Baltimore’s most dynamic duo has just dropped their first full-length album, A Church On Vulcan (out now via Friends Records), and it’s as energetic and ambitious as only Bond St. District can be. In the days surrounding the release, we talked with MC Manny Williams, aka DDm, and producer Paul Hutson about the new record, their musical upbringings, and the importance of storytelling.
Manny, you grew up in Park Heights, and Paul, you grew up near Gaithersburg. How did the two of you meet?
Manny Williams, aka DDm, rapper: We met at The Crown, summer 2014. I was DJing a party there, and he came to take some pictures and said he did beats. We exchanged numbers and then I met him down at his place on Bond Street in Fells Point.
Paul Hutson, producer: I’d seen his name around town but that night was really the first time I had ever seen him perform. Prior to that, I was really just making beats for myself. I hadn’t done any production before.
How’d you get into music?
P: I started off really, really young, just banging on things. Then my parents got me my first snare drum, then a year later, a drum set, and I just kind of taught myself how to play. It wasn’t until high school that they forced me into taking lessons, which was actually great because I started to learn different instruments. I eventually went to college at Towson with a music scholarship in percussion.
Did you know where you wanted to take it at that point?
P: I didn’t have a clear idea. I knew from an early age that I wanted to always perform and play music with other people. When I was younger, I was always trying to be involved with my older brother’s bands in any way possible. I’d played in a couple of bands myself but none of them really went anywhere.
Manny, what about you—how did you get into music?
M: We didn’t have any music programs in my school, so you just watched TV, saw who you liked, and wanted to be famous. How you were going to get famous, you had to figure that out your damn self. But I saw Lil Kim’s “No Time” video when I was about 10 and I was like ‘Ooh.’ I couldn’t sing, so I started rapping around 14. I did little blacktop battles in high school then gradually started doing local battles in the club, won a few crowns, and then I started learning how to actually record music. You learn a lot through osmosis. My mother is a real soul funk fan, so she played a lot of Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Motown when I was growing up. That’s how I learned rhythm and feeling. Just through living.
You’re known for having an epic stage presence. How did you master that?
M: Trial and error. Breath control, how to talk to your crowd, how to pace your songs, which songs should be played first, which songs should be played last—those are things you learn by actually doing shows. You also have to actually sit and study people you admire. I’ve watched a million Diana Ross performances, a million Tina Turner performances, a million Heavy D performances, a million Marvin Gaye performances, a million Biggie performances, a million Millie Jackson performances, because those are the artists who shape how I perform. It’s like being a standup comedian.
What was it like coming up in the Baltimore clubs?
M: I used to be very timid, very meek when I first started out, but rap battles help you become fearless. At that time, rappers wasn’t soft. I was battling convicts, drug dealers, stickup boys. I wasn’t battling some random kid who made music in his living room with his little set up. That’s not how it worked, especially in Baltimore City. The element was real street.
Which must have made you a smarter rapper.
M: It made you a smarter rapper but also helped you in so many other ways. To this day, my projection and diction is a lot better than some of the people who are just starting out because they’re Internet raised to make music they can share with their friends on Hypebeast or Soundcloud. When I started, we were raised to be actual performers in venues on stages. We had to have more volume and be more robust because we had to control the crowd. A lot of these rappers now sound like Mickey Mouse when its time to be live.
Paul, what were some of your inspirations growing up?
P: It was a lot of the music my older brother listened to. A lot of Radiohead. Rock, ska, punk, some metal stuff. I started listening to hip-hop a lot more towards the end of high school—The Roots, J Dilla, Flying Lotus—and then later a good friend of mine turned me onto soul and funk. It was different from what I had been listening to but the same in many respects, because a lot of those hip-hop songs were sampled from those albums. That’s when I became fascinated with how to make it myself. Before that, I was really just a fan and a consumer, and being a drummer, I connected with rhythms from an early age but the hard part was all of the melodies and bigger sounds and samples. But that was a light bulb moment. Getting a look behind the curtain, I realized there was this entire world I hadn’t tapped into before. Then a lot of stuff started making sense.
Coming up through such different musical paths, what do you think it is that connected you two?
P: It just kind of clicked from the start. From the time we met each other to the time we put out the first EP was only about two months, max. It all happened really fast.
M: One of the benefits of starting this with Paul was that I didn’t really go into it with any kind of expectations. I was like the music sounds good, I like these beats, let’s see what we can do. I didn’t go into it thinking it would become what it’s becoming. I’m grateful for that. But when you’ve been trying to pursue a dream for so long, you don’t really get attached to a lot of things. You just never know how things are going to pan out in life. It’s been a nice surprise.
So far, so good.
M: When you’re in a group, there’s a honeymoon period, but when certain things ain’t cute no more—when you have to actually get up and work and email those people and talk to that person and work with this engineer and beg this person for press—that’s when you find out if it’s going to work or not. It’s hard being in a group! Whether it’s two people or five people, it is work. It’s a job. It’s a relationship. It’s like a marriage. The key is being able to accept people for who they are, not who you want them to be.
Tell me about A Church on Vulcan.
M: Paul was playing a record and I said, ‘This sounds like a church on Vulcan.’ I had been watching old Star Trek episodes and was just so inspired by Nichelle Nichols, and it just rolled off the tongue. I grew up going to Baptist Church, and a lot of my passion comes from watching preachers, so when you see me talking to crowds, its like I’m a pastor.
A Church on Vulcan has a lot of messages—a lot of political and social commentary—but ultimately it’s a screen shot. I kind of look at this album [as if I’m] Fareed Zakaria from CNN. It’s like being a reporter; there’s always a story. Some of these stories are not directly mine at all. It might be about a friend. It might be about a person I talked to who really touched me. I might have been watching Anderson Cooper and seen some crazy shit going on in the world and was just like, ‘Oh my god, I need to address this!’
“Yesterdays” is a beautiful Baltimore anthem. You really paint the city. It feels like riding in a cab, watching the streets go by.
M: I love Baltimore City. I’m a son of the city. I didn’t just go to college here and decide to stay on a couple years. I am a born and raised in West Baltimorean my whole life. I remember my mother watching reruns of Oprah on WJZ.
I think a lot of times the true spirit of Baltimore gets lost in sensationalism or propaganda. I loved The Wire, but people really looked at a whole city as that one section. Yes, that is a very real part, but you don’t understand the context. Baltimore is such a multi-layered city and a lot of the citizens are so beaten down that they’re too tired to tell the story. But I’m not tired. And I’m not going to stop until the real story is told.