Last month, I saw something on Twitter that immediately became one of my favorite internet videos of the year.
It's a short clip of Lil Gnar, Germ, and a ukulele player standing by a tree, performing their song "Samurai Shit." But it's more than just a performance video. As the ukulele player riffs a little melody, Gnar and Germ rap while slicing melons that keep getting throwing at them from someone off-screen—and they never miss. Every time a melon goes up, it gets sliced open with a swing of a machete before it returns to earth. And the video comes complete with a perfect caption from Gnar: "This fruit ninja update is so realistic."
A couple weeks later, I brought up the video to Gnar before a show at SXSW, and he told me it wasn't his idea alone—it was a collaboration with the ukulele player: Einer Bankz.
Gnar told me Bankz has been making these videos with a bunch of other rappers, so I pulled up his Instagram page and saw performances with artists like Trippie Redd, Rich The Kid, Squidnice, Yung Bans, Lou The Human, IDK, and Rich Brian. The rest of them don't include melons, unfortunately, but they do all have great freestyles over Einer's ukulele playing. I was hooked.
I reached out to Bankz to learn more, and he told me about impressing Snoop Dogg the first time he picked up a ukulele.
"I was living at this house and there was a ukulele in the garage," he says. "One night I got drunk, picked it up, and this girl I was with was like, 'Play a Snoop Dogg song.' So I made this little video. Then the next morning, I woke up and Snoop Dogg had posted it. My shit was so lit up, I didn't even know what to do."
He wanted to keep the momentum going, so he started doing covers of local rappers in the Bay Area that he was listening to at the time. Eventually, artists started asking him to record freestyle videos while he was playing, and they started putting up huge numbers on social media. From there, he was helped out by a chance run-in with Fat Joe at an Atlanta radio station—which got picked up by Worldstar—and everything started to snowball.
"It's going crazy because no one's doing it and no one would expect it to happen," he says. "I'm on the road and linking with artists right now. It's super unpredictable who I'm going to work with. I also think people love it because there's a promotional value to it as well and artists are realizing that these little videos can get so many views."
Now, he's using all of his connections to focus on his solo music as a ukulele player, guitarist, bass player, violinist, and vocalist. Bankz put out a project in 2017 called Uke Nukem, and he's continuing to work on solo material as he stays out on the road connecting with artists and shooting videos. Continue for our full interview with Einer Bankz and check out all his videos on Instagram here.
How did you get into music and what made you pick up a ukulele?
I come from a musical family. My parents actually ended up putting a violin in my hand when I was like six years old. I learned to play by a method called the Suzuki method, which is where you can identify notes just by hearing them. Before learning how to read music or anything, I was learning to recognize the sounds. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was training my ear to do that with any instrument. Then I played guitar in middle school and played in a bunch of heavy metal bands in high school.
What's happening now with the ukulele got started kind of randomly. I was living at this house and there was a ukulele in the garage. One night I got drunk, picked it up, and this girl I was with was like, "Play a Snoop Dogg song." So I made this little video. Then the next morning, I woke up and Snoop Dogg had posted it. My shit was so lit up, I didn't even know what to do. But I knew I had to keep it going. This was back in the day when Instagram videos could only be 15 seconds long. So I started doing covers of everyone's songs who I listen to—all the Bay Area rappers and everyone. I started hammering those out and I got posted by E-40 and all the big Bay Area staples. That's what originally got my following up and launched things.
From the beginning, it sounds like you were incorporating the ukulele into hip-hop music. What gave you the idea to do that?
Honestly, it wasn't really planned out. The girl I was with just said to play the Snoop Dogg song and the lane was created. I've always been a fan of the music—I listen to rap music and Bay Area music. I got Snoop, so I thought I might as well just continue covering rap artists. People started recommending stuff to cover right away. But also, early on, I went straight for a super unknown underground rapper who was on some murder-murder, kill-kill type shit. His name Ronald Mack, from West Oakland. Then it seemed like every rapper in Oakland wanted one for themselves.
You were doing covers first, then started recording these videos with artists rapping along to you playing the uke. How did that start?
It's all been really natural. I went to this big show the Thizzler Jam for this artist Nef The Pharaoh and he'd just done this song "Big Tymin'" and I did a cover for it before it blew up. At the very end, I was drinking and having a good time, watching the show. Mistah F.A.B was with Nef on stage when Nef was about to go on. F.A.B. walks over to me and goes, "Hey, do you have your thing?" I was like, "Yeah, duh." So he had me go grab it and asked me to open up for them in front of the huge crowd. I got up and did a couple songs. By the end, they asked me to come backstage, and every artist was like, "We've got to work."
At the time, I had no idea what that meant. Like, "Let's work? What?" Then this artist Yung Gully asked me to come by a studio session. When I was there, we did this shaggy cover. Then I played something while he rapped over it. So that was the first one I did. I remember the night he posted it, my DM's got blown up. All these rappers were hitting me up, asking me to pull up. That night, I was like, 'Damn, I think I just started some shit.'
The influence of one artist is crazy. Detroit, of all places, showed me I could go on the road and be successful at this.
After working with local Bay Area rappers, now you're doing them with all these major national artists. Was there a moment when things started to change and take off for you?
There were a couple things. My buddy who was helping me do this at the beginning kept telling me to go to Detroit. At first I was like, "Fuck that, what would we do there?" But he eventually convinced me to go. I hit up a bunch of artists and they were into it, so we headed out there. This rapper Pesh pulled up on us and he was really networked, so he hooked us up with all these artists—like Icewear Vezzo. We did one and when he posted it, the video hit like 40k on his page that night alone. All of a sudden we had Detroit lit and everyone there wanted one. The influence of one artist is crazy. Detroit, of all places, showed me I could go on the road and be successful at this.
The big groundbreaking moment really came when I was in Atlanta. I was running around, doing a bunch of videos, and the radio guys there brought me into the station. I didn't know what Atlanta radio was all about, but I got there and it was actually super official. I was playing around with the DJ and it started blowing up on Facebook Live, so they had me sit in on the Fat Joe interview. He walked in early and I was the first person sitting at the desk. I think he thought I was one of the guys interviewing him. Midway through the interview, he looked over and said, "What the hell is that little banjo sitting there?" I was like, "Man, I'm going to play 'Lean Back' on it and you can rap over it." So we did that, and that was the video that really took off. That hit WorldStar and all these big places. That really set it off.
How do these normally happen? Do artists hit you up mainly or do you reach out to them?
That can be a number of things. I reach out to a lot of people every day, and there are people who reach out to me. 99% of the people who reach out to me are people who aren't quite there yet. I hate that it is this way, but if you do videos with just anyone, no one ends up wanting to do videos with you. So you have to keep things real selective.
All sorts of things happen, though. The manager of somebody might hit me up. Or a company will contact me and put something together. Or snake A&R's hit me up who try to get me to do one with their "up-and-coming" artists. [Laughs]. But for me, you never know how you'll get in touch with a big artist. It can be anyone from their hype man to their DJ to the merch guy to the childhood homie to them, themselves. For example, I got posted by one of my favorite pages on Instagram, Our Generation Music, and I connected with Rich The Kid's manager through that. Then the Trippie Redd situation came through his photographer.
Usually what it comes down to is they've seen it somewhere at this point, but they can't totally connect it to me. Maybe they didn't actually go back to my Instagram, but so many people have at least seen it. People are like, "Oh yeah, that guy with the mini guitar? Or the banjo?" So now it's getting a lot easier.
we had two melon stations and he was sprinting back and forth between, chucking melons. I was trying so hard not to laugh.
One of my favorite videos of yours is the Lil Gnar samurai sword one. Where'd the melon slicing idea come from?
Yeah, that's a funny one. Rich Brian's DJ hooked me up with Germ first. Then he showed Gnar, who reached out wanting to do a crazy one. At first I was like, "Maybe we could have you riding in the car shooting something." He ended up pulling up to the spot and did something more basic. Then he suggested "Samurai Shit" with Germ, so I tried thinking of something on some ninja shit. I thought it would be crazy to use samurai swords but we didn't know where to find them. Then Germ pulled out this medieval looking axe and was like, "I don't know where the fuck this came from." And we found a machete. We realized melons would be the easiest thing to slice, so we hit the grocery store and Gnar filled the cart with like 30 melons.
When we got to the park, my boy who was helping out was like, "Fuck it, I'll just run back and forth, pitching watermelons at them to swing at." So we had two melon stations and he was sprinting back and forth between, chucking melons. I was trying so hard not to laugh. I don't know if you can tell in the video, but I was cracking up. It was so funny.
Besides all the social media stuff, you make original music, too. Can you tell me about your first project Uke Nukem?
Around that time, producers were reaching out to me asking if they could remix stuff. Then this producer in the Bay, JuneOnnaBeat, hit me up and I knew I'd heard the tag. I pulled up on him and he was like, "You play other strings, right?" And I was like, "Hell yeah, I don't even really play the ukulele like that. I'll rip on the guitar, bass, violin, whatever." I brought the guitar out and we made some tracks. Then IAMSU! and Mozzy came over. Su and I did something together and when it dropped, that shit hit a million views. Mozzy and I did something and that shit did a million, too. My "Tuned Up" tag was on it, too.
Then everybody started hitting me up asking me to do strings, so I hit the studio and started selling string loops. I had so many producers trying to work with me, and I eventually decided to make my own songs with different producers. I knocked out a whole project with this guy Roach Gigz that didn't end up dropping, but I ended up putting out my own: Uke Nukem. I got on a few hooks, and the project had like 54 features. It was ridiculous. Like, why would you ever put that many people on a project? [Laughs].
But for me, I got tired of people saying, "Let's work." And work coming down to me pulling up to your garage two hours away, knocking out a video in some shitty lighting, and having it posted on Instagram. That wasn't it. I knew there was more to this. So I wanted to put out something that was a real statement. At the time, I was pretty Bay Area-based, but there were a couple Detroit features, too.
Since that project came out, your social media stuff has taken off more. Have those connections allowed you to work with bigger artists for collaborations on your solo projects?
Yeah, that's really what it's all about. Right now, all the videos that I do are a segue to linking and having the music come out. You know, it's really hard to put together an entire project and get the world's most unreliable group of people to all throw verses in. [Laughs]. That project, I didn't have to pay for a single verse, though. I have the mentality that I want people to be into it just to do it.
You’ve been working with a lot of big names recently. Have there been any moments that stand out, where you’re working with someone crazy thought, “Wow, I can’t believe this is happening?”
I think that came with the Fat Joe video. Then after awhile, you just kind of own it and get used to it. Like, I went to Atlanta and sat in Young Thug's session the first time I was there and chilled with him. We never did a video, but we kicked it and all these big artists came through. It was mellow and I got used to it. It feels normal to be around guys like Trippie Redd and Famous Dex, but there are artists who are smaller, who I have been a fan of for a long time, who I would feel that way around. But I've had other crazy moments when like Fender Guitar hit me up about a sponsorship. I was a heavy metal guitar player doing Battle of the Bands and all these shows, playing Fender guitars. That for me, was an "oh shit" moment.
What do you think it is about these ukulele videos that are connecting with people so well? Why do people like this stuff?
It's going crazy because no one's doing it and no one would expect it to happen. I'm on the road and linking with artists. It's super unpredictable who I'm going to work with. I think people love it because there's a promotional value to it as well and artists are realizing that these little videos can get so many views. And it's picking up because I'm staying on the road and keep going after it.
my main focus right now is really linking up with producers and making records. Rather than putting out a big project, I want to get a big artist on a record and have it blow up.
Do you think you have a knack for how the internet and social media works?
It all just comes naturally. I was just with a big media guy yesterday and he was explaining that these pages grow because they're a part of networks. And whenever somebody posts, they'll have a bot "like" their shit from like 30 pages with a million followers or whatever. They have these networks that trigger stuff to go viral. But mine has grown so naturally. A lot of the stuff won't even go viral. It'll go viral on the artists' page and put up huge numbers. But mine don't get a ton. They do alright, but I don't think I'm a master of the media or anything like that. I can work it to a certain extent, but things are just coming naturally.
Anything coming up in the future that we should be looking out for?
I'm in the middle of so many albums and things. But I'd say, my solo project is coming together. I don't even have a name for it right now, but it's going to have artists from everywhere I go. I want to put an artist from Florida on a track with an artist from Detroit and then another one from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But my main focus right now is really linking up with producers and making records. Rather than putting out a big project, I want to get a big artist on a record and have it blow up. And, of course, a lot more videos are on the way.