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D.C. Hip-Hop Scene Bubbles As Homegrown Star Finds Success

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By Jonathan Wilson

In the last few years, D.C.'s urban music scene has gotten a jolt in the arm, with the national emergence of an artist called Wale-the first local hip-hop star to ride local buzz to national prominence.

But what does his success mean for local hip-hop artists who've toiled for years in the hip-hop underground without a sniff of mainstream success?

Kev Brown is making a beat.

His inspiration today is R&B classic, "Love and Happiness" by Al Green, and he's using a computer called an MPC to deconstruct the song before he puts it back together.

"I chop up the record, and play it back pretty much the way I want it to go," says Brown.

This process is one of the things hip-hop is all about, taking samples of other songs, and reorganizing them into something original.

"It's like a puzzle or something," he says.

Brown is 34, a grizzled veteran by hip-hop standards. But he still can't claim that he's made it, despite collaborations with hip-hop pioneers like Marley Marl and De La Soul, right now he can't even make enough money to move out of the small Landover home he shares with his mother, sister and nephew.

"It's rough patches every now and then, but it's a regular thing, just like anyone else," he says.

It’s less rough these days for Wale, another product of D.C. and the Maryland suburbs.

But the up-and-coming hip-hop artist says it hasn’t been an easy road.

"The thing about it now is, I've seen D.C. rappers get hot on the underground, and then fade away," says Wale. "It's easy to get hot, it's hard to stay relevant."

Wale's biggest musical accomplishment may be finding a way to bridge the gap between D.C.'s trademark style of drum-heavy funk, better known as go-go, with the sounds of mainstream hip-hop.

This past year Wale released his major label debut, "Attention Deficit," on Interscope's Allido imprint. It boasts collaborations with the Neptunes, and perhaps the biggest popstar in the world right now, Lady Gaga.

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But whether Wale's mix of go-go and hip-hop will become D.C.'s hip hop signature, is another question. Wale isn't sure himself.

"We don't really have a sound," says Wale of D.C. "Because the go-go sound, not everybody loves it. Not all the rappers even been to a go-go before."

The frenetic, go-go influenced beats that have helped propel Wale to fame are a far cry from the rolling rhythms Kev Brown churns out of his makeshift Landover studio.

And Brown isn't about to change his self-described "grimy soul" style just because Wale has made it with a different sound.But he hopes Wale's wave of success will eventually be seen as the rising tide that lifted all boats.

"Just cause one person comes out of the area, that kind of gets labeled as the sound, 'cause there's never been anything from that area before," says Brown. "And then, later on, people come to realize. It's kind of like the West Coast -- all that was crackin' was Gangsta rap for a minute, and then the Alkaholiks come out and it's like, 'Oh, they're not rappin' bout killin'!' You know what I mean? That's kind of what is probably is going to happen with this area. Even though people know us for go-go, the music has always been here. Not even just hip-hop, all types of music," he says.

While D.C. hip-hop artists may not be emulating Wale's sound, they are taking advantage of the renewed buzz around the area's music scene by banding together.

At this small concert, in College Park, Kev Brown rocks a song with an emcee called yU.

Brown and yU are technically in different crews, Brown is in a collective called "Low Budget," and yU is one third of the Diamond District crew, which released its first album this past year.

Members of the two crews often perform or create music together, and yU says the new spirit of collaboration is helping to focus fans’ attention on the D.C. area.

"The scene has been growing for a long time," says yU. "I guess what probably kept it out of focus was the fact that people weren't sticking together, and now a lot of the artists, they're linking now."

So while a unified sound may never be D.C.'s hip-hop legacy, emcees and beat makers across the city agree the city's hip-hop, and all of its different styles, are bubbling with more energy than ever.

Whether the city's cauldron of urban music can cook up another mainstream star remains to be seen.

Kev Brown says he'll settle for the chance to call making music a full-time job.

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