Yesterday the Washington Post ran a large feature on D.C. hip-hop. Chris Richards' piece offers a cursory "why hasn't D.C. rap blown up?" history and intro as well as short profiles of Wale, XO, Kingpen Slim, Tabi Bonney, Phil Ade and producers Best Kept Secret. It's a well-meaning and pretty efficient overview, but it's also predictably been causing some debate within the D.C. hip-hop community as well as some concern about the orientation of Wale's hat amongst WaPo readers.
And perhaps some concern is warranted (err... within the hip-hop community, not about Wale’s hat). The easiest way to critique an article like this is to point out artist omissions. I understand the need for space in a newspaper column so I'll mostly try to avoid such trivial complaints here.* But there are some larger holes in the story that deserve to be addressed.
Mainly Richards' piece oversimplifies the scene(s), painting a picture that every rapper pre-Wale was either rocking the go-go or desperately chasing a major deal. The narrative that go-go music has permanently squashed rap aspirations for the past two decades is a tidy one, but not entirely accurate.
For one, it almost completely writes artists of the U st./Freestyle Union/Kaffa House open mic lineage and aesthetic out of the story. Sure, this scene was closely tied to the transient population at Howard and other colleges and as such owed more to Tribe Called Quest or the burgeoning Rawkus movement than they did go-go heroes like Fat Rodney or street favorites like Section 8 Mob.
But it actually was a pretty prominent and distinctly hip-hop scene that was jumping off in D.C. during the '90s.
More than that, acts like Unspoken Heard, Storm The Unpredictable and Priest Da Nomad were gaining a minor rep throughout the Northeast. These guys weren't signing major deals (or necessarily even gunning for one) but still held a certain amount of clout outside of the city. Their records were available up and down 95 at legendary Manhattan vinyl outlets like Fat Beats and major Web distributors like Sandbox Automatic in an era where it wasn't uncommon for indie rap 12"s to move 5-10k with ease.
Before blogs, this sort of underground buzz was less measurable, but 12"/college radio burn was not all that different from the sort of attention Wale is getting right now. None of these acts became national mainstream stars (it's unlikely that Wale will either), but many serious hip-hop heads were at least aware of their existence. I mean, I was buying Unspoken 12"s as a teen in New Jersey, so they must have been doing something right.
But I suspect that the local success of that community can partially account for its relative failure nationally. These indie, dare I say "backpack," rappers were so self sufficient that they could afford to remain somewhat insulated, separate from the go-go rappers and the Scarface-inspired street dudes.
Other cities with similar demographics -- Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta -- have found success nationally because the streets were forced to merge with the campuses organically. The scenes were so small that the d-boys mingled with the conscious rappers until you couldn't tell the difference anymore. And that’s usually when things get interesting.**
But in D.C., there was less of a need for that sort of explicit unity or overlap because both the the go-gos and the uptown open mics were doing so well independently of one another.
The success of D.C.'s current wave of rappers is probably tied to the blurring of these lines. In recent years both communities have been so ingrained within in D.C. culture that the current wave of rappers have no choice but to adopt hand me down reverence for both. Take XO for example, who came up rhyming at the decidedly post-Union Tru Skool open mics but is also practically a descendant of go-go royalty, his parents being managers for the genre’s unheralded progenitors the Young Senators. Hopefully these types of blends can catch on nationally. If not it’s already resulted in plenty of great music.
** Ask Kanye West.