Show is hip to Baltimore's undiscovered rappers

December 10, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Each Sunday throughout the HBO drama's season, we have highlighted a must-see character or story element. For tonight's season finale, we discuss the sounds of "The Wire."

Realness, or the perception of it, has always been important in hip-hop.

As often heard in the music over the years, the ugliness of life is rarely played down. If anything, it is grossly exaggerated. But many rappers from different parts of the country have long prided themselves for being chroniclers of the street.

For the fourth season of HBO's The Wire, music supervisor Blake Leyh wanted to further authenticate the gritty show by including more of Baltimore's homegrown hip-hop - sounds that echo the rawness of the series.

"The thing about the music this season that's different is that we used a lot of unsigned hip-hop artists from Baltimore," says Leyh. "On The Wire, [series creator] David Simon wants to promote the feeling of reality, that what you see on the screen reflects the life in Baltimore. It seems like the perfect match to get the music in this season."

It also makes perfect sense. Last season, Baltimore club - a kinetic, repetitive, often-vulgar style of dance music prominent in the area for 15 years - was used for the first time. More of it is heard on the show this season, along with the city's hip-hop.

The Wire is intensely Baltimore-centered, with references to area urban radio programs (92Q's Big

Phat Morning Show) and neighborhood foods (lake trout). Even some of the characteristics of the city's musical landscape were used as a plot device: Snoop and Chris Partlow, two icy assassins this season, quizzed dealers with specific Baltimore questions, to identify New Yorkers creeping in on local turf.

Because of its local specificity, the city's rap meshes well with the show. Generally, Baltimore rap is made by the people for the people, with shout-outs to neighborhoods, and uses slang heard only on a few blocks around the city.

"Musically, production-wise, it doesn't have a specific sound like in Atlanta or Houston," Leyh says. "Lyrically, there's a lot of things referenced that are specific to Baltimore. So the music is unique and vital to the area."

The Wire this season has, in a way, served as a showcase for local talent. And it's probably the only national exposure for the local rappers. The critically acclaimed series has boosted the profile of Mullyman, a former construction management major at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore who for three years has been hustling his music full-time.

"What Blake is doing for local artists is great," says the West Baltimore-raised rapper, born Kevin Muldrow. "He came straight to the core of the street and wanted to know who's who. What he's doing is what's really gonna put us on the map. Bless that man."

After Leyh licensed three of Mullyman's songs for this season - "Bodymore Soldiers," "That's the Sound (aka Ayyyeerrppp!!! Song)" and "The Life, the Hood, the Street" - the rapper says he was contacted by three major labels.

"I'm in the middle of negotiating something now," he says, declining to reveal any specifics. "I'm very excited about that. It's weird right now, because I'm not getting played on 92Q. But I'm blessed because usually if you don't have a song in rotation as an MC, you can't survive."

Though the area has in recent years nurtured formidable, nationally known talents in R&B (namely Maysa Leak, hit late-'90s group Dru Hill and crooner Mario), the city has yet to make its mark on the country's hip-hop scene.

Last year, West Baltimore rapper Bossman was signed to Virgin Records. But the company hasn't yet released his major-label debut. (Leyh ran into problems trying to license Bossman's music through Virgin, so none of the songs by Baltimore's most high-profile rapper could be used in the show. )

"Hopefully, we've done a better job of reflecting the quality of Baltimore and its music," says New York-born, England-raised Leyh. "In the past, we used music by artists who weren't necessarily from Baltimore."

As in previous seasons, the music on The Wire is not used as a narrative device to manipulate emotion or help push the story along. The snippets add a different color or texture to a scene. But because music is heard so sparingly on the show, the intense but conversational flow of a Mullyman rap blaring in the background is all the more noticeable.

"I think the nation is ready to hear in our music what they see on The Wire," says the Baltimore-based rapper. "The radio doesn't embrace the streets right now. When national radio reflects what the streets are saying, then you'll hear more from Baltimore."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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