Arts Desk

X.O. Talks Monumental II, Becoming a Brand

The last time we heard an X.O. solo recording—the celebratory One.One.Ten, released on Jan. 1 of last year—the Northwest D.C. native seemed comfortable with his place among the region's hip-hop elite.

One year later, X.O. sounds restless on Monumental II, a 17-track mixtape of familiar soul samples, reflective anecdotes, and aggressive lyricism released todayMonumental II is the follow-up to his acclaimed Monumental mixtape from 2009. We review Monumental II in this week's paper. In addition, I spoke with X.O. about the new project, his push for more collaboration among local MCs, and the restructuring of the once-formidable Studio 43 record label, which once had Wale on its roster.

Washington City Paper: I've been following your music for some time now, and on this release, you sound very edgy and determined. Is there any reason why you had a different tone on this one?

X.O.: The difference in tone on this one, I would have to say it's the anxiousness to take things to the next level, as far as my skill, overall music career, overall sound and energy.

WCP: It's been two years since the release of the first Monumental mixtape, so describe in detail some of the personal and professional challenges you've endured since then.

X.O.: I'm just trying to stay focused on this plan. Sometimes, we have a plan or we want something so bad, we get anxious and that anxiousness turns into impatience, and that impatience turns into frustration. It's all a cycle, so that frustration goes back into the music. With Monumental II, I actually recorded over 70 records. In the last month, a lot of things were going on. I had a lot of things I was going through, but I finally got it together. I learned that I have to keep going and not get distracted by things, and keep people around me that are like-minded. Through certain trials and tribulations, I slowly solved a lot of problems.

I've long wanted to put out Monumental II, but I had to work out some things. I'm not with Studio 43 anymore. It was no beef with those guys. In my natural spirit, I started asking myself a lot of questions and that's when the answers came. I don't wanna be just an artist; I wanna be an entrepreneur. That's really my true passion, and if you look at KRS-ONE and Boogie Down Productions, Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records, these are artists with the mindset of businessmen. Artists with more control end up being innovative.

WCP: From what I'm hearing, you don't just want to be an MC, you want to be your own brand.

X.O.: Exactly, so I had to detach myself from certain things to make myself stronger. And with this Secret Society movement I created, it's mainly people in my clique. It's a movement. It's the people who know that we are some of the best and some of the nicest MCs, and we are getting overshadowed. We're not getting acknowledged because of politics, ya know? AB the Producer, his beats? Hearing the production on [Monumental II], it's some of the best from this area, hands down. Period.

WCP: Anybody else in the Secret Society?

X.O.: Yeah—Benji, Gordo Brega, Tony NightD.O.E. C.I.G.A.P.O.M, Tragic, and my extended friends like Phil Da Future and Fat Trel. They don't even know about the Secret Society, but that's the movement I'm starting. I consider them to be a part of it because we're nice and we're not getting acknowledged. We're not in the forefront yet. It's like the most known unknown. People know that we're not right in front of people's faces with it. The Secret Society is really like an analogy. We're making silent moves. When you look at the real Secret Society—like Illuminati and all that—they move the same way. We're gonna unite. That's what I want to do with all the hot D.C. artists. You already know it's strength in numbers. We've got to come together.

WCP: When you mention people like AB The Pro and Gordo Brega, did you pick people for Secret Society who used to be on Studio 43? Are they still on the label?

X.O.: Studio 43 is not a label anymore, it's like a marketing company or something like that. I don't think they had what it takes to give the artists what they needed. It was definitely a great stepping stone. But as far as going further than that, with certain people who were involved with it, it couldn't go to the next level. So I had to put on this entrepreneurial hat, which I already had on doing the [Club] Pure open mics.

WCP: What are the differences between X.O., the solo rapper, and X.O., one-third of the Diamond District?

X.O.: Not too much of a difference. I'm my own entity. That's like, for instance, me being a good basketball player on the level of Lebron [James] or Mike Beasley. I used to watch Mike Beasley at Barry Farms. He already had a reputation for playing basketball here or there on his own, but when he got on a team, he just played his part. Same thing with me. I went around the city and had my own thing going. When I'm with [Oddisee and yU], I just play my part. On the next joint, it's gonna be a whole new sound because my mind is in a different place when I'm laying those tracks. I know that when I make music with them, it's a totally different sound and demographic. I may talk about different things because I know a different type of person will be listening. When I'm alone, I get to go into that mode, but I get to do a lot of other things that Oddisee and yU would never do. I do that on purpose. When I put out stuff by myself, I want to keep that separate sound, so you'll know what I bring to the table when I come to that group.

WCP: Growing up, what were some of your musical influences?

X.O.: My mother and father were my first musical influences. My father used to play with Gil Scott-Heron. I never grew up around him; we weren't close until later in life. But, just hearing the story and knowing why I like certain things, or why I'm attracted to certain things, is because my family had me around that. My mother is also a musician. I didn't get into rap until elementary school. Coming up in the late '80s and early '90s, we mainly listened to R&B. My folks used to listen to Earth, Wind & Fire. Then when rap came along, L.L. [Cool J] was one of the first dudes I was rocking with. After that, it was Biggie Smalls. Then it was over from there [laughs]. After that, it was DMX and Jay-Z, when I started getting into the streets and was able to relate to the things that he was talking about. I heard the Jay records, but I wasn't hustling in 1996. He brought a lot of lyricism to the table. It was that 'hit home' feeling that I got from him. But I listen to all music, not just rap.

WCP: I compared Monumental to Monumental II, and it seems like you were really honest about the things you used to do. Was that done on purpose?

X.O.: When I was younger, and my mother was struggling, I would pay bills in my house. At 16, 17, 18, I was helping my mother pay bills. It came to a point where we discussed what I was doing in the street, and she OK'd it. She was like, "We gotta do what we gotta do!" It wasn't always like that, only when our backs were against the wall. She ended up kicking me out for selling drugs.

WCP:  So what are your plans for Monumental II? Where do you want it to go?

X.O.: I want Monumental II to set a new tone for me, what I have to bring to the table, and our Secret Society movement. This is the first installment of consistency and great music representing this area. I want it to be heard all around the world.

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