YBS Skola Is Giving Baltimore Bangers—and Hope—Again
Baltimore rap has suffered a series of setbacks this year, but YBS Skola is picking up the mantle for the city.
In 2014, Baltimore saw a boom in the development of its street music scene. Young Moose, from the city's East Side, released his song "Dumb Dumb," a self-congratulating anthem about his willingness to risk it all for whatever prize at stake. From the city's West Side came Lor Scoota and his track "Bird Flu," a song that uses selling drugs to illustrate the frustration of wanting to move up the social ladder. Both songs attracted a buzz in and out of the city that hadn't been generated since Baltimore Club's most recent national boom in the late 2000s. They gave way to a growth of young people in the city mustering up the courage to tell their own stories through music without having the possibility of people not responding restrict their ambitions. Scoota and Moose became the new cultural references to everyday life in Baltimore by not omitting the emotional toll of street life.
Two years later, Young Moose is incarcerated and serving a three-year sentence for a gun charge, while Lor Scoota fell victim to fatal gun violence this past June as he left a charity basketball game. The city is recalibrating. Last month as Boosie Bad Azz and DC's Shy Glizzy took the stage at Baltimore's Royal Farms Arena, Glizzy wore an airbrushed tribute to Scoota on his denim jacket and brought YBS Skola, a member of Scoota's YBS crew, to the stage to celebrate. Referencing Lor Scoota's #ScootaUpNext tag line, Glizzy yelled "Skola up now!" Audience members pulled out wads of cash and jumped around to Skola's song "Whole Lotta Money," one of several buzzing in the city. The joy on Skola's face was evident as he looked out on the crowd. But even with this major embrace, the brutal realities of his home city are fresh on his mind, especially ways to evade them.
"Ain't no hope in Baltimore," Skola casually told me a few weeks later as he sipped white wine in the bar of a downtown Baltimore hotel. The 22-year-old was dressed in all black with a freshly tapered fade and large rectangular pendant that diagonally read "YBS" slowly swinging from his chain as he talked. He put it so plainly and genuinely that even in my disagreement, there was no room for debate—particularly considering what's been on his plate of late.
"They don't wanna see me win the Grammy. These niggas rather see me on the news," go the opening lines of his song "They," an uncharacteristically somber moment compared to the rest of his anthem-filled catalog. The track came after the shooting not only of the 23-year-old Scoota but also that of his manager Trayvon "Truz" Lee, who was killed less than two weeks later. Fittingly, the track opens with quotes from Boosie Bad Azz's recent DJ Vlad interview where he suggested that all rising rappers get out of their home cities to evade the imminent envy-bred threat to their lives. The idea has weighed on Skola, but he also understands the role his music can play for his city as it grieves.
"My music don't come out like pain, it come out like motivation," he said, his hands moving with every word. "You'll never know half the shit I been through from listening to my music. You would have to been there." He explained that in that way he's different from Lor Scoota, whose music often addressed emotional challenges like disappointing his mother and being away from family while in the juvenile system. Skola's music is more celebratory and repetitive in nature, making it tailor-made for the motivation he wants to exude in his work. He's crafting street dream escapism by highlighting the victories instead of the losses, and it has worked in his favor.
It's been less than a full year since he released his first song and video, "Gettin Money," which has gotten over 1 million views on YouTube. In April he released his debut mixtape, No Pen Just Paper, and the videos for singles "Purple Haze," "No More," and "Whole Lotta Money" have all garnered more than 200,000 views. "Whole Lotta Money" has especially developed a following: Soulja Boy danced to it on Instagram, A$AP Twelvy tweeted its lyrics, and Meek Mill has been rocking to it in clubs.
None of this was part of some life goal. Growing up in West Baltimore's Edmondson Village, Skola, whose real name is Dajuan Cannady, didn't have aspirations of being a rap star. Like many, he playfully experimented with the craft with neighborhood friends. "I didn't come up involved in music to the point where I was actually in a studio as a kid. It all came about when YBS kicked off and I was in the studio more," he said. "More than anything, the support from my family and my team encouraged me to start making music."
He walked confidently through the hotel lobby, regularly making pit stops at the mirror to check if his Alexander McQueen scarf was tied around his head properly. His speaking voice matches the contagiousness of his coarse, off-kilter harmonies, which offset his still-developing lyrical skillset. It also helps that the bulk of his production comes from local standout Elijah808, an 18 year old who's been getting commissioned for his piano-laden trap beats by Baltimore artists since he was 14.
"He got that different sound and it's catchy. It make people feel good," Elijah said about Skola during a phone conversation. Although he's collaborated with Skola and Scoota, the recent high school graduate is just as influenced by the group as many of his classmates and other kids in the city. "It's the music and the image," he said of their allure. "In Baltimore we never really had rappers with this kind of street music really represent like this. When they came out they took it to a whole other level. They made it look possible. They gave people hope when it came to music."
The group, whose initials stand for Young Ballers Shining, is most admired for living the "dope boy dream," as Lor Scoota said in his track "YBS (The Team)." They're young men from some of Baltimore's most disenfranchised areas taking high risks—legal or otherwise—to catapult themselves into a higher standard of living. The wins and losses of street life mirror reality for so many Baltimoreans, so the fact that YBS have become celebrated representatives isn't much of a mystery, no matter how that's measured on the scale morality. Their impact is unquantifiable. Put it a simple search of "YBS" on Instagram, and you'll come across handfuls of Baltimore-area teenagers with the crew name at the beginning of their handle.
The support is shown in tragedy and triumph. Earlier this summer, a vigil was held in honor of Lor Scoota on his home block of Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds, if not thousands, of supporters came to recite his lyrics, do his Bird Flu dance, and rejoice only to be met by police in riot gear. It was reminiscent of last year's uprising in reaction to the death of Freddie Gray. Scoota's passing made it to media outlets like CNN, and he was eulogized by the likes of Meek Mill, Yo Gotti, The Game, PNB Rock, and others. His music began to get daily play on local station 92Q—something that would have made a world of difference while he was still here, according to group members. "They showed him more love when he died," said YBS Snook, a non-rapping member of the group. "If he would've seen that love while he was here, he would've appreciated life more." The climate may be shifting, though. On more celebratory days, people scream the lyrics to Skola's "Gettin Money" out of their car windows. Young people pose like Skola and Scoota on social media, and even the non-rapping members of the group like Snook, Bunny, Dip, and others have fans. They're local celebrities.
Though Skola prefers making motivational bangers for people to ride to, he accepts that his fans want more from him, especially after hearing a heartfelt tribute like "They." People have reached out to him with comments ranging from "This made me cry" to "I listen to this everyday" to "I want you to make it. Please leave Baltimore." The last is a question that's been racing through his head since losing Scoota and Truz.
"Even before that, the whole goal was to never forget where we come from but to make it out of Baltimore," he said, pausing to think. "We barely get play on the radio. You got rappers in other cities like Atlanta and they get play nonstop. Our whole objective was to get the money and get out. It's no more we can explain to Baltimore. We gotta focus on these other cities that don't know what's going on with us yet."
Even with the solid foundation that YBS has already established, Skola says they've been learning as they go from the start. The lack of management has him uncertain of whether or not he's "doing what's right or what's wrong" as he looks to secure a nationwide fanbase. His father, Stokey Cannady, is well known throughout Baltimore's black community as a leader and organizer who headed marches and meetings after Freddie Gray's death. Formerly incarcerated on drug charges, the older Cannady has made strides to open recreation centers and rehabilitate West Baltimore, efforts that resonate with the community better than most politicians would dream. He regularly shows support for his son's efforts in music, posting his songs and images of the guys in meetings in different cities on Instagram. He's also close with Roc Nation's Emory Jones, a Maryland native. Still, even with a father as plugged-in as his, Skola takes pride in handling his career along with his YBS team.
As the only musical artist left in the group, he now has the fan base, exposure, and growing catalogue of catchy, hard-hitting songs to carry the streets of Baltimore on his back. "Every possession counts," he said, with a clear expression of urgency on his face. "I gotta think not only for me, but for the team, my kids, for the family. My decisions ain't even for me no more. I know if I go do something dumb, and I'm the only artist on the team since we just lost Scoota, that'll fuck everything up. I can't afford to slip." At the end of July, Skola released No Pen Just Paper Reloaded, a slight edit to his debut project with a few Scoota-featuring songs added. At the end of our conversation, as we walked around the waterfront of Baltimore's Harbor East district, he confessed his fuel to push through and build on the legacy that he, Scoota, and the rest of YBS have established: "It's right there within reaching distance. The world tapped in now. It wouldn't make sense if we didn't go full throttle."
Photos by Shannon Wallace. Follow her on Instagram.
Lawrence Burney is a writer from Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.