City Paper is not for tourists
Ten years ago this month, a young rapper by the name of Wale released a mixtape that, at the time, was something of an oddity for D.C.’s nascent rap scene. Themed mixtapes were basically unheard of at the time, especially one based on the hit TV show Seinfeld, which wasn’t remotely connected to hip-hop culture. But The Mixtape About Nothing was not only a defining moment in the rapper’s ascent, it also forcefully shed a spotlight on D.C.’s hip-hop scene, which had long stood in the shadows of other established rap metropolises.
Of course, there had been a handful of D.C. rappers that achieved mainstream success—like DJ Kool, who crafted the 1996 hit “Let Me Clear My Throat,” and Nonchalant who released “5 o’clock” that same year—but hip-hop in the District had always taken a back seat to the city’s native go-go scene.
By the early 2000s, the south had a stronghold on hip-hop in the same way that New York and the West Coast had on it in the ’90s. It was during this time that Wale began to build up his name in his native city of D.C.—and beyond. Two of his songs—“Rhyme of the Century” and “Dig Dug (Shake It)”—gleaned spins on local radio.
Over the course of two years, he released three mixtapes—2005’s Paint a Picture, 2006’s Hate is the New Love, and 2007’s 100 Miles and Running. His hustle soon caught the attention of U.K. super producer Mark Ronson, who inked him a production deal on his label Allido Records.
Walker “Tre” Johnson, Wale’s longtime friend, frequent collaborator, and founder and former front man of the go-go band UCB, was an early believer in the rapper’s genius.
Johnson and the rest of UCB met Wale through Kenny Burns, a former executive of Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records who was also from D.C. In the early aughts, UCB was being courted by Roc-A-Fella, but after Tre was shot during a show in 2003, the label’s interest fizzled.
“UCB was at a down point,” Johnson recalls. “We were under investigation and none of the venues wanted to touch us … they thought that we were bad for business. Also, a lot of the clubs were closing down at that time in the go-go community because of the violence, so they definitely did not want to mess with us.”
As an attempt to switch gears, Johnson wrote the song “Sexy Lady” in order to appeal to new audiences. The song turned out to be a hit in 2005 and shortly thereafter, Burns called Johnson to see if the band was interested in working with Wale, who he had recently signed to his local imprint, Studio 43.
“When I heard his music, I was like, ‘He’s not talking about no gangsta shit, he’s talking about tennis shoes and college,’” Johnson recalls. “[I thought] this was a great way for us to rebrand ourselves and get out this hole because nobody wanted to touch us.”
Soon after that, Johnson and UCB backed Wale and toured with him across the country. The singer still tours with him today.
For The Mixtape About Nothing, Wale took hip-hop into unchartered territories: a themed mixtape built around Seinfeld, a show that was perhaps the furthest thing from hip-hop culture. On top of that, just two years prior, Michael Richards, who played Kramer on the show, had a racist tirade at one of his stand-ups gigs go viral, in which he continuously called an attendee the n-word, which further widened the gap between Seinfeld and hip-hop.
It was a shot in the dark, but Wale took a gamble. The rapper, an avid Seinfeld fan, told Entertainment Weekly in 2008 that he had seen every episode of the nine-season series “like 30 times.” Jerry Seinfeld told Rolling Stone in 2015 that the MC had approached him with the idea to do a mixtape at one of his shows.
“It just felt so offbeat and that’s what appeals to me,” Seinfeld said.
The mixtape, which prominently features audio clips of the show scattered throughout, was released in collaboration with streetwear brand 10.Deep Clothing. It also features a brief skit by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine on the show.
Wale kicked the project off with “The Opening Title Sequence,” which sampled the Seinfeld theme. Using witty wordplay that he had showcased in earlier projects, the rapper addressed his grievances and opinions about a laundry list of topics including the rap game, current events, black culture, and the District.
He scooped up A-list collaborations throughout the mixtape, to further his bonafides. “The Roots Song Wale is On” features the aforementioned Philadelphia hip-hop collective and singer Chrisette Michele. “The Feature Heavy Song” cleverly flips Jay-Z’s vocals from the title track of his 2007 American Gangster album and features vocals from Johnson on the hook, and guest verses from Bun B and Pusha T.
Wale even addresses Richards’ rant and hidden racism on “The Kramer,” which is headed by an audio clip of the incident. He spits: “Pardon me, y’all, the racists I run against/ The race war, when it’s us against all of them/ They subconsciously low talk us/ And probably all think as Kramer did still but won’t talk it.”
On its surface, “The Cliché Lil Wayne Feature,” commonly known as the “Nike Boots Remix,” is a celebration of Nike’s ACG boot, which was frequently donned by hip-hop heads in the DMV area in the mid-aughts. But truly, the track talks about the unification and celebration of his hometown. Lil Wayne, who was burning up Billboard and the mixtape circuit at the time, also lends a guest verse.
Most of the production on The Mixtape About Nothing was handled by D.C.-based producers Best Kept Secret. The duo—Craig Balmoris and Julian Nixon—crafted 11 tracks for the project. The pair originally met in high in school where they found out that they both made beats.
Balmoris says that Nixon originally met Wale at a sneaker store at the Mall at Prince Georges. From there, they sent the budding MC their tracks, which eventually wound up on 100 Miles and Running. After that project was released, Balmoris says that Wale approached him with his ideas for The Mixtape About Nothing.
“He called Julian and I over to his house and, at that time, I think he was still living with his parents,” Balmoris recalls. “When we got over there, we literally watched all of the Seinfeld episodes. From there, we started to plot what we were going to do. Wale came up with the idea of putting the quotes at the beginning of the beats so that he could get concepts to write to.”
It was a nascent time for Best Kept Secret, Balmoris says. The duo were still getting their feet wet in music production and their whole experience working on The Mixtape About Nothing was a learning process.
“It’s funny because we were still learning how to make beats—we weren’t really that good,” he says. “We were experimenting with samples and going back to old jazz. [We were looking for] anything that sounded live that we could add go-go drums to blend.”
And for that unique sound, Balmoris credits rapper Southeast Slim as one of the early innovators. He and Nixon had always aspired to make beats like Slim’s and when they met Wale, it was the perfect combination.
“Finally, when we had a vessel, which was Wale, who was trying to embrace D.C. culture and what it was, it gave us the green light to do whatever we wanted to do.”
These days, though the duo are technically no longer together, Balmoris says he and Nixon still maintain a great relationship but are hard at work on their own projects. Balmoris recently produced the song “Garden” on singer SZA’s CTRL, while Nixon has gone on to work with Jidenna, Estelle, and Dr. Dre. But they still collaborate with Wale; Nixon produced the rapper’s single “Effortless (It’s Complicated),” which was released earlier this year.
Prior to the release of The Mixtape About Nothing, Wale was touring everywhere. His popularity was growing, and according to Johnson, several record labels were trying to sign him.
In March 2008, he signed to Interscope Records. That following year he released the Back to the Feature mixtape and his debut album, Attention Deficit. The hype leading up to the album’s release was intense at both the home front and abroad. But low sales plagued the album, as it only sold 28,000 in its first week.
Nonetheless, Wale continued to deliver solid bodies of work following his debut—four albums and numerous mixtapes. Included in that bunch is a sequel to The Mixtape About Nothing and a full album, The Album About Nothing, which was released in 2015.
Though his detractors have questioned his relevance among today’s listeners, he has proven to be a mainstay in hip-hop through his consistency. He’s bounced back from label changes and opened the door for a bevy of rappers from the DMV area, like Fat Trel and Phil Ade. Even Logic recognized Wale as an inspiration to him during a 2016 radio interview on St. Paul, Minnesota’s GO 95.3.
“The Mixtape About Nothing is what catapulted him to that mainstream,” Johnson says. “And it was that mixtape that got him his major deal, and the one that set the mark for opening the door for D.C. in the rap game.”