Jay Electronica may have been the obvious choice as 2009’s “rapper that everyone could agree on,” but the only other outfit as unanimously lauded was Washington D.C.’s Diamond District, a super-group of sorts formed from two of the DMV’s best rappers (X.O. and yU) and arguably its best producer (Oddisee.) While In the Ruff may have served as the national introduction to X.O., the 24-year old Northeast and Northwest D.C. native had already garnered a sterling local rep for his solo mixtapes, inking a deal to the Studio 43 label run by former Roc-A-Fella exec Kenny Burns, and collaborating with many of the region’s major artists including Wale, Best Kept Secret, and Tabi Bonney.
Blessed with a highly versatile rhyme style, Jamaal Walton’s laid-back flow is equally comfortable over everything from Fela Kuti to Go-Go tinted beats, to straightforward rugged boom-bap. Combined with a lyrical style that stays bent between detailed street narratives and good old-fashioned shit talking, his most recent mixtape, last month’s One.One. Ten, successfully builds on his buzz, and is bound to be of the young year’s most enjoyable. This is some of the story behind Unknown Origins.
You’ve been releasing music for a while now. How did you get first get started rapping and were you always focused on making hip-hop?
I started rapping a minute ago — I’ve been doing it for about ten years, but only seriously since 2005. I was like 17 and just going to U Street, which is a mecca in D.C. for meeting people, and that’s where I met Oddisee and yU. That’s where I met Wale — we were both working at the same shoe store. That’s where I met Kenny Burns. It all popped off over time, but at first, I was trying to find myself and my voice. Around 2005, 2006, and 2007, I was finally able to put something real together and really become dominant in the city. It was about bringing something new to the table, a new sound.
It took me about five years to get the confidence to actually say that I was a rapper. During that time, I was in a positioning myself by getting to know people, the same sort of like-minded individuals. The job that I had at the time at the PG [Prince Georges] Mall allowed me to meet a lot of celebrities and movers and shakers, it was about being seen and positioning myself correctly. There was only a certain type of person that worked there, promoters, musicians, sneaker heads. I met DJ Alize there too. There was so much going on before my eyes, and I was networking and I eventually became a promoter myself — all through the people I met at the mall.
So how did you get from this point where you’d met all the right people to creating music that resonated with local audiences?
Well, I was always rapping but things started popping off and I started getting a buzz, so I figured it was time to put out a project. I didn’t want to just put out a project and have no one know me, so I had wanted to wait a minute to put out my first project, which was The Takeover. I released it in early 07 and Oddisee produced most of it. It got a big response, then I put out a project with Judah. The buzz got bigger, then I put out Takeover 2 –Best Kept Secret and Wale was on it, and the response was crazy. Then Diamond District came along and took it to the next level for me to drop One.One.Ten. I got involved with Kenny Burns last year and he shares the same vision for taking music from this region to the world. He saw the big picture from the beginning.
How does One. One. Ten reveal a different side of you that your earlier releases may not have?
I was trying to show people how diverse that I can be and consistent. I like putting out music that displays the different textures of music that I like.
How does being from D.C. impact your style. Your music is obviously influenced by a lot of classic East Coast rap, but it also simultaneous has a very regional feel.
It really affected the way I picked beats and the way I flow over them. What I’m attracted to in the beat and how I find the pocket is very much based on where I’m from. There’s a lot of musicians in D.C. and it’s a very musical city. The way I choose to flow over the beat is always very different, I may flow over the melody, or the snare, or just the bass line.
What was it like growing up in the city in the 90s?
It was rough man, I’d go back and forth between living with my grandma in the northeast part of town and living with my moms. She was going to school and working three jobs so she was always really busy. I actually went to High School in Maryland — I went to two or three different schools and then afterwards, I headed back to the city to try to do rap more. I could’ve got more heavily involved in the negative street side of things, but music kept me with a goal. Everyone in my family wanted me to have a more realistic goal, at least until they saw me in the paper for my music.
And what about the go-go influence. How does that impact you as an artist?
I love go-go. I love music period. I always had a bunch of Backyard Band records, Rare Essence, The Northeast Groovers. The Huck a Bucks.
When you were coming up, D.C. was always thought of as a go-go town. Was there always a thriving hip-hop scene and no one outside of the area was talking about it, or has it evolved pretty dramatically?
Actually, there was quite a bit of an underground scene that used to get burn out here on DC TV. Black Nitti used to have a weekly show that would showcase local artists. Starting from the early 90s, I was always in tune with the underground scene but I’ve watched it grow with my own eyes. When I was younger, it was rare that you’d find rappers because everyone was into go go, but now everyone raps, it’s definitely a rap city now.
When exactly did things start to change?
In the past few years — you noticed it because it used to be that rappers would do raps over go-go songs that were already popping, now it’s the other way around. There’s always been that mix between the two, just like if you go to Baltimore, they’ll be playing a House Mix of a Jay-Z record. It was a gradual thing that happened over time to where there seemed to be an even number of people rapping and doing go-go. Now I’d say there’s an imbalance in favor of rap.
Do you see people eventually abandoning go-go or do you think it will always a fixture in the city?
People will always love go go. It will never go anywhere. We’ll always be making music in this town.
How does it feel to watch the DMV region receive a lot of national attention?
It’s been amazing to see the acceptance and everyone here loves it. From the Diamond District to what I do individually, to what Wale does, to Tabi Bonney, to Kingpin Slim, everybody is feeling it. We’re at the forefront of the movement and everybody is getting their. It feels like it’s our season.
Do you feel that there was anything that triggered this renaissance of sorts or was it just a matter of people finally tuning in?
I mean it’s our time — people want to hear music from our region and our city. We’ve got Obama, which brings a whole new energy to the city. When you look at rap over time, New York had their time, Cali had their time, even St. Louis had their time. DC never has.
How did you guys get together and decide to form Diamond District?
We’ve always been making music together and we was all popping individually, but it was Oddisee’s idea to get us together and make the album. So we laid our verses down, thought about song structure and worked that out, we all wrote the choruses. Oddisee had a blueprint for the album from the get-go.
On your Myspace page, your list of influences is pretty Golden Age and East-Coast centric: “Hova, Big Pun, The Lox, EPMD, Common, Wu Tang, Pac, Biggie, Big L, Gangstarr, Public Enemy, LL Cool J.” Listening to your music, it seems like you spent a lot of time studying those schools of rap. Was that the case?
Definitely. I was into go go, but also Biggie smalls and 2pac and Pun. I saw how they formatted their rhymes and I definitely studied those patterns and styles when I was coming up.
During the years when D.C. hip-hop received less attention and major labels weren’t handing out deals, was it difficult to stay focused on trying to make a career in hip-hop or did you always suspect that it would get its due?
I always kept focused because I knew our time was coming. Personally, I knew that I was getting better and now it’s really a perfect time to be a rapper coming from the DMV.
How did Wale impact things locally?
He showed people that D.C. hip-hop was a unique and different culture. That it was an entirely new genre and sound coming from within a ten mile radius. He was like the first impression of DC hip-hop for a lot of people, showing them what the go go sound could be mixed with hip hop. Although if you listened to Salt N Pepa and Heavy D back in the day, you also might have noticed it. Wale made the first impression on a lot of people and showed the world the uniqueness of our flow and our slang. I knew that once they got a first impression and taste of it, it would bring more attention to all of us.
How big was Wale in D.C. before he got the deal with Interscope and the Mark Ronson association?
He was popping in DC way before all of that. He was selling out clubs, he had “Dig Dug” on the radio. I remember hearing that song and it felt like an entirely new sound. I was like ‘damn, what the hell is this.’ The joint was popping and it really took off hen he got with Studio 43 and Kenny Burns. They took it took it to another level and brought something new to the city.
For someone unfamiliar with what Studio 43 does, how would you describe it?
Studio 43 is a brand and a label that’s affiliated with a lot of the major player in DC hip-hop. Wale, Tabi Bonney, yU, Oddisee. It’s a a small circle that operates sort of like the mob — not in terms of criminal stuff, but in terms of that close-knit family, loyalty vibe. You’ve got to put in a certain amount of work, but once you do, you’re a Pauly. Kenny Burns is like the Godfather in a sense.
What’s your release and recording schedule looking like for the rest of 2010?
Another Diamond District album, then I’m going to put my album out. I’ve got a lot more videos for One.One.Ten, and we’re also doing a European tour and a U.S. tour.
You’ve had a lot of success on the independent level. Are you looking to sign a major label deal?
Definitely. I’ve been sitting down with a lot of labels, but no matter what, I’m going to still be a force independently. The way I see it is that if I’ve been having this much success without a label, when they come in, it’s really going to be something.