The local rapper Blyss has a distinctive T-shirt he often wears when he performs. The T-shirt is red and large, and on the front of it there's a hand-painted portrait of Blyss himself wearing a golden crown and a severe, regal expression. The portrait is meant to evoke Blyss's self-awarded honorific, "The King of D.C," which is a brazen title to try to claim when you haven't yet landed a major record deal, and when most people in Washington haven't heard of you. It's the sort of boast one couldn't get away with in New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Los Angeles, Oakland, Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans or the multitude of other cities that crowned their hip-hop royalty a while ago. But now, a quarter-century into the genre's ascendancy, greater D.C. holds the curious distinction of being one of the few metropolitan centers of its size that hasn't boosted a major rapper into the national spotlight, which leaves an up-and-comer such as Blyss a ripe opportunity to usurp the empty throne.
Blyss, whose real name is Ralph Chambliss, does not like it when people say that he will "probably be" or "could be" the first really big rapper to come out of D.C. "There's no 'probably' about it," he says. "I am going to be the first rapper to put D.C. on the map." While rappers are, as a professional class, not ungifted at the art of self-flattery, Blyss, by all appearances, has reason to swagger. Music-industry people are calling him up. He often performs on big-league bills in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people. He's the only D.C. rapper who gets regular radio play on the hip-hop and R&B station WKYS, where not long ago he did a spot with hip-hop luminary 50 Cent. Which all augurs well for Blyss, who will be shopping a new record soon and is "almost sure I'll have a deal before the summer's out."
In a couple of hours, he's going to give the most important performance of his career to date. It is 8 p.m., and Blyss is beginning his sound check at Club Dream, where tonight he has landed a spot opening for renowned rapper Method Man.
This is a palatial club off New York Avenue in Northeast with four stories, several discrete bar areas and accents of black granite and smooth blond wood. The Democratic Party held a fundraiser here last night. Right now, an hour and a half before the doors open, Blyss stands in front of an empty house, a cordless microphone in his substantial hand. He runs through a few a cappella stanzas of his song "Hustler's Anthem," a muscular, midtempo survey of scenes in the life of a prosperous cocaine dealer in Southeast D.C. "I could never get caught off guard," his voice thunders through the PA. "I don't care if they switch the shifts up in front of Scotland Yard."
Blyss's performing voice is moderately gruff, though his delivery is subtly careful. His more densely packed lines display a knack for unloading a terrific number of syllables without cramping or mangling any of them. Listening to Blyss negotiate his trickier phrases, you get a sense of something that's at once rugged and crystalline; it's sort of like looking at a chandelier made of asphalt.
Blyss, who is 25, is the only one rapping, per se, but there are three other guys onstage with him who chime in now and then on the occasional emphatic syllable: Abdullah "Dula" Foster, a personable, ex-minor-league basketball player in his late twenties; Chris Romero Singh, a slightly stout, low-slung 26-year-old whose stage name is Broadway; and Rashod Parks -- aka "Chewy" -- a man of Wookiee stature who looks capable of bench-pressing a tugboat.
Then the sound man cues Blyss's backup music, but at a rather feeble volume. It sounds as though somebody's playing the stereo in the next apartment, which makes the vocals seem ungainly and overbearing. Blyss's manager, Jerry Vines, detects the problem promptly: "Your mikes are way too loud above the music," he says. "You know when you go to a rap concert and it just sounds like a bunch of [expletives] yelling? It sounds like [expletive]."
Blyss turns to the sound man. "Yeah, turn the mikes down," he says. "I'm not trying to sound stupid up here."
The sound man shoots Blyss a sullen glance. Vines goes over and talks with the sound man, who, visibly affronted, goes over and fiddles with a fader, but instead of actually sliding it down, he maybe just pinches it a little bit because the mix stays about the same. Then he makes the dubious argument that once the room is packed, the sound will somehow balance itself out. Blyss and Vines look unsure, but the sound man seems resolute, and after a somewhat tense moment, they head backstage.
Tonight's crowd is expected to fill Club Dream's second-floor venue, which holds about 800 people. Blyss has played larger shows than this one (he performed for an audience of several thousand at Howard University not long ago), but because Dream is perhaps the uppermost club on D.C.'s hip-hop circuit, and because it's rare for an unsigned local rapper to get on a bill here, tonight's gig, as Blyss puts it, is "huge."
Moments before the show, Blyss stands at the bottleneck of a healthy entourage. On the other side of the stage door, someone announces him over the PA. Blyss and the other three members of his "family" go into a huddle and say a brief, grateful prayer for the opportunity to perform. Soon they're through the door, walking briskly through a rectangle of pulsing stage lights.
"Is D.C. in the [expletive] building?" Blyss calls over the PA. "Put your hands up." A chorus of shouts swells at Blyss's feet, and a shallow field of upraised hands sways before the stage. Blyss rolls into "Hustler's Anthem" in an unquavering baritone. Broadway et al. nail their backup parts. There is one difficulty, though: The packed house has not smoothed out the mix, as the sound man promised, and, in the rear half of the room at least, the vocals are still uncomfortably overpresent.
He breaks into another song. The crowd's enthusiasm is palpable, but not overwhelming.
At the end of that song, Blyss calls to the deejay. "Cut the music off!" Then he addresses the audience. "I'm thinkin' the [expletive] music ain't doing me no justice in this [expletive]," he says. "If y'all [expletives] like lyricists, put y'all [expletive] hands in the [expletive] air. Check this [expletive] out."
He starts an a cappella reprise of the songs he's just performed, which, in a different context, would probably impress connoisseurs of the form, but it's sort of hard to raise your hands and bounce to. The abrupt absence of music seems to puzzle the crowd, and the dance floor founders.
Before long, the a cappella set winds down. The deejay spins a new track, which immediately revives the room.
Then, suddenly, Blyss is gone. All told, the performance lasted in the neighborhood of nine minutes.
As the group leaves the back room, a subdued Vines weighs in. "The mix wasn't good." Once you break, he says, you can afford your own sound system. Until then, you're at the mercy of the grumpy local help.
Blyss ascends a shallow flight of steps at the far end of the room, past a security guard into a terrace sectioned off with a plush velvet cordon. He stands with a fresh drink, thronged by friends and people trying to meet him. Method Man begins his set. The mix, in fact, is not much better than it was for Blyss's performance, but these are songs that everybody in here knows, and the audience's chanting resounds in the floorboards.
Blyss gazes briefly at the stage. "Just as long as I moved some people," he says. "There are [hundreds] of people in here who didn't know who I was before tonight. Now they do."
THE AFTERNOON BEFORE the Dream show, Blyss, Broadway and Chewy drive down to Broadway's place, a comfortable, brick split-level home on a quiet street in Fort Washington, which houses Broadway's small recording studio. Neither Blyss nor Broadway has a conventional day job. They are both engaged full time in the project of making Blyss D.C.'s first celebrity rapper and building a name for their label, Capitol Gainz Entertainment, which is headquartered in Broadway's house. The imperfect pun, Blyss explains, gets at his and Broadway's dual ambitions of making money for themselves and making a name for the city's hip-hop scene. "The whole thing with Capitol Gainz -- when we break, it's gonna be because the people in this city invested in us," Blyss says. "And capital gains being returns on your investment, it's like an investment the capital's gonna see returns from when we break."
So far, Capitol Gainz's biggest venture has been Blyss's demo, "King of D.C.: Mixtape Vol. 1," a 15-song CD. Broadway, who holds a degree in imaging and digital arts from the University of Maryland at Baltimore and has a knack for computer technology, assembled "Mixtape" in his home studio.
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."
Butler says he went into the drug business around 1986, right out of high school, in what he describes as a sort of golden era of the crack trade in Southeast. Back then, Butler says, the business wasn't as severely afflicted with the internecine turf wars that have helped D.C. sustain one of the highest murder rates in America.
"We were family, and we just had fun doing it," Butler says. "Nowadays, someone goes into a 'hood, they shoot people and do all that stuff to take over a turf. We didn't do that. We fought. We'd go up to the man, and we were like, 'We trying to get up in here, what you wanna do?' We racked" -- fought -- "we literally racked, with our fists, not bats, not knives, not guns. And we earned respect, and that's how we got into all our spots."
St. Thomas More, Blyss's elementary school, is on Fourth Street SE, not far from where Butler says he plied his trade. "When he'd get out of school, he'd walk by and see us out there," Butler says. "We'd give him our pocket change, like a big stack of ones. His momma would go off, 'What are you doin', givin' my boy that money like that!' " When Blyss was around 19, during breaks from college, he began taking a more active role in the business, mostly couriering packages of money, though, Blyss says, he later began a short-lived sideline dealing on his own. "He saw the money, the cars and the women, and I think he just wanted to be a part of that," Butler says.
Butler and his associates looked out for Blyss. "He didn't have to do much," Butler says, "unless it was making a run somewhere, or picking up. It was family. You don't put family on the front lines if you're sittin' right, and we was sittin' good."
Though Butler paints a rosy picture of the early days, it was perilous work. Just as the operation was getting underway, Butler says, he served a five-year prison sentence on drug charges, and the two men who'd been supplying him met with even bleaker fates. One was murdered, Butler says, and the other was sentenced to 50 years in prison on a homicide conviction.
By the early '90s, things started to unravel, Butler says. "We relocated to another area to deal drugs, but nothing was ever the way it was . . . We just started separating, and it started to die out."
Though Blyss acknowledges that life in the drug trade wasn't without its appeal, he says he didn't want to make a career out of it, a decision he partly credits to his father's influence. Others around him didn't have father figures, but "I did," he says. "They didn't have anybody to say, 'Stop selling drugs. Do something positive.' "
Also, as Blyss began getting serious about his music career, he says, there simply wasn't time to pursue his illicit ambitions with any real dedication. "It's impossible to serve two masters," Blyss says. "When you're trying to get a record deal, you gotta ease out of that [expletive]. To get a deal, to have somebody give you millions of dollars? You have to be working on your music all the time. At that point, selling drugs -- that's just something that goes into your story."
ABOUT A WEEK AFTER THE SHOW at Dream, Blyss has a performance lined up at a fashion show in Greenbelt. The more modest audience at Fashion Xplosion 2004 won't rival the crowd he performed for at Dream, but these days it's still a game of inches for Blyss, of getting his name out one show at a time.
Blyss, Broadway and Chewy stroll into the backstage area. There are models everywhere, and none of them is wearing much. Several varieties of tallness and skinniness are represented here. There are racks of clothes: camouflage hot pants, some ambiguous things made out of airy tulle, napkin-size shirts, and a huge pile of pointy shoes and stiletto heels that looks like it would be hard to reach into without puncturing your hand.
Broadway takes a seat, gazing at a row of models. He points out a girl who is so lank in the limbs that her knees bend rearward like a wading bird's. Then she takes her shirt off. Broadway gallantly averts his gaze. "I feel like I'm seeing things I'm not supposed to see."
The main reason Blyss is performing tonight is that the show's producer, Kelly Hollywood, is a rapper herself and hangs out regularly with the Capitol Gainz crew. Hollywood is dressed in sneakers, fingerless fishnet gloves and form-fitting cargo-style pants with epaulets over the pockets. When she sees Blyss, she jogs over, jumps on him and shrieks happily.
Blyss and Hollywood go over the particulars of the show. He'll be performing an abbreviated set, consisting of a single song, which is fine with Blyss, who, for strategic reasons, never performs sets longer than four songs anyway. ("I've been in the crowd watching the local [expletive] perform," Blyss says later. "Even if he hot as [expletive], after four songs, you wanna go and get a drink.") Tonight he has selected "Take It All Off," a medium-core ode to casual sex, which has been getting a few spins a week on WKYS. Because Fashion Xplosion 2004 is going to be a PG-13-type event, Blyss has agreed to perform the cleaned-up version. Still, he haggles over the finer points of the arrangement: "Can I say [expletive], [expletive] and [expletive]?"
"We already discussed this," Hollywood says. "You're just trying to be cute."
"Can I say K-Y jelly?"
"That's one of the things I didn't want you to say," Hollywood says.
The crew goes to a dressing room upstairs to get ready. Broadway is tying a black do-rag around his head. Chewy tells him, "You look like Mister Miyagi," who is the old fellow in "The Karate Kid" who taught Ralph Macchio's character karate by having him do chores around his house.
"You look like a fat giraffe," Broadway responds. Then Chewy thinks of something else that Broadway looks like, and vice versa, and it goes on like this for a little while.
When the proceedings get underway, most of the seats are empty, though the models, parading clothes from local designers, don't seem to care. They have all mastered the swift parabolic hip swing of the pro-model runway walk, and the chilly, trancelike gaze of the pro-model runway face.
Well into the event, Kelly Hollywood's voice comes over the PA. "This is, by far, the most highly anticipated part of the show," she says. "You might have heard him spit with 50 Cent and G-Unit. It's highly probable that you're a big fan of our next guest. This is, by far, three-fourths of the way the best rapper of all time."
"This can't be true," a guy in the audience says to his friend. "Who they got?"
The two men look somewhat blank when Kelly says, "Put your hands together for Blyss!"
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 Phylicia Rashad") -- 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."
"Say no more," Blyss says.
"He spends a lot of time by himself writing," Broadway says. "He don't just throw [expletive] together."
"If that [expletive] is wack, it's wack," Vines says. "Start over."
"Nah, I'll spend time with it," Blyss says. "I got, like, a wack mechanism in my brain, dog."
"That [expletive] right there," Vines says, pointing a finger at the speaker. "You put the right [expletive] with that, that's straight club, radio -- "
" -- everything," Broadway says.
"Everything," says Blyss.
WHEN BLYSS IS IN NEED OF PEACE and relaxation or just something to eat, one place he likes to go is a nude-dancing establishment not far from Dupont Circle. It's about 5 p.m. Blyss and Chewy are sitting along the back wall. There's a smattering of middle-aged businessmen in here on their way home from work, sitting at tables trimmed with green linens, white carnations and little oil-burning candles.
Blyss is not in high spirits today. A while back, a promoter offered him the opening spot on a bill with Ludacris, one of the rappers Blyss admires most. But the promoter isn't returning Blyss's calls, and it seems clear now that the offer has fallen through. He also got a call recently from an artist and repertoire agent in Los Angeles who said he wanted to shop Blyss's CD to Interscope, a label with an illustrious rap catalogue. As it turned out, the guy was an independent A&R agent, who, by the way, wanted $750 in exchange for his services. It's a common enough show-business scam, though being approached as though he were a starry-eyed dupe struck Blyss as a grievous insult. "It's frustrating, dog," Blyss says, with a note of anxiety in his voice. He's ready to put the dues-paying phase of his career behind him.
"I'm doing good in D.C., in the local market, but if you think about it, that's nothing compared with what's happening in the rest of the country," Blyss says. "It's nothing compared with what's happening to people in St. Louis or Atlanta. If I was in Atlanta, I would probably have a deal by now."
"In Atlanta, it's different," Chewy says. "If you ain't signed, and your [expletive] hot, then you're on the radio. You're in rotation."
Fifteen feet away, a nude woman is winding down her routine. Another dancer comes and starts Windexing the mirror and the dancer's pole. Every entertainer has to do her own Windexing before her set gets underway.
"We grind so hard, but in D.C. there just aren't outlets to be heard," Blyss says. Sure, he says, you might get the occasional show at places such as Club Dream, but otherwise opportunities are scarce. "I tried the open-mike circuit," he says during a later conversation. "But the only people there are other [expletive] who rap, too. We would just rap for each other every week. It's like, 'Damn, where's the audience?' " Suddenly the club's bouncer materializes by Blyss's table. "Take your headband off," the bouncer says, on the grounds that the headband is technically an infringement of the club's "No Hats" policy.
"Man," Blyss replies tersely. "I spent about $900 in here today," an overstatement the bouncer ponders for an uncomfortable moment before leaving. Blyss hails a waitress and orders another drink.
Chewy leaves, and soon Blyss's lawyer, Anthony Richa, stops by. He's not here to discuss anything momentous, just to have a drink. Richa, a thickly built man with gelled hair, wearing a dark suit and a necktie, is 29 and not long out of law school at George Washington University. Blyss catches him up on the latest developments. "I'm very, very frustrated," he says. "I'm getting a lot of love, but I don't know if it's good love or bad love."
A tall, dark-haired woman walks by. She has an unruly sheaf of bills tucked into her garter belt that looks like a frayed head of romaine lettuce. A few tables over, a man who looks like Wilford Brimley proffers a dollar with a trembling hand.
Blyss sets his drink on the table. As an artist hoping for a million-dollar deal, he's saddled with anxiety. "I got a lot at stake right now," he tells Richa. "My biggest fear is that I get an offer for $400,000, and I back away from it. Then what if no other offers come, dog? Then I go from Blyss the [expletive] who could have put D.C. on the map to Blyss the [expletive] who was stupid, who let it go."
THE NEXT WEEK, Blyss goes into the studio (not the soundproofed closet at Broadway's, but a pro-caliber recording studio in Washington) to start laying down vocal tracks for the new record. He records a handful of new songs, plus his part for the joint effort with Ginuwine, though it'll be a few weeks before the R&B singer finishes up a tour and joins Blyss in the studio. Blyss wishes it could be sooner. "He's got some things to attend to," Blyss says, "so that just leaves me being here, anxious." But the new songs, Blyss says, "are hot, the best songs I've ever done." Jerry Vines, who is generally not one for idle compliments, agrees. "There are quite a few on there that we think are gonna be big hit records for us." The record executives who've auditioned it are hearing promise in the album, too. "We got a few record companies that are already interested," Vines says. "Def Jam and Interscope, just to name one or two, and they don't even know [the single with Ginuwine] is coming." Once the single's out, Vines says, "we'll be seeing a lot of bids on the table."
One cool spring night, Blyss and Broadway return to Club Dream. Earlier in the evening, Beyonce performed at the MCI Center and rapper Jay-Z made a surprise cameo. The club is hosting an afterparty in their honor. It is not, as the term "afterparty" might imply, an intimate get-together so much as a giant bash open to anyone willing to pay the door charge. But Blyss hasn't come just to have a good time. A couple of months ago, Blyss approached Jay-Z at his 40/40 Club in New York. Blyss handed him a copy of "Mixtape" (he also handed a copy to Jay-Z's driver), and he wants to follow up with him to see what he thought of it. "There are a hundred [expletives] in here trying to give him their CD," Broadway says. "But he already has our product . . . and that's why we're trying to holler at him. We don't play checkers; we play chess."
Chewy shows up with his girlfriend, and the bouncer waves the whole group through the door. "I never pay to get in places," Blyss says. "Another perk of being in the game."
The music's loud. The club is crowded with young people in club raiment: lots of low-rise jeans and lots of people wearing subtly tinted sunglasses that you can wear at night. The dance floor is approximately 98.6 degrees, and packed with exultant, limber people, grooving to the generalized aura of Beyonce and Jay-Z, who (though unseen) are supposedly somewhere on the premises. Blyss charges off for the backstage lounge, vectoring past woozy drink-stricken revelers and couples perspiring in his path. His purposeful beeline seems somehow at odds with the hundreds of people around him, all consumed in the full-bore pursuit of leisure while Blyss is very much at work.
The backstage lounge is full as well, but it takes only a second or two for Blyss to realize that Jay-Z is nowhere in the throng. The crew follows Blyss back across the main room, and up into a roped off VIP plateau, which offers a better vantage from which to scan the crowd for Jay-Z. Nothing.
Then, for the first time in the half an hour or so since they arrived, they all seem content to take the moment and to enjoy themselves. Broadway springs for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and pours a round. Chewy and his girlfriend ease away from the group and start to dance. Broadway catches the eye of a pretty girl with long blond hair weavings. She comes over, whispers something in his ear and then saunters off. Blyss, however, has not forgotten the task at hand. He downs his champagne and goes off to ask security where, exactly, Jay-Z might be found. He's back a moment later. "Let's break out," he says. "Jay and Beyonce left."
Hearing this, Blyss's companions set down their champagne flutes with a chorus of quiet chimes. They fall in behind him, and Blyss walks briskly down the short flight of steps, past the bouncer, past the velvet rope, and vanishes into the crowd of dancing strangers.
Wells Tower is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.