For the prankster prince of DMV hip-hop, the authenticity wars still matter. To Trel, authenticity matters. “I’m bringing the street life back into the mainstream,” he says. To Trel, authenticity matters. “I’m bringing the street life back into the mainstream,” he says.Photograph by Darrow MontgomeryFat Trel is watching a roomful of seniors do the electric slide. It’s a miserable Saturday in February, and inside Kuehner House, a brick fortress of a retirement community on Good Hope Road SE, D.C.’s fastest-rising hip-hop star stands out like a Parental Advisory sticker: Fat Trel—born Martel Reeves, aka the Fat Fool, aka the leader of the Slutty Boyz—has a tall frame, broad shoulders, a mess of dreads covered by a San Francisco 49ers beanie, and bright green eyes his mother swears aren’t contacts. Tattoos blanket most of his corpus. Under his right eye is a winged “W,” for Washington. Swag is turned up. Trel is courting the ladies—in this case, a group of seven or so young women who’ve shown up, apparently uninvited, to the Valentine’s-themed dance the rapper is facilitating along with Bless All People. The nonprofit is run by his friend Roc Carmichael, the Houston Texans cornerback and Clinton, Md., native. For several weeks, Trel’s management has invited me to these service-oriented activities. The message is clear: Trel is really out here. “I go to the high schools, I talk to the kids,” Trel says. “I’m at the train station with them. Kids shop and eat with me when I’m at the mall. They come and see me.” Marvin Gaye’s silken voice is livening limbs on the dance floor, although most people are playing Checkers or Uno. It’s a party all the same: There’s a comically over-equipped disc jockey, a full-service bar on the kitchen island, a cameraman with limited edition Michael Johnson sneakers, mad Hershey’s Kisses. “I linked up with Trel through [recently signed Washington Redskin] Josh Morgan,” who’s another local, Carmichael says. “Trel is a guy with so much power. The youth, man, the kids are downloading. My little brother told me about Trel before I met him just off the strength of his Internet presence.” Soon, our hosts are interrupted by cane-wielding revelers with requests for autographs and T-shirts. Trel, who is 21, makes combative, evocative, trunk-rattling trap music for his neighbors’ little brothers and their cousins. In the past two years, he’s gone from a basement-level rapper selling CDs from the back of a car to a who-the-hell-is-that? stringer in Wale’s posse to a breakout ’hood favorite. These days, he’s the rare local hip-hop artist making national murmurs. Trel was the hottest rapper in the DMV in 2011, according to the list-makers at WKYS-FM. He opens for Rick Ross and sports beats from producer-of-the-moment Lex Luger. Somewhat mysteriously, his tracks get crossover shine from Pitchfork—never mind that indie tastemakers don’t ordinarily praise parochial rap about buying cocaine on Rhode Island Avenue. On weekends, Trel’s in New York doing interviews for MTV and BET, or in L.A. taking meetings with industry execs. Spend some time with Trel back home and it’s easy to understand his appeal. He offers a compellingly unfiltered persona—evidenced by a crazily unhinged Twitter feed that’s amassed 34,000 followers and his habit of rarely wearing a shirt. His lyrical themes are simple and street-bound, but he has a deep, confident flow and occasionally betrays an attention to craft. Recent hip-hop trends may suggest you don’t have to be authentic to be a successful gangsta rapper—witness the unlikely career of former corrections officer Rick Ross—but to Trel it’s clearly important. As he boasts over and over, he’s about representing “the real D.C.”
Even surrounded by fences and construction materials, The Howard Theatre has obviously gone from decaying eyesore to palatial jewel. It's a much-deserved second chance for a local landmark that was once the prestige venue for African-American artists and audiences. Construction is still underway on the building's interior, but we got a chance to tour the venue Tuesday evening. Unfortunately we can't show you what we saw—photographers aren't permitted until work is done—but we can give you our impressions. Make no mistake: The place is opulent. Designed by D.C. firm Marshall Moya, the new Howard is less conventional theater, more lounge, with a modest stage (its original size) suited to small ensembles and stand-up acts. Capacity is 650 seated, 1100 standing. There are no rows of movie-house-style seats; the first level is flanked by two rows of elevated seating areas, but the front-of-stage area comes equipped with a hydraulic floor. Within 40 minutes, the floor can be fully converted from standing to seated. "The facility has a lot of flexibility now," says developer Roy "Chip" Ellis. "It's built for the 21st century." The balcony above smacks of "VIP area," fitted with leather chairs and tables with a Brazilian-marble bar behind. (There is also a bar on the main floor.) Stage-side box seats have been removed entirely, soon to be replaced by 200-inch HD jumbo screens. Ellis says the monitors aren't for stage views—there isn't really a bad seat in the house. The TVs are for advertising. That could make some audience members cringe. But while the transformation upstairs is dramatic, the downstairs got an even bigger makeover. The Howard Theatre, formerly basementless, now has a basement with a green room, dressing rooms, offices, bathrooms, a waiting area, and, crucially, a 2,400 square-foot, banquet-sized kitchen. This is key. Ellis was quick to point out that The Lincoln Theatre, to which the Howard is still compared, doesn't have anything like it. That hurts Lincoln's income, big time. The new Howard, by contrast, will feature full restaurant service, with Harlem restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson designing the menu. Those evolutions aside, the renovated Howard is awash in its own legacy. Its new facade isn't new at all, but the original 1910 exterior, cleaned up and refitted with new ornamentation. The interior lobby and theater walls will be adorned with images and memorabilia from the venue's heyday. But its lineup is relatively contemporary, skewing toward R&B, jazz, and hip-hop, with a handful of legacy acts thrown in for good measure. Howard's booking and operations are handled solely—for the next 25 years, as per their contract—by Blue Note Entertainment, owners of the eponymous Manhattan jazz club and a clutch of other big venues in New York. (Though the city, which owns the Howard, retains 12 days a year for its own functions.) So while questions still linger about the Howard's troubling similarities to the Lincoln Theatre—both are city-owned and have a long history of mismanagement and neglect—the Howard is already working with significant advantages. Its professional management and multipurpose facilities put it several tiers above Lincoln, a fairly one-dimensional, and—for now—city-operated venue. Oh, and the Brazilian marble doesn't hurt.
Recording artists and indie labels: there’s a movement afoot to change the way that you would receive your digital public performance royalties, and it’s not a good one, especially for recording artists. Back in August, we blogged about the news that Sirius/XM was considering doing a direct licensing deal, expressing our serious displeasure with the move. In recent days, the artist community — including AFTRA, AFM, The Recording Academy, A2IM and SoundExchange — has been broadcasting the message to their members about the negative consequences of direct licensing deals for digital performance royalties. We applaud our artist colleagues for urging their members signed to indie labels (or self-released artists) to not accept these direct licensing deals. We here at FMC wanted to join in the chorus and explain to musicians and labels why the current statutory licensing structure is better for all stakeholders.