Charm City's King

Bossman's music reflects growing up on the streets of Baltimore

August 07, 2005|By Emeri B. O'Brien | Emeri B. O'Brien,Sun Staff

The heat is blazing. But Mark Whitten sits coolly in his red Cadillac parked in the Mondawmin shopping center in West Baltimore. Window down. Music playing. His mind is focused on making the sale. On a good day, he may sell up to 75 CDs.

"These parking lots are like the ocean. We are like sharks trying to get a dollar and a buzz," says Whitten, a recent marketing graduate from Morgan State University.

He leans out of the window, smoothly nods, calls out to a woman walking by and pulls out the product: local rapper Bossman's Law and Order CD.

It's this kind of pop-the-trunk, on-the-street type hustling that helped Whitten's friend, Bossman, ink a deal in May with Virgin Records.

Not long ago, 23-year-old Bossman, whose given name is Travis Holifield, was out hustling his own tracks for $2 a pop.

"In the beginning, I definitely went out there and sold them," says the Northeast Baltimore native.

"People use to say, 'It's only $2. It must be weak.' But it came to the point where as I got more noticeable, it became more of a hassle. People would want to stop and talk," Bossman says.

That's when he hired some friends to hawk his music. And they do it almost anywhere there is a parking lot.

When Bossman was with the group NorthEast Kings, they sold 20,000 mix CDs. He has sold an additional 20,000 of his first solo album Charm City King, which came out last year.

Behind the cornrows, long white T-shirt and rough exterior is a young man who is watching his dream come true. Life hasn't always been easy for Bossman, and his music reflects that.

His inspiration for his lyrics is like a diary: intimate and personal. "Music is like my escape route," he says.

When he escapes, listeners are taken to the streets of Baltimore, with tales of hustling and struggles mixed with pulsating beats thumping to words of survival.

His rhymes speak of his turbulent childhood.

"I was affected by crime and poverty," he says. "My parents were both incarcerated. That was like a setback at a young age. I see a lot of kids who come from a broken home and they let the negative energy take over. I just used that for positive."

Making music isn't about money, it's about being heard, he says.

"I don't think that I am totally different, the music that I make, but I don't think I do the same music that everybody is listening to," Bossman says.

He is now heard all over Baltimore, in clubs and on local radio.

He blew up locally when he released "Oh!," which became a Baltimore anthem last summer and got heavy radio play on 92Q and other area radio stations.

But it was another song -- "Off Da Record" -- that caught the attention of Virgin Records' Jermaine Dupri.

"It was in rotation in D.C., Virginia, Delaware and was popping up in other places," Bossman says.

Dupri, who is also a rap artist, says Bossman's originality is a big selling point.

Bossman "just had a sound. I liked the fact that he was from Baltimore. That's a story untapped in the music industry," says Dupri, who has worked with such artists as Mariah Carey, Bow Wow and Jagged Edge.

"Today, everybody's from New York or Atlanta. I am looking for something new just as a fan is. The material is fresh," the record producer says.

Bossman's last independent release was Law and Order in December.

"The major law in hip-hop is originality. And, I think if you stick to that law, being yourself, everything will fall into order," he says.

Bossman plans to stick to that script with his new producers, who are planning his first release with Virgin early next year.

For now, the harsh realities of the past have turned into rainbows, for him and his family.

Today, his mother, 44-year-old Felicia King, is an aspiring evangelist and is Bossman's biggest fan.

She has kept every song that her son has recorded.

"As a kid, he was very talented. I always knew he would be something," King says. "My son has never ever taken me to a principal's office, yet alone a courthouse."

King, who in the '70s and early '80s was a jazz singer, performed locally and in the D.C. area. She says it doesn't make her uncomfortable to hear tales of her past in Bossman's music.

"God can always take a bad situation and turn it into something good, and this is what he's done for my family," she says.

In her heart, King has another hope for her son: "My prayers is one day he would convert to gospel music. He's not [degrading] women. Yes, he curses, but when I was 23, I wasn't singing gospel."


Given name: Travis Holifield

Age: 23

Hometown: Baltimore

Profession: rap artist

Early days: As a fifth-grader at Yorkwood Elementary School, he participated in a local talent show with his take on Kriss Kross' hit "Jump." He and a friend formed a group, Wild Pair (later renamed Hash and Cash), at Hamilton Middle School. Worked as an intern at 1Up Studios in Baltimore. Five years ago, he joined the NorthEast Kings. He went solo in 2003 and changed his name to Bossman.

Moving on: "I needed to find something that was me," he says of his departure from the Kings. "I am really like my own boss. I was really no follower. But I pretty much think that my own rules that I am following got me to where I am now."

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