“They pronounced me legally dead, but they resuscitated me right back. I give the glory to God more so than any machine or anything else,” South Side Chicago rapper GLC declares. At the age of 14, Leonard L. Harris’ blood sugar level was an astounding 890, and he had been pronounced legally dead. He was put on life support, placed in a coma and survived. Living up to his rap name, Gangsta Legendary Crisis, Leonard L. Harris, was not only diagnosed with diabetes, but lost his father as an infant and his mother at age 12. A youth in his position could have easily played victim and fallen into depression, but the resilient and street smart teenager managed to declare victory over his bouts with life.
With a strong passion for Hip Hop, the young boy won several talent contests rapping L.L. Cool J and Ice-T verses and became a part of the Growth and Development organization. “A lot of us didn’t have fathers in the household. We were looking for, like, male role models and manly figures to emulate,” he explains. Receiving guidance from the organization and seeing his favorite rappers live the American dream gave him hope to strive for a greater life beyond what 87th Street had to offer.
While attending Simeon Career Technical Academy, his relationship with young producer, Kanye West, began when he was invited over to listen to beats at his house through a mutual friend. The two high-schoolers shared a lot in common and formed a short-lived rap group with Arrowstar, Really Doe and Timmy G called The Go-Getters. To make ends meet, GLC worked in agriculture and in retail at a popular clothing store called The Lark. ”I was one of top five in sales and sold everything from Pelle Pelle clothes to Coogi sweaters to furs and minks, you know. It was an oasis for guys that was getting street money as well as for doctors and lawyers. If you had some bread, you’d come shop at The Lark,” he states.
As a solo artist, Kanye recruited him for his classic feature on “Spaceship” off of College Dropout . GLC’s verse was so outstanding that it not only earned him a Grammy, but it even got nods from Jay-Z himself. ”He was like, ‘Yo, that shit hard.’ Like, ‘Finish your breakfast.’ That shit was real cool,” he recalls. His other feature on Late Registration‘s ”Drive Slow” gained him a second Grammy, and he signed to G.O.O.D. Music until 2006. Never forgetting his roots, GLC has stayed true to his rocky past devoting his time giving back to the deteriorating community of Chicago by mentoring its youth. ”I urge these kids to seek information. We live in an information age where there is no excuse. When we was shorties, a motherfucker could ask you a question, and you could be like, ‘Man, I don’t know,’ but now how you gonna tell me the hell you don’t know when you got the world in the palm of your hand in your phone?”
As high murder rates splash across national headlines with Chicago set as the stage, the 39-year-old reflects on his social responsibility and dismisses the idea of glorifying its violent state in his music. ”I lost about 16 of my friends by the time I was 18 due to gang violence, so how would I be as a grown ass man out here promoting that shit to these kids as something cool when I had to bury motherfuckers by the time I was 18?” He blames the growing unemployment rate and decrease in street organizations for the high crime rates, and believes the media frenzy is due to news outlets’ “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. “You’re only gonna see the bullshit, but that’s not all that’s going on in Chicago. All this murdering and killing that’s been going on. There’s not anything new…(It’s) just so they can keep you in line like, ‘Aww, man. Chicago’s fucked up. Oh, what I’m gonna do?’ To keep you depressed and shit.”
Often proclaiming “church” almost as often as referring to himself as “The Ism,” long gone are the days GLC struggled financially and spent his days recording two to three songs on an 8-track recorder in his sister’s basement. Tracks with established rappers Jay-Z, John Legend, Kid Cudi, and Bun B have added to his credibility, but have not swayed him from working with artists on the rise like Jon Connor and Kendrick Lamar long before he was a household name. His consistent work ethic (he drops about six projects a year) has paid off with his last two projects achieving over 30,000 downloads each. Over 20 projects deep – including 2010′s Love, Life, and Loyalty – his countless solo albums have been released at a staggering pace.
Busy in the studio simultaneously working on mixtape, The Pulpit, with Get Gwop and studio album, The Book of St. Ism, GLC’s demeanor is smooth, genuine and ultra-confident. Over the phone, he answers all of my questions cordially and professionally while also displaying a naturally charismatic and inviting personality that one does not often come by. He drops knowledge and goes into detail about his several hardships, infamous features with Kanye and what the future holds for The Ism.
Andrea Aguilar: You’re always talking about “the ism.” What makes you “the ism”?
GLC: What makes me the ism is I am the light. I am salvation. I lead these lames and these simps away from the darkness, you know what I’m sayin’? I lead them to the glow of this macking and into this enlightenment. The ism is a powerful thing because it’s wisdom. It’s simply sight beyond sight. Now how you choose to apply the ism is all up to you. You can use the ism to manifest which means to have a beautiful and wonderful evening with a beautiful young lady or you could use it for your business and grow and develop in that field. You could use it in school. You could use it in your fashion sense. Ism is just sight beyond sight. It’s the wisdom. I didn’t even ask to be the ism. I was chose. God appointed me, and here I am. Ism!
AA: (laughs) I love it. I love it.
GLC: I’m glad you love it, baby. That’s what it’s here for.
AA: You were a part of a street organization called Growth and Development. Can you give me details on what that was like?
GLC: Well, the details about it were it wasn’t always like that. It transcended from Gangster Disciples to Growth and Development. As young kids growing up in Chicago, we were just looking for something to belong to. Man, just living in the neighborhoods we lived in, the closest thing that we had of manly figures to emulate were mainly street guys who happened to be gangstas. (Starts flirting with girl in his presence) I’m sorry. She looked good. (laughs)
So as I was sayin’, our immediate connection was mainly to these guys who were gangstas, street hustlers and guys who were getting money. A lot of ‘em was very clean dressed. They had nice cars. When you made good grades in school, they were the guys giving you twenty dollar bills and this and that. When the ice cream truck came, they were the ones getting ice cream for all the kids on the block, so you looked up to these guys, and you embraced that concept like, “Wow. I wanna be like these guys!” A lot of times, you didn’t know where they worked, but you know that they were providing for their families and shit. You would see these guys at basketball courts, at schools. When you wanted to play basketball, the rims might have been taken off of the backboard and shit just from living in the ghetto, and these guys would be the ones with their own money – not even the city’s money – replacing the basketball rims for the kids to hoop on and shit, you know what I’m sayin’? At that time, although you speculated, and you assumed these guys were selling illegal substances, man, you really didn’t think about that because they actually did good things for the community aside from what the negative part was, you know? The negative part…they never did it in your face, so you didn’t see it. Didn’t even know it really existed as a shorty being naive, but then as you got older you was like, “Oh, I see. This is how they getting money.”
AA: Chicago has been in the news for its increasing violence. What changes have you observed and what do you think has led to the city’s deterioration?
GLC: I’ll tell you this. Gentrification is one way. You tear down the projects…at one point, it was a lot of violence in Chicago, but it wasn’t making national headlines as it does now just due to the fact that it was all taking place behind the gate, and it was going up in the sky to these skyscrapers called The Projects and shit that people lived in, and they were living in these houses. You looked at people who are poor that may be uneducated to a certain degree and just feel like they don’t have the access that other people have only because that’s what they were taught to believe from any given circumstance, so they mainly resorted to robbing and killing and doing whatever they had to do to eat ’cause at the end of the day it all boils down to getting some food in your stomach when you’re hungry. People don’t just rob people or be on bullshit for the hell of it. A lot of times, it’s mainly food driven. We gotta eat. We are hungry. I don’t have shit. This dude got something. Okay. Let me catch him at the bus stop. I’m finna hop up out this car and take whatever he got ’cause I don’t have shit. You not going down to city hall to take shit ’cause if you do that, you’re finna do time in the federal penitentiary, so a lot of times when people are frustrated. They tend to take that frustration out on the people closest to them. The gentrification led to people with different ideologies being spread all throughout the city of Chicago that don’t match the ideologies as the people who came from the projects, so now you got all these different mind states and different beliefs living amongst each other without any type of idea of unifying and putting shit together and being one or seizing economic and political control of their community. While we are at war as a people and killing each other, other ethnic groups are able to move into our community and just capitalize off of us.
AA: So unfortunate, right?
GLC: You have all these different substances that kids are doing all at the same damn time. Doing all these different drugs like highs and lows at the same time. It’s like the chemical imbalance going on in a lot of these kids’ heads as well. Now the standard gun on the streets is like a 30 shot clip. Man, shit is crazy. It’s the things that all these people have access to now which at one point they may not have had such an abundant access to. Shit’s just readily available now. With that, with being hungry mixed with drugs mixed with all the crazy shit that’s going on, it can be calamity, and right now, we are seeing the aftermath of it. They got rid of the structure of the street organizations which would…like if you tried to sell drugs near a school, you were violated for that shit. The street organization didn’t allow it. You couldn’t even drop out of high school if you were part of the street organization. Now all of the rules and laws and policies, principles and parameters have all gone down the drain. So now you’ve dismantled that, and then you tear down the projects with all these people out in different areas that ain’t from there. You’re gonna have calamity, and that’s what’s going on.
They don’t talk about Simeon High School that just won its fourth straight championship. They don’t talk about Jabari Parker who just signed to go to Duke. They don’t tell you about the positive shit that’s going on in the community. They don’t tell you about the workshops at Chicago State where they have young elementary school kids as well as high school kids coming to visit the campus. I’m one of the people that comes in and mentors the kids. You’ll never see that on the headlines. You’re only gonna only see the bullshit because it’s like “Murder City” this and that, but that’s not all that’s going on in Chicago. All this murdering and killing that’s been going on. That’s not anything new. It’s just a matter of when you take away the activities from the kids, going to hoop, roller skating or bowling, jobs for teenagers…The unemployment rate is a motherfucker. I remember when I was in high school, we had job programs for the kids. Now it’s tough for these kids to get jobs. A lot of them need jobs ’cause they coming from single parent households.
AA: You were pronounced dead at 14…. Did you have any visions or feel closer to God after? Some people see a light.
GLC: I’m not finna to give you interview bullshit like, “Yeah. I saw the pearly gates and Saint Peter like, Yo, get in here.” (laughs) I didn’t see none of that. I really don’t recall. All I remember was seeing my mom. My mom passed when I was 12, and I remember seeing her because I was actually in the same hospital she had died in two and a half years earlier. I believe in something greater than myself. Greater than what I could see in the physical world that kept me alive, and I’m a give the glory to God.
AA: Hip Hop literally saved your life. What songs in particular kept you going through all of the pain?
GLC: Yeah. I would listen to UGK, Project Pat, Three Six Mafia, Scarface. It was several different artists like the West Coast movement. Death Row and Snoop Dogg and Tupac. Biggie, of course, and Jay. You know, even A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A.. It’s just too many artists that were poppin’ for me to sit here and name which songs because there was just so much. I was so in love with the culture. I embraced it. As far as what kept me alive, I’d have to say is my ability to process information and to use it to my advantage. I was aware of the consequences of my actions. If I do this at this time in this neighborhood, there’s a good chance I might get shot at, so I’m not gonna do that, you know what I’m sayin’? (laughs) Chicago was segregated not just based upon ethnicity or sexual preference, but also based upon the gang culture. I grew up on 87th and Main, and if I went to 86th and Main which was just one block down, there was a good chance I’d get shot at. We live in a society where people seem to be glorified by being dumb. The dumber you sound, the cooler you appear to be. Me personally I have street slang and things of that nature. It’s a cool thing to be able to speak the language, but there is nothing cool about ignorance and being dumb. You look at yourself 10 or 20 years from now, and where is ignorance gonna get you? That’s why I speak this ism. My whole thing is the people need this shit. They need to see someone that’s in the music business who has written and performed on Grammy winning albums with Kanye West to a Jay-Z to a John Legend to a Twista to a Kendrick Lamar to a Bun B to a Kid Cudi. I keep shit one hundred, and I ain’t have to. I could have easily been in that shit as a yes man or a dude that sacrificed my integrity to look like what was cool at the moment. Fuck that. I’m the ism. I don’t have to do that.
AA: You stayed positive though your parents passed at a young age. How?
GLC: Well, when I was 8 months, that’s when I was told that I learned to stand on my own two. I actually started walking at 8 months. That’s what my mom told me. A few days after I learned to walk, my father died. In life they say you gotta know how to be a man. You gotta know how to stand on ya own two, but goddamn I was only 8 months. I didn’t think I was a man ready to do that shit yet, My father’s dead like, “Damn.” Just me losing my father in that manner you gotta understand that that is something people in my community look at as a positive. Like, “Yeah, your father died at 8 months, but at least he didn’t leave.” (laughs) “At least he wasn’t still alive and just didn’t fuck with you.” Here I am a kid with no father and shit. I got two older brothers and two older sisters. They instilled a lot in me. My mom was there till I was 12, so she instilled a lot of things in me. My whole thing was I just wanted to be alive, and I wanted to be successful. I enjoy life so much it’s like, “Man, the worst thing that could happen to me (is) death.” I survived that. Losing my mom. I survived that. Losing my father. I survived that. Losing my house in a fire. I survived that. Shootouts on 87th. I survived that, so the thing is what else are you going to do to me?
AA: You were diagnosed with diabetes at 14. How have you been feeling and dealing with your condition?
GLC: Man, I be feeling great now. I be on top of it. I lost a lot of weight. I gave up alcohol. I don’t eat any red meat, pork or chicken or turkey. None of that. I just eat fish, vegetables, grains, and I prepare most of my own food, monitor my blood sugar, exercise, so I feel great now.
AA: So glad to hear it. Health is so key to everything.
GLC: You can live a great life with diabetes as long as you take care of yourself and also, not think about it. If you sitting around thinking about, “Damn. I got diabetes. What I’m gonna do?” you gonna kill yourself. Stress will kill the fuck out you.
AA: You met Kanye in high school. How much has he changed since then?
GLC: Well, I would say… I really can’t say he changed. I’ll just say that he got in the position where he got really, really well off financially, and a lot of times when a person gets in a position where they are well off financially, now they can be who they always wanted to be in the first place. A lot of times people adjust and act a certain way just based upon the situation that they in or the circumstances that they in, but once you on top, man you can really be you. Who you always wanted to be. Who you always truly was. You may sacrifice a bit of that or conceal it just because you want to fit in because this is the environment you were placed in. “Like now I gotta fit in, so I can’t do this or I can’t wear this or say this because a motherfucker might hit me in my shit, but now I’m in a position where I can do this, so I’m a do it like this. Fuck it.”
AA: You said you left G.O.O.D. Music because the content that you rapped about was the opposite of Ye’s. Can you elaborate on that?
GLC: Well, basically G.O.O.D. music was a label in 2005, and it was distributed through Sony Ericsson and with that we had a deal, but then by 2006 less than a year later the deal folded because Sony decided to drop their whole urban department, so G.O.O.D music was left without a home. So actually since 2006, I haven’t been signed to G.O.O.D music. G.O.O.D music was pretty much my guys. My homies. Guys that fuck I with and did some records with, but I wasn’t signed to ‘em, but, the public is just like, “You work with Kanye and G.O.O.D music.” He held onto it, so we just rocked with it. He started his label again with Def Jam. I wasn’t really there, so I don’t know what the thought process was, how everything is going on over there right now because I’m not there, but when I was there, it was strong. It was a family. It felt really good, but everything that was said comes to pass. It didn’t happen. People want their separate ways.
AA: “Drive Slow” is one of my favorite tracks. Can you give me some behind the scenes about how the track came together?
GLC: Well, due to the fact that Kanye’s first album did really well and won a Grammy – I did writing on it, performed on it and shit – Kanye was working on his second album like, “Yo, G, I want you to be a part of this project,” and I was like, “No problem. Cool. Thank you. It’s a blessing,” so we were in a studio out in LA. Paul Wall came. Kanye was there. We was at Record Plant working on the record. You know, it was coming along real good. We ended up finishing it at Chalice Studios out there. We got it done. Good green. Good feeling. Everybody was feeling good. The beat came on, and man, the congregation rejoiced. Everybody started speaking the ism. Paul Wall laid his verse. I laid my verse. Then Kanye laid his like a few days later, and it was pretty much done.
AA: That and your “Spaceship” verse. Classic.
GLC: Thank you very much. Thank you. I appreciate that.
AA: You knew Kendrick was dope before most of the world did and gave him a feature on Section 80. Kendrick wasn’t really well known yet, but you realized his potential. How do you feel about his album and remix with Jay?
GLC: Man, I’m very proud of him. I think that he worked his way to where he is, you know? I feel like he’s worthy of all the accolades that he’s been receiving. I knew that the kid was dope when we did Section 80. It was kinda crazy how it happened because he was familiar with me at the time, and I wasn’t even familiar with him. He was telling a friend of mine out in LA that I was one of his favorite artists or whatever, so I was like, “Damn, for real? Who is this guy?” He was like, “Kendrick Lamar.” I was like, “Kendrick Lamar? That sounds like a down South pimp *igga. Who is this dude?” so he sent me some links to his music, and I was like, “Damn. This is kinda refreshing and shit. Dude is cold,” so I got on the phone with Kendrick. He was telling me how he really fucked with my music and how I was cold to him.” I said, “Man, thank you,” so then he sent me a record, and I sent it back in, like, two hours, and it was done, and there I was on Section 80.
AA: What are your thoughts on the “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix”?
GLC: I haven’t heard about it, but I know about it. I’ve seen people post all over the Internet. I’m definitely gonna look it up when I get off the phone with you.
AA: You’re constantly coming out with music. Do you ever get writer’s block?
GLC: Nah, I don’t get writer’s block because I live an interesting life, and all I do is tell accounts of my life. Every day I get a phone call that’s more interesting than a motherfucker about somebody’s issues, and I have to guide them through it and shit, you know what I’m sayin’? You never know. That might turn out to be a song or some shit.
AA: How’s Pulpit coming along?
GLC: The Pulpit with Get Gwop. It’s a joint project that I did with an up and coming artist that I’m really, really working with and giving a lot of game and advice to. This project I’m very happy about it. It has Jon Connor on it from Flint, Michigan, my man Davies from Harlem, my man Fatale from here in Chicago, and there a few other guys. Special surprise guests. This project is dope because it’s pretty much the younger guy coming to me on a street level like, “Yo, this is what I’m going through,” and here I am as the elder statesman and shit spreading the gospel and help leading him to the light, so he comes to the pulpit to tell me everything that’s going on. He comes to confess to the Ism and shit, and I’m like “Yo, bro. This is how you get to prosperity. Church.”
AA: I saw the trailer. It looks pretty intense.
GLC: Thank you. Thank you very much. Yes it is. We got like maybe 4 or 5 videos shot for it. We ‘bout to turn up, so hopefully you enjoy the concept and the ride.
AA: Anything else you’ve been working on?
GLC: I just shot a few videos for my album. I got an album coming out this summer called The Book of St. Ism. Second studio album. Aside from that, I got the Churchill project that’ll drop right before the album. I’ll be on the road this summer doing shows with Get Gwop for the Pulpit project, clothing line called The Ism…I sell Church shirts, different Raphael pieces, like, Ezekiel on t-shirts with a little color added to it. Really, really, really dope merchandise. That’s available at http://glcitymusic.com/
GLC -” My Downfall”