Symba: September R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month

·16 min read

No one exercises patience better than Symba. After playing a batch of records from his upcoming effort Results Take Time inside Traplantic Recording Studios in Hollywood last August, Symba pauses and surveys the room before yelling out: “Man, we ’bout to kill these motherfu–ers.” Though the overzealous Bay-Area rapper wouldn’t want anything more than to pounce on hapless MCs, he dials back the enthusiasm and remembers that he has a few more weeks before lassoing the competition. Before placing a bow on his DJ Drama-helmed mixtape, Symba was in a precarious position as he struggled to find any rhythm in putting together new music last year.

“I didn’t know what I wanted the project to sound and feel like. I was going through a rough time dealing with a lot mentally and emotionally,” he recalls. “I was chilling with my homie and telling him, ‘Everybody keeps saying I’m next up, but I don’t feel like that. I ain’t rocking sold-out arenas.’ He looked at me like, ‘Bro, you worried about the wrong s–t.’ He’s like, ‘You looking for results, and results take time.’ When he said that, it just hit me, and I started thinking of concepts like “can’t win for nothing,” “sacrifice,” “better days,” “soul ties,” and “blessings.” All those ideas kept coming to me, and I wrote them down and worked on the record.”

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For Symba, the time is now, as he readies his hotly anticipated Gangsta Grillz record Results Take Time, set to drop Friday (Sept. 16). With features from Roddy Ricch, Pusha T, 2 Chainz and more, the lyrical wunderkind hopes to keep his torrid streak alive after a smoldering rookie campaign. The hooper-turned-rapper dribbled his way into the hearts of hip-hop purists after dropping sizzling radio freestyles, most notably his L.A. Leakers effort, which caught the eyes of LeBron James and Dr. Dre. The respective powerhouses did more than give Symba a co-sign — LeBron included Symba on his Space Jam 2 soundtrack, and Dre worked with West Coast rhyme slinger on his new project.

“Working with Dre helped me a lot with my delivery [and] the way I’m pronouncing certain words or singing certain hooks,” he says. “That comes from being around Dre and seeing him attempt to try things — and not knowing where it’s gonna go, but [knowing] it might land.”

Billboard spoke with September’s R&B/Hip-Hop Rookie of the Month Symba to discuss his early beginnings as a basketball star, understanding the importance of networking, and scoring his massive co-sign from LeBron James.

Your name is Symba — Lion King type s–t. Talk about the inspiration there. 

It’s crazy. The name happened because exactly how you said it. I used to always watch Lion King as a kid. I grew up around my older cousins and friends and I watched it so much they started calling me Lil Symba. I was playing basketball before I was rapping and they were like, “Lil Symba got a game today.” When I started rapping, I kept the name and ran with it. Then I found out over time that Symba means “Young King.”

I heard that while you were hooping you ended up falling in love with rap and started battle-rapping in school.

That’s exactly how it happened. I had this a—–e hole coach named Eric Bamberger. It was my 10th grade year and they started me off on junior varsity. I was serving to the point they had to move me up to varsity after three or four games. When I got moved up, I felt the coach didn’t understand Black kids. He ain’t understand how the community was, and I couldn’t take the disrespect as a kid. As a 10th grader, you ain’t gonna respect someone talking to you in your face like that. N—a, my daddy don’t even talk to me like that.

There was one incident [where] me and him got into it, and I was like, “I’m not gonna play basketball until you quit being a coach.” It worked in my favor, but worked against me at the same time. I sat out my 10th and 11th grade years, and only played in 9th and 12th grade years. I still hold the points record in my high school. That stubbornness as a kid… couldn’t accept somebody talking to me like that. In the midst of sitting out, my homie Bam had Cakewalk. That was like our first [music-making software]. And he had a desktop mic from Walmart, and we’d freestyle to instrumentals.

How do you make sure that stubbornness is suppressed now as an MC?

I think it’s experience. I think you gotta learn how to fail in order to learn how to win. I think as a kid you try to do things the same way over and over, and when you don’t get them results, you start thinking, “OK, maybe I’m doing something wrong.” You start asking questions and for advice and getting around people who have done it at a higher level. And that’s what provides you with the information to know if you’re doing something. I’m overselling myself or not working hard enough or whatever it may be. You gotta be honest with yourself. You gotta be able to look in the mirror and be like, “I’m wrong.”

I was just talking to my homie and I was standing on something for two or three days. He had sent me an article, and after I read it I had to hit him back and tell him, “I’m wrong.” It’s learning to be accountable when you get older. That’s when the stubbornness starts to go away.

You were signed to Columbia and things didn’t work out. Then you decided to go to Atlantic after that. How were you not jaded from your previous label experience with Columbia to where you were comfortable in signing with a major again?

Because I knew I only got so far. First off, I got signed off a song that I wrote for somebody else. I felt like they didn’t sign me, they signed a songwriter that was supposed to be packaged like an artist. They wanted me to make this same style of music — and it was a melody thing, but I’m naturally a rapper. At the time, I’m four years out in Los Angeles and I’ve fucked up $80,000 running around the industry and I need some motherf–kin’ money at this point. I signed that deal because that’s what paid me back for getting my own studio, running around, getting DJs drinks, paying publicists and marketing people that didn’t help me.

I lost a lot of money trying to figure it out. I signed the deal to get my money back. The music wasn’t connecting — and I wasn’t worried about that, because I was worried about putting some money in my pocket. The minute we dropped the first song, everyone who brought me to Columbia went to Def Jam. It was a regime change and they went to the TikTok formula. I didn’t fit within that, and in the first few months I asked to get let go. I never reached the part to drop a second song, mixtape, press and radio run or do a show.

I knew what was gonna come with my first song out, but this time, I was being me. So I’m gonna do everything I learned, but I’ma apply this to me being me — and I got to the second song and the third song and got to freestyles and my project. I wrote songs for soundtracks. I just knew: the more I go and the more information I get, I’ll be able to keep up.

How have you been able to maintain that high level of networking and gift of gab under your new situation with Atlantic? 

I feel like it’s a Bay Area thing. In The Bay, we naturally just got that gift of gab. We gotta talk our way to get what we want. Whether it’s a woman, a job or getting a car, we always finessing and finding ways to get our point across. Being that type of outgoing person, it comes naturally. I think most artists don’t understand the best ability is availability. If you always available — not too excessive — but being available.

I was talking to Saweetie a few nights ago. [She asked me,] “Yo, I got this record and I need some help. Could you help me put this verse together?” I’m on the way. I was working on my s–t, but I’m on the way — because I might need her for something. She could help me get somewhere. It’s about being a Bay Area person. We lack a lot of resources and infrastructure when it comes to the industry, but when you get around it, you want to fully maximize everything that you do.

Last night, we left the studio in New York and hit a spot in New Jersey. We had an 8:00 a.m. flight and my homie went to lay down. I went to Tao to go meet up with Joe Budden, and I went to this other spot and didn’t get back to the room until 6:00 [a.m.]. I’m like. “I’ll sleep on the plane, because I got to maximize my time. So within the few days of me being here, let me do everything I can right now and I’ll sleep tomorrow when I get home. So while I’m here, let me do everything I can to get to the next level.”

Availability allowed you to get on King James’ radar. You’re always talking crazy, like “Michael Jordan ain’t s–t.”

Yeah, shout-out to the King! LeBron would’ve cleaned Mike up. Kevin Durant would’ve busted Mike’s ass. I’m telling the truth! Bron and KD gotta play a great player every night. It’s Jayson Tatum, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry. It’s a great player on every team. Mike and them were playing just aggressive people, man. There weren’t scorers, passers or skilled ball players. They were just aggressive. Bron outside, where you at Mike? Still wearing them bell-bottom jeans.

With that said,  how’d you get on LeBron’s radar?

If I had to guess, I think it was Draymond Green. Draymond took a liking to me very early. He would tell me, “I’ma send this to Bron.” I didn’t know if he ever actually did, but I know he’s a man of his word. I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened. The first time I knew he knew about me was the L.A. Leakers freestyle he had posted.

I was chilling with my son in December of 2020. I was in the studio the entire week, so that day I was like, “I’ma kick it with my son.” My homie had hit me like, “Oak is working with Chance The Rapper on a record for Space Jam, you think you could go to the studio and do a hook?”

I had my son, but I had to go be available. I went to the studio and did the hook. They were like, “You might as well put a verse on it.” It ends up coming, out and two weeks later Maverick Carter called Dallas and asked if I could give a few more songs. I gave them another song, and they called us to work on something for Salt-N-Pepa, Kash Doll, and Saweetie.

We went to the premiere and the whole time I’m like, “I gotta thank Bron for looking out.” I just hear everybody screaming and then I start pushing everyone to the side — to the point I pushed Chris Bosh. I got up to him, and he was dapping up Anthony Davis and turned around and said, “Symba, you a cold motherf–ker.” I gave him a hug and told him I appreciate everything and we took a picture. I sat about two seats away from him and from there we were just tapped in DMing each other. I’ll drop music and send it to him. He’ll hit me back saying, “This cold.” He reposted my Fire in the Booth freestyle. He showed up to my show at The Roxy last week, and he’s been a big supporter and I appreciate him.

I love the relationship you have with these ballplayers like LeBron, Draymond, Gary Payton II, and DeMar DeRozan. Talk about the basketball community embracing you. 

Them my dogs. It’s dope, because I played basketball, and as hoopers we’re always looking for that spark and motivation to get us up and want to go work out and shoot jumpers. A lot of my music I feel like is that. There’s a lot of inspirational quotes in there. Reality is most of us ain’t gonna make it rapping, most of us ain’t gonna make it trapping, most of us ain’t gonna make it playing ball, somebody ain’t gonna see tomorrow but none of us gon’ be here as long as reality is. That’s something for somebody chasing something, and you’re gonna wanna hear that to get you on your path.

I feel like I provide a spark for the sports community in general. I just did two new songs in Madden 23. One of my homies plays in the NFL, Taiwan Jones, he’s like, “This s–t on Madden. You just made me put it down and go to the gym. I need this record, send it to me!” It’s just a natural thing in my music for them to connect to.

From a co-sign stand-point, which one hit harder for you — Dr. Dre or LeBron?

I think they all go hand-in-hand because of how they happened. There’s four. Snoop Dogg and Dave Chappelle [too]. Dave was actually filming something for Netflix at The Comedy Store back in December. He invited me to come watch and he invited me on stage and I rapped for 10 minutes. He’s like, “This motherf–ker’s cold! Do the other one!” I feel like it all provides the same feeling. LeBron posts me on Instagram and I go from 30,000 to 100,000 followers.

I feel like I gotta get up and do something. Dr. Dre’s fresh off the Super Bowl and FaceTimes me to come to the studio. He’s playing beats and I’m playing him songs. He’s like, “We gotta do something.” He’s giving me advice, “Do this with your voice.” It’s motivating me. I can’t say one is bigger than the other one, but it’s all a feeling of validation that I’m doing something right. As much time as it may take and as much as we look for instant results, the validation comes from the greats saying you’re on the right path, and time will give you the results.

I remember talking to Blxst about Snoop Dogg knighting him. Talk about the moment you and The Game shared on stage with him knighting you.

The Game, too! He’s like the big homie. He’s actually the first person that’s a big celebrity in the music industry that was just like Instagram DMing, “Bro, you can rap! Come to my house right now.” I’m like, “Bet.” He sent me the address and I never went to Calabasas in my life. I’m just driving looking at the cribs like, “God damn!” I pull up and we got right to. We just start making music and he’s recording his new album Drillmatic. My other homie, Dupe, was telling me to pull up. I came through everyday. Even if I had the weed or brought the bottle or women through to twerk the right way and give an idea. He’s just always giving me game.

He’s a very controversial person. He don’t run from no smoke, but he’ll always tell me, “Don’t do that. Don’t piss people off. Go this way with it.” By us having that relationship and watching him record, when he had hit me, “Yo, I want to bring you out and rap.” I’m like, “Bet.” I was sitting in the house like, “I can’t just go up there and rap. I can’t give them an L.A. Leakers verse or an old song.” So I thought about it for three days and how I was going to approach it. I was looking at his career and seeing the work he put in. I’m like, “I’ma make this a tribute for him.”

Game started in The Bay. I remember when he first came out there. People were saying, “There’s this dude from L.A. that sound like he from New York.” People say that about me. We got a lot of similarities. I wanted to do something that let people know his catalog. I feel like a lot of the work he put in gets ignored because of the controversies. In my eyes, he’s a true legend.

If you could pick one ballplayer to compare yourself to rap-wise, who would you say Symba is?

LeBron James. I’m an all-around player and I could get it done on any level. You put a pop beat in front of me, I could get it done. You need me to write for Fast & Furious, I could get it done. You need me to write for Scooby-Doo, I could get it done. You need me to give you the best s–t you ever heard from the L.A. Leakers, I could get it done. You need me to get on a song, I could get it done. You need me to be with Kanye West for three days in Atlanta writing, I could get it done.

I understand my position and never try to outshine nobody. I’m not competing with nobody and I’m here to serve my purpose. I feel like LeBron is that in the NBA sense. If you need him to score, he can score, but if you need him to pass, he can pass. If you need him to play defense, he’ll play defense. If you need him to get the ring, he’ll do all three things in one to go get the ring. He’s an all-around player and I’m an all-around rapper.

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