Tate Kobang

Tate Kobang has five kids. That’s so many diapers. That’s a speaker positioned on top of a box of Huggies and, next to it, a computer table with one leg on top of a box of Pampers and the other on a box of packing material, so that it's raised to the height where you could stand at it and work. He’s 23 years old. He got certified in construction at a charter high school in York, Pennsylvania, but he didn’t graduate. You know how he was paying for those diapers this summer? He was rolling around clubs in Baltimore, like four a night, every night jumping on stage to do his song, “Bank Rolls,” which is all of three minutes long, in front of the same people. Months of this.

‘Wave Hi’ Music Video

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Directed by Nathan R. Smith and Jermell Wrab Brooks. Produced in partnership with WeTransfer.

The One One

“You remember The Lion King?” He knows I do and he blows out my recorder anyway with a very committed rendition of the opening bars of the movie. He says Baltimore reacts to the start of “Bank Rolls” like the rhino and the meerkats and the topi do while the sun’s coming up over Pride Rock. “As soon as they hear it they like — ‘What? What this?’ — everybody start putting they cups down. They starting coming as groups to the dance floor.”

“Bank Rolls” predates Tate Kobang. It was a city-wide hit back in 2000, but Tim Trees, the originator, dropped his vocals squarely on the beat.

“That was the Baltimore sound,” says Tate. “That ugly, raw, not really mastered music. It was just horrible, but it was the city. It’s what we are: rough, ugly and raw. It was exactly what it is now. It was the party-starter. You put that shit on as many times as you want throughout the party and motherfuckers is gonna dance. Don’t matter how many times you put it on. I went to a party the other night and they had three DJs. And every DJ played ‘Bank Rolls.’ And every time motherfucker came on it felt like it was the first time that motherfucker came on. You got the same response every time.”

Tate’s version is more squirrelly, propulsive, better suited to how we dance now, indefatigably infectious. Even Tate and his crew aren’t over it yet.

“I thought I was tired of it,” says YG! Beats, Tate’s in-house producer. “I actually went to my iTunes yesterday, while I was walking across the parking lot to McDonalds. I actually put on ‘Bank Rolls’ to listen to it.”

“I went and listened to it this morning on Soundcloud!” says Tate. “That shit really pissed me off when I thought about it. Didn’t I just listen to this shit for the millionth time?! People have been hearing this song since April. But we’ve been hearing this motherfucker since last December. We got months on motherfuckers, so we like, ‘Shit.’ I know every word.”

Man, so do I. It’s not what he says, exactly, although he rattles off enough place names to credential himself with his neighbors, and his lines are pared to the bone, but the way he deploys these heartless spin moves around the beat.

“I dance. I love to dance. I love that shit. When I’m upset I just dance, cause it puts me in a better spirit. Especially being from Baltimore, it gotta have some bounce,” says Tate. “We been doing the two-step here. So if you can two-step to it, it’s gonna be big. Here, at least.”

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“I dance. I love to dance. I love that shit. When I’m upset I just dance, cause it puts me in a better spirit. Especially being from Baltimore, it gotta have some bounce.”

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Tate and YG are hoping it’s gonna be big everywhere, and there’s really no reason it shouldn’t be. Just because Baltimore hasn’t produced a national star since, like, Tupac, doesn’t mean it won’t. “Bank Rolls” goes, and Tate’s laugh is unhindered like Pac’s. There’s energy in the city, a high stakes combustion of casual warmth between the people and malignant neglect toward them by the state. The potholes are on another level. I think it’s loud as hell, and I lived in New York for 11 years. Conditions like that can bind a creative community together. The denizens of Bird City are particular, exacting and defensive.

“Break the fucking cycle.” This is Kevin Liles, one of the founders of 300 Entertainment, the label that entered the league a couple years ago with some big names in the front office, Liles, Lyor Cohen, Todd Moscowitz, and then proceeded to sign the most productive new acts of this era: Migos, Young Thug, Fetty Wap. He represents Baltimore as well. He went to Woodlawn. I’d asked him about the city, told him that it wasn’t until he went up to Pennsylvania that Tate got any kind of music education in school. “I think you can’t just say, oh, woe is me, and, oh, I can’t do this. No, get your ass up! Party! Celebrate that you woke up! But at the same time, make a difference and make it happen.”

“The people like that need somebody to speak for ‘em, like somebody let ‘em know that rock bottom isn’t the end all the time. That just mean you gotta step back, reevaluate things and put a better plan together.”

Tate doesn’t need these exhortations, though he respects Liles for them. And he concurs.

“I left Pennsylvania really when my mother passed away. When she passed I moved back. I really wanted to be closer to my brother and sister.” They had moved back to Baltimore to live with his grandmother, and Tate followed, to help out. “It was a crazy year. Lost my mother and then lost my father three months later. Same year. Yeah, it was crazy, but everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t be as passionate about my music and stuff as I am now, or, really, speaking life through the music. Cause before it was a bunch of, ‘Oh, I’m a slick young dude, fucking these bitches, counting these dollars.’ But now it’s a bunch of real stuff.”

“Honestly, when all this happened, I was fucked up. I was homeless. I was sleeping at gas stations out in PA and stuff like that. And anybody else in that position would have took the easy way out, or just would have said fuck it and just stayed with that lifestyle, but the people like that need somebody to speak for ‘em, like somebody let ‘em know that rock bottom isn’t the end all the time. That just mean you gotta step back, reevaluate things and put a better plan together. And make a way out. You know? Until shit happens to you, you don’t really understand it. My father took his own life. Before that I wasn’t really — it was just like, ‘Suicide is real, but, I mean, that shit ain’t got nothing to do with me, so I don’t care nothing about it.’ Lost my great-grandfather to cancer. It’s all things that you don’t really care about, or think of, until the shit is in your face.”

All this happened only two years ago. You hear him come close to despair on Crown of Thorns, the tape he dropped last year, with a picture of him and his mother for a cover. In some of those songs, he’s stuck in the unfairness. Today he waffles between wanting to go back to Pennsylvania to raise his kids — “It's nothing here. I love Baltimore too, this will forever be home. But there's nothing here but depression and death. And I don't want parts of either one” — and sticking it out in the city where he’s from — “When people think Baltimore, you would think, OK, you got your drugs, you got your gang members, you got the killings, the violence. But it seem like now the city is mainly people wanting to do fashion, you got different brackets of rappers here, types of musicians and all this. I mean, the drugs and stuff is still here. Killings, gangs, fucking sirens outside right now. Guarantee somebody just got shot. But at the same time, it’s getting better. It’s two sides to every story. And, after the whole Freddie Gray thing, we just really trying to restore the city. Baltimore’s already depressed and depressing right now, we just trying to bring the fun and the joy and the happiness back to the city, which it once was. We got the whole city dancing. We working on the world. Just trying to restore that good feel.”

What if Tate wants to switch it up? What if “Bank Rolls” wasn’t really him doing him? After all, in April it was a hidden track on a tape that’s been mostly scrubbed from the Internet. Who decides what’s real?

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“I’ve always watched Baltimore. I watch every market, really, nationally, but Baltimore — I’ve always been curious about. I love that market.” This is Selim Bouab, who signed Tate to 300. “I always felt like something is bound to come out of here. It’s like Houston in the old days. They created something where it’s their own environment. They’re building steam as their own community where everyone’s supporting each other. Kinda like the Bay Area in the old days.”

I’ve asked him about regionalism, how back in the day sometimes acts and hits got stuck in the area codes that made them, and if he thinks Tate should ride the wave he’s on. “I think that’s part of the movement. With Tate, he’ll send a couple other records and I’ll be like, ‘That’s turning a little bit away from the movement that you’re creating in Baltimore.’ And I think he realized it. My main thing is making a movement. Let’s put on for Baltimore. And that’s what he was all about. I like to keep it. I don’t want to go in and fix what’s not broken. I wanted to keep it as organic as possible, as real as possible.”

I would understand an amount of skepticism toward that stance. What if Tate wants to switch it up? What if “Bank Rolls” wasn’t really him doing him? After all, in April it was a hidden track on a tape that’s been mostly scrubbed from the Internet. Who decides what’s real?

“I look at it from the — I actually have to listen to this shit. I don’t want to hear a whole fucking CD of ‘Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum.’” Tate is mimicking the beginning of “Bank Rolls” again. “I like options. Maybe one day I’m feeling trappish. Maybe one day I’m feeling jazzy. But I like this artist, so I want this artist to give me multiple things, but still keep it them. That’s my biggest thing. Because I’m not one lane. I grew up listening to gospel, R&B, jazz and rap. So I’m not just gonna give you rap music, cause that’s not what’s in me.”

Tate says I’m not gonna hear another “Bank Rolls” from him. YG says don’t quote him, partly because they sense 300 wouldn’t mind another “Bank Rolls” and partly because Tate’s most definitely gonna drop another dance record. Tate says it would be defeating the purpose of music, were he to make a record people can’t move to.

Still, what to do next is somewhat of an open question. Nobody’s saying 300 doesn’t know what they’re doing.

“It’s not a artist or record where you gotta jam it down their throats, make sure that people get it,” says Bouab. “It’s not like we need this to happen by a certain time.”

But 300 also professes, and sounds sincere doing so, to not having all the answers.

“I connect with artists in a way where it’s — not only are we business partners, but, because I come from where you come, I’m, like, mentor-ish,” says Liles. “You have to spend the time getting to know one another and figuring out value proposition. So, at the end of the day, I think I offer a value proposition and a perspective to him that he didn’t have prior to being with us, and vice versa. I have a young kid that has perspective of what Baltimore is today. And not what it was, you know what I mean?”

“It was like, shit. Goddamn. ‘They want us?’ Like, ‘They calling us?” Tate is still pretty floored that 300 hit him up. “It gave me a migraine. I was like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure that this was for me?’”

I didn’t hear any doubts from the 300 side of things. “We just think there’s something special that we could really focus, take our time, and knock out,” says Lyor Cohen, who is still a bit of a mythical figure to Tate and YG. There’s purportedly a video of Lyor dancing on a yacht, cutting up topless, to “Bank Rolls,” that has forever cemented his place in their hearts. Tate says when he watched it, he felt like a millionaire. “It’s nice to see data. The other part of data is you still have to pull the trigger. So it’s data and taste. Data to inform and taste to close.”

While I’m at Tate’s house he records over “Jumpman.” Two of his daughters, outrageously adorable, try to sneak in several times, belly crawling like we can’t see them when they’re that low to the ground, just checking on daddy. He had written the song the day before.

“My daughter was sleep on my lap. I was playing 2K, so I wasn’t really focused. That’s the thing: no music that I put out yet have I actually sat and focused on. And I write songs, like full songs, in probably like five minutes. Especially if it’s me and YG and we making the beat, and we sitting in the house, we just vibing, song will be done in five minutes. Song will be recorded in eight minutes.”

When he’s recording, he stands heel to heel in the carpeted corner. Later he makes sure I know he usually doesn’t require three attempts, he’s usually good with one. Earlier, when he’d met me in the parking garage and walked me up to his apartment, I asked him how his day was going, what he’d been doing. He gave me a earful about Minnie Mouse, about how if he just wakes up and gets Minnie Mouse on before his daughters start losing it, he’s straight, but if Minnie Mouse were to be unavailable for some terrible reason, he does not know what he would do.

Tate’s a dad. The line of work that he’s chosen affords him time with them. And shooting for the moon might be the only way he can ever afford to raise them comfortably and safely. Construction work is way too dependent on way too many outside forces.

“One amazing thing about rap music and the hip-hop generation is the humongous entrepreneurial spirit,” says Cohen. “Right?”

Yeah, it’s the enduring radical act of rap music, which operates within a capitalist political economy, like we all do.

“Everybody thought the music industry was over,” says Liles. “Now there’s more consumption of media and entertainment in the history of the world.”

“I know what I’m capable of. People don’t. Because I haven’t really —I’ve actually seen me at my best,” says Tate, at home on a Wednesday afternoon. “Like Frieza. You don’t know his final form, but he was whooping Goku’s ass for probably about three forms. But when he reach that final form, it’s over. I don’t want to reach that final form until I’m in in. And I got the eyes. Cause then I’m going to go crazy. It’s not that time for me to start snapping yet. Like right now, we got the foot in, but once I get the whole body in, it’s over.”

The American Dream doesn’t begin in the mailroom anymore. The American Dream is engineering a market for the thing you love to do. Tate talks about investing in himself. It’s making people give you money so that you can spend your hours wringing out your imagination and giving over your presence to that which makes up other people’s weekends. It’s more than avoiding the long con of the nine to five. It’s getting the upper hand on capitalism.

Kevin, Selim and Lyor are engaged with this just as much as Tate and YG are.

“The goal,” says Liles, about 300, “is to set up a platform and the infrastructure that everybody could grow their personal lives some, and create another cycle of that family that we all learned from while we were growing up.”

“We want to see it through,” says Bouab. “And make sure the artist gets their true shot.”

“We’re looking for dope MCs. And entertainers,” says Cohen. “We’re looking for artists that are gonna make a difference.”

“I’m living the life that I was supposed to live,” Tate tells me. “It’s just like, nothing else. This is it for me.”

“Mama’s two-stepping,” says YG.

“Yeah! Yep, Mommy’s definitely two-stepping in heaven right now. Like, ‘Look at my Taterhead. Look. At. My. Taterhead. That boy is going.’”

Download A New Track Via WeTransfer!

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Download “Papers” — a new song by Tate Kobang, courtesy of WeTransfer. Thanks for slowing down with us.