Wale Is Poised to Put D.C.'s Rap Scene in the Spotlight

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Washington's hip-hop community couldn't have given itself a more Freudian nickname. "The DMV" stands for the District, Maryland and Virginia, but it feels like a big fat metaphor for a city that's been waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for a national rap star to emerge.

That wait officially ends on Nov. 10 with the release of Wale's "Attention Deficit" -- the oft-delayed debut album from a local rhymesmith whose degree of success could decide the future of Washington's ready-to-burst rap scene.

"I think every man has his own path," Wale says by phone (from his tour bus as he zig-zags the country opening for Jay-Z). "But if D.C. comes out and supports the album heavy, I think that within 365 days at least two [local] rappers will get a major deal."

It's been more than 25 years since hip-hop exploded onto America's popscape, but majority-black Washington has never launched a nationally recognized rapper. That's because star-launching starts at home, and go-go, Washington's indigenous funk music, has enjoyed an airtight grip on the ears of young Washington since Chuck Brown invented the sound in the '70s.

"D.C. is go-go," says local rapper Tabi Bonney. "But I really believe that it's finally changing. This is a changing of the guard right now. It's the beginning of hip-hop in D.C."

Much of the new momentum is due to the ingenuity of rappers who've adopted go-go's pulse, slang and unflagging energy. But they weren't the first. In the late '80s and early '90s, Washington's nascent rap scene produced the likes of Fat Rodney, D.C. Scorpio and Stinky Dink -- party-starters who set their rhymes to go-go cadences. "Through the '80s you had go-go and hip-hop operating as cousins," says rap historian Jeff Chang from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "[But] D.C. never really let go of live bands and never developed a record and rap culture in the same way that other cities like Los Angeles and Miami did."

A different archetype emerged in the '90s, with local rappers rejecting go-go for a more traditional sound. While popular in town, artists including Nonchalant, Opus Akoben others only blipped on the national radar.

Today's blogosphere has allowed local rap to flourish outside of the Beltway, raising the bar and raising the stakes. Radio personality and Wale-collaborator DJ Alizay sees Washington as the hip-hop epicenter of tomorrow. "There's so much soul in D.C. -- it's just untapped," he says from his Maryland home. "To me, D.C. is a gold mine."

Not all of his colleagues see it that way. Local station WKYS 93.9, where Alizay holds his day job, hasn't rushed Wale onto the airwaves and recently aired a promotional spot poking fun at his current single "Chillin.' "

"It doesn't make either of us look good," Wale says of the radiospot. "I'm not going to walk around carrying a flag anymore if all it does is make people criticize me. . . . I don't want people on the outside to think I don't have the admiration back home."

He certainly has the admiration from the scene he helped kick-start, a growing throng of MCs and producers who dream of eclipsing the attention Wale's already received. For rappers XO, Kingpen Slim, Phil Adé, Tabi Bonney and production duo Best Kept Secret, fame suddenly feels within reach.

"It's a good time right now," says Wale. "If 'Attention Deficit' does well, no doubt in my mind it's gonna be on and poppin' in D.C."

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