It seems as if Emmanuel Williams has been working towards this album all his life. Born and raised in Baltimore, Williams, aka DDm, cut his chops on the local battle rap circuit before forming his beloved hip-hop duo, Bond St. District, honing his talented rhymes, charismatic stage presence, and bonafide swagger along the way.
Now, he’s set to release his full-length debut record, Soundtrack To A Shopping Mall—a smart rumination on the dreams he was promised as a child of the ’80s, growing up in a black working-class city, and the actual realities that emerged as he grew into a man in the post-recession era of Donald Trump. On the eve of the album’s epic release party at the Baltimore Soundstage on August 4, we spoke with Williams about social commentary, making spectacles, and spreading his wings.
Growing up in Baltimore, what was your connection to the shopping mall?
Going to the shopping mall was an event, honey. You had to dress to go to Security Square. You wore your good clothes to Westview. We hung out at the mall. The mall was like the club. I got a love for Mondawmin that is unrivaled because to me it represents ghetto fabulousness—the height of street fashion before street fashion had a name. They were selling labels. You’d see the dope boys going there and buying up those lambskin leathers.
And that’s when music was doing good because you had three record shops in one mall. It wasn’t like streaming. The Internet has made the discovery of music easier for the casual listener and it exposes artists to more potential fans, the flip side is that music doesn’t feel as special anymore. You pay your $9.99 a month and type in my name. To me, the shopping mall represents when you’d wait all week to go to Sam Goody. I remember buying Gwen Stefani’s Love Angel Music Baby and Fantasia’s Free Yourself on the same day because they both came out and I had just gotten paid.
You’ve said that this record is a celebration of the height of American capitalism, greed, and celebrity, and its ultimate deterioration.
I have a lot of political views, but I didn’t want to beat people in the head with them because I feel like that’s what everybody’s doing now. Literal isn’t fun. Literal is kind of dull. Eventually if you keep saying F Trump, F Trump, F Trump, people become numb to it. You gotta sneak in that social commentary. I can’t not have any nutritional value. I want to make a statement, but I still want people to dance. This album is not dystopian, apocalyptic kind of vibes. It’s very bright, very shiny, very brilliant. It’s cinematic. It’s hip-hop Broadway. Lin-Manuel, you need to call me, because Soundtrack To A Shopping Mall could be a play.
But when you listen to “Rude” or “Burfday Bitch” or “Try Me On,” it’s about all of the excess, because that’s what got us here, and at the same time, it’s about me coming to the understanding that that’s not necessarily the life that we’re going to get. My generation got to see the world when it was really good, and we’re starting to see it when it goes down. For that, it’s even more heartbreaking for us. We were sold a dream. We were sold a lifestyle. There’s a lot of pressure to make it. But what is making it? That’s why the album cover is a store that’s closed. It’s me looking at the past, at what was, and realizing that that’s not what it is anymore. We’re trying to hold onto whatever is left.
You’re releasing the album with a big show at Baltimore Soundstage. Why is the performance aspect so important to you?
You have to make it a spectacle. People want to feel a part of the process. The show is keeping me motivated. It’s keeping my mind dancing. There have been bumps in the road making this record, especially being self-financed. But I work like a fashion designer; once I get my inspiration, I start working on my centerpieces—my anchor pieces—and then I work outwards from there. I pull from all different types of music.
About 10 years ago, I started listening to Stereolab and discovering foreign music outside of R&B, rap, funk, and soul, and my palette is so vivid now. In “Forever 21,” I wanted to make something like Rod Stewart or Cyndi Lauper that you would hear on The Breakfast Club or any John Hughes film. “All My Life” is inspired by Duran Duran, but over a trap beat. Also, the Mary Jane Girls, the Thompson Twins Rick James, David Bowie. “Rude” and “Burfday Bitch” are definitely pulling from my Baltimore roots and Baltimore Club. “Closed” is probably the most honest song. That’s about me looking at myself as an individual, not feeling pretty or handsome, because I struggle with that—self-image—a lot.
Is it hard to balance that on-stage persona and off-stage, real-life?
It is. Right now, I’m in the season of my life where I’m struggling to figure out: is this really going to happen? Do you really have the look for this? Do you really have what it takes? I think I’m talented. I never really question my talent. I know I can perform. But being talented doesn’t always translate into being successful. The superstar of yesteryear is not a thing anymore.
That being said, at the end of the year, you’ll be moving to New York.
Baltimore was the training ground. That’s where you figure it out, and I figured it out. I’ve done Pier Six. I’ve done Rams Head. I’ve played Artscape. I’ve played the Baltimore Museum of Art. What are we going to do next, perform via satellite on the rooftop of The Walters? No—now, Emmanuel, either you’re going to die in your silo, or you’re going to elevate. I’ve been ready for the big city and those big arenas, but I’ve been scared, too. It’s gonna be tough, but I know I have to do it. The world hasn’t seen me yet. I constantly have to remind myself of that.
What do you hope listeners will take away from this album?
I hope listeners have a good time. I hope they’re entertained, I hope they feel inspired. This record is so bombastic that I want them to feel great and alive and energetic and optimistic toward the future. But it’s also a reflection. I hope it leaves them thinking, so where do we leave this? Where do we go next?
Catch DDm at Baltimore Soundstage on August 4 featuring Abdu Ali as host and guests such as TT The Artist, Kotic Couture, and his own hip-hop duo, Bond St. District.