Photos: True Laurels + Abdu Ali

A couple weeks back, I interviewed my friend Abdu Ali for Frank 151, which went live last week (check it here). In the process of completing the story, we got together to take some shots, which, like everything with Abdu, turned into an entertaining situation. A big S/O goes to DUOX (from True Laurels Volume 1) for tossing us their studio and putting up with us for a couple hours. Check out the photos below and share them with your friends. Oh, and follow Abdu on Twitter: @AbduAli.  

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True Laurels Zine Release/ KAHLON Photos

If you were at The Crown in Baltimore this past Saturday to celebrate the birth of KAHLON/True Laurels zine launch, THANK YOU. We packed it out and danced all night. Shoutout to everyone that came to the table to buy a zine and chat it up with me. Big ups to Al Rogers, Abdu Ali, TT The Artist, David Revlon, Gurl Crush and Ponyo for giving a crazy show. If you didn't catch me at The Crown, the zine will be available to purchase online very soon and keep checking the site to see online features of those highlighted in the issue. Thanks to Jonathan Hanson and Abdu for the photos. Also peep the cover and Table of Contents for the zine!

What's OG Dutch Master Really Saying in His Blue Light District Mixtape?

With the way we’re processing and absorbing music right now, being a newcomer to the game can be a harsh life to choose; I mean, there’s millions (probably billions) of people uploading music to the site you’re using, everyday. There’s a good chance that it’ll all sound alike, more than likely sounding like the popular style of the moment. And what sucks the most is that some random person out of that pool of everyone sounding just like the hot dude on the radio will get discovered and signed. I see it. The music game can fuck an artist’s head up if they follow the fame route over making quality music. Seems that it can definitely be a floss-thin line to balance on.

OG Dutch Master comes to mind when I think about all of that. He’s a black, male rapper in his early-twenties and talks about smoking weed, drugs and guns. On the surface, that could be one of the hardest things to make it through, given the number of others who rap about that. There are millions of other guys in that category. But, on the flip-side, there are plenty of rappers who don’t have the same advantages as OG does; He’s from Baltimore, so with his understanding of Baltimore Club and close proximity to pioneers of the genre, he could be utilizing styles and sounds that no other rapper could do with organic ease. Second: No one has a voice like his. Most major-label rappers have the same faintly-nasal tone that Kanye and Drake have (Big Sean, J. Cole, Rockie Fresh, Travis Scott, on and on) but the stuffed-nose squawk of his is purely unique. Third: He’s from Baltimore. How many fairly well-known rappers can say that? None except Los and he’s not out here spitting narratives on the regular. If his content comes from a unique experience that only he can draw from, then who else can do that? No one, because it’s him. Join all that with some futuristic Baltimore-club tinged rap beats and now we’re talking; The pool of similar rappers would be dissolving. Where OG stands on the conform-to-popular-sounds/content or run-with-my-own-style conundrum is still in question with his latest project, Blue Light District.

Early on in the tape, a few lines set up the way I analyzed this project. In BLD’s second track, “Numb Or Dumb”, OG says these things: “Looking at these rappers, all them look the same. Promethazine and Molly, looking like some fiends.”,  “Too many rappers, not enough fans”, “Started in the kitchen, Pyrex vision” and  “Damn a nigga bored at the top, I feel lonely”. On the topic of being like everyone else, there isn’t much of a distinguishable quality in any of the music here. He may not be poppin’ the seal and doing Molly, but there’s plenty of other run-of-the-mill content to be had on this tape. Randomly guess when he’ll drop a drug or gun reference and you’ll probably be dead on, or at least just missing the mark. There are so many stories about the kid who had nowhere to turn but to sell drugs, who’s down for his friends that won’t hesitate to bust one for him. True or not, that story is like the standard in rap music and if there aren’t any profound twists and bends to the traditional way of telling that story, there’s no point in listening. Or peep the “two white girls” reference in “3 M’s”; How many rappers are talking about their white girl obsession in songs now? In “Paper” he’s riding foreign luxury cars. In “Done It All” he bought his girl a new Aston Martin, for being loyal (Personal Highlights from this song: 1) How weird and rewarding is it to hear someone rap a line about eBay in such a heartfelt track? 2) I dig the channeling of early-2000’s pop-R&B hook). Neither sounds likely and all of these things are typical in follow-the-formula rap songs—Something he pointed out in "Numb Or Dumb."

There are two songs where OG seems to approach things from the run-with-my-own style angle. “Knuckleheadz” is one of the better cuts as it uses the huge “Hey You Knuckleheadz” Baltimore Club mix. He rides the beat with ease, seems to genuinely have fun and he voice is amplified perfectly. On “Money Motivated” he’s at top form with a tireless verse even though most of it is popping off about selling drugs. Both the latter and “Knuckleheadz” have party speaker-ready production; They sound fun. From there, my focus shifted to the place from which OG is speaking on some of the project. A lot of this tape is OG rapping from above and not eye-level. Yeah sure that happens often from people like Jay-Z but when a 43-year-old, two-decade vet worth a few hundred-million dollars does it, it feels much more appropriate than a newcomer in his early twenties who’s trying to scratch the surface. Whether it’s him being lonely at the top or being friends with Danny Brown or being better than Los or people wanting to suck him off because he’s getting cash now...it all seems forced and gives way to a bigger issue that permeates the hip-hop scene in Baltimore.

There’s no need to give a backstory on Baltimore as a city. Shit’s rough, we all know this. But for whatever reason, that plight has not yet propelled one rapper to a breakthrough where that story can be told in an effective way. And because of that, rappers from Baltimore have a skewed view on what “making it” really is. There are two things the internet can do: 1) Serve as a platform for people sharing their art no matter their location. Ten years ago I probably wouldn’t have known about an underground rapper from Alabama while living on the East Coast. But now with a simple tag-search, I can do that with ease, which I love. 2) People learning about each other’s music and showing love on the internet can give artists a false sense of self. Being posted on some well known blogs and publications does help but that’s not where it should stop. More importantly, it’s far from an arrival to the world. Rappers in Baltimore get coverage and attention so seldomly that a post from a blog can really get their heads going. And to a certain extent, it should. Take the blog post, make connections, work even harder, then build a core fan base and you’ll probably end up on a bigger platform. Sure, from a local-perspective OG Dutch Master is doing some cool things but he isn’t selling out local shows and his fan-base isn’t fully established. So if he really plans on buying his girl an Aston Martin, he’s gonna have to start aiming a bit higher and not thinking he’s at a higher place than anyone in Baltimore. People lose interest so quickly in music now that it’s tricky to know where an artist stands until they put out an undeniably solid body of work. Blue Light District isn’t undeniably solid. It has no cohesive sound, the content can be found in an abundance of other rap songs and, not to forget, that weird transition into sleepy, furniture store music at the end of the outro, “Done It All”. Overall, it’s sloppy and that was the case with his debut project, Art Of War, earlier this year. So if he’s gonna make a huge cultural impact and be that Baltimore guy who makes it, OG has to graduate from being that local guy making only a bit of noise before overtly resting on his laurels.

Abdu Ali's Sophomore Introduction

A sophomore project is usually meant to build on the thing that made you special to listeners your first time around. But for Abdu Ali, he’s approaching things like he never released the fiery, untapped cry for independence that was his debut project, Invictos. “I was holding a lot in while recording Invictos,” he said to me recently as we chatted in my living room. “This time around I’ve been going ham with the vocals. I lost my voice a few times while recording the project. The flow and lyrics are much better now too. Like, I’m giving bars.” That project, Push + Slay is his new introduction—something he hasn’t let any close friends listen to and says is more of a rap project than the alternative Baltimore Club sounds he gave his first time around. “I listened to a lot of Tempa T and Bjork in the process of recording this and the result is a grungy, dark and punk sound,” he says while gazing off into space; it’s hard for him to hide his angst while we’re talking about the music he’s been keeping secret from everybody, but he isn’t withdrawn from discussing it.

Push + Slay’s leadoff “Bleed” isn’t foreign to the overall sound of Invictos: Ballroom crashes, uptempo drums, talking about conquering his past, with just enough Baltimore Club sounds to let you know where he’s coming from. But the evolution is in his delivery; other than the first song he ever released, “Banjee Musick”, he hasn’t been a rap mold, even though the influence has always been present. “Bleed” makes a point to knock down limitations, and that isn’t coincidental. “A lot of songs don’t sound alike on Push + Slay, but my vocal performance is what’s gonna be the dealbreaker,” he says. “Bleed is just straight up Baltimore. I can’t say that for the rest of the project. Me and James Nasty just vibe. Maybe it has something to do with us both being from Baltimore or us both having a lot of musical influences but he’s really good at incorporating different styles into Baltimore Club. I did the song in one take.”

Other than the music itself, a topic we couldn’t seem to escape was the presence, or absence, of his following. In other conversations we’ve had he’s been candid about his frustration with not getting the attention that he wants for his music—even though SPIN named Invictos one of the most slept on rap releases in 2013’s first quarter. But while on my couch, he seemed to have a better understanding of what needs to be done to get where he wants to be: “Until I’m working my hardest—like eating, sleeping and shitting out music and performance-hard—I have no room to complain,” is what he said while mentioning that he’s been taking notes from artists like Death Grips,  B L A C K I E, Bjork and whoever else that’s not afraid to be completely comfortable in their creativity, even if they seem insane in the process.”I need to work hard and focus on making the best shit I can make. Period.”

Watch the music video for “Bleed” and look out for Push + Slay, set to release on Friday, September 13th: