The Uptown Interview: Marcus Dowling

‘The Uptown Interview’ is a series of candid conversations with some of D.C.’s cultural influencers in an attempt to interpret and preserve the artistic heritage of the city.

Marcus Dowling cashed in on his 401k after he was laid off from his real estate job.  This was in 2008, 2009 at a time when the blogosphere was starting to realize its full potential.  Drawing from his experience as Providence College’s editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, Dowling chronicled a year’s worth of musical experiences.  Artists picked up on his coverage and have since invited him to shows in the Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York areas as well as his hometown Washington, D.C.  Dowling’s words are present on editorial sites like ‘Pitchfork’, ‘Art Nouveau Magazine’, ‘Complex’, and ‘Medium’.  We grabbed a bite to eat at Busboys and Poets’ 14th Street location, where Dowling veraciously unloaded a lesson in music.  He speaks on the sustainability of music, gentrification and the re-education of culture evident in the nation’s capital.

Marcus K. Dowling

MD: Before Obama was elected, things would happen in the darkness and they would be amazing.  They would be amazing unto themselves.  There was no mainstream for it.  The Fleur Guys were booking Armin Van Buuren and Tiesto and all of that, and they were killing it.  But it wasn’t like they were killing it and the world needed to know.  Like they could make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and nobody knew.  There was no need for D.C. to become this explosive and expansive scene.

MY: Why do you think that is though?

MD: Because D.C. was a federal town at this point.  D.C. was a government town first and an arts town second.  A government town first and a creative hub second.  When we had jazz and we had go-go, these were things that were nationally renowned if only because people from other places came here and took the culture to their hometown.  Rick Rubin would come down for Junk Yard shows all the time.  So, if you wanna understand how go-go expanded outside of D.C., Rick Rubin would come down to punk and hardcore shows and book go-go bands as the openers.  So you would get Fugazi and Junk Yard Band on a bill.  So, when he started Def Jam with Russell Simmons, he’s like, “Okay, we have to make rap records that are sonically different.”  And Rick was into this sound that’s brash and big and tough.  So, he’s listening to Junk Yard and Trouble Funk and all these bands and he’s like, “Wait, the drums on these tracks are ridiculous.  The rhythms on these tracks are ridiculous.  The least I could do is get these guys up to New York and have them play, so I can sample their drums and rhythms.”  And that’s what he did.  That’s how Trouble Funk’s “Dropped the Bomb” got sampled and Junk Yard Band got signed to a record deal.  And that was only because Rick Rubin was coming down to D.C.  Had he never come down here, the music would’ve never left.  D.C. has been great unto itself, like legendary great.  Not just great in a way where it’s just “cool,” but legendarily great unto itself.

MD: When we get to the level of the digital age–the internet age–D.C. being a vibrant creative hub started to emerge.  D.C. was always emerging.  Then you get Wale breaking out, whose only selling point was that he’s from D.C., but that’s all he needed.  Because everybody who was hip about the underground history of Washington, D.C. is like, “This guy is a rapper from D.C…this could be good.” And then it’s like, “Wait does he have go-go songs that he raps over?” Then “Dig Dug” drops and that’s all you needed.  Then you have Dave Mata and Tittsworth making their music on the indie dance scene.  Tittsworth is making these bang-up-and-down records, and the other thing about D.C. is that it has a legendary techno background from clubs like Tracks and Nation…

MY: Are they still around?

MD: No, they don’t exist.  Nation is now where the Nats stadium is.  And so Tittsworth was a resident at Nation.  So the New York City club kids would sneak down to D.C. every so often to get real shows.  Then when you have the internet shining a light on it, everything gets magnified.  Then you add the election of Obama because we’re mixing this vibrant underground within the internet, which the internet is always transformative where it’s like everything that’s underground is now mainstream and everything that’s mainstream is now kind of irrelevant because it’s like, ‘Wow you can do whatever you want.’  So, D.C. is this place that’s been aggregately underground for one hundred years.  Now, the internet says everything that’s underground is now mainstream.  On top of that, Obama gets elected as the first black president.  You can’t underestimate that.  He’s the first black president, so it’s the most astounding thing that’s happened in the history of the world.  The President of America where black people were considered three-fifths of a person according to the Constitution…so the entire world is now watching D.C., wondering what’s going on here, what’s the culture of the city, what’s the vibe of the city.  And so anything that was ready to pop popped.  Wale popped.  Dave Mata, moombahton popped.  Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You,” the most dominant pop song of the year, Drake’s “One Dance”–all that stuff is moombahton.  So all that stuff became mainstream.  The rest is left in the underground–the jazz, the punk, the stuff that Jamal makes [experimental sounds] is still underground.  So, now you have a mainstream underground that’s different.

MY: Thinking about the mainstream, you have artists like Wale and GoldLink who are heating up, but at the same time it seems like D.C. is not a hotbed of music, unlike in Atlanta, New York or Los Angeles.

MD: D.C. never had it.  The mainstream understood they could take from D.C. and not give back.  This has been a thing for like 25 years.  Yung Guru, Jay Z’s DJ and sound engineer went to Howard University.  D.C. has had a string of one-hit wonders in every genre.  You can give D.C. one thing, but you didn’t have to install industry here.  And since D.C. has always been great unto itself, there was no desire to create industry here.  Houston for instance, or Cleveland, or St. Louis–all those cities when they got on created industries within their cities, Atlanta especially.  Atlanta became the new Motown of the South because they were like, “If we can get on the ones and twos and we have recording studios and engineers and record executives and producers and PRs and agents all within our community, well then let’s band it together and when the mainstream industry comes to us again, we will not let them take our artists.  They will take our labels.”  In D.C., there’s no label structure.  In Atlanta, La Face Records–that’s LA Reid and Baby Face and his wife Pebbles–they go, “Okay, Outkast is ready to blow, TLC is ready to blow.”  When MCA comes to Atlanta they go, “No, you’re not taking our artists.  You are going to take our entire label, you’re taking the whole thing.  Because we’re pushing units already, so we theoretically don’t need you.  We’re just looking for national distribution.”  In D.C. we don’t have national distribution even.  We’re not even pushing tapes on the streets.  We’re just doing live shows.

Junk Yard Band

MY: Is the culture in D.C. sustainable then?

MD: No, not at all.

MY: Where do you see it ending then?

MD: For D.C., gentrification wiped out our music industry.  When you take black people out of communities, then when you wanna put the show on that appeals almost specifically to urban, black culture and the people aren’t there then there’s no sustainable industry.  Go-go doesn’t happen on U St. anymore.  Go-go happens in Prince George’s County, Maryland or Northern Virginia because that’s where black people live.  They’re physically not even here, so there’s no reason to even have an industry.  So, when you displace people and there’s already no industry, you can’t do live events.  For young rappers and artists like Jamal, it’s hard.  That’s why artists like Wale and GoldLink succeed because they have a thing in their sound that appeals to that indie dance community that’s aspirationally middle-income black and also crosses over to white kids and college kids.  That’s why their music succeeds here because that’s the new population here.  If you’re doing something other than that you’ve got a tough road ahead because you have to re-educate your community.  Jamal has a really tough road ahead.  He’s doing it.  He’s re-educating people as to what jazz means.  He’s recording a jazz album with the guys at Paperhaus who are largely white, middle-class kids who are also originally not from here.  Once he does that, then he starts moving upwards. 

MY: When did you notice gentrification causing unsustainability of the culture?

MD: 2009 when Obama came.  Suddenly, the whole world is like, “I wanna move to Washington, D.C.”  On top of that, you have the old, established black community dying.  And their kids who could buy these homes, don’t live here anymore.  They moved away into the suburbs.  So, there were whole communities in the city that were vacant.  Then developers got wise and they just knocked down buildings.  And they say, “Okay, people want to move in, we’ll build condos and make them more expensive because these people moving in can afford it.  They’re not from here.  Their parents have money.”  So, then the music that becomes popular out of this area reflects that [new] culture.

MY: What about the venue space?  I read a lot about the old venue spaces that shaped the culture.  How are these spaces changing?

MD: Back in the day, the venues existed not necessarily to support the arts, but because you have to have these venues in the city.  The venues that supported the arts weren’t even venues.  Punk rock existed outside of 9:30 Club in spaces that weren’t even supposed to hold that stuff.  Indie dance happened in bars with terrible sound systems.  When 9:30 Club moves from downtown to uptown, it’s a beautiful venue–quality sound system and a great stage–all the punk rock bands are mainstream, so all the following spaces are modeled similarly.  You now have Anthem that’s being built for this culture that’s coming to the city that wants rock and country experiences because there’s not a space between Verizon Center and Echostage that can hold that many people.

MY: So, it seems like there are these high-level venues, like Verizon Center, where you have the Jay Z’s performing, but you don’t have these low-levels for the underground culture where people can learn about these artists coming up.

MD: Right, not at all.  And places like DC9 sign national acts, too.  The music industry died at some point between 2008 and now.  When it died, bookers of mid-level talent didn’t know where to find the money.  “What pockets nationwide allow us to sustain ourselves?”  Then they go, “Wait, Washington, D.C. is recession proof.  Let’s book these acts that can’t sell out in Peoria, that can’t sell out in Seattle, that can’t sell out where their music and their culture originally existed.  Let’s put them on in D.C.”  So, places like Rock n’ Roll Hotel, DC9, and Songbyrd Music House that existed in D.C. past to sustain underground culture are now booking national acts.

The defunct Nation Nightclub.

MY: What contemporary artists or venues do you see that are redefining what this scene means?

MD: April + Vista–a R&B act that are fantastic–Dinmate, Jules Hale, Paperhaus, Alex Teveleff, Sir E.U, 1432R-dance label, DJ Lisa Frank…it’s happening, you just have to find it.  And it’s hard to find.  In order to sustain yourself in this economy, you have to be great.  If you’re anything less than great, you’re not going to win here.

MY: The thing I’m finding even at events like CTRL Space CMD, is that the attendance is still not there.  The engagement is still not there.

MD: Jamal is re-educating an entire city who used to know exactly what he was doing.  These people are gone now.

MY: But even with the internet age, it’s ten times easier to make these events and exposure happen.  So, beyond that what’s the solution?

MD: I tell Jamal this all the time, and I’ll tell you the same thing: you have to give the people what they want.  You have to give the people what you do and slightly change the context of it so that they understand.  The music that will define the city in the future, moombahton, it can be anything.  Moombahton is a movement I played a heavy hand in.  So, when you listen to Drake’s “One Dance” and you listen to Major Lazer–that’s all moombahton.  It’s reggaeton and Dutch house.  So, you have to take something that the streets and people organically know and recontextualize it in a way that the culture that is here understands.  So, the D.C. music that will define the future sound of the city has yet to be made.

MY: Do you think it sounds like something we are already hearing?

MD: Yea, but the creatives haven’t connected yet.  To make them great, the creatives have to be great first.  They’re getting there.

MY: Do you feel like there’s an onus on the already popular D.C. artists-like the Wale’s and GoldLink’s to make sure there is an awareness of the D.C. culture?

MD: Well, look at GoldLink’s album.  He put the whole city on.

MY: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t really see Wale doing that.

MD: Wale is funny.  When Wale came up, D.C. was a city that was backpack-rap and trap-rap heavy.  Wale was neither of these things.  He was a one-man team.  Now, the stuff that Wale makes in D.C. currently is par for the course; every rapper is doing is–dance-friendly, flavored hip hop.  GoldLink makes it, Ace Cosgrove makes it, across the board everybody makes it.  He was the first to do it, though.  So there was really nobody in his circle that he could look at and put them on.

MY: Did you notice any similarities in the D.C. scene compared to others you covered?

MD: All the people you know that are dope have roots somewhere in this city.  Even further, the people you don’t know who actually drive the culture, like the editors and the writers.  Take Bandcamp for instance.  The managing editor of Bandcamp, Jess Scoley, spent ten years in Washington, D.C.  Their senior editor, Marcus Moore, is from Landover, Maryland.  D.C. hasn’t put out the song that everybody likes.  Think about Bone Thugs-N-Harmony in Ohio.  “Crossroads,” “First of the Month,” “Notorious Thugs”…

MY: We all know them.

MD: Demonstrably great songs that everyone here can sing.  D.C. has yet to put out that song.  The second that D.C. does, there it is.  It’s happening like I said.  But because everybody is re-educating the culture, people have to live here, people have to find culture in their own streets.  And culture isn’t a thing that you can push to people.

MY: It takes time.

MD: All the buildings are new.  All of the spaces are new.  Nothing has character.  After five years, when the paint chips, that’s when the culture seeps in.

Decades Night Club redesigned by Marcus Dowling.

MY: Do you think the exposure of the scene will rise because of these collectives growing in power or sort of due to the invasion of the white man?

MD: In Philadelphia in the 90s, there was this collective known as The Roots.  They had a show they put on called ‘Black Lily.’  When the mainstream music industry noticed that there was a collective called The Roots they were just a collective–Quest Love, Black Thought, and all their players.  They had an all-female vocal showcase where people like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Angie Stone sang.  When the mainstream music industry came to Philly, all of these artists were ready to go.  The industry put all of them on.  They went, “We’re gonna sign this band and give them creative control to do whatever the hell they want.  We don’t know what they make, but people seem to like it.”  Same thing is happening in D.C.  When you look at what Jamal is doing with Nag Champa, nobody knows what the hell they’re making.  I eat, sleep, and breathe music and I call it ratchet-jazz because I don’t know what to call it.  They’re not ready yet, but when the industry comes in they’ll look at them, April & Vista, all of the girls in the Glow End Theory collective–it’s the same thing.

MY: Where do you fit into all this?

MD: I shout from the buildings.  I’m every government officials favorite cultural translator.  Right now, I work with the guys who own Echostage.  I helped them redesign Decades in downtown D.C.  This was a project that allowed me to reach into the mainstream because these are the guys who brought Tiesto and Armin Van Buuren to D.C.  They wanted to do urban themnightlifeife, and they reached out to me.  As a journalist, I’ve written for Vice, Complex, Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Washington City Paper, etc.  On a curatorial note, I work with the D.C. government to give local artists access to paying gigs in non-traditional spaces.  I try to encapsulate the voice of the artist because artists will stop me on the street and tell me what they need.

MY: Do you have any projects you’re working on now?

MD: I’m about to put on concerts in re-purposed condos all over the city.  Ten to twelve different buildings that I’m working with now.  Instead of a typical wine and cheese party, you can partner with the local government and I’ll throw a rap concert or and indie-dance concert.  

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