Hip-Hop Aloha

How Einer Bankz convinces top rappers to spit bars over the ukulele.

By Jessie Schiewe

Hip-hop and ukulele are odd bedfellows, but they work. (Art:  Sam Graap )

Hip-hop and ukulele are odd bedfellows, but they work. (Art: Sam Graap)

Two days after Christmas 2017, Einer Bankz boarded a plane in San Francisco headed for New Orleans. Even though he’d be gone for two weeks, the Bay Area native had packed lightly, bringing only a backpack and a ukulele. His itinerary was equally sparse, including potential but not definite stops in Baton Rouge, La., Alabama, Atlanta, Ga., Florida, and “maybe Texas.” But neither of those things fazed Bankz, who, over the years, has learned to embrace playing things by ear.

“I’m just getting a rental car,” he told OK Whatever shortly before the trip. “And I’ll do what I do.”

By “do what I do,” Bankz meant finding hip-hop artists to record music with. And not just any music, but ukulele songs coated with rap lyrics. Since 2015, the musician — whose stage name is Einer Bankz — has been playing the six-stringed instrument, convincing emcees and singers around the country to spit bars over his acoustic melodies. He’s collaborated with hundreds of artists, meeting up in strange and random locations — like public parks, 7-Elevens, trap houses, and the San Jose Sharks’ dressing room bathrooms — to record short, but charming ditties that expertly combine the grit of rap with the nimbleness of uke.

Most of them end up as videos on Bankz’s Instagram page, where he’s racked up more than 300,000 followers in three years. His collaborative songs have ended up on playlists by the New York Times and his YouTube videos are frequently reposted and shared by World Star Hip-Hop.

Bankz has done songs with myriad well-known artists — like Lil Yachty, Chance the Rapper, YG, Paul Wall, Jhene Aiko, and Tekashi 6ix9ine. And many of the biggest names in hip-hop know who he is even if they haven’t worked with him. He’s been recognized in public by both Freddie Gibbs and Mistah F.A.B., and Warren G once sent him a direct message. He’s Facetimed with Curren$y and has had his videos reposted, liked, or commented on by both E-40 and Wiz Khalifa. In many ways, Bankz is the most famous ukulele producer in hip-hop — if the only.

“He’s unique,” said Compton rapper AD, who’s recorded multiple songs with the musician. “He’s in a lane of his own.”

Bankz first picked up the ukulele after finding one in the garage of a house he was living in during college. This was a while ago, before Bankz started being known as Bankz, back when his friends and the people he associated with actually called him by his real name. But Bankz wouldn’t reveal just how long ago that was, nor would he disclose his age, other than saying he’s “old enough to party.” He gives that same response to everyone and is tickled by the amount of attention withholding that fact has created. If you type his name in Google, one of the first search result suggestions that pops up is “Einer Bankz age.”

Because he’d learned how to play the violin in middle school using a play-by-ear technique called the Suzuki Method, Bankz — who had already self-taught himself the guitar — had no issues learning his way around the ukulele. Goaded by a friend one tipsy night in 2015, he recorded a ukulele version of Snoop Dogg’s “Peaches N Cream” and then posted it on Instagram.

“I woke up the next morning and Snoop had posted it on his page,” Bankz recalled. “At the time, my account had 300 followers, and I went from getting three likes on a picture to the whole world for all of 24 hours liking my stuff.”

In some form or fashion, Bankz has always been involved in making music, but hip-hop is a newer interest for him. In high school, he was into heavy metal and played guitar in a Red Hot Chili Peppers-style band. It wasn’t until the tail-end of college, after being exposed to hours of underground rap while driving with a friend, that he began liking the genre.

“He was always just playing it, and before long, I was like, ‘Yep. Alright. Shady Nate is dope. I want to listen to everything he’s done.’ All of the sudden I started getting really into Bay Area artists.”

Right now, he’s really into unknown artists from “the most underground level of Bay Area rap,” including emcees “that don’t even have mixtapes out yet.” But you can’t just be obscure for Bankz to like you. You “better really be doing something extra-special to actually motivate any interest from [him].”

Propelled by the strong show of support he received from his Snoop Dogg cover, Bankz decided to record another song on the night that the Golden State Warriors won the 2015 NBA Finals. Like before, he was “hammered,” and this time, he chose to do a rendition of E-40’s new song “Choices (Yup).”

Less than 24 hours after the song went up, E-40 had reposted it on his Instagram page, winning Bankz legions of new fans. Shortly after that, while at a hip-hop festival called Thizzler Jam, he was pulled onstage by Nef the Pharaoh. The E-40 protege waited as Bankz’s friend ran to their car to retrieve his ukulele, during which Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B. slathered the burgeoning musician in compliments.

“He gave me the most elaborate introduction. And at the time, I was not very well-known. But he was like, ‘You’re not from the Bay Area if you don’t know who this individual is. This is somebody who’s changed culture.’ ”

Bankz ended up performing three songs with Nef the Pharaoh, who performed them solo, sans any other instrumentals but ukulele. The combination of Nef’s voice and Bankz’s uke lent a raw candor to the music that he said sounded “crazy” and “completely unexpected” at that kind of festival. The crowd, of course, loved it.

The positive early responses Bankz received encouraged him keep making more ukulele rap covers.

“I've always been involved in a lot of the movements going on in the Bay. But I had no connection to them,” he said. “But after I was put on, I was like, ‘I can do this.’ So I started contacting all these big Bay Area artists and saying, ‘Hey, what song do you want me to do of yours?’ ”

In time, his songs evolved from straight-up covers of songs like Warren G’s “Regulate” and Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” to more original content. Now, whenever he works with a new artist, Bankz either plays a made-up tune on-the-spot, a song everyone already knows, or a beat that the artist has given him. Oftentimes, the artists will recite lines from a song they’re working on or they’ll use the recording session as a chance to remix an old track, which is what Chance the Rapper did during his recording with Bankz.

In the beginning of his career, to find new rappers to work with and incentivize those who already know about him, Bankz would spend multiple hours a day on Instagram just “blowing the screws off strangers.”

“I’m looking through their photos, seeing who they tagged, seeing if I have a relationship with them, seeing who follows the people that that have tagged them…,” he said, not finishing his sentence. “It’s a lot.”

He’s also learned to be relentless when contacting an artist. In his early days, he sent as many as 79 direct messages on Instagram to those he wanted to do songs with. Now that he’s working with bigger names, he has to get “the OK” from as many as 20 different people associated with the artist before the shoot can go down.

“Ninety-percent of it doesn’t happen, 90-percent of the people don’t follow through, and anything that you think will happen probably won’t,” he said. “I’ll be sitting in parking lots, sweating and wondering what the fuck I’m doing with my life, while I’m waiting on somebody who I thought was going to follow through.”

His patience and diligence almost always paid off in the end. It was by sending multiple direct messages to AD that Bankz was eventually able to convince him to do a song. He estimates that he sent the rapper about seven messages before finally meeting with him — last minute — at AD’s girlfriend’s grandma’s house. They recorded around five songs, and now, according to AD, Bankz is officially “the homie.”

One of the main reasons why people like Bankz’s music is because it converges two seemingly disparate sounds into one cohesive whole. The dainty ukulele melodies elevate the rappers’ bars, placing them center stage and giving them a more nuanced sound because they’re not shrouded by other instrumentals. Because of this, some artists have used the opportunity to work with Bankz to record different versions of songs they already been released. That’s what happened with Chance the Rapper who performed a track with Bankz that was already on Soundcloud but that wanted a different tune for.

Others use the work with Bankz as a stepping stone to a more lucrative, or at the very least popular, future. At this point, you’re pretty much guaranteed a few hundred new followers by doing a song with him, and if you’re really lucky — like some of his collaborators have been — you might get a record deal or chance to tour with Chris Brown.

Bankz’s videos have led to a slew of new work for him as a producer and musician. His skills with string instruments can be heard on a number of hip-hop albums by the likes of Mozzy, Young Gully, Florida Boyz, GT, and Strap Da Fool from Travis Porter. He’s also recorded songs for as-yet-unreleased projects by Nipsey Hussle, Roach Gigz, and DJ Fresh.

Though he never aspires to rap — “It’s not a focus by any means” — he has lent his voice to a few projects, including his own. Last spring, he dropped his debut album, Uke Nukem, an upbeat, hyphy project laced with noodling ukulele and verses by 50 guest artists — many of whom he met through Instagram.

He’s also managed to make a bit of change through his musical endeavors. Though Bankz doesn’t charge all of the artists he records with — especially not the big names — he does charge up-and-comers who want to work with him a fee to compensate him for his time.

“I don’t say when I’m posting videos that this person paid me, because I think that’s a dick move,” he said. “But any time you might look at a video and be like, ‘That’s a strange move,’ that’s usually what’s going on there.”

In addition to working on future solo albums, Bankz’s next goal is to nab more recording credits with big name artists, ideally Post Malone or Vince Staples.

“If I’m just trying to link up with any Bay Area rapper, it’s really easy to set up,” he said. “But I’m talking about linking with people who are world-known. This success drives you to do more, and once you’ve got the taste of it, it’s so addictive to get to the next level.”

 

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