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Kingdom Come

Bossman Conquered His Hometown, Though Not Without A Fight. Is He Ready To Take on the World?

Photos by Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Al Shipley | Posted 3/28/2007

In his public life, Travis Davon Holifield's every move and gesture seems to be a deliberate suggestion of dominance, a larger-than-life stature beyond his already imposing 6-foot-3 frame. From his stage name, Bossman, to the crown that tops his head in various logos and promotional photos, he's cultivated an image based almost purely on his unambiguous desire to be not just a rapper from Baltimore, but the rapper from Baltimore, the first whose name rings bells far outside city limits.

But meeting Holifield, 24, in person, a few weeks after he performed at 1st Mariner Arena, the lone local artist among several mainstream stars at 92Q's 2006-ending Winter Wonder Jam, he comes off considerably more humble and approachable. In the cozy Gwynn Oak home that houses producer Kevin Veney's basement studio, Holifield slouches into a plush blue sofa with no fanfare, no entourage. He speaks about music with the reverence of a fan, and about his own career with confidence but also a frank acknowledgement that he's got a long way to go. After spending most of his teenage years as a member of the Northeast Baltimore group N.E.K. before striking out solo, he seems careful to emphasize the often long gradual process that is a career in the music industry.

"Patience is one of the things you really gotta have," he points out. Between his time with N.E.K. and his solo career, "we was grindin' in the city for five years" before 92Q played any of his music or asked him to perform at their events.

When City Paper first profiled Holifield two years ago, he was riding high on the success of his 2004 independent album, Law and Order (No Cover, Jan. 26, 2005). With three consecutive singles in rotation on local radio and purported album sales upward of 10,000 copies--a rare achievement for a Baltimore rapper--he was already attracting major label attention.

In the spring of 2005, Holifield cemented his growing status when he inked a seven-figure production deal with Virgin Records for his One Up imprint, along with his production team of Veney, Rich "Nieze" Shelton, and Loren Hill. Bossman had been personally tapped by superstar producer Jermaine Dupri, who appeared at an official signing party at Club Mate that September. Earlier that year, Dupri had just been named president of Virgin's urban music division. Virgin had long lagged behind competitors such as Interscope and Def Jam in hip-hop album sales, and Dupri had been charged with giving the department a makeover.

Under a new regime at a company that lacked many established stars in its urban division, Holifield says he saw the potential to plot his own course in the industry. "This was gonna be a new project, so we kinda thought that was a good thing," he says.

In hip-hop, a major-label deal is the carrot that every artist chases as the best, and sometimes only, doorway to fame and wealth. And while getting signed may signal the end of one struggle, it's often the beginning of another, much more difficult one. It's not uncommon, in this era of skittish labels moving around release dates in hopes of stumbling upon the perfect timing for a hit, for a new artist to spend years in development before having an album in stores.

Coming up on the two-year anniversary of his deal with Virgin, Holifield is at a crossroads. In October 2006, Dupri left Virgin, upset over the poor sales of his girlfriend Janet Jackson's most recent album. Bossman remains contracted to the label, with a finished album in the can and no hopes of releasing it until this summer or fall at the absolute soonest.

Bossman isn't the first Baltimore rapper to sign to a major. After scoring a left-field hit single in 2002 with "Whoa Now," B. Rich's album was rushed out by Atlantic, which dropped him when the full-length wasn't a hit. Comp spent three years in artist development with Def Jam before finally parting from the label in 2005 without ever releasing an album. These are the cautionary tales Baltimore artists repeat to each other like scary bedtime stories. Since Bossman's signing, other Baltimore MCs have landed major deals--D.O.G. at Universal, Los at Bad Boy, Young Leek at Def Jam--but none of them has released an album yet, either. The hopes of the city's hip-hop scene are still by and large pinned on its self-proclaimed king, whether his peers want to call him that or not.

 

Self-fulfilling prophecy and wishful thinking are dominant modes of expression in hip-hop. Rhyme about having money convincingly enough and you might actually end up as wealthy as you claimed to be already--and that philosophy has increasingly extended to symbolic titles. Atlanta rapper T.I. was referring to himself as "the king of the South" years before he was a household name, but eventually hip-hop fans came to agree that he'd earned the title. Coming out of a crew that whose acronym stood for North East Kings, perhaps it was a natural choice for Bossman to refer to himself as Baltimore's king, and he's been ruffling feathers with that nickname ever since launching his solo career in 2004 with the mixtape Charm City's King.

Of course, in the current climate of hip-hop, where how many bullets you've survived is the kind of thing that can become the cornerstone of a marketing plan, it's not just who you say you are. Holifield has a harrowing personal history that informs his music: At one point during his childhood, both his parents were in prison, after a foiled attempt by his father to rob the hospital where his mother worked as a nurse; she was charged as an accomplice. It's the type of story not uncommon in a city as fraught with crime as Baltimore, but Holifield answers questions about his family background briefly and directly, as if he's not interested in dwelling on the incident as an excuse to fish for street cred. (His mother, Felicia King, for her part, seems proud of her son, referring to herself as "Bosslady" when singing the hook on one of his songs, "So Smooth," from the 2006 mixtape Yellow Tape.)

And while Bossman's lyrics feature plenty of allusions to sex and violence, he's careful not to paint himself as the kind of dealer-turned-rapper ubiquitous in contemporary rap, confirming "I ain't a gangsta, thug, or a murderer" on "Off the Record." Instead, Holifield lived with his grandmother while his parents served time, and graduated from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in 1999. There, he first hooked up with members of N.E.K. as well as local rappers like Skarr Akbar in school-yard ciphers. He later worked as an ambulance driver until his music career took off.

The nature of Bossman's local success has given him some reason to have confidence in his clear-eyed vision of himself. When Bossman first came out solo, nearly every local artist who had a single in rotation on 92Q had to go through Rod Lee, the producer who'd built a brand on his method of fusing hip-hop with Baltimore club music, the quirky, fast-paced homegrown dance genre through which he'd first gained popularity. But Bossman pushed for a different sound from Lee, and found it in a grimy, slowed-down breakbeat that became his first solo single, "Oh."

"Everybody was like `You gotta do a Rod Lee track,'" Holifield remembers. "And Rod's beats are usually straight club, and I was like I don't want that to be first. So when I heard the "Oh" beat, I was like, yo, this don't have to be the average club record."

"Oh" became the breakout local hit of summer '04, topping 92Q's request lines for weeks and trickling out to other stations in the region. And the follow-up singles, "I Did It" and "Off the Record," followed in its footsteps, despite featuring increasingly personal lyrics about his daughter and his financial struggles, over warm, sample-driven production by One Up.

Bossman's success with singles beyond club jams like "Oh" proved that audiences connected with the rapper's brash, autobiographical approach. And that's the approach he intends to stick to for this major-label debut. "There's no way I'm goin' to the mainstream to switch up," he says. "That's why the people like me, so I'ma give 'em me."

 

With Bossman's nationwide rollout still pending, however, he's only marginally more successful than the local competition, and you can bet that other MCs bristle at the presumptuousness of his title. Holifield's always maintained that anyone who thinks he doesn't deserve the crown should be able to make it obvious with their own success. "How would I say I was king of the city when I ain't the hottest person in the city?" he says, incredulously. "So that's the way you shut somebody up like that, if you ask me."

One other Baltimore rapper whose rise has paralleled Bossman's, Kevin "Mullyman" Muldrow, took particular offense to the issue of who is and isn't Baltimore rap royalty. In late 2004, murmurs began circulating in the local music scene that Mullyman had questioned Bossman's "king" status on a little-heard record. The rumors eventually prompted a conversation in which, Holifield recalls, the two MCs agreed that it was nothing personal and all done in the spirit of competition.

But rumblings of the feud continued to simmer for nearly a year before going public in October '05. Bossman and Mullyman were booked to perform together on a bill at the Ottobar, with Bossman headlining. When Mullyman was a no-show, Bossman threw down the gauntlet, yelling "Mullyman is a bitch!" onstage. Mullyman, who was at the time promoting his own independent album to be released later that month, responded quickly with a dis track, "Ready," which hit the radio airwaves as an instant scandal and appeared on local mixtapes for months. Although Muldrow attacked Holifield on several fronts, mocking his deal, his neighborhood, and his boss, Dupri, one line in particular summed up the brewing discontent over Bossman's nickname: "Baltimore ain't have no king/ that's a disrespect to every real nigga in the city that's doin' his thing."

At the time, Holifield was working a stint as co-host of Rap Attack, 92Q's Sunday night hip-hop program, and the week after Mully's dis leaked he played the record and discussed it on the show. Mullyman called into the show and the two rappers briefly debated on the air, although nothing definitive resulted from the confrontation. "I talked to him after the [on-air exchange]," Holifield recalls, saying that he told Muldrow, "`You know what, it's sad to do that, because Baltimore's not even established. That don't do nothin' but hurt the city.'"

But as the radio station continued to hype up the Mullyman track, Bossman issued a response song, and the beef soon evolved into an increasingly tedious series of dis records, in which Mullyman's sister, rapper Nik Stylz, jumped into the melee, as did other members of N.E.K. It never escalated to violence, but something that had ostensibly begun in the name of healthy competition had become a grudge match.

At various points in 2006, both rappers indicated in interviews that the beef was dead or resolved, only for it to flare up again when one took a shot at the other in a rhyme. Holifield now says that "at the end of the day, it's squashed."

Muldrow agrees, noting in a brief interview that in recent months, when the two rappers come face to face, there is no tension. "Last time I saw him [was] at Sonar, and we spoke, it was good," Muldrow says. "It's lookin' more positive than it has in the past year."

Although Holifield came up in the local battle-rap circuit as part of N.E.K., he now seems exasperated by the idea of rap beef. "I never really wanted to battle no rappers," he says with a shrug. "I try to make music."

But the Mullyman beef had already opened the floodgates for growing resentment and jealousy of Bossman's deal, and the dissing "the king" bandwagon soon got crowded. Rappers Holifield had never met or had a problem with, such as Tyree Colion and the Black Family, started taking potshots at him on mixtapes.

"I can take that, because that comes with the territory," he says, though he maintains, perhaps stubbornly, that he fails to see why other artists should take offense to his kingly boasts. "Every rapper think they the best."

Holifield, like most Baltimore rappers, was raised on a steady diet of New York hip-hop, and he constantly name-checks artists like Nas, Jay-Z, and Mobb Deep as the standard by which he measures his own music. So a Southern rap veteran like Dupri might have seemed like an odd fit to champion Bossman. But it spoke volumes about the label chief's faith in the young rapper's vision that the song Dupri publicly praised in interviews as the catalyst for the deal was "Off the Record," a dark, brooding song in which Bossman vented about personal struggles and aired his opinions about various hip-hop controversies.

While many a music industry executive has made serious money on finding, signing, and releasing yet more versions of what's already selling, there's money to be made in finding something or someone unique, too. Bossman was unique enough to grab Dupri's attention, but his appeal isn't necessarily universal. His rhymes are peppered with Baltimore slang and shout-outs of local landmarks, as well as his own twist on wordplay that frequently involves subtracting syllables from words in unpredictable ways. In Bossman's hands, "competitor" becomes "com-pet-or," and "premeditated" becomes "pre-med-ed." Even his delivery, the "stick-shift flow" as he calls it, is distinct, breaking lines up with unexpected phrasing, somehow both halting and fluid at the same time.

In the course of recording his Virgin debut, Bossman has logged studio time putting his idiosyncratic style over beats by several high-profile producers, including Scott Storch and Chad "Wes" Hamilton. But the meat of the album is still composed of productions by his longtime team, One Up. "Recordin' in big studios, I done did that, and my records actually come out better recorded in the basement," he reflects. "When you change your environment and the people you around, your focus and your vibe ain't the same. And that's real important."

Of course, the change from putting out your own material to submitting yourself to the major-label process is about as big a change as an MC can experience. These days, a rap album can't get a release date without a hit single, and a large part of Bossman's tribulations with Virgin over the past two years has been the trial and error involved in trying to find the right single with which to launch his album.

Given the number of Bossman songs that were hits on Baltimore radio, it didn't seem at first like such a daunting task. When he was first signed, it was decided that his Virgin debut would bear the same title as his independent album, Law and Order, and include some of the same songs. But "Oh" and "I Did It" were considered a little too old to push as new singles, and Holifield disagreed with the label over the first song it took an interest in releasing.

Bossman recorded "Untouchable," produced by mixtape DJ Clinton Sparks, with the understanding that it was a leak record, intended for the mixtape circuit to capitalize on his buzz after the news of his signing. But Virgin took a liking to the track's infectious hook, a sample of a verse by the Notorious B.I.G., and wanted to shoot a video. With another single by a new artist out at the time featuring a Biggie sample, Smitty's "Diamonds on My Neck," Bossman was wary of piggybacking on a trend and balked.

"A lot of people don't know that when you come in this game, in your contract you're only guaranteed one video," he says. "You can get more than one video, but you wanna be careful. I worked hard to get here, so I was like, I can't blow it. I'm not even from New York, I can't use a Biggie sample."

The complications continued with his next shot at a single, "Hand Clap," a cut produced by proven hitmaker Rockwilder (Jay-Z, Method Man). Although the song was released as a single in late 2005 and ended up in the soundtrack to a high-profile video game, NBA Live 07, Virgin pulled the plug on promotion for the track with little explanation. "Next thing I know, I'm on the road, doin' the promo tour, we did like four cities," Holifield remembers. "Then it gets canceled."

Reconvening with Dupri and one of the mogul's in-house producers, Chicago rap veteran No I.D. (Common, Rhymefest), Bossman decided to dodge the need for a radio-ready single with a little reverse psychology. "I feel I'm a versatile artist, but one thing I do, I wanna be myself," Holifield says. "When I first come out, even if it's not a huge look or a radio record, I wanna make a statement."

Over a thunderous soul sample, "You're Wrong" carried a clear message of Bossman's confidence in his own vision--"If bein' me is wrong, then fuck it, I don't wanna be right," goes the chorus. It was the kind of song that could earn him respect among hard-core hip-hop heads even if it had zero club potential. But plans to shoot a low-budget video and push it as a street single, once again, went unrealized.

Back to the drawing board last year, Bossman and One Up Productions cooked up "A-Yo," his most anthemic track since breaking through with "Oh." The song quickly caught on in Baltimore thanks to its use of a distinctive bit of hometown slang in the titular call-and-response hook, but its success was not without controversy. Bossman's old opponent, Mullyman, had just a few months earlier guested on "That's da Sound," a minor hit by local trio Dirty Hartz, which also featured shouts of "a-yo" in the chorus. Dirty Hartz frontman Verb was vocal in his displeasure about the alleged ripoff, rhyming about the issue in front of a full house at the 5 Seasons nightclub, at last September's One Mic battle-rap tournament.

Tensions came to a head during an all-star freestyle session on 92Q's Rap Attack last November. Verb and Mullyman took subliminal shots at Bossman on the air on the subject of the "A-Yo" issue, and when Holifield himself unexpectedly arrived at 92Q's studios to take his turn on the mic, he says it was clear that he'd been the topic of conversation: "Everybody was actin' like they'd seen a ghost." Because the studio was crowded with MCs, some of whom let expletives slip out for broadcast, the session was cut short. But Holifield laments that had the situation been less chaotic, "we could've settled it right there, on the air, and rock[ed] right there on the rap tip."

Muldrow still believes that the similarities between the songs was deliberate and even, as he puts it, "an attempt to lure me back out there" into a beef. But tensions have eased since the radio station incident, and despite what seems to be the public's hunger for a beef of some kind, Muldrow now feels both artists are ready to move past it. "I'm sure we both been grown since the situation," he says. "People will always be on the Bossman-Mullyman thing, but we'll get more mature about how we handle it."

Circumventing label machinery by promoting "A-Yo" on his own with the help of his management and production company, One Up, Holifield says his attitude toward Virgin at that point was, "We just not even gonna contact the label, let 'em contact us." Once the song started getting spins on its own, that's just what the label did, taking an immediate interest in the single. But just as executives were about to press vinyl for DJs and talk of a video started up again, the news hit that Dupri, the man who brought Bossman to Virgin, was leaving the label.

 

"Right now, I'm a Virgin artist," Holifield says. But the identity of Virgin itself has been in flux of late. Parent company EMI is in the middle of the long process of attempting a merger with Warner Bros.; in January, EMI folded Virgin and Capitol Records together to form the Capitol Music Group. With Dupri having vacated his post, Virgin's urban division is effectively on freeze.

"They're not gonna be ready to release no records until April," Holifield says, while Dupri's replacement settles in. The opportunity to capitalize on "A-Yo" will have come and gone by then, but Holifield and One Up are still in touch with the Virgin brass, pitching the game plan for the album, including potential single "Colors," which he calls "one of the best records I ever did." And he already has a follow-up single in mind, and hopes to land a certain A-list R&B star to appear on the track.

Though he's still committed to making things work at Virgin despite the rocky history, Holifield says that "if ain't nothin' poppin' in April, then we might make other arrangements. Like, I got an album that's basically done, and it's ready to move." Dupri recently landed an appointment as president of Island Records Urban Music, and Holifield has entertained the possibility of trying to follow Dupri to his new employer, head to a different major, or simply go right back to the indie-label world. Holifield has often vowed, as he did in a 92Q interview soon after getting signed, to "still grind like we independent," and one gets a sense that he's yet to be shown any irrefutable reason to not keep doing all the work for himself.

Given his reputation for refusing to compromise for the sake of mainstream appeal, it's somewhat surprising that one of the most significant changes Holifield has made since signing to Virgin was his own choice. In 2005, he slimmed down his burly physique, losing about 60 pounds. And despite speculation that the label ordered him to get in shape, he insists, "I did it on my own--it ain't like they put me in the gym or somethin'. It was just a decision I had to make and got dedicated to it, because I definitely needed to lose the weight." It ended up benefiting his music, he notes, as he quickly found that his breath control when performing had improved.

Holifield certainly hasn't let the corporate gridlock slow down his work ethic, saying that "I always gotta keep recordin'--you can't sit and die." One Up is prepping new mixtapes from labelmate Hots and N.E.K. member Dollars. And since signing to Virgin, Bossman has released three mixtapes himself, including the recent double disc Bulletproof B, which is selling steadily through his MySpace page and local retail outlets. As plans for the proper album release crystallize, though, he's planning his most ambitious underground release yet.

With an autobiographical DVD nearly completed, Holifield is contemplating releasing it concurrently with a soundtrack CD full of collaborations, with fellow Baltimore artists as well as New York mixtape rappers like Papoose and Grafh. In the past, he's rarely collaborated with MCs outside of N.E.K. and admits now that that may be one of the sources of resentment toward him in the scene.

"I figure I'll take initiative to do that, because maybe I intimidate some artists by sayin' the `king' thing," he says. "They don't wanna ask me, so I'll reach out, like, `Let's do a joint,'" That said, Holifield points out that a lack of collaborations between Baltimore rappers has long been widespread, not just a personal shortcoming of his own. "You name one song on the radio with more than one Baltimore artist," he says. "It's like, `I got my song, you got yours.'"

Bossman recently recorded a posse cut with Hots and Skarr Akbar, and performed the hook on "Shades," a single by Baltimore club DJ K-Swift's teen protégés Deuce Tre Deuce. But he's got several more collaborations in mind for the new mixtape, which may involve publicly burying the hatchet with some of the rappers he's beefed with in the past. One Up producer Rich "Nieze" Shelton sees the attempt at unity as a path toward bigger and better things for everyone involved. "One Up is tryin' to bring the B-more hip-hop scene together," says Shelton. "That's the only way we will ever be respected outside the city."

Although local rap has seen increasing national press over the last year, thanks in large part to the growing buzz of Baltimore club music and the hip-hop world's obsession with the locally based TV drama The Wire, Bossman has remained on the fringes of media coverage. When the HBO series started incorporating contributions from local rappers, including Mullyman, into the score of the show's fourth season, Bossman was one of the artists that music supervisor Blake Leyh attempted to license a song by, only to be hampered by issues of label red tape and sample clearance.

"I wanted to use Bossman's track `Hand Clap,' and they were never able to clear it," Leyh confirms over the phone from New York, citing the song's sample of "Jailhouse Rap" by the Fat Boys. "It's not unusual for that to happen, but it was months and months of the label not responding."

Despite Holifield's steadfast loyalty to traditional hard-core hip-hop production, he has a long history of rapping on Baltimore club songs to represent his hometown's unique hip-house culture. But even as other local rappers increasingly rely on club songs as a gimmick, Holifield is reluctant to include one of his several flirtations with club music on his major-label debut. One of N.E.K.'s early hits, "Face Down," produced by Blaq Starr, is a longtime club favorite and a staple of Bossman's concerts. And recently, he and Dollars rapped on DJ Excel's club remix of T.I.'s "Top Back."

But perhaps Bossman's most significant nod to Baltimore club occurred last summer, when he re-teamed with Rod Lee for a remix of the producer's massive club smash "Dance My Pain Away."

"What I tell people is a beat is just a beat, it's about what you turn the song into it," Holifield says, explaining how he put his stamp on "Dance My Pain Away" with an introspective verse. "The average person that had that record would've probably rapped about dancin'. I was rappin' about some of the stuff I've experienced, my pain and some of the pain of people of Baltimore City. So I always try to keep some kind of message in my lyrical content, no matter what kind of track it is."

Still, with or without a hook like The Wire or club music to attract the press, Bossman has been slowly gaining recognition from magazines like XXLű as well as influential web sites like AllHipHop.com and HipHopGame.com, both of which interviewed him and streamed his singles, which were largely met with positive feedback by commenters. And Holifield admits that he enjoys the process of reaching fans gradually through underground channels like mixtapes and internet message boards, despite the frustration of waiting for a big promotional push. "Stuff like that is fun, you get to actually grow," he says. "I'm kinda glad it didn't happen for me overnight."

Even under less than ideal circumstances, though, Holifield says he's used to doing his best in the face of adversity. "With all the negativity, for some reason I work better like that. Like that [independent album], I completed the majority of the album at a point where I got fired from my job and didn't have a deal," he recalls. "The day that we found out that we was gonna sign with Virgin, my house had just went up for foreclosure. So I'm used to comin' out in the ninth inning, takin' off pressure. That's when I make the best music."

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