Rhyme & Reason
Can a rapper whose street cred is complicated by a college degree become the next big thing in hip-hop?
By Wells Tower
Sunday, June 27, 2004; Page W10
The local rapper Blyss has a distinctive T-shirt he often wears when he performs. The T-shirt is red and large, and on the front of it there's a hand-painted portrait of Blyss himself wearing a golden crown and a severe, regal expression. The portrait is meant to evoke Blyss's self-awarded honorific, "The King of D.C," which is a brazen title to try to claim when you haven't yet landed a major record deal, and when most people in Washington haven't heard of you. It's the sort of boast one couldn't get away with in New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Los Angeles, Oakland, Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans or the multitude of other cities that crowned their hip-hop royalty a while ago. But now, a quarter-century into the genre's ascendancy, greater D.C. holds the curious distinction of being one of the few metropolitan centers of its size that hasn't boosted a major rapper into the national spotlight, which leaves an up-and-comer such as Blyss a ripe opportunity to usurp the empty throne.
Blyss, whose real name is Ralph Chambliss, does not like it when people say that he will "probably be" or "could be" the first really big rapper to come out of D.C. "There's no 'probably' about it," he says. "I am going to be the first rapper to put D.C. on the map." While rappers are, as a professional class, not ungifted at the art of self-flattery, Blyss, by all appearances, has reason to swagger. Music-industry people are calling him up. He often performs on big-league bills in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people. He's the only D.C. rapper who gets regular radio play on the hip-hop and R&B station WKYS, where not long ago he did a spot with hip-hop luminary 50 Cent. Which all augurs well for Blyss, who will be shopping a new record soon and is "almost sure I'll have a deal before the summer's out."
In a couple of hours, he's going to give the most important performance of his career to date. It is 8 p.m., and Blyss is beginning his sound check at Club Dream, where tonight he has landed a spot opening for renowned rapper Method Man.
This is a palatial club off New York Avenue in Northeast with four stories, several discrete bar areas and accents of black granite and smooth blond wood. The Democratic Party held a fundraiser here last night. Right now, an hour and a half before the doors open, Blyss stands in front of an empty house, a cordless microphone in his substantial hand. He runs through a few a cappella stanzas of his song "Hustler's Anthem," a muscular, midtempo survey of scenes in the life of a prosperous cocaine dealer in Southeast D.C. "I could never get caught off guard," his voice thunders through the PA. "I don't care if they switch the shifts up in front of Scotland Yard."
Blyss's performing voice is moderately gruff, though his delivery is subtly careful. His more densely packed lines display a knack for unloading a terrific number of syllables without cramping or mangling any of them. Listening to Blyss negotiate his trickier phrases, you get a sense of something that's at once rugged and crystalline; it's sort of like looking at a chandelier made of asphalt.
Blyss, who is 25, is the only one rapping, per se, but there are three other guys onstage with him who chime in now and then on the occasional emphatic syllable: Abdullah "Dula" Foster, a personable, ex-minor-league basketball player in his late twenties; Chris Romero Singh, a slightly stout, low-slung 26-year-old whose stage name is Broadway; and Rashod Parks -- aka "Chewy" -- a man of Wookiee stature who looks capable of bench-pressing a tugboat.
Then the sound man cues Blyss's backup music, but at a rather feeble volume. It sounds as though somebody's playing the stereo in the next apartment, which makes the vocals seem ungainly and overbearing. Blyss's manager, Jerry Vines, detects the problem promptly: "Your mikes are way too loud above the music," he says. "You know when you go to a rap concert and it just sounds like a bunch of [expletives] yelling? It sounds like [expletive]."
Blyss turns to the sound man. "Yeah, turn the mikes down," he says. "I'm not trying to sound stupid up here."
The sound man shoots Blyss a sullen glance. Vines goes over and talks with the sound man, who, visibly affronted, goes over and fiddles with a fader, but instead of actually sliding it down, he maybe just pinches it a little bit because the mix stays about the same. Then he makes the dubious argument that once the room is packed, the sound will somehow balance itself out. Blyss and Vines look unsure, but the sound man seems resolute, and after a somewhat tense moment, they head backstage.
Tonight's crowd is expected to fill Club Dream's second-floor venue, which holds about 800 people. Blyss has played larger shows than this one (he performed for an audience of several thousand at Howard University not long ago), but because Dream is perhaps the uppermost club on D.C.'s hip-hop circuit, and because it's rare for an unsigned local rapper to get on a bill here, tonight's gig, as Blyss puts it, is "huge."
Moments before the show, Blyss stands at the bottleneck of a healthy entourage. On the other side of the stage door, someone announces him over the PA. Blyss and the other three members of his "family" go into a huddle and say a brief, grateful prayer for the opportunity to perform. Soon they're through the door, walking briskly through a rectangle of pulsing stage lights.
"Is D.C. in the [expletive] building?" Blyss calls over the PA. "Put your hands up." A chorus of shouts swells at Blyss's feet, and a shallow field of upraised hands sways before the stage. Blyss rolls into "Hustler's Anthem" in an unquavering baritone. Broadway et al. nail their backup parts. There is one difficulty, though: The packed house has not smoothed out the mix, as the sound man promised, and, in the rear half of the room at least, the vocals are still uncomfortably overpresent.
He breaks into another song. The crowd's enthusiasm is palpable, but not overwhelming.
At the end of that song, Blyss calls to the deejay. "Cut the music off!" Then he addresses the audience. "I'm thinkin' the [expletive] music ain't doing me no justice in this [expletive]," he says. "If y'all [expletives] like lyricists, put y'all [expletive] hands in the [expletive] air. Check this [expletive] out."
He starts an a cappella reprise of the songs he's just performed, which, in a different context, would probably impress connoisseurs of the form, but it's sort of hard to raise your hands and bounce to. The abrupt absence of music seems to puzzle the crowd, and the dance floor founders.
Before long, the a cappella set winds down. The deejay spins a new track, which immediately revives the room.
Then, suddenly, Blyss is gone. All told, the performance lasted in the neighborhood of nine minutes.
As the group leaves the back room, a subdued Vines weighs in. "The mix wasn't good." Once you break, he says, you can afford your own sound system. Until then, you're at the mercy of the grumpy local help.
Blyss ascends a shallow flight of steps at the far end of the room, past a security guard into a terrace sectioned off with a plush velvet cordon. He stands with a fresh drink, thronged by friends and people trying to meet him. Method Man begins his set. The mix, in fact, is not much better than it was for Blyss's performance, but these are songs that everybody in here knows, and the audience's chanting resounds in the floorboards.
Blyss gazes briefly at the stage. "Just as long as I moved some people," he says. "There are [hundreds] of people in here who didn't know who I was before tonight. Now they do."
THE AFTERNOON BEFORE the Dream show, Blyss, Broadway and Chewy drive down to Broadway's place, a comfortable, brick split-level home on a quiet street in Fort Washington, which houses Broadway's small recording studio. Neither Blyss nor Broadway has a conventional day job. They are both engaged full time in the project of making Blyss D.C.'s first celebrity rapper and building a name for their label, Capitol Gainz Entertainment, which is headquartered in Broadway's house. The imperfect pun, Blyss explains, gets at his and Broadway's dual ambitions of making money for themselves and making a name for the city's hip-hop scene. "The whole thing with Capitol Gainz -- when we break, it's gonna be because the people in this city invested in us," Blyss says. "And capital gains being returns on your investment, it's like an investment the capital's gonna see returns from when we break."
So far, Capitol Gainz's biggest venture has been Blyss's demo, "King of D.C.: Mixtape Vol. 1," a 15-song CD. Broadway, who holds a degree in imaging and digital arts from the University of Maryland at Baltimore and has a knack for computer technology, assembled "Mixtape" in his home studio.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Blyss (aka Ralph Chambliss), in red, performing at the University of Maryland last year.
(Photograph by Kyoko Hamada)
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