Photos by Stephen Schuyler, courtesy of Robb Bank$
Robb Bank$ is an enigma. Born in Brooklyn, New York, to a famous yet estranged father but raised in Broward County, Florida, he became hugely popular via Tumblr at 16 and has just kept going, developing a reputation as a socially aware rapper with an instinct for referencing pop culture events he was too young to experience.
Robb gained notoriety in 2012 through his solo tape Calendars, which reflected the hazy sound of the times and captured his perspective as an edgy, angst-ridden teenager. Sex, drugs, and suffering permeated through each song. Still, something stuck out; the kid could rap. Calendars took off online, landing in the middle of an internet rap zeitgeist that included acts like Odd Future, A$AP Rocky, and SpaceGhostPurrp, who soon became a collaborator and close friend of Bank$’s. Bank$ toured and built a legitimate fanbase in real life, and along the way he announced a mixtape called Year Of The Savage, building anticipation.
After Calendars, Bank$ dropped Tha City, a pain-filled project detailing Robb’s life over the previous few years. He also used the cover to finally answer the rumors that Shaggy is indeed his father, something he once denied. Tha City introduced a vastly improved Robb Bank$, as well as a more tasteless one. Being able to outdo lines like “Took my plug out her socket like she Terri Schiavo,” from Calendars, was impressive, if disconcerting.
Now, three years after announcing Year of the Savage, he’s finally released it, as an independent album distributed by the label 300. The album isn’t as pain or anger-fueled as his past work; songs like "Chainswang" and "Wit" have a youthful happiness to them. It’s a new era for Robb Bank$, and to celebrate he recently played his first show in his one-time home of New York City, at Santos Party House.
I was set to meet him outside the venue, where some very excited teens were waiting in the cold. It was getting dark, and he was running late, but he finally arrived, and his manager waved me into his inner circle. Bank$ was taller than I had expected, about 6’1” or 6’2” with a wiry build and loosely twisted dreads that hang aimlessly, tied at the back of his head. He had on a navy Supreme Jacket, Margiela kicks, and a visibly annoyed stare.
I looked at him as he shuddered in the cold, and it hit me how truly young he is at 21: He’s a kid turning into a man with a budding music career. He’s been at it since he was a teen, traveling around the US and chasing the dream. Tumblr literally documents him turning into an adult. It’s an extremely unique life to lead.
“Can we do this inside?” he asked. “I’m fuckin cold!”
He wasn’t wrong; it was cold as shit that night in New York, a brisk 48 degrees or so. If I was cold, I was 100 percent sure the guy from Florida was cold. As we headed into the venue, Bank$ was still pretty visibly frustrated by a few goings-on of the night, and it seemed that things were starting off on the wrong foot. But soon he pulled himself together and sat down on the couch across from me, backstage, his mood much improved. Bank$ is easygoing and insightful, with an a seriousness about his career and how he makes music. He spoke freely about his journey to this point and what it’s like to be Robb Bank$:
Noisey: I know you've been working on YOTS for a while. When it finally came to fruition, were you relieved? Proud??
Robb Bank$: Right now, I'm proud that it’s out. I only worked on this batch of songs for six months, though. I had made three different projects called YOTS, but they was all trash! Some of it was boom-bap, some of it was too sad, some of it was too upset. This particular batch of music was the best that I did. Some songs, I re-recorded, from older versions of songs from three years ago.
I know you were re-doing songs. Was that because you were having new life experiences?
I was getting older. I'm like a fucking child. I'm like a child star, bruh. I grew up in front of everybody. It's been three, four years now, so people had to see me go through goddamn puberty—hormones and shit. Now I feel like I'm a grown ass man, ya feel me?
When it comes to the sequencing on YOTS, who handled that? Was that all you? It tells a story, and it's kind of straightforward.
It's me. I executive produced it. I executive produce everything that I do; I direct everything I do. I just don't like the names and labels on shit. I hate when rappers get rewarded for things, that they supposed to do.
Tha City was really tight like that too.
Yeah. Tha City I was really... I was... young. Upset at the world, and I was on a lotta drugs.
You kind of had the manic teenager thing going on there, but YOTS is totally different.
It's just grown music! I'm happy where I am.
I remember reading that you're really into Sade. Favorite song?
I don't have songs, I have albums. Love Deluxe and Lover's Rock is my two favorite albums from her, know what im saying? Lover's Rock, she got way more of a reggae vibe on it, it was almost more hip-hop, production wise. But Love Deluxe, I felt the sadness in that mufucka. Promise and Diamond Life, those are the two breakouts. So I love those the same, too. They were released a year apart, or the same year, if I'm not mistaken. She was still fresh and new. I just love her as an artist. “Mermaid” is some of my favorite shit. The last song on Stronger Than Pride, “Siempre Hay Esperanza.”
A lot of rappers have mentioned Sade, but with you it's more organic.
It's a star-struck thing for me. She’s an idol. I look at her like a god. That's who I wanna be.
A lot of times, people bring up Sade to prove they listen to shit that isn't rap.
What I like is for people to think I'm a fucking ignorant fool. Real shit, I don't care what people think. I want you to think I'm dumb, because at the end of the day I know you got a third grade reading level, and I'm probably smarter than you. I know that for a fact. That whole "oh I'm different" shit is a trend. Don't label me as different. I'm not different. I'm the fuckin' same. All ya'll different niggas, I hate you, because you not really like that! All the shit you do, is just to fit in with everyone else. So how are you being different?
Lines like "Your Zodiac signs dont matter/Stuart Scott, you thought I couldn't beat the Cancer" (on "Leatherface"): Some of the stuff is over the top, but it's so clever that you just get over it.
It upsets you. The way I measure my success, I don't just measure it on the people that love me, I measure it on the people who hate me. If you love me and you hate me, then that means I'm doing something correct. That means I'm in your mind. Mentally, I've already almost beat you. To the point that, you either hate everything I do, or you love everything I do. And if you hate me, still deep down, a line like the Sandra Bland (“I took pictures of her body, yeah, that Sandra Bland”) one, you're like, “damn thats fucked up.”
I wanted to bring up the Sandra Bland line! I listened to that and thought "ugh," but three days later, I was still thinking about it, like, "That shit is really bothering me...but its clever! It's disturbing, but I get it."
[Leans in and looks directly at me while nodding in approval] It's fire. It's fire. I took pictures of her body, ya understand? That Sandra Bland. I had to flick her up.
When you said that, you thought "wow, thats terrible" but you still ran with it.
I didn't even think it was terrible. I mean the whole situation, it's fucked up. You already know how I feel, how everyone feels about that. It's my job as a rapper, the type of rapper I am, I feel like I'm a Black Twitter rapper. A Black Tumblr rapper. I gotta say what everybody’s been doing, going crazy about. So I'mma rap about that subject in a way that people I know are just like me can relate to. I'm not gonna come to you and be like, Black Rights, this, this, and that. I'll save that for talks that I'll have with my parents, with my mother, with my uncles and my grandfather.
So you see it as just doing your part?
Yeah. I'm doing my part for my age group. My age group, it is what it is. My age group is not as conscious as the generation before me. People live more in the moment. I live more in the moment; at the same time, I still calculate.
So, the anime references you make: Even if you're not an avid watcher, listeners can figure out what you're talking about pretty easily.
What I was talking about before, some of my fans are Black Twitter and some are Black Tumblr. I cater to them too, but I also cater to the anime heads and the nerds too. I'm partially that, as well. I geek the fuck out. For a long time, I ain't tell nobody about that. I used to hate when I’d bring a bitch to my house, I'd hide my manga, I remember! So, I gotta touch on it for them. Plus it's something I love. I'm working on an anime right now. Trying to get it published to Funimation or Aniplex, something like that. That's my other love.
You've definitely matured over the years. Can you point to a specific thing that happened, or is it just life?
I just grew up, man, to be honest. After Tha City, a lot of things were happening at that time. Normal, teenage shit, I guess. Break ups. Friends falling out with friends.
On Tha City, you were talking about women, and it was very candid.
And I was fucked up, off Xanax and shit. I just realized it was taking away from my music. I hate Tha City right now, I don't like that project. Actually gonna delete it off my Soundcloud. It's a bad project. A majority of people disagree with me and say they love the project.
Yeah. I love it.
I hate it. I hate the shit. It's horrible to me. Around that time, I was just like, you know what, I’mma just be sober. And that’s what I am. I'm sober now. I drink syrup, but I'm damn near immune to the shit now. Been doing the shit for like eight years. I just physically need it at this point. But honestly, that’s really it. I just really cleaned everything up. Those are really the events that lead me up to this point. I was just like I don't want to be in the same spot, forever. I'm trying to get bigger. And since I've done that, I'm already bigger, I'm in a bigger spot than I was two years ago. A year ago, just from Year Of The Savage.
Since Tha City, has your life improved?
Look at me. I look like money! Everything is gravy. Shit is fi'.
Do you think that, if you never left New York City, your music would be completely different?
We were talking about Webbie and stuff like that. New York was kinda into Webbie, but nowhere near like in the South.
Nowhere near! Webbie and Boosie were Jay-Z in the south.
That affected your development.
Yeah. I wouldn't change anything.
You never talk negatively about New York City, but you're happy you went to Florida.
And I love New York as well. If it wasn't for New York, I wouldn't have the caliber of punchlines that I do. My punchlines are a direct root from New York, and the New York artists I listen to: Biggie and Slick Rick, artists like that, this all came from New York. The atmosphere and shit like that. So that's definitely, half my influence as well. It's like I'm a south nigga with New York bars. And I'm for the geeks as well, and I'll also say some outlandish, disrespectful shit!
It's real, it doesn't feel forced.
That's what I feel the best artist can do. The best artist can be diverse. If you’re not diverse, you’re not the best artist.
With this tour, you're kind of living the rapper dream. You're headlining. The album people were looking forward from you for years, is out. You're on the road with your friends, people that you really have a bond with. Is that what you foresaw for yourself?
Last year, a year ago, I did a whole lot of reading, from Bibles, to Qu'rans to Satanic Bibles [laughs], to literature, to everything I could. It gave me a better perspective; I can't just think of this as "rap." I love it. I do. I look at myself in the mirror I say "aye bruh, you dropped outta school, this is yo job now, make this shit yo goddamn job" and this is my job now. I'm looking at it as a job and a business. There is no rapper that's a better businessperson than me. I smell like money, and I'm gonna smell like money till the end. I refuse to let any of this go away. At the end of the day, I have people to look out for. Regardless of people thinking "I came from this", I didn't come from anything. I was shooed off, with my mother and my brother to Florida, at the end of the day. I'm not getting shit.
So it's all yours.
I did it. I gotta be the man. I gotta stand on my own two, you feel me?
Robby Seabrook III is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter.