Back in early July, one of my conversations with Tate Kobang, a Baltimore rapper I’ve known and listened to for a couple years, ended with the kind of vague, tantalizing hint of big business dealings that would be familiar to anyone who’s talked to a rapper. “I’m going up to New York to talk to some people, trying to keep it on the hush.” A week later, it became clear that it wasn’t just talk when pictures surfaced of the 23-year-old MC standing next to music industry legend Lyor Cohen, celebrating Tate Kobang’s signing to 300 Entertainment.
300 Entertainment, the rap powerhouse distributed by Atlantic Records and founded by veteran executives including Cohen and Kevin Liles, has been snapping up regional rap heroes left and right over the last couple years, making Migos, Fetty Wap, and Young Thug household names in the process. And as Liles, a Baltimore native who came up on the city’s nascent hip-hop scene in the ‘80s, told Tate Kobang, “We finally got someone from Baltimore that we can put chips into.” The news of Kobang’s signing comes amidst a rash of Baltimore rappers hooking up with national labels: Young Moose inked a deal with Boosie’s Badazz Entertainment this month, biker Chino travels with Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers Records, and King Los recently released an album on RCA.
Tate Kobang has been releasing impressive mixtapes and building a cult following in Baltimore since 2011. But after falling out with his first label, much of his great early work, including 2012’s Book of Joshua and 2013’s Hitler Hardaway, was unceremoniously pulled from blogs and mixtape sites by his former associates. The reason 300 Entertainment called Kobang this year was “Bank Rolls,” a video uploaded to YouTube in April that has racked up over 300,000 views in the last four months—about ten times as many as any of the rapper’s previous videos. The track has been in daily rotation on Baltimore’s 92Q all summer, spilling over into stations in nearby Washington, D.C. Tate Kobang has been performing almost every day since April, usually in Baltimore but sometimes as far away as Miami.
“Bank Rolls” begins a challenge—Bitch, I’m from Baltimore, you say you was? I never seen ya—before Tate rattles off dozens of neighborhoods and street names around the city in an irresistible singsong flow. But the backing beat is the song’s real badge of hometown pride, taken from the 2000 local hit “Bank Roll” by Tim Trees, which was produced by Baltimore club hitmaker Rod Lee. Tim Trees sold tens of thousands of independent albums off of the back of “Bank Roll” in the early 2000s, and the song never left local rotation. But the song’s crisp and bass-heavy, fiercely Baltimore sound didn’t cross over nationally. (Baltimore rap’s biggest national hit of that era, B. Rich’s 2002 single “Whoa Now,” featured a beat originally offered to Tim Trees).
“He did a good job, he did it his way,” Tim Trees told me, beaming with pride at the second life that Tate Kobang has given his signature song. “To be able to see it from a fan point of view, I like it.” Tate and Tim have only been in contact so far via Instagram, but they both hope to record together at some point, or perform both versions of “Bank Rolls” onstage together. The song’s original producer also given it his blessing—the day I called Tate Kobang in the studio, he was actually working with Rod Lee, collaborating on new material.
Tate Kobang was only 8 years old when the Tim Trees original took over Baltimore, and he raps effortlessly over the beat exactly like he’s been hearing it for more than half his life. What’s more remarkable about “Bank Rolls,” though, is that it features only 90 seconds of rapping, with no chorus, essentially a freestyle over a borrowed beat. In the past, that would’ve limited its commercial potential, but things have changed. Two rap tracks that have scaled the top 10 of the Hot 100 in the past year, Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot N****” and T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle,” were both hookless freestyles over beats from obscure songs. And 300, which signed T-Wayne and assisted in “Freestyle”’s radio ascent, is equipped to do just that with “Bank Rolls.”
“Bank Rolls” was released on April 19th, as a straight-to-YouTube promotional freebie for Tate Kobang’s Live Hazey album. That date has a larger significance for Tate Kobang. It’s his late mother’s birthday, and he’s made a habit of remembering her by releasing music on that day. (In 2014, he dropped the free Crown of Thorns mixtape.)
April 19th, 2015 is also the day a Baltimore man named Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in custody of city police, setting off worldwide protests and months of turbulence in Baltimore that have continued through the summer, as the city’s already high murder rate has climbed. In the surreal months since, Tate Kobang has watched his dreams start to come true while his city has seen a surge of controversy and chaos. The contrast isn’t lost on him. “If ‘Bank Roll’ come on, it makes you feel good,” he said. “And that’s what we’re tryin’ to do, put some fun back into the city, because Baltimore is depressing right now.”