On a rainy late afternoon I pulled up to Studio Compound in Northwest Baltimore. It took a while to find exactly where it was located. Inside of a well-hidden lot, the studio sat inside of an inconspicuous white building where you’d expect a warehouse holding inventory for a department store. Its first room was bare aside from the ten foot basketball goal but was the size of a small community center. Beside it was the recording studio, enhanced by lights flashing between green, red, blue, and purple. A crowd of people sat around the mixing board, looking up at the booth which sat about twelve feet in the air. Inside was Bandhunta Izzy, a 20-year-old rapper that’s on the way to becoming the city’s most adored new artist. After a few takes, Izzy walks down to the floor and lights a Black & Mild cigar. He stands about 6’4 and his wiry frame makes him seem even taller. Over the past year, Izzy has established himself as one of Baltimore’s most promising acts—first uploading a handful of freestyles and attempts at tackling popular rap instrumentals to now racking up hundreds of thousands of plays on anything he releases.
While I stand around with Izzy, his manager Omar Lloyd, and others in their camp, we listen to the most recent takes of the song he’s recording, titled “I Got It.” As we listen, Omar passes Mambas around as they wait for their big order of pizza and wings to arrive. From first spin, the song sounded like one of the first I’d heard from Izzy with a detectable hook. The bulk of his music acts as an opportunity to show just how many words he can fit into each bar as he tirelessly raps for the majority of them all, barely taking a second to gather his breath. “I got a gun, I’m calling it Nyquil. It be putting niggas right to sleep / I got a chopper, that bitch like a highchair. It be takin’ niggas off they feet,” is what he raps in the first verse.
When we get a second to step away from the commotion in the studio’s main room, he confesses that he needs more polishing when it comes to song-making. “When I first started rapping seriously, my favorite artist was G Herbo. Listening to him, I would kind of pick up on his style and I realized the more you listen to somebody, the more you start sounding like them,” he said sitting back, and taking a drag from a cigarette. “I was rapping a little fast and people would be like, ‘You rapping too fast. Sometimes niggas can’t understand you.’ So now I pick up things from different artists. I learned how to ride the beat differently and give more with my delivery.” It’s a refreshingly self-aware comment on his own work. Like Chicago’s G Herbo, Izzy’s raps feel like a constant onslaught of listing his favorite weapons and love for his close friends. But he knows where he needs to improve, admitting that he could stand to get better at making catchy hooks so he can have a single that grabs nationwide attention.
As a kid growing up in Northwest Baltimore, Izzy, born Israel James, was quiet and reserved, gravitating to drawing before ever considering picking up a mic—not basketball, as his height would suggest. It’s not a complete surprise. Even as we speak, he’s incredibly poised and, at moments, fades away into his own world—not seemingly due to a lack of interest but from what feels like a true introverted nature. Having control over his state of mind is a top priority for him, which is why he prefers Black & Mild’s and cigarettes over weed. “I don’t get high. That shit make me feel like I’m not myself no more,” he says with a slight level of disgust. “I don’t like shit like that. I drink but it don’t make me feel like I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. When I’m high I feel stuck.” In high school, he was known for his gift for tattooing, putting ink on friends and aside from the first tattoo he got at 13, doing all of his own—which span from the corner of his forehead, his entire neck, and down to his hands. As he recalls, art was the only class in school that he ever excelled in. “Usually when somebody is good at art, they’re good at different kinds of art,” he said thinking about his creative progression.
Izzy’s local rise came at the most opportune time possible. Though he had been recording and uploading songs since his senior year of high school in 2015, very little caught on. A big part of that is arguably due to the stronghold that Lor Scoota and Young Moose had on the Baltimore street rap scene. But with Scoota being gunned down in June of 2016 and Moose being behind bars at the time, the city had a valley-deep void to fill. To his benefit, Izzy never lost faith in his chance at catching on and kept releasing music. “I ain’t know him but shorty made it feel like niggas could actually do it out the city,” he said of Scoota. “When he died that shit was crazy. Him and Moose definitely gave me more hope.” In ways, Moose and Scoota have proven to be martyrs for Baltimore rap. Breaking the scene wide open to national audiences in 2014, neither panned out to be the superstars the city had hoped for. But what they did do successfully is show kids looking up to them that breaking out was a real possibility. Izzy, being four years younger than both, is a prime example of that trickle down effect.
Now, in their footsteps, Izzy stands a chance to be the city’s next prized possession. “It’s not like Baltimore don’t got a history and a background that people might wanna hear about,” he said in reference to carrying the torch. “Once somebody really gets out there, it’s gonna open up for Baltimore because everybody wanna know the story of why it’s so bad, why the crime rate is how it is, what’s going on. Just like Chicago.” He’s seeing the signs of this theory too. He tells me that he already gets regular snaps and messages from fans in Detroit, California, and Atlanta. On Twitter and Instagram, teenage girl fans constantly repost his pictures with heart emojis and smiley faces. Each video he’s released in the past eight months has eclipsed the 100,000 views mark, with “BBB” featuring Blue Benjamin Sleepy grabbing over a million. Even going to malls and parties are out of the question at this point. “I hate going to the mall because I gotta take a thousand pictures. I just move different. I stay lowkey. It’s boring,” he laughs.”I stay in the studio.”
When we return to the noise of the studio’s main room, the attendance had seemingly doubled. The pizza and wings had arrived and judging by people’s half-empty plates, the food has been there for a while. Friends from Izzy’s Bandhuntas crew are there now including his older brother and frequent collaborator Lor Jugg, with whom he starts to play fight. Before we part ways, Izzy tells me that he has a mixtape in the works that he plans on releasing this year. When I ask for an exact date, he doesn’t specify but seems sure that things will work out in his favor. “I got plans for it to be a big year and that’s because the fact that I speak shit into existence,” he says as he puts on his management company’s D1 Entertainment hoodie. ”I didn’t picture me getting this far for real so I’ma just take this all the way through.”
This cover story appears in True Laurels Issue 02. Buy a copy here.