“My first plane ride was a one-way to somewhere I’d never been before,” 20-year old rapper Ohana Bam says to me over the phone last Thursday, with a relaxed enthusiasm he maintains throughout our conversation. He’s telling me about his move from Chicago to LA this past January. “I always think back and I realize it was kind of crazy,” he laughs, and I nod, because isn’t that how we all feel about every major decision we’ve made? Maybe just me and Bam.
Bam, “short for ‘Bambino’ which is Italian for ‘baby,’” wrote his first rap when he was practically a baby himself. At just 6 years old, Bam, then Brenton Smith, recorded a track on a webcam with his best friend. “We had half the playground going crazy,” he laughs. “It was terrible, of course,” he explains, unable to recall the song’s name, but postulating that it was probably about “being fly” in “turtlenecks and Power Rangers shorts.” With his characteristic positivity, however, he qualifies —“but it was a start!”
A year and a half ago, Bam dropped out of the University of Missouri, where he has since returned only to open for Rae Stremmurd and Waka Flocka Flame, to pursue his playground dreams. While Bam says his passion for his former major, International Business, equals his enthusiasm for music, Bam found college a waste of time and he was “ready for the big boy stuff.” He moved back home with his mom in Chicago, who told him he had 6 months to find a new place. With an unabashed confidence Bam maintains today, he told her he’d have a record deal in 6 months.
“I knew I wasn’t going to have a record deal in 6 months,” Bam laughs. But 6 months was enough time to save the money he needed to move out. He got a job at a Dodge car dealership, “and when that 6 months came,” he tells me, “it was just like – okay, to California I go.”
Bam had $4,000 in the bank and had never been to California before. “Honestly, when I got off the plane,” he tells me, “I was shaking a little bit.” Bam knew no one in LA aside from the brother of a childhood friend and his future manager, and had no plans aside from a single meeting with Warner Brothers. For his first few months in the Golden State, Bam was down and lonely. But everything changed on March 24 – his birthday – when he got a call from Rolling Stone.
The reporter told Bam he was obsessed with his single “Sheriff” (from his EP The Trailer), which was on current rotation in the magazine’s offices. They wanted to feature him in the next issue of “10 New Artists You Need to Know.”
“That was like a light to me,” Bam says. “I knew it was moving.” Today, Bam speaks with the sense of awe of someone who can’t really believe what’s happening to him, but who also is dreamy and confident enough to feel that it’s the only reality that makes sense for him. Most things Bam describes are “crazy:” the future, inevitably “legendary.” When I ask him about his goals, he begins to explain, “I’m just trying to make—“ before stopping himself. “I’m gonna make the best music.”
While he ventured to LA solo, Bam now lives with several Ohana family members (Ohana actually means “family” in Hawaiian) in the valley. Collaborators D. Phelps from Chicago and Shaan Mehta from New Zealand (Bam met Mehta while he was studying abroad at Mizzou) have joined Bam on the Best Coast, and his childhood best friend and manager also live in the house. I ask him about the difference between his life in LA versus Chicago. “I’m not gonna lie,” he says, “I wake up pretty happy here.”
Bam tells me his typical day involves rising at around 2pm and going into the kitchen to say “what’s up to the boys.” Then “I might go in the pool…might take a little dip.” I ask Bam if he ever explores LA. He says he occasionally ventures to Hollywood or Malibu, but because he isn’t a fan of sitting in traffic and already lives with all his best friends, it typically makes more sense to stay put – “play beer pong… mini golf… Sky Zone. You feel me? We havin’ fun.” Bam is horrified to learn I’ve never heard of Sky Zone, which he describes as a “trampoline party,” explaining that it, like most things in Bam’s life, is “like…crazy.”
I have a feeling Bam is downplaying how hard he works, as it seems that during his brief stint in LA, he’s recorded an EP and two albums – the later of which have yet to be released. He casually drops that he’s typically in the studio until 6 or 7 in the morning, explaining that “night time puts him in a different mood.” I say that makes sense if you, like Bam, are trying to make club bangers. But in retrospect, I think his recent single “Oralgami” – the track of his that got me hooked – might go even better with day drinking, perhaps during one of Bam’s poolside beer pong sessions.
“I don’t know if you’ll be offended by this,” I say apprehensively, “but when I first heard ‘Oralgami,’ I thought it was Drake.”
“Ahhhhhh,” he says, clearly edging more towards flattered than offended. “I’ve gotten that, I’ve gotten that.” He pauses. “Well, Drake makes hits. And I make hits, sooooo…” He laughs. He tells me he was surprised by “Oralgami’s” positive reception, explaining to me that it was more of a tester. He thinks the upcoming singles from his soon-to-be released debut album, Tree Up, are much better – “they’re so left field, they’re gonna be crazy.” Since we spoke, he dropped the next Tree Up track, “Rest,” which indeed gives “Oralgami” a run for its money.
“What’s ‘Tree Up’?” I ask. Bam explains that the term is a variation on the phrase, “turn up,” with an Ohana twist. The crew’s symbol is a palm tree, which Bam tells me represents uniqueness. To “tree up” is to encourage people to be unique in their own way. I tell him I assumed it was a weed reference. He laughs. “Well people think that,” he says, “and if the stoners like it that way…I mean, hey – so be it.”
Bam says Tree Up is filled songs that “sound like an adventure,” embodying a new sound. He explains that after years of hard, gritty trap music dominating the hip-hop charts, it’s time for “feel-good music” to make a comeback. As this is the fourth or fifth time I’ve heard similar words uttered by an up-and-coming rapper this year, I think it’s about time I begin loosening my fierce attachments to the trap. “We tryna switch it up,” Bam says of his Ohana team, which he compares to A$AP Mob. “The next generation is here.”
Tree Up is scheduled to be released on October 23rd.
Find out more at ohanabam.com
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By Anna Dorn
Photograph by Jory Lee Cordy