Last month, Lower Sproul was packed to its limit with a sea of fans who attended ASUC SUPERB’s annual welcome week concert. Headliner Kehlani, as to be expected, delivered an electrifying homecoming show that sent the crowd home feeling satisfied. But her opening act, the Berkeley-based rapper Caleborate, made his stage presence and lyrical flow known. By the end of his set, he hyped up an audience filled with two kinds of people — those who were already fans and those who were soon to be.
“It was a dream come true,” Caleborate said of the SUPERB concert. “I don’t know how many times I’ve walked through Sproul and just imagined being able to do a hometown show. It meant a lot for me to do it at Cal because this campus and this city has been such an important part of my life.”
For Caleborate, putting down his roots in Berkeley was essential for cultivating his creativity. He split his childhood between his mother in Sacramento and his father in Pittsburg, but he made Berkeley and Oakland his stomping grounds. He credits Berkeley — where he moved to five years ago — and its eclectic culture for inspiring him during the earlier days of his rap career.
Amid all the moving around, he kept himself rooted in his passions. The long, weekly drives between two homes gave him time to concentrate on writing, listening to music and forming his own artistic identity.
“When you’re living in that split home environment, it kind of forces you to find yourself because you don’t really have a set home,” he said.
For Caleborate, home really is where the heart is, and his heart was always in making music. His move to Berkeley is inseparable from his rap career. When he was 18, he would find himself stumbling into frat parties on Piedmont Avenue where he would jump into impromptu cyphers. He earned a reputation as “The Black Kid That Raps,” and it stuck. He even took his label name, TBKTR, as a homage to the identity he formed in his early Berkeley days.
It’s fitting, then, that his debut album, Hella Good, opens with a song titled “From the Eastbay With Love.” Since its release in 2015, the album has become a local favorite and has even earned a few nods from rap tastemakers such as Complex and Pigeons & Planes.
That success wasn’t just beginner’s luck. With the drop of his sophomore album, 1993, Caleborate has further delivered on the promise of his debut album. Throughout the project, his lyricism and flow are sharper, his beats (courtesy of local favorites such as Julia Lewis, Cal-A and Wax Roof) are wavier and his growth as an artist is clear.
The album functions as a time capsule, focusing on the day-to-day experiences and struggles of a 20-something-year-old in this day and age.
“If you’re born (around ‘93), you’re probably in that same space that I’m talking about in my music. Student loans, finding a comfortable living situation, trying to sort your romantic escapades,” Caleborate said. “On top of all of that, you’re trying to figure out who you are and who you’re going to be for the rest of your life.”
In what is arguably the most personal arc of the album, he publicly confronts his complex relationship between him and his parents. At the end of “Thank God,” the song transitions into a recording of a phone call between him and his mother, in which she gives her son heartfelt advice about being the best man he can be.
“Too Long” samples a voicemail from his father. “There’s been a lot of shit going on with that,” he explained. “Really, for like the last four or five years of my life, that relationship has been up and down.” Even though he hasn’t talked to his father in some time, he wanted to include him in the song as a way to acknowledge the impact that relationship has had on his life.
“I knew I wanted to talk about my relationship with my parents, and my relationship with my dad in particular. I’m glad I did that because now it’s documented. It’s on a record. It’s there and I got it off my chest, and I do feel like I’ve let go of some of that.”
Caleborate also addresses issues that are bigger than himself in 1993. On “250 A.M.” he tackles gentrification, expressing his frustration with how the housing crisis is pushing out the unique, diverse people who drew him to Berkeley and the larger Bay Area in the first place. From his point of view, originality and authenticity are being replaced with hipster imitations manifesting in the form of “$15 plates of food and fuckin’ Sans Serif fonts.”
As an artist, Caleborate sees it as his responsibility as a rapper to open up discussion about heavy issues. He cites his respect for public figures, such as Colin Kaepernick, who use their platform to do the same (even though he’s a diehard Raiders fan). Modeling his approach to music to Dave Chappelle’s approach to comedy, his mission is to provide critical conversations and entertain audiences. The way he sees it, there’s nothing stopping him from speaking on the issues and making bangers, too.
“That’s why they give you a microphone, your voice needs to be heard,” he said. “So what are you going to do with your time on the mic?”