A week before Brian "Greenspan" Dawkins released his first official retail album, Stairway to Heaven, a couple dozen friends, DJs, and tastemakers are invited to a listening session in the Lineup Room, the Parkville studio that birthed the album. After the album is pumped out of the speakers for the impressed crowd and begins its second rotation, Dawkins ducks into one of the rooms where many of his verses were recorded to talk about the project.
"I believe hip-hop is in a beautiful place right now," says Dawkins, 28, wearing a thick winter beard and enjoying a drink on his celebratory night. "As long as you don't distinctly sound like somebody [else], you're just tryin' to be great at what you do."
You could say that being the best possible version of Greenspan is what Dawkins strives for, more than many artists in the imitation-prone hip-hop marketplace. Ever since his first free release, 2008's Got Green?, which was picked up for a promotional re-release by the auto brand Scion, Greenspan has demonstrated a propensity for erudite lyrics, high production values, and energetic live performances. Having traveled to South by Southwest several times and after making constant appearances on local stages, he swears by the power of performing in person. "For the music lover, music festivals and shows are just where it's at. Online and TV matters, but it really doesn't," he says. "I think the true fan base will come from the performances."
Harrisburg, Pa., is one unlikely place that Dawkins says he's earned a following, and one performance in particular stands out as memorable. "I'm performing, some girls start fighting, they really scrapping out. So I'm like, They taking a lot of attention away from me, so I jumped down in the crowd by the fight, I'm performing, I don't give a fuck. So everybody's like, 'Oh shit, Bmore go hard!' I had some CDs, they were like, 'Gimme one, gimme one!'" he laughs.
Stairway to Heaven is a chance for Greenspan to put those years of groundwork to the test. It's his second release to head out to iTunes, Amazon, Pandora, and other major distribution channels. Though he's long operated his own label, Federal Reserve Records, he recollaborated with another local label, Mania Music Group, to assemble the album. Mania's production brain trust, Brandon "BeaLack" Lackey, who operates the Lineup Room, and Dwayne "Headphones" Lawson, who helped out remotely, oversaw the mixing of the album and contributed several beats. "Mania Music has a track record of their own, and they have a respect for me which is greatly appreciated, and we just came together and made something good," says Dawkins.
The guests on Stairway to Heaven include Baltimore rap mainstays like Kenton Dunson and Mania artist Kane Mayfield, along with surprises like Oakland rapper Balance and jazz saxophonist Tim Green. One of Greenspan's closest friends in the scene, Al Great, makes an appearance, but his biggest contribution to the album may have been a track he didn't appear on-"Soul Right"-that came about when Great asked Greenspan to guest on the Street Scott-produced beat.
"He sent me the beat, I wrote a whole song. That's my brother, he was like, 'Yo, that's yours now,'" he recalls. "The lyrics I actually wrote to that beat, I felt like realistically I was born to write this song, if no other song. This song is gonna touch somebody's life." But even then, the rapper's penchant for perfectionism made the track difficult to complete-at least two or three hooks were recorded for the song and scrapped before the final chorus was contributed by singer J Soul.
Growing up in Woodlawn, Dawkins became obsessed with hip-hop, idolizing New York MCs like AZ and Raekwon while also soaking up the Southern sounds of labels like Cash Money and Suave House. That background enabled him to make a varied album like Stairway to Heaven, which features bass-heavy bangers like "Kane & Abel" alongside lush soul beats, but he's never felt the need to imitate the personas of his favorite MCs. "My main inspiration is life and experience," he says. "I've never sold crack, so I talk about my shit. The thing I don't do on record is lie. I've never lied on records, I refuse to."
Dawkins says the title Stairway to Heaven is less about Led Zeppelin or even his own Christianity than it is about following your bliss. "It's not so much of a spiritual heaven as far as the idea's concerned, it's more of an attainable goal," he says. "What you need to strive for, so that can be your heaven on earth." Still, there was one person who contributed to the album who climbed the stairway before the project was finished. Beloved Baltimore rapper and local radio staple Smash came into the Lineup Room to record his verse on "Make Believe" just a couple months before dying of congestive heart failure in February 2013.
Dawkins had been publicly promising an album titled Stairway to Heaven since early 2011, before bringing some initial songs to the Lineup Room for what would end up being an arduous two-year process. "Looking back at it, in one regard I feel like it's fucking crazy, why did I take two years?" Dawkins laughs. "But at the same time I appreciate what came out of it."