The rapper and founder of Signal on the luxury of privacy, the future of community, and their radical visions of the future
I met Moxie Marlinspike in 2019, on a chilly night (by Southern California standards), on a street corner in Silver Lake. Illuminated only by a tungsten lamp overhead and fitful flashes from headlights on the cars zooming down Sunset Boulevard, Marlinspike tucked his arms in his jacket pockets for warmth and pulled his hood tight, leaving only his face exposed. I was only dimly aware of Marlinspike’s contribution to the world as the cofounder of Signal, the most highly secure, end-to-end encryption messaging service in the world.
Marlinspike launched the Signal app in 2014, a time when internet privacy, once a luxury for privileged elites and tech nerds, became a mass concern. Signal’s early predecessors, Redphone and Open Whisper Systems—both developed by Marlinspike—were used by freedom fighters during the Arab Spring. In the days following the 2016 election, and amid rising concerns over unchecked government surveillance, downloads rose nearly 400 percent. Now, Signal’s adopters are a strata of unlikely bedfellows, a testament to its security and a sign of growing consciousness toward internet privacy. The platform counts narcotics traffickers, Black Lives Matter activists, Edward Snowden, and journalists among its users; in 2017, the Senate sergeant-at-arms approved its use for staffers on Capitol Hill, after receiving a letter from the ACLU urging the legislature to adopt more secure communication technology. Google and Facebook license Signal’s protocol, so if you’ve used those companies’ messaging services (or their subsidiaries, such as Facebook’s WhatsApp), you can thank Marlinspike for helping to secure your messages from hackers, government entities, and other malevolent do-badders. An idealist masquerading as a pragmatist, Marlinspike tells rapper Freddie Gibbs, “Real change happens in private. It’s something we’re used to in our ordinary life. And as more of our ordinary life moves online, I think privacy is something to bring with it.”
For Gibbs, life’s biggest changes have happened in the public eye. Born Jamal Frederick Tipton, Gibbs has transformed himself from a street-hardened crack dealer from Gary, Indiana to a battle-ready performer and family man. In 2006, he signed to Interscope and later joined Atlanta rapper Jeezy’s label CTE. Despite a slew of mixtapes that earned acclaim in smaller hip-hop circles, Gibbs’s career plateaued, leading him to part ways with Jeezy in 2012. Fed up with the unforgiving gears of the hip-hop industrial complex, he founded his own label, ESGN, and in 2019, in conjunction with producer Madlib, he released the critically acclaimed tour de force Bandana. His latest effort, Alfredo, recorded with legendary producer The Alchemist, was named one of the best albums of the year by Complex magazine. Alfredo, an apparent portmanteau of their names, samples tranquil ’70s vocals and melodies overlaid with contained lyrical fury and a corner hustler’s quixotic street code. On “Babies & Fools” he raps, “Friends was tryna count my pockets like I don’t deserve a million / Bitch, I deserve a trillion / ’Cause I would’ve did a trillion years for these niggas / Whole bid for these niggas.”
Now almost 40, Gibbs lives in Calabasas, California, with his two children. He tells Marlinspike, “I don’t ever want to be totally disconnected from the streets as I evolve, but this new lifestyle makes me yearn for more material, more experience, and more inspiration.” An unabashed capitalist (“If you’re a drug dealer you’re a capitalist anyway!”), he is perhaps Marlinspike’s foil: a pragmatist masquerading as an idealist.
Although they emerge from vastly different corners of the American experiment, Marlinspike and Gibbs both hold radical visions of the future. Marlinspike, driven by his cyberpunk conviction, deploys privacy tech to subvert the asymmetries of power in a networked world, while Gibbs wrangles the highly individualized narrative of the American hustle to catapult himself into a position of power and self-determination. In the inverted logic of late capitalism, both are rendering the master’s tools obsolete, leaving them, along with old systems, discarded on their respective corners.
Alex Hodor-Lee: You’re both described as subversive—is that a label you accept or reject?
Freddie Gibbs: Subversive? With my music?
Alex: With rejecting the music industry.
Freddie: Yeah! I’d say that. I’m a fan of walking to the beat of my own drum. I don’t get into the industry cliques. It’s a lot of rappers I know, but I don’t know them like that. And I don’t fuck with them like that. The majority of the game is superficial anyway. I make my own brand of music. When I do collaborations, it’s organic. I don’t give a fuck about being in the industry in crowd. I just give a fuck about being rich!
Moxie Marlinspike: I feel like the stuff that Signal is doing is fundamentally boring—trying to bring normalcy to the rest of the internet, getting things to work the way people assume and expect them to. What’s crazy is the way things currently work on the internet.
Alex: You once said your greatest fear is routine. Is that still true?
Moxie: [Laughs.] Yes.
Freddie: I feel the same way. I don’t like being in a program. I definitely don’t conform to anything. Doing the same shit over and over again is the definition of insanity.
Moxie: The diabolical thing about the world is that [it] keeps reproducing itself. You can only desire what you know. The way to break out of that is to have new experiences that generate new desires and perhaps a different world. Music and art are a means to do that. What’s interesting about Freddie is that the music industry in itself is a machine. It produces a certain kind of music that generates a certain set of desires for more of the same kind of music. I imagine that it’s hard to do something outside of that machine.
Alex: Do you agree, Freddie? Is hip hop more important in this age of political uncertainty? What’s the machine producing?
Freddie: I think hip hop has seen a decrease in value. It’s like the dope game. If it’s a hundred of us on the block with rocks, rocks ain’t worth the same. It used to be a prestigious thing to be a rapper, to be in hip hop. But now you can do that shit from your bedroom. Since anybody can be a rapper, what do you have to do to stand out? For me to say that hip hop is more important now than it was in the 1980s or ’90s would be a slap in the face to guys like Ice Cube. Shout out to Ice Cube, by the way, for standing up [for] what he believes in and not conforming to what everybody else is saying. Everyone gave Cube a lot of heat for talking to Trump and all of that shit. Fuck that! He’s trying to do something different. I respect that. Our rap predecessors definitely laid the groundwork. It ain’t too many niggas these days laying groundwork for nothing. It’s a hustle for them. Everybody is just trying to hit the lick and milking the streaming era. It’s just the game. It ain’t art no more.
Alex: Hip hop and tech both have anti-establishment roots, but they’ve both turned sharply toward the mainstream. Are they still countercultural?
Freddie: [Hip hop is] still countercultural. Definitely. There are a lot of subgenres within the grand scheme of hip hop: melodic-type rap, lyrical-type rap, and all of the shit that’s in the middle. There are more subgenres of hip hop and rap than there were earlier. [To be] countercultural right now means to just be on your own, walking to the beat of your own drum. I don’t think I conform to anything. I ain’t never even had a song on the radio. I posted a picture of a plaque yesterday. That’s the first plaque I ever got. I ain’t never had a gold plaque. I never make music for the accolades. When I started doing this shit I was literally selling crack in my basement. For me to do music every day, that’s a blessing. I’ve got fans that buy T-shirts. That’s a blessing. I could definitely still be on the corner.
“The diabolical thing about the world is that [it] keeps reproducing itself. You can only desire what you know. The way to break out of that is to have new experiences that generate new desires and perhaps a different world.”—Moxie Marlinspike
Moxie: Tech is not [still countercultural]. The internet used to be a place for crazy dreamers with a lot of weird ideas. The utopian era of technology is over—people don’t really think that tech is going to deliver a better, brighter world anymore. No one thinks that Google is organizing the world’s information or that Facebook is connecting the world. Those utopian narratives have faded in most people’s minds. Most people are just worried about where technology is going and what it’s going to mean.
Alex: Where is counterculture really coming from, from your perspective? Does it even exist?
Moxie: I think it depends on what you mean by ‘counterculture.’ At the beginning of my life, subculture was a big part of what people considered counterculture. Technology has made subculture more difficult because subculture requires some barrier between itself and the rest of the world, and that’s harder to find anymore because of the internet.
Alex: Now that social media is omnipresent, do we have more or less control over our image?
Freddie: Definitely more. With the internet, you interact with more people on the daily. People feel more connected to you. You can shape your image any way.
Moxie: That question used to make a lot of sense for someone like you, who exists in the public. But now it’s a question that everyone has to consider. What does the internet mean when everyone is a public figure just by existing? What worries me [are the] ways in which capitalism continues to invade the personal. Everyone has to think about their image, even if you’re not an artist because people’s personal and professional lives are intertwined. There’s less of a boundary between the economy and the personal.
Alex: Hip hop and tech have both become rapaciously capitalist, though they started off being more experimental, communal. Freddie, are you a capitalist?
Freddie: Definitely. I think the industry has shifted towards innovative ways of making money. I’m all about providing a different kind of future for my kids than I had. Am I a capitalist? Yeah. If you’re a drug dealer you’re a capitalist anyway! My music is motivated by the struggle of making it out of the inner city, especially an inner city as tough as Gary, Indiana. I’m in a weird space right now because I made it out of that shit. Now I’m rapping about rich nigga shit that I never experienced. It’s cool. Right now I’m shooting a movie, but after that, I’m going to go to Gary and then Chicago. I’m a dirty-ass rapper. I’ve got to roll around in the dirt a little bit to make this shit come across the way I want to. When I get to the point where I’m feeling not dirty enough no more, then I’m not gonna do this shit no more.
Moxie: I think a lot about what people are experiencing and want from Signal and what we can do to help people. Peoples’ conversations are really valuable—other tech companies feel the same way, but when they think of value, they’re thinking of the amount of money and data they can extract from it. When we think of it, we think of what it means for people’s lives.
Alex: Moxie, you’ve made it a point to create privacy. Freddie, you’ve made your life public—and that, to your point, is how you’ve made it out of the inner city. Is privacy still important to you?
“The internet used to be a place for crazy dreamers with a lot of weird ideas. The utopian era of technology is over—people don’t really think that tech is going to deliver a better, brighter world anymore.”—Moxie Marlinspike
Freddie: It’s like half and half. Yeah, I enjoy my privacy. When I’m chilling with my kids I don’t want to take no pictures with no fucking fans because I’m dedicating my time to my children. My life is a fucking open book already through my music, so I have to have something to myself. I don’t mind being open. I don’t mind doing what I got to do for the sake of the art, but I have to hold a little bit of something to myself.
Moxie: Real change happens in private. It’s an important space we have to maintain. It’s something we’re all used to in our ordinary life, and as more of our ordinary life moves online, I think privacy is something to bring with it.
Alex: Hip hop and tech are two spaces that romanticize the individual—why is that?
Freddie: A person will feel like they know you because if a person is looking at you 24-7 on Instagram all day, they start to feel like they’re damn near a part of you, or your family.
Moxie: It makes sense to me that people mythologize someone like you, Freddie. Artists create something out of themselves. Tech is totally different. I don’t think that Facebook or Apple are the projects of the individual. There’s maybe a little bit of poetry in there but when people mythologize the individual behind an enormous company like Facebook, that’s really dangerous because it’s not actually about them. The technology has an agency and a force of its own. We could get rid of all of the CEOs of the existing tech companies of the world, and I’m not sure much would change.
Alex: What does community—and the future of community—look like to each of you?
Freddie: We all need to focus on being one goddamn community; there are too many separate communities. The idea of community is being together. I feel like the world is actually more tribal than communal.
Alex: What’s your immediate community for you Freddie?
Freddie: The Vice Lords. That’s my community, honestly.
Moxie: Community is based on similar interests. The people I’m close to I’ve known for a long time.
Alex: When we think about all the loss, adversity, and hardship we’ve experienced this year, do you feel dejected or inspired?
Moxie: There are moments when you learn a lot about your own power and understand the power that a community has and that you can make incredible things. Sometimes, that is worth more than anything even if it isn’t an immediate victory. That is different than just ‘bad things are happening’—plague, fire, destruction. But the silver lining is that you have an ability to start asking, is this the world we actually want? Why do things look like this—and do they have to? People are asking questions about policing. Ideas like police abolition or prison abolition used to be inconceivable, but now people are talking about them seriously. People are thinking about climate change more seriously. Hurricane after hurricane. Fire after fire. People are asking questions like, how do we actually want to live? Are our institutions and structures what we actually want, or can we reimagine them?
“We all need to focus on being one goddamn community; there are too many separate communities. The idea of community is being together. I feel like the world is actually more tribal than communal.”—Freddie Gibbs
Alex: Freddie, 2020 was a big year for you. Alfredo was the album of the year, in my opinion. On top of all of that, it’s been a really rough year though. Are you feeling inspired as we leave 2020?
Freddie: You know what, man? I’m from the east side of Gary, Indiana. So everything in life and my career is a plus. I already came from the very bottom, so I don’t look at this as a setback; I look at it as a learning experience. You have to learn how to recalibrate and make different kinds of money. I wasn’t able to do shows this year. I just turned it up with the merchandise. You’ve just got to be innovative. It’s motivated me for sure.
I feel like I’m running out of shit to rap about because my life is getting greater and greater. Early in my career I was making music worrying about how to pay the bills. I rap from a happier perspective now, and it shines through in the music. I still got to go play in the dirt and get a sense of things because I don’t ever want to be totally disconnected from the streets as I evolve, but this new lifestyle makes me yearn for more material, more experience, and more inspiration.
Moxie: You are who you are because of where you came from. Do you worry that your kids aren’t going to have the same experiences?
Freddie: Man, fuck them kids. They’re rich.
Moxie: Is that a concern?
Freddie: Hell, no. They better get their minds right. They didn’t have it as hard as me. I made it out. I already made it so my kids don’t got to live the way I lived. So I feel good about that.