Upstairs, in a dressing room backstage at the Orpheum in Ybor City, Robb Bank$ walks in small circles, winding himself up like a spring, mike in hand and awaiting his turn onstage. It's about 9 p.m. Saturday, November 14, the last date of the 21-year-old rapper's U.S. tour, an all-ages show to promote his new release, Year of the Savage.
He had arrived relaxed, with a box of pizza in hand for his friends. Now a girl uses one of the paper plates from dinner to roll a blunt that will soon be shared generously. Downstairs, Bank$' tourmate, Palm Beach County rapper Wifisfuneral, warms up the room. About 150 happy kids swirl in a somehow peaceful mosh pit.
When Bank$ blinks, black tattoos of the alchemical symbols for life and death appear on his eyelids. They look a little like they were drawn in with a Sharpie. His thick black dreadlocks add a few inches to his sinewy, slender frame, and two glittering stones the size of dimes decorate his ears. His T-shirt is from Billy Joel and Elton John's Face to Face tour in 1994 — the year Bank$ was born.
His voice reaches the audience from behind the scenes like the Wizard of Oz. The lights go low. People scream for him. The moment feels reverent. Suddenly, like a flipped switch, Bank$ runs down the stairs, a bouncing ball of kinetic power, touching kids' hands that are reaching eagerly toward the stage. "Hello, motherfuckers!"
With rock-god stances and call-and-response, Bank$ keeps the slam-dancing group hooked. The show has the feel of a meat auction, with everyone singing along word-for-word. Tampa promoter Ice Cold says this is the first time he's ever seen a mosh pit at a rap show: "Fifty bitches tangled up like rubber bands."
Bank$ hit the internet music scene with a huge splash in 2012, when he was 17, with his mixtape Calendars. With that release, the Coral Springs-bred rapper referenced news stories, pop culture, drugs, "bitches," and, most unique, anime characters and themes. His is a call to a generation of young people like him — raised in the suburbs but tempted by the streets.
"Only thing I can speak about is my experiences — what I want and what I've had," Bank$ muses. His music has the same dark aesthetic and fury of some of his contemporaries but is more evolved, woven through with personal and universal mythologies, with a high energy and clean sound.
As with other musicians his age, the magic of the internet both built him up and tore him down. When the news hit the web that his father was Jamaican reggae star Shaggy, Bank$' first reaction was to deny it, which injured his credibility. At that point, he took a step back from the hype, quit music, stopped slinging drugs, and began reading more — an eclectic mix of titles, from The Satanic Bible to self-help books.
Now Bank$ has re-emerged with his debut commercial album and four projects in the works — including an anime movie. It's as though his past four years have played out like a Joseph Campbell hero's journey, with all the drama of the anime cartoons Bank$ so adores. On the cover of YOTS, his silhouette slides sexily out of a pool of blood. He's like Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld returning to create life from death.
He calls this moment a "baptism" — everything people knew about him before has washed away, he explains. "This project," he observes thoughtfully, "is almost like a rebirth."
From his beginnings on Tumblr to his more recent signing with a record label, Bank$ is showing millennial rappers that with charisma and good taste, it's possible to ride the web's wave all the way to the stage.
Photo by Stian Roenning
In the late '90s, when Shaggy's hit "Boombastic" (I'm Mr. Boombastic/Say me fantastic) was flooding airwaves all over the globe, his tour touched down in Japan. At shows, his toddler would run out from behind the curtain and get fans waving. The child gained such a following that young Japanese kids chased down the tour van — not to snap pictures of Shaggy, but of his little scene-stealing son Richard.
"[Reggae great] Barrington Levy even once asked me to keep him off the stage because he was distracting the audience," Bank$' mother, Carol Burrell, remembers in a jaunty Jamaican accent. "He has always been completely and totally crazy about music from the tiniest thing, even from a year old... He eats, breathes, and sleeps music."
Carol met Shaggy — who was born Orville Richard Burrell in Jamaica — in Brooklyn, where his family moved when he was 18. The couple had two children together — Richard O'Neil Burrell, who would grow up to become Robb Bank$, and his younger brother Tyler. She stayed home taking care of the kids when Shaggy first gained recognition for his music.
But by the time Richard was 6 — around the time his father was releasing radio-friendly hits "Angel" and "It Wasn't Me" — his parents parted ways, and his mother took Tyler and him to live in Coral Springs near her sister and a friend. The neighborhood was "family-oriented and had good schools," Carol was told. She worked part-time in real estate and event planning and received financial support from Shaggy, with whom she still maintains an amicable relationship.
Bank$, though, felt like he essentially lost his father in this move. By the early '00s, Shaggy's superstar moment had passed, so Bank$ didn't think of him as much of a celebrity. "I would forget I had a dad," he says during an interview at the apartment of his producer and friend Nuri. Once or twice a year, Shaggy flew his two sons to Jamaica. Carol would dress them up neatly. Bank$ says he felt forced to act like "the good son."
At home in the safety of his gated community, he'd hole up with Japanese manga cartoons. His mother remembers he got into anime through Pokemon and moved on to Dragon Ball Z. "It was an obsession for him." His favorite series became the dark, dramatic fantasy Berserk, which explores good and evil through a protagonist named Guts and an antagonist named Griffith, who will sacrifice anything and anyone for power. Bank$ says he has always gravitated toward the bad guys, and Griffith's tale has most influenced his life, especially the idea that "if you can't grow with me, I'll step over you."
When he wasn't reading anime, he was practicing music — at first on his own and in secret. Alone in his room, he would study indie and mainstream rappers like Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Webbie, and the Notorious B.I.G. He thought that saying he wanted to be a rapper was as ridiculous as saying he wanted to be an astronaut, so he kept his dream private. But his mother remembers him performing a Biggie song with a friend during a talent show at Coral Park Elementary. "Let's just say it wasn't etiquette," she laughs of the age-inappropriate lyrics.
Outside the walls of the gated community, Bank$ felt drawn to the rougher neighborhood along Woodside Drive in Coral Springs, where drugs flowed freely among those he saw as the cool kids. "I wanted acceptance from a certain crowd," he admits, "from anybody, because I felt shunned and neglected from what was happening between [my mom] and my dad. I felt unwanted, and I wanted to be wanted from somebody that wasn't my mom." Bank$ first sold the narcotic Roxicodone, known as "Roxy," at age 13, "almost for sport," he says.
Ebony Cleary grew up a block away. She remembers meeting Bank$ at Coral Springs High, where they became inseparable. She still calls him Richard. "That's just my best friend," she says, referring to him as a "laid-back soul." Bank$ calls her his "sister."
Other kids felt drawn to him too, she says. "Richard has this look about him where people just want to know a little more about what he's saying and what did he sound like. He just had a unique aura about him that just leaked into the air. People just wanted to know and hear his stories."
But during his senior year, another of Bank$' best friends, Miguel Tabora, died in a car accident. Bank$' dog died too. He dropped out of high school and started getting into real trouble, as he explained on his debut mixtape in 2013: "Aye subject dropped high school wasn't my cup of tea/And a degree, definitely wasn't my pop/But when them Zoes taught a nigga 'bout them pills, I listened." He also rapped about the loss of Tabora, with whom he had shared morning-announcement duties at school.
Bank$ was sent to Dave Thomas Education Center, an alternative school, but never graduated. He woke up one day to find cops standing over his bed. He was charged with possession of alprazolam (Xanax) and possession of codeine (AKA "lean").
Bank$ knew he had to turn his focus to his music. He had begun working with a crew of other high-school-aged up-and-coming rappers including Pouya, Lucky Eck$, Indigo Child Rick, Los Hosale, and Kie Money. They called themselves Smart Stunnas, SS for short.
He got ready to move his rap game from his bedroom to the stage. "I was scared as fuck," Bank$ remembers of the time before 2012 when he started performing live at places like the Atlanta Indie Fest and Miami's Electric Pickle. "But I prepared for it, because I would watch Marilyn Manson live to get good stage presence."
Bank$ imitated Manson's moves in the mirror. To see him perform live now, that Manson theatricality is apparent. "My mom hated him, and that's what made me like him," Bank$ remembers blithely. Even his friends hated Manson, but Bank$ considered him the "prince of rock" and points out "he had the baddest bitches."
The young rapper also studied the moves of Norwegian black-metal band Mayhem, whose live shows incorporate rituals such as mounting severed pigs' heads on spikes and using human bones. Yet Bank$ was also obsessed with smooth British R&B singer Sade and says the whole reason he makes the music he makes is because of indie arthouse actor Vincent Gallo, "one of the hardest artists ever."
There was another important influence: high-school house parties. Bank$ noticed that "the nigga that could dance the best, like bopping, juke the best, you got the hoes. I would be practicing at the crib how to do all that shit," he laughs.
Channeling Manson, minus the makeup, in Tampa.
Photo by Stephen Schuyler
Bank$' transition to a public figure began with his Tumblr account. Under the name TumblrGod, he posted photos and videos of things that interested him — clothes, music, art — and engaged with followers. He gained momentum as a curator and tastemaker, in part because higher-profile rappers like SpaceGhostPurrp and the late A$AP Yams helped promote him on social media platforms. Soon he had fans. On a site honoring him — fuckyeahrobbbanks.tumblr.com — the creator wrote, "Robb Is Extremely talented, young, friendly & sooooo cute."
Around 2012, when Calendars dropped, other young rappers had been shooting up like dandelions out of cracks in suburban sidewalks. Odd Future had recently popularized subversive, somewhat tasteless rap for kids who were straight out of the burbs. Online, racial and cultural lines between black, white, and brown kids became increasingly less relevant. Charisma, craft, and cleverness were more crucial to developing cults of personality.
And Bank$' was alluring: a pretty, baby-faced suburban thug who loved anime and lean. His gold-capped teeth and cashed eyes seemed to beckon followers down a path of coolness. In an intelligent voice, he rapped about things his peers could relate to, like weed ("Copped a cannabis card from the AA bitch/Yeah, the one in the leotard) and the joys and trials of fucking ("Skinny young nigga, and I'm finer than my bitch"). But also, Bank$ referenced touchy topics: "Got a MILF in a midlife crisis down for what you want/I kill her daughter in my sheets, Casey Anthony in my trunk."
He blew up, garnering interviews from Vibe and Vice's music vertical, Noisey. "The internet is the reason I'm here," Bank$ admits. "Tumblr is the main reason I'm here."
But as in the dramatic mythologies of the anime tales that Bank$ so loves, that which made him soon stood to destroy him. A follower uncovered and then spread the word via Twitter that Shaggy was his dad. "That fucknigga know who he is," Bank$ says angrily about the guy who outed him. When his Twitter handle was @BankSquiat, the rapper went on a tirade against the DJ and producer duo @TrillWave and called Shaggy his uncle.
People began finding pictures on the web of father and son and sharing them. Squint your eyes, and a young Shaggy in the "Boombastic" video could be a shorthaired Bank$. "It upset me because it was before I could break out on my own," Bank$ says. "I was always going to let it be known, but I wanted to establish myself as an artist first. And I wasn't at that point yet."
The reaction was alternately brutal, supportive, insulting, and hopeful. One commenter wrote, "Ok, so Robb Bank$ is a rapper trying to go down the gangsta route but got exposed by A$AP Rocky as being the son of reggae artist Shaggy (net worth of $22mil, thug life my ass smh)," and then posted photos of Bank$, including one with his father when Bank$ was a teenager wearing a Ghostbusters shirt. Another commenter wrote, "I just hope he can rap, 'cause his dad is a reggae legend."
Bank$ regrets lying. "I shouldn't have said that. I mean, he shot me out his dick. But me saying that was all feelings like, that's deep down how I feel: He's not my dad. He wasn't there; he didn't do anything."
Bank$ says they're not close. "I know so little about him, I guess. I don't know anything about his music process or his start in music. And I'm at the point I don't care. I tried to mend that relationship with him because I wanted my dad in my life, but he just can't get over the fact that I'm not who he wants me to be. And that pisses me off. You weren't even there. You should be happy as fuck that I'm even trying to fuck with you."
At the height of the drama over his lineage, Bank$ put out only a handful of songs in 2013 — very few for him. His buzz died down. "My mind was just fucked," he says of the drugs he was using. He overdosed on lean a few times and had to go to the hospital. "I crumbled under the pressure. I've had a lot of times when I've crumbled under pressure due to the internet."
He began to struggle between his young self and this new Robb Bank$ persona he had created. Tension between these selves had surfaced as he gained notoriety. Richard couldn't handle Robb's privileges — getting into the club, underage drinking, girls who wanted to sleep with him because they liked his music. "It overwhelmed me... I did so much Xanax and I drank so much lean and just spent so much money." He realized he would have to choose his created character over his natural one.
He left Richard behind.
Bank$ even gets his DJ and crew vibing onstage.
Photo by Stephen Schuyler
"He doesn't exist anymore," Bank$ says like a villain who has chosen the dark side. "Richard is dead. He's been buried. I had to step over him to get where I am right now. I'll never be him again. If I stop right now and go work at McDonald's, there are going to be people in there who say, 'Ain't you so-and-so?' I'm going to be Robb Bank$ till the day I die."
Every rapper has an ego, he says. "Your rapper ego is something that a lot of rappers can't get over, get past. Even socially conscious rappers — Talib Kweli has an ego. If you don't know how to separate those two entities — your real self and the person you created — that's where you get fucked."
Bank$ did some soul searching. Since he had dropped out of high school, he felt dumb. To compensate, he went to Barnes & Noble and read through stacks of books — "from religion to literature, anything I could get to feed my mind, movies, anime. I fucking painted. I did everything I could." Titles include Chad Kultgen's The Average American Male, self-help books, and Anton LaVey's The Satanic Bible — "I had to stop in the second chapter and ask myself, Am I a satanist?" he says humorously. But he adds, "My religion is music."
Shaggy did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but on Christmas Eve two years ago, he was interviewed by DJ DUBL. Shaggy said that when he found out his son was becoming a well-known rapper, "it was quite a surprise." He always knew Bank$ studied the history of music and obscure artists. "I just didn't know he was into it to that magnitude."
On video, the elder Burrell explained that the reason Bank$ denied his fatherhood was "because the content of the music is a little bit edgy, to say the least. There's a lot of bitches and hoes and drugs, so coming forward to me with that kind of content, knowing who I am and how I feel about that, wasn't easy for him. So I can understand."
Despite being known as a mainstream singer, Shaggy explained, "When I started, there were a couple of lyrics that I, I was a little raw myself, probably even rawer than him. The only difference was, I didn't have the internet. So the people who were hearing my rawness were about 5-600 people inside of a venue, while his is the World Wide Web."
Shaggy said that he could help Bank$' career by recommending a good lawyer or agent but that he's not in the rap game. Besides, "He has gotten this far without me," Shaggy laughed. "He's done it himself, he's done it with his own money, he's raised it himself, he's not come for me for nothing. He gets an allowance; however he spends that is just his."
At that time, Bank$ was working on his relationship with his father and even used his recording studio in New York, but since then, things have shifted. "He wasn't there for most of my life... I fucking raised myself. I thank my mom for everything... But him not being there is the reason why I am who I am." His dad, he says, is "like the weird uncle that comes for holidays. Imagine him trying to tell you what to do!"
But he understands why he loses some street cred being the son of a famous musician. "I'm a kid — well, I'm an adult now, from Broward, from Florida, who's rapping about all these things that you wouldn't expect someone who's a son of an artist to rap about. If I were to see that, I'd be like, 'Yeah, this nigga a fraud,' but when I tell the story, it's up to you to believe it or not."
He's found peace with the whole situation to a certain extent. The biggest lesson he learned: "Before I do something or say something, I think about things 100 times. You have to do that. If not, you fuck yourself.
"Yeah, he's my biological father, but when you listen to the music, at the end of the day you hear the story of what happened and why and how I am."
In 2013, Bank$ released another mixtape, Tha City, whose cover confronts the controversy head on: It's a photo from his childhood of himself with Shaggy.
Bank$ shakes off his pizza coma before hitting the stage full force.
Photo by Stephen Schuyler
Around the time Tha City dropped, Bank$ began working with Miami-based talent management and marketing company Super Music Group. He continued to release singles and began touring the state, nation, and world, playing alongside acts like Action Bronson, Machine Gun Kelly, and Boys Noize, as well as collaborators SpaceGhostPurrp, Sir Michael Rocks, and Pouya. He performed at festivals such as 2013's Basel Castle and Miami's III Points in 2015. At that show, a small fight broke out in the crowd, and Bank$ yelled, "I need everyone bloody at the end of this shit, you feel me?"
300 Entertainment — the label that is distributed by Atlantic Records and represents up-and-coming rap stars Young Thug, Fetty Wap, and Migos — reached out in 2014. After some negotiation, he signed six months later and told the label he wanted to drop his completed album, YOTS, in two weeks. (He reached out to Marilyn Manson to ask him to executive-produce YOTS.) In its first week, it landed on Billboard's Heatseekers Albums chart.
Selim Bouab, the A&R executive at 300 who signed Bank$, says, "Robb is a true talent who has built an infrastructure as a brand and a cultural innovator as a leader as well as an artist. We've wanted to be partners with Robb for a long time, and once the opportunity arose, we were thrilled." He calls Bank$ "a unique artist with unlimited potential."
The buzz that once became criticism now sounds again like praise. His 2015 single "2phoneshawty" has 778,000 plays on SoundCloud so far. His lyrics have become more illustrative of his personal mythology and his dark humor, often with pop culture references ("Satan do my PR/My manager's God/I'm hittin' J's in the elevator like Solange") and reserved bravado ("Why you think we flow too much, chakra/I look round Broward/I ain't even know I made these clones").
Super Music Group worked with local promoter Dope ENT to book a six-month tour to close out 2015. "It was cool being able to headline my first tour, but at the same time, it was scary," he says. "I didn't know if it was going to flop."
It didn't. In cities he was unfamiliar with, like Philadelphia and Baltimore, he was amazed that audiences knew all the words to his songs. "I touch a lot of demographics — the demographics of my era, at least. From black Twitter to the geeks, the anime nerds, 'cause I'm partially that as well, to the streets, the streets of Broward, I am that as well," he explains.
Still, though, fear of failure is hard to shake. He used to spend hours on Twitter searching phrases like "Robb Bank$ sucks" or visiting forums to read all the good and bad things written about him. "Shit like that fucks with me... just having so many people talking about me on Tumblr. I have to be in my own world; I have to be in my own head to make music and to create. If not, I just get stuck in the internet."
He's come to ignore the haters. "Those people who are saying, 'He's a bitch,' they're actually the bitches," he says. But being insecure is a part of being a creative person, he notes. "Because even right now I'm talking big, but deep down I'm insecure about my music, about everything, about everything I put out.
"I'm still insecure, but I used to be really insecure," he admits. "That's why I would do things on the internet, like lash out."
But this experience helped mature him, and the worrying has made him meticulous in all things, especially his music. Bank$ doesn't like the word "perfectionist" but is an admitted control freak. "I feel like what I do, every artist should do," he says. "If you're not trying to be the best, then you're not trying to be shit... I'm trying to be the best rapper ever, of all time. That's what I want to be. Why else would I do this?"
He's deleted the Twitter app from his phone.
He's like the pied piper — everywhere Bank$ goes, the kids follow.
Photo by Stephen Schuyler
After the show at the Orpheum, Bank$ hosts a very relaxed meet-and-greet. He poses for pictures, throwing "L" signs with his fingers — for "Lauderdale." One kid in a pink hat and glasses takes a photo with the rapper and says, "Thank you so fucking much!" When a female fan sits on his lap, he turns to Hope — his stunning, tall girlfriend — and apologetically throws her a kiss.
In the parking lot outside the venue, Bank$' entourage — a mix of his Broward friends, their friends, and guys on tour with him — is acting silly and joking around. No tallboys. No pills. Maybe some weed. They even use the word "ma'am" unironically. It's almost wholesome.
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Bank$ muses on what's next for him. He still collaborates with his old friends from SS and is learning to play guitar. He already has three musical projects and one anime film planned; the titles of each album and all the song names are written in his iPhone Notes. A concept album, Death of My Teenage, will concentrate on sounds of the early '00s. Words he has written out for song ideas are "slut shame," "photobomb," "one direction," "just turned 21," "eating pussy like per diem," "suck your titties," and "Nerf." He'll then release another mixtape, Tha City 2, and next plans to record a mainstream-label album, Ready to Die — maybe his final musical project.
In a move to branch off into directing, he's already working on a secret anime movie for television that's influenced by YOTS. Bank$ is collaborating with an animator and working on setting up meetings with major animation companies such as Funimation and Aniplex. He hopes it will come out in a year or two, and his engineers and producers on most projects, Nuri and Nuez, will work with him on the score.
"I don't want to be underground," he says. "I feel like I'm as big as I can get underground. I want a mainstream audience. Any rapper that says they don't want their music to be heard is a liar. I want my message to be spread to everybody."