Lesson Plan

City Paper

The video for Damond Blue’s song ‘Shorty’ features the Baltimore rapper sitting on a local park bench, dispensing advice to a troubled teen (portrayed by a young actor, but voiced by Blue with a pitched-up vocal for one half of the song’s back-and-forth dialogue). The video, which has racked up over 50 thousand views on YouTube since its release a year ago, ends in tragedy for the kid who couldn’t focus on his schoolwork and stay off of the street. And it’s the kind of cautionary tale that you’d think might come off as preachy, particularly coming from Blue.

The first time I saw Damond Blue nearly a decade ago, he was a prodigiously talented 15-year-old performing around Baltimore under the name SL Danga. He held his own with much older competitors at a Style Warz rap-battle tournament, earning runner-up status, and formed the duo The Yung Huslas with another young rapper, Heat 187. Baltimore rap veterans Tyree Colion and Skarr Akbar mentored the group, which released a mixtape titled “Strickly Business Volume One” in 2006. Then, Heat was murdered, and his partner-in-rhyme drifted away from his musical ambitions for a few years. 

“After my best friend had got killed I kinda took a break, and started dealing with the streets a little bit,” says Blue, now 24 with a beard lining his chin. But after those wilderness years, he returned to hip-hop, rapping under his own name with a renewed sense of purpose and the kind of adult perspective that informs songs such as ‘Shorty.’ Sitting in the basement of his new homebase, the Architects Recording Studio compound on Harford Road, he cues up tracks from his upcoming album “Blessonz” that further advance his story. “I changed and grew into a man,” he says. 

It was once again an elder from the Baltimore hip-hop scene, Ogun, who took Blue under his wing and brought the rapper into the Architects fold, where his career is now a top priority. “He came to a couple of my shows, popped up on me like, ‘Look, you need to rock with me.’ I didn’t want to do it at first, I’m like yo, I’m doing my own thing, I wanted to boss up,” he recalls. But with that strong support base, he’s been able to focus on the music and still support his 3-year-old daughter. Over the summer, Blue quit his day job to fully focus on “Blessonz,” his first retail project, out on iTunes and CD on later this year or early next year. 

“Blessonz,“ a portmanteau of “blessings” and “lessons,” is full of tough talk and hard-edged beats produced by some of Baltimore’s best beatmakers, including Street Scott and Jay Oliver. But it also has songs such as ‘Power,’ where Blue tells the listener, “Look at yourself, love who you are, you’re so amazing although you come with some flaws.”

“It’s enlightening, it’s gonna uplift you,” he says of the song and the album. Critical narratives have long drawn thick lines between amoral gangsta rap and positive, conscious hip-hop. But a new generation of MCs, such as Compton’s Kendrick Lamar or Chicago’s Chance The Rapper, have demonstrated how it’s possible to write about a city in turmoil from the inside, sharing a thoughtful but not judgmental view of their surroundings. It remains to be seen if Damond Blue could be that kind of figure for Baltimore, but he certainly has the potential. 

Last year, Damond Blue released one of Baltimore’s most impressive mixtapes in recent memory, “The Feel,” which featured ‘Shorty.’ And he quickly followed it up with “The Golden Era,” in which he capably tackled the beats from ’90s rap classics, some of which were released when Blue was only a toddler. Building on the buzz of those projects, he secured some big names to guest on “Blessonz.” After meeting New York legend Jadakiss, Blue traveled to Yonkers to record the LOX rapper’s verse on the track ‘Always Something.’ “That was love, he gave me some grass, we was chillin’,” Blue remembers, still sounding a little starstruck.

Blue reached out to a neighboring city to tap one of Washington, D.C.’s biggest rap stars, Fat Trel, to appear on the album’s lead single, ‘Keep It 100.’ But what’s impressive about the track is not the star power of its guest, but that Trel raps in a much faster, tighter flow than he usually does, seemingly working harder to keep up with Blue. “When he heard my verse, his face balled up like,” Blue remembers proudly. “He was like, ‘Yo, the reason I rapped the way I rapped is because of you.’”

Following in the community-minded footsteps of Ogun, Damond Blue hopes “Blessonz” will raise his profile enough to help fuel some of his other passion projects.  “I wanna start a foundation soon called Beats Not Bullets,” he says. He envisions an after-school program at Architects that would help Baltimore kids choose art over hustling on the street. “They come here, do their homework, learn about music, and by the end of the course, put a CD together.”  His lyrics may sometimes touch on violence and crime, but his aim isn’t to glorify it. “Everything we talk about is real, I just wanna get that across and change it.”

For more from Damond Blue, click here.

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