Fast-Rising Local MC Bossman Wants to Ride His Hometown Buzz to Places Where No Baltimore Rapper Has Been Before
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“Bodymore, Murderland,” is a city dripping with all the trappings of a potential hip-hop celebrity backstory. With high murder and crime rates, Baltimore is the perfect setting to spawn a gritty ghetto character, but aside from the semisuccess of Comp (how did Def Jam drop the ball on that one?) and the disappearing act known as B. Rich, Baltimore still has no national hip-hop face. If Northeast Baltimore native Bossman, the 23-year-old MC behind 2004’s catchy, call-and-response, Charm City-representing summer jam “Oh!,” continues his rise from the underground at his current pace, he may prove to be Baltimore’s first hip-hop mainstream liaison (no offense, Sisqó).
Witness his recently released debut for homemade label Double Down Ent/1up Productions, Law and Order. Bossman claims he spent almost a calendar year, “10 hours a day, five days a week,” in the studio crafting it, which may explain why the Dec. 21 release has moved so quickly that it is next to impossible to track down in local stores.
Full-on radio support from local radio stations like 92Q have certainly helped that wildfire spread. So has Bossman being the young up and comer going after New York heavyweight Jadakiss. Bossman tackled Jada’s rhetorical-questioning summer smash “Why” to ask the MC why the rest of that album sucked. Everyone knows beefs sell in hip-hop, so it’s easy to assume that an unknown Bossman took aim at Jadakiss as self-promotion, but Bossman says that wasn’t the case.
“I’m a Jadakiss fan,” says the 6-foot-3, 265-pound Bossman, born Travis Holifield, leaning forward in a small chair in a recording studio off Belair Road. “I was just asking a real question, like why don’t he make hot albums? When I sent it to the radio, everybody was sayin’ I dissed ’Kiss. I don’t want people to think I’m riding somebody’s success as a publicity stunt. A lotta times in my music I don’t bite my tongue, I just say it. If you can’t express yourself in music, you ain’t never gonna be able to express it.”
Not biting his tongue proves to be a theme on Law’s third single, “Off da Record.” On this venting session over a wavy, hypnotic beat that borrows Tupac’s “Against All Odds” on the hook, Boss speaks out on everything from slavery, voting, the draft, Ma$e’s hypocrisy, and the public forgiveness of R.Kelly, claiming, “I wouldn’t be surprised if B.I.G had ’Pac slain.”
His flow is dictated by the hook’s beat, and you can hardly tell that it’s the same MC who dragged you through Baltimore’s mean streets on “Oh,” commanding the flow with well-timed punchlines, firing off shout-outs next to the usual woes of drugs, poverty, violence, and STD stats, all while making your head bounce. And Bossman knows it, too. “If y’all would just listen how the flow keep switchin’,” he rhymes on “Record.” “That’s the main reason why I think I’m so gifted.”
Of course, haters hate—that’s their job. And there’s plenty of talk around town that Bossman’s explosion in the past six months is due to his relationship with DJ Rod Lee. The undisputed king of Baltimore club music and producer of other radio players (Paula Campbell, Tim Trees) blessed “Oh!” with a slowed-down club drum-kick, and Lee’s beats inevitably found their way onto local radio mix shows and club mixes.
“People are gonna always make an excuse as to why something don’t work,” Holifield says. “And it’s relationships. Everything in life is built off relationships, so it is relationships with the radio, but you gotta be able to put yourself in positions to play the game and just play it your best and respect the game.”
Such respect for the game is a survival tool Holifield learned as an 11-year-old with both parents behind bars. “My mother was a nurse,” Holifield says. “The bills were behind, so my father and his friend rob the place [where she worked].” He retells the story without hesitation or embarrassment, not proud of the fact that his dad robs the home of his mother’s patient, but aware that it was a pivotal time in his life. “She’s trying to protect her job, so [she] calls the police [and] my father gets arrested first. But [the cops] came back [for her], and she got five years for accessory.”
His mother later appealed the charge and got pardoned after serving two years, but it left Holifield fully aware of how things can take a turn for the worse at any moment. “It’s off her record [now] and she’s still a nurse,” Holifield says. “But just being around that you can see how things get crazy.”
Holifield’s journey to becoming Bossman begins in this period. As a Hamilton Middle School student, Holifield had plans of being the next Kriss Kross with a childhood pal. Holifield was living with his grandmother and having his career guided by his uncle John Walton. Walton played the role of guardian in addition to producer and promoter, bankrolling some amateur demos for the aspiring MC.
Since then, his rap career has shifted through many incarnations, as his aspirations for his sound changed as he aged, growing out of Kriss Kross hip-pop and more toward harder rap. In early 2000, Holifield became “Jimmy Hash” in N.E.K. (Northeast Kings), a group that enjoyed moderate underground mix-tape success and a short high-school tour until splitting up two years ago. He admits the crew was inspired by the Firm, the short-lived outfit made up of Foxxy Brown, Nas, and AZ. The plan was for the MCs in N.E.K to combine their forces—locals Heavy Gold, Johnny Cash, Dollars, Tony Manson, and Jimmy Hash—and be a local supergroup. But the group never really gelled.
“We tried [N.E.K.] for a couple of years, [but] as you get older you get into disagreements,” Holifield says. “As we was doing projects people would be checking for me like, ‘What’s up with Jimmy Hash?’ I started to get more serious about music and I was wanting to rap about something that meant something to me. We all still friends, but that’s how it is right now.”
As N.E.K. drifted apart, Holifield became Bossman and last June he began crafting Law and Order, a solid and polished debut effort, save a few skits. Bossman shows depth and character beyond many of the rap albums out now, local or national. Standout tracks like the dramatic “Dat Night” and “I Did It”—think a hip-hop “My Way,” a soulful, emotional pat on the back to anyone who struggled through life—show heavy introspection and versatility and make up for standard rap rhetoric like “Blam Blam.”
For now, Law and Order promotion remains Holifield’s top priority, which includes club gigs, DVD appearances, and more recording, all while trying to maintain a normal life, making time to relax with family and be a father to his 6-year-old daughter. His goal is still to become Baltimore’s chief mainstream hip-hop representative, but Holifield knows that his music needs to reflect the grit of where he’s come from, informed by both life’s highs and lows.
“I think that’s what built my character to be a man,” Holifield says. “We had a loving family but there was trials and tribulations, and I think that’s what you need to become a complete person. If everything is always good, you not gonna know how the bad side gonna be. But I had a good balance. I don’t regret nothing. I wouldn’t change it.”