Montgomery County might not be considered a musical hotbed, but for rapper and producer Kenton Dunson, it was a good place to soak up the musical culture of both neighboring cities. "Between Baltimore and D.C., I was in the sweet spot where I could get 93.9 and hear Go-Go. And then I could switch to 92.3 and hear K-Swift," he remembers. "Nothing's better to me than the way Baltimore Club drums are chopped up, and in D.C., nothing's better to me than Go-Go with the live drums."
Dunson, now 29, seems to be able to trace his whole life through musical experiences. "I started playing drums when I was 8, I started playing keys at 12, bass at 13, and guitar at 16," he says while relaxing with a drink during a break from recording at a Rockville studio. He soon began writing rhymes and making beats but put his musical ambitions on hold while studying business at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., and then working at the investment firm T. Rowe Price.
"I was playing keys in random bands, rock bands, blues bands, anything I could do to get my music fix that night. I played around in bars in Ellicott City, Catonsville, Baltimore, everywhere," Dunson recalls, but it wasn't enough. "I would sit at work at T. Rowe Price, just YouTubing videos of cats in the studio like, 'Man, why can't I do that instead of this?'" So in 2010 he gathered up his modest savings, took the plunge, and quit his day job to focus on music.
"I just leaped, dropped everything," he says, shaking his head. "That shit backfired."
At least, it did in the short term. More and more, it seems like Dunson has made the right decision. In June, Dunson landed his first guest verse on a major-label release, appearing on "Can the Cool Be Loved?" from R&B singer Chrisette Michele's album Better. In August, he headlined the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. And he just learned that a track he produced for a certain hip-hop star is slated to be the followup single to the rapper's current radio hit.
Although he makes no bones about his suburban origins, Dunson credits the Baltimore scene as the stomping ground that allowed him to hone his craft once he began focusing on his career.
"They let me just run amok up there for like a year until I got my feet wet," he says. "The Sound Garden was the first place that carried a CD of mine. The 8x10 is like my home." He recently appeared on the posse cut remix to Al Great's "Summer Nights" alongside DDm and Japiro, and recently recorded collaborations with Greenspan. "When I meet guys like Al Great and Greenspan, they're just like, 'Yeah, we can tell that you're not, like, a Baltimore City guy. But we know, it's cool that you're around the area.' They definitely show love."
Dunson's early mixtapes in the Creative Destruction series caught the ear of Phatboiz, a production trio that's made tracks for singers like Miguel and Ne-Yo, two of whom played in John Legend's backing band. One of Dunson's first sessions with Phatboiz yielded "Count on It," a playful, Sesame Street-sampling track that proved to be the rapper's breakout track on the internet. And the production team's connections in the R&B world led to the Chrisette Michele collaboration, as well as John Legend's appearance on Dunson's "Cross Town Lovers," a song that examines the rapper's relationship with Baltimore, Washington, and other cities.
Some of Dunson's beats are now being shopped around with John Legend hooks, and the Grammy-winning singer has proven to be not just a powerful ally in the music industry but someone who can identify with Dunson's unusual path. Legend graduated from college and worked as a management consultant before adopting his stage name and signing a record deal. And he gave the rapper some advice when he was struggling with the decision in late 2011 to go from performing as Kenton Dunson to simply Dunson. "He was like, 'They told me to change my name to John Legend, I didn't like it, my friends didn't like it, my little bit of fans that I had then and there didn't like it. But I said, "Fuck it," and signed a record deal with Kanye.' He said, 'Simplify your name, make sure you refine your look, and just keep the records coming.'"
With a clean-cut look and a stylish semi-mohawk, Dunson is the kind of post-street cred rapper that's become more and more familiar in an era shaped by the likes of Drake and Kanye West. Instead of downplaying his education or his stuffy old job in the finance industry, he named his 2012 mixtape The Investment and uses a drawing of the Wall Street bull as his logo. "What I find so cool about what I'm doing is I don't have to pose like I'm something [I'm not]," he says. "I just canceled out the whole rep thing."
The success of The Investment over the past year has led Dunson to field show offers all over the country, where he's occasionally amazed to find a packed house ready to see him somewhere like Idaho. With a tight backing band of Philadelphia-based musicians, he performs frequently in New York, Baltimore, and Washington, bringing a little of his own musicianship to the stage while putting the emphasis on his dexterous, plain-spoken rapping.
Things seem to be gearing up for Dunson-a couple days after we meet, he's back on one of his frequent out-of-state trips to perform in Atlanta for the first time. This coming winter he's releasing the lead single off the followup to The Investment, a project he's been patiently laboring over. Friends and family have been supportive of his decision to bet the house on hip-hop, but he knows that he has a long way to go to convince everyone that he's doing the right thing. At one point, he quotes a line from "Count on It" that could function as his personal motto: "You're still a fool until you're a genius." ■
Kenton Dunson performs at Baltimore Soundstage Sunday, Sept. 29.