A Precautionary Tale for the DMV
On February 7, 2017, William Kent, otherwise known as WillThaRapper, sits in the WKYS 93.9 studio with radio host Shorty Da Prince. Well over a year since the twenty-year-old Southeast1 native2 released DC’s summer anthem, “Pull Up Hop Out,” Will signs a major deal with Universal Music Group’s Republic Records live on air. Surrounding the rapper is his team from D1 Entertainment and Squad Sh*t Only (SSO), while a remixed version of the hit plays in the background. Amidst the vocal excitement over this big announcement, Will makes sure to say, “I’d like to thank anybody . . . that’s ever had any type of faith in me. I’m just here to let y’all know, I’m kicking this door down.” It is a monumental moment for a DC artist, yet it looms heavy with great trouble ahead.
While Will’s deal with Universal Music makes him stand out among DMV rappers, he is far from the first to sign such a deal. In fact, the most precautionary tale comes from Will’s symbolic counterpart, Swipey. The eighteen-year-old rapper, otherwise known as Douglas Brooks, was similar to Will in almost every category. He was born in Southeast DC but grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, similar to Will. Swipey had a huge local following—his music (most notably, “Dirty”) frequented radio stations such as WKYS and was promoted through local creative companies such as Kno Effort. Some might have considered Swipey more successful than Will, as that he collaborated with more influential artists such as Shy Glizzy and Lil Durk. Swipey was his own person, and knew how to work a crowd. He capitalized on drill in a way that made his fans love him. Drill music is a grim, lyric intensive genre, which is not for the faint of heart. Known for his pyramid-shaped mohawk fade and rectangular glasses, Swipey was unique in his own right. In a sense, his voice felt innocent while it comically penetrated over heavy bass drill beats on songs like “Bestfriend.” However after leaving a party in Suitland, Maryland on the early morning of August 21, 2016, Swipey was fatally shot (Washington Post). Allegedly, Swipey’s death was a set-up (the two men arrested in connection with his murder are still awaiting the trial). His life was taken so quickly that there was no time for explanation. In his final project, ironically with Kno Effort, Swipey eerily states, “I love the city, but it’s crabs in a bucket.”
Depending on how you flip the metaphorical hip-hop coin, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia area—affectionately called the DMV—has had its fair share of ups and downs with notoriety. The area has seen both saviors and demons alike, in which the promise of global fame and independent achievement has always been on the horizon but never quite close enough. DC is an interesting city for hip-hop, often considered second tier to that of a New York City or Atlanta. A number of musicians from the DMV have been fortunate enough to cross this impossible gap from local stardom to international fame, such as Mýa, Shy Glizzy, and Wale. (Though, rising artists such as Goldlink and Rico Nasty offer some sort of beacon of hope.) However, even these artists have quickly seen the peaks of their careers. While it might sound absurd to imply that a curse has been placed over all DMV musicians, this matter is simply one that cannot go unnoticed. Answers are few but speculations are many. Perhaps it is gentrification by wealthy White millennials disenfranchising Black artists from the former “Chocolate City”? Maybe it’s the unbridled policing and hyper-criminalization of Black and Brown youths? WillThaRapper’s story is a microcosm in which to explore the internal and external routes that violence within the DMV has both aided and hindered the success of DMV’s music scene.
Currently, WillThaRapper’s “Pull Up Hop Out” stands on YouTube with almost one million clicks. This is the second version of his video, which was remade after the track, received positive feedback. YouTube took down the first version of the Pull Up Hop Out video, which had amassed over 600,000 views, for “unknown reasons” (YouTube). This original video was extremely simplistic, which seems very common for DMV music videos. In it, are distinct stills of the rapper and friends, holding imaginary guns and making shooting motions at the camera. They are having fun while showcasing a lifestyle—they smoke weed, ride bikes, and get money. In the new version of the video, Will continues to include elements of his past visual work, with friends from SSO “piping up” in the background. They also ride on four-wheel motorbikes while Will rides on the roof of a moving vehicle. With this version, Will shows more seasoned artistry, displaying his prowess as a rapper while giving audiences a tour of the District of Columbia. There are striking snapshots of DC police cars and dogs, locals shooting craps, expired meters, and even the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The juxtaposition of poverty against excessive policing within the nation’s capital tells a story of the nation’s carelessness. State-sanctioned violence lies at the heart of hip-hop, in which we must draw social implications and connections.
“Pull Up Hop Out” showcases a complicated story of violence. Throughout the song, the rapper plays on the size of his gun while essentially daring anyone to try and shoot him. That is the oversimplified description. The Source’s Ontoneyo Valenzuela, a media specialist from Denver, Colorado, critiques the song, implying Will’s agency:
“Honestly the lyrics some would say are ignorant and adding to the problem, but the imagery is vivid and the simplistic production keeps from overshadowing the unique voice of WillThaRapper.”
On one hand, Will’s unwavering dismissal of violence against him offers the notion of invincibility and a well-deserved space of confidence that marginalized people must exist in. In order to survive the violence, it works for Will to be even tougher and even stronger than what attacks. In hindsight, it is an unhealthy coping mechanism, generally heightened by the performance of masculinity. It is something to admire of the tenacity of Black men, but on the other hand, his promotion of violence against other Black bodies is troubling and might stem from a history of indifference towards them. In a world that views Black bodies as disposable, it is not odd that drill rappers do the same. Either way, the music is a response to an environment. Painting images of the violence is a coping method. The song has proved to not only be a creative outlet, but a lucrative source of income for many drill artists.
While this is WillThaRapper’s most acclaimed song, “Pull Up Hop Out” is far from his first step onto the music scene. In 2013, he began his career with a freestyle over Chicago drill artist RondoNumbaNine’s song “Hang Wit Me.” At this stage, Will’s bars were extremely juvenile. Aside from a voice that had not yet matured, he was emulating a style that was clearly not his own. In his lyrics, he delivered the same indifference for life and gory details reminiscent of Chicago drill, yet coming from his mouth sounded unbelievable. It was hard to imagine this sixteen-year-old shooting a “thirty-inch clip” at anyone. However, his similes were witty and well executed over the beat.
By the time Will released “Pull Up Hop Out,” he had gained his fair share of experience within the music industry. He participated in various rap battles such as the Prince George’s County High School Cypher (sponsored by Kno Effort) in 2015, which predicted his star power and influence over the DMV. In the video, Will appears indifferent and detached from the seemingly “positive” message and describes how he cannot wait to see his mother’s face as he graduates. The standout line from his thirty-second verse was “I go to Suitland High and I go to Suitland high.” With the resulting pandemonium from this simplistic play on words, he was projected as the next up in the DMV. He developed an untouchable aura around his music which earned him respect. Being around heavy hitters such as Lil Nei, he learned to develop a distinct DC cadence with his music. It is reminiscent of a Southern drawl but has the DC accent written all over it, which shows the complexities of DC’s geographic location.
“Pull Up Hop Out” was born out of sheer coincidence, as Will was playing around in the studio mimicking Lil Nei over a new beat. It was apparent that this was very different for Will, as this style was not his own. Listeners were used to him firing quick puns over drill beats, unwinding the passion over speedy tempos. His ease on this beat deemed him a natural.
Authenticity and identity are difficult within the DMV, in that imitation is so often rewarded. When competing for an ounce of spotlight on the world stage, originality can be both taxing and ostracizing for an artist. To stray too far from what is trending or the norm is dangerous. It is better to sound like DC’s version of Chief Keef, G Herbo, or Lil Reese. Thus, Will understood the game and adapted to play it.
It is a rainy Saturday in October 2016. After a three year hiatus, the beloved Howard University International Yardfest returns to its home in Washington, DC. It’s been rebranded by the Bison Homecoming Committee, hoping to evade the misdemeanors that had the annual event shut down in the past. The highly coveted stage has been graced by heavy hitters and newcomers alike, such as Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, Biggie Smalls, Puff Daddy, Foxy Brown, Cam’ron, and Drake. On this day, WillThaRapper joins this rank by performing on the Yardfest stage. The pressure is heavy to prove his dexterity in the DC hip-hop scene, as that he is opening for Common, Fabolous, and Faith Evans. The crowd is not an easy one – being accustomed to legendary performances amounts to a highly sensitive palette. Will begins with “Pull Up, Hop Out,” and like a magician, he puts the crowd under his spell.
Just a few months earlier and a few blocks over, Junk Yard Band and Rare Essence host a go-go concert at Howard Theatre. From the shadows of music history within the DMV area, stands the giant of go-go music. In a June 2017 interview with VladTV, Will reminds the people that “[go-go] is coming back. It’s clubs getting opened up… we thought we lost it” (YouTube). A blend of funk, R&B, and hip-hop, the genre originated in Washington, DC in the ’70s by the “go-go Godfather” Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers. A running joke about go-go music is that it is played using trashcans, garbage bins, and buckets (bands are jokingly called “Bucket Bands”) because the music is so lo-fi. To the outsider looking in, it may sound like cacophonous noise. But better yet, the music is made to be played live and on stage, as studio recordings lose the distinctive quality of the music. The rhythms within go-go offer a great variety of rawness, with beats both off and expected. It is a masterful genre of live polyrhythms, in which multiple drums and percussions artfully blend together. Finally, the music is all tied together by a belting vocalist and adlibs praising the band’s various neighborhoods and streets. It is heavily attached to Black cultures within the DMV and thus cannot truly be translated. In turn, go-go’s trajectory tells the story of the DMV, from Chuck Brown’s 1970s “Bustin’ Loose” to the Junk Yard Band’s “Sardines” in the 1980s. Or from the early 2000s sensation “Sexy Lady” by UCB to the tail-end of the era with Reaction Band’s “Lay It Down (Cover)” in 2011. In a sense, the music is ancestral to all who live here. The shadow of DC’s past lurks behind the scenes for all artists, even guiding them towards the light.
Perhaps Junk Yard Band’s story provides the most chilling warning for the future. The band formed in 1980 within the historic Barry Farm Government Housing Projects in Southeast DC. Children from ages eight to thirteen joined the band to re-enact what they witnessed at go-go clubs. With the rising fame of go-go in the ’80s, Junk Yard quickly rose to acclaim, landing major advertisement deals. The group secured a spot in the 1988 film, Tougher than Leather with Run DMC. This spotlight propelled them to signing a recording contract with Russell Simmon’s Def Jam Recordings. Under Def Jam, they released their two greatest hits “Sardines” and “The Word.” However, in 1992, gun violence took the life of original drummer Willie Gaston Jr., or “Heavy One,” in their Barry Farms neighborhood. The loss of such an integral part of the band took a hefty toll on the music. The band later transitioned from Def Jam to Street Records, releasing “Loose Booty” in 1994. Little was heard internationally of Junk Yard after.
The concept of violence has often been seen so linearly and without nuance that we instinctively forget correlation does not imply causation. The violence perpetuated against Junk Yard Band did not begin in 1992, with the murder of Heavy One. However, there were ongoing forces of manipulation and exploitation of the band. Violence happened to Junk Yard when they were children at Birney Elementary School in Barry Farms, in which budget cuts put an end to their music programs.3 Although the band poetically found their way to music, is there really beauty in the fight against racist capitalism? Further violence proliferated at Def Jam, when the business did not set up the band for success—and in the absence of another hit, dropped them like a hot potato. These acts of violence can be added to the whole framework in which the DMV operates. Artists want desperately to be known outside of the area, yet the world does not seek to sustain them. This desperation leads to poor choices (such as signing a record deal too quickly) and poor results.
To limit one’s understanding of violence to physical acts of aggression is to do a disservice to the centuries of oppressive systems against Black peoples. Violence comes in the form of White supremacy—policing, mass incarceration. It also comes from a gentle and friendly position, such as the unequal ‘partnerships’ with big corporations or the “helpful” suggestions of respectability and adjustment of tone and culture. It comes from profiting off marginalized people and industry greed. It is important, however, that we remain somewhat realistic within understanding the gravity of hip-hop in the DMV. Violence and death come hand in hand with drill music. While I argue that there are so many forces working against artists, there must be a heightened sense of urgency and responsibility. There must be a shift within the culture, to not only support and sustain our musicians, but to also take greater ownership over the content created and the resulting attitude. Because death has come so often, it is understandable that apathy is so common, but it should not be normalized. To further let this murder and gentrification (of neighborhoods and of music) continue to wipe out DMV’s chances for success would be absurd. Perhaps, we can wait and see what WillThaRapper’s deal with Republic Records might mean for the future. Or perhaps, we can take action towards an independent future.
Are, Tone. “18-Year-Old DMV Rapper Swipey Killed.” VladTV, August 22, 2016. http://www.vladtv.com/article/219754/18-year-old-dmv-rapper-swipey-killed
Burney, Lawrence. “WillThaRapper Gives a Tour of DC and Maryland in His New Video, ‘Pull Up Hop Out.” Vice, October 5, 2016. https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/premiere-will-tha-rapper-gives-a-tour-of-dc-and-maryland-in-his-new-video-pull-up-hop-out.
Civil, Karen. “Top 5 Biggest Hip-Hop Moments at Howard University’s Homecoming.” Karen Civil, October 23, 2013. http://karencivil.com/2013/10/21/top-5-biggest-hip-hop-moments-howard-homecoming/.
DaPrince, Shorty. “DMV’s Own Will Tha Rapper Signs With Republic Records.” WKYS-FM, ND. https://kysdc.com/3562583/dmvs-own-will-tha-rapper-signs-with-republic-records/.
Holston, Paul. “ExperienceBlueprint: Yardfest Is Back. Yet 2016 Howard Homecoming Will Be More Alumni Focused.” The Hilltop, October 1, 2016.
Thomas-Lester, Avis and Michele L. Norris. “Popular Musician Slain in SE; Drummer Was `Heart’ Of Junkyard Band.” Washington Post. October 1, 1992. https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-1027669.html.
Williams, Clarence. “Two men arrested in fatal shooting of D.C. rapper Swipey.” Washington Post. February 27, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/two-teens-arrested-in-death-of-dc-rapper-swipey/2017/02/27/194dc19a-fd0c-11e6-99b4-9e613afeb09f_story.html?utm_term=.317157fc2d5f.
Howard Theater. “Rare Essence with Junkyard Band & EU.” Accessed May 24, 2017. http://thehowardtheatre.com/show/2016/01/17/rare-essence-with-junkyard-band-eu/.
Washington Post Editors. “D.C. moves in the right direction on policing the police.” Washington Post, August 11, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dc-moves-in-the-right-direction-on-policing-the-police/2015/08/11/c8c8d854-4060-11e5-bfe3-ff1d8549bfd2_story.html?utm_term=.f243ccc2b9ce.
“Howard University Yardfest 2016 Washington, DC.” Video, 3:03. Posted by James’ Travel log, October 21, 2016. https://youtu.be/RaNnTSkG3Z0.
“R.I.P. Dirty Swipey (I’M DC Cypher Interview).” Video, 3:37. Posted by Kno Effort, August 23, 2016. https://youtu.be/X3BawoAT6_k.
“WillThaRapper: Listeners Don’t Want Bars More Intricate than Migos.” Video, 11:54. Posted by djvlad, June 18, 2017. https://youtu.be/QALHunadPBI.