Yudu Gray Jr. knew not to ask his guests too many questions. On a frigid night in January 2015, he waited for them at his office on the outskirts of the District. It’s not the easiest place to find — on a dead-end street past a tile distributor and a towing company in an industrial park. But in this case, the isolated location was a plus.
“It was a simple ‘don’t say nothing’ understanding,” Gray joked later.
A car service pulled up. There was a knock at the door. Gray opened it to find hip-hop producer Patrick Douthit, better known as 9th Wonder, and the rapper Rapsody.
Gray, 33, tall and lanky, led the visitors inside House Studio DC, the audio and video production company he started in August 2010. The only other souls on the premises were a sound engineer and a night manager. 9th Wonder had asked that as few people as possible be present.
The producer, who has worked with Mary J. Blige, Jay Z and Erykah Badu, had come to record a verse for Kendrick Lamar’s much-anticipated third album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which would later be nominated for a Grammy for album of the year. But all he had told Gray was he needed to record a “top secret” verse. Gray left them to get to it.
“Keep your head up, when did you stop?
Love and die
Color of your skin, color of your eyes
That’s the real blues, baby, like you met Jay’s baby
You blew me away, you think more beauty in blue, green and gray ...
If you don’t see you beautiful in your complexion
It ain’t complex to put it in context
Find the air beneath the kite, that’s the context ...”
Afterward, 9th Wonder mentioned it was a collaboration with Lamar, but Gray didn’t think much of it. “You never know if it’s going to actually make the album until you see the credits yourself,” he said. Then in March, a few days before the record came out, 9th Wonder sent Gray a direct message on Twitter with a picture of the liner notes with the House Studio credit.
It’s a small piece of recognition, but an important one for Gray, a college dropout who has made House Studio a base of creative operations for signed hip-hop artists such as Logic, Fat Trel and Shy Glizzy, and indie acts such as Marlee in the Mixx, a local progressive band. A studio for the post-download era, it does not rent recording time but takes on tasks a record label used to. Gray scouts for acts and creates vision boards with them so “both the artist and the team [at House] speak the same creative language.”
He also offers practical advice on how to reach fans on social media. But in general, he doesn’t put too much stock in the number of followers or YouTube hits someone has. Nor does he care about blog mentions.
In the age of Twitter and Spotify, his mantra sounds naively simple: “The more dope records you make, the more opportunities you get.”
It’s 8 on a Saturday night in November. Gray is on the second floor of the House in his standard work attire: a T-shirt with his company’s logo, a black-and-white jacket and sneakers. He is staring at a list of names on a wall-mounted monitor. Behind him, scattered across a sofa and some office chairs, is a mix of staffers, interns and engineers.
The names on the screen belong to roughly 1,200 artists who have applied for a grant the House started awarding in 2013. At least five artists will get one. Vetting begins tonight.
“Let’s try to find something new,” Gray tells everyone.
The winner gets $75,000 in studio time and promotion. So far, previous recipients haven’t gone on to success, but Gray says he isn’t looking for what’s trendy. He wants to build lasting relationships that can sustain the studio in the long-term.
Gray moved the studio from the Edgewood section of the District to nearby Hyattsville, Md., in 2014 partly for more space, but also because local rappers would bang on the door at 1 a.m., expecting studio time. The current location has fewer distractions.
“They foster an atmosphere wherein working is the key point,” says Carl “Kokayi” Walker, a musician and House collaborator. “If you’re someone who likes to hang around for the sake of hanging around, go home. They’re not really feeling that.”
Gray started House Studio after he interned at Avalon Sound Studios in Bethesda from 2008 until it closed in 2010. He thought Avalon had an “antiquated” way of doing business: blindly taking someone’s money for studio time and having nothing to do with the result, which usually didn’t amount to much. He wanted to work with artists more closely, and hip-hop acts in particular, which he felt were not welcome at Avalon.
“My roots are just as much Nas and Biggie as it is Aerosmith and Nirvana,” Gray said. “So you gotta have a balance, and I felt at the time we could be a balance.”
He raised money from friends and family. For the first three years, he put every dollar back into the House, upgrading gear and the brand. There were no salaries or profit splits. He found artists on YouTube and SoundCloud. He wanted to create a place where people could be themselves. Wale, for instance, can stop by to play video games and trust that Gray won’t post it on Twitter or Instagram.
House competes with established studios such as Listen Vision on Georgia Avenue NW, near Howard University, and Depth Charge Recording in Alexandria, Va. But some artists and producers said they’ve come to prefer House because of the man at the helm.
“Yudu has made himself a key element of both music and the culture surrounding it in this area,” said Walker. “I wouldn’t say that he is a central figure. However, he is one of the ... individuals that serve as great resources in getting plugged into the right circles.”
For a music scene fixture, Gray doesn’t get out much. When he is not working, he skips the clubs for his home in the Hyattsville Arts District, which he shares with his wife of two years, Davina Thomas, and their infant son. It’s a more modest but more stable life than he had as a child. His father, a civil engineer by trade, was minister of public works in Liberia, and the family had drivers, maids and expensive cars.
“I was that kid that had everything,” he says.
But when he was 6, a civil war threatened the government, so he and his family fled, first to London. Young Yudu went to private school for a couple of years, until money started running out and the family had to move again.
“We lost it all,” Gray recalls.
Gray was one of seven children (one died as an infant) and the oldest boy. “I was never a kid who thought one day someone would take care of me. I looked at the world like, ‘How do I make the most of every situation I’m in?’ ”
In the mid-1990s, his family moved to Gaithersburg, Md., to be closer to relatives. Gray ran track and field at Watkins Mill High School. He enrolled at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore but didn’t like it, and in 2001, he dropped out. He moved in with his parents and worked overnight at Home Depot stocking the lumber and millwork departments.
“Let’s just say Kanye West’s ‘College Dropout’ lived in rotation in my Sony CD Walkman,” he said. Gray then moved to Seattle, where he trained to run track and field for the Liberian Olympic team. His running career ended in 2008 with a torn knee ligament.
Gray said he felt embarrassed for not living up to his family’s lofty expectations. Among his siblings are two doctors, an aspiring lawyer, an ex-Marine, a teacher and a poet.
Even now, after some hard-earned success, he still sounds surprised at how things turned out: “I look at my life today and it’s humbling in every way. We’re on the Kendrick album, like, you have to almost stop and be like, ‘What is happening right now?’ ”
When Grammy nominations were announced in December, the low-key Gray tweeted “Congrats to Kendrick ... and all involved with this special moment in history!”
But over breakfast at Busboys and Poets in Hyattsville, he doesn’t dwell on that small burst of recognition. Instead, he talks up other acts. He and his staff plan to announce House Studio’s first 2016 grant winners soon.
Ever since seeing the National Symphony Orchestra perform with Lamar at the Kennedy Center in October, Gray has also been trying to find a reason to get the NSO to record at the House. Going forward, he said he wants to work more with a wider group of musicians. Maybe there’s a harpist he doesn’t know about. Or a punk band.
“There’s so much more to music than just lyrics and beats,” he said. “The ultimate plan is still in motion. And we are so far from the bigger picture that it still feels like we are just getting started.”
Marcus J. Moore is a music critic and journalist in Hyattsville, Md. To comment on this story, email email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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