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Choppa Black wasn’t the best-known rapper in the DMV. But the artist, who was born Derek Damarcus Williams and died last week at the age of 30, was widely admired for his raw talent—his lyricism, freestyling ability, and uncompromising vision. He performed as a rapper for the bounce beat group Reaction Band on and off for more than a decade. He also pursued a separate career recording and performing as an independent rapper.
“As a rapper, he was one of the most lyrical guys around,” says Brant “Deuce 9” Akumu, a sound engineer for Backyard Band who first met Choppa Black while mixing for Reaction Band back in 2007. “His freestyles were amazing. He wasn’t just rapping, saying anything and putting words together, he was telling a story. His analogies were great, and he had a great vocabulary—he used SAT words.”
Others praise his versatility. “He could sing, he could rap, and he could write. That pretty much set him apart right there,” says Rare Essence rapper Calvin “Killa Cal” Henry.
“Wow, that talent right there, as a lyricist, he had a great mind,” says Reaction lead talker Rick Ross. “He was very intelligent and really tried to create a full dialogue about what goes on in the inner city, but he never got the full opportunity to reach his potential.”
Along with Reaction, Choppa Black had performed live with a number of go-go acts, including Backyard Band, Rare Essence, and the WHAT?! Band. His death—the cause of which is pending at this time, according to the D.C. chief medical examiner’s office—has come as a shock to many in the go-go community.
“This was a huge loss to the culture,” says WHAT?! bandleader Michelle Blackwell. “I really can’t even begin to describe just how talented he was. With the exception of Cal, I haven’t heard anyone who can match him lyrically and creatively. He was frustrated because he felt overlooked, passed by, and unsung, but those of us that worked with him know he was the best rapper in bounce beat and in the top five in go-go, period.”
Blackwell had long admired Choppa Black before inviting him to collaborate on her 2018 album, Body of Work. “He was the first face you saw on the visual for my album and the first voice you heard once the music began,” she says.
Choppa Black grew up in Southeast’s Valley Green housing project, where he was known to family and friends as Little D. His love of language was cultivated early. His mother, LaTosha Williams, remembers the homemade poetry books they used to make together when he was a child. “He was always writing,” she says. “He would write a poem and then sing it or rap it.” Later, she says, he always kept a pen and paper on hand so he could scribble down the words that came to his mind.
In the weeks before every Christmas, he would request keyboards or other musical instruments. For years, he regularly played piano on Sundays at Suitland’s Pilgrimage Christian Church.
Williams describes her son as a child who was “very intense, so smart he would get in trouble because the teachers wouldn’t give him enough.” She says he eventually got his diploma while incarcerated, and converted to Islam.
Choppa Black’s frequently difficult life became the subject of his art. “His lyrics were lived,” says Reaction vocalist Binta Campbell. “He lived the things that he freestyled about. He had a song about being homeless, and he was actually homeless at one point. He didn’t just make it up.” The authenticity was part of what made his work so compelling. He was a verbal genius and could rap about any topic on demand, she says.
At times he was opinionated, voicing strongly felt views that others did not always welcome. As the #DontMuteDC movement gained traction in recent months, he raised uncomfortable questions, rapping in a video posted online:
“Now if you know Big Chop, you know I’m all for the kids.If you love Big Chop, you’ll let ‘em all live.I’m all for the Moechellas, the Long Live Go-Gos, and the DontMutes, but first things first, go vote, don’t rape, and don’t shoot.I don’t understand how we can go out here and fight for the bands and fight for the music,but we was given a life and within those rights we abuse it.Because I know a 9-year-old, a 10-year-old, and a 15-year-old that won’t see the next age,but I know a city that those same kids died that’ll fight so the bands can see the next stage.”
While some in the go-go community suggest that there is no point conflating complex problems, others insist that he was making a crucial point. “When it comes to go-go, we’re up in arms and marching and protesting, but we’re not doing that for other issues,” says Deuce 9. “He was trying to get people to wake up and see that.”
Another passion of Black’s was cooking, a skill he learned from his mother, a professional chef. He posted cooking videos on social media, dubbed “Big Chop In Your Kitchen.”
But as a man who had been riddled with bullets and survived to return to his family, he treasured children above all, his own three kids as well as so many others in his community. The video for his song “No More Hurtin” featured him cradling his infant son. He later coached his son Ali Marvell Gordon’s football team, and friends say that experience was transformative. He came to regard every child on that team as someone he needed to look out for. “His music went from gangsta rap to stop the violence and save our children,” says Williams. “He was getting tired of violence, tired of watching everybody he loved getting killed. He used to say that all it takes is one voice, one person.”
On Father’s Day weekend, Choppa Black performed with Backyard Band at the Marvin Gaye Recreation Center in Northeast. Since the news of his death, a video clip from that performance has circulated on social media.
“He went on stage that day with his heart on his sleeve, combining the slogans of #DontMuteDC with #DontShootDC in a song he did with Backyard on that video,” says longtime TCB timbale and conga player Tony T. “The energy that he had, and the way that the crowd responded to him, he could have gone on forever.”