Raleigh-based student rapper finds solace in Boone amidst launching his career

Raleigh-based rapper, Zack Cokas, visiting Boone. Cokas got pushed into the limelight in 2018 when a local radio DJ in his hometown of Raleigh played a song from his “Out the Blue” mixtape on the air.

Courtesy of SYLViA

Raleigh-based rapper, Zack Cokas, visiting Boone. Cokas got pushed into the limelight in 2018 when a local radio DJ in his hometown of Raleigh played a song from his “Out the Blue” mixtape on the air.

David Brashier

Zack Cokas has seen a world of success during this year’s pandemic. Unlike many of his peers’ Netflix parties and bread baking, Cokas spent the year working on a new project: a rap album.

Cokas released a single every month this year through July, culminating in the release of his debut EP, “PABLO,” in August.

Cokas burst into the limelight in 2018 after a local radio DJ in his hometown of Raleigh played a song from his “Out the Blue” mixtape on the air. Though this, he was invited to perform on Sway in the Morning at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

“That was a big thing for me, just to know that I was going in the right direction,” Cokas said. “I got to go on Sway and South by Southwest with no accolades. That made me realize that I needed to keep going.”

Cokas went on to release his “Young Cack” mixtape in July 2019, which afforded him the chance to begin performing shows around Raleigh. By the fall of last year, he was putting his work on Spotify and collaborating with other Raleigh-based urban artists, like LesTheGenius and Marco Luka.

“My favorite moments to perform are when it’s local, and people from NC State come out, and it’s super fun,” Cokas said.

His collaborative track with LesTheGenius “Bust Down,” released in January, remains his most-streamed track at over 193,000 streams on Spotify. His work then got featured on Spotify-curated playlists, such as Study Break and Fresh Finds, which boosted his impressions significantly in the music community.

The promising rapper had a wealth of opportunities at his doorstep, ranging from collaborative EPs with local artists to signing with a record label owned by NBA player Zion Williamson, which ultimately fell through. In the end, Cokas focused solely on getting an album out.

The production of “PABLO” took place over the course of a year, and along the way Cokas got to collaborate with high-profile industry producers like Curtis Waters, MBWAV and Black Pearl, who has engineered for Charlotte-native DaBaby.

“I sent ‘PABLO’ to a bunch of labels and heard nothing,” Cokas said. “Then I dropped ‘PABLO,’ and the same labels want to sign me now, and I just don’t understand that. It shows that they don’t want to take a chance on you until they see you’re doing well.”

Cokas said he is currently contemplating which label he will sign with. He isn’t looking to sign to a major label so that he can retain creative control. Now, his sights are set on AWAL, an independent label home to artists like Lauv, Finneas and deadmau5.  

The road to “PABLO” and its accolades wasn’t without struggle for Cokas. In addition to the sheer anxiety of releasing an album, he struggled with the stress of multiple labels wanting to sign him, people wanting to cash in on his success and trying to be a student while launching a music career, he said.  

There was also a lot of  pressure involved with creating during the pandemic for Cokas. He wrote the track “HUMBLE” with his girlfriend during the early days of quarantine while they were both concerned that they were sick with COVID-19 and staying at his house, he said.

“We needed some time alone,” Cokas said. “We both had stomach bug (sic) and shortness of breath. I hadn’t created in a month, and so this was just me being creative, and it felt really great. I played it like 30 times, just dancing by myself to it.”

In mid-July, about a month before “PABLO” was released, Cokas’ anxiety worsened. A weekend trip to visit friends in Boone was an unexpected moment of reprieve in his journey to improve his mental health.

“This was before I got on medication and my anxiety level was f***ing crazy,” Cokas said. “I needed a break from Raleigh and living at my parents’ place. Getting up to Boone with open skies and open spaces and nature really helped me feel better.”

Cokas has made multiple trips to Boone since his initial visit in July. Some of his favorite activities to do in the High Country include tubing on the New River, swimming at Guy Ford, driving the Blue Ridge Parkway and eating at Come Back Shack.

“I felt a lot better on that trip, but then I had to go home and figure sh*t out,” said Cokas. “Now that I’m feeling a lot better, a lot more myself, I would probably really enjoy it even more now.”

Cokas also filmed part of the music video for his songs “SUMMER NIGHTS” and “LIFT OFF (GOODBYE)” on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The video features Cokas taking an evening drive with his brother and girlfriend at iconic local locations like Rough Ridge, the Linville Viaduct and Price Lake.

“That was my first time going to the Parkway,” Cokas said. “It was so long, so many roads and really beautiful. We were driving at night, and the roads just kept going; I didn’t know when to turn.”

Cokas said he is looking to perform a house show in Boone when the pandemic is over and hopes that App State students will get excited for it.

Cokas hopes to sign a short-term record deal with AWAL in the near future. He will release new singles in the final months of the year and plans to drop his sophomore album in early 2021. His latest single, “VERY POLITE,” will drop in the coming weeks.