Ken Rebel has spent the last year working on his Tumblr. Sure, it may be kind of like yours—there's GIFs of rappers, music playing in the background, reblogged photos of streetwear girls, and a plethora of YouTube videos—but it's not just a space for him to curate whatever he thinks is dope. It's become a place to get discovered, to gain followers, and to make his music dreams a reality. But don't get it twisted: he's not a "Tumblr rapper." "That sounds ignorant to me," he says. "That sounds like somebody putting a song on Twitter and calling themselves a Twitter rapper."
Rebel, 19, was failing school and was literally on his way to enlist in the army when he dropped everything and began pursuing music seriously. That's what convinced him to start recording songs at home and post them to his Tumblr; that was last year. The Brooklyn native is now completely immersed in the New York style scene—known for running alongside Ian Connor and Glyn Brown, and putting together designer duds with pieces from his friend's collections.
His style—both musically and aesthetically— is hard to pin down; you’ll find him in a wool mackinaw or rocking a fluroescent bowtie under a leather jacket. His songs, much like his Tumblr, are a carefully, weirdly-curated melange of influences from the mind of someone too young to sit still. At only 19, he’s already accomplished quite a bit; he's put out a well-received mixtape, a handful of self-written-and-directed videos and he's amassed a small army of fans.
In October 2012, he released “Disrepectful,” which quietly racked up 350,000 views on YouTube. Today, we're premiering his latest video for “Hallelujah,” which is essentially “Trap Lord of the Flies": hooded pseudo-Klansmen hunt down a doe-eyed boy who's rhyming with the authority of someone twice his age.
I spoke to Ken on the phone while he was home in New York City about watching your own suicide, “blog rap” and other things that don’t exist. You can stream his video for "Hallejujah" above.
Noisey: You grew up in Atlanta, right?
Ken Rebel: I was born in Brooklyn, New York but I moved to Atlanta at a young age because my father was in the military. I moved back to Brooklyn because my father got kicked out of the military. He was irresponsible. I moved back around the age of four.
Do you take after your dad?
Yeah, I always got in a lot of trouble. I’ve always been the black sheep. Got good grades, though, until I got to high school. I did good my first two years, and it wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work, I just got lazy. I felt school didn’t teach me things. I just started slacking off. But I got my shit back together in 12th grade. I actually just graduated last year.
What was distracting you? Were you already pursuing music?
Yeah I started doing music around 11th grade, but it was mostly just personal issues. I didn’t have a father figure in my life to tell me right from wrong. I didn’t believe that a woman can make a man out of a man, feel me? So I wasn’t really listening to my mom like that. I learned that all the hard way. It was self-learned.
And it was your mom that took you to the Army office to enlist?
Yeah, my mom. My mom and dad are divorced. My mom actually lives an alternative lifestyle. She’s gay, so yeah, she was marching me over to the Army to sign up for the military and some fans ran up on me. It was just weird, she never pictured that coming from her son. When we got to the military office, it was closed. It wasn’t a holiday or nothing, it was just closed. So I saw that as a sign and she said the same thing too, so I just got on my shit when it came to the music and started taking it more seriously.
So who did you look up to, musically or otherwise?
I listened to a lot of Korn and Gorillaz. Shit, I love Lupe and Kanye. Big L. I’m a big fan of house music and metal. That was my therapy right there.
Where do you look for inspiration? What do you listen to?
For me, it’s not about what I listen to. It’s about what I see. I’m a big fan of horror films. The “Hallelujah” video was inspired by "Insidious 2." The sample actually came from Insidious. Films play a big part in my career.
There’s a lot of heavy imagery in that video—hoods, lynching, etc. It was shot in Richmond, VA which was the capital of the Confederacy. Are you prepared to piss off a bunch of people?
[Laughs] Man, people will crucify you as an artist. So you might as well do as much as you can do. Someone will be offended by your work regardless.
I know you like to write and direct your own videos. What’s happening in “Hallelujah?”
There’s a lot going on in the video, I was in a whole different mindframe when I came up with it. I want people to see the artistry behind it instead of just “Oh, some kid got in a video with Ku Klux Klan members who happen to be black and then he ends up hanging himself.” That’s not what it is.
Man, we’re at war with our own selves. I’m not just talking about my race or insecurity issues. Imagine, before you killed yourself, your spirit stepped outside your body. You got to see you do that to yourself and you couldn’t stop yourself from doing it. Imagine how that would look.
Probably not great. Were you an insecure kid?
Nah. A little bit in third grade, but all that stopped once I started taking boxing classes. I played around with the wrong people when I was in middle school and high school. What really made me start taking music serious was, actually, when one of my friends died. He got shot, but the bullet wasn’t actually for him. It was meant for one of his homies he was with. I just thought “Look, we gotta stop this.”
Who taught you how to rap?
My homeboy Relly. Making songs with him taught me how to do what I do. I’d be making songs with him and he was so good at what he did that I just sat and learned.
You released stuff on Tumblr…
And that’s how I got my following.
When did a career in music feel like a real thing?
I dropped the “Disrespectful” video and that shit was everywhere. I though “oh shit, I’m that nigga right now,” you feel me? But I dropped that song and it was a party song, and I feel like nobody respected me as a lyricist. So then I dropped the video for “Rebelution.” I actually had to break into a church for that one. I’ll do whatever I gotta do to get it done.
So Tumblr got everything started for you?
Yeah, the whole Tumblr thing came from me and my boy. He just started a blog and he would put pictures of us on it. One picture of me got noticed so we took that as a sign that we could get poppin' over this Tumblr thing so we just started going hard. My boy Joe and my other boy Ian Connor—we built a lot from that. We started having events with 1,000 kids coming out and it was dope. That’s how that all started.
Curating a style seems just as integral to your actual musical output—what's in your closet?
I got everything in my closet. It's all about shoes, though -- Bapes, Jordans…SK8-His lately. My boy Ian put me on to them shits, I been rocking them kinda crazy. I can wear anything if it fits me man, but I stress the shoes. The shoes gotta match everything.
What do you think of people labeling it as "Tumblr rap" then?
That sounds ignorant to me. That sounds like somebody putting a song on Twitter and calling themselves a Twitter rapper. People come up with the most craziest shit. People tell me “oh, you’re a Tumblr rapper.” Do I gotta sign up to be a Tumblr rapper? The thing the youth doesn’t understand is that you call me a Tumblr rapper but you’re still on the internet too. Everything is internet-based. So when you call someone a Tumblr rapper or a Twitter rapper or whatever the fuck people come up with, you’re only insulting yourself. You found me on Tumblr. That’s like a nigga calling someone a nigga, feel me?
You’ve had some pretty serious label interest. Are you taking them seriously? Is it important for you to stay independent?
The underground route is not for me. I want more than that. I want awards and platinum plaques.
You know, I’ve had a lot of people come at me. A lot of people don’t know this but TDE and me are cool. They took me to my first Summer Jam and debuted me so I’m working a situation out with them.
If I take a deal, I would want to show people more of Ken Rebel’s artistry side. That way, if I come through with crazy ideas like “Hallelujah,” they’ll be more receptive to it.
Are you playing shows?
Yeah, yeah. Once my managers get everything finalized.
Will this be your first time on the road?
Yeah. I’ve done shows in other cities before, but this will be my first time on a consistent note like show after show after show. I’m excited, though.
If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?
All these young cats would come together. Me, Joey, Travi$ Scott. Like the “Hard Knock Life” tour. That would be legendary. That would go down in the books. I need some kind of booking agency to set that up.
What would be at your merch table?
Ken Rebel slippers. The Ken Rebel chancletas. Everybody need slippers.
What is the public’s biggest misconception about you?
People feel like I can only make music like “Disrespectful.” When I dropped “Rebelution,” a lot of people didn’t think I wrote that song. There’s more to me than just that. I have sounds that I came up with that I’m not gonna release until later in my career. Expect it, but don’t expect it.
What I really want to bring to hip-hop is visual. I want to make these crazy four-minute films of rap that people can really relate do but go “This is crazy, who thinks of this?” Everyone else is bringing a unique, crazy sound to hip hop. It might not be new, but they’re taking it and making it into their own sound. That’s crazy dope.
What movies or directors made an impression?
"Pulp Fiction." "The Warriors" is my favorite film of all time. "The Crow."
Who is your dream collaboration?
That’s a good one. OK, we’re gonna do a horror film, right? Adam Levine starring in it. He’s the male role. We’ve got Rihanna in the female. Me and Hype Williams gonna direct the film. Me and Hype. The film…is going to be like no other horror film. It’s gonna be about lights. Ghosts and lights. Don’t ask me where it came from, this is all from the head. Ask me next year. I’m gonna have it all together for you.
Fletcher Babb is on Twitter. Follow him - @fletcherbabb