"We were definitely about to kill that shit," 20-year-old Black Zheep DZ says with a tight smirk.
He's talking about the recent #NewBaltimore showcase of young local rappers at the Broom Factory in Remington, which was shut down by cops who, DZ concludes, had nothing better to do ("Broom Factory Raid Prompts Questions," Mobtown Beat, July 10). DZ was part of the only act that didn't get to take the stage that night, mainly because he and his collective of friends-the 7th Floor Villains-were headlining the show.
The group, barely removed from high school, got its name from sneaking into an abandoned building to smoke weed on the seventh floor. "We would just have nothing to do or nowhere to go smoke, so we'd just go up there and chill out," says the group's most popular member, OG Dutch Master. "It was also an element of mischief behind it too, so we started to call ourselves villains."
The Villains are at the forefront of a burgeoning scene of local artists that formed on Twitter and Tumblr. Thanks to constant tweets about their music, a healthy number of self-shot music videos, and efforts to make face-to-face connections with kids around the city, 7th Floor Villains have gone from playing shows with crowds of mostly friends to swarms of hashtag-clicking kids from along the East Coast, coming to be a part of the movement. But even with proven-effective DIY business acumen, they're all still very much like kids. While playing NBA Street on an old PlayStation 2 and cracking jokes in producer and rapper Butch Dawson's South Baltimore basement, they take turns explaining how they got into rapping.
"The first time I ever rapped and performed in front of people was at my fifth-grade graduation," says Butch, the most quiet and reserved of the bunch, with an embarrassed laugh. OG says his oldest memory of being influenced by rap was hearing Lil' Kim on his older brother's walkman being as aggressive as some of his favorite male artists. The first CD he bought with his own money was 50 Cent's debut, Get Rich Or Die Tryin', which made him want to be a rapper. DZ, who grew up in Northeast Baltimore, was first introduced to music by his Jamaican-born dad, who played Buju Banton and Bob Marley around the clock. His introduction to rap came from an uncle who had a home studio in his garage where DZ would soak up studio language. Most interesting is DZ's connection to Tim Trees-Baltimore's most popular local rapper in the early 2000s, who regularly got radio play with his song "Bank Rolls."
"Tim is my sister's fiancé, and they've been together since I was a little kid," he says. "I used to rap for him when I was around 12, but he'd always just laugh at me because I was rapping about the stuff I heard in popular rap-guns and drugs. Now he actually mentors me or will tell me that he likes what I'm doing." They bring all of their ideas and influences together to record in the same basement the Villains are hanging out in, and simply call it "Basement Rap."
The Villains' rise to relative prominence in Baltimore and other East Coast cities came last summer, they say, when they put together a show of young local rappers called Gold Season. Around the same time, OG Dutch Master's video for "PSA" got so me traction on the blogosphere, with posts from popular hip-hop blogs like 2 Dope Boyz and Mishka NYC. Since then, they've played frequent shows in D.C., New York, and Philly.
"Baltimore is different," DZ says. "Once you start grabbing attention from everywhere else on the internet and people see that popular rappers like your stuff, then you'll get hometown love."
OG, who just got featured on VICE's website adds, "Maybe it's because we're not used to seeing people from here make it, so when they do get some buzz nationally, it's more moving." The Villains know the less-than-stellar track record of rappers coming out of Baltimore, but they never waiver in representing their home city. Their videos are usually shot in neighborhood corner stores, in bedrooms while eating chicken boxes, or downtown while walking around.
Using social media and the internet, they believe they can reconstruct outsiders' limited view of Baltimore, which is more centered around what they've seen on The Wire than it is from upstart rap artists. Musically, they've had to fight off comparisons to fashion-forward local tough guy and internet superstar A$AP Rocky and his crew, but they quickly rejects those, pointing to peoples' laziness when it comes to absorbing music and an eagerness to pit things against one another.
The Villains' individual personalities mirror their music. OG is the most outspoken and often throws a barrage of thoughts out during conversation, routinely ending with "you feel me?" to make sure that you're keeping up. His music isn't much different; his congested squawk of a flow fits bunches of words into bars that include weed-friendly rhymes and frustration with his hometown. DZ is collected and analytical-his music is the most conversational of the bunch, chronicling what he sees in his everyday environment, which includes tributes to friends who've had sour relationships with women. Butch comes off as calculated, barely speaking when not provoked.
Just this year, all the Villains have released solo projects and they don't have any plans on slowing down. While in the basement, they play unreleased music and talk excitedly about their upcoming show, called Llamadon, on July 20 at the Pinebox Art Center.
"We've been showing everyone how hard we work and that we're dedicated to this shit," says Butch. "Getting up early, standing on the bus stop when we don't feel like it, doing side jobs. All this to get what we want."