Two of 2015’s hottest records came from cities that rarely—close to never—get scanned for producing the next big hit. Louisville, Kentucky native Bryson Tiller’s “Don’t” gained him instant pop star status, and Baltimore native Tate Kobang’s “Bank Rolls” landed him a record deal and a slot on Spotify’s "Artists to Watch” list for 2016.
Just as Tiller’s rise to fame has surely drawn some eyes to his home state and sparked motivation for fellow Kentucky artists on their grind, artists in Baltimore’s rap scene aren’t turning a blind eye to Kobang’s success either. In many ways, "Bank Rolls" was the perfect launching pad for the wider Baltimore scene: Kobang's choice of production is rooted in Baltimore club which, if you do some investigation, would lead you to Downtown Baltimore outliers like performers TT The Artist and Abdu Ali or producer/DJs like Mighty Mark and DJ Juwan. On the other hand, Kobang's lyrics often address street life in the city, which is more in line with local rappers like the Meek Mill co-signed Lor Scoota, Future faves YGG Tay and GMG Tadoe, and Young Moose, who is signed to Boosie Bad Azz’s Bad Azz Ent.
Another Baltimore act steadily making waves in the same multifaceted vein of Tate Kobang is the Basement Rap collective established by frontman and rapper Butch Dawson (a.k.a Jujuan Allen when he's just producing), rapper Black Zheep DZ, photographer MS3, producer and manager Dylijens, videographer Shido, and rapper Ryan P. The idea for the crew was born in 2013 when Butch started tagging the music that he, Ryan P, DZ, and a couple of other friends—then recording as the 7th Floor Villains, or 7FV—made as “basement rap.” After some swift workshopping, they decided to form Basement Rap together in 2014 to elevate each other’s music and their non-rapper friends’ creative endeavors. While the moniker's fairly new, the group has been active in and around Baltimore for a few years now; they starred in GoldLink’s “When I Die” video in early 2014 while still operating as 7FV.
"One day we was just sitting around and playing Grand Theft Auto and it took me back to when I was young. I just loved everything about the game's radio stations: the humor, the transitions, selection of music. That's what I wanted to do with Basement Rap Radio. "—Butch Dawson, Basement Rap
Butch Dawson provides the majority of the Basement Rap crew's beats, as well as tirelessly releases solo material: synth-happy, jazz-tinged rap with the occasional trap cut. Dylijens is the group’s booking manager, show DJ, producer and sometimes-rapper. Black Zheep DZ’s deep drawl is the rawest of the collective, and his murky, yet hopeful storytelling of life in Northeast Baltimore has landed him collaborations with D.R.A.M., VERY RVRE, and KeithCharles Spacebar of Awful Records. Rapper Ryan P is the closest artist Basement Rap have to a revitalized boom bap sound. Then there’s MS3 who handles art direction and Shido who documents the collective’s every move when he’s not coming up with ideas for merch.
Between them, Basement Rap’s six-man roster pool multiple narratives and perspectives as they come from all over Baltimore: some were raised in the city’s most trying environments (Butch and DZ), others from the outskirts (Shido, Ryan, and MS3), and one—Dylijens—made Baltimore his home in 2013 after moving from Frederick, Maryland where he played in punk bands. The diversity of their experiences can be heard in their collective output: hints of Baltimore club, harmonious trap, and punchline-heavy raps. Over the past year, they’ve been building up their fastest growing project yet, Basement Rap Radio: a 40-minute-long compilation of their unreleased tracks, beats by local faves, laid-back interviews, and Grand Theft Auto-inspired impromptu commercials, like the hilarious "Blunted Micro" ad for an imaginary device that zaps anyone that’s babysitting the blunt in a cypher. Over the past few months, Basement Rap Radio’s popularity has been climbing locally and online, not only becoming a platform for the collective (not unlike the approach of London’s GULLYTYPE crew) but for other Baltimore artists they regularly work with and respect, like A$AP Mob’s lone Baltimore native A$AP Ant, dreamy, Anime-inspired singer 3lON, and Soulection’s TEK.LUN. It’s become a prime source of exposure to artists trying to be heard in the scene. While they were prepping and recording this month’s mix, I caught up with Basement Rap to discuss their origins, the purpose of their radio mix, and what it means for Baltimore’s music scene.
How did Basement Rap start?
BUTCH DAWSON: We was just all making music and I had this idea in my head to have my man Isaiah come up to the mic and say “Basement Rap.” I basically wanted to have a drop the way that the Trapoholics tapes used to. He did it in hella different emotions and versions and I was just using what he laid down, tweaked it and played with it. At the time, DZ was doing something in L.A. and he called me and said he thought it could be bigger than a drop. We did a song called “Basement Rap,” then changed it to a genre for our music then it grew into a movement. I put a lot of faith into it. It became a collective of all my close friends but really a platform we created to present raw creativity.
When did the idea for making a radio-styled mix come about?
BUTCH DAWSON: One day we was just sitting around and playing Grand Theft Auto and it took me back to when I was young. Ask anybody that know me, I used to turn GTA on just so I could listen to the radio stations. Just listening to the radio is something I always was into since I was younger.
SHIDO: We used to fall asleep listening to the radio on Grand Theft Auto.
BUTCH DAWSON: I just loved everything about it: the humor, the transitions, selection of music. It's a part of how I create music today. That's what I wanted to do with Basement Rap Radio. I get all the MCs in the group, drop their songs, and then reach out to producers I respect and drop their beats. The commercials were made with the car ride in mind.
Do any of you make music exclusively for the mix? Like, loose tracks that won't be heard anywhere else?
DYLIJENS: That wasn't the goal at first but it's definitely turning into that kind of outlet.
RYAN P: Yeah, [there's] shit I got on there that I'll probably never drop to this day.
BUTCH DAWSON: Initially I didn't even have the idea to do that but we just said fuck it.
Is Basement Rap Radio part of your overall vision to help give other artists in the city a chance to be heard?
BUTCH DAWSON: It's really to inspire. The youth still listen to the radio. That was the case with me. Club music was playing and it eventually grew on me; I remember hearing it and liking it but still wanting more out of the radio. What if they listen to Basement Rap Radio and get inspired by us?
BLACK ZHEEP DZ: I think we put on for Baltimore in a good way because it's lanes here and every lane targets a certain audience. I feel like we don't have a targeted audience on purpose. It's not like we're trying to be street or trying to be artsy. Butch is from Laurens & Division (West Baltimore), I'm from the Cedonia area of Over East. We all have different backgrounds and mind states. We just found our place which can touch anybody.
Other than the radio mix, what are the other aspects of the collective?
BUTCH DAWSON: Of course, we have artists that drop music but we also have MS3 who handles visuals. Shido does all of our footage with the Footy episodes. Curtis Youille
MS3: I'm mainly incognito. I'm the group’s photographer, painter, creative direction.
SHIDO: I do our "Footy" episodes which is basically our [day-in-the-life videos], just to get to know all the guys. I come up with ideas for the merch.
DYLIJENS: My role is mainly helping to book our shows. That's where I saw a gap in the group that needed to be filled. I also DJ everybody's live show. I produce some of the group’s tracks too.
"The best thing about all of this is that people from outside of Baltimore are starting to embrace what we got going on."—Black Zheep DZ, Basement Rap
Today, collectives can operate as makeshift labels, booking agencies, marketing firms, and everything in-between. Having to be all of those wrapped in one, what have been the keys to you guys functioning successfully?
BUTCH DAWSON: We’re all friends at the end of the day. I've met every one of these guys at crucial points in my life and I've progressed as a person and musical artist each time. When I got out of the streets and moved to Woodlawn (Baltimore County), I met Ryan and my whole perspective of music changed. I had more peace of mind. Then I met DZ once I started going downtown and that was a completely new experience. I met Dylan randomly. I'm on some spiritual shit but I just feel like it's meant to be.
BLACK ZHEEP DZ: We share that drive and that's what the biggest thing is. We can trust each other and keep faith in our goals. That's what's holding us up strong.
SHIDO: We can just be sitting around chilling and an idea comes up and we execute it afterward. You can't do that with everybody.
How do you see the movement impacting Baltimore?
BUTCH DAWSON: It’s beautiful. It’s always the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality in every city but since Baltimore is small, people feel it more. Despite the size, I think the scene is beautiful and it’s growing. It’s people that come to our shows or other events we organize that have been inspired to pursue making music after they leave.
BLACK ZHEEP DZ: The best thing about all of this is that people from outside of Baltimore are starting to embrace what we got going on. We get people from L.A., N.Y., Texas and some parts of Europe hitting us up. People like Tate Kobang having a big track is drawing attraction from local people too because, you know, if they see outsiders showing love, they hop on it. It’s people getting hip beforehand and holding us up too, though. It's all love.
DYLIJENS: I think for us, hopefully by seeing certain shit we do, it’ll be clear to people that whatever is possible. That's our goal.
"Hopefully by seeing certain shit we do, it’ll be clear to people that whatever is possible. That's our goal."—Dylijens, Basement Rap
As a collective and a platform, over the next year, where would you want to see Basement Rap?
Would you guys ever put non-Baltimore artists on the Basement Rap Radio mix?
BUTCH DAWSON: If it was a song one of us was featured on, yeah. Or if somebody is in town that we fuck with comes through to put down a few drops or commercials. The music has to come from us, though, and our friends within the scene. I wanna do this for them so we can get our music heard. I'm all about unifying with other artists but I started doing music with these guys. We know the sound we want. People gotta hear what's coming out of Baltimore.
What would be the most rewarding outcome for Basement Rap?
BLACK ZHEEP DZ: To be international.
RYAN P: We can't front, we wanna go to the very top. We wanna get Basement Rap Radio on these video games. If we could be on Grand Theft Auto, man...
BLACK ZHEEP DZ: It's limitless. We could be on XM. We could develop an app.
BUTCH DAWSON: Ultimately, it has to be the best platform. I got so much faith in this. I put like 12 hours of every day into this.