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Springing A Leak

Mullyman gives away an album to see what he'll get back in return

Myspace.Com/Mullyman

By Al Shipley | Posted 7/21/2010

"We was movin' at light speed," Kevin "Mullyman" Muldrow says of the recording process for his second album, Harder Than Baltimore. "We just looked up and it was done." The album has been out for a couple weeks, but he's already back in the routine that birthed it: holed up in producer DJ Booman's North Baltimore apartment on a Thursday afternoon, sitting across the table from his other go-to producer, MBAHlievable, recording more music. Muldrow is surrounded by sheets of paper, scribbling down rhymes for his latest freestyle over a popular song--or "wiremix," as he calls them--to blast out to the internet.

Muldrow has been a constant presence in Baltimore hip-hop since his 2005 debut album, Mullymania. But he didn't start moving at light speed, constantly churning out new tracks and giving them away online, until about a year and a half ago. The rapper credits his two producers, who each produced roughly half of the new album, with his newfound productivity. "I'm so comfortable with these guys," he says, noting that he now rarely seeks tracks from other producers. "They make beats with Mullyman in mind totally, and then when we in here we really build, MBAH and Booman."

Mullymania was preceded by several mixtapes previewing material from the album, including one cheekily titled The Leak. By contrast, Muldrow literally leaked Harder Than Baltimore himself, openly circulating a free download of the album online before it was available for purchase. It was a somewhat unusual strategy; in 2010, even as free mixtapes rule hip-hop, most MCs still try to get every buck they can out of album sales. But Muldrow says his strategy is all about confidence in his project, using downloads to increase sales, shows, and press.

"Sometimes you focus so much on making a dollar that it doesn't reach the people that aren't gonna buy your music without knowing you," Muldrow says. "So the approach was just to initiate a process where some people that normally wouldn't buy my CDs get it, and get excited, and in turn cause other people to buy it on iTunes. And some of the people that got it for free, see if they actually come back and feel like I'm worth supporting."

Of course, the nearly five years that passed between Mullyman's first and second albums are a strong indication that he wasn't always on his current hot streak. "I went through some things in between," he notes, alluding to a long-running beef with fellow Baltimore rapper Bossman, as well as difficulty getting his music played on local radio station 92Q. But over the past few years, Muldrow got tight with his current production team, and good things started happening that led to the new album coming together. One of his first tracks with MBAHlievable, "The Life, the Hood, the Streetz," was featured in the final episode of HBO's The Wire, and one of his first collaborations with DJ Booman, "Party Walk," got some radio play. And Harder Than Baltimore's gritty title track, also produced by Booman, made major noise in 2009, first as a single and then as a video. "I really believe that once MTV Jams played that 'Harder Than Baltimore' [video], that set me on the path to get me motivated."

Since then, several of Muldrow's videos have received cable rotation. One of his favorite videographers, Gearie "The Grench" Bowman of Sleepin Giant Media, stops by the recording session with a laptop to play their latest collaboration being sent to MTV Jams. DJ Gemini's "D.M.V. Dream Team" is an all-star single featuring several Baltimore and Washington, D.C., rappers, produced by MBAHlievable with Mullyman on the first verse. It also features Bossman, his onetime opponent in Baltimore's most infamous rap beef, a combination that would've been unthinkable not too long ago.

Though Mullyman and Bossman publicly buried the hatchet in 2007, and had occasionally appeared on posse cuts together since then, they didn't finally record a proper collaboration until this year, a remix of the Mullyman single "Imma Be More." A few weeks later in March, they headlined a concert at the Black Hole Rock Club, sharing the stage for nearly an hour and playing their collaborations, solo hits, and even some of their diss tracks about each other. Muldrow was happy to put the feud behind him, and to clear the air for anyone who thought their war of words would ever spill into something more serious. "It's a song I'm glad we did," he says. "It showed people that might've had a misconception of what it was that, 'Oh, these dudes can actually be competitive, and still be on the same wavelength of just getting money and repping your city together.'"

Harder is a much stronger album than Mullyman's 2005 debut, building on its strengths and avoiding most of its missteps. Where Mullymania leaned heavily on famous guest stars and a hodgepodge of different production styles, the new album sticks mostly to local collaborators (with the exception of Jamaican dancehall star Sean Paul on "Shoulda Done") and benefits from limiting itself to two consistent but versatile producers. MBAHlievable and DJ Booman both excel at aggressive East Coast hip-hop, but the latter brings something else to the table: his background as a major figure in Baltimore club music.

Before "Party Walk" in 2008, Mullyman was one of the few popular rappers in Baltimore who hadn't dipped his toe in club music's uptempo dance beats. "I thought it was so cliché, everyone was jumping on the bandwagon," he says. "I didn't wanna be in the same box as those artists. But when I looked at it for what it was worth, and came outside of how I used to think about it, and said, 'Damn, this is Baltimore.' It is hip-hop sped up, and it does challenge me as an artist."

Muldrow since appeared on "Step Aside," a single by DJ Booman's group the Doo Dew Kidz, and his label Major League Unlimited is releasing the upcoming album. "With the help of Booman and Jimmy Jones, to do it with proven legends, it's kinda awful hard to turn down," Muldrow says. A new remix of "Party Walk" featuring his sister Nik Stylz appears on the album, and Booman sneaks more Baltimore club elements into the new tracks "Get Ya Life" and "Fast or Slow."

Looking back on it now, Muldrow sees how the nearly five year gap between albums worked in his favor, and how the stars aligned for him to improve on the first album's performance. "I didn't wanna do another album that was in a box as far as how far it could go," he says. "We did good numbers for regional success and spurts of national success, but I wanted a totally national successful project this time."

And when the question comes up of how long it'll be until the next album, a look at the pages of rhymes surrounding Muldrow attest to the fact that he could turn one out any day now.

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