The DMV (that’s Washington, DC and its satellites in Maryland and Virginia) has always been the land of go-go music. The genre, a percussion-centered blend of R&B and funk and shades of very old-school hip-hop, is as DMV as saying “kill mo” and mumbo sauce.
Go-go’s enshrinement in the DMV, however, has come at the cost of hip-hop. For years, musically-inclined youngsters growing up in the DMV didn't freestyle on corners or clack away in FL Studio—they joined go-go bands. Hip-hop was for the weird kids or anyone who had a cool parent or cousin introduce them to the genre.
Over the years, this minor faction produced an assortment of DMV-based emcees but failed to materialize any grander hip-hop movement within the DMV’s confines. Thankfully, over the past decade or so, the tide has shifted.
Currently, the DMV is home to a hip-hop movement that is thriving from the top down and is ready to go toe to toe with some of the country's traditional hip-hop strongholds.
The first reason, or the first person, I should say, is Wale. Say what you will about his latest material, but everyone was fucking with the Wale of the late 2000s, a hungry MC with a pair of Nike Boots who was rapping over go-go inspired beats and unifying the area’s musical past with present hip-hop. It was also Wale who provided the example to young artists that they could make it big while fully repping the DMV.
The second, sadly, was the closing of many of the DMV’s go-go spots, which became known for neighborhood beef and were quickly shut down by police. The closing of these spots, however, suddenly provided hip-hop artists already in the area with a new genre they could actually perform and a wealth of new fans.
Over the next few years, these developments mixed with a host of factors that already made the DMV a fertile, yet mostly untapped, ground for hip-hop. For one, the DMV is huge. It's the seventh-biggest metropolitan area in the US. More importantly, though, the area is also incredibly diverse, culturally and ethnically, which allows for a wide spectrum of different musical influences, and is advantageously situated geographically, not quite northern but not quite southern, either, and close to many other metropolitan areas.
Mix all these together and you get a scene with rich variance in sounds and styles and relatively tight-knit cohesion, where you can get everything from GoldLink’s futuristic bounce to Ari Lennox’s punch-rapped R&B; Ras Nebyu’s East African diasporan raps to Shy Glizzy's melodic trap cuts.
To get you more familiar with the DMV’s hip-hop scene, we have selected five artists (in no particular order) who best represent the city's growing pool of talent.
“Life and Death exist in the power of the tongue. The bible told me that. I’m trying to create as much positivity as I can and speak life into people. Give them hope. Give people confidence. Give people light.”
These are the words of Ciscero, a youthful, yet long-time DMV rapper and someone who understands the importance of his craft and its potential impact on listeners.
His most recent offering, “Go!” with its nostalgic keys and sparkly, Lupe-esque figurative language, is bright without being blinding and confident without being braggy. It makes life’s obstacles feel surmountable without feeling any less important. It's kind of like a pep talk from a close, knowledgeable friend.
On "Same Clothes as Yesterday," a track off GoldLink's debut album, At What Cost, Ciscero goes bar for bar with his fellow DC native, taking a moment to look back and count his blessings and also to appreciate the pitfalls he’s avoided so far.
Innanet James (@innanetjames)
Former DJBooth Top Prospect Innanet James, whose songs borrow heavily from his real-life experiences, is just trying to keep it real. At times this tactic produces laid-back, reflective songs; at others, proud and defiant anthems.
“When I make music, I just make it from a place of what I’m feeling at the time, what is going on in my surroundings and what I am seeing. I’m not a corny n****, so it doesn’t sound corny like I’m trying to push an agenda."
Indeed, even when James is at his most observant or most obstinate, he never lets his subject matter consume the track or scrub away his infectious personality.
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Critically, all of James' material contains a vitalic bounce, which is largely due to his expert cadence. Seriously, just pay attention to how he emphasizes the following words on the lines from “Black”: “I’m Black and I’m proud / I’m black they can’t keep me down / I’m black and back with a smile / In a black Beamer to match.”
With a great ear for production as well—each beat on his debut project Quebec Place matches the energy and elasticity of his own vocals (see: "Summer")—Innanet's recently announced upcoming project Keep It Clean should have his fanbase expanding far outside the reaches of his Maryland home.
Kelow LaTesha is unquestionably herself and she’s never going to apologize for it:
“Everything I do here is just me. There’s a different vibe and different sound for every mood as a woman, as a human being.”
Just like her personal style, the PG County, Maryland native's tracks bring together unlikely influences to create musical tapestries as vibrant as they are disorienting. The unifying thread between them is “that clubby sound” that Kelow believes all her tracks ought to have.
A prime example is her Lil Uzi Vert-assisted remix of “Finna.” The song’s overlapping trap and hand drums and out-of-this-world synths don’t just sound like the club, they make you feel as if you’re levitating overtop the club.
Her vocals, and later Uzi’s, heighten and complete this sensation. Almost slurred, Kelow’s vocals, modified in different ways throughout, represent that fleeting half-conscious and half-instinctual mode that’s reached at the peak of any great night out. "Yeah," the debut single for Kelow's upcoming project, Flight Attendant, only amplifies the feeling.
Matt McGhee (@mattmcGhee)
If there’s an artist that best represents the diverse palette of styles present in the DMV, it’s Matt McGhee. McGhee grew up in almost every area part of the region, experiencing all of its colorful diversity firsthand and becoming a recipient of various different influences:
“Moving around a lot, and having to adapt to certain things, that’s what comes out in my music. I can adapt to pretty much any beat anybody sends me. I can find a way to do something with it.”
Often, though, he does much more than just “something with it.” His The Office-themed mixtape Under New Management—released earlier this year—is proof, where he raps over boom bap, trap and everything in-between, making each style his own. His two most recent cuts, “Lady Luck” and “NO TALKING,” however, further illustrate McGhee’s versatility.
On “NO TALKING,” over a dance-ready, synth-heavy beat, McGhee maneuvers the beat’s bounce like an Olympic trampolinist. Over the hook, he even flashes a little melody.
“Lady Luck,” on the other hand, is much more introspective and traditional. Pained but on point, McGhee’s sharp cadences match the crispness of the song’s snare beat, and his lyrics resonate with the melancholic keys. The end result is a sad, somber but ultimately resolute track about moving forward, even if it's just inch by inch.
Beau Young Prince (@BeauYoungPrince)
At the end of the day, Beau Young Prince (a.k.a. The Groovy God) is just trying to give his listeners something to vibe to:
“Music should enhance you. Music should relax you and help you think through things. I want my music to inspire people the way my idols have influenced me.”
Many of the DC rapper's songs, whether it be his solo tracks or his work as duo Young Futura with LA-based French producer/DJ Futura, do all of the above at once.
As a part of Young Futura, Beau delivers material that pops and has bounce but is still full of substance. On tracks like “She Bad,” BYP deftly rides Futura’s slick production, shifting often between traditional rapping and melodic sing-rapping. These songs usually feature one subject or maybe a few, fleshing them out fully over the course of a song. This process allows him to crystallize a sensation or emotion for the listener, like on “She Bad,” where he highlights a woman that really does have it all.
On his solo work, BYP is more holistic and a little less upbeat. Songs like “Faded In The Night” tell brief stories of his past experiences that still very much resonate in the future. Still, BYP’s knack for catchy melodies and cadences is still ever-apparent, giving each song a high degree of listenability.