Might Don't Make It
Baltimore hip-hop may never go mainstream--is it up to its iconoclasts to carry the torch if it doesn't?
We got next. That's long been the mantra driving most of the hundreds, possibly thousands of rappers in Baltimore. Over the last decade, as New York lost its stranglehold on the genre's sound and direction, rap has gone aggressively regional. For a while, it looked like every major city in America was getting its turn to be the moment's hot spot: Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, even unlikely burgs like St. Louis.
So Baltimore adopted the mentality that the hip-hop zeitgeist was a ball being passed around the country, and we were waiting for our turn. It appeared to be a realistic proposition: Halfway through the decade, nearly a dozen local rappers had scored major-label deals, Baltimore club music was buzzing as the next big regional sound, and HBO's The Wire had the world fascinated with the city's gritty street life. Certainly, we in the local media have been culpable in encouraging that hype, celebrating every MC's baby steps toward the limelight.
But in 2010, that future is looking more like a pipe dream than ever before. Local rappers still talk about someday going platinum, as if rap albums even do that much anymore. Every year, rap blogs and magazines anoint a new class of "freshmen" poised to take over rap with internet mixtapes and label buzz, but it's been years since a Baltimore rapper even got into The Source's Unsigned Hype column. Though it's in a slump financially and arguably creatively, hip-hop still moves too quickly to be considered dead. In fact, it's going so fast it might have passed Baltimore by.
In early 2008, I attended a "town hall meeting" for the Baltimore hip-hop community at the 5 Seasons nightclub. There, as always, various locals were reaching for ideas on how to unify and elevate Baltimore hip-hop, and were coming up woefully short. At one point, a rapper stood up and suggested that the scene somehow capitalize on The Wire, apparently unaware of the fact that one of his peers sitting mere feet away, Ogun, was one of several Baltimore artists featured on an official soundtrack disc for The Wire that had just been released. And despite that album being released by a Warner Bros. subsidiary and including several popular local radio staples, the local hip-hip community failed to get behind the album and support it in any meaningful way. Or, like the MC at 5 Seasons, most people didn't even know it existed if it didn't directly involve them.
"A lot of people are still stuck on what happened in the early 2000s, that whole movement, The Wire thing," says the Black Sunn, one of the younger rappers hoping to move the scene past that mentality with forward-thinking music and an internet-savvy approach to self-promotion. "Everybody's perpetuating that image. I'm 20, more rappers my age, we just wanna make music to make music."
Contrary to his remarks, however, the Black Sunn still feels like he's in the minority among his age group, and most people that share his perspective have been doing hip-hop a little longer, such as the talented MC/producer Sean Touré. "I think some artists, they go through that analysis paralysis thing, where they sit there and they think so much to the point that they think the cavalry's gonna come and save them. They're gonna be running over the hill to round them up, and it's just not gonna happen," Touré says. "Maybe artists here in Baltimore, for a lack of a better term, almost have a messiah complex, there's this mindset that there's gonna be this one artist that's gonna open the door for everyone."
ScholarMan, a rapper/producer from Prince George's County who has made moves in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. rap, has cast a suspicious eye over the so-called "DMV"--"D.C.-Maryland-Virginia"--movement onto which many artists have latched. "I think a lot of artists in this area are too much on that 'let's promote DMV,' it's almost like a local mindset," he says. "And you limit yourself, because when you're tryin' to get fans, they wanna hear more than I'm proud of my city. It's cool to be proud of your city, but it's more so about your music, what are you doing that's different, and how are you including your city in that music?
"That's the kind of approach I try to have," he continues. "I just try to do the music that I love, and if you love my music then you're gonna love where I'm from, because I walk and talk Maryland."
Where Baltimore hip-hop was still frequently creating its own sounds and catchphrases just a few years ago--whether it was chants of "ayo" or revivals of the club-ready "Think" breakbeat--it's long since begun drowning itself in the trends of everywhere else. The city's turning out dozens of mixtapes every year full of Auto-Tune hooks and references to "swag," anything that was hot in Atlanta a year or two earlier.
Kneel Knaris, a veteran of the local rap scene since the early '90s, also mourns the loss of individuality. "You gotta be realistic within yourself, define who you are and what you want," he says. "The days of, 'Oh, I'm just gonna make hot music and somebody's gonna discover me and get a deal' are done, because if you don't know who you are, how the hell can somebody discover you if you haven't discovered yourself?"
After releasing last year's intensely personal solo album Going Sane in a Crazy World, detailing his struggles with bipolar disorder, Kneel Knaris is considering hanging up the mic, though he's hopeful about local hip-hop thriving with or without him.
Few artists in Baltimore are more irrepressibly individual than Born King, a rapper who has quietly released two albums a year for the last few years that are full of dark, subversive subject matter and oddball production. He, like Kneel Knaris, is in his mid-30s, however, and has considered slowing down his pace. But he also has several young collaborators, including his brother, rapper/producer Singodsuperior, to whom he's passing his unique sensibility and work ethic, and he's looking to expand his operations. "I'm focusing on the business aspect," Born King says. "I wanna get my own venues together. I don't wanna depend on anybody,"
Singodsuperior echoes his older brother's sentiments, and sounds happy to treat music more like a passionate hobby than a job. "I would love to get paid for what I like to do, and hopefully it will happen," he says. "I would be fine having an audience of a couple thousand or so. You can't depend on music, so I have other goals that I want to accomplish."
Making music "for the love of hip-hop" and eschewing commercialism has been a popular mindset with its own set of pitfalls and cliches for about as long as rappers have been raking in cash. But at a time when even the most materialistic MCs are struggling to make a profit, rapping is the worst "get rich quick" scheme going; there's simply no reason to do it unless you have a creative itch you need to scratch. That's not to say that nobody from Baltimore stands a chance of making an impact on mainstream hip-hop. Mainstays such as Bossman, Los, and Mullyman are still working their asses off, and newer artists such as Smash, Keys, and 100 Grandman have stirred up a buzz.
But more and more, Baltimore hip-hop's longest running recording artist, Labtekwon, looks like the best role model, adding to his offbeat body of work year after year, regardless of shifting trends and audiences. The old self-help aphorism to "dance like nobody's watching" might hold some weight for Baltimore: Make music like the rest of the world won't hear it. Because they might not.
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