Baltimore is not a rapper’s city. Don’t get me wrong, the omnipresent voice of Rick Ross claiming to be “Big Meech” can be heard blasting from every other car in the city, but that’s hardly a local phenomenon. Baltimoreans love rap. We just hate Baltimorean rappers.
Over the last 10 years there have been countless (read as five to six) local rappers who were “about to blow,” but few have ever made it beyond the range of 92.Q. But that’s not a reflection of their skill. There are plenty of ill emcees that say “tew” instead of “two,” but what they fail to realize, and what most people don’t understand, is that Baltimore, like Detroit, D.C. or New Orleans, has its own sound, and around here DJs call the shots.
DJs made hip hop. Kool Herc carried a party in the back of his truck and was the coolest dude in the world for doing it. Rappers were only invented in order to praise the DJs while they were mixing. No rapper should have ever developed past the skill level of Flavor Flav, but talented MCs, like current Baltimore resident the Chief Rocker Busy Bee, chose to take some time from glorifying their DJ to shine a little light on themselves. Because of this many of you may now know the lyrics to “Pretty Boy Swag.” History made.
But Baltimore, thanks to the efforts of countless DJs, some spectacular clubs and more than a few well-timed proms, has developed its own vision of hip hop that takes it back to the basics. Baltimore Club Music is pure and uncut hip-hop, and has become the mainstay of the local music scene. For any rapper that ever hopes to be the B-More Jay-Z, they need to understand and capitalize on this scene. It’s possible to be a successful rapper without the backing of the city’s DJs, but it’s pretty unlikely.
In order to respectfully call itself hip-hop music, a song must do one of two things: Speak for the unspoken or shake butts. The digital revolution has encouraged a return to these humble roots in that there are a slew of rappers out on the internet, building their brand and receiving a lot of attention for giving a voice to . . . well, themselves. And that’s fine. Like Terrance Howard managed to wheeze in Hustle & Flow, everybody’s got a verse, and every verse deserves to be heard. Unlike DJs, however, rappers have the responsibility of literally speaking to their audiences and rap audiences just love to hear about the streets. Any streets, every street, Sesame Street, it doesn’t matter. Hip-Hop fans love the underdog and, more importantly, we love to hear ourselves in the music.
As the spokesmen for hip hop, rappers have to be as accessible. If the audience can’t feel it then fuck it. It’s trash. The easiest way for a rapper to build that connection with an audience is to represent their city, province or cul-de-sac. There must be something relatable about you to be a rapper. You would be hard pressed to find a rapper whose hometown, or at least the city from which they operate, isn’t common knowledge in the hip-hop community because they love talking about it. The only non rapping musician that gives their home town more shout-outs is Bruce Springsteen, and the Boss doesn’t sing about Jersey even close to half as much as Redman raps about it. Economist and hip-hop fan Cedric Muhammad once likened being a prominent rapper to being a politician, and I wholeheartedly agree. The best rappers take their constituencies very seriously because, like a politician, they represent them.
For instance, with the release of their debut album in 1994, OutKast completely revolutionized Southern hip hop. The electric blues of Stax Records and the funky grooves of Parliament permeate through southern rappers slow, Chevy riding, music, and no group made the sound more popular than OutKast. At the very peak of the East Coast/West Coast rap beef, it was OutKast that was awarded new artist of the year by The Source Magazine and it was OutKast that clearly stated, “The South got somethin’ to say.” The brilliance behind OutKast was that they had a built in fan base by capturing the funky grooves and thick drawls that had moved through the south for so long and introduced the rest of the world to something new. Not to mention how many asses shook to “Player’s Ball.” N.W.A. did the same for Compton and California. Common and Twista did it for Chicago. Wale’s trying to do it in DC. When done right, this hiphop thing can be a lot bigger than just music but Baltimore’s rappers just do not understand the power of this synthesis.
There are hundreds of rappers in Baltimore that rap well, and there are dozens with the charisma and skills necessary to be successful, but none has used those skills to capture the heart of the city in an effective way. Yes, Lab Tek Won has been Baltimore’s underground hero for almost two decades, and he is a magnificent rapper. Yes, Black Sunn is a promising upstart with a solid online following. Yes, Los’ meticulous rapid fire flow produced the best remix to Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” but none of them sound like Baltimore. What’s truly frustrating about the whole thing, though, is that it can be done. It can be done because a lot of people have come close.
DJ Class had a number one single in the country with his song “I’m the Shit” and it was nothing but a watered down club mix. There are four or five different versions of that song featuring the likes of Kanye West, Trey Songz, Jermaine Dupri and Lil Jon, and DJ Class just did a Bmore Club remix to Usher’s number one single “OMG.” DJ Class, however, is not a rapper. The rhymes on “I’m the Shit” are butt (including Kanye’s verse), but it doesn’t matter. Why? Because these songs sound like Baltimore, and Class has proved that, even without a solid rapper. Baltimore DJs are good enough to do this on their own, and that Baltimore has a marketable sound (anybody remember “Whoa Now!” by Brich?). For the life of me I cannot comprehend why no local rapper is trying to hop on the bandwagon. The only one who seems to have had sense enough to even try is Mullyman.
Mullyman is one of the most popular rappers in the city and is easily the best hope we have for a proper Baltimorean rapper. He’s been at this rap thing for a long time and he’s nice. Mullyman raps with a passion that hasn’t been heard since DMX’s first album, and he has the skills to back up his powerful flow. More importantly, he is unquestionably and unapologetically Baltimorean. With his album Harder Than Baltimore, produced mostly by local club disc jockey DJ BooMan (now available on iTunes), Mullyman demonstrates what a Baltimore rapper should sound like. From the accent, to the imagery, to the subtle influences of Club music in his beats, he presents the city in a manner that no other rapper has. Mullyman has been shown a lot of love in the DMV and does appear on MTV. But he’s still pretty unpolished and the album reflects it. While his rhymes are nice, his songwriting skills could use some work and finesse. But the potential’s there. The project isn’t perfect but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
The reason The Wire was such an effective, popular and genuinely good show was because it felt real. It was shot on Baltimore streets, featured Baltimorean actors and was created by Baltimorean writers. Any Baltimorean rapper that ever hopes to succeed has to create that same authenticity. If you want to represent what life in Baltimore is like, you can rap about the crime, you can rap about the drugs, you can rap about the women, but if your rhymes don’t smell like Old Bay, then you’re wasting your time. Trap music and booty shake songs are universal at this point. That raw passion at a 130 beats per minute that we call Baltimore Club music? That’s ours, and we should embrace it.