Rhyme & Reason
Blyss and Broadway stride midway down the catwalk. Chewy and Dula stay closer to the wings. Blyss launches into a "Get your hands up" chant. Out of the 40 or so people in attendance, seven people do. Given that this is a fashion show, not a hip-hop bill, and a sparsely attended one at that, there's opportunity for an awkward interlude here, but as Blyss gets into the song, heads begin to bob.
Several women sit stage right, ranging in age from around 40 to 65. The most senior of the bunch frowns at the following lyric: "When I was young, I talked the girls out they candy / Now I'm talkin' older women out they panties." But already the younger members of their contingent are swaying in their seats. A few people stand up to dance in the aisles. When Blyss turns to head backstage, the undersize crowd sends him off with a surprisingly loud, approving roar.
IT TENDS TO STRIKE PEOPLE who are not from D.C. (and even locals unversed in the history of the city's African American musical traditions) as something of a mystery that the District hasn't yet delivered a major MC. "With the concentration of black people we have in this city? It's crazy," Blyss says. "A lot of artists have come out of D.C.: Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington, Johnny Gill, Ginuwine, Mya, Meshell Ndegeocello." But save for a couple of short-lived, now forgotten sensations, "Not one rapper!"
Why not? One argument holds that buzz travels region by region, and because D.C. is neither a Northern city nor a Southern one, it hasn't been able to curry the regional support it needs to get a hip-hop movement off the ground. Possibly, but most people who have given the matter thought arrive at a simpler explanation: go-go.
Go-go, for anyone who hasn't checked out the local music scene in the past 30 years, is the percussion-driven, marathonically danceable, sacramentally cherished hybrid of funk, Afro-Cuban music and elemental hip-hop that Chuck Brown pioneered here.
Brown, a singer and guitarist, had been making a living with his R&B outfit the Soul Searchers through the '60s and early '70s. And then disco came along. Disco audiences weren't as keen on live music as the funk and soul concertgoers of the '60s had been. They wanted music to dance to, and, unlike live bands, disco deejays could give them hour after hour of music without a gap in the action between songs. Brown saw what he was up against and tried a new approach with his performances: He started doing entire evening-long sets to a single, ceaseless beat that kept rolling even after the song tapered off (music that could "go and go and go"). It was a slower, more potent groove than disco's 16th-note, high-hat trot. "Beat," in fact, is an inadequate word to describe the syncopated orchestra of congas, timbales, cowbells, rototoms, regular drum kits and whatever else that defined the go-go sound. Brown's magnificent racket immediately caught fire in D.C., at least among young African Americans. Go-go's participatory element -- call-and-response sequences between the band and the crowd, shout-outs to the different D.C. neighborhoods who'd turned out for the show -- nourished an intimacy and devotion between go-go and its fans that no music from outside the District could inspire in quite the same way.
Blyss himself hasn't hit upon a particularly new sound, and he's not writing about subjects the rap world hasn't heard before. Most of his songs revisit terrains already trodden to hardpan by his predecessors: the brutal particulars of the drug business; ungentle caveats to his detractors ("Step to me, I wish you would / I'll grant your death wish, [expletive], sign it in blood"); boasts of his own grandeur that borrow heavily against his future success ("My enemies on pins and needles / Cuz they know my fan base gon' be as large as the Beatles"); the virtues of new Mercedes-Benzes over old ones and of custom wheel rims over factory hubcaps; anthems of sexual adventure; sincere, romantic balladry ("Every time I see you I'm like, 'Oh, my God, / I feel like Bill Cosby, you PhyliciaRashad") -- punctuated here and there by the sounds of pistol fire and the morbid tinkling of spent shell casings.
"Mixtape" is less preoccupied with exploding the hip-hop genre than it is with appealing to the broadest possible demographic: club-goers, "ladies," inner-city drug dealers, people who grew up in close proximity to inner-city drug dealers, people who grew up in the suburbs but are titillated by the idea of inner-city drug dealers. Blyss doesn't deny that as a freshman artist, there's a certain wisdom in following standard hit-making blueprints. (After all, the Beatles probably wouldn't have had the career they did if they'd made their debut with the sitar odysseys of their later records.) Look at flamboyant genre-busters OutKast, whose "Speakerboxxx / The Love Below" swept the Grammys this year, Blyss say s. "Their first record, they was on some street [expletive] even more than me. They had to start there before they could start pushing the envelope. Once I break and people can relate, I'll be doing songs with go-go bands. I'll be pushing the envelope all day long, but it's hard to come out like that at first."
In the meantime, obvious craft and ambition come through in his lyric-writing, though his lines fly by so speedily that it's tough to catch all of his references, which range from the Koran to the misadventures of Marion Barry to the malfeasance of Enron to the gentrification scourge to the perceived perfidies of the Bush administration to the Book of Revelation. Amid the braggadocio and self-mythmaking, Blyss, at points, is capable of shifting the scrim and revealing something of the person within the persona. "The Journey," a song about a young rapper who dies in a car accident on the verge of signing a record deal, is a more poignant and private piece of autobiography. Blyss himself was nearly killed in a car crash when he was 19. The accident left scars on his brow and neck and along the back of his head. He is self-conscious about the scars, and is rarely seen without a hat. "It affected everything about me," he says. "It changed the whole way I see the world. It said, 'Pursue your dreams 'cause you only got one life to live.' "
And his music is getting out there. "We played a couple of his singles up here, and Boston pretty much ate it up," says 2Face, a radio deejay in Massachusetts. "The other D.C. artists you hear, they either have a down-South flow or a West Coast flow. And then there's other people who try to incorporate go-go, but the world hasn't been ready for that. Nowadays, you gotta be versatile. Some people, they hear a Biggie or a 'Pac or a Mobb Deep, and they try to mimic it. And then you've got other people who take those influences and make their own style, and that's what Blyss is doing, and that's what's gonna help him."
If Blyss succeeds, he will owe as much to his entrepreneurial relentlessness and PR savvy as to his talents as a rapper. He hasn't wasted much time at open-mike nights or neighborhood rap battles. Instead, he trained his efforts on getting radio play, and, surprisingly, has managed to win local hip-hop and R&B station WKYS to his cause. In addition to reaching potential fans, Blyss's radio exposure also got him noticed by the sorts of people who hold the keys to the star-making machinery, people such as Jerry Vines. "He did it on his own, without any help from a label, without any help from a manager, without any help from anybody," Vines says. "I kept hearing him on the radio, and that's what made me approach him."
"He just walked in here with a CD," says K.K. Holiday, former MTV veejay and on-air personality at WKYS. "I heard it, and I thought, 'Damn, this kid is hot.' . . . In top-10 markets like D.C. it's really hard for local artists to get any type of love, because we're in the business of playing hits."
JERRY VINES CALLS Blyss with a bit of good news. He has arranged for Blyss to do a song with Ginuwine, whose previous collaborations have included hip-hop giants Snoop Dogg, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Method Man. The R&B singer isn't known for teaming up with obscure rappers. "This is gonna be the thing that does it for me," Blyss says. "Ginuwine is so [expletive] popular, but he's never had a song on the radio with a local MC."
On a Saturday evening, Vines stops in at Broadway's house with an instrumental track he has in mind for the single. It's part of the batch of songs Blyss listened to with Vines before the Method Man show, and it's probably the most marketable of the lot. It has a shapely guitar melody that Ginuwine shouldn't have much trouble building a vocal hook around, and a complex, stuttering vigor in the rhythm tracks. Blyss's eyes narrow slightly as he listens. He seems faintly daunted at the prospect of getting down to work on what will certainly be the most important song of his career so far.
They listen for a moment. Then Vines shrugs and says, "This might not be the one, you know?"
"Nah, this is hot," Blyss says. "This definitely it."
"I gotta hear what you do, though, you know?" Vines says. "It's gotta be right."
"Oh yeah," Blyss says. "Before I go in the studio, I'm gonna call you."
The song ends, and the next track begins. It's a glossy R&B-ish tune that Blyss immediately takes a liking to. He suddenly breaks into a high-velocity freestyle serenade, studded with quick, intricate internal rhymes but delivered with so much octane that he stays a little ahead of the beat. He runs through a few bars and then says to Vines, "Something like that, you know what I'm saying?"
"Yeah," Vines says. "You gotta lay back, though."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Blyss agrees loudly. "Well, I mean just flow-wise, that's what I'm feeling. But this [expletive] is crazy."
"Yeah, but before you start recording this [expletive], let me make sure that [expletive]'s hot," Vines says again. "Before you write it, let me know, call me. Let me hear it, just to make sure it's hot. I want you to spend some time with it to get that [expletive] right."
© 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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