By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Allow me to introduce me
My name Wah-lay
Don't say Wal-ly
Yes, he wants to be a star. Needs to be a star. Loves the way they're calling his name right now, right here in a high school gymnasium, deep in the heart of Prince George's County, screaming it, shrieking it: "WA-LE!" "WA-LE!" Right before his appearance, he engaged in his ritualistic "Do-they-know-who-I-am-I-don't-want-to-get-booed" mantra, repeating it to whoever would listen. Just to keep the ego in check. Knowing all the while that, of course they know who he is, and that is why they invited him here. And why, at the sight of him, they start hollering his name.
Never mind that the three-time college dropout has yet to sign a record deal. Or that he's still living at home with his folks. Never mind that rap is losing its ascendancy, that D.C.'s never managed to spawn a breakout rap star. Or that the man who dubs himself the "Ambassador From the Capital" actually resides in Bowie. Wale Folarin -- born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, the son of Nigerian immigrants -- bearing suburban swagger, go-go beats and a production deal with uber-producer-of-the-moment Mark Ronson, just might be the one to break out.
"Success or bust," he says.
Wale, 24, D.C.-born and suburb-bred, is poised at the precipice, to fall or ascend. He's fielding offers, weighing options, hopping the Acela to N.Y.C. every week, recording tracks, posting them on his MySpace page. Performing with Ronson at the MTV Video Music Awards, striking a pose with Paris Hilton -- and then dropping in on homecoming pep rallies like the one at Flowers High School in Springdale, posing for cellphone pics, getting swarmed in massive, estrogenic group hugs. Now he's back in the United Kingdom, where, for a month, he'll be touring with Ronson, the English phenom who produced Amy Winehouse's breakout CD, "Back to Black," and has worked with Jay-Z, Lily Allen and Christina Aguilera.
"He lets us know that we can all be famous," says Sonya Osei, a 15-year-old Flowers High sophomore and Wale fan. "It's not that hard."
"He's like a one-man marketing machine," says Rich Kleiman, who with his business partner, Ronson, signed Wale for a production deal earlier this year. "He gave us so much ammunition, we're in the position to get the perfect [record] deal. He's pretty strategic about every piece of material he does. . . . We're creating demand, creating a buzz before we have that major-label structure."
"Basically, we're trying to have a whole feng shui momentum," Wale adds, with just a touch of sarcasm. "The momentum that is Wale."Marketing the Man
Convincing others of your self-perceived greatness takes work. Humping. Hitting various ports of call, in 10 days' time zipping through New York, Bowie, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, D.C., New York, London. He can't remember the last time he's been at home for more than 24 hours. Last month, he almost made it, but then, within 20 hours, he had to hit the road again. Which is why, notwithstanding the rubbing of shoulders with Miz Hilton, he's moved back in with his parents, Emilola and Ayo. Why waste rent on a place that he never sees?
Wale is nothing if not pragmatic.
Catch him in motion: Wale's roaming the streets of Manhattan's SoHo, wielding a BlackBerry and a Sidekick, frowning in concentration, thumbs flying, dashing into a deli to grab some Red Bull before a recording session at Allido Records. Or peep at him in Largo, bouncing around the mall, zipping into the Technicolor Salon & Spa to get his goatee tightened up by his favorite barber, Renaldo Williams; then running to the Flowers pep rally, then back to the mall, where he sees an old friend in a clothing store and leaps in the air, pounding fists, then body-slamming him. Twice.
In person, he's prettier than his scowling pics let on: baby-faced, ebony of skin, compact of build. He's friendly, but focused; a reporter's interview is just one of many things on his over-packed docket. He talks work, lives work, inhales it: "I'm just trying to handle so much," he says. "I need a PA [personal assistant], but I don't want to pay for one."
On his payroll, however, are his boys from when he was a tool laboring in a local sneaker shop, making up their own special slang: Jeremy "Jay Promo" Carry, black and Italian, handles tour logistics; and Daniel "Sneakerman Dan" Issayes, the son of Ethiopian immigrants, handles potential endorsement deals. (His business manager, Dan Weisman, is based in Los Angeles.)
Wale's constantly writing, loading lyrics into his Sidekick, whatever strikes his fancy: a rant about industry suits, an ode to Nike boots, a riff about his battles with his college football coach. (He dropped out of Virginia State, Robert Morris College and Bowie State, two of which he attended on football scholarships.) His lyrics are often complex and obscure, brimming with random bits of pop culture trivia, sports metaphors, Marcus Garvey references, not just bling-life cliches.
Rolling Stone, in an issue last month, dubbed him "hip-hop's go-go boy," noting with approval, "he's got more crossover appeal than weed." A year ago his song "Dig Dug" bubbled up with national airplay; he was named D.C. metro breakthrough artist of the year at WKYS's Go-Go Awards; and he turned three of his songs into ringtones through Jamster.
Still, Wale has encountered his share of criticism in the clubs and in the blogosphere, for the tightness of his pants, the cockiness of his swagger, his perceived dissing of go-go, and whether he's really from D.C. or Nigeria.
Such snipes are an occupational hazard in an art form where braggadocio and bluster are all part of the game, and where regional allegiances to your 'hood are specific and spelled out in the lyrics. After all, rap is a storytelling medium, and fans look to MCs to represent the reality -- albeit a heightened one -- about their corner of the universe. New Yorker Jay-Z doesn't speak to the Bronx, he speaks to his native Brooklyn, and in particular, the Marcy Projects, where he grew up.
Wale says that when he raps about D.C., he means "D.C./Virginia/Maryland" -- it's all the same, he says. But others argue that if you grew up part of the time going to high school in Montgomery County, as he did, then you should be sending shout-outs to Gaithersburg. .
Observes Chucky Thompson, a D.C. native and rap producer who was part of P. Diddy's "Hitman Team" at Bad Boy Entertainment: "You can't say you're from Alexandria and you're representing D.C. It doesn't line up. . . . One of my first questions to an artist is, 'Where are you from?' It helps with the story. When you say 'D.C.,' they're going to check. They're so pressed and ready to represent someone who's from here. It's that critical."
That sense of urgency may stem from the fact that rappers from go-go-dominated D.C. have never been able to transcend the borders of the region, even though many a talented MC has tried, dating back as far as Fat Rodney, a gifted rapper who was shot to death in the late '80s. Even though many old-school rappers such as Kurtis Blow and Salt-n-Pepa included go-go's rollicking beats in their music.
"It's a lot of pressure for him to be the first rapper from D.C. to have national attention," says Nick "Catchdubs" Barat, a DJ and music journalist who profiled him and D.C.'s other native-son rapper, Tabi Bonney, in Fader magazine and now performs with Wale. "He needs to just be himself and find himself creatively rather than carry a whole city's expectations on his shoulders."'I Had D.C. Attitude'
Pain of an immigrant
Know it cuz I've been in there . . .
Pops drove a cab
That's African . . .
-- Wale, "Cuz I'm African"
He's been making words rhyme ever since he was 6, a chatterbox first-grader who loved to hear himself talk. His mom bet him that he couldn't stay quiet for 10 minutes. He took her up on the bet. But: "I was doing fake sign language," he says with a laugh.
His family, from the Yoruba ethnic group in southwestern Nigeria, arrived here in 1979 from Austria, moving around the metro area, starting in Northwest Washington, near Georgia Avenue and Peabody Street, with stints around Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Wale is the baby of the family, the youngest of two boys. (His brother, Alvin, lives in New York, where he works for a record label.) King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti and Kool and the Gang provided the soundtrack to their lives.
Remembers his father, Ayo, 55, "When he was young, he would be asking for musical instruments, and he would be singing. . . . I'm not surprised. [Our family is] from the originators of the talking drums back in Nigeria. It looks like it's in his genes. It's his inheritance."
But Wale wasn't always comfortable with his inheritance. "I was almost a rebel," he says. "It is such a strict culture." In school, he says, kids made fun of his name and teased him about being African. So he started calling himself by his English middle name, Victor. After moving to Maryland, he says, "I had D.C. attitude." Which meant that he got into a lot of scrapes with other kids, fights with teachers, juvenile arrests for trespassing, he says.
But on some level, he appreciated his parents' strictness. He might have blown his midnight curfew by an hour or two, he says, but at least he had a curfew. His friends who didn't have such strictures, he says, ended up either dead or in jail.
And yet, for all his professed admiration of his parents, he doesn't seem all that comfortable talking about them. Ask him what his folks do for a living, and he'll say, "I don't even know." (His father says that he is a Realtor and his wife is a nurse.) Ask him to introduce you to his parents, and he dodges the issue, saying that they're never at home.
"When my parents came here, they didn't have anything," he says. "We barely get by now. My parents got to work two times as hard 'cause they're not from this country."
Ayo, for his part, says that he was shocked to hear that his son had a burgeoning career as a rapper. Friends would alert him that they heard Wale on the radio or saw his picture on the Internet.
"He denied it for so long," Ayo says. "He said it might sound like him, but he's not the one. A couple of times, he was singing on the radio. [My friends] called me right away and I said, 'Hmm, that' s him.' He said, 'No, Daddy, trust me, it's not me.'
"That means he doesn't want to tell. Most of the time, I know he's in his room, playing his songs."'Dear Self . . . Make It Jam'
I will plug until the beat is gone . . .
We're all here, getting this money
-- Wale, "Pimp Hard"
Hip-hop has gotten stagnant, stale, stuck, Ronson says. But in Wale, he sees the skill and charisma of a Jay-Z or a Snoop Dogg. Soon, the producer says, they'll knuckle down in the studio, spending a good three months cranking out Wale's debut CD.
"Honestly," says Ronson, himself a musician and turntablist, "I think he's dope -- anywhere that I am, I know my show will only be better if he's onstage. There's something very like hip-hop 'bout him, in his swagger, but there's also this really sort of intellectual, smart side to it and a sense of humor."
That sense of humor is evident right now, as Wale flits around the Allido studios, where Ronson-produced platinum records are on display. He's cracking jokes, teasing Kleiman about his belly and then smacking his own nascent pot, promising that when it comes time to film his video, he'll be sporting a six-pack.
Then it's time to head into the recording booth. He takes a swig of Red Bull, then eyes to the sky, mutters a prayer of sorts: "Dear self," he says, before dashing into the recording booth, "please do good. Make it jam."
Inside the recording booth, Wale stands alone with headphones on, reading lyrics from his Sidekick sotto voce.
"I'm probably going to mess up five times," he tells the sound engineer, Derek Pacuk.
He begins. Stumbles. Holds up a finger: "One." Starts and stops the rap again and again, ever the perfectionist.
"I wrote this yesterday in like six different places, on the train," he says, gesturing with his Sidekick. "I'm sorry I sucked. Thank you for your patience." It's the sort of practiced self-deprecation that frequently crops up in his speech.
The next day, he's rolling through Largo in his beat-up Nissan Pathfinder with Jay Promo at the wheel; Wale is riding shotgun. Sneakerman Dan's in the back, piping in. Their conversation runs toward all things Wale: future clothing deals, lyrics, tours . . .
Hopes are high. But many a promising rapper has tanked, even when the stars are seemingly perfectly aligned.
They're listening to tracks that Wale recorded in New York the day before, songs that the rapper will eventually dump onto his MySpace page. They're playing guess the reference.
"I sag it like Dan Tanner . . . ," Wale says, breaking it down. "Like, who played Dan Tanner? Bob Saget on 'Full House.' "
"I got Bob Saget," Dan insists. "It just took me a minute."
Then the car swells with the sound of Wale's rapping about $300 jeans and lunching at Mr. Chow's with Jay-Z's manager.
Wale stops the music again.
"You know what I'm talking about?" he demands. "Pay attention. Closely."
Because, someday, just maybe, millions will know every word.