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Rappers often talk about doing work “in the lab,” usually referring to going into the studio and cooking up rhymes or laying down tracks. When local MC Dwayne Henry, better known as Storm the Unpredictable, is in the lab, though, he is likely teaching students at his full-time job as a biology-laboratory coordinator at the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery College. Henry, 31, admits that it is sometimes hard to keep his two careers separate. “I tried to keep it on the low for as long as I possibly could, just to keep the two things from crossing,” he says, “but people know.”
Last fall, after he released his first video—for “Stop Lyin’,” a song that pokes fun at hiphop braggarts who pepper their rhymes with outrageous boasts—Henry discovered that not only do people know about his alter ego, but some of them are all too eager to out him. Even during class.
“I’m in the lab,” Henry says, “and one of the students interrupts class and says, ‘Excuse me, but don’t you have a video out? Are you a rapper named Storm?’” The class fell silent, waiting for a response to the question that the rest of them had been too scared to ask. “I say, ‘Ummm…
actually…yes, but back to the lesson: See, you take the inoculating loop and then….’”
Henry’s interest in science began when he was growing up in Oxon Hill, Md., in the late ’70s and watching Star Trek reruns on television. “It started out,” he says, “on a kiddie level, like, ‘I’m gonna build a robot! He’s gonna have this and that!’ Over the years, though, it just stuck with me.”
A few years later, an older cousin from New York introduced Henry to hiphop during summer vacations: “He would make pause tapes and play me records like the Cold Crush Brothers and tell me about the park jams. That’s when I became fascinated with the whole thing.”
Even after his cousin returned home for the school year, Henry continued to pursue his interest in hiphop by breakdancing and rhyming. He mostly kept his gifts to himself, but a breakthrough came during his senior year at Oxon Hill High, when he performed in a school talent show. “That was the moment when I thought, I kinda like this—I think I’ll keep doing it.”
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After high school, Henry left for upstate New York to study bioengineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he also recorded his first song, “How Do the Rhymes Flow?.” He soon gained college-radio airplay and, as a result, more offers to perform live. “I rode off of that song for five or six years!” he says. “I performed it on cable-access programs, talent shows, rap contests, anything!”
Henry graduated from RIT in 1992 and returned to D.C. to find a job. That same year, he also joined local improvisational-rhyme collective the Freestyle Union, which allowed MCs to sharpen their skills through weekly rhyme ciphers. It was through the Freestyle Union that Storm met MCs Priest da Nomad, Kokayi, and Sub-Z. The four of them, along with DJs D’Salaam and Symphoni, would later form the crew Plexus, a close-knit bunch of artists who collaborate on projects and support each other’s work.
“It was really inspiring,” Storm says of the Freestyle Union. “You had to make sure your stuff was on point. I got out of being a battle MC and really started constructing song styles. I had a song style before, but it was basically: I’m ripping you as an MC, then a hook, I’m ripping you as an MC, then the hook, I rip you one last time, there’s the hook, and then the song ends.”
Following post-collegiate jobs in both day care and cancer research, Henry decided to round out his studies in chemistry and biology with physics classes. He enrolled at Montgomery College in 1994 with the goal of earning an advanced degree. Like many graduate students, he decided to look for a job as a teaching assistant, but soon discovered that the college needed someone to run its biology lab.
“I pretty much walked in hoping to get one thing, and next thing you know, I’m sitting with the dean of the college talking about my resume!” Henry says. He took advantage of the opportunity and a few days later found himself in a full-fledged teaching position. “It was truly God. I never expected to be in academia,” he says, “but now that I’m here, I don’t know if I want to leave.
“[Biology] is a large part of me, so it comes out in my rhymes sometimes,” he continues, “but I don’t do it just for the sake of sounding complicated. If I use a scientific term, it’s relevant to what I’m talking about.”
But it’s not just his scientific bent that makes Storm something of an anomaly among today’s rap artists. “My style isn’t thuggish at all,” he says. “It’s enlightening and it offers something different. Children can listen to my music, but, at the same time, it doesn’t sound like children’s music. Parents don’t have to worry about me talking about sleeping with all of these different women or cursing all over the place.
“Even when [the music] is party-oriented, there is still some type of deeper meaning,” he continues. “I try to make it as much of a complete package as possible.” To that end, Storm delivered his debut EP, The Unexpected, last year. Released on Mullet Records, the disc features production by D’Salaam, Symphoni, and Kokayi, as well as slippery, double-meaning-filled rhymes that reflect Storm’s nongangsta philosophy: “You got the Oxon Hill Street Blues/
Show me those receipts, you ain’t really pay no dues/
Furthermore, you don’t be droppin’ jewels/You be droppin’ cubic zirconia to some overzealous fools,” he raps on “Up in You.”
Part of Storm’s motivation to make music that everyone can listen to is his family. “I have a son, Ty-riek, who is 4, and a godson, Jeremy, who is 10. Especially with Jeremy, he is starting to see and comprehend things in music and in videos, and he is starting to take things at face value,” he says. “I would continue to make music just to have something to give to them. I know I can’t shield their ears from everything, but I can give them balance.”
Storm has even turned down record deals that haven’t allowed him enough room for his own decision-making, fearing that he would be marketed in an unflattering way. Although he doesn’t name names, the list includes both independent and major labels. “I don’t say that I’ve turned down deals to brag,” he says, “but to let people know that you don’t have to take just anything that is thrown at you.
“I don’t ever want to be in a situation where a label approaches me and tells me that they like my style and want me to sign with them and then once I’m signed they say, ‘Well, you know, the market is changing, and we were hoping to get some posters of you standing in the slums of D.C., maybe holding a Glock or a Tek in your hand.’” Then, when I take a look at my contract, I see that I have no say in how I’m being marketed.”
In 1998, Storm established his own company, Ty-She Entertainment, named for Ty-riek and Storm’s wife, Sheila Henry, to have further control over his musical career. “I created Ty-She so that there is a structure behind me,” he says. “Instead of it just being ‘Oh, this is Storm and he raps,’ there is Ty-She Entertainment, and Storm is signed to Ty-She.” At this point, the primary business of Ty-She is handling Storm’s management, booking engagements, and project negotiations, although the rapper hopes to expand his company in the future. “It gives companies another formal company to deal with rather than just talking to an individual. Even though that’s essentially what they’re doing,” he says with a laugh.
In addition to balancing science, his own music, and his family, Storm hosts an artists’ showcase at 14th Street NW’s Metro Cafe on the last Thursday of every month. You might catch him giving a short performance or busting a freestyle every once in a while, but usually only if there’s some delay in the show. Mostly, Storm lets the night serve as a platform for others. “There aren’t a lot of venues out here for people to perform. I’m finding that for some people, this is their only outlet.”
Storm’s own most recent local performance was at the Low End Theory show at the Black Cat in January, during which D.C. hiphoppers re-created A Tribe Called Quest’s seminal album from start to finish. “That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a show,” he says. “I stepped on and did my thing, and then stepped off stage and enjoyed the rest of the show.”
The night also made Storm realize that the local audience is thirsty for authentic hiphop with a positive message. “I almost feel like we need an adult-contemporary category of hiphop,” he says. “There are a lot of people who grew up on Tribe and other, similar groups, and they still enjoy hiphop, just not the hiphop they’re hearing [on the radio] right now.
“I’m not saying I’m the saint or the savior of hiphop, but I don’t always agree with everything in hiphop,” he continues. “I just want to present a different viewpoint without sounding preachy, because it’s still entertainment.” —Sarah Godfrey