Exclusive: Wale on the Real DC, TVOTR, and Balancing Content and Flow


Now sharing stages with everyone from T.I. to Lil Wayne, hungry young rapper Wale was originally bred on go-go, a percussive subgenre of funk and hip-hop indigenous to DC. Despite the capital’s surplus of musical talent, the city long suffered from a hip-hop ice age, until Wale emerged in 2006 and began a slow and steady takeover. Now, after a handful of acclaimed mixtapes, high-profile collaborations with Mark Ronson and Nick Catchdubs, and a record deal with Interscope, Wale is poised to release a hit debut this spring.

After the jump, we chat with the rapper about go-go, his hometown, what it means to be an intelligent MC, and the details of his recent collab with TV on the Radio.

Flavorwire: What’s the influence of go-go on your sound?

Wale: It’s just something that’s subconsciously added to my music. You can hear it clearly in the drums, the rhythms, the call-and-response kind of hooks. I sprinkle it sonically into what I do, but I don’t try to over-think its influence. As for who I’m listening to these days, I’d say Reaction Band and T.O.B. are two of the young bands I like — and when I say young, I just mean on the scene, because they’re roughly the same age as I am. And of course, U.C.B. We’ve been working on the album together and performing live. I’m working to get them a record deal, because I really think they’re poised to be something like the next Roots.

FW: Who’s producing your debut LP?

Wale: Whoever’s hot! I mean, Cool ‘N Dre [The Game, Busta Rhymes, Lil Wayne] have a few, but I’m working with other people, like TV on the Radio. So long as it sounds good… It’ll be a creative album — song after song of strong material, because we’re really taking our time with it. It’ll be out this spring.

FW: What’s the connection with TV on the Radio?

Wale: We just thought it’d be a good idea to work together. I mean, we’re two artists that people have been feelin’ a lot recently and when you put that together — we did some really interesting stuff in the studio.

FW: You’ve avoided being pigeonholed as a backpacker, although there’s a social consciousness in your music. How do you see yourself positioned on the hip-hop spectrum?

Wale: I think it’s important to be a well-rounded individual, no matter what you do. And I apply that to the music I make — you have to let all of you show through. A part of me is very conscious, very politically aware and then there’s a side of me that thinks about girls 24/7, the side of me that likes to have fun. That’s why I can’t be mad at an artist like Soulja Boy, or things of that nature, because if you like the club — like to throw a party — that’s part of that side of life. I had to ask myself, when I was at a go-go, how I could even be mad at anybody who’s all about creating a dance like that, because that’s where I come from: concerts where you’re just dancing the whole time.

FW: On “The Bomb” you spit: “I’m chastised / They say I’m not hood enough / Fuck it, I’m good – I just kill it with my rhetoric / A clip full of syllables / Licking off shots like the last sip available / You cannot configure my particular curriculum / Ridiculous / You niggas don’t even deserve my syllabus.” Have you found yourself negotiating a path between being intellectual and keeping it street?

Wale: You know, I don’t try to say who I am. When you’re real, it shows. It’s the quality of honesty that’s so important. You can hear it in the music of very different rappers, like Young Jeezy and Jay-Z. It’s not necessarily about being intelligent. For example, Jeezy’s lyrics are a bit more simplistic than some others considered more “intelligent” rappers, but he is able to convey what he is trying to say to a much broader audience — and that restriction itself makes what he says that much more intelligent. Same with 50 Cent. His lyrics are very easy to understand, but when you have a conversation with him you know that he can put words together in a more complex fashion.

FW: It’s like the distinction between flow and content: how you rhyme and what you rhyme about.

Wale: Exactly. That’s another aspect that demonstrates how super-important it is to incorporate an actual balance. If you’ve spent your whole life in the street, that isn’t all you know. They know about film, books, and other things — you just have to let it show in your music by striking that balance.

FW: In “Nike Boots” you rap about DC, saying “No Congressional reppers / No respectable rappers.” Does DC’s underdog mentality affect your ascent in the rap game?

Wale: I have a chip on my shoulder anyway! Just Blaze don’t get back to me on the regular… [laughs] Or Kanye West! People might say “keep doin’ what you’re doing, let’s work some time.” But when it comes down to it, it’s like [sounding bored]: “Oh. Yeah. Keep it moving…” And I always feel like it’s because of where I’m from, that they’re gonna continue to sleep on us until something happens, which is why I’m trying to act now.

FW: One more question about DC. As a teenager growing up in the city, I was exposed to a lot of the Dischord bands, a lot of DIY punk. Did you experience that side of DC at all?

Wale: Not at all — it was kind of foreign to my experience. I know it exists, but that’s about it. It’s still foreign to me.

FW: Did you feel like DC was a supportive place to come into your own as a young artist?

Wale: DC’s a tough place to get love unless you’re from DC. It’s like everybody hates you here! The only black person that everyone can agree on is Obama.

* Photo credit: Mel D. Cole, Villageslum.com