Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Finding a Groove


Every so often, one city stands out in its ability to produce innovative, fresh, head-turning artists who leave an indelible mark on hip-hop.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, there was no question which city held the title. Producing artists like Nas, Jay-Z, Big Pun, Afrika Bambaataa and countless others, New York took up the mantle with little opposition. In the past couple of years, underground hip-hop in the DMV — the eponymous music scene of the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region — has gained national recognition. Until recently, D.C.’s hip-hop street cred was stifled by corporate and cultural factors; but now it has begun to emerge as a force to be reckoned with. With artists like Wale and Tabi Bonney putting out internationally recognized hits like “Chillin'” and “Nuthin’ but a Hero,” the DMV is slowly becoming a player in game-changing hip-hop.

But D.C. has a ways to go. Wale may have introduced the DMV sound to a broader, national audience, but most local talents have yet to reach mainstream listeners. Young, energetic and hungry for a chance to carry the torch for their city, new artists like RAtheMC, Phil Adé, X.O. and others are not standing idly on the sidelines; they’ve entered the game forcefully and at the right time.

A MEMBER of the Studio43 family, a small boutique label, singer and rapper RAtheMC is more than holding her own. After releasing two mixtapes, she just dropped her latest album Victory Lap on Jan. 11. Produced by musical genius A.B. the Pro and featuring other hometown favorites like X.O., the album is a soulful patchwork that includes memorable hooks and of course, a healthy dose of D.C. pride.

“[My music] comes from a really honest space. [It’s] as honest as possible to the record and keeps the image as well. It’s selling an honest story, versus a lot of artists who sell a lot of fabricated stuff,” RA says.

RA’s work comes with a message. For the voiceless, particularly youth and women, she looks to highlight everyday struggles. RAtheMC not only hails from a region that’s still trying to prove itself on the national stage, but also faces the challenge of being a female emcee in a male-dominated industry.

“All the fairytales that you hear about women having a tough time in the industry are definitely true. It’s harder to get booked for shows. It’s harder to get people to listen. Just getting people to listen is the biggest challenge itself.”

After a spot in a Sprite commercial last summer alongside mainstreamer Drake, her voice is about to get a whole lot louder.

Phil Adé, another up-and-comer, represents what it will take for DMV hip-hop to become an industry mainstay: individuality.

Described by RAtheMC as “a lyricist, [who] tells stories almost like Biggie … and gives a Nas type of feel,” Phil Adé is a member of the 368 Music Group family, another boutique record label in the DMV area. As a lyricist, Phil Adé learned his technique by studying the greats of the golden age of hip-hop.

“My influences, really how I learned how to rap — technique, changing flows and wordplay — were from artists like Nas and Jay-Z,” Adé says. “It’s important to have a story to tell and life lessons in your music … it’s fun to be lyrical and keep people’s attention, play with different techniques.”

Praised for his style by Arize Magazine, a national independent hip-hop magazine, Adé is bringing a new freshness to the local scene with his raw and emotive rhymes. “[Hip-hop] moved away from being lyrical for a while … but the hip-hop world is repeating itself and is returning to lyricism.”

For an artist like Adé, this transition — given an extra push by local talent — can only have a positive impact on his career. As fans look for meaning and the innovative techniques that marked the golden age of hip-hop, it’s only a matter of time before Adé and other artists in the DMV will have what he calls a “sustainable life in hip-hop.”

X.O., another homegrown artist, is helping put the nation’s capital on the map for quality hip-hop.

His stage name says it all: X.O. has a captivating story to tell. He says the moniker symbolizes his resolve to defy expectations — and shock while doing it.

“It [means] ‘unknown origins’ because of the alignment that I come from. Most people, by the way we look and the way we talk, they don’t expect us to be intelligent at all — [nothing] but a statistic. X.O. represents someone being shocked [by] someone coming from a place where we didn’t have the same education, the high crime rates, the drugs, the shooting, all of these things that distract us, that wouldn’t even be thought of in a different environment like the suburbs.”

But the deeper meaning doesn’t end there: “X.O. can also be defined as the good and the bad, the positive and the negative. I have different sides to my music.”

The artist has collaborated with local acts Oddisee and YU to form Diamond District, garnering global recognition by consistently presenting an accurate picture of what their city had to offer in the process. X.O. says what makes the group fresh is its diversity in style, lyrics and culture.

“[The DMV] has quality music. … We are trying to be heard and acknowledged. We know we have some of the best artists out there and we’ve been getting ignored for a long time — you can hear [the frustration] in some of the music,” X.O. says.

WHILE the DMV has had a thriving underground hip-hop culture for years, getting noticed on a larger scale has taken time.

So what made the area a sleeper cell in the industry until as recently as two and a half years ago?

Not many regions of the country can say they have a genre of music solely credited to them; but go-go, a call-and-response style live music, is unique to just the DMV both in its origin and scope. But to some extent, go-go had hijacked the limelight, making it harder for hip-hop artists to get the sort of recognition necessary to shine a light on the DMV.

“I think, really, as far as hip-hop goes, there really hadn’t been a scene … most of the attention went to go-go music. It still has the grip on culture — it’s a big part of D.C. culture,” Adé says.

But that’s not to say the two genres are mutually exclusive. In fact, go-go has helped to create a distinctly D.C. sound.

“It’s crazy, the type of energy here, and it’s ironic we even have our own music, you know go-go, it’s been influencing me and my music. This sound and music is what we have to bring to the world, we’re not copycats, we’re not the South or the North, we’re D.C.,” X.O. says.

 The DMV has managed to develop its own sound, and this collective confidence is starting to entrench the local hip-hop scene as an institution. According to RA, “Hip-hop in the DMV area is headed toward where New York hip-hop was back in the ’96 era — where you had a bunch of really good artists pushing it. There’s a solid D.C. sound that’s distinct from the rest. I just think we’re headed toward building a community.”

But collaboration hasn’t always been an instinct for this group.

“For so long we’ve been … fighting. There hasn’t been as much support coming from here — not enough support on the national scene,” X.O. says “The corporate music world has not taken the time to focus on us, because they’re not from here. To them, we’re just another city. I think the reason we are where [we] are is because we have people in the music industry that can look out for us now, like Kenny Burns [the former vice president of Rocafella Records]. That’s what he did for Wale, Marky and me.”

Additionally, Adé finds that, “D.C. likes to keep things at home, do things for ourselves and by ourselves.” But in his view, artists like Wale and Tabi Bonney are helping to bring the spotlight to D.C. by being willing to share their city with the world.

In a homecoming visit to his former high school, T.C. Williams in northern Virginia, Wale shared with students the story of his journey, reminding them that it was not an easy one. “There were certain record labels [that] I walked into, and they says we will never sign anybody from D.C., ever,” he says. In short, corporate record labels essentially blacklisted artists from the DMV area.

BUT a couple of years ago, Wale and other artists like Tabi Bonney, started catching the eye of bigger recording labels like Interscope Records. Simultaneously, all eyes were on D.C. as the first African-American president of the United States was sworn in. As Barack Obama energized an electorate that had been largely ignored, the youth and entertainment world came to bat for him. The Hip-Hop Caucus, a civil and human rights organization, used hip-hop as a medium in the “Respect My Vote” drive to register voters — particularly urban youth.

One has to wonder if the concurrence of these two events influenced the long-awaited recognition of the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the DMV. Did the arrival of the first black president to the nation’s capital finally put a spotlight on a culture and style of music that is truly African-American in its origins? Or was it a coincidence? Two D.C. artists diverged on the matter.

In X.O.’s words, “It has nothing to do with it. It’s ironic that we’re getting attention now that we have a black president. Politics doesn’t have anything to do with rap music. Rap has always been against politics. It comes from the perspective of ‘we the oppressed.'”

Even still, as seen by Phil Adé, there’s a correlation. “Around the same time Wale was coming out, that’s when Barack came to town. … I would definitely say that brought attention to this area. I think people got a chance to see D.C. culture, to see that it has more than music to offer. But hip-hop was definitely a part of it too.”

Regardless of what has brought DMV to the fore, local artists here are gaining more of a hometown following, not to mention national recognition.

The national spotlight doesn’t seem to be changing their performance style though, which is known for its emphasis on community engagement.

From X.O. attending open mic nights on U Street to Studio43 artists putting up a showcase at  Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., this Friday, these artists aren’t forgetting their roots.

RAtheMC, Phil Adé, X.O., YU — and of course, Wale — are ready to build a strong hip-hop community in the DMV. Not only for themselves, not only for future artists, but for the sake of their distinct sound.

As X.O. says in an RAtheMC’s song, “4 the Belt,” the DMV’s fight to the top is just beginning.

“I do this to be heard / The truth is in my words / What I speak is superb.”

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