Taking It Back
Labtekwon Has a Message For Local Wannabes—Get Serious, ’Cause the Future of B’More Hip-Hop Is At Stake
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Two weeks after an initial conversation, Labtekwon kept calling. The living connection to Baltimore’s 1980s hip-hop era wanted to add a few caveats to his initial responses. During that talk he was fired up. He had had enough. Enough of the surge and wane of yet another local MC becoming a pumped-up promise to put Baltimore on the hip-hop map. Enough of yet another plan to save Baltimore hip-hop. Enough of local mix-show DJs who decide who does and doesn’t make it onto local airwaves. Enough of radio station MC battles where listeners don’t know that the challenger is taped the day before. Enough of people equating local buzz with artistic success. And he let it all out.
And then, apparently, he wanted it all back. “I just thought about it, and as much as I feel some of these people are assholes that definitely hold back the overall movement, at the same time I don’t want to create tension that makes it seem like I’m frustrated with my career so I’m just mad at everybody,” Lab says over the phone from Washington, D.C., where he spends most of his week since the birth of his son last summer. “In a moment’s time, the emotions and the zeal of really conveying a lot of the ideas I wanted to convey, things got said. But on closer inspection I want to be sure that I’m not guilty of the problem of everyone else that I have claimed is guilty of.”
Lab isn’t just being contrite. The MC born Omar Akbar Young, the round-the-way kid who grew up in “Whitelock City” (the Whitelock Street and Madison Avenue intersection of Upton), isn’t just trying to spin his own interview. He’s enacting what separates him from the average musician and man. The best of Labtekwon is a combination of these two impulses, passion and reflection. Lab’s fevered talk about Baltimore hip-hop doesn’t just include his peers and friends over the years—Booman, Ogun, Steve the Colossal, One Speaker Supreme—but his elders, forgotten names and times such as WEBB (1360 AM) disc jockey Chuck Maxx, Z3 MC, We Rock Crew, Rock-Mel, and graffiti crews/artists Zek, Chaz, and the Phun House Crew. He’s not trying to carve out his piece of the pie. What’s at stake in Lab’s vision and critique of Baltimore hip-hop is not his place in it but its very essence.
Besides, branding Lab a frustrated artist is a hard sell. A frustrated artist doesn’t have a 19-deep discography that reaches back over a decade. A frustrated artist doesn’t get a self-produced music video on BET on his own, as Lab has currently with his “Uhnnn Huhnnn,” in rotation on Uncut. A frustrated artist doesn’t release four albums in one year, as Lab has planned for 2005: The first, The Ghetto Dai Lai Llama: African Rhythm American Blues, came out in February on his own Ankh Ba Records. A frustrated artist doesn’t do anything but complain.
Lab is just interested in seeing Baltimore hip-hop survive—not that it needs saving. “I stick to the context that quality is really what’s most important,” Lab says. “And a lot of local stuff is good, but I don’t want to say something to give people the false impression that I approve of everything that goes on locally in Baltimore hip-hop.”
He most certainly doesn’t leave that impression at that first meeting. Lab arranges to meet in the library lobby of his alma mater, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. With his intern in tow, Lab rolls in, talking on his cell phone. He hangs up, introduces himself with a firm handshake, and keeps right on walking into the library. He cuts a path through computer rows, past a few reference stacks, to a set of elevators. He pushes the floor button and says something about how he hasn’t been back here since he graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in Africana studies. He marches to a table in the back where nobody’s around. He pulls a chair out, plops himself into it, and puts his ringing phone away. He establishes eye contact and says, “Before we start, I’ve got to get something out of the way.” And for the next 100 minutes he does exactly that.
“There’s not going to be no savior for hip-hop in Baltimore,” Lab says. The 33-year-old comports himself with a rigid grace, as if he’s aware of the tension in his compact frame and the fluid movements of body are the result of a deliberate will. He speaks with a stolid voice worthy of a lecture hall, and would need no amplification to reach the slackers in the back. “You can’t save something that isn’t lost. It’s here. It isn’t gone. There’s graf, there’s DJs, there’s MCs, there’s B-boys. It’s all here. It’s underground, for real.
“These local guys on the radio, it’s not hip-hop,” he continues. “They’re opportunists who grew up with hip-hop. They just want to get paid. And I can’t be mad at that, but I can be mad at that. My human side, I hope you can survive, I hope you can eat, I hope your family eats. My hip-hop side, man, you’re like a thief in the temple. You’re desecrating sacred standards that don’t need to be defiled by greed and lust. And that’s what it is right now. And that’s why they’re mediocre.”
Before you start thinking Lab is just miffed that he’s not in current local radio rotation, take note that he has never really enjoyed local radio airplay. He’s toured across the country and Canada. He’s released an album on internationally renowned underground rap label Mush. And he’s developed a body of work that’s as formidable as a 1960s jazz musician: intellectual, idiosyncratic, and undeniably of a singular, evolving vision. You just can’t hear it spinning on the local dial.
That’s OK by him. “I’ve resigned myself of the need for validation through my peers, because I know they’re whack,” Lab says. “What I’m worried about is the quality of the art on a bigger, broader scale. We have moved away from what shaped Baltimore hip-hop. Now we got a few DJs pushing their boys, and that’s what people and young MCs think Baltimore hip-hop is all about.”
What irks Lab especially is the never-ceasing search for what could be branded a “Baltimore sound,” some marketing term like “Dirty South,” “West Coast,” etc., that really only means something to suburban white consumers. Every new local MC gets a shot at defining that sound, but one hit single does not a career make. What shapes a city’s sound is the interaction of hip-hoppers working in collaborative competition.
“If you can have the opportunity to compete with me, win or lose, you’re going to get better,” Lab says. “If you’re that good, I’m going to get better, because I’m going to have to adjust and adapt to you, which means that we’re going to have a circle where we can all elevate. And that is where you get the true essence of a regional sound and a style, where people be like, ‘Yo, those Baltimore cats aren’t playing.’ People will say, ‘They got something over there.’
“Right now, we don’t got our own thing,” he continues. “We have a dream to be rich. We’re a blue-collar town, there’s a lot of poor folks. A lot of people want to escape. Hip-hop is seemingly the ticket out of the ’hood, and even some cats don’t even live in the ’hood. Some people just wanna be wealthy so they can have stuff. But, sad to say, you’re not first to think of the plan to get rich off of hip-hop. So you’re competing with about a million other people who are doing the same damn thing. What makes you any different?”
Lab believes the only thing that’s going to make people pay attention is the originality of the lyrics, music, beats, and ideas produced by Baltimore hip-hop—not the ability of the city to sell out a run of locally produced CDs. Recognition doesn’t follow the money.
“Cats need to go down to the harbor in the summer, take your rhymes down there,” Lab says. “If you’re good, the audience from all over the world walks by. And if you’re whack, you’re gonna get laughed at and teased, and you’ll know that you cannot convince the world that you’re dope because your boys say you’re dope—even if your boys DJ on 92Q.”
“Ultimately, my thing is always going to give back to your community,” Lab says by way of explaining his B’more hip-hop public-service announcement. This is the place that produced him. “I got caught for doing dumb shit as a kid. I got arrested and people mentored me and I was able to take steps toward elevation. I went to Douglass [High School]. I rode the subway with Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace kids every day. I’m from around the way. I got a GED and eventually graduated from college. A lot of people don’t believe it can be done. It can, but Baltimore is also unique. You’re gonna find a dude like me riding a skateboard. That’s Baltimore. That’s part of the equation.”
It’s an equation that yields more variables than solutions in Labtekwon. Pouring through one of his albums—much less his discography—is a journey through a swath of stylistic shifts and experiments. Lab delves into a stripped-down beat chemistry for his street-eye view of the world with The Ghetto Dai Lai Llama. Gunfire and a woman’s scream fade into an obtuse string instrument sketching an odd meter in the background of “In Due Time,” an internal monologue in which Lab thinks “about how niggas talk with Glocks/ snap crackle pop,” wonders “where your heart at when the shootout starts?” before concluding in the defiant, “I don’t feel the need to scream or cry ’cause false bling and false rhyme is all in the mind.”
Wobbly keyboard lines reverberate like a hangover under a bravura Lab freestyle that he runs through at a near sprint. “Uhnnn Huhnnn,” the song whose video is on BET’s Uncut, sounds like screwed and chopped bootybass beneath Lab’s version of crunk: Big-ego braggadocio (“I’m not like the rest y’all,” Lab announces, before showing what he means with, “My ambiance, a certain nonchalance/ the black man’s god, I don’t care who floss”), intercut with big-dick wordplay (“I train broads to strain their jaws”) that wiggles itself into the hilarious refrain, “just because a nigga got dreads and a conscience don’t mean he won’t pop that nine.”
The key to appreciating the wide berth of ideas percolating through Lab’s music and mind is to understand how he puts himself into the local music spectrum. Lab doesn’t just feel indebted to the 1980s hip-hop and Baltimore hip-hop that shaped him as a teen. It’s a connection he believes stretches back decades. His father, Harry Young, is better known by people who frequented Pennsylvania Avenue’s clubs in the 1960s as vocalist Doc Soul Stirrer, “Doc Soul” for short. Lab’s trepidation about the state of local hip-hop stems from his belief that he’s connected to the greater fabric that is local black music history. And he feels he owes that legacy something.
“I’ve been doing music for love that goes beyond just my individual drive for success,” he says. “I don’t make music for everybody in the world. I make music for people who can relate to what I feel. And that, in itself, will eliminate the real effect of trying to be a superstar. . . . I’m trying to come off as thoughtful, not resentful. I just feel bad. I go to other cities and I see how it is. When I went to L.A., that hurt my feelings.”
In 1999, Lab traveled to Los Angeles to perform at Leimert Park on the invitation of Project Blowed, the hip-hop seminar founded by Aceyalone and Abstract Rude. When Lab arrived he found 50 MCs hanging out, rhyming in ciphers, just living and breathing the art. “It was a beehive of hip-hop,” Lab says. “And when it was time for the performance, some of them stood there and analyzed. You could tell they were scoping you out. And some cats were just feeling it. And people started break dancing in the audience. They heard the beats and they heard the words.
“Baltimore has lost that,” he laments. “You don’t get that anymore. Now you get guys doing ‘appearances.’ Yeah, come to the club, we’ll play my CD. This is my hot single. Man, come on.”
And like a true believer, in the battle pitting commerce against art, Lab will always side with art, even though he knows that the market and time often winnows wheat from chaff on its own.
“Business-wise, anyone can be successful,” Lab says. “Artistically, that requires a lot more commitment and discipline. I know everybody, nowadays, they’re just like, ‘Save all that art stuff. It’s all about getting paid.’ I just want to emphasize that the world is watching you every time you create something. That’s a reflection of who you are. You have a greater responsibility—regardless of whether you want to be the next Usher or 50 Cent—there still needs to be a substance to it, because life has a way of bringing things back to earth even for the hottest, most popular artist. There’s still a reality we’re all bound to.”