Pop Culture

Symba’s Slow But Steady Path to Rap Stardom

Symba performs during the 2021 A3C conference and festival at The Gathering Spot on October 24 2021 in Atlanta Georgia.

Symba performs during the 2021 A3C conference and festival at The Gathering Spot on October 24, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.Courtesy of Marcus Ingram via Getty Images
The Bay Area rapper has been in the game since 2012, but now things are finally lining up, with a DJ Drama mixtape and co-signs from LeBron.

Symba is feeling guilty. The Bay Area rapper has been under the weather and he just lost his phone, so he hasn’t been able to do much the last few days beyond laying on the couch—plenty of time to reflect on his journey thus far. “We’ve been running around the past three months, I think it’s kind of all just catching up with me this week,” he says, on Zoom, his voice an octave higher than usual thanks to congestion.

That running around has been in service of promoting his excellent DJ Drama-hosted mixtape, Results Take Time, which dropped last September. Illness aside, he’s still trying to be productive somehow, forcing himself to listen to some beats. His drive to keep working might come from the fact it took him so long to get to the cusp of stardom.

He grew up with dreams of being a hooper, but life (and ego) got in the way before he discovered a passion for rapping. From there it was a series of setbacks. He dropped his first project in 2012; it garnered little buzz. He signed to Columbia Records in 2017; his deal went nowhere. He found a better situation with Atlantic Records; a worldwide pandemic stunted his growth. He built a buzz in recent years the way rappers used to, by dropping a series of freestyles that earned co-signs (and reposts) from the likes of Snoop Dogg, Fabolous, and LeBron James.

He topped it off with Results Take Time, one of last year’s best rap projects. While Symba’s lyricism is the highlight of the project, the thread that holds it together is how it details the perseverance and grind it took for him to get to this moment.

I listened to Results Take Time because I saw people tweeting about it and was impressed because I didn’t know much about you, but felt like I learned who you are as a person listening to it.

That’s kind of been an angle. I had a long journey. I was always a popular kid playing basketball. Me and one of my basketball coaches got into it at practice during my junior year, I’m like, ‘I ain’t gonna play this year, fuck you!’ So I sat out. 

Through that time, I started going to my friend’s house who had a desktop microphone that we was recording on. The songs we made started being played in the basketball warmups. I came back to basketball in the middle of 12th grade but I wasn’t as sharp. Not being the player that I once was, I gravitated to music more.

I was in the Bay Area, where we got a lack of [music] infrastructure. Most Bay artists hit a ceiling, they get hot and the sound is very regional, so it only goes so far. Unless you speaking about pioneers like Too Short or E-40.My generation came up with the Hyphy movement and the HBK movement. I naturally didn’t make those type of records, What I always liked to do was rap. 

As a kid, my mom moved me around a lot. So we had cribs in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, we would come to L.A. for weeks at a time. We’d go out to Houston for like a month, spend Christmas in New York. So I always seen the world, seen different perspectives. When I started making music, I wanted my music to relate to wherever city you were from. 

I purposely never rapped on Bay Area or California sounding beats, I always tried to pick beats that were broad enough for me to tell the story of who I was so somebody that was going through the same thing could relate to it. They wouldn’t miss the message due to the music moving too fast or being too turnt up.

Yeah, I didn’t know where you were from. You mentioned the Bay Area, but if it wasn’t for those lines I might have guessed New York, California, or even Atlanta.

I think that’s a good thing. I never wanted to give up too much of myself in the beginning, I wanted people to take time to figure it out so the story can continue to grow. Sometimes you put it all out there and everybody know everything. Then it’s like, where do we go from here?

Drake is one of my favorite artists. He’s a top three greatest rappers of all time because Drake allowed us to grow with him. I remember his first girlfriend, driving to her house on Weston Road, his mom not wanting him to do music, him feeling confused as a kid going back from Memphis to Toronto, to now he’s the guy. People feel like they know him personally. 

So when you said, ‘I felt like I knew who you was as a person’ that meant the world to me because that’s literally the perspective I’m writing from, to get people to see that, but not go into detail.

You mentioned moving around a lot. Was that before  before you were a teenager? Before your basketball career starts to take off?

Nah, this is like the end of my teenage years. Before that, I was supposed to go play ball at a Division One college. I was nervous about taking my SATs test because I wasn’t naturally a kid that was good in school. I had this girl flip me a few answers for the test and I ended up getting caught. When I got caught, I wasn’t eligible for D1.

They wanted me to go play at a junior college. By that time, I thought I was gonna be the next Jay-Z, so I was just like fuck basketball.  I got to stand on this rap dream now.

So what kind of music did you listen to just growing up? 

Jay-Z is my favorite rapper of all time. It was a lot of Kanye West, Young Jeezy, Big L, Nas, Jadakiss, Styles P, Future, OutKast. When I was a kid, I gravitated to national commercial rap. I was a fan of big production, Just Blaze, RZA, DJ Premier, The Hitmen. I always gravitated to East Coast and Southern music. 

I remember the first time I heard Kanye’s “All Falls Down,” I cried because I wanted a Jacob and a chain. When he said it, I finally felt like it was somebody that knew my struggle. I gravitated to bigger sounding shit. In the Bay, that was something we lacked. 

That’s true, I feel like a lot of Bay artists definitely hit that ceiling like you said.

In the last, let’s say 20 years, what was the two biggest records to come out of the Bay Area?

That’s a good question. I guess it would be Short’s “Blow The Whistle” and E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go.” 

Right. And who made those beats? Lil Jon, an Atlanta producer. 

Damn, I never really thought of that. Back in 2012, you actually released your first project, II Words**. What was that experience like?** 

The fucked up part about when you first start making music is you be having hella fun. You’d be in the house with the homies, y’all go through some shit, and go make a song about it. Then, comes the part where you got to put the shit out. That’s when the shit don’t be fun no more. 

My expectation was that in order to be somebody, I had to get my music on websites like DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, or HotNewHipHop. Then you get on those sites and you realize nobody gives a shit. You got to keep getting on those sites, keep doing all these things, so people can continuously see your name, in hopes that one day they click it, like it, and become a fan. You spend $1,000 for a blog post.

You get your first publicist, they need three months’ payment up front. You go hustle four grand to get a publicist. But they can’t force people to like you, they could just put you on certain platforms. So you got these expectations that the publicist will make me a star and that doesn’t happen. 

You go through the first three months and they like, ‘We need another three months.’ As an 18-year-old kid it’s like, “What a fuck, I’m about to come up with four grand every other month?” Then I gotta shoot videos, pay for studio time, pay for mixes. I gotta get dressed, gotta go to shows and I’m not getting paid for shows yet. 

One thing I did was, there was a bunch of popular kids in my neighborhood, I merged us all together. If you got two fans, and I got two fans, and he got two fans, how about we all got a bunch of fans? So I put this conglomerate together and we ran around for like two years. We ended up becoming very popular in the Bay. 

It got to a point where they felt like we made it because we started getting paid for shows and getting girls. I was always looking at it like, “Okay, how do we get to Jay-Z level? How do we get bigger?” We used to clash about that, so we ended up splitting up.

But this time, I’m like let me not jump the gun. I read this quote one time that said “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” I was like, “I’m gonna sit back, stack my money, shoot the videos, get the music right.” That’s where 2 More Words came from. I got a great response from it, people in the Bay Area started taking me seriously.

One of my best friends from high school ended up getting drafted to the [then] Oakland Raiders. One of my songs became one of their anthems. that was like the biggest shit in the world to me, it gave me the motivation to keep on going.

I knew I had to grow. On a trip down to L.A., I came down to work with [producer] Nic Nac. I realized within the first 20 minutes of being in the studio with him, I wasn’t good enough. I was great at rapping, but didn’t know how to write hooks. I used to think the louder that I was rapping, the more I screamed, I thought it would be doper. When in actuality, I’m scaring people away. It taught me how to slow my pockets down, stay on subject, and dial into what the song was saying overall. 

I started driving down from the Bay to L.A., working with [producers like] Nic Nac, Yung Murph, Trev Case, and Bobby Brackins. All these different people from the Bay had moved to LA and was writing music with Ty Dolla Sign, Tyga, all these different people. They had an understanding of the music business. When I got around them, I was like, “Back to square one, I gotta learn everything.” 

I put being an artist to the side for a while. Whatever I could do to learn is what I would do. Being from the Bay, we got some of the best grass. I would always pull up to studio sessions with good grass, that got me in the room. I was able to see people write songs. I run into people to this day like, “Bro, I remember you was in the studio years ago, I never knew you rapped!” It was because I was learning the music business so I wouldn’t have to keep making those mistakes.

That’s a great way to learn. So what were some of the records you got to see get made?

I was in the studio with Hitmaka and Jeremiah for, I think it was Rae Sremmurd’s “Throw Some Mo.” That was the first time I’ve seen somebody go in there and do a reference hook, then six months later, I’m listening to the radio and I hear [the song]. 

I’ve seen Phonix Beats work with J. Cole on “No Role Modelz.” He made the beat and he was like, “I’m gonna take this over to Cole right now.” Then somebody in the studio just said, “Don’t save her, she don’t wanna be saved” and Cole just went with it from there. 

Another time I was with Hitmaka, he was working with some singer, and I hear, “Baby, come give me something new.” A few weeks later, I hear [Wiz Khalifa’s “Something New” with Ty Dolla $ign]. I was like, “Okay, I see what’s going on.” 

Once I started seeing that, I start doing it for myself. I started getting into certain camps and writing for different people, landing placements on the Fast and Furious soundtrack. I worked on a song with Jack Harlow on the Scooby Doo movie. There was stuff for the Space Jam movie. 

I started getting those placements from watching Hitmaka and Phonix, watching what they would do to write for other people, which taught me how to start crafting things to tell my story. It’s all been a learning thing for me. It was never like I was the most talented rapper or I had this undeniable talent. It was always me having access to certain things, seeing it, and being able to learn to do it for myself.

Who were some of the artists you wrote for?

I can’t really say because I hate putting rappers on blast. I will say on the singing side, I been working with Keyshia Cole a lot. I did some stuff with Tory Lanez, A Boogie, Blxst. I wrote with Trey Songz a lot. 

It’s been a lot, it’s majority rappers though but I don’t like putting rappers out there like that because hip-hop is still growing up, and people feel like everybody is supposed to write and do everything themselves. But these songs are businesses. Once we grow up, I’ll feel more comfortable exposing who I wrote for. 

You obviously learned a lot going to these sessions, did frustration ever set in?

Every single day, bro. I remember hearing Kid Ink for the first time like, “How the fuck is this dude on the radio, and he can’t rap nowhere near as good as I can?” It took me a minute to realize, “Oh, this motherfucker makes better songs than me, he makes songs that the masses can have fun to.” 

Frustration comes from a lack of information. You’re operating with no money in your pocket, you ain’t got the clothes you want. You in the studio watching Hitmaka, who’s wearing four cuban links and a bussdown Rollie. Some girl you can follow on Instagram walk in and sit on his lap and you just the homie in the corner with the weed. That shit is frustrating. 

At the same time, it gives you the drive. There’s two sides to jealousy. Jealousy could get to a point where you want to tear other people down and be mean, aggressive, and vulgar. Or, it can motivate you to want to go get up and learn. You start looking at it like, “Well, maybe I need to listen to him more because if he got everything I want, maybe he’s doing the right things and I’m not.”

You go to people’s cribs and it’s like, “How did he get this big ass house? He got two or three songs!” But he done wrote 47 songs for other people, been a part of eight movies, and all these different things that you didn’t have the information on how he got this rich. So you start seeing it, it motivates you to want to get up and do the same thing even if comes down to playing the role of being the homie to learn.

We’re talking a lot about learning lessons. Through this time, you signed to Columbia. But you rap about how you kinda just did it for the check and the deal didn’t work out. What did you learn from that experience? 

That was me basically needing the money back that I spent to move to L.A. I had saved up a nice amount of money, when I moved down here it started going very fast. I’m going out every night, getting cool with DJ Mustard, Nic Nac, YG and all of them. I’m thinking I gotta buy as many bottles [as them]. I was booking flights, going to AC3 Fest with five of my friends. Not taking the time to actually get better as an artist because that was the only thing to get me over the hump. 

My homegirl got her first A&R position at Columbia. I came in for a meeting, I played like three songs. The first two songs was like some rap shit, kind of what I do today. They wasn’t really attracted to it. The third song I played, it was a song that I had wrote for somebody else which is more of a melody style song. They fucked with that one. They was like, “We want to sign you.”

They started telling me, just make the melody style music. I wasn’t tripping because I was about to get this $100,000, I needed that to stay out here or I would have to take my ass back to the Bay. I never looked at the Columbia deal like it was going to send me over the top. I looked at it like this was a way to keep me in L.A. to position myself for the next move. 

I was there for about a year and a half and the people who brought me in ended up going to Def Jam. When they left, Columbia ended up letting me go, and I was independent for about six months.

How did you end up singing with Atlantic? 

I started dropping music and putting freestyles on the internet. I was getting attention but it wasn’t nothing promising. My homie was like, “We should go to link up with this dude Cas, he’s smart and understands this industry.”

We go meet with him. I had two songs, one where I was rapping and one where I was doing the melody shit that Columbia liked. He was like, “Which one are you?” I was like, “I’m the rapper.” He was like, “Then why the fuck are you singing?” I’m like, “Because this is what people telling me I gotta make.” 

He was like, “No, if you rap this good, you should never fucking sing. Of course, you’re gonna have to do melody, that comes with great songs, but you shouldn’t be out here trying to sound like Fetty Wap. If you’re gonna rap, I’ll do anything in my power to help you make it. But if you go do this singing thing, I feel this isn’t you.” 

Me and Cas got in the studio for about eight months. One day, he got a call that Dallas Martin, an A&R at Atlantic, was having this aux cord party where he would invite all these different artists to come and play their music on the aux cord. 

I was really starting to find my voice, my style, my everything. A big influence on me is Nipsey Hussle. the day that Nipsey passed, I wrote two songs, “Trapped” and “Black Jesus.” I played those songs at the aux party and Dallas looked at me and was like, “What are you doing tomorrow?” We’re going to New York.” We flew to New York, and I met Julie [Greenwald], Craig [Kallman], and Mike [Kyser]. I got to meet Meek Mill. It just felt authentic. 

Atlantic is the best label because they allow you time to develop, especially with the pandemic. The pandemic [started] the week that I dropped my first record on Atlantic, [“Serve”]. We wasn’t able to go do no radio runs, no press runs. All I could do was post on social media and it didn’t gain a lot of traction.  

Throughout that, I’d call Jason [Davis at Atlantic] like, “What do I do?” He like, “Just keep rapping, get on the Jack Harlow ‘What’s Poppin’ beat, get on Lil Baby’s ‘We Paid’ beat.” I would do these freestyles and they would start gaining traction, getting reposted by like Snoop Dogg, Gillie and Wallo, and Fabolous.

When I got my deal, I had like 7000 followers. When we started putting these freestyles out, my shit starts shooting up to 25,000 30,000, 40,000. Right as we got to like 51,000, everybody said, “Let’s go do a freestyle on a platform.” We went to LA Leakers, did it, and LeBron posted it and the rest is history.

Right, that’s tough.

In the midst of the pandemic , we dropped the project Don’t Run From R.A.P. in December 2020. Then one of my best friends get killed in Atlanta. Another person that I grew up with dies two weeks after Kobe Bryant. Another person dies in a car accident three months after him. Another friend I grew up with dies in a shootout in Oakland a week before my birthday. 

All this shit is happening the first five months of 2021. I’ve got no motivation. I’m so depressed, I was in the car with my homie. I had songs I recorded right after we dropped the project, when I was feeling good about it. He was listening like, “You I need to drop this.” I’m like, “Man, I don’t care about this shit no more, people don’t want to hear this rap shit no more.” He like, “Bro, shoot this video.” The song was “Don’t Condone.” 

I go shoot the video, I sent it to the label. Jason and Dallas both said the same thing, like, “This feels like Symba, this feels like what we needed to be doing, this feels like who you are as an artist.” We put it out and everybody said the same thing. That gave me the motivation to get back into it and go create Results Take Time.

You said you felt like people don’t care about this rap shit. These days, a lot of people who are rappers, their main skill isn’t always rapping. You’re a straight rapper, built in the image of Jay-Z, Nas, Jadakiss. Does it concern you that the thing that we grew up with is not necessarily at the forefront of the culture anymore? 

It bothered me a lot up until this year. I feel I started realizing the people that did actually want to hear it. It’s like when you start finding out who your fans are. 

We’re watching hip-hop grow up in real time. Of course, you’re going to get songs for the clubs and TikTok. But we watching all these artists die and get the RICO. 

Rappers always been getting killed, going to jail. The difference today is a camera. You actually see a rapper on the ground with his brains blown out, you get to actually see the feds running in the house. So we come on a growing up and starting to develop empathy for how we live as a culture. 

As we understand that more, it’s making it easier for rappers to come out and be themsleves. A lot of rappers felt like they have to cater to a certain trend because that’s what streams now. In actuality, that’s what gets it right now, it may not work in two, three years. If you look at 2016, 2017, 2018, that was the SoundCloud era. So it’s like now, those SoundCloud rappers, where are they? They kind of came and went. 

So it used to be frustrating, but by standing on it and sticking to it, now you hear the fans say, “You want to hear some real shit, go listen to Symba.” That’s what gives me the motivation to keep continuing to make that. It’s a discovery process where people get to know me each and every day to where in the next 12 to 24 months, we go look up and anywhere we go, it’s gonna be 3500 to 4000 people at these venues.

On “Can’t Win For Nothing,” you say, “Success feels further than ever when you’re this close.” Are you successful now? What are they going to take for you to feel successful?

I think it changes every day. If you asked me five years ago, what is my definition of success, it’s everything I’m doing now. But if you ask me today what it is, I still ain’t got a No. 1 album or record, I’m still not living in the hills next to The Weeknd. 

The pure definition of success is to achieve a goal. So I’m gonna get that No. 1 album and No. 1 record but you know what’s the first thing I’ma say when I get it? I ain’t got a Grammy. 

I’m at that point where people keep seeing my name, and they click the record, and they be like, “Oh, shit I like him.” I feel like that’s something that in order to succeed, you have to keep being consistent, keep grinding.

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