Arts Desk

DMV Rap Attack: Washington Post Weigh In


Yesterday the Washington Post ran a large feature on DC hip hop.* Chris Richards' piece offers a cursory "why hasn't DC rap blown up?" history and intro as well as short profiles of Wale, XO, Kingpen Slim, Tabi Bonney, Phil Ade and producers Best Kept Secret. It's a well meaning and pretty efficient overview, but it's also predictably been causing some debate within the DC hip hop community as well as some concern about the orientation of Wale's hat amongst WaPo readers.

And perhaps some concern is warranted (err... within the hip hop community, not about Wale's hat). The easiest way to critique an article like this is to point out artist omissions. I understand the need for space in a newspaper column so I'll mostly try to avoid such trivial complaints here.** But there are some larger holes in the story that deserve to be addressed.

Mainly Richards' piece oversimplifies the scene(s), painting a picture that every rapper pre-Wale was either rocking the go-go or desperately chasing a major deal. The narrative that go-go music has permanently squashed rap aspirations for the past two decades is a tidy one, but not entirely accurate. For one, it almost completely writes artists of the U st./Freestyle Union/Kaffa House open mic lineage and aesthetic out of the story. Sure, this scene was closely tied to the transient population at Howard and other colleges and as such owed more to Tribe Called Quest or the burgeoning Rawkus movement than they did go-go heroes like Fat Rodney or street favorites like Section 8 Mob. But it actually was a pretty prominent and distinctly hip hop scene that was jumping off in DC during the 90s.

More than that, acts like Unspoken Heard, Storm The Unpredictable and Priest Da Nomad were gaining a minor rep throughout the Northeast. These guys weren't signing major deals (or necessarily even gunning for them) but still held a certain amount of clout outside of the city. Their records were available up and down 95 at legendary Manhattan vinyl outlets like Fat Beats and major web distributors like Sandbox Automatic in an era where it wasn't uncommon for indie rap 12"s to move 5-10k with ease. Before blogs, this sort of underground buzz was less measurable but 12"/college radio burn was not all that different from the sort of attention Wale is getting right now. None of these acts became national mainstream stars (it's unlikely that Wale will either), but many serious hip hop heads were at least aware of their existence. I mean I was buying Unspoken 12"s as a teen in New Jersey so they must have been doing something right.

But I suspect that the local success of that community can partially account for its relative failure nationally. These indie, dare I say "backpack," rappers were so self sufficient that they could afford to remain somewhat insulated, separate from the go-go rappers and the Scarface-inspired street dudes. Other cities with similar demographics – Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta – have found success nationally because the streets were forced to merge with the campuses organically. The scenes were so small that the d-boys mingled with the conscious rappers until you couldn't tell the difference anymore. And that's usually when things get interesting.*** But in DC there was less of a need for that sort of explicit unity or overlap because both the the go-gos and the uptown open mics were doing so well independently of one another.

The success of DC's current wave of rappers is probably tied to the blurring of these lines. In recent years both communities have been so ingrained within in DC culture that the current wave of rappers have no choice but to adopt hand me down reverence for both. Take XO for example, who came up rhyming at the decidedly post-Union Tru Skool open mics but is also practically a descendant of go-go royalty, his parents being managers for the genre's unheralded progenitors the Young Senators. Hopefully these types of blends can catch on nationally. If not it's already resulted in plenty of great music.

* In the interest of full disclosure: I, too, have written about hip hop for the Post.
** But really no mention of Section 8 Mob or Questionmark Asylum at all?! Along with Nonchalant, those are literally the only DC rappers that casual national rap fans could name drop prior to Wale.
*** Ask Kanye West.

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  • Sonya

    These are facts probably omitted from the WaPo story because of the need for space and/or the lack of knowledge or research effort put forth by the author of the article. It would be cool to see the article re-written by someone with this much knowledge about DC's music history and music in general. But that would be too much like right...

  • andrew

    My buddy used to think that Tag Team was from DC, because one of the lines in "Whoomp There It Is" is "DC's in the house, jump jump rejoice." But DC was the guy's name.

  • Andrew Noz

    Sonya - Right, like I said the THERE WAS GO GO AND NOW THERE IS SOME RAP narrative is a tidy one, and that clean split is sort of necessary to sell this story to an outside audience. It's understandable. But at the same time it's definitely far from the whole story, which is why I blog.

    Andrew - LOL. For a short while, when Snoop Dogg first came out I thought he was claiming Long Beach Island, NJ.

  • Shelliano


    No mention of the Oy Boyz??? I mean. seriously? Like they weren't on BET a few years ago with Paul Wall (when he was on FIRE) in "Lockdown"... Asylum squashed that bid for mainstream acceptance, but the Oy movement has continued to be strong. I have seen them SHUT CLUBS DOWN with major label artists getting BOOED off stage (Young Buck--pre phone call-- at Love is just one example)... It amazing how they continued to be over looked in the "outside" DC populace....

    Outside being that same "college, transient crowd" you were talking about...

  • DQ

    I woulda thought that Kev Brown and Oddisee woulda been two names that rap fans would be aware of nationally pretty much pre-Wale through The Magnificent, Port Authority, Starr Status etc. but maybe that's just the internet backpacker/okayplayer/producer ghetto telescoping that perception.

    As for Wale, still think it's true that Interscope should get their mitts on "W on the Fitted" and release it as a single while the weather's still decent. That chorus has really grown on me and the track bangs.

  • cozy

    yea an in the 90 team demo ran shit ran shit the 1st group from dmv to put out a full length lp independent the 1st group from dmv to be in the source, an what about infinite loop 3LG, IF YOU GONNA DO A PEICE ON d.c hip hop history an you want to call another writer out know it all an tell it right! Peace to the HIP HOP FEDERATIN! An Storm ,Preist , AN Opuis all sold over sea but so did Team Demo, TD was also the 1st D,C group to be on the Stretch an Bobbito show, so get the history right

  • jj

    man, you read that story all wrong. It was not a piece on DMV rap history. It was about the now with a nod towards the then. Sure, he could have listed EVERY DC artist in the past, but for the sake of the story, he just needed to list a few. If I were his editor, I would have looked at listing anymore than what he did as overkill. Your blog post just comes across as typical City Paper bitching. We are all thrilled you know a lot about this subject, but you missed the forest for the trees on this one.

  • DQ

    jj, it's really just the commentators like me that are playing the lazy "exclusions" game, the post itself is pretty explicitly about a subtler point: that a "go-go vs. major deal" history leaves out a past bohemian independent scene, and the phenomena of regional acts quietly doing numbers over a wide area. The insight is that for hip hop elsewhere different strains have necessarily bled into each other in a way that perhaps has taken 'til now to happen in DC. For me that's an interesting idea, so this commentary adds to and expands on the original article in a valuable way.

  • JacketFan

    The comment by the article writer "Other cities with similar demographics – Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta – have found success nationally because the streets were forced to merge with the campuses organically."

    That doesn't make any sense at at! First of all, the major colleges in Chicago at U of Chicago and Northwestern, hardly bastions of "conscious rappers"

    Now Atlanta and DC have huge black colleges. So the merging of the d-boy crowds and backpackers kind of/sort of makes sense "conceptually" but has no correlation to why DC doesn't have a break out rapper.

    I'm based in Atlanta and I've always wondered that - LA, New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, and even St. Louis have generated crossover mega rap stars. But DC has never really done it.

    I'm sure it's very complex reason why that's true. I don't know enough about the DC scene to even guess. But I do know it has nothing with the college and d-boy mixing or not mixing together. It's something WAY deeper than that.

    Most of the cities with breakout artists don't have a "significant" black college scene, including blacks that go to white colleges.

  • DQ

    I don't see why Northwestern wouldn't be a market for a more bohemian sort of rap. There's also the Chicago State that Kanye famously dropped out of.

    (Though there's no question that U of C is a very un-hip hop place made up of white, foreign and Asian students, i can't help note that its very unofficial motto is a punchline straight out of the dozens: "If it was easy, it'd be your mother!")

  • DJStylus

    Just to amend your analysis of the Freestyle Union scene, most of the artists involved were DC natives. Toni wasn't but Priest, Kokayi, Storm, Sub-Z and Rub the MC were all original locals, as well as most of the younger cats who went on to become The Amphibians, Dirty Water, Heron Gibran, etc. The audiences were pretty transient though, I'll give you that. And WaPo did a feature story on the scene as well as a DC great rap hope story a few years later.

    I won't split hairs on omissions either since the piece was about right now. I will agree with cozy that you can't talk about DC hip-hop history without mentioning Team Demolition. I had records from their crew (Optical the Visionary comes to mind) before I even knew they were from here. Same for 3LG. Their Live from State of the Union album is critically important. They were The Roots before I heard Organix.

  • word life

    wale not main stream? wasn't he the mc for MtV VMA's house band? right now is the best time for dc hip hop since the days you could hit Power Moves (kaffa house)on Tue, Skool Yard(the cage) on Wed, Soul Camp (hung jury pub)on Thur, Hip Hop Forum (erico's) on Fri, and some random show on sat. Not to mention parties/shows at State of the Union...

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