A slight guy in nondescript white t-shirt and baggy Nike basketball shorts is bent over the vintage jewelry case at Fairfax's Dope Couture. Bracelets encircle both of his wrists; nevertheless, he points to a YSL piece whose thick links glint. It pairs nicely with the well-polished chain already slung around his neck.
Even with the tattoos spilling out of his shirtsleeves and etched on his throat, Kid Ink could be mistaken for just another young, cool dude shopping on the city's hippest street. But the baby-faced girls hanging back staring shyly at him and the adolescent-scrawny guys approaching him for photos give it away — you may not know who the 26-year-old rapper/producer is quite yet, but the demographic that matters does.
The native Angeleno's debut album, Up & Away, was released on June 12 and remains on iTunes' top 10 hip-hop/rap chart. “Time of Your Life,” its poppy first single, is spun almost hourly on local radio stations and has racked up nearly six millions views on YouTube. Earlier this year, Kid Ink landed on the cover of XXL's “Freshman” issue. Not bad for a producer who only started writing to increase the chances of his beats getting sold.
Kid Ink grew up in an artistic family; he and his siblings all took piano lessons, and he realized he had a gift for drawing early on (many of those doodles became the blueprints for his numerous tattoos). By the time he was 16 and attending Fairfax High, he'd begun producing. “More than anything, the equipment was accessible because my family is in the business,” he says. He and his friends — including fellow L.A. rapper Nipsey Hussle — would sit around making beats all day.
He wound up co-producing and producing for major figures in the hip-hop world like Diddy and Sean Kingston, even though at that point, he was just a kid in the back of the studio making beats on his laptop.
But eventually, he realized he had to push harder.
“I got to the point where I felt I needed to write hooks because it was better to submit records with something already written. People are more likely to buy it 'cause it's less work for them,” he says. “So that made me pick up the hobby of writing more, just to get my beats sold.” He began to love writing. Since he had so many beats (he currently has a collection of over 10,000 of his own and those culled from Twitter and other producers from Tha Alumni, DJ Ill Will's music group that Ink calls home), he decided to try his hand at rapping as well.
Crash Landing, the 2010 mixtape hosted by DJs Ill Will and Rockstar, catapulted Kid Ink the rapper into the spotlight. He's a stronger rapper than singer, but the sort of stoned, haphazard singsong he often employs is wildly radio-friendly.
The following year, he toured and released another project, Daydreamer, that was downloaded over 150,000 times in its first week.
"People gravitated more toward me as an artist than [as a producer],” he says, and so he decided to focus on writing. He's still developing that muscle, though — while producing is second nature to him, he still gets nervous about freestyling.
Yet with the success of Crash Landing, he sensed he could make it as an artist. “I knew if I worked harder at it, I would be able to do it,” he says.
Outside Dope, a small throng peers in curiously, wondering who the person being interviewed is. Kid Ink shrugs. “Every time I walk in here, even just to shop, I'm guaranteed to take at least three or four photos.” As if on cue, two girls ask him to pose.
Kid Ink performs with Dizzy Wright, Sat,. Aug. 10 at The Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. (714) 957-0600, www.observatoryoc.com 8 p.m., $20. All ages.