"Ain't no cons to teleporting."
It was a mild October evening in Washington, DC, and GoldLink was at a photo studio in the city’s Northwest quadrant, talking about what super power he’d choose.
Among the group of friends and handlers assembled, time travel was the most popular. I opted for invisibility. But for the 24-year-old rapper, born D’Anthony Carlos, the risk of inadvertently changing the course of history seemed too high.
“What if you go back to save MLK, and he ends up becoming an Uncle Tom?” he wondered. “What if Pac became All Lives Matter?” All fair concerns to raise.
Sporting a fresh fade, a black denim jacket, and a tucked-in white tee, GoldLink was back in the DMV area for the final night of his At What Cost Tour, the live extension of his 2017 debut album of the same name. At this time three years earlier, he was first starting to turn heads in the hip-hop world with a genre of music he called “future bounce,” which combined production elements of house, club music, and R&B into a distinctly local, albeit entirely futuristic, new sound. And now, with a Grammy-nomination under his belt for his platinum, 90s-nostalgic single “Crew,” GoldLink is poised to become his region’s biggest musical export.
For outsiders, the very notion of the DMV can be perplexing. The acronym, which stands for “DC, Maryland, and Virginia,” suggests a geographical region encompassing two states and the city sandwiched between them, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you ask a local, the DMV is constituted by DC and its surrounding suburbs—and more specifically, places that can be reached by DC’s Metro system. If you aren’t able to get home from the DC Metro, you’re not in the DMV.
More than a place, though, the DMV refers to a shared culture, one emanating from out of the heart of the city into its outskirts, especially as gentrification continues pushing black residents out of the District. It denotes a common slang (most famously, saying “kill moe” to express agreement, disappointment, or anything in between) and dress (recently, a love for New Balance sneakers). More often than not, it also points to a deep fondness for go-go, a local derivative of funk decorated with congas, bells, and snares. Go-go emerged in the DC club scene of the early 70s, when pioneer Chuck Brown had the genius idea of performing continuous grooves with a live band that kept parties going without pause. Go-go nights are still happening in the DMV, but they're a bit harder to come by than they used to be.
GoldLink knows that culture well, having lived in a handful of areas within the region during his youth. He was born in the District, and grew up between there and Landover, Maryland, a quiet suburban section of Prince George’s County. When he was 16, his parents split, and he and his mom moved to Northern Virginia, where some high school friends encouraged him to try his hand at rapping.
At 19, GoldLink found himself without much going for him outside of a newfound interest in a hip-hop career. He enrolled in a community program in Northern Virginia called “The Movement,” meant to encourage young people in the area to act on their creativity, and got access to a local studio. Its owner, Henny Yegezu, is now his manager.
At first, there was something a little mysterious about GoldLink. He never showed his face, and was conspicuously absent from his first few videos. In early interviews, by way of an explanation, GoldLink stressed that he was striving to be more God-like, and that considering that no one knows what the higher power’s physical features are, they shouldn’t know what he looked like, either.
“We should never try to be the next Malcolm X or the next nigga,” he told Complex in 2014. “We should be God. Even though we can’t be perfect, we should try.”
But after a mask malfunction, he told Noisey in 2015, he decided to reveal himself. Since then, he’s gone on to release two more projects. Most notable is 2017’s At What Cost, Link’s debut album, which centers his experiences growing up in the DMV area over an instrumental backdrop that sounds more melodic than his bouncier early output. With it, he’s succeeded in creating the rare rap album that captures the spirit of the DMV without having to lean on go-go—or trap, for that matter—to be successful. With its vivid imagery and nostalgic charm, At What Cost also carries a unique potential to communicate that spirit to the outside world.
The DMV rap scene is still in its early years; unlike places like Chicago and Atlanta, the region has yet to establish its own signature sound. Still, some innovators stand out. Wale popped in the late 2000s with an onslaught of mixtapes that joined go-go with relentless raps and spoken word-inspired bars. At the start of this decade, Oddisee staked a claim in the rap underground with his soul-sampling boom-bap, and Fat Trel and Shy Glizzy informed people of The District’s street politics.
Though GoldLink’s music, in ways, is an evolution of Wale’s sometimes dancy, consistently soulful output, it doesn’t quite fit into any one of these boxes, instead opting for the cut-up house and R&B production of collectives like Soulection. “Crew,” which brings in DMV peers Shy Glizzy and Brent Faiyaz, celebrates the feeling of supreme self-belief over a bed of soothing keys. Listening to GoldLink rap about his historical year before that year even happened—”Goddamn, what a time, what a year/ We are what them young boys fear”—it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s landed on his own distinct brand of perfection.
That doesn't mean that GoldLink has distanced himself from city's local dance music, though. After the photo shoot in Northwest, GoldLink’s manager Kazz sent me the address for their next destination, a house 20 minutes outside the city, in PG County. Downstairs in the basement, which was scattered with keyboards and drum sets, I realized that we were in the rehearsal space for New Impressionz, a popular DMV area go-go band that gave “Crew” an official, hometown-approved remix in 2017. They were here to rehearse for their opening set at one of GoldLink’s shows the following night.
As members of the band got everything set up, a friendly debate erupted over the origin of the regional trend of rocking New Balance sneakers. “It ain’t no debate,” Link said to discredit my claim for Baltimore’s place in the conversation, before going in for the biggest DC flex possible: “It’s photos with Marvin Gaye wearing them. We been doing this.” A series of thorough google searches for such an image did not support his claim.
The rehearsal kicked off slow, with a crash of symbols, some bass strums, and a synth rendition Brent Faiyaz’s “Crew” hook. Before I knew it, I was witnessing go-go being played live for the first time, and I could feel a type of conjuring inside.
I wasn’t alone in that feeling. As New Impressionz got into their full groove, Link swayed about, wincing up his face in enjoyment of the vibrations, and I was reminded of something he told me earlier that day.
“I went to my first go-go when I was in, like, sixth grade,” he’d said, referring to the nightclubs in DC and PG County that played host to go-go parties in the early 2000s. “It might have been at this club called Stadium. With At What Cost, I was basically reliving a time in my life during the go-go era. I remember when it was popping for my generation and how that felt and what it looked like.”
Many locals point to the beginning of this decade as the end of go-go’s cultural hold on DC. The biggest blow to the scene happened when go-go forefather Chuck Brown died in 2012, at the age of 75. Another happened more gradually, stemming from a rapid change in the District’s demographics and with it, increased policy scrutiny on venues that host go-go music. According to census data, the place formerly known as “Chocolate City” saw its black population drop from 70 percent in the 1980s to around 48 percent in 2016. With that kind of change comes a typical byproduct of gentrification, where new white residents complain away forms of black expression.
Regionality is at the heart of what makes new rap exciting. It can serve as a portal to life in another city, or, if you’re from that area, affirm your identity and life experiences. It’s what makes West Coast rap decorated with G-funk feel like a homecoming for people from California. It’s one of the forces powering Atlanta’s trap’s infiltration the mainstream, and part of what made the unrefined rawness of Chicago’s drill feel an extension of a city in crisis. When a city doesn't have a detectable rap sound, that presents a challenge, one GoldLink has undoubtedly had to contend with.
But even for a listener who didn’t grow up in DC and its surrounding suburbs, when At Cost Plays, you can feel Chocolate City bleeding through the speakers. “Have You Seen That Girl?” flashes back to Link’s adolescent hot spots within the DMV region: neighborhoods his teenage flings were from, parties he’d hit with friends, fights he got into. The song’s new jack swing-like production reinforces that nostalgia, as does “Summatime,” which looks back on teenage romance with a verse from regional rap forefather Wale. “Roll Call,” a song that name-checks DMV hoods like Forest Creek and Benning Road in addition to popular local clothing line Solbiato, sums up the spirit of the album with a line from area native Mya’s hook: “So no matter where I go, around the world/ It's back to DC.”
“This album wasn’t really about a resurgence of sound,” GoldLink told me. “More like an ode to something that should have gotten more attention. The state of the city is not really the same. I wanted to highlight that, so it’s not forgotten and lost in the files.”
In Silver Spring, Maryland the next day, a group of teens blasting Lil Uzi Vert’s “Ronda” out of portable speakers huddled beneath the flashing marquee of the Filmore. They were gearing up for a live drum set with empty containers, but the venue security waved them off before they could start. They returned about 20 minutes later, to the exact same response.
Inside the venue, where GoldLink was set to play the first of two sold-out shows that night, Virginia native and frequent GoldLink collaborator Masego popped out to a headliner-like reaction, woo-ing the crowd with his saxophone play and raspy harmonizing. GoldLink crept out to an even bigger response, rocking a short gold chain with a sports car pendant. When the doon-di-doon-di-doon-di-doons of the “Crew” intro came through the speakers, the place went into collective screams.
The night’s rendition of the song would turn out to be a particularly special one: Brent Faiyaz came out to sing the hook, and when it was time for his verse, Southeast DC’s staunchest representative, Shy Glizzy, appeared out of nowhere with his son. When he screamed the verse’s iconic opening line—“HEY, NICE TO MEET—” The Fillmore almost imploded. From my position just right of the stage, it sounded like Glizzy’s verse was being echoed by every onlooker within earshot. It was like nothing I’d ever seen and, in that moment, the significance of a song like “Crew” became clear.
Some music can move you to dance. Other music can make you think about the world in a way that you hadn’t considered previously. “Crew” is the rare song that will make you feel—a quality reserved for exceptional music. The lyrics are quite literally about the pricelessness of feeling yourself—how confidence can inform how you move through the world, and how people start to treat you differently once you get in your bag. If you believe in the law of attraction, it’s no wonder that the song’s video has over 58 million plays and the track ended up snagging a Grammy nomination: it makes people feel like a million bucks.
“I wasn’t expecting anything at all,” GoldLink would write me a couple months later, when I emailed him after the news broke. “But I can’t say I was completely shocked, either—definitely more of an affirmation.”
Indeed, he said knew that the song would take off just after recording it.
“I feel like we already won,” he said. “No trendy features or huge co-signs—just teamwork, and good music. It’s proof of the DMV’s enduring legacy and will hopefully inspire other people to make art about what matters instead of what sells.”
In truth, GoldLink’s success already seems to be opening doors for other young rappers helping expand the definition of what DMV rap sounds like. One of those people is IDK, an MC from PG County whose IWASVERYBAD project, which premiered on Adult Swim in 2017, wavers between proper raps and church-inspired R&B tunes about being a knucklehead from a stable background. Another is Rico Nasty, a rapper who dresses like a punk-inspired club kid and teeters between screamo bars and dreamy rap ballads on her Sugar Trap mixtape series. “Poppin,” her heavy-hitting 2017 single, has racked up over two million plays on YouTube, and even made a cameo on HBO’s Insecure soundtrack. And now, with GoldLink up for a Grammy, the excitement around idiosyncratic DMV rap would appear to be at an all-time high.
Back in the green room after the show, I asked GoldLink whether he thinks that he’s helped usher in a new generation of forward-thinking rappers in the area.
“I do feel like that,” he replied, wiping sweat from his face. “You know, because the music I make wasn’t a thing here. The area was infatuated with trap, so I seen a lot of great rappers compromise they art trying to fit into what the status quo was, and I never was going for that shit.”
Even when he was just starting out, it was GoldLink’s unwavering confidence that fueled him to go against what was proven to work in the DMV. And now that his gamble has paid off, the ears he didn’t attract before are starting to listen.
“I could talk greasy over better beats,” he told me. “And if they don’t like it, it’ll get so big that they have to like it.”
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Reginald Thomas II is a Baltimore-based photographer. Follow him on Instagram.