One of the most joyful snippets of video I’ve seen in a while takes place at a party honoring the freakishly talented 20-year-old basketball prospect Mohamed “Mo” Bamba, who had been drafted by the Orlando Magic earlier that day. He’s celebrating in a packed club filled with helium balloons; at 7’1”, Mo’s ecstatic face floats just a few inches beneath them. His arm is draped over the shoulders of his friend, the 19-year-old rapper Sheck Wes, who’s leading the room in a raucous shout-along to the chorus of his smash single, “Mo Bamba”: “I be baaaaaallin’, like my n*gga Mo.”
“Oh my god!” Wes yells, interrupting his own recorded voice. “Congratulations, Mo Bamba!”
Rappers name-drop basketball stars all the time. It’s less common that do they do so at the player’s request. “Me and Mo Bamba grew up together in the same neighborhood,” Wes told Complex. “He was always telling me, ‘Aw man, you gotta throw my name into a song!’” The result, which is quickly emerging as a contender for sleeper hit of the summer, represents a culmination for two young men who have followed remarkably similar paths. They’re both Harlem natives and the children of African immigrants — Wes’s parents emigrated from Senegal and Mo’s from the Ivory Coast — who grew up playing basketball together in New York’s public school system.
Both now stand on the precipice of fame, after long periods in which industry movers breathlessly circled around them, discussing their every move. That’s what inspired the song, Wes tells me. “I'm talking about being an artist pursued by labels. Same thing as Mo Bamba being pursued by Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan,” he says. “I was getting offers.”
The result of that attention is that Sheck is now on the verge of releasing his debut mixtape Mudboy on two of the biggest labels in rap, simultaneously: he’s signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Records (in addition to his “big label,” Interscope).
There’s more to Sheck than just hoop dreams and A-list fans, though. Over the course of our interview, he tells me all about his formative journey to Senegal and back, his memories of robbing Soho stores, his views on gentrification, and why he thinks youth should lead the way.
Walk me through your life story.
At the end of the day, I'm just a different black kid from the hood. Those kids never got recognized. I was weird; I used to wear Telfar boots to school. I would dress different and shit. But at the end of the day, there would be some people who would fuck with you for just being bold and confident.
Tell me about when you moved from New York City to Milwaukee.
I was 5. Basically, we were back and forth. I spent my summers in New York, and then for winter break, my pops would come to Milwaukee for Thanksgiving every year, and he'd come back and get us. It was well rounded, cause I was in all these different types of places. I was a city kid, and Milwaukee is a city too, but it's more rural culturally. My mom had moved us away from New York cause it was getting violent, but we still came back and forth, cause she had a business there. When I was 14, I came back to New York.
What was it like coming back?
Milwaukee was like jail, and in New York I could do whatever the fuck I want. When I moved back I was like, "Yesss," but then I realized this shit is hard, this shit tough.
Were you one of those NYC kids who's always on the train, going all over the place?
Since I was like 11, I'd go to Brooklyn, John Jay College, at this program called SASF, from Harlem all the way to Brooklyn with my friends and shit. We'd come back and stay on our block all night, playing basketball. And I was into getting lite — me and my niggas had a little play around team, that's where I got [the name] Sheck Jesus from. That was my getting lite name.
You still use that nickname; tell me about what it means to you.
I'm here to save you. I'm here to sacrifice and save the game. I’ve sacrificed a whole lot of shit, I’ve sacrificed a lot of clout [laughs], a lot of money, just to teach people that you don’t need all that shit. You can just do it dolo.
“I live in the projects, they live in skyscrapers. We both got nice views. But I got the better view. I can really see downtown. They in it.”
When did you first start making music?
I was 9, 10. By age 11, I was part of this little rap group. I was Kid Khadi, we were called the MillYorkers, cause I was from New York, and they was all from Milwaukee. my government name is Khadimoul, so they all called me Khadi, so it became Kid Khadi cause I was inspired by Cudi.
So you came back to New York, and then what?
I was just playing basketball OD. I was making clothes and shit, I had screenprinting gear in my house.
Did you think you were gonna go pro?
I never had the NBA dream, I just wanted to play ball in college. I knew I was bad as shit, so I was never gonna go to college for my grades, so basketball was my only way out.
Around age 16, you became involved with Yeezy?
Yeah, modeling, period. And then I was in Yeezy Season 3, with Lil Yachty, Ian [Connor], Osiris, Young Thug. That show was epic, we were all on the platform at Madison Square.
There’s a line on your new record about how you had to skip an important basketball game to make it to that show.
[Sings "I skipped my game for the fashion show, one of my best decisions..." So, I skipped out on one of my playoff games for my team and went to Season 3, and that’s what really made my relationship with my coach the worst. I started veering off. I was like fuck everything, I don’t want to play no more. That was a tough time, ‘cause basketball is something I do everyday. I was working on music though, I had songs out.
So you had this momentum going, but then you ended up in Senegal, right?
I got set up to go to Africa. My mom sent me to Africa, and I had the #FreeSheckWes campaign. She told me I was going for a couple days, and then when I got there, she told me I was going for a couple years. I felt crazy. I was betrayed, by my blood and shit.
You were at a religious education center, right?
Yeah, not even about religion, just like, being a man type shit. So I'd just sit there with these old men, drink tea, have conversations.
Did you get a lot out of it?
Yeah, knowledge-wise. But at first it was hard. The sun over there is different, bro. The heat is different. The food is different. Mosquitoes everywhere, they fucking suck. I ended up just fitting in. They made me cut hair off, I'd wear the same clothes everyday.
Did you get more in touch with your religious identity?
Facts. I practice Islam. I was always into that, my whole life. I always believed in a higher power. But they solidified my belief.
So how did you manage to get back to the US early?
It was crazy, cause it wasn't up to me, it wasn't up to my mom, it was up to the religious leaders. My dad was the advocate for me coming back, because he was like, “I left Africa for you to have a better life, not for you to be there doing nothing.” He got tight and the religious leader let him know that he won't hold me for too long. Cause that's the thing, they're religious, if he holds me against my will, he's doing wrong. These religious leaders, they aren’t supposed to do wrong unto people. But some of them really do, cause its smart — ”I'ma hold this kid, his parents gon' send me money every month,” which is mad bread there. You're not African if your parents never threatened you with [being sent to Africa], or if you never heard of a story like this. But I came to him with a certain type of respect and he had the respect as well.
So you get back to New York — what happened next?
I was 18. Before I left America, my music was taking off, I was going to high school parties, pushing my songs, playing my music, woo woo. When I get back, I had to go back to school to get my diploma, cause I had so many lates and absences from the year prior, cause my last two months of school, I would just sleep til three, and go do some shit. I started recording. Just stack songs, stack songs, stack songs.
How did you end up signing with Cactus Jack and GOOD Music?
Travis [Scott]—that dude's different, when we first met, it was conscious talks about music and shit like that. He was mad cool, he was one of the first people that really fucked with me all the way. He came out to my hood to meet me, I came out and met him on tour.
My deal was about to be signed with Cactus Jack, and then Kanye heard "Mo Bamba", and he was going crazy. He flew me out to LA overnight. I go to this hotel in Calabasas, and I meet up with Ye and Pusha T; I went in there with a Butterfly Effect hat on. And he's on the phone, calling Trav, like "Yo, I heard you're fucking with Sheck Wes, I'm fucking with Sheck Wes too, let's do this shit together.”
Let's talk about your new record a bit. What does it mean to be a Mudboy?
A Mudboy is like a Mr. Solo-Dolo. Everybody gets to this point where you're like, I know what I'm tryna do, and you set forth to do it. It's the point before a man. I feel like this—there's a Vfiles kid, and there's a Soho kid. The Vfiles kid is just now getting into shit, learning what's cool. The Soho kid is like, “Aight, let’s go get Chacha Matcha, and go to Supreme on Thursday.” That's when kids get to the point where it's like, “Aight bet, I'm a photographer now.” Now you a Mudboy. Until you get that job as a photographer or whatever, you just mudding it out, trying to make shit happen, tryna connect dots. I’m a Mudboy. It's the hustling stage. It's rising out the mud.
What was your transition point to becoming a Mudboy?
Coming back from Africa. Africa was my transition cause it washed my brain with all the crazy turmoil and taught me how to do shit. Just sit back and plan. That's the problem, kids don't be planning, cause we don't know how to, bro. One of my uncles was DRAM and 6lack's A&R—you have all these successful people telling you, "Oh do this," or "Oh do that," trying to mentor you, and steer you, but you just a kid, and you're like, "What the fuck are you talking about?"
There’s a song on your album where you talk about taking over downtown NYC. What does that represent to you?
That song is "Lustboy Anthem." Lust is something me and my friends used to do. Something very terrible: rob and steal from stores downtown. Mob people, whatever. Modell’s? We used to steal ankle braces from there. We called it "getting lusty." When I say I wanna go downtown and take it over, that's what I'm talking about. Going downtown is what inspired me. I have friends who live downtown. I live in the projects, they live in skyscrapers. We both got nice views. But I got the better view. I can really see downtown. They in it.
You have some perspective on it.
Exactly. The way communities are separated in New York is weird. Which is kinda changing. It's a big culture shock, where you're like, gentrification is good. I don't think it's bad.
Tell me more about that.
People say it's like, "Oh, you're kicking somebody out their neighborhood," but at the same time, I feel like now a kid could walk past an art studio, and he’s some hood nigga who draws, and that's how your whole plan gets started.
Was there a specific moment when you realized something major was happening with your career?
Definitely, when I go overseas, and the kids line up. The kids over there go way harder than the kids here. Cause they have immigrant parents like me, or they watch my interviews and fuck with something I said, and they’ll come to say it to me in real life, or you'll see them just going crazy. I'm young too, and I swear to god, I know how shit feels, bro. I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in high school. That was tough, but I was just a kid, I didn't give a fuck.
Speaking of, you've often said that it's really important for you to represent the youth. Do you feel like kids don't get enough respect?
Nobody thinks kids are smart. Kids can be tricked by any marketing, kids can be fooled by any campaign, kids will buy whatever you want. That's how people look at us. I think people should listen to the kids because everybody wants to be young, and kids will always teach you what's hip right now. I've had my ideas taken—motherfuckers have made crazy amounts of money off me, I've been a "muse" for people. They always wanna exploit you, they never wanna put a kid in charge, that's what people scared of. Real Captain Hook, real Rufios. You gotta know how to play this game. There should be more rich kids.