Northeast Baltimore rapper Tate Kobang — whose song "Bank Rolls (Remix)" became popular last year — talks about his background and his method while working on a new track at Above Ground Studios. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun video)
Staring toward the ceiling, Tate Kobang mumbles short bursts of words and hummed placeholders. Holding the studio headphones closer to his ears, he animatedly rocks back and forth as a new flow comes to him in the moment. As the Baltimore rapper's grin blooms to a full-blown smile, Kobang can't help but let the music move him in the booth.
He found what was he looking for.
"See, I'm from Baltimore. We like to dance," Kobang said during an interview earlier that fall day at Above Ground Studios in Baltimore's Bel-Air Edison neighborhood. "When I catch my melody, it's over."
This process — constructing lyrics and cadences without writing anything down — has helped push the 23-year-old, seemingly out of nowhere, into the national hip-hop discussion, thanks mainly to the hit single "Bank Rolls (Remix)," an irresistible nod to the city's past that sounds little like rap radio today. With an unofficial video garnering hundreds of thousands of views, frequent spins on local radio and placements on year-end best songs lists from The Fader and Pitchfork, "Bank Rolls" became an instant classic city anthem.
Now, Kobang has a chance to become Baltimore's first bona fide rap star. (He's currently touring the country on the Young Hustle Tour; Friday's date at Baltimore Soundstage, however, was canceled due to expected inclement weather.)
Kobang, born Joshua Goods, isn't interested in shouldering such a burden.
"It's a privilege, but I don't really want that task," he said. "That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to really just show people that no matter what your circumstances is, you feel me, rock bottom ain't always the end."
Long before his shimmering song became ubiquitous on radio station 92Q and signing a deal with 300 (the record label Baltimore native Kevin Liles co-founded with other veteran executives, like the influential Lyor Cohen), Kobang grew up in Northeast Baltimore, along the Alameda.
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"I grew up around a lot of street [expletive], for real," Kobang said. "Typical Baltimore story, growing up was hard. Single-parent home, for real, for real. And that's what really made me appreciate everything. I learned not to take nothing for granted."
Raised by his mother, Kobang learned about hip-hop from his uncles. ("They like the uptop music," he said, referring to Wu-Tang Clan and Nas.) Once Kobang became obsessed with Method Man's "Tical" album, battle rapping soon followed. During the same time, he noticed a shift in his peers.
"I started seeing that a lot of it was transitioning from everybody wanting to be drug dealers [and] gang members to everybody wanting to get more into the arts," he said.
Still, his mother had grown concerned about the influence of the streets, so she moved them to her sister's house in York, Pa., where Kobang attended high school before dropping out. He returned to Baltimore in 2009 to spend time with his ill great-grandfather, and has split his time between York and Baltimore since, frequently shouting both out on songs.
Enjoying the attention his music attracted from women, Kobang explained in language unprintable here, he grew more serious about rapping and released a free mixtape in 2014 titled "Crown of Thorns." But it was a tossed off freestyle over a 2000 local rap hit (Tim Trees' "Bank Roll," produced by Baltimore Club legend Rod Lee) that would change Kobang's life.
In 2014, Kobang released the mixtape on his mother's birthday, April 19. (She passed away the year before, and Kobang declined to go into specifics.) On that day last year, he dropped the video for "Bank Rolls," a two-minute, hook-less track filled with Baltimore references (Appleton, Biddle Street, Lafayette and more). Most notable is Kobang's delivery, a fluid flow that weaves in and out of drum pockets with ease.
The song is so Baltimore in sound and subject that, on paper, it should have little appeal to listeners not from here. Kobang said that was part of the point, since he did the song as a gift to the city. Liles' 300 reached out wth a deal, which led to the expansion of "Bank Rolls," including a second verse and a colorful new video.
"It was specific to Baltimore because that's all I wanted it to really hit," he said. "Baltimore's been a sad-ass place for a while, and we just wanted to put some life back in the city. Give something for people to be proud or happy about. Something for the kids to look up to, other than wanting to be out here, losing their lives, you feel me?"
Soon after, the song's rumbling 808 kick-drum could be heard booming out of cars around the city, to the point Kobang found it inescapable.
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"Let me tell you something — I do not listen to the song!" Kobang said, laughingly. "We get in the car and we turn on the radio for two seconds." He imitates the kick-drum, and slaps his hands emphatically. "Boom, boom, boom. Like, c'mon, yo. Really? I perform this song four times a day. But it's a blessing."
He’s been busy the past few months — releasing his version of Drake and Future’s “Jumpman,” freestyling on high-profile radio stations like Sirius XM’s Shade 45 and New York’s Hot 97, while trying to craft the next hit. For the latter, he has received some A-list help. Swizz Beatz — the super-producer behind hits from Jay Z, T.I. and his wife, Alicia Keys — recently posted a video clip of Kobang and him in the studio, working on music for the rapper’s next project.
"Big music, big records, big moves," Kobang said of what's in store.
Before heading into the booth to continue work on an unnamed song, Kobang is asked if there was a moment he realized he was Baltimore's next great hope for a rap star. Bypassing an easy opportunity for self-flattery, he demurred.
"I ain't there yet. … That's the problem with people. They get that little buzz, that little shine, and it goes straight to they head and [artists] lose focus," Kobang said. "It hasn't fully hit me yet. It's whatever for me. I've got a job to do now."