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Tabi Bonney is one of the few regional hip-hop acts with credentials that resonate outside the nation’s capital: He had a radio hit (“The Pocket”) and runs a video production company and clothing line. He’s one-third of The Crybabies, a pop trio that will sign a record deal next year, although Bonney’s not ready to reveal the label. And he just dropped his third full-length album, Fresh, which he’s celebrating tonight with an exclusive release party at Recess.
He spoke with Arts Desk about his new album, a lack of radio spins for local artists, and the “DMV” term, among other things. Shoutout to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Washington City Paper: I got an opportunity to listen to your album, and it has an “all-in” feel to it. Did you have a different mindset going into this album than your other ones?
Tabi Bonney: Yeah, I definitely did. Just wanting to press the envelope a little more, and transition into another direction. Just tired of the regular, mundane hip-hop, man, so stuff like “Make A Killing” or “Get Me” was just something where I didn’t lose too many people, for those who wanted the regular thing, then I started to step the other way throughout the rest of the album.
WCP: What kind of feedback have you gotten?
TB: I’ve been getting a lot of good feedback, man. It’s been real positive feedback. It’s still brand new, so I’m sure people have to really sit with it. I’m sure I’ll start hearing more by next week.
WCP: Now that you’re going to be in a pop group, are you still going to release solo music?
TB: Oh yeah. It just shows where I’m at musically. It’s not just hip-hop, it’s a broader range.
WCP: Describe your process for making music. Where does it begin, and where does it end?
TB: I’ve been more in an inspirational space, you know? Because there are a lot of people who feel as though that being what they want to be out of life is difficult or hard, or they can’t do it. I have a lot of friends who work a regular nine-to-five job and I see how people who don’t follow their dreams just seem to settle for less. I have friends that are doctors and they’re doing well, but it’s still the sense that they’re missing that excitement. They’re just going through the motions of “OK, I’m a doctor. I did achieve what I wanted to do, but I still feel like something’s missing.” I know that easily could’ve been me. Just was writing from an inspirational space, man, wanting to get that message out there that you could go after your dreams and actually do it.
WCP: What kinds of things have you gone through personally and professionally since your last album?
TB: Just more of a growth, man, and just knowing that this is what I’m really doing. I don’t have any other jobs. There are a lot of people out there that’s kind of below the radar, that has to supplement their careers with a regular job or a part-time job, just to make ends meet. I’ve been able to make a living off of my art, so coming to a realization that this is really it, and this is how it’s going to be, getting ready to take it to the next level. That’s all.
WCP: You just mentioned how you’re doing a lot of writing from an inspirational space. What have you learned over that time about yourself?
TB: That you don’t have to fit into the mold. Certain people don’t get my music, or think that I come off a little different from other people, and at first you’re like “Why aren’t they accepting me?” or stuff like that, but then you finally realize that everybody has their own thing, and it takes that trendsetter to finally break through to the masses to actually follow. I’ve just come to the realization that I am that person that will change certain things in music. I’m not the follower, ya know?
WCP: You’re one of the few artists who actually gets out of D.C., and goes to other areas to network and gig. Given that, what are your thoughts on still being called a “local” artist?
TB: It’s just amazing to me to see that, because I don’t know if it’s the ignorance of the writer. I’m in Beijing next week for a show [laughs]. I don’t get it, like I really don’t. I wish they would tell that to the people in San Fransisco that came early to Rock The Bells just to see me, ya know what I mean? Or the people in Montreal, in Toronto, in Chicago. Next Friday, MTVU and MTV Jams will be premiering my video, which will be playing every 35 minutes throughout the whole day, which they broadcast nationally, the Caribbean and stuff like that, so I don’t get how someone can call me a local artist. Maybe it’s because I’m not played on radio in other states, but we’re in the new day and age where radio doesn’t make or break the artist anymore. It helps, but it doesn’t define whether or not an artist is national.
WCP: How do people elsewhere view the D.C. hip-hop scene?
TB: A lot of people are interested. I just did a couple of interviews up at Sirius in New York over the weekend and yesterday evening, and they’re like “Yeah, what is going on with the D.C. hip-hop scene?” They only know of Wale and [myself]. It’s a question mark there that’s yet to be defined, and I think it’s on those that are leading, and others that are coming up, to really step up to the plate and get out there.
WCP: What are some tips you would give to people looking to get out there?
TB: Definitely step out of D.C. Of course, you have to take care of home first. People have to know you from home, but you also have to step to Dallas, Miami and get busy, man.
WCP: What are your thoughts on the “DMV” term?
TB: I’ve never been a fan of the DMV term. To me, the DMV is the Department of Motor Vehicles. Even my parents are like, “Why is everyone talking about the Department of Motor Vehicles?” I think it’s cool, because people have a sense of unity, finally. But people that live in D.C. say “D.C.” It’s only been people from Maryland and Virginia that need to feel like they want to be accepted. It’s a long history of, if you grew up in the city, you know that everybody claims D.C. Like if you go away to college, and people ask where you’re from, you say D.C. Then if they ask what part, then it’s like “Oh, it’s not really D.C.” I’m not a fan of the term, but I’m a fan of the unity.
WCP: It seems like the unity came out of nowhere. What prompted that unity?
TB: A handful of things prompted it. One is, people always attack the person who’s in the forefront. At first, I was being attacked because I kind of jumpstarted it, even before Wale did. It was like, “Uhh, what is this? He doesn’t represent D.C.,” even though I’m from D.C. [laughs] People, and I’m talking mainly other artists, they have that innate sense of competition. So if you see another artist doing better than you or well, it’s just innate to feel “Oh, I’m better than you” or “I’m greater than him, I can do better.” You get that hate at first. People realized that hating on this other person, and that they’re only getting bigger and they’re not going anywhere, is not helping them out. I got it, Wale got it, but when they see that he’s on MTV again, or he’s on the radio again, folks decided “OK, let me be friends with this person, or get down with the movement.” Certain people had no other choice.
It only benefits us if we unite. Looking at Atlanta, how most artists are able to work with each other. It’s only strength in unity, ya know? To me, the bigger that Wale gets, that helps me. I was able to go on tour with him. I’m able to shoot videos for him, which is money in my pocket. So the bigger that man gets, it’s better for me. Same with any other artist, it opens up the floodgates and makes D.C. an actual entertainment haven. It all starts to trickle down. People start coming to D.C. more, studios start opening, clubs make more money.
WCP: So what do you think is missing from the scene to raise it to that Atlanta and Miami prominence?
TB: There needs to be an overall support across the board, and that goes with radio. It’s just been a constant changing of the guard with radio at home, with people being in a position and all of a sudden they’re not there anymore. They feel like their whole thing is in jeopardy, therefore they don’t try to uplift whatever artists are here, which I think other cities have done. It’s not just to show support, but it also has to be good music. With me, I don’t understand how something can be played on TV, but I can’t even get a spin at home. At the time when “The Pocket” blew up, it was literally a program director at WPGC saying, “I like this song, I’m gonna stick my neck out and just play it.” Since then, we haven’t had anyone like that. Everybody’s scared of losing their jobs. It’s also on the artists to make better songs, do more, get out there more.
Bonney will host an album release party tonight at Recess nightclub, 727 15th St. NW. Doors open at 10 p.m. Invitation only.