DMV rap vet Substantial is the newest member of one of the hottest crews doing it right now, Mello Music Group. On “Home Is Where the Art Is” he joins forces with Oddisee (who executive produced his new album), for his first album since 2008. The new album is focused heavily on Substantial’s hometown, Baltimore, Maryland, and the city’s murals even inspired the title of his third LP. We got to talk about his stance with his new and old crews, how he almost had the same album title as Yung Joc, working with Oddisee, and the emerging DMV hip hop scene.
Zach Gase: You’re now the newest member of MMG (Mello Music Group), how did that deal come about?
Substantial: The first collab I did with Oddisee (who is executive producing “Home Is Where the Art Is“) I did was back in 2007, and we’ve been talking off and on since ’05 or around then. And so while I was working on the album and stuff, he felt really good about the record and asked what my current situation was. And even though I’m with QN5, I’ve always been an artist that has always been so used to working independent. I always try to find the best situation for an album, the best fit.
With Odd already executive producing the album, and already being with Mello, and with the direction of the record, I felt like it was a good fit. When they asked to hear the record, they got back to me immediately. They were pretty impressed with it, and they made me an offer, so that’s pretty much how it came about.
ZG: You’ve made it clear that you’re on good terms with QN5, is there any chance of you still working with them? Are you still a part of QN5?
S: I’m technically signed with Mello Music as an affiliate. I’m not one of the core artists, per se. But I got a great relationship with them. I’m still a part of the QN5 roster, and that’s still family. So yeah, you’ll definitely still catch me on some of (QN5’s) future projects. I was talking to Tonedeff a couple days ago about some stuff. So it’s all love, all the way around, man.
ZG: I know a year or two back, Tone and Kno (of the CunninLynguists) talked about the possibility of QN5 getting shut down, did that have any effect on your decision to put your album out with Mello Music?
S: No, no. That’s something completely separate. Like CunninLynguists technically release stuff on their own imprint and also through Bad Taste and in the past, other labels, but they’re still QN5. It’s one of those things, they’re still down with the original QN5 fam, although they work with different outlets. I guess you could view my situation as similar to that.
ZG: The past few years, Mello Music has been one of the hottest labels in the underground, do you think your affiliation with them will give you more exposure?
S: Without a doubt, definitely. I think every artist from release-to-release, the ultimate goal is to continue to build your brand and your fan base. For me it was definitely a good move. (Mello Music) is very consistent with their releases, man. They’re always dropping pretty good hip hop. There’s not a lot of lag time between releases, so they’re constantly building their brand. I felt like it was a great opportunity for me to expand my fan base, and at the same time maybe learn a little as well.
ZG: Back in 2010, you were prepping a release on QN5 titled “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” is “Home Is Where the Art Is” the same album, or did you scrap the original album, and start over?
S: It’s the same project. The title, “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” comes from what I actually call my studio. Then also, I’m an educator too, and I’ve been working with youths for as long as I’ve been doing music, and a lot of the kids I work with call me Mr. Robinson. It just felt like it would be a cool title, and also the classic Eddie Murphy character on Saturday Night Live.
So anyway that was the initial idea for the title, and I was going to tie the album being a tribute to my hometown. So I was prepping for the release, I was researching online and I did some searching and the Eddie Murphy thing would pop up, and also the David Robinson commercial from back in the day. And then I started seeing this stuff from Yung Joc, where the album that he was supposed to come out with, which I don’t think ever came out, was also titled “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” The timing of it was bad, I mean I don’t need people confusing my album with Yung Joc’s album.
I talked it over with Oddisee, I wanted to go with a different direction with the title. And I basically came up with “Home Is Where the Art Is” and I still wanted it to still be about the hometown. And at the time I was driving around Baltimore so much, and I was looking at all these beautiful murals – there are so many murals around Baltimore, which kind of served as some of the inspiration of what I was writing. Man, it just hit me one day – “Home Is Where the Art Is.” I liked it a lot better than the original title, and I felt like it really captured the vibe of the album and it also kind of inspired the (album) artwork as well.
ZG: How did you go about getting Oddisee to executive produce the new record?
S: Well the idea came about when I was on tour with the CunninLynguists, back in 2008 or 09. It happened while we were touring Europe. I basically asked Kno his honest opinion: ‘What do you think would be a good next step for me?’ He just gave the idea to me like, “man you should do a project and have Oddisee. He’s really dope, and he’s from your hometown. You should work something out and make that happen.’
When I first started working on “Home Is Where the Art Is,” I had almost forgot that he said that. And during the process, Tone was helping me find beats and I knew that the writing was going to capture the vibe of where I was from, but I didn’t know about the production and sound. Then it just came back to me, the conversation I had with Kno, so I reached out to Oddisee and he said he was down to do it. And the rest is just kind of history, man. We got down to work.
ZG: In recent years, the DMV (well especially DC and Maryland) area has definitely become more prominent in hip hop, why do you think that part of the country is just now starting to get some more recognition?
S: I think we’ve had some pretty great artists over the years lay down some pretty solid foundation for this new movement. Besides myself, you also have Asheru and Blue Black. Unspoken Heard were doing things. Asher – every time you watch The Boondocks, you hearing a DMV rapper, you know what I mean? Kev Brown, who has been doing it for a long time, grew up in the same area I grew up.
Not saying everyone who’s coming out now was aware of what we were doing. And the folks who came before us, it’s always been solid talent here been putting in work for years. And now with the Internet being as powerful as it is with music, a lot of folks here are really being on top of their game.
We have a really strong live music scene here, you know Go-Go music and everything else. Artists like Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington – just a long list of great artists from the past that a lot of people didn’t even know were from this area. Hell, even Billie Holliday was originally from Baltimore. There’s always been this talent, and in recent years, folks just really found a way to really maximize it and get it out to the world. Obviously Oddisee, in recent years has been in the forefront of that, in bringing a lot of attention to the area with his group the Diamond District.