Fighting the odds

About gang culture and the freedom to choose – Baldacci the Beast in interview

© and foto: Estevan Oriol

Even if you don’t get close, it is not hard to recognize Baldacci the Beast. Deep black tattoo ink covering nearly every inch of his face, it is no surprise he is being called “Face of LA” in his West Coast home town. But it is not only his significant envisage that you will never find any where else – but also his more than distinct life story of grit, resilience and spirit that makes him to a true hustler in the world of West Coast hip hop.

Being a child of Los Angeles, it is not the fancy sides of the glowing and sparkling city that Baldacci grew up with. Johnny Despain was born on February 13, 1982 in LA, California. Growing up in the Florence District, he has been a member of the gang Florencia 13 since he was a kid. Composed mainly of Mexican-Americans, the gang is affiliated with the Mexican Mafia and can partly be brought in connection with drug smuggling, robbery and homicide.

But that is what official records say. Baldacci on the contrary has seen gang life from the inside, with Florencia 13 being the master of his neighborhood, and can tell stories that lexicons will never grasp. “It is very different from what is being portrayed in films and TV. It is really out there, and it is a rough life. You never know how you will end up – either you survive the day, or you end up shot or in prison”, says Baldacci. He has seen the inside of jails, starting in juvenile hall on charges of car jacking. “The gang culture shapes every aspect of your life”, says Baldacci. “And for me it is a miracle to even be sitting here, and that I have made it this far.” Which is definitely against the odds, considering the experience he has made. At the age of 18 he was shot in the back with bullets from two AK-47’s at close range striking him five times. Baldacci was in a coma for two month, flatlining twice and waking up paralyzed on half his body.

© and foto: Estevan Oriol

Yet, Baldacci has fought back – and decided to turn the course of his life. “This experience didn’t change me immediately. It took some time and I first went on as always. But soon after I decided to make changes to my life.” Since then, The Beast started to focus on making music. “I am still in the gang, but it doesn’t take up my whole life anymore. I am focused on what I want, and directing my attention to a way out of that environment.” So in 2013 he released his first project The Baldacci Code, followed by his debut album Plan B in 2016, released through his own imprint The EFxFORT Music. Especially the song “I love LA” found recognition, being LA’s very unique summer anthem of the year. He has also found a lot of comraderie from his friends and supporters. “The people you used to hang out with in the gang support you to find your way out. It’s not as if they want you to be stuck in the gang forever”, says Baldacci. “When people grow older, they want to build up a life. Everybody wants to get out of the gang.” And this is the main message he wants to send to everybody listening to his music: “There is a way out of this life. You must be completely focused on what you want and have a work ethic that outgoes everything else.” Against the odds and the stereotype opinion of people being locked in gangs for they entire life, he wants to be proof that people are free to escape their past and determine their own future.

In the art scene of LA, he has already made himself a name. With the release of his EP Eye for an Eye in 2019, collaborations with Crooked I, Baby Bash and most of all with the famous LA photographer Estevan Oriol he has cemented his position of one of LA’s strongest underground voices that present a different view on life than what Hollywood wants to make us believe. “It is no glits and glamour”, Baldacci makes clear. “And unlike what most people think on the outside, gang life is everywhere. There is no family that does not have anyone or know anyone affiliated with it.”

On a steady climax from there on, Baldacci is about to finish his personal masterwork, a new double album originally planned to be released in February. “We have been working on this for very long and hard hours. Some of those songs are up to six years old and I have just waited to be ready to release them and give them a final polish”, says Baldacci. It shows once more how much his experience with the violence of gang culture has marked and shaped him: “The album will be released in an AK-47 box as a cover, and the music will be on five sticks in the shape of AK-bullets. The music is an essence of what I have been through and experienced.”

With his determination to make hip hop to both an instrument to vent and to a way out, he puts himself in a tradition with the old West Coast legends like Dre, Tupac and Snoop Dogg very consciously. “I grew up to their music as a kid and have made a very similar life experience”, concedes Baldacci. “I see my music as a continuation of their story.”

© and foto: Estevan Oriol

With his most important project on its way, Baldacci The Beast a.k.a The Face of LA hopes to look in a bright future. “It has been a lot of hard work and things have never been easy”, he says, and adjusts his cap. “But I want to be a role model to show that with focus and hard work you are able to do anything you set your mind to. That’s all my music is about.” With that, Baldacci takes up a powerful standpoint in the world of the LA gang culture. On last question is left though that I just can’t help asking: What is behind his tattoos? Most of them are gang tattoos related to F13. “They all stand for different essential aspects of my life, and I usually get them very spontaneously. Just like my songs, they tell parts of my story.” The Face of LA smiles, and puts his ink art into amused wrinkles. And the black glows for a second – giving witness.

By Katharina Moser

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