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How Hip-Hop Ukelele Player Einer Bankz Became The Unlikeliest Rap Star

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If you haven’t heard, there’s this kid running around with a ukulele and recording videos with a bunch of burgeoning hip-hop artists. His name is Einer Bankz and you probably caught his video featuring Chance The Rapper at Coachella when it made social media rounds back in April.

That viral performance led to an opportunity for Bankz to attend Grizzly Fest out in Fresno, Calfornia equipped with an artist pass, thanks to the efforts of his good friend and manager Anthony Rodio. The next step for bringing the Tuned Up movement, what he affectionately calls his combination of ukulele and hip-hop, to Grizzly Fest was seeing which artists would be down for making a video with Bankz — and Jhene Aiko was totally down.

It all took place in the confines of her festival trailer. The two sat on a cream-colored, leather couch as Bankz plucked at the strings of his darling ukulele. The thump of heavy bass from the festival threatened to overpower their sacred performance but never succeeded. Jhene performed the whole song, including Swae Lee’s verse.

“She sent over a couple of songs and she had this record with Swae Lee, ‘Sativa,’ and I heard it and was like, ‘This is raw.’ We did it in one take,” Bankz explained to me in the hotel lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles recently. “It was in her private trailer and with just her team. I love her team. They are just so down to earth. I love seeing that with somebody who is that successful on that level and they’re just very human.”

I met up with the Bay Area native one weekend at Crowne Plaza to see what happens when he links with an artist to perform their music with this peculiar stringed instrument. For a while, it was up in the air who we’d meet up with but eventually, I suggested we focus around him linking up with Jhene Aiko at Grizzly Fest for their acoustic rendition of “Sativa.”

Less than 24 hours later, I received a text message from Rodio to call him because they might have someone else for tomorrow, so I called him immediately. “Hey, do you know who Trae Tha Truth is?” he quizzed me.

“Of course, I know who Trae is,” I quipped back. Now, I was going to watch Bankz make a video with an H-Town legend. Soon after our conversation, Rodio texted me the details of the location for our meet-up in the morning, and here I was at the designated hotel the following day. Once I hit Rodio up to let him know I was in the building, he and Bankz arrived soon after along with their camera guy. Trae hadn’t arrived yet so Bankz plopped a seat right next to me and we engaged in small banter as he clutched to the esteemed star of our conversation close to his chest. Playing this traditional Hawaiian instrument while covering popular hip-hop songs is how Bankz got his start.

“I just got drunk one night and picked up the ukulele that was in the garage,” he shared with me. “I had never played it before. I did a Snoop Dogg cover and he re-posted it. I just started doing covers of just me singing the artist’s song and I got posted by E-40 and some other people from The Bay.”

That song was Snoop Dogg’s 2015 Bush hit “Peaches N Cream” featuring Charlie Wilson. When Snoop re-posted the riveting clip to his own, things began to grow for Bankz from there.

He told me stories of him linking up with Bay Area producer Juneonnabeat and collaborating with him to make songs for Mozzy. All the producers and rappers from Sacramento to Oakland wanted to hit the studio with Bankz to work.

“Young Gully from Oakland was the first artist who was like, ‘Yo come to my studio session,'” the Instagram star recalled. “I started to play and he started to rap with it. I was like okay, let’s record one of these. We did a song by Shaggy and I posted it and that night and everybody was like pull up on me, we got to do one. He started this thing and he didn’t even realize it.”

He tells me one time, Mistah F.A.B. and Nef Tha Pharoah spotted him in the crowd of a show they were performing at and asked him if he had that “thing.” That “thing” being Bankz’s ukulele, of course, and they brought him on stage to perform with them in front of hundreds of concertgoers. He was surprised at how much FAB hyped him up on stage and got to perform “Big Tymin” with Nef at a time when Nef was just beginning to blow.

Not really paying attention to the time, Trae walks in with his son and say: “Ok, where are we doing this at? I have a baby shower to get to.” Sensing and the wall featured some artsy, steel artwork. I thought it would look cool on-camera, they agreed and began to record. Bankz pulled out his phone and practiced the melody to “Better Dayz” off his recently released album Hometown Hero for maybe 30 seconds. After exchanging a few words, Trae, Bankz and the cameraman nodded to each other, signaling it was time to begin.

Trae cooly leans on the wall, with one leg up and began to rap.

They did a few runs, searching for perfection and occasionally looked at what the cameraman had captured. I was truly impressed with how smooth it went considering how rushed the energy initially was. Relaxed, we all bobbed our heads to the beat Bankz set off using his magical instrument as he added drums to the performance by simply slapping his hand on the ukulele’s wooden surface. The next song took a few takes to get right but once everyone got the looks they wanted, we said our goodbyes and Trae made his exit. The entire process was pretty straightforward and took less than an hour. It was a fun interaction and was fairly easy to fall into the novelty of it all.

I had so many more questions for Bankz. He literally played the song off his phone and then quickly transferred the melody to his ukelele. It was amazing. It’s really cool how Bankz has been making videos with all these up-and-coming rappers and big-named artists, but I was curious about his end goal. With a talent like his, I was hoping it didn’t just end at Instagram videos. Bankz began playing the violin at the impressionable age of five years old by the Suzuki method which is also known as playing by ear.

Since his talent has been embraced by hip-hop, Bankz has been able to establish some unbelievable relationships in the music industry. A few of those connections have allowed him the opportunity to take his hip-hop ukulele playing to the next level with the release of his follow-up project to 2015’s Uke Nukem Bankz just spent some time with Nipsey Hussle in the studio and also had been attending studio sessions with Young Thug, who absolutely loves what he is doing.

“I was out in Atlanta and I went into a Thug session and at the time I didn’t want to press him but in my head, I’m thinking he could be raw,” he says. “He came by and he’s like that’s dope, but for me, I don’t like pressing people on the spot. I like somebody to know what it is and then come to me rather than me be like, ‘Hey here’s what I do.’ If the artist has an appreciation for it or they’re a fan of it — an artist can be a fan of another artist and an artist can be a fan of an idea or concept — they’re going to post it, they’re going to love it, they’re going to be behind it, they’re going to speak on it.”

Bankz says nothing has been recorded between him and Thugger as of yet, but I told him at some point, that needs to happen for the culture.

“I’m linking people who you wouldn’t think would ever link,” he further explains of his upcoming project. “I’m making these beats, I’m playing strings on every single one of them and then I’m getting these artists together.”

Of course, I tried to get him to drop names but he stayed mum due to the complexities of paperwork. There’s no telling who would be on the next project after paperwork is filed and lawyers get involved. He does promise that currently some of the biggest producers in the game are working with him on the production for his forthcoming album, and they’re all reaching out to him.

No question his viral video with Chance The Rapper from April leveled up his visibility to make this possible. Chance saw Lil Durk’s video and wanted to do one of his own.

“I had gone to New York and did a bunch of videos and I guess he had seen me,” Bankz said. “He reached out on Instagram and asked if I was going to be at Coachella,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. Now I am. Duh.’”

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The video of Chance and Bankz performing together has been viewed over 3 million times on Chance’s Instagram alone and a Twitter trending topic. It’s become a competition between rappers of who can do it better and according to him, he doesn’t have to come out of pocket for a thing.

It’s such a curious sight to watch this white kid from The Bay connect with all the top, buzzing underground rappers. This juxtaposition is why Bankz suspects his videos have garnered so much attention.

In one clip you’ll see him and YG performing “Suu Woop” with The Game by his side flamed up, in another you’ll catch him following behind Taylor Gang’s Sosamann rapping “Drippin On Em” while navigating through a lush forest of medicinal marijuana, another clip features Bankz plucking at his ukulele next to an old school whip, dripping in red paint, as up-and-coming Florida rapper Jdola raps to “I Had To.” Trippie Redd, Flatbush Zombie and Desiigner are also a few artists one will come across on Bankz’s Instagram performing to his ukulele.

He’s also attracted the attention of ukulele hobbyist and they’ve become intrigued with his burgeoning Tuned Up movement as well. People who aren’t remotely interested in hip-hop are super engaged with his Instagram page and are eager to catch the next rap star performing with Bankz and his ukulele.

“What I’m hearing from people is a different crowd that comes to see it and now they’re considering the music,” he says. “Now they’re considering listening to rappers. A lot of people are like, ‘yeah I don’t really listen to rap music, but I watch your videos all the time.’ I’ll look to see who they follow and you don’t see them following any of the artists that I’m linking with, but they follow me.”

Bankz admits he doesn’t always know the entire catalog of every artist he makes a video with. He may know of one song, or perhaps just heard their name in passing. One artist who he became an immediate fan of after making a video with him was Yung Bans. So much so, Bankz said he had to let Bans know.

“I think I heard a snippet or something when I heard his music and then we did a video,” Bankz recalls. “It went super viral on Twitter. I think five or six months [from] when I first saw him that I went to his house the second time. I had listened to his music and I was like I was like this is so hard. ”

Bankz has a plethora of performances with major artists sitting in the vault just waiting to be released so I was curious to know who he wished to perform a ukulele song with, that he hasn’t.

“I really want to do one with The Weeknd,” he says. “I feel like he would just kill one.”

Let’s be honest, a sweet lute version of “Call Out My Name” would be a very nice thing to have.

It’s also important to note the pure musician in Bankz likes a challenge. It’s not uncommon that an artist will pick out a song that already has strings in it. He doesn’t want that — he wants a sound he can work off of. Rich The Kid’s “Plug Walk” is an exception because it has such a distinct melody, but everything else he does, he wants it to play off the original song.

“I like to make something that’s different,” he explained. “There are songs where the beat’s kind of doing a lot so I can go off and do my own thing. It has to rhythmically make sense. Some artists have a better time finding the tempo and tune because there’s no bass and sometimes the artist doesn’t have any rhythm and I have to play something super simple.”

As our conversation began to wind down, it became clear to me that Bankz’s ukelele plans are actually bigger than what he’s currently doing through Instagram. He dreams of Grammy Awards, major record placements, Billboard Hot 100 hits and executive music decisions.

“I want to be on the hits that are heard worldwide,” he shared with me. “I want to be the string player people hear on a song and be like, ‘Oh is that him on that? Was that him playing the strings?’ I’ve got a bunch of music sitting right now. I just need that big push so that I’m recognized for having been part of big songs.”

Who would have known a drunken night of playing hip-hop covers on a ukulele would turn into something viral and musically engaging. Bankz took a special moment is making sure he turns it into something that leaves a legacy behind. With his determination and faith, anything is possible.

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