Rhyme & Reason
Broadway wears several hats at Capitol Gainz. He is the company's in-house engineer, Web designer, video producer and co-counsel on major decisions. A while ago, Blyss sold his car to finance his career, so these days Broadway's Mercedes-Benz coupe is the unofficial company vehicle. By profession, Broadway is a computer animator, and he has directed animated music videos for a number of famous rap acts. Broadway estimates Capitol Gainz has sold or otherwise distributed close to 5,000 copies of Blyss's "Mixtape" in the city and beyond, though, after expenses, the CD has netted Capitol Gainz only a few thousand dollars.
Capitol Gainz's headquarters contains three desks, at least half a dozen computers, a large flat-panel TV, a soundproofed closet for recording vocal tracks, red leather boardroom-style chairs, cans of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup -- and a chrome pistol with a pearlescent handle lying next to a computer keyboard, not far from a little red box of hollow-point 9mm bullets with eight rounds missing. Blyss, too, owns a gun, which, he remarks casually, is a necessary precaution when you cross paths with the sorts of people he and Broadway sometimes cross paths with.
The studio also has a brick-front bar with a large, murky aquarium set into it, digital audio tapes and a dry erase board spelling out the family dog's routine: "Duchess schedule: 5 am, let out, back in crate: Mom/Sarah, 9-10 a.m., let out, food, H2O, back in crate: Chris." Broadway shares the house with his mother and younger sister -- he took over the deed and the mortgage payments a few years ago.
Before driving over to Club Dream for the sound check, Blyss's manager, Jerry Vines, stops in. Vines, 36, is a tall, somewhat remote man with a staid, businesslike bearing who wears a golden cell phone ear bud a lot of the time. He is an established music-industry dealmaker, and that he has taken Blyss on is another sign that the national celebrityhood Blyss is hoping for might not be so far out of reach. "Most of the people that came out of this area, I was involved with helping them get a deal," says Vines, who also manages and produces D.C. R&B singer Ginuwine, whose records have sold in the millions.
Vines sits down in a red leather chair, and Broadway plays a song Blyss recorded recently. There is a lull in the conversation while everyone gives the song a close listen. Blyss is nodding and reciting the lyrics quietly. Vines is listening with a dispassionate, scrutinizing look, nodding with a little less intensity than Blyss. He does not volunteer any praise. It's a jouncing, energetic vocal line that you can imagine people in a club holding up their drinks and bouncing to, backed by the sort of insidiously catchy synthesizer hook you find yourself whistling hours after you hear it. Yet, in some ineffable way, it doesn't quite have the finely tooled, big-studio luster common to songs that debut in heavy rotation nationwide and sell a million copies the first week out.
One of the reasons Vines stopped by is that he's come across a new producer whose songs, he thinks, could give Blyss the sound he's going to need to break through. A few minutes later, the crew drives to the city for the sound check, and Blyss rides with Vines to audition the new tracks en route. "This is how you make a hit record, in the car," Vines says, pulling onto Indian Head Highway. "Ludacris can't write nowhere but in the car. He'll ride in the car and then come to the studio and record." Vines cues the disc.
The difference between the music now pumping in the speakers and the songs on "Mixtape" is immediately obvious. The songs on "Mixtape" are proficiently produced, several echelons above the low-fi recordings you hear on the underground circuit, but these songs sound somehow huge and extravagant. They sound like hits. They're lush, multilayered productions, with lots of staccato drum trills with digitally immaculate silences between the beats. The bass hits with a kind of compressed ferocity, like someone setting off explosives in a vault. The music sounds not so much written as carefully architected, engineered, the musical equivalent of a very nice car.
"This is sick," Blyss says of one track he particularly likes. "I would kill this." He murmurs a few bars of nonsense syllables, gauging the beat's lyrical possibilities. Then he falls silent, and with the look of a man setting foot for the first time in a mansion that might soon be his, he breaks into loud, elated laughter.
BLYSS, BROADWAY AND CHEWY are riding through Southeast Washington. They drive over to Valley Avenue, where Blyss grew up. A group of men stand on one side of the street where a grassy hill slopes down to a little tea-colored canal. A couple of them are tossing a football. Others are laughing, leaning against their cars, enjoying the mild late-afternoon sun.
"These people are all my family," Blyss says. Blyss regards a lot of people as family, but Blyss's immediate family -- Blyss's father -- is out here, too. He wears a baseball cap and has a short beard lightly flecked with gray. "I like rap all right," he says. "I can listen to it, but really, I like that old stuff -- Aretha Franklin, people like that."
Blyss's parents separated eight years ago, and his father, who works for an electric company, moved to Maryland, though he still comes by Valley Avenue to see people from the neighborhood. Blyss's father, Ralph, has been an active presence in his life. "I didn't know a lot of other people whose father lived with them," Blyss says. "If he hadn't been there, I don't really know where I'd have ended up." Blyss says his mother, who makes her living as a secretary, was also a powerful influence on him. One thing she insisted on was that he apply himself in school, which he did, and Blyss went on to become the first person in his family to get a college degree.
On the other side of the street is a row of unprepossessing square brick townhouses. Blyss points at one. "That's the house I grew up in," he says. He looks down the avenue and makes a sweeping gesture with his hand. "I'm trying to make this whole block famous."
As a kid, Blyss watched early rap stars Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick and N.W.A. on the program "Yo! MTV Raps." "I thought they were the coolest [expletive] on the planet." He started recording and performing in high school, but it wasn't until he moved to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College that he began to think of his music as a viable ambition. Seeing the explosive success of previously unknown acts such as OutKast and Ludacris was transformative. "It was a different world than D.C.," he says. "The local hip-hop scene was crazy. Being down in Atlanta and seeing what these other artists were doing, it taught me that it was possible."
At the time, Blyss wasn't doing much in the way of recording or performing, but he was writing steadily on his own. More established artists, sometimes out of sheer coincidence, started noticing his talent. One afternoon, in an Atlanta shopping mall, Blyss spotted Baby, of New Orleans's Cash Money Millionaires, coming out of a Foot Locker store. Blyss walked over and rapped for him. Baby liked what he heard and invited him to hang out with him at the studio for the week. A friend of a friend introduced him to DJ Flash, an established producer who has worked with Dr. Dre and the late Tupac Shakur. With Flash's help, Blyss came up with a three-song demo that he and Chewy took around to whoever would play it: deejays, radio stations and strip clubs. The demo did respectably enough that Blyss might have made a career for himself in the Atlanta scene, but the idea of making his big push in Atlanta was never something he considered.
"I came back here because I wanted everything that was gonna happen for me to happen here first. I love D.C. This is my home town. D.C. means more to me than anything."
Blyss and Broadway's effort to make Blyss a nationally known MC began not long after they became friends in ninth grade, when Blyss, who had been an exceptional student at St. Thomas More Catholic School in Southeast, was accepted at Gonzaga College High School, where he met Broadway. He and Broadway got to know each other on the football team, and a friendship took root in their conversations about rap and hip-hop.
"I'd do freestyles in the lunchroom, beating on tables or whatever," Blyss says. "Ever since, we been pursuing it vehemently."
If you listen to "King of D.C. Mixtape Vol. 1" (on which Broadway plays a supporting role), you won't hear any mention of the fact that the two have college degrees. Their educational pedigrees are a part of their personal histories that few people know about and something they mention cautiously. Not unwisely, perhaps, given hard-core rap audiences' demonstrated preference for artists such as former crack dealer and Crips member Snoop Dogg, multiple-gunshot-wound survivor 50 Cent and others whose gangsta bona fides are unsullied by higher education.
Blyss says his degree, a BA in history, has been the source of a fair amount of hectoring from "haters" in the D.C. hip-hop scene, which frustrates him. "Yeah, I got a [expletive] degree," he says. "[Expletive] gotta open they minds and understand that rap is not confined to one type of person. I want [people] to know my degree broadened my horizons. It gave me the ability to talk to the people in the streets, to the clubs, to put it in a way that people can feel it. If [expletive] in D.C. can't open they minds, we're never gonna get this city on the map."
Moreover, it's difficult to imagine how anyone could find fault with the street credentials of someone who possesses as sterling a set as Blyss does. The criminal narratives on his "Mixtape," Blyss points out, are hardly spun from whole cloth. "I don't talk about anything in my songs that I wasn't involved with or that close personal friends of mine weren't involved in." One thing he writes about is the drug trade in Southeast D.C., which he says he played a part in during his late teens and early twenties, even as he was pursuing his college degree.
One recent Sunday after church, Blyss's cousin Michael Butler, who says he was involved with a Washington cocaine syndicate in the '80s and '90s, stops by Broadway's house and talks about the early years of the crack boom in Southeast. Butler is a spruce, well-appointed man wearing gray linen pants, a matching linen shirt, a cap made of gold fabric and a pair of earrings, each set with a small pale stone. It's been many years, Butler says, since his drug-selling days, though when he talks about his former life, a tenor of nostalgia rises in his voice.
"The strip we were on was Sixth Street," Butler says, "and that was one of the most popular strips there was in the late '80s, early '90s. When we was starting out, the guy we were getting our stuff from, he'd give us a thousand dollars worth of crack. We'd start at the top of Sixth Street, and by the time we got to the bottom, it was gone. That's how hard that strip used to pump."
© 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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