Baltimore's Basement Rap crew is back with a new installment of their monthly "Basement Rap Radio" mix. December's mix includes unreleased tracks from Buffa7o, Butch Dawson, Black Zheep DZ and a hilarious JPEGMAFIA song that comes across as a love letter to late-night Baltimore carryout, Jerry's where he details his favorite things to order "wings with mumbo sauce and a half & half). There's also beats from EU-IV, Jacob Marley and Llamadon musicians, Freaky and Michel. Stream "Basement Rap Radio" below:
At this point, there's rarely a passing week where Grey Dolf isn't playing a show in Baltimore's downtown music scene. Active for almost an exact year, the 20-year-old who was born Brayaira Simms took on the challenge to finally pursue a career in music after playing around with the form since childhood, moving to New York at 18 for personal growth and coming back home to a continuously growing DIY scene fronted by black and brown kids. Dolf's music doesn't fit into any box, not even ones made for what "alt rap" is supposed to be. At times, she raps conventionally and even fits in a bit of comedy like performing a full tape worth of Chief Keef covers. Wailing uncontrollably over lo-fi production isn't out of the norm for her and neither is creating an impromptu mixtape with Blaqstarr called D'usse Blunts in a matter of four hours. No matter the classification for what Grey Dolf's music and overall aesthetic is, she's been attracting a growing level of support and attention since mustering up the courage to rap at local collective Llamadon's open-mic series, Beet Trip, last summer. We recently caught up with Grey Dolf and learned about some pivotal points in her growth as an artist and where she wants to move, going forward:
Grey Dolf: I started getting into music in middle school after people started to tell me my voice sounded like a boy. That actually made me sad and I became more conscious of my voice. It made me hate my voice and sometimes I still do. But my early music came to me when I was in the shower or in the mirror looking at myself, making up songs. In high school, I used to take academic things and take them to another level or more relatable through music. If I would be thinking about something that I was having a hard time with, and then start listening to myself to figure it out, it would turn into these ballads I’d be singing to myself. I have so much of that material from voice memos. It's actually ridiculous.
When Pursuing A Career In Music Became Real
I attempted to try college in Baltimore then I just had to leave because it was too much. I moved to New York when I was 18 and stayed for like 7 or 8 months before I came back last summer. I worked at Banana Republic in Soho (laughs) and lived in Lower East Side.
I came down to Baltimore like two times one month in the summer while I was living in there and I went to Llamadon's Beet Trip one night. I was drinking a lot of Patron and cooling it with people I hadn’t seen in a while and I was just really feeling it. I was really turning up and got on the mic and it felt really good. A lot of people were like, “Oh my gosh, I wanna work with you.” I was just listening like, “That’s what’s up.” But when I told some people that I was really about to do this, like really be Grey Dolf and perform and put on shows, some people were like, “You not gonna be able to build it up that fast.” It was funny when I look back. It was actually November 14th when I did put on my first show and performed last year.
I interned at this shop downtown called Agio when I was in high school and that’s where I met Jacob Marley, Butch Dawson, Black Zheep DZ and some other people. Seeing all them make music was a big influence. Even like being in studios with random hood rappers when I was younger was an influence to me. But I always thought Baltimore was super chill. I think everybody could work more collectively but like 2Pac went to Baltimore School for the Arts and it’s a lot of cool factories for manufacturing here. It’s just a lot of cool and inspiring things going on here.
How To Release Music
I’m strategizing from an energy perspective but I’m trying not to be too forceful. It’s all these different things. Like, I just deleted my whole SoundCloud just because I wanna release music in a better way. I can do better than that. I’d rather post all my songs visually. I was on YouTube and typed in my name and saw so much shit that I didn’t even post. Audio is great but I don’t think people will get me without a visual. It’s really fun. I’m still figuring how I want people to receive my work, though. At first I was just making things for me but the fact that other people are involved in that process now is interesting.
What Could Be Better
I could definitely sharpen my organization because it’s crucial to how people receive my stuff. I need to work on production too. I just got rid of my computer because the beats I was making on there weren’t quality. I wanna start incorporating more instruments in my work beyond digital sounds like piano, maybe clarinet and guitar.
Something is brewing in Baltimore. I know I'm probably the millionth person to say that and I'm not even sure what is actually brewing but, there is something. I can feel it...? Before the past few years, there were two things you were getting from black artists in the city: club music and street rap. That's not a complaint, though; both are still my favorite kinds of music but now there is some form of variety. We badly needed that. Artists like Lor Scoota, Young Moose and Greedy are holding the streets down with their music. TT The Artist, Matic808, DJ Dizzy, Mighty Mark and Angel Baby are doing right by club music. Abdu Ali is doing his best to fuse all of those energies. And with Llamadon and 7th Floor Villains—interchangeable collectives forging a scene with experimental shoot-offs of rap—Butch Dawson, Dylijens, Buffa7o and Black Zheep DZ have a concrete following.
Zheep has proven to be the most ambitious of Llamadon's camp. He's dropped four projects in the past three years and while his artistic progression didn't seem so evident to me most of those times, his latest effort, 8th World, shows him in a more authoritative role when it comes to developing a sound and stringing together tangible narratives. Recently, I had the chance to chat with him about the making of 8th World, where he sees himself as an artist and if he's sharing enough of himself with his audience. Read up!
Right off, I noticed that 8th World is much more melodic in its production than any of your previous work. Is that indicative of the style you wanna go forward with or was it specific to this project?
That’s kind of what I was going for with progressing my sound and the sound for the project. I have more shit that sounds soulful now but that was my aim.
What was the concept behind 8th World when you named the project?
It was kind of an idea behind the seven wonders of the world. It was always a question about what the eighth wonder is and as a standout figure from Baltimore, which is a standout city, I felt like making that my eighth wonder. It's a place that a lot of people don’t get to see. They're on the outside looking in. I just wanted to show people a different perspective of it--even people who're from here. I know it's a different sound than what other people make. That's why it's called 8th World.
How do you know when you've heard the right beat to rap over? Are you in the studio with producers or are you less hands-on with it?
A couple people sent me their beats but 80% of the project was me sitting down with producers and creating with them. I was telling a lot of producers what I wanted. Like Radical the Kid was hands-on, Teklun was hands-on, Eu-IV hands-on. They knew how to sync their signature sounds with mine.
On "Mine" with D.R.A.M., you go over your hustle and desire to keep pushing through. Being on the local scene for the past few years, how do you feel about your own progression and the scene's?
I feel like it’s been moving. Just like the song says, “Ain’t nothing stopping me.” A lot of people on the local scene might not know about me and some people do but it's coming back around because other cities starting to show more love now so they're starting to see what it is.
With the scene, you got people that are in different lanes. That's hard. Everybody gets to focus on a different sound and they're not going for the same thing. It's definitely diverse and I'm happy for this shit. Everybody has their own keys to open the door, you know?
A lot of people don't know that Tim Trees--one of the few locally big rappers we had in Baltimore growing up--is your brother-in-law. Has he given you any useful advice that you've been able to apply to how you're moving?
Yeah he gives me a lot of advice and helps me a lot. Like every time I talk to him he'll help out. He just keeps my head on straight and lets me know that it’s a lot of fuck shit out here so just watch out for it. He helps me with distribution. But it's a lot of personal advice and music advice. Basically just "stay doing you" and don't let nobody stop that.
On "6th Sense" you mentioned that waiting too late to realize that you're not seeing life clear is a fear of yours. Can you elaborate on that. What's cloudy for you right now?
I feel like I’m seeing clear but sometimes when you’re so focused on something, it's still people looking from the outside. I've had this happen to me before. Like I’ve had my mother and father look at me when I first started rapping like, “This nigga crazy. Everybody raps." They looked at me like I wasn't seeing life clearly and in the song I was saying, "what if I wait too late to realize that?" But I feel like I’m not though. I feel like I'm gonna accomplish what I'm going for. I was just saying “what if” because that's how it's always been with that.
If you had to pinpoint one thing you need improvement on, what would that be?
I don't think it's lyrics. I definitely need to keep progressing on my sound. It's no so much about lyrics now because I think I'm a good lyricist. I'm not at my best--nobody is. It's always room for improvement.
As a listener, I always long for more transparency from rappers. Do you feel like you're as revealing as you could be about who you are?
Yeah. I feel like I’m revealing enough for the time. I do that on purpose because you gotta leave some mystery behind it. We progressing everyday so I don't wanna lay everything on the table. It's definitely more shit to be heard, trust me. I'm far from where I wanna be and I'm revealing just enough so as the time goes, my story gonna unravel. I'm writing my book, you know?
One of 8th World's bonuses, "Mr. Slick", is a collaboration between you and Matic808. It seems like a no-brainer to me. Even Tim Trees had a whole album produced by Rod Lee. Why do you think there isn't more exchanging between club artists and rappers in Baltimore?
It’s crazy. I think it’s so hard for Baltimore rappers to work with club producers because we so used to the sound. We always heard it at parties so it's hard to embrace it. We really grew up on it and I fuck with club music so I like to embrace it. I'm not one of the people running away from it just because it's from my city or it's old. You can always mix old with the new.
Do you think if more club producers and rappers worked together more, it would help develop a more-defined sound for Baltimore rap? Because there still isn’t one.
Hell yeah. I think that shit would definitely help a lot because a lot of people love club music, hands down. And some club producers know how to make hip-hop shit too. If they work together it would definitely help blow the spot up.
What do you want people to get out of your music?
I wanna make people feel good, for real. That soulful shit that you can just take in. I don’t want it to be just one message. I wanna be the messenger and tell people shit that they can listen to when they need to get through something.
You’re one of the best local artists when it comes to branching out and working with people outside of the city. Do you think that’s something that Baltimore artists are hesitant to do and what do you take away from branching out?
I think a lot of artists lack the reaching out thing because of where we’re from; that’s kind of how it is. Niggas don’t like to talk and people be anti-social. I learned skills like that from traveling and from my peoples. It’s nothing wrong with connecting; shit happens like that. You can't walk around being anti-social all day. Being social helped me a lot. It helped me make connections I never that I would make. All I can say is that I'll keep on doing that. It's not like I try; it's just instilled in me. Everywhere I go I'm gonna be a people-person.
How is being a part of Llamadon and 7th Floor Villains helping you as an artist at this point?
As an artist, it’s helping me stay grounded. We talk about shit and plan shit. We're pretty much running it more like a label than a collective. We got these individual artists and we all have plans so we try helping each other execute. So it's definitely helping me as an artist and helping us build a brand--as a whole and separately. So aside from 7th Floor Villains the brand name, niggas are actually my homeboys. It's just a genuine feeling and we get to build with each other, progress and make each other better everyday.
Hear 8th World on Black Zheep DZ's Sound Cloud.
Back in July, I was standing in Hour Haus amongst a crowd of people watching local rapper Al Rogers perform at the annual Rapscape festival. In the middle of his performance he shouted out Eze Jackson, another local rapper who was there as a spectator, for being a long-running member of Baltimore’s rap community and an inspiration to his musical career. A similar situation happened the previous day at Play Hookah Lounge during a show where rapper, The Boy Blesst, saluted Skarr Akbar for his years of contribution to the Baltimore music scene.
Two months later, I posted a status to my Facebook page about how disappointed I was by the poor organization of an event called “New Baltimore”, resulting in backlash from both the older and younger generation of rappers. The event was held in an unbearably hot DIY space with most of the artists rapping over recorded tracks and lacking stage presence. Half of the artists I paid my money to see left before the show really began because of the chaos. Older artists in the Facebook conversation claimed that there wasn’t a need for a “New Baltimore” and discredited the newer artists’ movement, while the younger ones criticized the old heads for not being supportive enough of their hard work. The title “New Baltimore” had already been a touchy topic in the artist community because of the preexisting sensitivity to the issue of ageism in rap music. However, the generational divide only seemed to get worse with this incident.
At 26 years old, I feel like I am stuck between a generation of 20-somethings and 40-somethings in Baltimore that both perpetuate this concept of ageism because they have opposing views of what rap culture should be. When interacting with the rap scene I tend to flock to the middle aged and older crowd for several reasons: As a blogger just starting out two years ago, I would frequent the local venue, Nowchild Soundstage, where this crowd mostly dwelled. As a mentee, I came up under radio personality, Civ Jones, who is more invested in the older generation of rappers and those rappers seemed more interested in my blog--contributing their music to my site for exposure. The “New Baltimore” just didn’t seem as concerned about it. But, while I respect “Old Baltimore” for their wisdom and appreciation of media, I also respect the new scene for their innovation, drive, and “do it yourself” method of getting things done. Without much help from media, these artists have a solid following and quality turn outs for their events. Unfortunately, what exists between the two groups is an underlying tension instead of a complement of each other’s work to further the cultivation of today’s music.
I was having a conversation with someone who felt that the older generation should be the one to reach out to younger people, given that they are the elders in the community. In my mind, I had to agree, especially when I find that many of my older rap friends are unaware of whom many of the popular new artists are when I mention them. If I bring up a Rickie Jacobs or a Soduh in a conversation, I immediately get a blank stare followed by a, “Who’s that?” Dylan Sullivan-Ubaldo, creator of the Llamadon collective that coordinates a lot of events for new artists in the city, shares the same sentiments: “I think that older people will always doubt the abilities of younger people,” he says. “That’s why it’s important for young artists to create their own outlets. There are some older cats in the city offering resources to younger artists, but they’re few and far between. There’s definitely a disconnect.”
Older artists may feel like they have done what the newer ones are doing ten-fold and feel less included when they aren’t able to lend their expertise, but they also have a sense of entitlement that discredits their efforts too, which can give off a sense of jealousy or haughtiness when their views are expressed. Although not everything was done right at New Baltimore, there have been plenty of events coordinated by vet emcees that were far from perfect: a bill full of unknown acts that lack creative delivery on stage, lyrical content lacking substance in their work, and ultimately a stale showcase of emcees being sold.
On the other hand, young people like me can be very oblivious to the years of labor put in by the older generation of our culture, sometimes disregarding it, which can be like a slap in the face for them. For example, younger rappers now have the advantage of social media to extend their reach to a broader audience, whereas older rappers had to work harder to get their music heard: hitting the streets with CDs, having face-to-face interaction with people in order to network, not having a space on the internet like Youtube or a personal website that can host and archive their bodies of work.
Jimmie Thomas, co-founder of the international hip-hop blog, Curators of Hip Hop, has witnessed the same issue of ageism in his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. He mentioned that while ageism exists, their seasoned emcees help tutor the younger ones and collaborate on songs. Still, some young artists feel like they have all of the answers and want to do their own thing.
“We had a good monthly event going called The Renaissance Movement where a seasoned group headed it up for us putting on a show each month at the same location with new artists each time,” Thomas says. “A younger artist felt that they should have been in charge of the show and basically caused drama, which got personal and ended up causing a conflict in the scene. The showcase is no longer taking place because of it and it's unfortunate. Ego is the biggest downfall--be it young or old.
In my opinion, both parties could do a better job of communicating with one another to become more open-minded. Granted, the older crowd will not always be willing to listen to today’s style of rap or go to crowded shows, and not every young person is going to desire attending a boom-bap rap showcase. While both ends are understandable, reaching out wouldn’t hurt. Even if it’s just to show support.