Rapdragons smoke up and breathe fire
"This band could never have started on some Craigslist thing like 'Hey, do you wanna play music?'" says Nick Often about Rapdragons, the hip-hop duo he co-founded with Greg Ward earlier this year. "It's really out of the fact that we're friends, that's what feeds it."
The two met in Baltimore in 2008, working together at the Charles Theatre, and within a matter of months had gone from bonding over a shared love of Jay-Z's The Blueprint to working on an album of their own. "I would be the box office and he would sell concessions, and we would just listen to rap music all the time," the 21-year-old Ward remembers during an interview at a Station North bar. "And one night we were just kickin' it, and he said, 'I can rap,' and I was like, 'I can rap.'"
A jam session with human beatbox Shodekeh and violinist Victor Ruch of MacGregor Burns and the VCR followed, which then led to brainstorming sessions for song concepts and samples for their debut album, Ten Stories High, released in September. "We kinda came up with that concept that we only wanted to sample certain left-of-center classic rock," says Often, 27, who does the majority of the group's production work. "Or not even classic rock, but stuff you don't necessarily hear as much as soul samples in hip-hop."
The album's lead track, "Moon Rocks," is built on a lurching guitar loop from David Bowie's "Moonage Daydream" and features a call-and-response hook in which a sample of the Reading Rainbow theme song soars "I can go anywhere" and the rappers bark back "but my city is the best." On "Bigwams," the album's biggest lyrical showcase, the duo trade speedy rhymes over a sample of Bob Dylan's "Wigwam."
Rapdragons made their stage debut in May and, as newcomers to the local indie hip-hop scene, were quickly welcomed with open arms by longtime fixtures such as Mickey Free and Jones, who invited them to perform at the third annual Baltimore All-Rap Round Robin in July. The Round Robin, which features a variety of acts taking turns playing one song at a time for a relentless back-and-forth, was only the duo's third show ever, and they were one of the night's standout acts.
"It's a tight-knit scene, y'know?" Ward says of the circle of artists they joined at that show. "So they were like, 'If you guys are trying to do this thing, we already have this thing going, let's all be a part of it.'"
And though Rapdragons' do-it-yourself ethos and rock-influenced production place them comfortably within a community dominated by groups such as Height With Friends and AK-Slaughter, Ward and Often's approach to lyrics is a bit more traditional than their peers. Eschewing abstract rhymes and emo introspection, Rapdragons pretty much just rap about girls and getting high, harkening back to the kind of good times blunts 'n' bitches hip-hop that dominated the '90s. And while there's no mistaking their sometimes amateurish flows for that of Method Man and Redman, Ward and Often capture some of that freewheeling fun and irreverence; listening to Ten Stories High, there's no doubt about the meaning of the word "high" in the title.
"That's just feel-good rap music," Ward says. "You just want people to feel good when they're bumpin' your music."
Having logged more than a dozen shows in and out of town with the Round Robin, Rapdragons are already quickly moving onto their second full-length project, which they hope to have out by the end of the year. That album, Featuring Baltimore, is far more ambitious than its predecessor, with a projected 20 tracks each sampling a different Baltimore band and featuring guest appearances by various hometown MCs. The bands sampled on the album include Ponytail, Beach House, Blood Baby, and the Art Department, and Featuring Baltimore will include a companion compilation with all of the bands' original songs.
The project began as a natural outgrowth of the duo's friendships with various local bands. "We were talking to Sam [Herring] from Future Islands," Often recalls. "And I was saying, 'Man, we should get you on a track.'" Ultimately, they ended up sampling a Future Islands song, and soon Often and Ward were surfing around MySpace grabbing songs from other bands to make beats out of.
Ten Stories High was released as a free download on the web site Ltdcomp.com, and the duo plan to do the same with Featuring Baltimore, noting how much easier and simpler it is to simply give the music away these days than to press up CDs and try to get people to buy them. "I'm just recently embracing the idea of not wasting any plastic," Often says, and Ward nods in agreement: "You're just gonna load it into iTunes anyway." Of course, that adds a little joke to the group's boastful lyrics, which sometimes trumpet fantasies of their "No. 1 album sales."
Neither Often or the Caribbean-born Ward are originally from Baltimore, but both enthusiastically rep their adopted hometown and hope that their upcoming project will help break down divisions along genre lines and bring a greater feeling of unity to the city's many musicians. Of course, Rapdragons and its Station North indie cohort are hardly representative of the majority of Baltimore hip-hop, though they're still reaching out to more MCs to guest on the new album, and promise "some surprises" from outside their usual circle.
"Everybody knows the Baltimore indie-rock scene because everybody works together, it's one big thing," Ward says. "And if the hip-hop scene could be like that it'd be perfect. Featuring Baltimore could tie the two together and just make the music scene in Baltimore bigger, so it's not just a hip-hop scene or a rock scene or a noise scene, it's just music."