Grande Marshall: “There’s No Going Back.”
It was a long bus ride back to Philadelphia.
Grande Marshall recalls it vividly. Leaving Atlanta, he had little on him; mostly about $60 in his wallet, lyrics in his head and dreams of hitting it big. The bus travelled all day. He stepped out at the Greyhound terminal near Market East and took in his surroundings. The rapper was home, but it wasn’t necessarily a grand homecoming. What would happen next?
“I kept thinking to myself, that whole bus ride,” he remembers, closing his eyes tight and putting himself in the moment, “just keep at it. Be confident and calculated in what you do. There’s no going back.”
It sounds like a story out of a feel-good family film, a young musician following his dreams to become a star. Fresh off a new album and having received plenty of local buzz, Grande is finally getting there. But it was never easy.
It’s a blistery cold night in Philadelphia but you wouldn’t know that from being with Grande. His radiant personality and talkative nature exude warmth.
He is wearing a heavy coat but if he is cold, he doesn’t let on. He has some boyish features, and frequently rubs his stubble where a beard is coming in. But the maturity he evokes does not seem that of someone college-aged.
“Music was something I really felt was my calling,” Grande recalls. “A lot of people were telling me, ‘You don’t wanna be 20 to 30 years down the road, getting old and listening to the radio thinking damn, this could’ve been me.’”
Grande was born in Philly and lived in North Philly and Yeadon as a child before moving to Maryland with his mom during middle school. His family impressed upon him the importance of maintaining a job and going to college. Grande planned a career in advertising and marketing and had internships under his belt. He briefly attended Howard Community College in Maryland, but a turning point was spending a few weeks living with his grandparents in Atlanta.
Wanting him to work, his grandfather drove Grande to a nearby shopping center and told him he would pick him up in a few hours after he applied at every store there. Grande estimates he made it to three or four.
“This isn’t work,” he says, reflecting on the experience. “I don’t see Target jumping me into marketing and advertising, so there’s no point in forcing it. And my grandfather said to me, ‘At some point, you’re going to be 20, 30, 35 and something has to change.’”
And that led to his bus ride back.
“I thought of all the places I could make it, all the places that would feel like home,” Grande says. “In my mind, Philly was it.”
And so here he was, a young rapper in North Philly, unsure of his next move. He bounced from one couch to another, mainly spending time at his friend Sheldon Abba’s apartment at 12th Street and Girard Avenue. He continued writing and found his way into various studios, spending countless hours working on material.
It was a humbling time for Grande. The weight of his situation was on him. He had friends and relatives who had been in jail. He wasn’t working, aside from selling some weed here and there. It was just the music, and his situation was feeling dire.
“I was in the basement, living off McChickens and making beats,” Grande remembers. “There were no windows in that jawn. I had no idea if it was day or night and I didn’t know what would happen when I came out of there. It was push forward or end up on the street.”
Grande speaks with affection for those close to him who have helped him through the years. He is jovial, with a hearty laugh and quick to a joke. But he gets somber when mentioning family. This is a man who knows where he comes from and knows how indebted he is to family and friends.
“I love my Mom and we have this tough relationship,” he says. “She always told me not to be sorry but to be careful. I do and act to others how I want to be treated.”
All that studio work finally paid off. His first tape, 800, came out to encouraging reception, from inside and outside the community.
“I was blown away,” says Bear One, a DJ and producer for P3 Records, who worked with Grande on 800 and his follow-up Mugga Man. “At the time, I think he was only like 17 or 18 and it was incredible. His beats were up to par and his lyrics, for someone his age, were incredible.”
Grande earned shoutouts on websites like Complex and landed a gig opening for A$AP Rocky at the TLA. It was 800 that caught the attention of big labels, including Interscope. Grande met with several and says he had offers, but the allure of a major label wasn’t enough to sway the grounded Grande. He knows what his music and his background means to him.
“Psshh, no you fucking don’t,” Grande remembers thinking in the back of his head when a label exec told him they love his music and gets where he’s coming from. “You’ve got a large garage with a bunch of cars. You are rich and well off. That’s not to say people who have money don’t have problems. But these guys have lived their life. And the vibe I got from them doesn’t feel real. I just wasn’t getting a human vibe from these guys.”
And so he kept looking.
That led him to Brooklyn-based label Fool’s Gold, after catching the attention of founders A-Trak and Nick Catchdubs.
“For me, what was most interesting was how self-assured it was, from the artwork to the production to the lyrics, especially for how young he was,” Catchdubs says of 800. “[Fool’s Gold] is about finding people who are the the complete artist and someone we can help put their existing je ne sais quoi on a higher level.”
“It was a big deal to me that they were so interested in me,” Grande says, recalling meeting with Catchdubs at Johnny Brenda’s. “We were just talking and they weren’t trying to just push a contract on me.”
He released his full-length debut album, My Brother’s Keeper, on Fool’s Gold late last year to positive reviews.
It’s a personal album, one which even required some time off to collect himself before finishing. And years of hard work pay off in tracks like “Pullup’s Theme,” the video for which uses North Philly, the neighborhood that made it all came together for Grande, as the backdrop.
“The great thing about My Brother’s Keeper is that it’s like an onion,” Catchdubs says. “There are just so many layers that every listen unveils something new. You can rediscover stuff on this album 10 years down the road.”
But, true to Grande’s nature, he won’t put on the brakes. He’s still in the studio working on new material.
Now wiser and with a headful of lyrics and beats, Grande finally has a clear path in front of him. And the work, support of his family and friends and determination to succeed that carried him so far just keeps him going.
“I told my grandfather that if I turned 21 and wasn’t happy with my life and things weren’t going well, I would drop it all and go back to school,” he says, then lets out a laugh. “And here I am now at 22 and things are going pretty good.
“When I was a kid, my father was trying to teach me how to ride a bike and he told me that if I quit trying to learn to ride I would quit everything. That always stuck with me. I rode that damn bike.”