The Internet has transformed music into a truly global experience, helping many previously isolated regional genres spread worldwide. One that still hasn’t gained much traction, however, is go-go – a Washington, D.C.-based spin-off of funk.
D.C. rapper Wale is determined to change that and, in the process, help redefine hip hop.
“People say hip hop is dead,” the 23-year-old Wale (pronounced Wah-Lay) told Pollstar. “But I’m fighting that from a young person’s perspective.”
Wale’s quest began in earnest several years ago. As he worked to develop his skills as an emcee and producer, he found himself heavily involved with and influenced by the go-go scene and began to work it into his music.
A string of locally popular go-go and hip-hop singles, followed by a series of mixtapes – two of which were given away free online – and as many live appearances as he could squeeze in soon began to attract attention from the industry.
Not content to let things take their own course, Wale’s manager, Elitaste Inc.’s Dan Weisman, slipped a mixtape to Mark Ronson in late 2006.
Ronson was suitably impressed. He featured Wale on an unreleased mix of Lily Allen’s “Smile” and invited him on the worldwide trek for his album Version, which featured a full band and several vocalists. The producer also signed him to his label, Allido Records.
Landing Wale a spot on Ronson’s tour worked right into Weisman’s master plan for the artist, a big part of which was exposing him to audiences outside of hip hop.
“The first meeting I had with him, which will be three years ago in June, I brought a copy of the Talking Heads concert film ‘Stop Making Sense,’ Weisman told Pollstar. “Since I knew about his connection to go-go, I wanted him to see how important the live aspect of Talking Heads’ music was to them and how they build up the show as it progresses. Ultimately it’s about the music and the aesthetic of a full band.”
Wale returned from the tour energized and released a mixtape inspired by “Seinfeld” called “The Mixtape About Nothing.” But he also came back with some fresh ideas for his shows and raring to hit the road on his own again, even though his debut album, Attention: Deficit, hadn’t dropped yet.
“That’s something that’s unprecedented for a new hip-hop artist,” Wale said. “Most artists go on a little road tour when they get their record to pop or two weeks before their album comes out.
“I’m doing it grassroots-style, trying to do something special and connect with the fans. That’s the whole idea of the album, Attention: Deficit, and the tour. I’m trying to fight against disposable music and disposable performances.
“Essentially, when you go to see a lot of hip-hop artists live, it’s almost like you’re just paying to look at them. You get to see me conduct a band – I’m not saying it’s like ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ or anything – but you get to see me conduct the band according to the vibe from the crowd.”
Weisman agrees what Wale is doing is pretty unusual for the hip-hop world – but it’s working.
“Wale doing shows at HighLine Ballroom in New York, selling out the Key Club and selling out Mezzanine is doing what I think very few emerging hip-hop artists are able to do – he’s delivering pure entertainment. And he’s managed to build up a fan base without a commercial release yet.”
About a year and a half ago, Weisman brought NUE Agency’s Jesse Kirshbaum on board to help guide Wale’s career.
“We did some track shows and those were great,” Kirshbaum told Pollstar. "Then we did a band show in New York I realized there was something really special there.
“The year before I came onboard, I attended a panel discussion at CIC,” he said. “And the thing that everyone was stressing was how important it is for hip-hop acts to respect their live performance. A lot of that requires a band. The fact that Wale was down with mixing a go-go band in with his hip hop led me to believe this could be really big.”
Kirshbaum thinks going out with Ronson helped solidify what Wale and his team were trying to accomplish.
“It gives him a level of credibility,” he said. “Mark doesn’t attach his name to just anything. The fact that he went out on a limb for Wale at such an early stage in his career has made a huge difference.”
The help Wale’s career is getting doesn’t end with Ronson. For his current tour, he enlisted well-known D.C. go-go band UCB and he’s gotten a big boost from his latest single, “Chillin,” which features guest vocals by one of the hottest acts around right now, Lady GaGa.
Wale will stay on the road through the end of May while he’s preparing for the release of his official debut, with plans to add dates through the end of the year.
And whether the show is for 1,000 people or 50, he’s determined to connect with each of them.
“One club date we did, I guess it was poorly promoted, there were only like 30 people there. So I brought everybody in close, we played some songs acoustic and it was more personal. It was almost like I had a conversation with every person there through song.”