

I was 12. And of course—I was on Pac since, like, “Trapped” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” I was a fan of everything, from Slick Rick on—even before him. Nothing really got past me. I was heavy on Queens artists like Mobb Deep, Nas, Capone-N-Noreaga, Tragedy Khadafi, Royal Flush. I was so Queensed out because that was the closest thing to me. It inspired me the most. So something in my mind, as a fan, was keeping me a little biased. But once Pac passed away… as artists, we’re part of a cult. When somebody does something that you do and passes away at a very young age like that, it puts everything back in perspective. I became heavy on his music. When Makaveli came out, that was like the ultimate album for me.

You were 12, but you already considered yourself an artist.

As naive as that sounds, yeah. Like I said, I’m at the concert with my cousin and my mom. And I’m telling them, “I’m gonna be on that stage, I’m gonna get there.” I actually saw Nas and them at the food stands while I was going back and forth to the bathroom, and I was just too shook to say, “what’s up,” as a 12-year-old. But in my mind, I knew I wanted to be there. I really felt like I was going to end up there. Crazily enough, the first arena show we did was in Nassau Coliseum, that exact building.

Who did your earliest raps sound like? Were you imitating anyone in particular?

To be honest with you, I don’t think I sounded like anybody. I was so young. Even though I was inspired by a lot of those artists I mentioned, I couldn’t really sound like them because my content was more geared around what was going on in my life at the time, whether that was school or whatever. A lot of different [young rappers were breaking out]: Another Bad Creation, and there was a group called Illegal if I’m not mistaken. So there were a few reference points for a younger generation of rappers that made it even more believable that I could do it.

It wasn’t until my later years in high school that my subject matter started to change and I became a little bit more inspired by artists like Biggie and Mobb Deep. [But when I did,] they gave me an example for how to express myself and where I come from. The best way I can put it is I was heavily influenced by Biggie, just flow-wise, just not being afraid to try new things, Nas for his storytelling and speaking from the perspective of the neighborhood, and Snoop. Snoop came across as a very cool individual—laid back. And that’s who I naturally was as a kid, so I think I’m like a mixture of those three. I used to rap [Doggystyle] word for word in school. He taught me, as a young writer, how to breathe—meaning like, how to space out, not go over too many words, leave points where more style is involved as opposed to staying heavily lyrical like Rakim. Rakim would leave no space between rapping. Snoop taught me how to be melodic.

Lloyd Banks.Courtesy of Anthony Geathers.

Have you read Rakim’s book? He talks about breaking the pages of his notebook into a grid so that he can land each syllable with no empty space.

That’s funny—there are little things some writers do. I would always jot the alphabet on the top of the page because when I was in the early stages, my school books, the composition books, the first page would have the alphabet and times tables. I would go back and bounce off syllables and different words. I still do that to this day: whatever rhymes with A, B, C, D, all the way down. And it just became effortless to me. Other people would be like, “How do you do that?” But it’s something that I’ve been training my mind to do since school days.

Are you still writing on paper today?

Yeah, I still write on paper. Sometimes my phone, but there’s something about writing on paper, even my tracklists and ideas and things. Most of my early records, even the freestyles, I still have the notebooks. Somewhere between 30 and 40 composition books and spiral books. I write every day. There have been times I was in the car and I could write a whole verse to the sound of the windshield wiper. I don’t really need too much. It could be a steady raindrop, and my mind will start to click because of the tempo. I write a capella too; I write raps on the way to concerts, sometimes even in my sleep. If I’m lucky I’ll wake up and remember some of them.

Your writing style—at least the one that got you noticed early on—prioritized punchlines, bar-for-bar showmanship, that sort of thing, over longer-form storytelling or hooks. I imagine that would make the process more painstaking, because the standard for every bar gets higher.

It would appear to be that way, but it’s the total opposite. Being creative and saying the dopest shit that come to mind—my mind just clicks that way as a writer. That’s actually the dumbed down version of me. Yayo would always say that to me. I do that effortlessly. If I’m not drinking or smoking or nothing like that, my mind hits a whole different level: storytelling, a lot of different elements of who I am open up.

How did you, Yayo, and 50 initially come together?

Yayo and 50 were already moving around together. 50 had a situation with Jam Master Jay; the Trackmasters had led him to that. I knew him from the neighborhood, but we weren’t working together or anything like that. Yayo, I knew him since I was five years old. But it wasn’t until hip-hop started to grab the neighborhood that we all started to develop our styles around the same time. There were people around me who didn’t even know I rapped, because it was kinda taboo before a certain time.

What changed?

One of my close friends, Roughandz, he was a DJ. Prior to that I had never been in front of anybody who was actually cutting records and making beat tapes, making blend tapes. That was far-fetched to me. I would have to go get a Doo Wop tape or a Ron G tape or something. But now I had somebody who was doing this incredible thing right in front of my eyes. So now I’m sitting there, and a basement in my neighborhood turns into—that was the new playground, you know? Everything that was happening in hip-hop was happening in that basement. Back then it wasn’t like a lot of instrumental tapes—you either had vinyl or you didn’t. [Roughandz] was making money, so he would go and buy vinyl, and come back with 15 records, and now I’d have access to all of these things. At the same time, we’re getting older: I’m 14, 15 now, we’re going to parties, doing little cyphers behind the party. Everything started happening at the same time, and it was like I had to be a part of it.

So how does it go from the excitement in the basement to G-Unit as a formalized group?

At some point in the late ‘90s, people started putting these mixtapes together in the neighborhood, an unsigned hype type of thing for those of us in a 30-block radius. Now we actually had a talent show on cassette, a way to display talent from different parts of the neighborhood, whether it’s Far Rockaway, the 40 Projects, Baisley projects, Guy Brewer, 134. We would just compete with each other. Every neighborhood had their own supporters, and it became so competitive that there ended up being a buzz. You’d go to the bootleggers on Jamaica Avenue and they’d be selling these tapes. Yayo always had the relationship with 50, so as I started developing on the mixtapes, Yayo brought me to his attention. It didn’t take a lot. He heard a few freestyles and he was sold.

Who was hosting those tapes?

It was a few of ‘em. The ones that we dominated the most was by my man DJ Roughandz, the 134 All Star Team. They have those freestyles out on Youtube now, I’m sure. I was probably 16, 17 years old rapping on those, and if you check them out you can hear what I mean: we was kind of already stars. There was something in the water in that generation. You can listen back—most artists would probably be embarrassed over how they sounded when they were 16, but I actually am proud of how I sounded at the time. It just goes to show you something special was going on in the neighborhood, especially for three artists who lived within a block radius of each other to come into the game and make the impact that we did.

The first mixtape that got national attention was called 50 Cent Is the Future. I know he was the more established artist, but was there any hesitation or resentment on your part to be on a tape with that title?

Oh, hell no. There was always a plan—everything was a plan. At that point, we were coming from doing mixtapes in the neighborhood, within a 25- to 30-block radius. To have the opportunity to be a part of that movement was incredible. That was enough for me at that time—to be showcased. And it wasn’t like we weren’t all over the tape: We were on damn near every song. 50 was the more groomed artist, he had the vision. By the time we got the first opportunity to really present ourselves to the world, on [2003’s] Beg For Mercy, it came before [50’s] second solo album. To be perfectly honest with you, I wouldn’t have felt a way if he had went straight to his second album.

You were shot around this time, right? [Ed.– Banks was shot in the stomach and back on the night of September 10, 2001.]

I was leaving a party in the neighborhood, somewhere I probably shouldn’t have been at that time. I was kind of naive to the fact that we were blowing up the way we were… If it hadn’t happened that night, it would have happened the next Friday. I remember telling myself—because I ran all the way to the hospital, maybe 15, 20 blocks—the whole time in my mind: ‘I can’t die.’ Because the [record] deal was about to happen. I didn’t even have the identification to travel yet, I still had a school ID. So when [50 and Yayo] first went to L.A. to do the deal, I wasn’t even there, I had to get my stuff together.

I woke up out of surgery and they were helicoptering people into the hospital. I’m seeing the [World Trade Center] on the television inside my room, but I’m thinking it was Independence Day or something, thinking it was a movie. Then I started hearing noise and people coming in and out, panicking, fleeing the building.

So you go pretty quickly from trying to execute that plan alongside two people to being on Interscope, and 50 being one of the biggest rappers in the world. You told me you were on the road right away—but you were also writing and recording Beg For Mercy and The Hunger For More. Did the creative process get clouded by all of that?

[At home] I had probably somewhere between 600 and 700 rap magazines. That was my process: I would flip through them while I was writing and constantly get ideas from ads, everything from cigars and blunt wraps to Mercedes-Benz ads. Anything that was there. I would just bounce off metaphors and have consistent content. When I got on the road, I would find ways to get back in those [mental] places, whether it was me buying all five seasons of Martin and playing it on my laptop or whatever, that would bring me back to being home. I’ve been to some of the most—well, shit, I don’t think there’s anywhere I haven’t been. Whether it’s Dubai, Nice, Cannes, Brazil—I’ve been all types of places, but I’ve yet to be on vacation. I might go out to the beach for a little bit, might get a pina colada, but then I’ll go right back to the hotel room and write music.

There was definitely a different level of pressure [on Interscope] because we’d seen what 50 did with Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The numbers that it did set the bar beyond reality. So now it was like, man, you might’ve wanted a gold album, but now you wanna go multi-platinum, tour overseas, things of that nature. I didn’t have an overseer for [The Hunger For More]. I was given full creative freedom to do that. Nobody was holding my hand. We were actually on the tour bus putting together Beg For Mercy, so whenever we’d finish with that, or when we’d get to the next rest stop, I would run into the booth on the bus—and I would record “Karma,” or I would record a track for Beg for Mercy. I would come back on the bus when nobody was there and I’d record “Die One Day.” That was kind of the process. There was pressure behind it, but it was a lot of fun at the same time. 

While all that was happening, Yayo was locked up. What was it like adjusting to a new groupmate in Young Buck? [Ed.- On New Year’s Eve, 2002, Tony Yayo was arrested for gun possession during a traffic stop and sentenced to a year in prison for jumping bail on a previous charge. He was paroled on January 4, 2004—but, as Banks will mention soon, was re-arrested after being out for less than a day on charges of possessing a forged passport. Yayo spent seven additional weeks behind bars, this time in federal prison. In 2005, he released his first and only solo studio album, Thoughts of a Predicate Felon. To round out G-Unit in Yayo’s absence, Banks, 50, and Interscope turned to a rapper from Nashville named Young Buck.]

The good part was that we actually had worked together with Buck prior to that on one of the mixtapes, it’s called “A Little Bit of Everything.” We knew he could rap. And his work ethic was crazy: He was the type who would go into the studio and do five or six records at a time as well. So once we got that part out the way—he’s got the work ethic, he can rap—it was a simple conversation. 50 asked me what I thought, and I was like, ‘Yeah, we could make it happen, it could work.’ And before you knew it, the records were coming out the way they did.

Still, it must have been pretty bittersweet.

Of course, because Yayo actually brought me into the fold. All them late nights, six in the morning, break of day, writing raps outside or on a crate in the basement, masterminding the whole thing together. We basically spoke it into existence, manifested it. Countless nights, that’s all we spoke about: How we were going to take over and impact the world. So for him to meet that situation the way it happened, it was definitely bittersweet. I would go see him on visits with my jewelry on; he was in the shock programs, coming out with discipline signs on his neck. It was tough. He’d be like, “Damn, that’s what’s going on out there?” Before, I didn’t even have my ears pierced. Then we had hundreds of thousands in cars and jewelry and were buying homes and all that. The whole plan was all working out, it was coming to fruition. I actually held my album up, because I knew his release date. He came home and we went straight to the studio to do “Ain’t No Click.”

That’s the first thing he laid after coming home?

Yessir. Straight to the studio: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro.” And then 12 hours later he was locked back up.

I remember it being a big deal on the internet when what was supposed to be your second album, The Big Withdraw, leaked. There were a lot of rumors about how it ended up online. What actually happened there?

I was just being careless, to be honest with you. That was CD days—I probably had three or four different CDs with 20-something songs per CD. You know how if you make an edit now, you can go to the streaming platform and just make it? When you made one back then, even if it was changing one song, now you had two CDs. If you go and change another song, now you had three. There might have been 15 or 20 different CDs just laying around while I was having parties, things like that. In and out of cars, leaving stuff on airplanes. It was definitely a time I was taking things for granted, being careless.

When that big leak happened and you had to regroup, was that a crushing emotional thing for you though?

No, it wasn’t… the low moment for me was actually losing my father. That was around the same time. The recording process is never an issue. I’m making four, five, sometimes six or seven records per session. Even on this new project—I did that in four sessions, four records at a time. That’s how I always record and write. So that’s never the problem. It’s just… you can’t control what happens in life.

Your third album, The Hunger For More 2, was pretty warmly received, and its singles did well. After that, you continued to put out mixtapes, but didn’t drop a solo album for more than a decade. Why not?

I actually had more records on the radio from that album than on my first album. You had “Beamer, Benz, or Bentley,” you had “Start It Up,” you had “Any Girl,” you had “I Don’t Deserve You.” All these records were played on the radio. On my first album, “I’m So Fly” was number one in L.A., and it wasn’t even added to New York radio. It just goes to show you can’t predict too many things. Those records literally lasted on radio for three years. Before you knew it, there was a little stagnation. Then there was the G-Unit reunion, that whole process happened, and we put out two EPs, toured a little bit, so that kinda went into 2016, 2017 That’s when I started to release more mixtapes [A.O.N. (All or Nothing) Vol. 2: L.I.U. (Live It Up) and Halloween Havoc 3: Four Days of Fury came out a month apart in 2016].

But around that time, I had a daughter on the way. So once that chapter came to me, I just felt like I needed a break, to be honest with you. Everything was new for me—I wasn’t one of those people who had a child in the beginning of their career. From 19 to 34, I didn’t know anything except constant moving and touring, radio, video, everything else that came with the entertainment business. I felt like I owed that time to myself to 100 percent focus on being a parent, being there for everything. From the moments when my daughter was an infant and couldn’t sit up all the way, until she could start going to the park and Great Adventures, things like that. I was ecstatic. That’s what my mind was on for the last four or five years, spending as much time with my kids as possible; I had a son two years after that. I felt like I had to put my imprint in with my kids, they have to know who I am. And I owe it to myself, to be fully locked in and enjoy the experience knowing that once you get back going, it requires a lot.

You have Yayo on the album, but not 50. What are your relationships like with those two today?

It’s the same. We’re brothers. We came into this together—we’re never all going to be doing the same thing at the same time at this point in our careers. You know what I mean? The last conversation I had with 50 was basically him telling me to get whatever I left out there. Because some hiatuses were planned and some weren’t. But I can’t sit and cry about spilled milk. I’ve gotta go out there and make it happen. We did something special that will never be done again. Honestly, there are more positive moments than anything else. That’s where I’m at with both of them: We’re brothers and it’s always going to be that way.

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