Life wasn’t easy for a young Lil Bams. Raised primarily on Santa Barbara’s Eastside to parents who were in and out of prison, Ramon Cardenas grew up primarily on the streets.
“I was one of those kids who always wanted to be outside,” said the 26-year-old hip hop artist, who’s since dropped numerous albums and singles, starred in more than a dozen music videos, and opened for two nationwide tours. “I didn’t really like to be at home too much. We saw a lot of stuff out there as kids.”
He often lived with his grandma, sometimes in Carpinteria, which is where he started rapping in middle school. The format was rap battles with friends, with lyrics that poked fun at each other. Things got more serious when he started attending Santa Barbara High.
“When I was 13, I found music,” said Cardenas, who met the renowned, Santa Barbara-raised rap producer Damion “Damizza” Young around that time. “It started to keep me a little more out of the streets. It just kept me busy.”
They connected through a mutual friend known as Wino, and when Wino committed suicide in 2009, their musical clique got tighter. Before ever making any music, Young tasked Cardenas and his cousin with alphabetically arranging a bunch of his old digital audio tapes, and they diligently stacked recordings of folks like Mariah Carey, Nate Dogg, and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Once Young realized that Cardenas was serious and responsible — despite having already been arrested for cannabis possession and expelled from high school his sophomore year — the eventual reward was studio time. Cardenas wasted no time learning how to make beats, lay down tracks, and write songs. Lil Bams was born.
When Young found Cardenas sleeping in his car because his house was too crowded, the producer invited the rapper to stay with him. “He brought me in, and we became really close,” said Cardenas, who now spends much of the year with Young in Shreveport, Louisiana. “He’s been a big brother to me.”
Cardenas wasn’t the only one. Encouraged by his beloved grandmother — whom everyone knows as Granny — Young has helped numerous otherwise wayward Santa Barbara kids find a way into music. He’s bought suits for teens getting out of boys’ camp so they could look sharp at graduation, and used the carrot of music to lure others away from lives of crime.
In one case, Young made a deal with one young rapper named Kidd, who’d been picked up by the cops for having a gun: If Kidd didn’t get in trouble for six months, he’d be able to rap on an album and get stage time during a show. “He’s never been in trouble since,” said Cardenas, who was inspired to start mentoring juvenile offenders with the UCSB-affiliated program Freedom 4 Youth.
In that spirit, Cardenas and Young recently founded a mentorship nonprofit called Granny’s Kids, whose public launch is on December 18, when Posada at La Casa happens at La Casa de la Raza. Featuring more than a dozen musical acts, food and drink vendors, a toy drive, and merchants, the free event will raise publicity and money for the new charity while giving young musicians a rare place to perform. Said Cardenas, “We’re trying to showcase some talent that maybe never would be seen.”
The Lil Bams story, meanwhile, continues to unfold. Cardenas earned his high school degree and is trying to be a role model to his four much-younger sisters, the oldest of which is a San Marcos High student. Both of his parents are in better places as well.
After some studio drama that followed his first official album release in 2016 — which resulted in a lot of his early music being taken down from the web — Cardenas focused on rebuilding the Lil Bams brand. He’s dropping new singles and music videos regularly on YouTube, many of which feature Santa Barbara scenes.
He frequently collaborates with other up-and-coming artists, like Azjah from Compton and Bravo the Bagchaser from L.A., with a forthcoming project alongside Peysoh from Mayflower. “I’ve also been an A&R to the street,” he said. “I know who the new up-and-coming rappers and singers are. I always catch them before they blow up.”
Expect much more from this artist, who’s striving to put Santa Barbara on the hip-hop map. “I do okay,” said Lil Bams of his current status. “But it could still get better. There’s still a lot of room to grow.”
Posada at La Casa, a concert and community event to support Granny’s Kids, is on Sat., Dec. 18, 2-7 p.m., at La Casa de la Raza, 601 E. Montecito St. See grannyskidscharity.com for more information. To follow Lil Bams, check him out on Instagram @lilbamsbr.