A couple minutes into meeting up with Tate Kobang at the Inner Harbor, the 21-year-old Baltimore rapper begins explaining how his mother relocated him as a teenager to York, Pa., for better education opportunities. The resources at Central York High School nurtured his musical ambitions, he says.
"They had graphic design classes, music tech classes, they had studios in the school," he says. But it was not to be, and soon he came home. "I didn't even graduate, actually. My great-grandfather was dying at the time, so I just said 'F everything' and moved back down here to spend my last couple days with him before he passed."
At that moment, a boat in the harbor loudly interrupts this personal story with a horn, and the rapper snaps into his more typical sarcastic mode, yelling at the boat, "What you doin', yo? You gon' do it again? I don't like that boat, I don't like that. That just pissed me off." A few minutes later, we're interrupted once again by a much, much louder sound: the harbor's tourist-attraction pirate ship fires its cannon maybe 20 yards away. Time seems to stop as we all momentarily scramble, trying to figure out what explosion just ripped through the air. Kobang's producer, Millz Douglas, has the strongest survival instincts out of the group, hitting the deck and breaking his headphones in the process. "I'm from Greenmount," he shrugs, suggesting he's had to duck shots before.
Tate Kobang, who could still pass for a skinny high school kid and on this day shows his penchant for absurdly flashy sneakers, released his first mixtape, Varsity, only 19 months ago; his third, the impressive Hitler Hardaway, came out in April. But Kobang is eager to get started on the next project, particularly because he recently parted ways with Dem808z, the crew led by producer Matic808 that released those previous mixtapes. Dem808z has already pulled some of his music and videos from a few websites, but he's just moving forward, looking to replace it with music made with his new team, some of whom are out with him today: Millz Douglas, a longtime friend who produced several tracks on the earlier mixtapes; and SuzEQ, a female producer who contributed the lush standout "Chasin' Dreams" to Kobang's 2012 mixtape The Book of Joshua. There's also Dizz Gavins, with whom Kobang co-founded the clothing company Dummie Love Apparel.
Kobang has recorded far more music than he's released and prides himself on the fact that his friends aren't yes men who tell him that every song he makes is hot.
"Millz Douglas is my 'no man,'" he says. "Whenever anything don't sound right, he's like, 'No man, nah. We're not puttin' that out, it's not a good look.'" They're all clearly students of music and they keep tabs on many of the countless other young rappers in Baltimore and think about ways to navigate the trends and the cliches and come up with something as sharp and unique as Hitler Hardaway. They know which popular producers local beatmakers are sampling their drums from and which stars are being imitated by young MCs. "It's a lot of Meek Mill impersonators," Kobang says, shaking his head.
When asked for his own favorites, Kobang reveals the depths of his hip-hop knowledge by foregoing the usual A-listers, naming some rappers who peaked commercially before the young MC was even a teenager. "Mr. Cheeks, Master P, Cassidy, and just people like that, people you wouldn't even expect," he says. "Lauryn Hill was my life." He even named his daughter after "Renee," the classic 1996 single by Mr. Cheeks' group the Lost Boyz.
Potentially offensive nicknames and album titles aren't uncommon in hip-hop, particularly in the year of Kanye West's Yeezus, but clearly Kobang is upping the ante a bit with Hitler Hardaway. He's faced some blowback for the title-when tweeting about the mixtape to radio DJs, one, Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg, who is Jewish, swore to never listen to Kobang's music, adding "nice nickname, genius." And in terms of lyrical content, even some of the rapper's most popular songs, like "Want the Dick" featuring Rickie Jacobs, aren't necessarily cut out for mainstream radio play. Still, he sounds ready to move on from shock value-oriented music with his next project.
As Kobang tells it, his first three mixtapes have all traced a path, and now he's becoming a known quantity in and outside Baltimore, getting paid for guest verses.
"The first [mixtape] was more of a fun thing," he says. "The Book of Joshua was more serious hip-hop, it was another side of me, the real me, stuff that's going on in my life. Then Hitler Hardaway was 'fuck everybody, I'm gonna kill everybody, don't put me on your song, if you get on mine you better bring your shit.'" But Kobang insists there's a method to his brazen attitude and aggressive music. "I don't give a fuck, and I'm gonna say whatever the fuck I wanna say. But I have guidelines to not giving a fuck. I give a fuck to an extent."