Local Femcee Looks To Build On Her Underground Buzz
“I feel like my purpose is to represent a lot that’s not represented in the industry,” says local MC ShellBe RAW. The 23-year-old caramel beauty born D’lonna Marie Willis, who refers to herself as “Ms. Pretty But Gritty,” delivers some of the roughest flows and lyrics in local hip-hop but could pass for the next up-and-coming R&B beauty. In a white baby-doll tee, relaxed-fit jeans, and fire engine-red baseball cap pulled low over her neatly wrapped chin-length hair, Willis is straight ’hood meets runway.
Her appearance is only part of the ShellBe RAW package. Thanks to many live performances and mixtape appearances, she has generated a buzz for herself in local underground hip-hop circles. And with her recently self-released sampler debut, The Soundtrack, Willis feels it’s possible to get the rest of hip-hop buzzing about her, too. “I think I have the talent and the drive to make it mainstream,” she says without bating an eye.
Self-confidence is what sets this young MC apart from the rest. Born and raised in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, the female MC moved to Baltimore to pursue a telecommunications degree at Morgan State University in the summer of 2001. She got her first taste of recording while attending Morgan, where Willis befriended members of the already established local hip-hop group 360, who frequently hung out on campus. In early 2004 the group asked her to drop a few random background vocals for some of its tracks.
“They invited me into the studio just to do stuff like, ‘Say, Oooww,’” Willis laughs. “I went [to the studio] like one time, and they were like, ‘Wow, you have a really nice voice. It sounds good.’ From there they said, ‘Well, why don’t you sit down and write, and we’ll record something.’”
This test run led to Willis becoming 360’s newest member, Jane Doe, her former, short-lived stage name. (In the ShellBe track “RAW” on The Soundtrack, she explains the name’s short tenure: “Used to call me Jane but the name had to change/ Another chick had the shit, I had to rearrange.”) Her current—and probably permanent—moniker is now tattooed on her wrist in bold script. She began taking her MC aspirations seriously in May 2004 by writing and honing her craft with 360.
That September she appeared on record for the first time, on 360’s mixtape Now or Never. She joined the group onstage for the first time a month later. And she doesn’t recall any beginner’s stage fright at that show, where 360 opened for soon to be underground legend Little Brother. “Performing only a couple of months after you first start rapping is pretty quick, but I see it as an advantage,” she says.
Willis learned early in the game that every performance wouldn’t go as smoothly as planned, so she doesn’t panic when mishaps arise. “I don’t want to sound like I’m a seasoned vet, but I’ve been through bad sound systems, crowds being straight crazy, having five people to perform for, performing at the drop of a dime because someone else didn’t come,” she says. “I’ve had so many different things to deal with when it comes to performing that I’m comfortable now.”
That precocious assurance in her craft is contagious. Most MCs, men and women, rap for years before creating the street buzz that ShellBe enjoys these days. After less than two years of rhyming she has already been a featured act at local venues such as Sonar, 5 Seasons, the Ottobar, Sonoma’s, and Club 429, as well as Hoffa’s in Boston and the Island Café in Washington.
While performing as a featured act during the B’more Flava Showcase this past March at 5 Seasons, she commanded the audience’s attention with her strong voice and stage presence. Sporting a T-shirt that read it was all a dream . . . r.i.p. b.i.g. to commemorate the anniversary of the late legend’s death, ShellBe performed a set of three tracks accompanied by Ogun as a hypeman. She rocked the mic without the assistance of a vocal track or an entourage reciting her lyrics for her, unlike many of the other local acts that night. And after delivering the sultry rap flow of “RAW,” she sang the ending chorus to prove that it was her voice crooning on the hook.
The crowd loves her here, but she’s still earning her stripes in Beantown. “When I went [to Boston], I had a show, and they announced me as from ‘Boston by way of Baltimore,’” she says. “I had to win the crowd over.”
She says the crowd’s response was cold, with jeers and boos echoing through the venue until she gained their respect onstage. “I don’t know if my comparison would be too fair because I’ve been here [performing] more,” she says. “I go back and forth, but I think I’m more immersed in this one. As far as local talent there, they hold strong to ‘OK, you’re from here, cool.’ As far as here [Baltimore], they’ll show you love if you’re not from here. It seems like you get a little bit more love [in Baltimore] from my experience.”
Willis’ own love these days is for lesser-known women MC talents rather than the female rap stars she idolized while growing up. She cites Shawnna, a member of Ludacris’ Disturbing tha Peace, as someone she’s into now. “I like a lot of people that don’t get a lot of recognition,” she says. “My top female out there is Shawnna. She’s so underrated. I feel her.”
Part of what she likes about under-the-radar personalities is that they’re not the ones completely overrun by marketing yet. They’re still who they are in some sense. Willis knows that female rappers’ marketability is fleet and that they are quickly pigeonholed as fitting into either the Lil’ Kim or Missy Elliott mold. ShellBe’s swagger is a blend of the best assets of both: She’s the girl every fella wants to get with, but she’s also the girl that every chick can hang out with.
“When it comes to women MCs, they want to put you in a box of either being a sex symbol or just being like a tomboy with no femininity at all,” Willis says. “That’s where I try to bridge that gap. As far as content and lyrics, I rap with guys all the time, and no one says, ‘Oh, she’s good for a girl.’ They may say, ‘Oh, she’s as good as the dudes,’ but I’m always dressed up nice and feminine. I’m always nice to people and ladylike because I want them to remember that, Yeah, this is a male-dominated industry, but I’m still a girl.”
The mix of personalities seeps into her music as well. Willis describes The Soundtrack as a sampler because it features some freestyles, mixtape-style remakes, as well as originals. “It gives people a glimpse of what I can do,” she says.
It begins with the crisp and catchy ear opener “RAW,” which got a lot of spins on 92Q. The track made it to Rap Attack when host Porkchop interviewed Tasha Jones, the coordinator of the all-female rap review Even a Man Can Do It. Some of the tracks from the ladies’ bill made it to the air, and “RAW” caught the attention of some shot-callers at the station. “That was truly a blessing,” Willis says.
The Soundtrack is far from a one-hit wonder, though. “Put It on the Floor,” featuring D.I.P., is a grown and sexy club banger that keeps the ladies gyrating and the fellas two-steppin’. Spike Lee’s Girl 6 comes to mind during the smooth yet playful “Phone Bonin,’” which features 360’s Rockwell delivering the slurred hook. Ogun joins ShellBe for the hard-core flow and lyrics of “Rappin’ Shit,” barking the encouragement “Be yourself or don’t do this at all/ I speak with niggas every day that can’t wait to come home/ I do this shit for all my soldiers who blow in the phones/ so we can make that three-way call/ I’m reppin’ for all my family/ Immediate to extended.”
The sampler album ends with a passionate remake of R. Kelly’s “A Woman’s Threat.” Retitled “ShellBe’s Threat,” it warns listeners of what to expect from a woman who’s RAW. “ShellBe’s ’bout to take y’all’s spot/ ShellBe’s out to make y’all stop/ Wait ’til my album drops. . . . Y’all better give me respect/ This is ShellBe RAW’s threat.”
Like many young local upstarts, ShellBe RAW has the potential for a bright future. With the skills to catch ears, the looks to grab eyes, and the personality to make her well-liked, she’s a rare total package on the local hip-hop scene. And though there’s that unwritten rule for underground MCs to downplay their ambitions, Willis owns up to chasing mainstream recognition.
“As far as going mainstream or staying underground, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want the mainstream money, attention, perks,” she says. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that or wasn’t entitled to that. But I do also realize that I love what I do so much, if I was just able to make a comfortable living off of my music—I would do that by any means necessary.”
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