March on, Washington. March on.
Five long years.
Let me tell you where I’m coming from. When I first heard In The Ruff, the debut of the Washington, D.C. group Diamond District, it was the fall of 2009 and I was in my senior year of college in Florida. I came across the record on a Hip Hop blog with the reviewer praising the gritty feel, the rugged lyrics and interplay of the three emcees, concluding that the album was an expertly modernized take on NYC’s golden age boom bap… except these guys weren’t from New York.
Oddisee, yU and Uptown XO all hail from the DMV, or the District, Maryland, and Virginia, and In The Ruff was their cannon shot to the world to show that D.C., a much overlooked scene in the Hip Hop world, could bang as hard as anywhere else. The album was definitely a diamond for me, and remained in my headphones for a good while. And I was hungry for more.
Five years later? I live and work in Washington, D.C., and have been witness to the steady rise that the DMV is having in Hip Hop. Artists like Logic, Fat Trel, Shy Glizzy, Wale (of course) and others are garnering interest outside the DMV. Oddisee, yU and XO have all dropped several solo works, pretty much all of them dope, and left many, me included, awaiting their reunion.
And now they’re finally back with March On Washington. Five years. About time.
March On Washington, the title a reference to the 1963 civil rights rally, feels like the next step for the group with a matured sound and assured lyrics from the three artists. This is really highlighted in Oddisee’s production, which has grown from the spare boom bap of old to a warm and soulful mix of live instrumentation, with special attention paid to the drums and soul samples. The intro “March On” features a stirring spoken word intro from the legendary D.C. emcee Asheru, ending with that powerful decree: “March on, Washington, march on.” The record makes a grand entrance on “First Step” with the glorious harmony of voices, the synth and defiant strings, featuring the three emcees displaying some excellent mic control. “When the spirit comes back in the music, now you know why,” XO says, and you feel the energy. The Humble King, yU, comes next with some quotables of his own: “Taught not to run, never stop, knowing those cops gon’ come, still we march on Washington.”Oddisee closes out this banger with a few choice words: “Different day, same shit, same script, different place, this the way of the world I’m just trying to fit in place, and trying to play the part in no mockeries of my art, so anything I do is a part of me from the start.” It’s a great way to get started.
March on Washington keeps it moving. No gimmicks, no bullshit. Oddisee’s production is soulful, sleek and very cool. The three emcees gel well with great interplay and distinct personalities. Oddisee is that intelligent, playboy-ish figure reaching for higher heights. XO is a streetwise poet acutely focused on the social and political. yU is humble, but endlessly thoughtful, striving and surviving. Altogether, the album shines. You can definitely hear the talent at work on “These Bammas,” (“Bamma” being a local term for someone with no style) calls out bamma emcees going nowhere with yU speaking about these cats: “I love ‘em but hate ‘em, they don’t say no, ain’t trying to make no waves so, slow on the motherfucking lanes though, slaves with visible chains for minimum wage on the same boat.” The beat soars thanks to the rising synthesizers and harmonies in the background. The record breathes on tracks like “A Part of It All,” and “Ain’t Over,” the former track feeling reassuring and heartfelt with the descending piano keys and booming drums. “Remember we are on a mission, not just for the District but the freedom fighters worldwide.” says XO. The latter is an outright jam session, rocking a prominent Marvin Gaye sample as each emcee features a story in their verse: XO with a run in with a woman from around the way, Oddisee’s day-to-day hustle, and yU recalling showing a selfish brother the error of his ways. The track ends with a terrific instrumental where the group does their thing, making for one of the record’s highlights. “You Had To Be There” is another strong listen as the group reflects on their accomplishments, classic Hip Hop and more. “Lost Cause” is the manifesto which closes out the record; the aural equivalent of the emcees fighting their way to the top, thanks to its speedy beat, piano work and sampled voices. yU’s verse is particular is resonant and shows why he’s one of my favorite rhymers:
“If you want change you’ve got to give it up, and yup, you love to hear the story fearless warrior drums breathe through each slum, old or young each one teach one (I’m about that), building them bridges (I’m about that), expanding our vision (I’m about that), switch up your decisions if you want and your outcome is different (I’m about that), passing on tradition enriching souls for your seed (I’m about that)…”
It’s an electrifying joint.
There aren’t many missteps on March on Washington, but a looming observation is it feels too much like an Oddisee record. Not that that’s a negative thing as Oddisee’s production is on point and cohesive. And while there’s no official leader to Diamond District, he does play a large role in the sound and direction of the group… but at times March on Washington feels like an extension of his earlier records like People Hear What They See and Tangible Dream, but with three emcees instead of one. With XO and yU having their own sounds and vibes, and both collaborating with excellent producers (XO with Aleem Bilal and yU working with Slimkat78) it would’ve been intriguing to hear more contributions from their camps in a greater push to recognize the figures of XO and yU, instead of bringing them all under that “Oddisee” banner. Show us that Diamond District are as strong separately as they are together.
March On Washington is a terrific record, delivering great beats from Oddisee and great mic-passing between the trio, all of them concerned with putting out the best music that they can for their city and for their genre. All told, they’ve done very well here. Diamond District is leading this march.