Making art isn’t unlike shouting into a deep well: you show up at the edge, holler until your throat is raw, only to hear silence in response. What’s the use? Shouldn’t we be marching against Trump, or learning how to crochet, or watching The OA? For those cursed with the desire to make art, nothing squelches that urge, however unlikely success may seem. But sometimes the hard work pays off. Koran Streets has been shouting into that well for quite some time; finally, the world started shouting back.
Last year’s You.Know.I.Got.It was number twenty-eight on Rolling Stone’s Forty Best Rap Albums of 2016. This is an honor for any artist, but it’s especially impressive for a rapper like Streets, who has forged his music career on his own. He didn’t catch the eye of E-40 or Too Short, he doesn’t have a huge, local fan base, and he doesn’t have a rich relative serving as benefactor. All he has is his work ethic, his will, and his talent for story-telling. Streets’ songs are sad, nuanced, and full of struggle—about which he knows a lot.
Streets was raised with seven siblings and his family was in and out of homeless shelters for years. When he was thirteen, injuries sustained in a house fire left him in a coma for six months. He’s significantly scarred as a result of the accident, but it’s never stopped him from pursuing his art. He’s been self-releasing music since he was fourteen (first under the name Killa Ron), and has been an actor for even longer. He acted in the movies Licks and Kicks, the latter of which featured Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali. Streets hasn’t stopped pursuing his dreams, even when things looked grim. Last year, while Licks was in theaters, Streets was homeless. Most people would trade in their dream for something easier, more obtainable, but Streets isn’t afraid of struggle. He just keeps grinding.
In January, I sat down with Streets at The Bootstrapper in South Berkeley, located on the block where Streets grew up. It’s the home of many memories—some wonderful, a few tragic. It’s the spot where Streets filmed a few of his music videos. It’s also the spot where is little brother was shot in a carjacking attempt. Streets is thoughtful, polite, and deadly serious about his art. We discussed Tupac, Bay Area rap, and his evolution from Killa Ron to Koran Streets. —Justin Carroll-Allan
Tell me a little bit about your neighborhood. What’s the significance of Bootstrappers to Koran Streets?
Koran Streets:I moved to South Berkeley from East Oakland when I was seven or eight. I didn’t know anything about Berkeley at the time—it was just that city I lived in. I think my upbringing in the city would be different than, you know, the “average person” living in the city because of how I came up and my upbringings and struggles. It was hard, but it was beautiful. A lot of darkness, but some of my best memories come from this city.
For more most people outside of the Bay, San Francisco is synonymous with Silicon Valley these days, Oakland produces frustrating sports franchises and good rappers, and Berkeley brings to mind hippies, new age, and the slow food movement thanks to Chez Panisse. But this is an incomplete picture—Berkeley’s much more complex than that. Do you feel an obligation to tell the stories that complete the picture of Berkeley?
Koran Streets:Yeah, I feel an obligation to [rap about] Berkeley because I am a face of Berkeley. I am a public figure here. When you say Berkeley, I’m one of the people you think of, so to represent the city in that way, I feel the need to tell people that there is a South Berkeley. There’s a small section down here that’s impoverished. Community centers are getting torn down. We’re losing a whole lot of resources down here, so I think it’s important for me to tell that story. Like you said, people think of glitz and glamour when they think of Berkeley, but that’s not how my life was living in Berkeley.
Since you’ve released You.Know.I.Got.It, you’ve received notice from one of the biggest music magazines around. How did it feel to see your name published in Rolling Stone?
Koran Streets:No one’s asked me that question before. I’ve been rapping for a long time—since I was nine—so it felt extremely overwhelming, you know? It’s a feeling that I’m still trying to come to grips with. Just seeing myself in that light in that type of publication is breathtaking. Not that I ever doubt it, but, they think [the album] is really good, and it’s mine. It’s my life story. It’s the greatest feeling I’ve felt in terms of music. It’s hard to put in words. I mean, you can see the expression on my face.
Rolling Stone—does it get more legendary than that?
Koran Streets:Not in my opinion.
And XXL reported on your recent video for “Hard.” Does having all this attention feel like validation for all the years of hard work you’ve put in?
Koran Streets:Yeah, but it’s important to not go too far up and too low. Gotta find a balance in things, because there’s more to come after XXL and Rolling Stone. I’m not trying to be a one-hit wonder, or someone who just has a good run and then dies out. At the end of the day, it makes me want to work harder.
Let’s talk about acting. You’ve been in two critically-acclaimed movies so far. In an interview for the movie Licks, you said that you were trying to tell the true story of Oakland. Your album also tells that story. Which medium is best to tell your story?
Koran Streets:That’s a good question. Music is rhythmic, it makes you feel a certain way. I think I do a good job in being vocally visual in my music, and some people prefer that. Film is a great way to tell any story. You can actually see it. You don’t have to worry about a bar going over somebody’s head. [Film is] really direct. For me, I prefer music. I put my life in my music. I don’t rap about “shake your ass” or “I sell a million bricks” or “I done killed a million people.” I don’t make those type of raps. I rap to deal with all my struggles.
In terms of storytelling, what can rap do that film can’t?
Koran Streets:Rap embodies feeling. I can go back and listen to a record and really feel the pain in my voice. My music is a representation of where I am in my life, so when I go back and listen to one of my records, I think, “Oh man, I remember when it was like that,” or, “I’m glad it’s not like that no more.”
You know, there’s another rapper/actor from the Bay Area that you remind me of. How important is Tupac to your rap sensibility?
Koran Streets:He’s the greatest rapper period. No one will ever come close to being a better rapper than Tupac.
Was Tupac the reason you got interested in acting? Were you inspired by Master P’s movies at all?
Koran Streets:[Acting] comes from my mama. I grew up doing Shakespeare. Hamlet, Macbeth. I’ve been in over one hundred stage plays, and it all came from my mama through the Lower Bottom Players. I started at seven. I was in plays, gettin’ checks. I was a paid actor, man.
Speaking of your mother, one of your most compelling songs is called “Mama’s House.” “Mama’s House” touches on the close proximity of the drug game to your life and how inescapable it can be. Has any of that changed in South Berkeley since you were growing up?
Koran Streets:Yeah, due to gentrification. The house I grew up in, which is just down the street, looks totally different. Even the driveway is paved. I think the city is masking [the problem]. People out here still sellin’ drugs, they just moved down the road, you know? The problem still exists. They just do a good job of masking it now.
When did rap look like a good way to escape street life?
Koran Streets:Like I could just rap and not do anything else? Not until this year. I grew up really fast. I always rapped and I always acted, but it never seemed like something that could do something for me. I’ve struggled my whole life. I was homeless last year. I had million-dollar movie out and I was sleepin’ in my car.
That was when Licks was out?
You’ve come up a lot this year.
Koran Streets:Yeah, man. It’s probably been one of the greatest years of my life.
Have people started recognizing you on the streets of Berkeley since you’ve started to gain attention?
Koran Streets:I mean, I’ve always been a known face [points to the scars on his face] around here. Plus, I used to be known for other things.
It’s funny you should say that—a co-worker of mine told me that you used to go by Killa Ron, and that there were legends about you.
Koran Streets:Oh my god. That was my first rap name. Who’s your friend?
Charlie. He grew up here in Berkeley and remembers when you first came out.
Koran Streets:[Laughs] that’s so embarrassing. That’s such a whack name. Fuckin’ Killa Ron.
How would you say Killa Ron compares to Koran Streets.
Koran Streets:One hundred percent different. [I’m] a lot more honest as Koran Streets, you know? A lot more forthcoming. Koran Streets wears his heart on his sleeve. I’m a lot more visionary with the music, I pay more attention to the music now. Killa Ron just rapped. He put words together and rhymed. He had a rap name like Killa Ron so he rapped about shit you’d expect a rapper named Killa Ron to rap about. Koran Streets is a real artist. Shit, I don’t just rap—I can sing my own hook. Killa Ron was just a Bay Area rapper.
You can certainly see the changes from Killa Ron to Koran Streets in You.Know.I.Got.It. What lead to that evolution from Killa Ron to Streets?
Koran Streets:A lot of jail time. I couldn’t count the times I’ve been in and out. Juvenile and County. Two months here, three months there. It got to the point where my mother was like, “This is it. I can’t do it no more.” My mother’s an ex-Black Panther, a huge community figure, and she was embarrassed by me. And I’m my mama’s baby. I’m the second youngest out of seven children, and my mama saved my life when I was on fire. She literally put me out. So I have an incredibly special relationship with her. Just hearing her say that made me turn my shit around.
Losing close people, too. I lost my best friend JB the Legend. Losing my father figure—he passed away just around the corner in the old folk’s home. That and seeing a lot people that I know go away for a long time. My friend Nate Grapes went away for ten years. He’s been gone since I was eighteen. Losing time, man. And time is the most valuable thing we could ever have. It’s the one thing we could never get back—and I’ve lost so much. All that has made me wise up and buckle down and hone my craft.
Perfecting a craft—that’s not easy. It takes a lot of hard work, which you’ve obviously put in.
Koran Streets:Yeah, I’ve been putting out music since I was fourteen. My first video was shot by Colin Tilley. He shot my first three videos when he was doing it for five-hundred dollars a video. He probably gets a million dollars a video now. He shot “Do It Like This” for The Turf Starz and Doe and Reezy’s “Her and You.” So I’ve been paying for my own videos and puttin’ out the music every since I was fourteen. And that’s a long time.
Yes, it is, and it’s a long time to go without getting a break. Was it hard, especially in moments like last year when you were homeless, not to just give up?
Koran Streets:I’ve been down my whole life. I’ve always been displaced. My earliest memory is being homeless and staying with my family in one room in the Salvation Army. No refrigerator. My mother slept in one bed, my two sisters slept in the other bed, and all the boys slept on the floor. We floated from there to my auntie’s house, then my uncle’s house, then my sister’s house. Then at eighteen I caught a dope case on that corner outside and fucked up my mama’s Section 8. That’s why I don’t live in Berkeley right now—I had to leave. They evicted my mama and she was forced to move to West Oakland. So I’ve dealt with it—that’s the norm to me, the struggle.
You just released a video for “Hard.” Billboard.com reported that the video was inspired by Tupac and recently-deceased rapper Bankroll Fresh. Why was it important to you to pay tribute to these two?
Koran Streets:[Bankroll Fresh] was my favorite rapper at the time of his passing. I’m a fan of his. He was really innovative and stylistic. His death was so sad and unfortunate. He was on a roll. I’ll he had to do was keep working. That’s why I’m wearing a bandana right now—Bankroll used to wear one, Tupac used to wear one. In his last Instagram post, Bankroll said, “I had to let these niggas know I’m going hard as ever, man.” In “Hard,” I said “RIP Bankroll, I’m goin’ hard as ever.” I show love to the greats. Bankroll influenced that song a lot. That’s Bankroll’s sound—and I’m not too shy to say that.
Bankroll’s from Atlanta. This city has been a rap Mecca for years, and now Migos have become one with culture. The Bay Area is also a huge rap region, one that isn’t generally known for being one, save for a handful of hip-hop nerds. Will the Bay Area ever get the spotlight?
Koran Streets:Everybody gets their time. The South has had the longest run. But everybody gets a run. Even St. Louis had their run. But the Bay Area is on the rise. A lot of talent’s coming out of here right now: Kehlani, G-Eazy, Nef the Pharaoh, Kamaiyah. Mista Fab’s got some good new shit out, too. They’re representing the Bay Area. They all put it out there: “I’m from the Bay.” G-Eazy has transcended into a superstar. The Bay Area’s in good hands right now, and hopefully I can help carry the torch and bring us into an even brighter spot.
I agree, and for every new class coming up, there’s always an older group that’s help shepherd the newcomers through. A recent article on Noisey declared Philthy Rich the godfather Bay rap—that rappers come to get his blessing. He’s released an album by K.I. on which you were featured. Has Philthy or any other Bay Area veterans helped you along the way?
Koran Streets:Me and Philthy have met a couple times. I used to run a studio out of my mama’s house in West Oakland, and he came by and recorded a couple verses. He’s a cool dude, and another one that’s making the Bay look good, but I don’t really have a big brother or someone who’s watching over me. That was JB the legend. I’m alone in the game.
With Doe and Reezy, you guys put out some bangers. Very different from what you’re putting out now. That song “I Must Be Ballin’” came out nine years ago.
Koran Streets:Yeah, and Colin Tilley directed that video. That was my actual car in the video. Someone tried to steal that car right around the corner here, and ended up shooting my little brother, Doe. They shot him in the stomach and both his legs. End of story.
Jesus. Did they get the car? Do you still have it?
Koran Streets:Naw. I sold it and bought a Benz.
Do you have plans to be in any more films?
Koran Streets:Yeah, I actually just auditioned for a part. I don’t want to jinx it by talking about the project too much, but Colin Tilley is directing it. The role was written for me, so hopefully I get it. But I’m gonna keep acting. It’s my second love. You know, for the longest time, people thought I just acted. No one knew I rapped. That’s something I’ve always been battling with: I’m not just an actor or rapper, but I can do both.