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.' "
But when Lamar's major-label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, arrived in October 2012, Watts' track wasn't on it. Watts had the finished product just sitting around in an e-mail file.
"I pride myself on being a real man," Watts says. "So I didn't put the song out. You name me a starving artist that would have a song with one of the biggest niggas in the game just sitting in their e-mail and they don't do nothing with it.
"So finally, I was like, 'This ain't gonna come out, so I hit him [Lamar] up and was like, 'What's good?' and he didn't say nothing, he's busy," Watts says. "So I bulled it. I was like, 'Fuck that, that song's mine now.' So we added a chorus onto it, and it took off decently, and then when he [Lamar] saw it, he gave us a little stamp of approval. So we're all good, he messaged me on Twitter, said he liked the track. But I left my original verse on there, the one from the bus, because I wanted the world to hear what I wrote that day on the bus, and what he wrote, too. I wanted to go head-to-head with the nigga who's supposedly the best right now and see where I come out. And you know, even if I didn't out-rap him, I held my own at least."
Watts indeed holds his own on that song ("Watts R.I.O.T."), though it's far from the strongest track on his new mixtape, Watts Up, released in April. Listening, it's not hard to see why Watts might have felt an initial aesthetic connection to Lamar. Lamar is neither a thug rapper nor a brainy conscious rapper. He's just a dude from Compton who pens the kind of really insightful lyrics about gang life and life in the hood that are tough to create unless you've spent some time outside the hood.
Watts has a little of that going on. He has lived at 12 different addresses, mostly on the north and east sides of the city. (He recites them by rote: "1608 East Spruce, 313 Jackson ... .") But for high school, he was able to use an aunt's Lenexa address to get into Kansas public schools — he attended Olathe Northwest and graduated from Olathe North. "I was able to get an education outside the inner city," he says. "And in doing that, I was able to see the other side of things, the nicer side of life, what life should be like for everybody. I've got homies pulling up to school in Lexuses and stuff. I'm getting dropped off in the hood in cars nicer than my mama and daddy have. So I learned how to maneuver in both circles, how to act and handle myself around that crowd and my everyday lifestyle."
Naturally, that seeps into Watts' raps. "Premature Hate," a standout cut, comes on like standard-issue ghetto rap: Money over bitches/We don't love them hos/Bitches ain't shit. But as the song progresses, it reveals itself as commentary on the insidious trappings of hood culture. "I feel like a lot of youth today are being conditioned to have hate in their hearts," he says of the song. "When I was growing up, I was playing video games like NBA Jam and shit. My 4-year-old cousin be loggin' on to Call of Duty. You know?
Despite touring offers and attention from national hip-hop blogs such as Nah Right, HipHopDX and 2 Dope Boyz, Watts says getting traction locally has been frustrating.
"We go to California, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and any new nigga that has a song with the hottest nigga in the game, their song is gonna be played on the radio there," Watts says. "[Hot] 103 Jamz won't even touch my shit. I got a track with Kendrick Lamar! What I need, Jay-Z? You know what I'm saying? Who do we need, Tupac?
"Ron Ron is the one of the hottest niggas from around here. His video has 200,000 views," Watts continues. "Why is Hot 103, which is supposed to be the urban station, not playing him when you can drive up and down any block around here and hear 'Hey Honey'? The radio around here needs to get its act together."
But Watts isn't deterred. He's committed to music full time for the moment. It's a daily grind. "Still here, still stuck, still broke. Still ... still, you know?" he says, walking to his car. "That's just the hood, I guess. But some of us got to make it out this motherfucker."