These days, it’s a rare occurrence that I hear a new rapper and don’t find myself reaching for the radio dial or disc changer. But ever since my brother played me 100 Miles and Running, a mixtape from DC artist Wale (pronounced Wah-lay), I’ve had his MySpace page open in a permanent tab on my web browser. On hearing the up-tempo "Waledance," I was transported back to my early days growing up in the nation’s capital, when I still thought that hip-hop was supposed to be fun. It also reminded me that I would be hard-pressed to name another DC rapper…
Turns out I’m not the only one impressed by Wale’s clever lyricism and tongue-in-cheek bravado. He’s shown up on all the trend-spotting radars, from Hypebeast and Niketalk forums to Fader magazine, and his song "Ice Cream Girl" was played at Drama’s party on a recent episode of Entourage. As if he needed any more Internet cred, Wale’s become the hip-hop wunderkind of Mark Ronson, who has helped him put together unofficial remixes of Lily Allen’s "Smile" and Amy Winehouse’s "Rehab." In an MTV interview, Ronson called Wale’s style "a mixture of Lil Wayne and Lupe [Fiasco] and Nas." Granted, that doesn’t really mean anything, but it is indicative of the fact that Wale’s sound is not easily pigeonholed.
Still interested? Wale’s definitely a name to remember (look out for him out in Vegas during MTV’s weekend-long VMA bash), and we caught up with him over on the ‘Net as he begins a series of UK gigs.
EW.com: So you went from rocking local go-go parties in DC to performing onstage with Mark Ronson. Do you feel like you’re currently one of the coolest people in the world?
Wale: Yes. Haha, not really. I mean, I think I am pretty cool but I never want to take myself too seriously. That’s where this whole game is f—ed up. People respect a guy who is cool enough to set trends but real enough to show his flaws — think Biggie "Black and ugly as ever." However, people need to understand that it ain’t that deep to try and convince people of what your persona is. You are who you are, and what you are will show in time. What you AREN’T can be hidden, but eventually it will come to light. Long story short: rappers should never take themselves too seriously.
After the jump: Wale talks about rolling with Ronson, keeping up with Kanye’s fashion, and the corniest Saved By the Bell episode ever.
How did your relationship with Ronson develop? He’s always had a specific ear for hip-hop since his collaborations with ODB and Ghostface…
Mark heard a song my manager gave him called "Good Girls." When my manager found out he was not only digging it, but playing it on his East Village Radio show, he followed up. I then went to his studio to record a freestyle when I was in NYC for a show. Next thing you know, he’s asking me to go on tour. Then he said he wanted to sign me… The rest is history.
Has he introduced you to the international A-list club scene yet?
He’s tried, but I’m anti-social. LOL. Not really. I go out, but not too much. When I’m on tour, I just write a lot of music and sleep. I went out sans Ronson the other night, with Rihanna and Kanye in London. Rihanna gave me a kiss on the cheek. I guess that’s pretty A-list.
Europe seems to take the lead in trends, particularly in music and fashion. What motivated you to go out to England for the tour? Did you feel you would generate more interest and hype out there, or did you just want to drink Stellas with Amy Winehouse?
I felt like, "DC is cool, but I need to broaden my horizons." Plus, I knew chasing radio in the US was not a battle I wanted to fight. Getting on the radio in DC is like a paraplegic trying to have a ménage with three lesbian virgins. So I figured, why not LITERALLY build my fan base one show at a time while I am finishing my major label deal. The more work I can do that doesn’t involve selling records, the more I will be prepared for what this industry has turned into.
Speaking of fashion, your songs are full of references to sneakers, as well as some suspicious boasts about what’s in your closet. Were you really wearing Nike Dunks and shrink-to-fit Levis before everyone else? Did you show up Kanye when you saw him?
What are Dunks? Haha. Naw, that’s just my rap braggadocio. I may be different, but I’m not THAT different. LOL. I gotta pop off at the mouth a little bit, right? Honestly though, I’ve been collecting kicks for MANY years but I can’t say I started it. I think Dunks are borderline wack now. As far as Kanye, we both do our thing. Everytime I see him, I size him up, just to make sure he is on his s—. You also gotta remember, he has albums and Grammys under his belt, so he gets more exclusive s—. Don C, his road manager, said his Versace connection is crazy. I’m sure we will be doing some hit songs together but I think the most important thing for me and Kanye is him giving me those connects!
Whose idea was it to do the Lily Allen "Smile" remix? Are you trying to line up any other British collabos while you tour?
I always loved the song. Like, really loved it. When I linked with Ronson for that freestyle, my manager asked him for the "Smile" instrumental. Mark was like, "I actually have this unreleased remix I did, do you want to get on it?" It was a no-brainer. Lily + Ronson + Wale = blogger’s wet dream. Lily and I got to hang out last month in the UK. She is a fiesty, witty ‘lil thing. As far as UK artists, Dizzee Rascal would be cool. I feel like he might be my British counterpart. I really love this female vocalist named Tawiah. She is on tour with us right now. Tawiah has as much talent as any signed artist in any country. Mark produced a track for us that will be on the BBC Radio One 40th Anniversary compilation. Every act got a year, Ronson got 1994…that’s "All I Need" to say…think about it.
A lot of people wouldn’t know what to think when you mention "DC rap." How would you describe your sound and what inspires your music?
It’s so weird because all of us have different influences, so it’s like our "sound" can’t be defined. I guess when one of us becomes significantly successful, we will find ourselves, but until then… I’ve heard amazing acts from the "Urrea" like Oy Boys and Circle Boys, who have a Scarface/Geto Boys influence. And then there’s Tabi Bonney who has a kind of Q-Tip vibe and then you have me who… I dunno, I don’t wanna sound pretentious talking about myself.
We recently heard an incredible remix of Jay-Z and Freeway’s "Big Spender," and at the beginning you say, "Mr Carter, thanks for the opportunity once again, I will not disappoint." How did that come up? Did Jay reach out to you?
Naw, I just like the song, so I did a verse. That’s what rappers do, right? Jay didn’t reach out about that. Initiative is my middle name, though. Me and my manager live by the code "GRIND OR DIE," and our vital signs are simply amazing.
Has he told you if he was disappointed?
I am sure he wouldn’t be. But who knows? As long as the people dig it.
You pack a lot pop-culture references into your lyrics, name-checking everything from old Nintendo games to Lindsay Lohan and Gnarls Barkley. On "DC Gorillaz," you even go so far as to say that you "acquire more broads than Zachary Morris." What is your favorite Saved By the Bell episode?
Hmmm…favorite? Not sure. Corniest? It was the one where they were driving to school and Slater crashed the car. Can we just address Mario Lopez for second? That dude was OD corny. Stonewashed denim with an elastic waistband? And his hair was so wet. Like, Soul Glo wet. Anyway, when they were probed by Mr. Belding — ridiculous name, Bell Ding…that’s like a cooking show and the chef is Mr. Hotplate. Sorry, I digress. When Belding asks Slater [about the crash], Slater goes, "I was in the seat, so I’ll take the heat." In the words of my super Beverly Hills manager Daniel Weisman, "Dude, seriously?"
You also say that "radio is straight filler." How is Wale different?
Yeah it’s filler. It’s all the same song with different slanguage. I’m different, because I go to the studio and I don’t say, "What’s the catchiest thing I can make people say? How can I write the most ignorant hook of my life to pretty much guarantee myself a one single career?" I’m half-joking. But I don’t chase trends. They chase me. We decided that W.A.L.E. stands for "We Ain’t Like Everyone." An "elitaste" has never stood face to face with a trend (elite + taste = elitaste). At best, an elitaste catches it in his rear view mirror, if at all.
EW.com, thanks for the opportunity. I never knew y’all would be interested in interviewing an unsigned rapper. Do I need to follow this up with some unflattering photos on TMZ of me, Lily, and Amy coming out of Hyde or SoHo Grand?