A Crew Of Baltimore Hip-Hop's Biggest Outcasts Find Their Niche As Mania Music Group
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"We're like a gang of misfits, people that nobody wanted," says Dwayne "Headphones" Lawson, 28, describing the group of musicians whom he brought together to form Mania Music Group. "When I first met these guys, I called my wife and I was like, `Wow, these guys are truly effin' talented.' I couldn't believe how talented they were. And everybody [now in Mania's] backstory was like, `I tried with [another label], and this happened.' And my story was the same--I was like, `Maybe we were supposed to get together.'"
Last year, Lawson, an experienced hip-hop producer, sought the services of Brandon "BeaLack" Lackey, 26, an engineer who runs Towson's Verede Grace Studio, to mix and master some of his beats. Instead of a simple business transaction, though, they became production partners, founding a record label, and quickly assembled a roster of three rappers whom one or both of them knew: Emmanuel "Midas" Williams, Kane Mayfield, and Ron G. And even though each MC was a different age, and had varying levels of experience, the three Baltimore natives quickly realized how compatible they were with each other and with the Headphones/BeaLack production sound.
"From all of us starting to hang out, it was just an amalgamation of ideas, and we would be in the studio literally all weekend, just playing with stuff," Lackey says of the group's early jam sessions, in which producers would play the live instrumentation that laid the groundwork for many of their first collaborations.
Now, those kinds of sessions happen at Verede Grace on a weekly basis. On a recent Wednesday night, the five Mania Music Group members are in the studio, along with their friend Obie, who runs the label's web site and is manning the video camera that's used to produce videos for its YouTube page. On one wall is a dry-erase board with a list of song titles under each MC's name. Another is covered with taped pieces of paper that feature typed phrases, some of them motivational messages they've written for one another, others simply bizarre inside jokes.
A couple years ago, Williams was a chubby 21-year-old West Baltimore kid who had made his name on the local battle-rap circuit, winning the Style Warz competition and placing second at the One Mic tournament. But even when excelling in that environment, he was something of an anomaly, a battle rapper who'd smile and dance as he performed while his competitors scowled their way through rhymes. During a stint with a local label, Team Green, Midas released a solo project, 2006's Pay-Per-View, but he says he ultimately bristled at the more traditional sound and image the label had in mind for him. "They wanted to go in one direction, and artistically I wanted to go in another direction," he says. "So it was best for both of us to kinda end that whole situation and go our separate ways."
After splitting off from Team Green, Williams went through a period of self-discovery. He shed 110 pounds, started running with a hipper Charles Village crowd and dressing sharper, while expanding his musical interests beyond hip-hop, to eclectic artists such as Santogold and Janelle Monae. After linking up with Mania Music, he modified his performing handle to Dappa!!!Dan Midas, and he dressed the part, rocking a bow tie while rapping and singing his new more playful and unique material. "It's an extension of who I am," he says in a matter of fact tone about his change.
Mayfield went through his own transformations with Mania, although they were more strictly musical. "If you listen to some of Kane's music prior to us, he was real militant," Lawson says. The 26-year-old Kane's previous work is largely politically driven, and intensely serious, but in person, Mayfield is a natural-born comedian, riffing in silly voices and making off-color jokes at every opportunity.
When Lawson met Mayfield before hearing his music, he was shocked by the contrast. "I'm like, `That's the person you need to capture on an album,'" Lawson says. "It wasn't an easy job, but we chiseled him down and tried to make him understand that you can make songs that use your personality."
At 20, Ron G. is the label's youngest artist, as well as its least dominant personality in conversation. Still, he'll sometimes end an earnest statement with an off the cuff non sequitur, demonstrating that he shares his collaborators' sense of humor. And though his music is less flashy or eclectic than Kane's or Midas', his lyrics display fierce intelligence and social consciousness. When an unreleased new song is played in the studio, it's hard not to identify the narrative: "Has anybody heard the news lately?/ Word is they killed another baby/ 14 years old, mom go crazy/ [police] capped 'cause he reached for a gun/ investigators come and they don't find one/ and that's why I fuck with police/ simply because they fuckin' with me," the last line repeated with his voice raising in anger.
In April, the label held a listening party for its first release, Mania Music Group Sampler, and it recently made the entire album available as a free download on its web site. The disc features two solo tracks from each MC, two posse cuts, and a hysterically funny intro track in which Mayfield and Lackey stitch together dozens of silly voices into an absurd two-minute comedy piece. "One day me and [Lackey] came in here, locked the doors, turned the lights down, and just went crazy for like four hours," Mayfield says. He pauses, thinks about how that sentence came out, and adds, "Not . . . in that way"--and the room fills with laughter.
The sampler functions as a showcase for range of Mania's MCs and producers. Midas' "Biggest Fan" is a big, goofy funk-rock jam, and Kane's dance track "Party in Ya Face" is one of his first songs to hint at the rapper's sense of humor. Even the relatively staid Ron G. switches up his style on "Blvd." and sings a melancholy chorus over Lackey's acoustic guitar strumming. But the album also begins and ends with "Heavy Metal Mania" and "Blown Out," two no-nonsense posse cuts with hard, pounding beats and punch lines galore, as if to prove that these guys haven't gone completely out of their minds.
The sampler, though, is just a taste of the avalanche of material the label is poised to release in October, for a campaign they're calling Month of Mania. Each week, there'll be another free download on the label's site, including a solo EP from each rapper--appetizers for upcoming full-lengths--and mixtapes themed around Baltimore club music and old-school hip-hop. "I just wanted to put out a nice amount of music before we put out these albums," Lawson says. "I think a lot of mistakes people make is to put out an album, and nobody knows who you can sell it to. I don't think that we'll drop the record and it'll fly off the shelf automatically; I really think that Mania Music will be what I like to call a slow burn. As you go on, people will start to pick up on it, because I don't wanna be a fad or a trend."
As Lackey sees it, Mania Music Group's talent and versatility is its greatest strength, but it's also something they're trying to control and calibrate carefully. "The problem that each and every one of us has is, we got a transporter, we can go everywhere in the world you'd wanna go to," he says. "What's the problem? Well, where do we go? We can take it anywhere we want to. So it's like, you know what? We're gonna take it here. We're gonna take it there, we're gonna do it right, we're gonna do it our way."