City Paper is not for tourists
Real rappers don’t smile, man. How are lyrical foes supposed to know that you mean business if you’re chewing them up and spitting them out—or out-spitting them, as it were—with a big, shit-eating grin on your face?
Still, Christopher Lieb, better known as Beltsville, Md.’s, lyricist Whyte Out, just can’t seem to keep his lips pulled over his teeth.
Whyte Out, 21, has the sly smirk of someone who thinks he knows something the rest of us don’t. In this case, the secret knowledge is his belief that he is D.C. hiphop’s great white hope—soon to become the first rapper from the metropolitan area to really blow big. His giddiness is understandable, but as he poses for promotional pictures at a January photo shoot, his manager, Gary Steele, a CEO and chair of Guerrilla Muzik, fears that Whyte Out’s goofy grin is getting in the way of his success.
“You’re a rapper—don’t be smiling too much,” Steele instructs his charge, who is trying his damnedest to mug for the camera as Erykah Badu plays in the background.
Whyte Out was snapped up by the team at Guerrilla after appearing on “Freestyle Friday,” a weekly battle-rap session that is a regular segment on BET’s 106 & Park music-video show. He triumphed for seven straight weeks before being retired as a champion, at which point Steele & Co. decided that they might be able to capitalize on his hot streak. The photo shoot—Whyte Out’s third—is the group’s latest attempt to make its artist stand out to record execs weary of rifling through stacks of press kits from wannabe lyricists.
Whyte Out’s professional entourage, which today includes Steele, Guerrilla President Ruth Francis, and Vice President of Marketing and Promotions Sandi Dilts, takes caring for its protégé# very seriously. The Guerrilla people, none of whom are much older than their artist, arrange for studio time, drive Whyte Out around to various engagements, and otherwise coddle and comfort their golden boy. All truly believe that he’s the real thing—and that their investment will eventually pay off.
“Our main objective is getting him a deal—the talent is there, there’s no question—and wait until they see his personality,” says Steele. “He’s TRL-ready…”
“No shiny suits, though,” Whyte Out reminds him.
The Guerrilla team is unfazed by the fact that hiphop artists from the Washington area seem to be plagued by a curse: Despite possessing all of the qualities that should make for a minor hiphop mecca—it’s a significant urban center, a huge black-radio market, and a major college town—D.C. can’t seem to get in the game. No Washington hiphopper has yet been able to sustain a commercial recording career.
“Other artists in D.C.—people do achieve success, but it’s short-lived, one-hit,” says Francis. “They can’t establish a career. It’s different with Whyte Out. He’s consistent. He can kick the door open for a new movement.”
Whyte Out has already started a movement of sorts—well, inside Beltsville, at least. Since his televised wins, he’s been challenged on local radio stations, picked up his home phone to hear people rapping on the other end, and had some hungry guys even step up to him at the mall.
“People get at me off of the strength of who I am,” he says. “I mean, you know I’m-a serve you, but do I have to serve you all the time? It’s like, ‘I’m buying Christmas presents right now.’”
To hold on to and build off of his status as a hometown hero, Whyte Out has to keep doing bigger things, keep moving forward. But the pictures that he has just posed for don’t seem likely to help him do so. The Guerrillas quickly regroup. After consulting with the photographer, they decide to do another set, all shot from above with dim lighting to provide some shadows. There will be a pose with Whyte Out’s arms outstretched, one with his hands clasped in prayer, and, finally, a growling portrait with his fingers curled into claws.
After the photographer climbs a rickety metal ladder, Whyte Out assumes the first position.
“No smiling, man!” Steele reminds him before the first shot.
The vast majority of Washington-area hiphoppers are more likely to twist their lips to the side in disgruntled defeat than flash their pearly whites—largely because most rappers who have spent any significant amount of time on the scene know that, even if the caliber of music they make is high, the chance of capitalizing on their talent is low.
There have been some glimmers of hope over the past 30 years or so: A few artists have been able to make waves for the duration of one hot single, and some local underground rappers have had great success overseas. But the D.C. hiphop scene still seems a long, long way from New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, or even Baltimore.
Skill isn’t the problem. D.C. maintains a healthy stable of talented rappers who cut across all of the music’s subgenres: We have spoken-word- and R&B-influenced acts, politically conscious acts, and a diverse bunch of thugged-out street rappers. To add insult to injury, Washington has had breakout stars in nearly every other type of music. We’ve given birth to R&B superstars from Marvin Gaye to Mya, jazz wonders from Duke Ellington to Buck Hill, rockers such as Joan Jett and Good Charlotte, country folks such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Emmylou Harris, and punk legends including Bad Brains and Fugazi.
It’s not as if Washingtonians are incapable of creating great music—or that A&R people from big New York–based labels have never set foot in town.
James Eichelberger, an A&R rep for the Universal Motown Records Group who has worked with a variety of national hiphop artists, says that D.C. isn’t ignored by major labels. The problem, he suggests, is that D.C. just isn’t creating much buzz. “D.C. hasn’t had any hits come out in so long. But we don’t stop looking in D.C.—we just haven’t heard anything yet,” he says.
But local rappers argue that the labels aren’t listening hard enough. And they cite many, many other factors. Everyone has a different idea about why D.C. hiphop hasn’t gone national—opinions as varied as the music that those who spout them create.
Brightwood native Vance Levy, who MCs under the name Head-Roc, says that the question is a constant topic of discussion among local hiphop heads. “Everybody says the same thing,” he says. “‘Why hasn’t it happened?’”
Head-Roc, 32, is considered by many of his peers to be the elder statesman of local hiphop. He has been in two of the city’s most influential groups, 3LG and Infinite Loop, and is preparing to release his first solo LP, The Return of Black Broadway. In addition to performing regularly with musical partners DJ Eurok and Noyeek the Grizzly Bear, Head-Roc co-hosts Capitol Resistance, an Internet broadcast on England’s Totally Radio Network designed to give D.C. hiphop worldwide exposure.
Having spent more than a decade in the game, Head-Roc knows the disadvantages of being from Washington.
“I’ve done shows out of town and I never announce where I’m from,” he says. “With Infinite Loop, we never did that. We hit the stage and punish that ass, and then when the people say, ‘Where y’all from?’ we say, ‘D.C.’ And they say, ‘D.C. got skills like that?’”
To Head-Roc, Eurok, and Capitol Resistance co-host Alien 29, Washington’s lack of hiphop recognition is a head-scratcher. After all, other cities have been able to overcome the most commonly cited factors for failure: lack of radio support, few local venues for live shows, and scant coverage in the local press.
“Outside of New York and L.A., you can explain how every city did it,” says Eurok. “Philly did it with Will Smith money and Roots money. In Oakland, Too $hort and QBert bankrolled it. In Minneapolis, you have Rhymesayers and Atmosphere. Atlanta has OutKast. Miami has Luke….Every scene has someone, but no cats in D.C. have bankrolled an underground renaissance.”
Alien 29 chalks up the conundrum to D.C.’s “geopolitical” location. “We’re located not too far from New York and not too far from the South,” he says. “We are set aside, put in a class of our own—we’re not what the industry is looking for. Most of us move out after a time. We get impatient and think that the grass is greener, so we leave the community.”
“It’s a classic thing,” agrees Head-Roc. “The native area residents build the scene up. Then D.C. transplants come into town. Those cats link up and hook into the indigenous folks, and they come with a business sense. They get going, get propelled, get past the entry level, then start looking outside for talent. Then they forget about the people…”
“That helped make them who they are,” finishes Eurok.
“D.C. is up for the picking,” says Alien 29. “Anyone can come in and pinpoint an artist, pluck them, sterilize them, and say, ‘I got a one-hit wonder from Washington.’”
“And the one-hit wonders don’t count,” Head-Roc says.
Back in the day, rap was some bama-ass shit. When hiphop appeared in its earliest recorded form, in the late ’70s, D.C. residents couldn’t get with the bright leather suits, dooky gold, and thick Northern accents that seemed intrinsic to the genre. In large part, the music was dismissed as just another export from the Big, bamafied Apple.
“We got into [rap] when it looked right,” says 33-year-old Iran “DJ Iran” Waller, music director for local urban-radio station WKYS-FM. “The New York look, even now, we see it as slightly bamafied. Your average D.C. person wears athletic wear—gray, black. To see a red leather jacket, that’s bamafied.”
Of course, Washingtonians had a lot of nerve calling anyone bamafied back then. As New Yorkers were creating music history, we were utterly infatuated with one of the tackiest musical movements of all time.
“Washington was strictly a funk town,” remembers James Graham, a D.C. native with 25 years of DJ experience and a co-owner of DJ Hut, formerly 12 Inch Dance Records.
Graham says that when DJs such as himself, Kenny Hollywood, Ron Hunt, and DJ Kool started playing hiphop at their club gigs in the late ’70s, crowds felt the beat, despite being obsessed with Mandrill and Parliament-Funkadelic.
But people weren’t into it as much as the music that would eventually become D.C.’s defining beat: go-go. “I think there were a lot of people into it,” Graham says of hiphop, “but it was spread out because the go-go scene was so powerful. [Go-go entrepreneur] Max Kidd and them owned Washington. I would spin at the Ibex, places like that—it could be a chore….people were feeling it, but not like when they dropped the latest Trouble [Funk].”
Still, a small, active core of D.C. hiphop heads emerged. D.C. had breakers, graff artists, parties in the Lansburgh Building, and kids with Radio Raheem boxes walking through Georgetown blasting Red Alert mixes. Hiphop vinyl was available at downtown stores such as Douglas and the Wiz, and record pools such as Tables of Distinction made the latest hiphop releases available to their members.
But early in the game, there weren’t really any local rappers to support. The rappers of D.C. were go-go talkers, and they got plenty of love from Washingtonians. The choice, in those days, was between the homegrown sound or outsiders’ music, and many Washingtonians made the logical choice.
“There are only so many good, talented folks in this town—in any town,” says Jay Rosenthal, an entertainment lawyer with Washington-based firm Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe. “And the guys who were talented enough went into go-go because, on a local level, they could make more money. We might have had one of the strongest hiphop scenes outside of New York and L.A. were it not for go-go.”
But saying that go-go’s local success extinguished the city’s interest in hiphop might be giving the local sound too much credit—or blame. Charles Stephenson Jr., the original manager of Experience Unlimited, the group behind “Da Butt,” go-go’s biggest mainstream hit to date, says that there wasn’t really any bad blood between the two genres.
“There has never been a feud between hiphop and go-go; they just developed on separate tracks—but from a lot of the same social elements,” he says. Stephenson believes that rather than holding each other back, both types of music have suffered from the recording industry’s misconception that D.C. is strictly a “government town.”
In fact, in the late ’80s, go-go actually helped propel a small handful of rappers into the limelight. Although every go-go band has its own talker, artists such as Stinky Dink and D.C. Scorpio were able to ally themselves with bands and then launch solo careers as go-go/hiphop fusion rappers. Most successful among them was mobile-DJ-turned-rapper DJ Kool, who gained national recognition with “Let Me Clear My Throat” and “20 Minute Workout” and has toured the globe with Redman.
I’ve always been a ’tweener,” Kool says. “I’ve always been in between hiphop and go-go, old school and new school. I’m always in between, which is fine with me.”
But even though Kool was able to achieve some level of success as a rapper, winning awards and hitting the Billboard charts and rocking clubs coast to coast, he—and artists like him—was a victim of go-go’s failed attempt to go national in the late ’80s.
In the wake of attention-grabbing efforts ranging from the 1985 compilation on Kidd’s TTED label, Go-Go Crankin’, to that disastrously inaccurate cinematic portrait of go-go 1986’s Good to Go, D.C. became synonymous with its native sound—a perception that persists today. And because go-go didn’t go mainstream, Washingtonians were typecast as being able to create only that “pots and pans” music that no one outside of the District cared about.
“I’ve been approached by major artists to do things with them, but the projects never came about,” Kool says. “Not because they didn’t want to, but because they didn’t know what to do with me.”
In the ’90s, spurred by what is widely regarded as a golden era of hiphop and a growing national interest in the music, D.C. finally caught up with the culture. With classic music from artists such as Public Enemy, De La Soul, and Dr. Dre being pumped into homes via The Box and Yo! MTV Raps, Washington got the hiphop bug for real.
With a wide variety of groups making music, there was something for everyone. City kids could relate to the West Coast and Southern artists who favored the same two-color clothing palette and slow-tempo tracks that they did. And suburbanites who had stuck with rap all along could finally come out the closet and profess their love.
As a result, D.C.’s production machine roared. There was the formation of the Freestyle Union, a hiphop collective in which many local lyricists honed their skill. There were radio shows such as The Underground Sound on WPFW-FM and The Soul Controllers Mixshow on WUMD-FM, and even a 24-hour all-hiphop station, FLAVA 1580-AM, a sister station to urban behemoth WPGC-FM. The infamous Soul Camp hiphop parties took over the downtown gay bar Hung Jury once a week, and a thriving U Street hiphop scene was supported by clubs such as State of the Union and Bar Nun.
It seemed as if Washington hiphop might be coming into its own. The New York– and Los Angeles–centric music industry still thought we were making mostly go-go, but it couldn’t ignore what was going on in the city entirely. The era brought three breakout acts we could point to when asked if there were any high-profilers out of D.C. making hiphop music.
There was RCA artist Questionmark Asylum, a jazzy hiphop quartet along the lines of the Pharcyde whose members danced and wore underwear on their heads in the video for the 1995 hit “Hey Lookaway.” There was Nonchalant, who shot the video for her MCA-backed hit, “5 O’Clock,” beside the infamous Georgia Avenue McDonald’s. And finally, there was Section 8 Mob: After a string of independent projects, MCs Po, Montana, and Midnight, through a deal between distributor Dark City Records and major label Tommy Boy, released Guilty by Association in 1999.
But since famously rising out of the Benning Road Metro station like ghetto superstars in the video for its first single, the group has largely toiled in obscurity. Questionmark and Nonchalant each slowly faded away after one hit, too.
Locals inside of the scene speculate that the commercial failure of these projects resulted from inappropriate marketing and promotion, unsupportive audiences, and the quality of the music. But whatever the reasons behind their failures, in the end these artists made things even harder for local rappers. By flaming out, they solidified the industry perception that there was no good hiphop coming out of Washington. In terms of black music, Washington had go-go, which was seen as unmarketable to a national audience, and R&B. For some reason, D.C. has never had a problem breaking soul artists into the stratosphere.
“That’s because in R&B, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” says Danny “Wise” Zacharias, a member of the Burke, Va., hiphop group Team Demolition. “Hiphop has always been about where you’re from—where you’re from determines how successful you can be.”
Unfortunately, where we’re from—and where we’re at—is Divided City. With more than 100 neighborhoods, four quadrants, and two states and one non- all nestled together, artists are dismissed simply because they’re not from the right part of the metropolitan area. “You’re only allowed to shout out your block if it’s ghetto,” says DJ Iran. “If you shout out Potomac, it will cause more problems than good.
“We’re divided,” he continues. “D.C. doesn’t like [people from] Maryland—they’re ‘Maryland bamas.’ We’re too small to do that.”
And when it comes to generating the level of buzz that attracts the major labels, that kind of provincialism doesn’t help. “The street is the street,” says Universal’s Eichelberger, “no matter where you’re from.”
At the close of the ’90s, it seemed that the stain on D.C. hiphop had fully set. And to compound local woes, the infrastructure of radio, a key factor in launching the career of any hiphop artist, was changing dramatically. The community shows that had supported local artists largely dried up, and commercial radio was morphing into a corporation-driven entity. The days of sitting in a station’s office hoping to slip your demo into the right hands were over.
In terms of current commercial radio, there is only one dedicated outlet that gives local hiphop records spin: Home Jams, the Sunday-night WPGC program that is the baby of on-air personality DJ Flexx. That gives the Washington area precisely one half hour of homegrown music on commercial radio per week.
“A small number of corporations own the stations, and they dictate what is played from city to city,” says Soul Controller Eddie “Bush Head Ed” Smith, whose long-running show has moved off the regular airwaves and onto the subscription-only XM Radio. “And in Washington especially, they’re watching the programming carefully, because it’s the center of politics and government.”
Those inside of the commercial-radio industry say that another part of the problem is that D.C. has a glut of competing stations vying for its urban-radio listenership. To maintain market share, they have to play to a young, largely female demographic heavily into mainstream R&B.
“D.C. has a plethora of stations—including Baltimore, and, if you go far enough, you might hear Delaware,” says DJ Iran. “So you have a situation where I’m playing this unknown record, and my competition is playing this hit record.”
Rhome Anderson, better known as DJ Stylus of the Poemcees and the Soul Controllers, says that commercial radio is largely a lost cause when it comes to giving local artists exposure. “People complain, ‘PGC doesn’t play my record!’ They get myopic, but they have to realize: Radio is no longer about music.”
For some artists, the answer has been to take their record promotions on the road. In an attempt to bypass Washington’s complicated radio politics, Lorenzo Lawson, who raps under the moniker ELO, and his producer, Paul “Tiny” Dowe Jr., of the Waldorf, Md.–based label Iron Beatz, decided to push their latest project in North Carolina. In Tiny’s home state, they reasoned, they could count on not only the support of friends and family, but also on a commercial-radio market more accessible than D.C.’s.
“We can make money there and bring it back here,” says ELO. “Like my mother told me—even Jesus had to go and come back.”
The two men have made up regional promotional materials, including glossy cards asking North Carolinians to call up local stations to request “Rhyme Spitters,” the first single off ELO’s new album, Back From Nowhere. The cards come complete with the names and numbers of every station from Raleigh/Durham to Wilmington that might consider playing the song. The album is available in some stores in the District, but they’re not getting their hopes up.
“Our key is going to be Maryland and Virginia,” says ELO. “I’m-a do D.C. because I’m here, but I’m not going to expect a whole lot from it.”
Although it seems nearly impossible for local hiphop artists to get in a local commercial radio station’s regular rotation, DJ Iran says that it can be done. It just takes a lot more legwork than in the past.
“The best thing you can come to the station and say to me is, ‘You’re late. The DJs are playing it, it’s killing the clubs—I don’t even have to talk about my record,’” he says. “Because radio doesn’t have the luxury of pushing new acts.”
Another reason local radio won’t play local hiphop is that area audiences show little support for it. Whereas D.C. heads will pay top dollar to see an out-of-town act that has been deemed worthy by the rest of the world, they can’t even plunk down $5 to see one of their own perform.
Dark Alley, a 7-year-old group out of Brightwood, gets a positive response from those who have seen it perform live and have listened to its albums, but members B.A., Raza, and Gizz say that often people in D.C. will stand behind a national act before a local one. “It’s like if somebody’s having a cookout two blocks down, and your father is having a cookout, and you wanna go down the street,” says Gizz. “It’s about support.”
“No matter what you’re doing, it’s still looked upon as local because you’re from here,” agrees Oxon Hill, Md., MC Storm the Unpredictable. “But the moment you form an alliance or get signed to a label—and it doesn’t have to be a major label—people consider you established. It’s like people are saying, ‘OK, you really are as dope as I thought.’ Their thoughts aren’t validated until someone else says you’re good enough.”
But the largest obstacle to generating local support in Washington is that everyone wants to be the phenom who can claim to be the area’s first big breakout star. And not only does everyone want to be the first one—everyone wants to be the only one.
“Everyone wants to drive the bus,” says Cha Ross-Estes, producer of the all-female mix-tape series She Flipped It and president of D.C.-based Why? Entertainment. “Everyone thinks that they’re that person. And what happens is, they end up still stuck on the Internet—and mad at everyone else because things don’t pop off for them.”
Other cities, including the almighty New York and L.A., are also filled with hungry hiphoppers who will back-stab, backbite, and bad-mouth anyone who gets in the way of their success. But in other towns, it seems, egos often shrink when it’s time to make money.
“I seriously doubt—no, I know—I know that all those muthafuckas in New York don’t get along,” says local singer and lyricist W. Ellington Felton. “I know all of the muthafuckas in Philly don’t get along. But at the end of the day, they can suck it up and do work. I always tell people, ‘It’s called show business—not show friends.’”
Many D.C. heads have learned from that example. The members of Team Demolition, because they work out of Wise’s well-known Depth Charge Recordings studio, see much of the city’s talent. And they say that they no longer care if they’re the ones to break the metropolitan area open—they just want to see someone do it.
“We understand that people are hesitant to give Team Demolition a deal,” explains Wise. “We sound different. We have an aggressive sound, and the majority of music is catered to women. Ours isn’t.”
Right now, the Team has its eyes focused on Southpaw, a Southeast native whose song “Bama Niggas” breaks down the likes and dislikes that separate D.C. dudes from everyone else.
“If I could cultivate someone, it would be Southpaw,” says Team Demolition member DJ Dialtone. “He’s straight Southeast….If ‘Bama Niggas’ could come with a video, D.C. would lose its mind. He could come with the New Balances and the thick socks…#”
“We recorded it here,” says Wise. “And when it was going down, I was like, ‘This is it—this is the hit.’”
At the Jan. 3 Rap Attack hiphop showcase at the Black Cat, lyricist Cy Young asked the crowd to tell him “How many ladies are in here?” One fan, unimpressed with the small Saturday-night turnout, shouted back “Two!”
The audience at the show, which featured locals Young, O.U.O, Sketch, Storm the Unpredictable, and Opus Akoben, wasn’t large enough to fill the canyonlike second level of the 14th Street nightclub even halfway, but attendance wasn’t as bad as it could have been for a local show bookended by a Friday-night performance by the Roots at the 9:30 Club and a Sunday-night appearance by J-Live at Ben N Mos. A few folks in the crowd even mouthed the words as Young launched into his latest joint.
Still, drawing such a small audience was unusual for the most well-known acts that performed—especially in the case of lyricists Kokayi and Sub-Z, who, with their group Opus Akoben, have rhymed in front of thousands in France, Italy, and Belgium.
Producer, lyricist, and vocalist Carl “Kokayi” Walker has seen posters for his group paper the Paris Metro. Back home, however, his group enjoys a lower level of notoriety. Plucked from Freestyle Union by jazz musician Steve Coleman in the mid ’90s, Opus toured the world as part of Coleman’s Metrics project and then went on to enjoy its own success—first with a deal with BMG France, and now through work with the French jazz record company Label Bleu, under its Indigo division.
“Our first tour as Opus, it was a double bill, Steve and us,” Kokayi recalls. “There were 1,000 people, and they knew the words to our songs—it was crazy, it was nuts. Then you come back here and you get 30 people.”
This phenomenon has forced artists like Kokayi to re-evaluate their ideas about what it means to be successful. Even though rocking your hometown is every musician’s dream, there is emotionally and financially fulfilling work outside of being a local hero. Such notable producers out of D.C. as Chucky Thompson, Rich Harrison (responsible for Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” track), and Roc-A-Fella engineer Young Guru have enjoyed success behind the scenes, and recording artists have found ways to supplement their incomes, as well.
“I’ve been to 13 countries; I’ve taught at Stanford. All of us lecture,” says Kokayi. “For us, it’s about how can we work this talent and do something to pay all of the bills. Do I have to put the weight of the city on my back to do it? Nah, I change one mind at a time.
“My idea of success is not the spinners, the big car—it never was,” he continues. “Even if I never did another piece of music, if my dream is deferred for later, I can’t be mad. I traveled farther than my parents did.”
Whereas Kokayi still plays in local clubs, Gabriel Benn, better known as Asheru, an MC with the D.C. hiphop group Unspoken Heard, says that he is no longer willing to do shows for “$20 handshakes” in front of microscopic audiences.
“One song I did had lyrics about how D.C. has let me down, but I took it out. I said, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ But the sentiment is still there, though,” says Asheru, 29.
Asheru, along with rhyme partner Blue Black and a handful of instrumentalists, has released music on Brooklyn’s 7 Heads label since 1996 and is currently working on a solo effort. He has worked with the likes of J-Live and Talib Kweli, but is able to live as an incognito husband, father, and teacher in D.C.
At a November 2003 show at Ben N Mos, Asheru was surprised to see the enormous local turnout for a bill featuring Bahamadia, producer 9th Wonder, and Little Brother: “I was like, ‘Where are all of them at when I do a show?’” And after being treated like royalty abroad, he says it’s particularly painful to be treated as an unknown back in Washington.
“I did a show in Paris….It was a show on a boat. I did the sound check and went back to the hotel to cool down. I came back and there were 400 people in the parking lot of the boat,” he remembers. “The show started at 9—this is 7. We’re getting out of the car and dudes are like, ‘Asheru!’ and I’ve never been here before—it’s amazing.
“But why can’t I do this at home?” Asheru asks. “I can’t get my head around it.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.