Arts Desk

Area Code
The term “DMV,” brought to you by the hard work of local rappers. And phone cards.

Rapper 20 Bello; Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Rapper 20 Bello; Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Thanks to the hard work of both hip-hop pioneers and young upstarts throughout D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, the DMV is now officially on the map. It’s also in the dictionary. The Urban Dictionary—but still.

Most regions with thriving hip-hop scenes have catchy nicknames, but before the whole DMV acronym caught on in the mid-aughts, the greater nation’s capital lacked one. Chocolate City, popularized decades ago, was starting to get a little moldy, and it ignores both the all-important suburbs and the fact that D.C. is becoming more cream-filled by the day. There have been valiant efforts to make “The Middle East” (for middle East Coast, get it?) stick, but it didn’t happen. Ditto for “Tri-State,” which failed not only because it’s already taken but because, technically, only two states are involved.

So where’d the acronym come from? In an informal poll of area hip-hop luminaries—from Judah to Kokayi, Head-Roc to Overok—the same three names came up over and over: Wale, DJ Rob AKA Mista DMV, and 20Bello.

Actually, there was one other contender, too: MC-turntablist-producer DJ Eurok maintains the first use of the DMV to mean D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (rather than a certain dysfunctional city agency), was on local corner store phone cards emblazoned with phrases such as “Excellent DMV local access.” He may be right, but in terms of making the term hot, credit definitely goes to the hip-hop community.

“Since I was a kid we always said ‘DC, Maryland, Virginia’ area in that order,” writes Tyrone Norris of Rosetta Stoned in an e-mail. “I think I hear DMV used most when describing the hip-hop scene in the area. If anyone really pushed that phrase, it was the rappers.”

Wale certainly took “DMV” global—thanks to his major-label deal and increasingly high profile, he has been able to sprinkle the term in countless interviews and performances all over the country, but his manager says he didn’t coin the term and doesn’t claim to. “When I started managing him in 06 it was already becoming ubiquitous in the area,” Dan Weisman writes in an e-mail.

DJ Rob has the distinction of being the first person to use the term on national TV: He was on MTV’s Sucka Free in 2006 and said he was representing “the DMV.” And when host DJ Cipha Sounds made a dumb joke about long lines, DJ Rob quickly checked him: “Naw, D.C., Maryland, and V-A—get it right,” he said.

Rich, the owner of the Target Squad empire, says his crew, and Rob in particular, are the originators of the DMV movement—he recalls that DJ Rob and Target Squad introduced the term to former WKYS radio jock II Face the Wild Boy, who in turn popularized it with on-air personalities. “After II Face started saying it on the radio hard, then [WPGC] 95 started jumping on it,” he says. “And then it was like domino effect, it started jumping, jumping—everybody started saying it."

But Rich stops just short of saying Target Squad actually made up the acronym: “DMV is Department of Motor Vehicles, so of course we didn’t invent it. We wanted to copyright it, but our lawyers said, ‘No, are you crazy? That’s the Department of Motor Vehicles.’”

Rapper 20Bello, on the other hand, says he was the first to call this area the DMV and has been using the term since 2003. He offers compelling evidence. 20 possesses a flier from that year, and although a date isn’t listed, he can convincingly authenticate it.

“At the end of ’03, I started letting hair grow,” he says. “That’s when me and [fellow rapper] Hevewae did the promo flier. In ’04, ’05 I had cornrows—that was before I started growing my ’locks in ’06, when I was on the cover of City Paper. Before ’04, ’05, my hair wasn’t long, and that’s my picture on the DMV fliers.”

In fact, 20 says his former partner Katt Galloway coined the abbreviation during a recording session for a song they did back in ’03, and from then on, 20 decided to put it on everything he did: T-shirts, Web sites such as DMV Undaground, open mic nights. He also recorded a track called “DMV” back in ’05. “I never wanted nothing out of it—I did it because I loved the music, the whole scene. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t waste my time saying I did—I don’t get no royalty check every time somebody says ‘DMV’—I get no benefit.”

Both the Target Squad camp and 20Bello and crew have people to back up their claims; both also agree that while there are certain bragging rights that come with christening this area the “DMV,” the most important thing is that it has brought some unity to a formerly fragmented region and music scene.

“Now you can’t rep D.C. without repping V-A or MD,” says Rich. “This area will be like the bext ATL, the next MIA—we can go platinum in this area,” says Rich.

“The main reason I did it was because of unity,” says 20.  “Nobody was supporting nobody, people weren’t coming out to the open mics…D.C. wouldn’t support V-A, Baltimore wouldn’t support D.C.…we had to get it under one banner. Now, if you’re rappin’, you’re part of the DMV.”

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