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Tone P was behind some of Wale’s earliest hits. But can he actually make it as a rapper?

D.C. hip-hop producer Tone P has worked with the likes of Wale and Curren$y, and is now hoping to make it as a rapper. (Elijah W. Griffin Sr./MajorLeague Sound)

Ernest Price has ambition. Not because the word is tattooed just above his knuckles, or because he conceptualized the chorus to the Wale song with the same title.

Price, 32, better known as Tone P, came up with those lyrics 10 years ago on a tour bus: “They gon’ love me for my ambition / Easy to dream a dream though it’s harder to live it.” Since then, the D.C. native’s songs have been featured in Nike commercials and movies such as “Project X.” They were playlisted and tweeted by President Barack Obama and performed on late-night television. He’s worked with the likes of Jill Scott, J. Cole, Mark Ronson, Wiz Khalifa and Rick Ross. He’s pushed D.C.’s hip-hop sound and helped lay the groundwork for the success of Wale, the city’s first homegrown rapper to achieve national fame.

“Ambition” reached Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart.

But for Tone, that just hasn’t been enough.

“It’s left me empty,” he says.

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So, after years of playing in the background as a beatsmith, Tone wants to make his mark as a vocalist. His storied partnership with Wale has soured and turned into more of a hate than love thing (the two recorded more than 30 songs together but aren’t on speaking terms). He’s learned his lessons and wants to create a soundtrack to his city again — but this time, under his own name.

“I’m trying to kick in the door for Tone, not kick in the door for Wale,” Tone says. “It’s a different dimension because it’s my music, and it’s actually me rapping.”

On his new single, “America,” Tone touches on such topics as health care, jobs and race relations in punk-style jeers over a rock-and-roll-infused instrumental. In early 2019, he’s slated to release an album, “ColorBlind,” plus an EP tentatively titled “Urban Rebel” a few months later, under his MajorLeague Sound imprint.

While “ColorBlind” pays homage to Tone’s funky inspirations — Parliament, Prince, Zapp and Roger — “Urban Rebel” is a rock-rap reflection of his upbringing as a D.C. kid in two different neighborhoods: Georgetown and Southwest. Moving from school to school introduced Tone to peers who listened to rock, pop, country and other genres besides go-go, the sound that dominated D.C. airwaves from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

By age 15, Tone had gone from listening to eclectic sounds to making music with his cousin, Craig Balmoris, who lived next door on P Street SW. “We would make beats through the walls,” Balmoris says. “It was always funny. Our rooms were next to each other, and the rowhouses have thin walls.”

As teenagers, they spent afternoons at the Syphax Gardens ­public-housing apartments in a friend’s room freestyling. When Balmoris got hold of the digital-audio software program FL Studio (formerly known as Fruity Loops), the two began to fool around with it. “That’s where the passion and being intrigued by sounds and sonics in general came from,” Tone says.

Tone and Balmoris practiced endlessly, returning home from school to hop on the computer, press buttons, cut and paste sounds, and create loops of samples. Initially, under the banner of Best Kept Secret, they imitated other producers, such as Kanye West, Just Blaze, Timbaland and the Neptunes. But like most other D.C. teens during the early 2000s, Tone and Balmoris were heavily influenced by go-go music — attending raucous shows to see UCB, Backyard Band and TCB, among others.

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So when the pair heard Wale’s “Dig Dug” on the radio — a rap song equipped with a Northeast Groovers go-go sample — it validated their scheme: The plan was to create go-go laced beats that could carry over to mainstream radio. They reached out to Wale via MySpace but also took to U Street, peddling the tapes to anyone who would lend an ear. As Tone began shopping the sounds he and his cousin had created, they caught the attention of local radio jocks 2Face the Wildboy and DJ Alizay, who helped get their music in Wale’s hands.

In 2007, when Tone was 20, the duo created two tracks for the rising rapper.

“[Wale] was like, ‘Hey, man, can you guys flip this TCB sample called “Ice Cream Girls”?’ We were hungry at the time, so we would knock out beats immediately. A month or two later, we got a call it was going to be [on] ‘Entourage’ on HBO,” Balmoris says.

The second song, “D.C. Gorillaz,” sampled a snippet of Gorillaz’s “Dirty Harry.”

Best Kept Secret worked with Wale on his early mix tapes and his album “Attention Deficit.” In a 2009 interview with The Washington Post, Wale described his relationship with Tone and Balmoris by saying they were all “like brothers.” “We really make great music,” he said at the time. “It’s like peanut butter and jelly.” (Reached through his publicist, Wale declined to be interviewed for this article.)

But after the album was released, Tone, his cousin and Wale went their separate ways: (“Money and blood just didn’t mix,” Balmoris explains.) Tone moved to Atlanta to continue his career as a producer, and Wale, along with his manager, LeGreg Harrison, followed shortly after. With a nudge from Harrison, Wale reached out to Tone and Balmoris to settle their differences and set up time to get back into the studio.

Harrison had recognized the potential in the production duo, and didn’t want his client to veer too far from the sound that had helped get him to where he was.

“Tone reminded me so much of Pharrell. Him and Craig B., they were almost foreign for kids their age to be breaking records and genres,” says Harrison, who now co-owns the Museum, a clothing and art boutique in D.C. “They had to beat the odds. Nobody in this town was really interested in rap. It was a really go-go-heavy city. They were able to get with Wale to create a sound that people could really live with outside of the city.”

For six months, Tone worked in obscurity, harping over harmonies, perfecting piano chords, synchronizing snaps and putting together a palate for Wale from a basement studio. He produced 13 of the 17 tracks on Wale’s “The Eleven One Eleven Theory” mix tape, including “Bait,” the song Tone says “changed everything.”

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One night in 2011, during a tour stop at the Compound night club in Atlanta, Harrison had Tone join Wale onstage for the anthem the producer had helped create. There he was, looking out at the crowd for the first time, feeling the energy of the fans — bouncing to his beat and chanting the chorus he crafted. “I can do this for a living,” Tone remembers thinking.

Harrison, who had watched Tone from backstage, describes it as the instant Tone “came out of his shell.”

“That moment was so critical for him as an artist,” says Harrison, who, like Wale and Tone, also bears the ambition tattoo on his hand. “He took two steps forward, two steps back, Wale put his arm around him, and the rest was history.”

After the Ambition Tour, Tone returned to D.C. to continue working on music. He’s been plotting his first foray as a frontman from a dimly lit, purple-tinged one-bedroom apartment in Temple Hills, Md., that he’s converted into a studio. For months, the producer has been placing the finishing touches on some of the songs and prepping the rollout for his album.

Still, the question remains whether Tone as a performer can top his work as a producer.

“I’m really trying to take the momentum and the recognition I have from the rap and even the go-go community, since I have a respect there because of what I did, and capture the moment and essence of who I am as a person today,” he says, brushing off concerns that he’ll have to outdo his previous work.

Balmoris, who still pumps out beats using the Best Kept Secret moniker, also believes his cousin has what it takes to keep audiences captivated.

“I have no doubt in my mind he can do whatever. Did I see him being an artist?”

Balmoris pauses, then answers his own question: “Yes.”