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Speakers in the House: Can Washington, DC Be a New Capital for Rap?

The DMV is finally developing a substantial hip-hop scene, and its sound, once defined purely by go-go, is evolving in the internet era.

Briana Younger


Chaz French / Photos by Kevin Wilson

At any given moment during a weekend night on U Street, there's a strong possibility of hearing go-go—the signature sound of black Washington, DC —echoing through bars and music venues. Perhaps an impromptu performance has drawn a crowd in front of the Metro station across from DC staple Ben’s Chili Bowl, or maybe someone is drumming on a bucket on the corner by Busboys and Poets. Up until recently, this heavily percussive subgenre of funk music was the DC scene, and it remains an integral part of Chocolate City culture. But the sound of DC and the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) is changing, and hip-hop, long overshadowed by go-go (except when rappers like Wale incorporated it) is becoming more prominent.

DC has had several big-ticket R&B exports—among them Tank, Ginuwine, Raheem DeVaughn, Mya, and Amerie, whose music bleeds with the sounds of go-go courtesy of producer Rich Harrison. But there has been less success with hip-hop acts, even though rap has always existed in the DMV area.

Several artists scored national hits throughout the 80s and 90s: DC Scorpio was the earliest area rapper to earn major label backing with his song “Stone Cold Hustler” in 1987; Fat Rodney helped merge go-go and hip hop before his death in 1989; Nonchalant had a chart-topper with her song “5 O’Clock”; and DJ Kool is responsible for the contagious party anthem “Let Me Clear My Throat.” But they were trailblazers of a path that has yet to be fully realized, even as the city's music infrastructure changes under the pressures of gentrification.


Sir E.U. of After F

Lined with live music venues and clubs, U Street—affectionately known as Black Broadway at its pinnacle—has long been a major artery in the heart of the DMV’s music and arts scene. In the 90s, the Kaffa House, Bar Nun and State of the Union open mics (among many others) brought lyricists of all types together. A decade later, the Up and Up Open Mic at Liv Nightclub on U Street, run by Truth Hall of renowned trio Gods’illa, created a space where it wasn’t rare to find the likes of RaTheMC, Kokayi and Uptown XO kicking it. Today, aside from a few events like Uptown Tuesdays at Pure and the legendary Spit Dat, the scene is more fragmented and DIY. Organizations and festivals like Trillectro, Broccoli City Festival, Will Rap 4 Food, MadeInTheDMV, and Bombay Knox throw one-off events, while area acts and collectives like M.I.L.F., Parallel Diamonds, and After F are not shy about throwing their own showcases in true DIY fashion. Venues like Southwest DC church-turned-art-space Blind Whino, the Anacostia Arts Center, and the Northeast DC warehouse space Union Arts exist alongside 100-person pop-ups in alleys and homes.

But new neighbors and police hostility have pushed go-go artists farther out of the city, and with them has gone the ubiquity of its sound. Notable acts like Oddisee and Logic have found success outside of the DMV without go-go (although Oddisee and his group Diamond District do subtly incorporate its rhythms), and it seems every triumphant departure over the years encourages another to emerge from the shadows of the bounce beat to create something uniquely theirs that’s still representative of home.

Geography simply doesn’t have the sway it once did, thanks to the internet. The new sound of the DMV ebbs and flows between the grittiness of East Coast tradition and Southern street rap—largely due to a location that allows it to pull cultural characteristics from both. The result is a collage that offers a sweeping range of sounds inclusive of every iteration of drill and trap to the “backpackers” and alternative forms of each. The scene—though more fragmented than ever—thrives in spite of its own shortcomings, inexperience, and disorganization. Artists aren’t bound by industry infrastructure and rules, and their music reflects that liberation. Everyone is both free and forced to devise their own way, making what they want to make and releasing it how and when they see fit. Here is a small sampling of some artists in the current generation keeping things interesting:

Goldlink

GoldLink began his career as a faceless, elusive rapper who emerged from Soundcloud obscurity almost overnight with his debut project The God Complex. In 26 minutes, the DC-born, Virginia-raised rapper introduced the world to the sound he calls "future bounce." It was enough to earn him a 2015 XXL Freshman spot and capture the attention of superproducer Rick Rubin who served as a mentor, guiding him through the creation of his latest album And After That, We Didn’t Talk. Rapping over BPMs more apt for house than hip-hop, 'Link stuns over and over again, pushing the limits of the lane he's created for himself and revealing more of his face one song at a time.

Shy Glizzy

One of the most distinctive voices coming out of DC—37th Street to be exact—Shy Glizzy has steadily been unleashing his street tales since 2011, each mixtape building on the buzz of the one prior. Glizzy is unflinching as he paints pictures of the Southeast DC he knows, but it was a somewhat lighthearted (by comparison) track—his infectious, self-congratulatory anthem "Awwsome"—that broke out in 2014 and cemented his place among the few who have successfully transcended the grips of this area. The momentum snowballed into a distribution deal with 300 Entertainment, who oversaw the release of Glizzy’s acclaimed Law 3 mixtape, and also scored him XXL Freshman honors. Continuing his streak, Glizzy tapped Atlanta producer Zaytoven for his latest project For Trappers Only, which has spawned a minor street hit in “First 48.” He also found the silver lining in a recent chain-snatching with the success of “Cut It (Freestyle),” a response track that addresses the incident.

Ras Nebyu

Ethiopian-American Ras Nebyu refuses to be boxed in as a run-of-the-mill conscious rapper, although he was raised in a Rastafarian household in Northwest DC and is both assuredly brilliant and unafraid to show it. A member of the Washington Slizzards crew, he adds layers to his music by employing varied, often melodic styles of delivery and rapping over pretty much whatever type of beat he pleases. He has graced the stages of some of DC’s staple festivals—Trillectro and Broccoli City—and opened for the likes of Vince Staples, Nipsey Hussle, and Wale. A gem among many rocks, his deftness has made him a well-respected artist to emerge from the scene.

Kelow

Women in hip-hop tend to struggle to get their footing in endless seas of men vying for the same ears and eyes. The DMV is no exception, but sing-rapper Kelow LaTesha excels in spite of those odds. The PG County native and self-proclaimed tomboy is charismatic in her raps and arrestingly experimental in her sounds. Her latest project, Amethyst Stoner, has no use for propriety or anyone's conventions, winding its way through futuristic space trips and even a bit of go-go, proving Kelow is easily one of the area's more dynamic artists.

Chaz French

Chaz French has a story to tell, and he's making good use of his opportunity. The raw candor and transparency in his music forces listeners to sit with the facts that he was once homeless; that even though his mother is a preacher, he won't be shamed for his imperfections; that there is life after struggle. Having found a home with 368 Music Group—the label co-founded by Raheem DeVaughn and also home to fellow Maryland rhymer Phil Adé—he introduced himself on 2014’s Happy Belated and capitalized on a rapidly growing buzz with his follow up These Things Take Time. It’s hard to look away as the DC-born and frequent GoldLink collaborator navigates his world, reconciling his past and writing his way up and out.

Fat Trel

The DMV's "fat fool" is also one of its more polarizing figures. Fat Trel is both inspired and completely shameless in everything he does. The result is a musical style that continues to smack listeners in the face as if to say "you will deal with me." His raps are uncut, proficient, and instantly recognizable—as are his green eyes and Slutty Boy crew, who are never too far away. Since the release of his 2010 show-stealing mixtape No Secrets, Trel has garnered an audience that extends far beyond the DMV, complete with a deal with Rick Ross's MMG imprint. He’s notched several standout records, including 2014’s “In My Bag” featuring labelmate Wale and last year’s “I Need You,” featuring a catchy hook from Fetty Wap. His latest mixtape, Muva Russia, was a promising effort that has fans anxiously awaiting the release of his official debut album.

After F

The sprawling After F collective is home to a self-contained group of robust artists and producers operating between Prince George's County and the District. Within it, there are three smaller collectives—Kool Klux Klan, Gram Fam, and Chess—that work closely together. Following in line with DIY ideals, they don't shy away from throwing their own showcases, which tend to feature no fewer than five of them at any time. SirE.U. is the group's most conspicuous member and likely its most intriguing as well. A technically adept rapper, his funhouse of music often comes packaged in an enigmatic fashion that could almost come across as trolling. It’s never random, though, and to assume so would be to miss the point, as on standout track “SuperBabyNi66a” from last year’s Ebuku, where the discord draws you in and demands attention. They have a triple-threat in MilesMeraki, who can handle the flows, a bit of singing, and some production. Though he's probably the smallest in stature, he more than makes up for it in natural talent and charisma. His first proper release, December’s AngelsMayDie, made good on the promise shown on his array of loosies and features over the past two years. MattMcGhee produces much of his own music—though his songs with Virginia-native and Soulection producer Lakim are some of his best—making him one of the collective's more prolific members. He specializes in conceptual projects; 2014’s Show was packaged as a series wherein he plays host, every song is an episode and every feature is a special guest. The follow up, 1920, functioned as a time capsule of his life between 19 and 20 that he released on his 21st birthday. Other After F members include Poncho, KingRose, rMell, DizzyGordo, CalRips, and the late Avionadramida, Cal Rip’s brother and an unprecedented talent.

Mike of Doom

Some rappers cling to their ties to the 68 square miles that make up DC proper as proof of their legitimacy. Then there's Mike of Doom, who has named himself "Meezy Jesus"—"meezy" being short for Maryland—in honor of his home in Prince George's County. The declaration is on par with the against-the-grain approach that drives his entire aesthetic. Marked by his distinct low baritone and comically explicit lyrics dotted by random ad-libs, his music can be off-kilter, but it's also what makes the rapper—who is part of the collective 3-0Whop along with Ciscero, Rezt, OGK, et. al.—stand out.

Ciscero

If the three singles from his anticipated Kids Wear Crowns project are any hint of what's to come, it seems Ciscero is set to have a breakout year. The EP is shaping up like a who's who of DMV music—GoldLink, Sugg Savage of duo Akoko, Matt McGhee, and Mannywellz are all featured so far. But more importantly, Ciscero is proving he can hang with the best of them. Whether the flavor of the day is jazzy swing, tropical bounce, or a bass banger, the PG County rapper delivers every time.

K.A.A.N.

In a recent interview, K.A.A.N. (an acronym for Knowledge Above All Nonsense) said that music and masonry go hand-in-hand because they both teach you about work ethic. He would know, since he's officially done both, but while most of us will probably never see his work as a mason, his rap skills are otherworldly. He's released three projects over the course of a year, all of them filled will raps frenetic enough that people question whether he's breathing at all. Based in Columbia, Maryland, K.A.A.N. is a relative newcomer to the scene, but his buzz may just be rising faster than he spits his rhymes. Here's hoping his brickmason days are officially behind him—that is, if he wants them to be.

Ezko

Ezko is a no-frills rapper from Gaithersburg, Maryland whose ear for a beats and palpable skill with words forces his listeners to pay attention. A clear student of hip-hop, he not only has rhymes that reflect a lyricism-first attitude without the pretentiousness, but he often pays homage (presumably) to the rappers who influence him. "5 Finger Ring Rap" features a sample of Jay Electronica's "Exhibit A" as Ezko shares the track with his Dope Music Village brethren Brain Rapp and NatureBoi; "Free Candy" samples MF Doom's "Burdock Root" instrumental; "Sucka 4 Luv" nods to Tupac's "Do For Love." And that's just on one project.

Ace Cosgrove

Ace Cosgrove, member of the Hostile Youth collective (also home to Hassani Kwess, Uno Hype, Vaunfe and in-house producer Black Diamond) has been on a continued upswing since the unfettered rhymes of Simple Criticism and the audaciousness of UsVsRobots made him an artist to watch. His music has an air of defiant resilience—partially the result of an shaky upbringing in his hometown of Gaithersburg—that trickles into thought-provoking accounts and observations laced over production that can be just as unpredictable as his flows. His latest album Baby Need Food, which was produced almost entirely by Robbie Anthem, is his most cohesive to date and reveals an artist who is steadily maturing both musically and as a person. Perception is everything—especially so in a racialized society—but Ace, keenly aware of this reality and willing to attack it, turns a rigged deck into winning hand with every song.

Lightshow

Lightshow has become a bit of a hometown hero and a consistent, visible fixture in the DMV's rap scene over the past few years. He began his ascent after he commanded attention in a feature on Wale's 2012 Folarin mixtape. He was just a nascent rapper with two mostly under-the-radar projects at time, but he asserted he wouldn't “get trapped in the District.” He's since made good on his word: His 2014 mixtape The Way I See It, for instance, was hosted by DJ Khaled. His raps, highlighted by a pronounced DC accent, are fiery and urgent, and they pack enough power to carry him far beyond his Southeast DC home.

Jay IDK

The meaning of the acronym in Jay IDK's moniker—Ignorantly Delivering Knowledge—is a near-perfect summary of him. Instead of committing to either ratchetry or “consciousness,” the PG County rapper straddles the fence, presenting fans with a choice of which side to indulge. The conflict is an honest, all-too-familiar one that gives his music an edge and opens his reach outside of the stereotypical hood or "other" dichotomy rappers can find themselves bound to. His latest project, SubTrap, was an ambitious concept album that peeled back those layers through the narratives of its characters while also revealing Jay IDK's promise within the Beltway and beyond.

Beau Young Prince

After cycling through musical styles over the years, Beau Young Prince has found a way to make adaptability work in his favor. His solo work is relatively subdued, harkening back to his days of remixing XXYYXX tracks, but his psychedelic sing-raps are fully formed and more polished than ever on his recently released debut Until Then. In another version of himself, the DC native rhymes as Young Futura over bass-heavy dance beats crafted by the Brooklyn-based French producer YMNO. While their first single seemed too much an echo of GoldLink, the second, "We Get Lit," proved to be redemptive, and the duo will officially debut at this year’s SXSW. Casting too wide a net sometimes presents an artist as indecisive or unassured, but the offerings of Beau and those of Young Futura create space to shapeshift and excel at both. It seems the "Groovy God" is officially coming into his own.

Thraxxx

DC-based group Thraxxx landed a bit of a smash in 2013 with the infectious "Too," featuring member Lizzle (and remixed by fellow group standout Big Flock and Shy Glizzy). The record ultimately ended up in the hands of Atlanta rapper Que, but Lizzle remained on the new version alongside Trey Songz. The collective—which also includes Freakshow, Famous Pat, Bankroll Marky, Boogie Snow and Rim—offers a seemingly endless flow of output, consistently feeding fans looking for a street rap fix—available in syrupy, sinister and melodic varieties.

Yung Gleesh

Once a percussionist and co-founding member of go-go band TOB, Yung Gleesh traded his sticks for a mic in what was, perhaps, one of the most successful moves from the genre. It looked like he was poised to become DC's next big thing—he was a bit of a viral sensation chopping in A$AP Rocky's "Multiply" video—but a charge of sexual assault at last year's SXSW seem to have irreparably marred those efforts. Still, the Northeast DC native's contributions to the go-go scene and the rap scene, producing an immensely entertaining brand of trap music, can't be overstated. Gleesh continues to make music: He released an album in July called B.C. (Before Crucifixion) followed by a mixtape paying homage to Gucci Mane, titled Free Wop, on 10/17. Although many listeners and media outlets have distanced themselves from him, his fanbase remains fairly strong, and he continues to book shows around the country, including an appearance at the inaugural A$AP Yams Day celebration in New York City.

HD Mafia

No region really becomes official until they've created a dance, and while chopping and beating your feet were popularized in the go-gos, Southeast DC's HD Mafia decided to take a stab at creating another. Their "Smash" dance is somewhat similar to "The Heizman" in action and principle, but the song itself is far less pedestrian and features two of the four members—HD Mikey and HD Flyy—nonchalantly flexing over some trapped out production courtesy of PG County's Lil Boy Fresh. Their biggest look thus far, however, came from another song: the percussive "HD Fever." It includes a verse from HD Zroc, but the highlights come from Mikey, who has also captured a cosign from Wale and took the stage at the rapper's annual New Year's Day show this year.

A version of this article appeared in the March issue of VICE magazine.

Kevin Wilson is a photographer based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Instagram.

Briana Younger is a writer based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter.