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D.C. Hip-Hop: Can it Break the Hold of Go-Go?

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."

XO

Like so many Washington musicians before him, XO's story begins on U Street. The 24-year-old got his start there seven years ago, cutting his teeth at open mikes at now-shuttered venues Capital City Records and State of the Union. "Every week, continuously, I was building up my confidence and I was building a rapport," XO says of his early days.

Showmanship and business savvy might be in XO's DNA. His grandfather managed the renowned Washington soul group the Young Senators, his father drummed for Gil Scott-Heron and his mother is a Howard University-educated saxophonist. They knew go-go, too. "They used to be on the street playing go-go together -- my mother, my aunt, my father," XO says. "Playing down in Georgetown for money, slapping on buckets and all that."

After graduating from open mikes to club stages, XO began releasing mix tapes, a spate of which erupted this year: "Us vs. Them" built buzz in January, "Realmatic" turned heads in March and his finest work, "Monumental," has enjoyed over 30,000 downloads since June.

But unlike mix tape rappers desperate to leap out of your headphones, XO sounds cool and assured on "Monumental." The sheen of "Time Out" puts his detractors on ice, while "Crabs in a Barrel" captures the competitive angst that dominates not only Washington's musical spheres, but the city at large.

"People be rapping about materialistic stuff that doesn't matter and only lasts for so long," XO says. "What I'm targeting is emotions that people go through. Ten years from now, people will still be struggling and you'll be able to listen to my music and feel a little better."

KINGPEN SLIM

It's Tuesday night at Alexandria's Depth Charge Studios and everyone is huddled around the television as the Twins take the Tigers into extra innings. Between pitches, Kingpen Slim is dreaming big. "Success for me is Grammys, platinum records," he says. "I feel like that's my potential."

Like so many of Washington's ascendant rappers, the 27-year-old has both is defined by his limitless ambition -- and his connections to go-go. "I grew up in Adams Morgan and got my start rapping in a go-go band, " he says.

But where most aim to repurpose go-go's rhythmic verve, Slim adopts the music's playfulness. The rhymes are intricate and sly on his breakout mix tape "The Beam Up," with stand-out track "Powder 4 The Babies" putting his wit on full display: "Breathe/You hatin' and waitin' to exhale/You teeny, you eeny/I'm way XL."

With his star steadily rising, does Slim think that Wale's fate decides the future of the scene? "I don't feel like my success hangs on anybody else's," he says. "But we've already all benefited from [Wale's popularity]. It got everybody a lot more focused, got everybody a lot more serious about their craft . . . the music got better."

Fans will be able to hear the latest improvements next month when Slim headlines the Capitol City Music Tour, a series of local concerts featuring XO, K-Beta and others.

PHIL ADE

Phil Adé spent his teenage years in the Washington area, but his rap career began in a dorm room 700 miles away. "When I should have been asleep, I'd be up all night in the room next door, rapping," says Adé, reminiscing on his one and only semester at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala.

A college friend eventually introduced Adé to Maryland R&B crooner Raheem DeVaughn, who quickly signed the 21-year-old to his new label, 368 Music Group. In July, the rapper dropped "Starting on JV," a mix tape brimming with glossy beats and outsized boasts.

Adé speaks in a soft southern drawl completely absent from his live delivery, but he certainly doesn't lack confidence. " 'Starting on JV' is me making a statement," he says. "I'm one of the best new cats out here."

Adé's roommate, producer D.O.P.E. Sunny, is looping a 4 Non Blondes sample ad nauseam in the same room -- the only room in Adé's New Carrollton apartment with chairs. Adé speaks excitedly about a forthcoming mix tape collaboration with Atlanta's esteemed DJ Don Cannon -- meaning he might be able to furnish his apartment sooner rather than later.

"You're not doing anything until somebody walking down the street recognizes you," he says. "People just going to the grocery store -- they don't know Phil Adé. I still got a ways to go."

TABI BONNEY

Wale paved the way for plenty of regional hopefuls, but one rapper paved the way for him. Twenty-eight-old Tabi Bonney had a breakout hit with "The Pocket," a local anthem that dominated WPGC 95.5's rotation in 2006.

Since then, Bonney has become a linchpin in the scene, a rapper-turned-director who's shot videos for many of the city's up-and-coming MCs. He's acutely aware of the bigger cameras now zooming in on Washington. "You got 'The Real World D.C.,' 'The Housewives of D.C.,' " says Bonney. "The media spotlight is coming here."

Bonney grew up in West Africa, where his father, Itadi Bonney, was a musical superstar in their native Togo. The nation's civil unrest eventually brought Bonney and his family to Washington, where he began rapping in middle school. He formed a group called Bonney & Carter during his days at Banneker High School and performed with Organized Rhyme while earning a degree at Florida A&M.

Now, after two well-received solo discs, he's about to join another group: a Los Angeles-born pop outfit called the CryBabies. The group's resemblance to the Black Eyed Peas is no coincidence. Bonney's new bandmates were mentored by Will.I.Am.

Local rap fans might be surprised by the career move, but not Bonney. "I always knew I was gonna end up pop," he says. "D.C. is resistant to change, and those who are resistant to change get left behind. You have to look at the bigger picture."

BEST KEPT SECRET

Perhaps no one has more to gain from Wale's success than Best Kept Secret, the production duo of Craig Balmoris and Ernest Price. Better known as Craig B and Tone P, they are responsible for the go-go-influenced tracks that helped get Wale off the ground.

"We basically take all the [expletive] that's tight about go-go and fuse it with what's tight about hip-hop," Craig says. "Mash it together and bam! There you go."

Percussion is the duo's lingua franca, and in the basement studio where they work, they punctuate their sentences by clapping their hands or pounding their fists on armrests and tabletops. Craig and Tone are both 22 years old, first cousins who grew up in neighboring rowhouses on P Street SW. "We could bang on the walls to communicate," Craig says.

They met Wale through the Internet equivalent of banging down his door: "We harassed him on MySpace," Craig says. Their first collaboration was "Ice Cream Girl," a song that would eventually appear on HBO's "Entourage."

"We're like brothers," Wale says of his relationship to Craig and Tone. "We really make great music. It's like peanut butter and jelly."

Best Kept Secret has farmed out over 100 beats to a slew of Washington rappers, four of which made their way onto "Attention Deficit." No one has played a more vital role in weaning Washington eardrums off go-go and onto local hip-hop.

"A lot of people have closed ears. Living in D.C., you get trapped up in the go-go world, the accent, the culture," says Tone. "It's a tough city and it's hard to break through.

"Wale is the first guy out here and we're the music that's behind him," he says. "It's like our moment of truth."

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