Gee Watts doesn't look like one of the two men sharing a blunt in the dugout of the baseball field at Parade Park, southeast of the intersection of Truman Road and the Paseo. But there's nobody else in the park on this rainy Wednesday afternoon. Watts said he'd be here. Maybe the 22-year-old rapper looks older in person?
"What you lookin' for? Herb? Oxy?" says one of the men. "We got you."
Watts calls on the phone. "I see you, man," he says, laughing. "I'm over by the basketball courts. Hold up."
The drug dealers saunter off down the park's asphalt trail, and Watts emerges from a friend's Ford Mustang. He's skinny, with a bit of a baby face; in the park in the early afternoon, he scans the area like a truant student cutting class. But in the world of hip-hop, where YouTube views, SoundCloud pages and Twitter cosigns function as blurry currencies, Watts is, at the moment, one of KC's hottest rappers.
In a sense, he got his start here, at Parade Park. "This one, the park at 11th and Olive, the park over off Spruce," Watts says. "When I was 2, 3 years old, my folks would take me on Sunday afternoons, when the park was really jumpin', and I'd stand on little milk carts and perform for people."
But it's just in the past three years that Watts has gotten serious about rapping. He has had slots opening for Young Jeezy at the Beaumont Club and Nipsey Hussle at the Bottleneck. He also performed at the Nice Kicks showcase at South by Southwest in 2012, alongside Action Bronson and Rockie Fresh.
But Watts owes most of his current heat to Kendrick Lamar, the Compton rapper whom MTV crowned the Hottest MC in the Game on its annual list earlier this year. Back in 2011, though — before Dr. Dre's cosign effectively launched Lamar's career — Lamar wasn't on the radar of many people. Watts saw him in an interview segment about West Coast rap and tweeted at him, not thinking much of it.
"Back then, he didn't have many followers, or at least not so many that he couldn't see my tweet," Watts says of Lamar. "So he tweeted back at me, and ever since then, we've had a decent little relationship on Twitter."
In May 2011, Lamar tweeted a sort of cosign: "Follow this young boi. You'll hear his name one day @gee_watts." In 2012, Lamar came through KC on tour with Drake and A$AP Rocky.
"He hit me up two days before the show and said he had some backstage passes for me," Watts says. "So I go backstage, meet him, and he was like, 'I got a song for you to hop on.' Originally the plan was that he'd do a verse on one of my tracks. But after he blew up, it made more sense for me to hop on one of his. More people would hear it that way.
"So I hopped on his tour bus, and he was like, 'This is the track I want you on. Take it with you, live with it, marinate with it, write your 16 and send it back to me,' " Watts continues. "But I'm thinking, 'There's a good chance I'll work on this, send it back, and nobody will ever hear it.' I mean, Kendrick's busy, he's huge — he's got a lot of shit going on. So I said, 'I don't need all day to write a bar. I'm a fuckin' rapper. I'll go write a verse and record it right here.' So that's what I did — wrote a bar in about seven minutes on that tour bus, then recorded it. And he [Lamar] listened to it and was like, 'Damn, that's hard.' "