The crowd at downtown party FLATOUT / Photo by Megan Lloyd
Baltimore is not historically a rap town. Most of the city’s notable urban artists made their mark with the distinct, 130 BPM dance sound of Baltimore club music, which can be rapped to but is not considered hip-hop. Unless you count Sisqo’s “Thong Song” as rap (it kind of is), Baltimore has yet to have a breakout figure. However, right now the city’s scene is hungrier than ever, and the new prospects are incredibly exciting, from a crop of street artists soundtracking the city’s frustrations to an experimental scene that is branching out from the traditional club sound and pushing music in new directions.
Given the city’s place outside of major media and culture hubs, Baltimore is used to feeling neglected. Coming from a not-so-major city, it’s easy to carry the burden of thinking where you come from has some sort of unique curse and that no one makes it. That feeling of being ignored was undoubtedly one of the leading forces behind Baltimore’s uprising back in April, when the city made international news as it protested the police killing of Freddie Gray. Those protests turned into something larger, bringing attention to the routine injustices that the city’s youth face and demonstrating a choice to no longer wait on empty promises of help to come true. Not only did the city’s political momentum shift, this renewed energy also has many people believing that a light will finally shine on Baltimore in this time of needed healing.
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It’s not as though Baltimore rap has come out of nowhere, though: Back in 2002, B Rich’s hit “Whoa Now” landed him a deal with Atlantic, a regular countdown slot on 106 & Park, and a spot on the soundtrack for NBA Live 2003. Ironically, this exposure never made B Rich much of a figure locally; his track was a surprise not only to people outside of the city but to those in it as well. At that same time, East Baltimore’s Tim Trees was a hometown rap hero with his hit “Bank Rolls,” which resonated due to his of-the-people image and his choice to use legendary Baltimore Club producer Rod Lee as his main contributor. In the early-to-mid-2000s, Def Jam signed teenage rapper Comp. But although he was featured on their video game, Def Jam: Fight For NY, and had a single, “Do Sumptin,” on the soundtrack for the DMX movie Cradle 2 The Grave, Comp never released an album on the label. Bossman's 2004 Baltimore Anthem "Oh!" landed him a deal with Virgin Records, but nothing seemed to come out of it.
With the internet’s heightened role in the spread of music, Baltimore rap began to diversify in the late 2000s and early 2010s. On the street side, Mullyman's 2009 song "Go Harder" sampled Jay-Z's line "I go harder than Baltimore" from the "Go Hard Remix" track with T-Pain and Kanye West, and the video landed spots on MTV Jams. Locally, (now deceased) artist Smash's track "Hypnotized" was the hit of 2008. Artists like Spank Rock and Soul Canon began speaking to the downtown, hipster scene that is heavily populated by art students. Reformed battle rapper Go DDM (now Uncle Lulu of Bond St District) played to the same downtown scene and is locally recognized as the first rapper to come out as gay. A Nicki Minaj diss that went viral helped Keys gain national attention, sparked a response from Nicki, and landed the Baltimore rapper a mini-tour with Lil Kim. Starting in 2008, after his first deal with Bad Boy fell through, Los, who had been known on the local battle rap scene since the early 2000s, became relentless with dropping mixtapes. His persistence has made him the most well-known artist from the city in recent years. But like B Rich, Los’s national success (including a nod from Kendrick Lamar as having the best “Control” response) hasn’t translated to much love back at home; he’s not viewed as much of a representative that outsiders may think.
Today, Baltimore’s rap scene is more varied than it has ever been. It essentially breaks down into two groups: street and hipster or alternative rap, which have yet to intersect on a regular basis. Social media has made small triumphs more attainable and more tangible to young, aspiring artists, and the city has begun to find new ways to distinguish itself with slang. For instance, many artists are using “Lor” in place of “Lil”—a spelling that more fittingly sounds out the slur with which most Baltimoreans speak. As Baltimore begins to stand out, these are the artists defining the city’s new scene:
YGG Tay comes from the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, and, while he’s still developing lyrically, his braggadocious content, charm and ear for crazy beats has earned him a growing following in Baltimore over the past year. It also doesn’t hurt that Future has taken him under his wing. At the end of last year, his song “Why You So Mad?” blew up throughout the city and his Rich Before Rap tape included collaborations with Young Scooter, Metro Boomin, and TM88.
One thing has been a constant in Baltimore music this summer: Tate Kobang’s “Bank Rolls.” The rapper flipped Tim Trees’ 2002 local hit and switched it into an anthem, mentioning different neighborhoods throughout the city. It’s been such an undeniable hit that it helped Tate ink a deal with Kevin Liles and Lyor Cohen’s 300 Entertainment last month.
In ways, West Baltimore’s Lor Scoota, a.k.a. ScootaUpNext, sparked the city-wide renewal of interest in local street music with his Still In The Trenches mixtape series. He comes from Pennsylvania Avenue; it’s a section of the West Side with strong black musical history roots thanks to landmarks like The Royal Theatre, which hosted artists like Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, The Temptations, and others. Last summer, his drug-serving single “Bird Flu” flooded Baltimore like no other song has in years. It was played on the radio non-stop, received sick Baltimore Club edits, got a remix featuring DC’s Shy Glizzy, and came packaged with a distinctive dance that has become a staple in Instagram videos. Scoota’s raw early freestyles have gotten him continued support from Meek Mill since the beginning of his career. He’s currently gearing up for Still In The Trenches 3.
Since last summer, there’s been a debate about who the face of Baltimore street rap is: Lor Scoota or Young Moose. Moose comes from the Down The Hill (DDH) section of East Baltimore and blew up locally with his song “Dumb Dumb,” which played on the Baltimore slang of calling a friend “dummy.” Take a ride through any part of town and you’re bound to hear Moose blasting out of car windows or being rapped by teenagers walking down the street. Moose’s biggest draw is his candid account of street life, his long feud with Baltimore City police, and his likeness to the locally adored Lil Boosie. Late last month, Moose signed to Boosie’s Bad Azz Music Syndicate—a stamp of approval that anyone from inner city Baltimore would dream of.
A Sandtown resident like YGG Tay, Lor Chris has been gaining a solid following over the past few years on YouTube and Spinrilla with his Unda-rated mixtape series. Immediately after the Baltimore Uprising in April, Chris made one of the best local tributes to Freddie Gray, who was also native to Sandtown.
Making any reference to Boosie is a smart move for artists in Baltimore, so flipping the rapper’s song “What About Me” into a local version to ask why others in the city were getting credit while he was being overlooked gianed Lor Stackks major attention across social media. At performances, hundreds of teenagers recite Stackks’ lyrics, and he’s still in the very early stages of his career. He’s also a part of YGG (Young Go Gettas) with YGG Tay, YGG Dre, and others.
In some ways, G-Rock was an OG to Baltimore’s new wave of street rap. He was active beginning in the late 2000s, but in 2011 he made noise with his track “Flute”—an anthem dedicated to lames (a.k.a. flutes in Baltimore lingo)—and eventually recruited Alley Boy for the remix. In 2013, he collaborated with Rocko for his song “Already.” G-Rock had been creating sizeable buzz again in Baltimore this summer with his singles “Dboy Walk” and “Winning” featuring AYoung Dolph, which were both set to be on his upcoming mixtape G-Rock Mayweather 3. Sadly, G-Rock was shot and killed two weeks ago in his Edmondson Village neighborhood of West Baltimore. One of his last posts on Instagram was a video that showed he and Kevin Gates, who openly supported him, walking through a mall in Baltimore before Gates’s show on July 29. G-Rock Mayweather 3 will be released posthumously.
Butch Dawson is the renaissance man of Baltimore’s downtown, DIY rap scene; he’s the in-house producer for his Basement Rap clique, a rapper, and sometimes singer. He helps put together a live cypher series called Beet Trip, which features a select group of producers taking turns playing beats while any rapper in attendance can grab the mic. Musically he stands out with his laid-back, nasal delivery and his synth-driven production.
Over the past three years, Abdu Ali has paved his own lane within the downtown arts scene. On top of creating a unique, futuristic brand of club music fused with rap, he’s enhancing the scene with his party, Kahlon (full disclosure: I help throw this party), which has brought artists like Jungle Pussy, Juliana Huxtable, B L A C K I E, Lor Scoota, Princess Nokia and others under one roof. Some have safely compared him to Death Grips’ MC Ride, which feels more like a linking of shirtless punk black dudes instead of recognizing actual musical similarities. The best way to get a feel for his aesthetic is to just listen for yourself because there’s not much else out there like it.
Al Rogers Jr.
Al Rogers Jr. is another artist occupying the downtown scene in Baltimore. His style has gone through phases of spoken word poetry, frantic rapping, and most recently an unorthodox blend of singing and spitting. In 2013 he caught people’s eyes with his video for “Fin,” a sermon denouncing the system. Now, with songs like “BlueGreen” he’s taken a more soulful approach in preparation for his sophomore project, Luvadocious.
TT The Artist
TT The Artist has been working on her craft for a while now, and she has done the best job of any artist of simultaneously existing in both the Baltimore rap and club worlds. Her song “Pussy Ate” has been a local hit for the past two summers and is still regularly spun at parties downtown. Her “Dat A Freak” track with Diplo and Swick was sampled for J Lo’s “Booty” last summer. TT also throws a monthly party called Queerology that gives a platform to LGBT artists in the area.
Black Zheep DZ
A member of the Basement Rap collective along with Butch Dawson, Black Zheep DZ’s deep, choppy delivery is what most distinguishes him from the pack. His raps cover his experiences growing up in East Baltimore, and over the past year, he’s worked with GoldLink, D.R.A.M., and Baltimore Club standout Matic808.
JuegoTheNinety keeps an extremely low profile, and, as a result, he remains one of Baltimore's best-kept secrets even though he's gained a solid listenership online. Juego's content mostly covers what he has going on internally (self-doubt, being killed in his dreams, his reasons for doing drugs), and his delivery is refreshingly deranged.
Grey Dolf is fairly new on the scene and is probably the most abstract artist in Baltimore right now. A regular at Beet Trip, her music takes a confessional, stream-of-consciousness bent over both cloudy or trap-based production. She’s caught the eye of the downtown scene lately by playing shows regularly all summer, and she recently started working with Baltimore Club legend Blaqstarr.
Like Al Rogers, Malik Ferraud spits a harmonious brand of rap. His music is a quick flashback to the indie-friendly phase of rap that flooded the internet in the late 2000s, and his project, Infinity, is an easy-going tale of putting everything into chasing your dreams.
Lawrence Burney lives in Baltimore and is the editor of the zine True Laurels. Follow him on Twitter.