Built to Last?: Meet Lil Booty Call, the San Antonio SoundCloud Rapper Who Scored a Major-Label Deal

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CLAIRE MARIE VOGEL
  • Claire Marie Vogel
Name: Lil Booty Call
Profession: Rapper
Age: 22
Birthplace: San Antonio
Big impact: After his song “Sailor Moon” blew up SoundCloud, Lil Booty Call landed a deal with Warner Records.
Little-known fact: Prefers $3 black T-shirts from Walmart over expensive clothing
Money quote: “To be honest, real music will last forever … I don’t really copy styles. I copy the way people move, I study people. I saw the way Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa moved, and they never really went along with the hype. They always stuck to themselves, and I saw how far they got.”

Spitting verses while jumping across the stage like he was playing a game of “the ground is lava,” Lil Booty Call had the crowd at the Paper Tiger feeding off his energy during a performance more than a year ago.

Packed tightly around the venue’s secondary stage, audience members thrust phones into the air, eager to capture footage of the San Antonio rapper as he rhymed over a looping saxophone riff and thumping trap beat.

In perfect rock star fashion, he jumped into the audience as the packed room continued to chant the chorus of his signature song, “Sailor Moon.”



The same song the Paper Tiger audience sang along with now sits at nearly 4.9 million streams on SoundCloud, the music streaming service where Call first released the track.

And with a debut album Jesus Said Run It Back released last month through Warner Records — whose roster includes Lil Pump, Deftones and even Cher — it’s easy to think the 22-year-old rapper has made it.

But Call’s emergence comes at a time when the music industry is in upheaval and oversaturated with other young rappers who have come up through SoundCloud. It’s hard not to see challenges for the young emcee as he works to carve out a career that lasts longer than the shelf life of a catchy single.

Even so, the San Antonio native — born Michael Bocanegra — says he’s looking to play the long game.

Specifically, he cites lessons he took from two of his early influences, the late Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, a pair of rappers who stayed true to their art, refused to jump trends and were rewarded with career longevity.

“Real music will last forever,” Call said. “I saw the way Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa moved, and they never really went along with the hype. They always stuck to themselves, and I saw how far they got. With me, as long as I don’t jump into this wave where it’s … talking about killing and shooting people … I don’t think I’ll fall off anytime soon.”

While Call does engage in some lyrical posturing, most of it seems like a nod to hip-hop culture and its roots. More often, his subject matter runs to introspection, sometimes with a bit of melancholy.

With his bright colored hair — think a blue raspberry and cherry raspa — and glasses, Call looks like a teenager waiting to get picked up from a show on the St. Mary’s Strip. But beneath that party-ready exterior, it’s clear that Call wants to give his listeners an inside look at his life journey, which sometimes seems a bit lonely. On “Bandaid,” the opening track of his new album, he alludes to buying things to fill a painful emotional void.

“I write for the form of expression and to just get things off my head,” he said.

Call’s music is also a far cry from many of the repetitive mumble rap and trap tracks that flood SoundCloud. The mood varies across Jesus Said Run It Back, and many of the beats possess a jazzy element. Delicate piano figures and laid-back acoustic guitar progressions figure into some of the tunes.

But for all his obvious skill, the up-and-coming rapper still faces the same criticism directed toward his generation of SoundCloud artists. Namely, that they broke out via viral online hits instead of “paying dues” by releasing albums and incessant touring.

“The main criticism that comes with being in that [SoundCloud] group is that it’s not real rap,” said Shea Serrano, author of The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song from Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated.

But Serrano said that opinion, most commonly held by the older generation of “gatekeepers” within the hip-hop community, is fast becoming a dominant way for listeners to discover new artists, especially those recommended by friends.

“SoundCloud was just an avenue that was not available to people at the time,” he said, explaining why the older generation remains dismissive.

Origins of a Booty Call

While Lil Booty Call’s name suggests that the rapper’s content might be sexual in nature, full of odes to partying and promiscuity, there’s actually another meaning behind the catchy moniker.

“I’ve never been the popular kid,” the rapper said. “I knew a lot of people in school, but nobody really fucked with me, and I just felt like a booty call — like somebody you hit up randomly, somebody you know that’s not busy because you know they don’t fuck with anybody.”

Raised by divorced parents, Call played in his middle-school band but ditched the clarinet soon after he and friends began rapping over instrumental beats at his dad’s house.

“I was just freestyling, but if it was fire, I would write it down and think, ‘Damn, I’m gonna use this [in a song] someday,” he recalls.

As a sophomore at Earl Warren High School, from where he graduated in 2014, Call got his chance to put those rhymes to use. He joined Supernova, a hip-hop collective featuring a dozen or so members.

“They kicked me out the group. They said I sucked or whatever,” Call said with a laugh. “So, I was like, ‘Alright, bro, I’m gonna show y’all.’”

He continued honing his craft as a lyricist, working a day job at H-E-B and freestyling into the early hours with his friends. After a traffic accident landed him in the hospital, he moved back in with his mom and stepdad.

After his stepdad gifted him with a MacBook he won in a work raffle, Call got his chance to move beyond rhyming to composing beats. He began producing his own songs, tracking vocals using only the microphone built into his headphones.

The homespun approach became the recipe for his breakout song “Sailor Moon,” a song about enduring repeated disses from a girl he likes. He released it as part of an EP on SoundCloud but eventually took it down after a lack of response.

“Nobody was really fucking with the songs, so I deleted all of them,” the rapper said. “I do remember this one guy that said, ‘I know you deleted all your shit, but you need to reupload ‘Sailor Moon.’ That’s a hit.’”

Heeding the advice, Call posted the song again and worked on new tunes. A year or so later, out of nowhere it seemed, “Sailor Moon” blew up on the streaming site.

“In 2017, something happened — I still don’t know what happened,” he said. “I guess I just hit the right algorithm or something like that, and [“Sailor Moon”] was recommended to everybody. And the shit just started popping off like crazy.”
CLAIRE MARIE VOGEL
  • Claire Marie Vogel
In early 2018, a few months after the track went viral, Call got an email from Glow Up Records, a New York-based independent label. After negotiating a deal, he was booked to play the Roxy in Los Angeles. Call’s management team invited other label execs, including one from Warner to attend. After seeing he’d sold out the venue and rocked the crowd with an energetic performance, Warner also extended an offer.

“After the show, a couple labels talked to me and flew me out,” Call said. “But we went with Warner because we feel like they actually gave a fuck about [nurturing] me and caring about my fanbase instead of just [trying to make a] a quick buck.”

While grabbing a major-label deal is a feat for an artist in any genre, the bridge from SoundCloud rapper to top-billing emcee is still narrow and new, observers point out. Questions still linger about the career longevity of rappers who started out as Internet phenomena.

A Cloud of Sounds

But industry veterans say it may be time to start taking SoundCloud rappers like Call seriously.

Marco Cervantes, a hip-hop scholar and director of the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Mexican-American studies program, said SoundCloud has emerged as a leading way for fans to discover new songs and artists.

“As a professor, I get access to a lot of young people, and I get to talk to them about how they consume music. And for many of them it’s SoundCloud,” said Cervantes who also raps under the moniker Mex-Step in the group Third Root. “They communicate through SoundCloud — some of them don’t have the capital to buy a Spotify account or Apple Music or whatever — but they have their SoundCloud going, and it keeps them in the know.”

Virtually anyone can upload their music onto SoundCloud and there’s no quality control, so Cervantes points out that it’s worth noting that Call’s music stood out from the crowd and received so many plays.

In other words: “All bets are off in the internet rap era,” said Andrew Sims, cofounder of indie-rap heavyweights Doomtree.

During Sims’ two decades in hip-hop, the formula for creating a hit has changed — and become more elusive. Call’s challenge, according to Sims, isn’t going to be figuring out how to apply a special pop formula to his music but keeping outsiders from muscling in on his career and diluting his vision.

“People are going to be giving him all types of ideas and things that he can do and [telling him] what he should be doing, when he should be listening to himself,” Sims said. “As labels come hollering and different producers come in and out of the picture and different publicists come in and out of the picture, he’s just got to stay true to his vision. If his vision is strong, then he’s going to be really successful.”

Hip-hop author Serrano agrees. He points to Tyler, The Creator as a rapper who’s done a good job of staying true to his vision. While the rapper came up before the SoundCloud era, he was able to build a massive online following via the then-new Twitter platform and write-ups in blogs.

At the end of the day, Call’s success lies within his own creative vision — one that’s so far taken him further into the music-industry mainstream than any other Alamo City rapper. The key to building that into a lasting career comes down to his ability to focus on his art, Serrano said.

“As hard as it is, you have to not concern yourself with becoming everybody’s favorite rapper,” he added. “Stay true to yourself, keep making music and it’ll find who it finds.”

Post SoundCloud

Regardless of the direction Call takes, fans of hip-hop’s myriad subgenres may find something to appreciate about Jesus Said Run It Back. To promote the album, Call is gearing up for his first-ever tour. Although dates haven’t been set in stone, it will kick off later this year and include a San Antonio stop.

But the rapper said he’s not mapping out his moves much beyond that.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the next couple of years,” he said, adding that he prefers focusing on short-term goals. “I don’t like having expectations, because when you have expectations, you get let down a lot.”

Wherever the path takes him, though, he will continue to focus on producing music with a lasting impact. Flavor-of-the-week rappers may blow up quickly, he adds, but they’re forgotten just as fast.

“I’m not trying to pop off like crazy,” Call said. “The faster you come up, the faster you come down.”

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