Everyone loves an underdog. In hip-hop, especially, dark horse status is synonymous with credibility. It’s no surprise, then, that local rapper Alfred Banks has made it his personal brand. “Underdog Central is a place where the overlooked go to hone their skills to come back [as] the admired,” Banks told OffBeat, laying out his movement’s mission statement. “It’s less of a label, more of a life mantra.”
Banks has experienced his fair share of adversity. He was forced to drop out of Loyola when he and his mother were evicted, and later lost his brother Orlandas to suicide, but he never let his circumstances define him. He stayed focused on his craft, even as his world crumbled around him. He started rapping under the moniker Lyriqs da Lyraciss, putting full faith in his bars, but soon learned lyrical skill alone wouldn’t cut it. “When I first came out, I was rough around the edges,” he said. “There was a lot that needed refinement, so I went to my proverbial bat cave and came back out as Alfred Banks.”
He’s come a long way since then. His 2017 LP The Beautiful was a breakthrough, debuting at number 12 on iTunes’ Rap/Hip-Hop chart and number 79 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. It’s anything but a crossover record, though. The album begins with a reenactment of Orlandas’ funeral and goes on to unpack the delicate theme of mental health and suicide in the black community. Conscious hip-hop is a hard sell in 2018, and it’s never spelled financial success here in New Orleans, where Jay Electronica (patron saint of serious bars) is album-less over a decade after dropping his first tape. But Banks forges on, un-phased. “I come from a city where, ironically, rap isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things,” he said. “So I’m down six points with three seconds left. That’s how I live my life.”
The New Orleans hip-hop industry lacks the size and infrastructure of the genre’s current epicenters, but collectives like Pink Room Project and Freewater are sprouting through the cracks of the splintered scene and catching national looks. Banks has maintained his independence, though, preferring to work alone. “What I’ve found is that I’m not hard to work with, but I don’t take days off,” he said. “As I was walking to this interview, I was booking a show. If there’s 24 hours in a day, 23-and-a-half of ’em I’m doing something with music. I went out to lunch with my girl today—that was my leisure. But every moment I’m awake, I’m doing music.
“Some people, they wanna be successful, but they don’t really wanna do that,” Banks continued. “They just wanna do a little bit of it, and if it comes up, they’ll deal with it. I treat everything as if it’s life or death. I don’t know if I’mma be here tomorrow, so every day I wake up, I’m going super hard. A lot of people don’t feel that way about music. They wanna create because it’s cool or it’s a good outlet for them emotionally. They don’t chase it the way I chase it.”
In the past, Banks has been wary of working with others, but his upcoming EP, The Mere Exposure Effect, is a collaboration with fellow New Orleans native Malik Ninety Five. “He did Voodoo [Music + Arts Experience] with me, so I talked to him backstage and I was like ‘Yo, I really like what you do. Let’s work.’ So he sent me a folder with some beats and I got to work,” he recalled. “That was the first time I reached out to somebody in a long time. I don’t reach out anymore. I keep it in the house because when you reach out to people, there’s potential for disappointment.” He hesitantly describes their joint project as a foray into the current SoundCloud rap zeitgeist, experimenting with sung vocals while remaining loyal to lyricism. “It’s my own spin on it,” he said. “Not really a Lil Xan–type vibe—more of a Bryson Tiller, Tory Lanez–type vibe.”
Banks plans to break new ground in his live performances as well as his studio recordings this year. His next show is Mat Mania, a WrestleMania weekend show at One Eyed Jacks on Friday, April 6, with Open Mike Eagle and Mega Ran heading the bill. Next, he’ll make his debut performance at French Quarter Fest on Saturday, April 14, with the versatile CoolNasty as his backing band. Banks and bounce veterans Partners-N-Crime are the only rap acts playing the festival this year, but he believes he can grow hip-hop’s presence at similarly tourist-friendly events in years to come. “I think it’s gonna change because of me,” he said. “I don’t wanna seem cocky when I say this, but I’m good. And I’m just safe enough that people will feel confident putting me at the forefront.”
FQFIQ: Saturday, April 14, WWL-TV Esplanade in the Shade Stage, 2p