Given hip-hop's complicated love affair with the streets, a multitude of rap artists have analyzed and examined the criminal element, often sharing what is promoted as first-hand accounts, adding to the authenticity that has made the genre a voice for the underprivileged and the the voiceless. Unfortunately, the line between reality and rap can blur, accounting for the incarceration of a number of figures in hip-hop, with Montana of 300 being one of the more recent rhymers to find himself confined within the belly of the beast. On May 17, the rising Chicago rapper, who made major waves last year with his debut album, Fire in the Church, announced on Instagram that he had been arrested and was incarcerated in an undisclosed location, but failed to give any more info to the matter.

The news, which came days before the release of Montana's sophomore album, Don't Doubt the God, couldn't have come at a worse time, and led many to wonder what charges or legal troubles had led to his incarceration and the severity of it all. While the public awaited an update on Montana's whereabouts, Don't Doubt the God was released to favorable reviews, with fans of the 300 member marveling at his layered lyricism and growth as a songwriter. Although Montana would not be present to witness the reception to his latest effort in real time, he remains in good spirits, as he was during a phone call with XXL this past May. Speaking with the resolve of a sage street veteran, Montana came across as a man on a mission, ready to educate the youth, heal his community and put the past behind him.

XXL speaks with Montana of 300 as he gives us the scoop on his new album, his incarceration, when fans can expect him to be back on the streets, the responsibility he feels he and fellow rappers have to the city of Chicago and more.

XXL: Your debut album, Don't Doubt the God, was released last month. What has the reception to it been like, as far as the fans, and how does it feel to finally have achieved that goal?

Montana of 300: It’s a blessing to be able to, especially while I’m locked up. I don’t know too many niggas to be making money while they’re away or they’re locked up, so, it’s a blessing, but talking to my people on the outside, the fans, they’re loving it and shit like that. I’m hearing a lot of good things about it and it’s being called a masterpiece. One of the guards told me today, "I talked to one of my fans and he actually refers to you as God," and I laughed ’cause I know they call me the Rap God, so it was funny and different for me to hear.

But he said didn’t really get a chance to listen to it yet, but he was gonna check it out, though, one of the guards. And he asked me, "Why would you release your album while you’re locked up?" and I said, "I gotta make money while I’m away," and he said, "Yeah, that’s smart." So, I’ve been hearing a lot of good things, I’ve heard the fans saying what songs are they’re favorite and it’s been like every song on the album getting named, but different people, so it’s not one or two overshadowing the rest type shit, you know what I’m saying? That’s kinda what I aimed for, to have a well-balanced album, something that everybody can fuck with.

The title, Don't Doubt the God, is a pretty cocksure title. What was the inspiration for it and how and when did you come up with it?

Probably a little over a year ago. The inspiration of it, I think of God being more the spirit in us or our soul, even as we have kids and we reproduce, they have a soul and they have a spirit that goes through our bodies. To me, that’s what God is so to lose faith in God is to lose faith in yourself, to me. God don’t help those that don’t help themselves, so with Don’t Doubt the God, I’m saying don’t doubt the God that we pray to as far as losing faith and don’t doubt the god within yourself and don’t doubt the Rap God, the way that I can deliver or if I’m as good as they say I am or whatever it is.

It’s okay to doubt people and question people, but that’s what I’m saying, "Don't doubt the God." When they question things such as the King James version or anything written by human that they’re questioning God, they’re not questioning God, you’re questioning people and their work, says the King James version, it doesn’t say God’s version. And a lot of people are scared and don’t really know the difference between questioning something and questioning God. They think we can’t question God.

And I look at certain things like what teacher that wants their kids or their students to rise up, tells them you can’t ask me no questions, you know what I’m saying? They want them to have understanding, they want them to understand and know and grow. So if a teachers says, "This is what the lesson is," and the kids is lost and if you’re not gonna explain it to ’em or try to help them get it you must be trying to keep them down for some reason. I actually have a line in a song where I say, "Don’t doubt the God and stand firm like you’re setting a screen/There’s just one version of the truth, you need question your king.”

So you have so many different versions of the truth or so many versions of the bible and these books and the most common bible, at least in the United States, is the King James version and it’s like it’s one version of the truth and then you come along and say, "This is my version," you’re questioning that king. Most people don’t even know what King James is the fucking King of. They wouldn’t know King James if he looked them in their eye. That’s the thing you need to question.

Just like if anybody come to you with a lick on the street and be like, "Man, I got this lick. We gonna go kick in this door and get this $20,000." You need to ask questions. How do you know about this? Who’s supposed to be there? Where did you get this information from? Those are the type of things that you gotta know who you dealing with, in any situation, especially if you putting your life on the life. So at the end of the day, you can doubt your friends, you can question your friends, but don’t doubt yourself or what you’re capable of. That’s what’ll hold you back more than anything. So Don’t Doubt The God, I really been showing people that I been going in on songs for so long, that a lot of times people be like, "He got bars, but he don’t know how to make no hits, he don’t know how to make no songs," so on here, I put more songs with hooks on and just showed people a different side of me than just me going in all the time, like my fans are used to and what most of them love me for. So it was just showing them that, like don’t doubt me, I’m all-around with this shit.

Fire in the Church and Don't Doubt the God were both released on May 20. Is that a coincidence or was it a calculated decision, and if so, what makes that particular date so significant?

Well, Fire in the Church actually made it important, and yes, it was calculated, but it wasn’t calculated in jail. After Fire in the Church, I decided to stick with it. Fire in the Church was originally supposed to drop May 6, but I pushed it back two weeks and gave the fans a request they were asking for, which was the “Panda” remix at the time. And two weeks from the 6th is the 20th. To me, that day was so big just because I had the No. 2 hip-hop album in the country with Fire in the Church, next to Drake’s.

So, that was one of the biggest accomplishments I ever did in my life at the time, so I was like, I’ma stick to that date, and that way, if I stick to a certain date, every year, on that date, like Christmas, they know I’ll have something under the tree. They know I’m gonna bless ’em on that day. April could be rolling around and they’ll be like, "Ah shit, it’s almost May, you know what that mean, he bout to drop an album May 20." So I figured within 365 days, with me rededicating my life to music, I feel I should be able to give my fans at least 15 solid songs.

Fire in the Church had a ton of features, but this go-round, you decided to showcase yourself more. Was that a conscious decision going into the making of the album or is that more so how the chips eventually fell?

Nah, I kind of went with myself a little but more just because, like I said, I’m metaphorically saying the god in me, so I made sure I did more hooks. And one of my main things to is to get my team out there and get them heard. That’s why I do those cyphers on every project so I feel like the cyphers are mandatory and I just tried to keep that at a minimum and gave them more of the god.

Members of 300 dominated the few songs with guest appearances on the album, particularly "FGE Cypher," "Like That" and "My Dough." How did those three records come together and what were the studio sessions like?

Well, we always know any rap project we drop, we always gonna have a cypher on there. So, for instance, Tally is supposed to be dropping his album in September, so his album will probably have the cypher 5 on there so we already know what’s going on. This is pre-thought about, we just take our time and find the beat and once we find the beat, we be like, if everybody fuck with it, this what we gonna do the next cypher on. Then it’s like whoever come out with the next project is what it’s going on.

But the “My Dough,” someone paid my artist Jalyn Sanders for a feature and he came up with the hook and he sent it to me and told me to check it out. And I liked the hook so much that I told him that I wanted to use it and to tell whoever he did the feature for that I’ll re-do him a hook instead for free and he don’t even gotta pay me, just ’cause I’m taking the hook and using it as my own. So I decided to get on there, I put a verse on there and kept Jalyn's hook on there and No Fatigue, his whole little demeanor and swag and sauce about himself, I just felt like he’d be a good fit for it so I put him on there with me.

We probably did that shit late as hell in the studio probably about 3 or 4 in the morning cause Jalyn already did his hook, but as far as the cypher, I believe I handled my first last and everybody else had put their verse down and I worked on a few other songs on my albums during that session. So, my next session I came in and put my verse down last.

What producers did you work with on this album and what unique qualities did they bring to the table?

Snow God, I feel like almost anything he send is mean. It’s kinda like a radio hit, that’s what I like about him. I got a dude called Too Blunt Beats, he always kinda brings some edge to the album and stuff like that. The first track on that album called “God Strong,” it’s produced by a guy called Supah Mario and I think he got the whole pace set and going for the album because cause every time I do an intro. I always try to paint a picture of the album’s title. I think it had a lot of energy and edge to it to get the album hype, so that was kinda like going along with the Don’t Doubt the God thing to me.

If you could sit everyone in a room who hasn't heard your music yet and play them three songs from this album, what would they be and why?

It would be the first song “God Strong” because it kinda paints a whole picture of the album. It probably has the most substance, content, teaching and strength in it, and I feel a lot of hip-hop today is lacking all of that, mixed with the creativity and metaphors and all of that it has every aspect of lyricism in it. Everything hip-hop should be in that song when you focus on an artist lyrically.

After that, I would have to say “Born to Ball” ’cause it’s almost commercial, but at the same time, it’s not. If you listen to it, I didn’t use no curse words and I dedicated that song to the athletes, the ballplayers. I have a lot of young fans and people in high school, and I even had a few people hit up my manager about coming to perform at certain schools or how much I would charge, but at the same time, I never really had no new music that’s clean enough for a high school, you know what I’m saying? So, I felt that would be something motivating, it already was clean.

And I kinda used a twist of having the double meaning as far as my lifestyle and what a football or basketball player have in common. And at the same time showing I can make a hook, that I could rap without cussing, that I know how to make a radio song, and I feel that’s the song where all ages can relate, whether you’re hustling, in the streets for real, you play ball or you have played ball.

And I feel it’s motivational too, it’s some guidance in there and knowledge. And the third song, I would probably say would have to be “Busta Rhymes.” I got a song name “Busta Rhymes” and it’s actually dedicated to the rapper Busta Rhymes. My favorite Busta Rhymes song is “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and that came out 20 years ago from now. When it comes on, it goes, "Busta Bus, ’97" and when mine come I say “Busta Bus, ’17," 2017, 20 years later. And it’s just me paying homage to him and playing with words and using my creativity around key points or lines he was known for or remembered for and I feel that’s just a different ass song in its own way. So, those would be my three choices.

Have you ever met Busta Rhymes or spoke with him?

No, never, but I’m open to it when I get out of here. Before I came to jail, probably three, four days, I was in Atlanta chilling with the battle rapper Arsenal and I played the “Busta Rhymes” song for him and he was going crazy the whole time, you know? And then when it went off he was like, "Wait til that nigga has that shit" and he was like, "That nigga just texted me four days ago." And the album wasn’t out, so I’ll probably have somebody send Arsenal the link to send it to him or something so he can check it out if he hasn’t already, but I haven’t met him yet so hopefully I do when I get out of here.

You also just dropped a mixtape with your 300 squad. How would you describe 300 as family outside of the music and how y'all operate?

Well, the 300 thing, that’s only two people, that’s just me and Tally of 300, but the whole crew, that’s FGE, Fly Guy Entertainment, but that was a fun project. I wasn’t getting too deep or too personal as I’m known to get on my solo album c’ause I’m sharing my stage with my team so I treated that album more like it’s features that I was doing since we’re all on the track.

But everything we do, however we move, period, it’s not like a regular label, you may have people on the same label, but they don’t really rock with each other, they just signed to the same company. Like us, we all move like a family so it’s all love. We all wanna see each other do good. We’re all in support of each other. You ain’t gotta worry about, "He didn’t post my album" or "He didn’t retweet this." We move as a whole unit.

A lot of people see us and they admire us ’cause they can tell we moving with some genuine love. I care about these more than music, before music and after music, I make moves with hopes that they are okay at the age of 60, 70 when we done making music. Like I still wanna see them be good then. I’m not just fucking with them for a quick dollar and like, "Ah, I can’t use you no more" type shit, you know what I’m saying? That’s just how we move wherever we go, this shit is like a family for real, we’re just not saying this shit.

What are some of the lessons they've taught you along the way or ways you've grown as a result of that brotherhood?

Really, honestly, you know how they say you’re the smartest person in the room, you need to get out? Well, I don’t go along with that. Me and Tally are probably the smartest out of all of us, but I feel like if you’re the smartest in the room, you got some teaching to do, you know what I’m saying? It ain’t always about what you can take from a muthafucka. Sometimes what makes you special or the most special is what you can give.

Everybody in the world is trying to take, so, I’m always trying to teach them and show them things and shit like that. I’m just more so learning them, they not teaching me much, but I’m learning them, what they like and what they need to work on and I’m showing ’em the ropes. They see I’m a giving mufucka and I’m like, "When y’all get y’all labels, help mufuckas out along the way, don’t ever be no stingy mufucka. All that type of shit, you know?

I also got a line on that “God Strong” song where I say, "I went from living in the ’jects to my dream, so fresh and so clean/It’s cool to have a necklace that bling, but real leaders teaches lessons while they blessing their team.” So, as I give and I share my stage with them, at the same time, I’m teaching them and I’m talking to them along the way. Like I wouldn’t tell them to do something I wouldn’t tell my sons. I wouldn’t tell them to do this and fuck around and risk your life or risk your freedom, some shit I wouldn’t tell me son. I’m talking to them that same exact way. I’m not telling you nothing I wouldn’t tell my son or tell my blood brother and that’s really how it go and how I move.

Unfortunately, you were incarcerated when your album dropped. How have you been holding up and passing the time?

I’ve been great, man. I’ve been locked up before and shit and I’m used to coming out and not having as much as I had when I went in. I’m coming out this bitch with hundreds of thousands of dollars added to what I already had. That shit’s a blessing. You can’t really ask for nothing more than that, so I’m good. I prepared for this. I shot a few videos before I came in so they’ll begin to start dropping throughout the time that I’m locked up. My team in good spirits. I talk to my partners every day, encouraging them. I got somebody recording my son's basketball games so I can check ’em when I get out. So, I’m real good, I’m blessed.

Without going into specifics, what charges were you arrested for and has there been a trial date set yet?

I’ve actually dealt with it all. I had caught a pistol case and I was fighting it, going back and forth to court for almost two years and they weren’t getting anywhere. It was me and three more of my artists. We all got locked up on a pistol, but nobody pointed no fingers and nobody said it was theirs, so basically, they couldn’t charge all four of us with one pistol and they can’t just pick one of us.

So, they say real niggas never fold, and shit happened so long ago, they weren’t getting nowhere so they had to drop the pistol case and when they dropped the pistol case on all of us, I went to jail and I bonded everybody out. But when they dropped the pistol cases about a month ago, they wanted something, so, they just charged me on driving suspended at the time and obstructing justice ’cause I gave a false name when I got pulled me over. That’s what I got charged with, but with everyone else, they had to drop the pistol case, so we beat that shit.

Is there a timetable for when fans can expect to see you back in the mix of things as a free man?

Yeah. I’ll be back by the 4th of July.

Is there a message you want to send out to your fans that are still rocking and supporting you?

I wanna tell my fans, man, I love y’all and appreciate y’all. Appreciate your ears and I appreciate all your support and y’all holding a nigga down and rocking with me while I’m down. I hope y’all enjoy the album. If you don’t got it, make sure you go get it. This is my life. I’m giving you my all. Real shit, none of that industry shit, all straight 100. None of this sugar-coated shit. I’m me, I’m my own boss. But I appreciate y’all, man. Keep rocking.

How can fans show you and the 300 team support or reach out to show love at this juncture?

I’ma check my DMs when I get out of this bitch so whatever they wanna send, they can just send it on there. You can always write on my wall on Facebook and leave comments under the posts I leave on Instagram and Twitter. I’ma see it all when I get out. All of my social medias are still in effect. I got people working ’em for me and I’m talking to ’em every day, telling ’em shit to say. I don’t really need no fan mail right here. I ain’t gonna be here too long so I ain’t really trying to get flooded with the letters and shit. Just trying to knock this time out, get back out there and get back to doing my thing and fucking with my people.

What was your mission going into the making of this album and what do you want the fans, new and old, to take away or learn from it?

Like I said, my mission, I’m always trying to better myself and outdo myself and better those around me and when I say better those around me, I don’t mean just FGE. I mean, I’m surrounded by my fans, I don’t go out to clubs and shit like that, I go out and handle my business. So, to me, them being able to take something from what the fuck I’m talking about and what the fuck I do is very very important to me.

I had a lot of people reaching out to me saying they asked some of the high school kids who’s some of the rappers you listen to in Chicago and they got to naming the rappers, and then they said who out of those rappers teaches them positive things and they was like only my name was coming up. And out of all of the famous rappers names you just named, now you’re only naming one? So, at the end of the day, I don’t want nobody to listen to me and be like, "I been listening to him for X amount of years and if you listen to him too, you can learn how to bag this or how much this is supposed to weigh or how to catch a nigga slipping," you know what I’m saying? There’s more to life than that.

And it would be one thing to give all of my fans a dollar, in due time, that dollar gonna run out and I just went in my pockets X amount of times and broke my pockets, but if I give my fans advice to pass on to their siblings and their father and mother, and pass it to people around them, that’s a gift that never runs out. Knowledge never expires, you see what I’m saying? So, to me, my thing is, what are you really giving people, ’cause you can give people what they want or you can give people what you need. I made it my objective to do both. I’m not just gonna give you what you want, I’m gonna give you what you need and how I put it, it’s probably gonna turn what you need into what they want. Now they want this, now they wanna learn.

A lot of my fan base are boys who don’t have fathers or males who don’t have brothers or women who don’t have fathers [and be like], "I move like this ’cause my favorite rapper taught me this" or "I don’t smoke or drink ’cause my favorite rapper don’t smoke or drink." So, I’m always trying to guide them to be better tomorrow than what they were yesterday and I feel that’s a must that I put that in there that’s my way of showing God that I’m grateful for all his blessings. I can’t pay him back for all of the blessing that he’s given me, but what I can do is be a blessing to others while I have the opportunity.

They say with great power comes responsibility. You rappers got all this talent, you a voice now, whether you know it or not, you a teacher. You got this great power, but where’s the responsibility, what are you doing with it? You’re not teaching with it, you not giving with it, you not blessing nobody, you all about self. You ain’t wisened up, you still talking about bitches, killing, clubs, sipping lean, doing drugs, intoxicating yourself, the same shit our people been hearing. A lot of these rappers are smarter than what you know, but a lot of them don’t know how to display that or think it’s cool when it’s time to display. And Tupac said, "It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other" and a lot of these niggas don’t got the skill to heal, or not even willing to try to change it up and do something like that.

Or they might think, I’ll risk my fans, they don’t wanna hear that, and that’s why balance is important, the good and the bad, the punishments and the rewards. That’s why when I talk about the bad shit I do in raps, I talk about the punishment as well. I talk about the repercussions. I talk about the times I was wrong and made mistakes and thinking I could make a change like this, but it ain’t like that. I talk about how I’m human, I make mistakes just like y’all. A lot of people think that their favorite artist, just cause a mufucka got money that he can’t make mistakes or his opinion isn’t wrong. I let my fans know that often, I’m perfect, but I’ma try to be better than I was yesterday and if you with me, I’m trying to take you with me and we all gonna elevate.

Chicago is riding on a high note with the established artists and relative newcomers both flourishing and making a name for themselves out of the city. How does it feel to have the spotlight on your city after years of being overlooked?

It’s all part of my blessing. I’m feeling everything is a blessing. I’ve been showered with blessings. Just to be a part of that is a great feeling. It’s every rappers' dream, I’d say. But what I can say, and even a message to my city, the light that’s been on Chicago the last few years, I’ve seen a lot of people come in the scene that are fading out and it ain’t too many of us that’s making noise anymore.

And the message I wanna give to Chicago rappers is they try to put us in a category of whatever they wanna call it, drill shit, all the violence, all the homicide. It’s almost like they don’t expect anybody to do any teaching. The only person trying to do any teaching is Common, they might think that, you know? So, when mufuckas hear me, mufuckas done apologized to me plenty of times like, "Man, I thought you was just another Chicago rapper or I thought you was another this," you know what I’m saying, ’cause when you sit back and look at yourselves, you all talk about the same shit.

We gotta do something because a lot of kids out here doing all this violence. They looking up to us because we the faces of Chicago and we the voices. Like yeah, it’s entertaining to see an action movie so when we talking about the guns and the bad shit we do, that’s entertaining, cool, being a rapper, that’s part of being an entertainer, but at the same time, we gotta teach, we gotta guide our city, with great power comes great responsibility. And that goes for your city as well.

We got the kids of the future watching us, so, think about that type of shit. What can you tell these kids? What can you give them? What can you lead them with? ’Cause we ain’t gonna have this stage forever. Whether it dies out or we die out, this shit ain’t forever so give it to ‘em while you can.

Who are some of the artists from the Chi outside of your 300 clique that you have a personal relationship or are just a fan of, or do you tend to keep it more in-house?

Yeah, I really keep it in-house with my crew. 600 Breezy, he cool. I ain’t met him yet, but I heard about him showing love on a few occasions and shit. That nigga Lil Bibby, he done showed love a few times. We done texted here and there, shout out to him too. Shout out to Dreezy. I chopped it up with her a couple of times and shit like that. Other than that, I really stay in my own lane and keep my shit in-house, you know what I’m saying? To me, that’s just the smarter way to be.

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