Hustle and Flow

In what ways has Baltimore and the essence of the city infused your music?

By John Lewis - April 2014

Q&A with Dontae Winslow

In what ways has Baltimore and the essence of the city infused your music?

By John Lewis - April 2014


Living in L.A., what do you miss most about Baltimore?

Of course, I miss the "Baltimore CrabCakes," and the Crabs from Fells Point. I also miss my friends, family, and quiet drives through the city—whose architecture looks like no other—while listening to music.

What Baltimore musicians do you admire?

There are so many great musicians from Baltimore, and I admire many of them including: Mickey Fields (RIP), Mashica Winslow, Dennis Chambers, Tom Williams, Whit Williams and his Big Band, Tim Green, Gary Thomas, Gary Bartz, Billie Holiday (recordings), Cab Calloway (grew up and created his style here), and Ron Pender.

In what ways has Baltimore and the essence of the city infused your music?

There is a struggle inherent in the city that I think flows in ALL of the music that comes from Baltimore—a hardness, passion, and desperation. The rock, r&b, jazz, house, club and pop have a cathartic sound and an "all in" emotional intensity that I think is a signature of our Baltimore culture; there's an urgency in our music. It's very real, authentic, and pulls no punches.

I have benefited from both the tragic sides and the classy sides of the city, and they are both represented in my music. I've rapped in songs about my mother's struggle in the inner city, as well as my scholarship at The Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University. My whole life is wrapped up in this city, and I rep it all over the world, wherever I go, and to EVERY celebrity I work with—from Justin Timberlake to Jill Scott to Queen to Jay-Z...they all know I'm from Baltimore.

I have a lot to prove. I've bussed tables in the finest restaurants, been bullied in public schools, and worked for amazing lawyer Billy Murphy Jr. I've played for the opening of the Ravens Stadium, when they came to Baltimore with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Stevie Wonder. All of these experiences go into my musical compositions.

Your high school years were personally tumultuous. What effect did School for the Arts have on you at that time?

I cannot say enough about The Baltimore School For The Arts! It saved the lives of both me and my wife, Mashica. We met so many talented people, teachers, and friends. It is a magical environment for a child to grow, not be judged, and hone a skill that will set them up for the rest of their lives.

Seeing your peers perform at such a high level inspires you to achieve great heights! The school was a mix of all genders, races, ethnicities, social classes, and backgrounds. This environment proved to be excellent in stimulating cultural sensitivity and respect for others. Most students left with a scholarship, some financial assistance, amazing academic scores, and a 90% chance of college attendance...what more could you ask for?

I NEVER got into a fight and this safe-haven allowed me to focus on my studies despite my tumultuous circumstances of living in a drug house on North Avenue. I was focused, and the school, through music, gave me hope. My wife and I started the non-profit Music Motivating Minds Inc. because of how the school helped us. We created this initiative for the youth of Baltimore to help them set goals and learn self-esteem and respect for themselves and others through music.

What are the pros and cons of working with family on your Winslow Dynasty project?

This is a great question! It always causes me to giggle because anyone that's married knows the dynamics of working with a spouse can be particularly challenging, especially when it comes to criticism. We are very blessed in that Mashica and I were best friends long before we were married, so the respect and love was at such a high level before romance entered the picture. We create, build, and work amazingly well together. We can read each other’s minds, and finish each other’s sentences—that's the kind of love God gave us. She's also an amazing teacher and mother to my son Jedi. Jedi has such a heart and compassion for helping others that he's hard not to want to be around.

For me LOVE is such a necessary and healing component to life that I could not imagine NOT working with family when it comes to something as sensitive as music. 

Words on the page, and songs, do no justice in describing my deep love for Mashica and Jedi. We love each other, we love our jobs, and we love to share our experiences with others through music. I can't think of any cons—Love, Life, Family, Health, and Music...I have reached the mountaintop!

It's refreshing to hear an album that nods to so many genres/styles. Seems like you've always leaned in that direction (or directions), and, in that respect, someone like Robert Glasper reminds me of you. Where did you get that sense of musical inclusiveness? Where is it rooted? 

That’s deep! It's funny you should say that, because as an independent artist most people would have to be from Baltimore to know that I've always recorded in a synthesis of styles, mixing jazz, r&b, hip-hop, and classical elements. Glasper is a colleague of mine, but I'd never heard of him when I was making records in Baltimore, and he's younger than I am. I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and early hip-hop artists such as Run DMC, UTFO, and Whodini. I also loved Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schubert—the romantic composers. I just can't separate beautiful music by category.

When the time came for me to do my own music, I had no qualms rapping over Shostakovich melodies and then playing a jazz solo over a rap beat—I just feel limitless in that way, open. Gary Thomas, my mentor and jazz teacher, has always used a synthesis of styles and incorporated computers, multi-genre formats, and advanced jazz vocabulary into his work. I've inherited a lot from him.

That musical inclusiveness also comes from living in Baltimore, where you can experience a plethora of musical experiences and each has its own subculture of icons and heroes. I lived on North Avenue and you could hear Rakim blasting down the street from a car, then we'd go ice skating in Mt. Washington and they'd be playing George Michael’s "Father Figure," my all-time favorite teenage tune. On weekends, we'd go skateboarding in Lansdowne bowls while listening to Suicidal Tendencies, and at night ride by The Paradox and dance to BMORE club music! The door was always open to divergent musical styles in my world, and I was always bold enough to include them all when writing.

I'm happy to see musicians like Robert Glasper win a Grammy and receive radio airplay, because I have been fighting small-minded consumers for over 20 years and his commercial success opens doors for all of us. Now, with the invention of the iPod, Facebook, YouTube, and social media people are more exposed, open-minded, and educated about the artistic possibilities in creativity, and expression through music.

What's most satisfying about working with folks like Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake?

The most satisfying thing for me is the education I receive by being around such talented artists and such savvy businessmen in Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake. They are in peak form and at a ripe age, as am I, but they’ve had more commercial success. I have the unique opportunity of observing the best in their prime. I benefit from the lessons I see in their work ethic, discipline, and tireless approach to perfecting their craft. 

Two special stories come to mind:

My wife and I always laugh and have a running joke that "multi-millionaires" don't get tired! On the set of “Suit & Tie” video, which I was apart of with Justin and Jay-Z, many of us where cold and tired from 20-plus hours of over 200 performance takes of the entire song. We were dressed to the 9's in Tom Ford attire at the Hollywood Bowl. But I noticed Jay-Z and Justin were as excited and unaffected by fatigue at 1 pm as they were at 2 am, and that blew my mind. Jay-Z even said to us..."Y'all tired"? We said "nawww.” Justin had been dancing the routine for more than 8 hours, take after take, just nailing the moves. And in dress shoes!

Another magical thing happened backstage when we did the Legends of the Summer Tour in Baltimore at the M&T Bank Stadium last August 8, 2014. I'd co-written the song on Jay-Z's album Kingdom Come with my wife MaShica and Grammy-winning producer DJ Khalil. I told Jay-Z backstage about how much the song meant to me, my family, and my mom, who died of AIDS in 2001 after suffering drug addiction. I loved my mom immensely, and I thought it was serendipitous that he would write a rap about his mom on top of my music and call it “I Made It.”

Jay said, “WOW, man,” patted me on the back in consolation, and said “The universe was speaking.” We then went to prayer with the full band, JT & The Tennessee Kids, and Jay-Z and I initiated the final shout after prayer. We all joined hands and shouted in unison, “1, 2 , 3, MAMA I MADE IT!” That was one of the biggest compliments to my mom, to God, and to my city of Baltimore! I literally burst into tears and had to walk away from the circle cause I'd never dreamed of making it this far in music from my humble beginnings at Cross Country Elementary School in Baltimore.

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