On the Map: Washington DC

On the Map: Washington DC

We dip a toe into the American capital's music scene, with profiles of six rappers, bands and producers on the rise.

Graphic Design: Sandra Song

In the first of a semi-regular feature on Dummy, we’re honing in on the Washington DC scene by picking six artists who have been making ripples both in their hometowns and via our laptops. Click on an artist’s corresponding number on the map below to hear the sounds they’re making, and read on to find out more about the rappers, bands and producers we’ve picked out.

Although the shadow of New York often obscures the capital of the US, the unassuming and niche music scene in DC has a lot to offer. The 9:30 club is at the forefront of the live scene in DC, consistently toping Billboard Touring Award’s top club list. You’re not truly a DC resident until you’ve been tossed out of the 9:30 club by the manager Josh, possibly the scariest looking bouncer of all time.

DC artists embody the DIY ethic that its famous forefathers, Fugazi and Minor Threat, are known for.

DC artists embody the DIY ethic that its famous forefathers, Fugazi and Minor Threat, are known for. The punk-inspired venue Black Cat supports that ethos by continuing to book indie and local acts to play its grunge stage. Similarly, DC hip hop is also one to stick to its roots, frequently drawing influence from district-born go-go music. Modi Oyewole is the founder of DCtoBC, a DC-based blog, and has worked extensively with Fat Trel and the DC hip hop scene. According to Modi, hip hop in the capital is about “drinking crazy amounts of ciroc, popping pills, smoking tree, buying jewellery, hittin’ the strip club, and making music. It’s absurd, but that’s a lifestyle that you see in DC. People are about that life”.

Youth is a defining characteristic of Washington hip hop. Rappers such as Fat Trel got into the game around the age of 17. When schools get let out you can hear kids as young as 5th or 6th grade reciting cuts on the train and pledging allegiance to camp Trel or Glizzy. Put your ear to the ground in the district and you’ll hear it, and if you want the proper tour of DC’s landmarks, leave it to Ras Nebyu.

DC residents are marked by their intense loyalty to music. Gigs are almost always sold out at institutions such as 9:30, Black Cat, and U Street Music Hall and residents implicitly support local acts and venues. Ever since Live Nation opened the Filmore in 2011, the attendance has been weak due to that loyalty to the reigning local clubs. With institutions ranging from NPR to the hybrid event host/boutique label/music news source All Things Go, the scrappy scene in DC has a diverse and passionate following. [Kelly Connelly]

1) I AM WATER

Like every other city and town in the USA, Washington DC is a base for innumerable producers who become a part of like-minded communities that span the world through the internet. It’s home for one of the most unique and beguiling acts to have joined the Aural Sects net label, which itself is a broad and dark church collecting together a range of underground sounds floating in the wake of witch house – and an artist who, for me, represents the most exciting, growing creative and progressive potential of grass-roots music-making online.

“Growing up in DC is quite the experience because you are exposed to an immensely diverse group of people” – I AM WATER

Micah Clark, who produces under the name I AM WATER, is based in a corner of Washington that extends into Northern Virginia, not far from The Pentagon and Crystal City, a dramatic 1970s development that comprises the city’s strangest, most Oneohtrix neighbourhood. Indeed, for all his online connectivity, Clark is not independent of geographical influence: “Growing up in DC is quite the experience because you are exposed to an immensely diverse group of people,” he says. “I feel like that may have been one of my biggest influences because over time it has exposed me to so many different cultures. Musically this is awesome, because with large groups of people from different cultures, comes music from different cultures.”

I AM WATER has only released a handful of tracks so far, but their distinctive style and careful control of otherworldly sonic forces is immediately obvious. Aptly expressing what puts the experience of his tracks on a different level from that of so much underground chaff, Clark says, “My approach to music, and art in general, has always been very simplistic. I prefer sounds that are a bit more bare, whilst focusing more on composition. I feel when things are kept simple it sounds much cleaner and it is easier for the listener to pick up on the subtleties involved with the track itself.”

I AM WATER’s latest release BRAND NEW U, uploaded in September last year, is built around vocals from another Aural Sects team member, Moon Mirror. While the lyrics are not far from the sort of “ethereal” vocals common in today’s underground pop, Clark’s accompaniment brings it into another realm entirely. The bass sector is filled by a low, driving drums, while periodic synths extend from the upper frequencies, like ice stalactites dipped in powdery snow or the swish of a narwhal’s fin as the creature bobs free through Arctic waters. DREAMB0Y, from 2011, might be I AM WATER’s most captivating track. Chords that rise with a tiny, tentative sense of hope are slowly wrapped in the strangest of hi-fi effects and supported by Mariana-deep kicks before the track enters a structural labyrinth stifling with suspense. [Adam Harper]

2) Fat Trel

Fat Trel is an exceptionally talented rapper from DC’s northeast side and a member of the colourful and hedonistic Slutty Boyz. He started his career rapping outside the hip-hop clubs he was too young to get into with a couple of speakers in the back of a pick-up, and already had a couple of early projects done when he was picked up by Wale’s Board Adminstration label. He released the acclaimed ‘No Secrets’ there but the deal was unceremoniously cut hours before his second mixtape ‘April Foolz’ came out. Last year’s ‘Nightmare on E Street’ had its moments but ultimately failed to live up to its potential; the result a falling out with his manager that meant he couldn’t access the masters and had to re-record the entire mixtape.

He’s most recently been adapting to the popular, ecstasy-fueled Auto-Tuned style that’s been spread from Atlanta

There was also a beef with Shy Glizzy – another very promising talent from the city – that was significant enough to split parts of the local fanbase down the middle, but all the bad blood has apparently been resolved after Wale brokered a truce between the three last year. With the earlier disputes behind him, he signed to Master P’s revitalised No Limit Records at the end of last year and the Slutty Boyz have also quickly become kindred spirits with Chief Keef and the rest of the Glory Boyz from Chicago, with a joint ‘GBSB’ mixtape somewhere in the works.

Whilst Fat Trel is a charismatic street star, it’s his technical ability that really sets him apart from many of his contemporaries and gives grounds to any claim to him being a great rap hope. He is a writer, as opposed to an off-the-top, in-booth rapper – rarely resting on clichés or easy similes – and though he can really sing he prefers to keep the two separate. He’s most recently been adapting to the popular, ecstasy-fueled Auto-Tuned style that’s been spread from Atlanta: smartly blending frenetic melodies with his dense syllabic bursts on early tracks like Muney off his upcoming mixtape ‘Sex, Drugz, Muney & Gunz’. [Anthony Walker]

3) Evening Man

Evening Man is Paul Erik Lipp, a one-man prog-pop band originating from Connecticut who moved last year to Washington’s Cleveland Park neighbourhood – on the other side of the zoo – where he finished his second album, ‘In Space’. Released in November on Bandcamp, it’s as complex, unpredictable and epic a form of pop as you’re likely to find springing from a single mind.

Lipp studied poetry with Charles Hartman and composition with electronic composer Arthur Krieger, whose Short Piece was sampled by Radiohead on Idioteque, from ‘Kid A’. Evening Man tends to operate on the same continuum, absorbing both the volatile sound world of Krieger (to keep you on your toes) and the cavernous, messed-up sentimentality of ‘Kid A’. Yet there’s always a lot more to find, too. Much of Evening Man’s energy might have found its way up the coast in the punk/hardcore/alternative rock that thrived in Washington in the 80s and 90s, such as on the local Dischord label: “I’d grown up listening to everything on the Dischord roster – Jawbox was the first band I ever saw live, and I remain totally in love with nearly everything Shudder to Think put out”, he says.

“I’d half-feared that there would be this omnipresent political monoculture here, but I was pleasantly surprised… I’ve been impressed by how tight-knit this community is. People from DC have a lot of pride about being from DC.” – Evening Man

Evening Man’s first album, ‘The Last Night’, has vicious, rougher edges, but ‘In Space’ has a weirdly compelling smoothness and a upward, weirdly angelic trajectory. “My ambition with the second record was to create something truly unified in sound, theme, and composition and so I was rigorous in terms of the limits I placed on myself during each stage,” he says. And indeed, we never really leave the same building, though it’s a large one. There’s the gigantic contrasts and spread wings of Bit By Bit, the angrily vandalised disco funk of Beneath the Skin, and In Silence is the soundtrack to an 80s teen cult film, but if the characters had grown up to become sad, god-like machine-creatures roaming inner space forever.

Of DC, Lipp says, “I’d half-feared that there would be this omnipresent political monoculture here, but I was pleasantly surprised… I’ve been impressed by how tight-knit this community is. People from DC have a lot of pride about being from DC.” [Adam Harper]

4) Yung Gleesh

Another rapper from northeast DC, Yung Gleesh is close to Fat Trel and the Slutty Boyz but takes a view of the streets that’s decidedly rawer and weirder. His two recent ‘Cleansides Finest’ mixtapes openly take beats from popular producers and have no real theme other than Gleesh himself: his goon mentality embodied in a free associative style that owes a lot to Lil B.

[Yung Gleesh] has a really great ability to pull the rug from under your feet with startling moments of emotional clarity.

The loose approach gives him the flexibility to be wildly joyful or aggressive, but he also has a really great ability to pull the rug from under your feet with startling moments of emotional clarity, like the appraisal of his disjointed familial and street life on Yesterday. Capable of self-deprecating as quickly as he can boast or, more accurately, endearing himself so well the line between the two breaks down, his honesty is the most important element of any Lil B influence. [Anthony Walker]

5) GEMS

Often without much fanfare or attention, the US has been producing loads of high quality dream pop over the last decade that emanates right from the core of the country’s indie music tradition. It’s not especially surprising to find some of this coming out of DC, but the duo of Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts – GEMS – is certainly it.

Recently, the online music and culture magazine Yours Truly wrote GEMS one of their signature analogue letters praising the band and the effects of their music: “When I first heard All I Ever chills ran up my spine and the limp organ mass I call a heart began to thump enthusiastically inside the my chest, once again… Can we float along together like this forever?”

This child-like sentiment is the paradise of dream pop

This child-like sentiment is the paradise of dream pop, and it’s at its best when tinged with tragedy. With lyrics poised ambiguously between the end of the road and beginnings of hope and its chorus a gentle, abstract funk, the momentous All I Ever nevertheless drifts blissfully through a valley of mile-high guitar and clouds of cymbal. [Adam Harper]

6) Ras Nebyu

Ras Nebyu is a second generation Ethiopian-American MC and producer from the uptown section of Washington DC’s northwest quadrant, with a throwback style that takes from much-loved 90s outfits like A Tribe Called Quest but isn’t limited to it.

While it’s not his most recent, the track Washington Slizzards (also the name of a group of musicians and artists from the DMV he set up with his cousin) is a good introduction to his style: an autobiographical picture of the city set over a breezy Pete Rock instrumental that references to smoke outs at the park, teachers who told him he’d fail, dashikis made in China and the gentrification of his local area.

“My style is a little laid back so I gravitate to the 90s sound when I’m in that mood…I love reggae so a good bassline is imperative” – Ras Nebyu

Smart and indignant with an understanding of the importance of storytelling and humour, Ras Nebyu has the winning ability to preach without coming across as preachy, and lists Cam’ron, Gucci Mane and the popular Ethiopian singer Teddy Afro amongst touchstones you’d expect like Peter Tosh, Lauryn Hill and Nas. “I listen to whatever I think sounds good,” he explains: “My style is a little laid back so I gravitate to the 90s sound when I’m in that mood. I like Pete Rock’s stuff ‘cause of the bass in his tracks. I love reggae so a good bassline is imperative”. Alongside his old favourites, he also lists Yung Gleesh and Fat Trel amongst his favourite rappers in DC and wants to work with local artists and perform more widely in the near future. His next release is going to be a seven song mixtape titled “RAS GRIFFIN III: Uptown Rookie of The Year”, scheduled to be released this spring. [Anthony Walker]

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