Wifigawd is still rapping two steps ahead of the algorithm

If you need a song to convince yourself that D.C. is home to some of the coolest people drawing breath on this sweaty planet, Wifigawd has hundreds. He keeps his voice low like a temperature, using it to rhyme about getting money, getting girls, getting fly, getting high and, cumulatively, about how good it feels to even imagine getting all of those things. As a rapper, he’s scrupulous and relaxed, prolific and unhurried, which, according to him, results from growing up in a city where singularity is forged by necessity.

“The culture here is all about being one of one,” Wifigawd says. “I always tell people that nobody in D.C. wants to seem like they’re trying to be somebody else. And being outside in D.C., you will find yourself. Go out on the block with stains on your shirt, your hairline messed up, whatever it may be, and [people will] let you have it.”

This is a useful answer to why there’s never been a centralized, signature sound style in D.C. rap music, as well as a tidy explanation for why Wifigawd’s music sounds entirely like his own. His quest for one-of-oneness has involved building an encyclopedic knowledge of classic hip-hop in his childhood, listening voraciously while coming of age in the bluster of the “blog rap” era, developing a deep fluency in the oozing sounds of Memphis and Houston rap and, ultimately, mastering the art of echolocation in SoundCloud’s darkest corners. After working with Wifigawd, little-known producers tend to blow up. OogieMane has since supplied tracks to Lil Uzi Vert and Drake. F1lthy has produced for Playboi Carti and Lil Yachty. “I guess I knew what an algorithm was before anyone was talking about it,” Wifigawd says.

And once he finds the right tracks, he knows exactly how to sink into them, dropping words into the beat the way people drop bowling balls onto Posturepedic mattresses. He switches up his flows incessantly, but with stealth smoothness, like a seven-figure sports car shifting gears on the Autobahn. When he tosses regional references into his rhymes — the Solbiato Sport boutique in Georgetown; go-go heroes TOB — he does so sparingly. Musically, he tends to gravitate toward melodies that feel as cool as an open refrigerator door in August, and bass timbres that feel like the refrigerator is falling on you — a spectrum that ranges from “rip your heart out” to “beautiful, euphoric worlds,” as he puts it.

“There’s always a consistent vibe from his music, a mood,” says Tony Seltzer, the New York producer who’s become one of Wifigawd’s tightest collaborators. “The song can be really aggressive, or the song can be really chill, but it’s just Wifigawd either way. … He’s not following trends. He’s literally only setting trends. Every artist I work with is a Wifigawd fan.”

He’s been a rapper’s rapper practically since childhood. Wifigawd doesn’t remember the address, but he was born on North Capitol Street in 1995, raised by Rastafarian parents who brought him along to reggae nights at Carter Barron Amphitheater and rap shows at 9:30 Club, where he remembers being crowd-surfed onto the stage during a De La Soul set when he was only “in first or second grade.” At home, he called himself DJ Melly Mel — a nod to the hip-hop pioneer and a play on his given name, Melchizedek — and would make mixtapes for fun, picking his favorite cuts from his parents’ massive vinyl collection (KRS-One, Public Enemy, Jeru the Damaja, “just stacks of records”) and dubbing them onto cassette. “I was watching ‘Beat Street’ all the time, and I wanted to be the older-brother DJ character,” Wifigawd says. “So I made a bunch of these little tapes, and I’d give them to my teachers, because who else would know this music? If I gave it to another kid, they’d be like: ‘What are you on? You’re weird, bro!’”

Remember that old hip-hop trope where the aggrieved teacher tells the tomorrow-rapper that they’ll never amount to nothing? At the Tree of Life Community School in Northeast Washington, where Wifigawd spent his earliest school years, it was the opposite: “If you told your teachers you wanted to be a rapper, they’d be like: ‘Lit. Here’s my mixtape.’” One of those teachers was Gregory Phillips, known outside the classroom by serious rap fans as Grap Luva. Wifigawd says he remembers Phillips occasionally taking leave from work to go on tour with his brother, the legendary DJ-producer Pete Rock. “He was one of the first people I told I wanted to rap,” Wifigawd says. “He would rap when he was teaching us. And then he’d tour Japan and come back with all these manga and kung fu toys.”

Another teacher at Tree of Life played a fateful role in Wifigawd’s creative life by bringing him to the Value Village thrift store in Adelphi after he got caught shoplifting from the Macy’s at Metro Center. “He showed me a polo in that thrift store,” Wifigawd says, “and I started getting fly in the fifth grade.” Years later, he realized that the patience and tenacity required to find a pristine Tommy Hilfiger windbreaker on a Goodwill rack ran in tight parallel to his talent for finding the right beats on SoundCloud: “I’m looking for a hidden gem amongst a whole bunch of [trash].”

Since his breakout mixtape, 2016’s “Fubu 05,” his gem collection has been growing at an astonishing rate, with more than 30 mixtapes under his belt. In rap-critic circles, the go-to praise phrase for Wifigawd’s music remains “ahead of his time.” So where does that put him now? “I’ve been rapping for 10 years, but I’ve been in the G-league, the underground purgatory,” Wifigawd says. “But every artist who’s established did it for a minute before they got any kind of stride. It’s about timing, and I’m not worried about nothing. I know my network is impeccable.”

He spends most of his days trying to expand that network, trawling for beats for hours on end, seeking out new producers to partner with. “I only work with somebody who I really admire. If I [like your music], you could be one of the greatest ever,” he says. “You know how people say, ‘Treat others how you want to be treated’? That’s how I think, creatively. I want to be purely honest with [my producers] and myself. I’m not making this for me; I’m making it for everybody. And I do care what people think about it.”

That level of care reveals itself in even his most nonchalant songs — for instance, “7-11,” from “36 Chambers of Pressure, Vol. 2,” Wifigawd’s recent mixtape with the French producer Soudiere. Listen to how he squeezes a propulsive internal rhyme into the song’s hook with a single world, “boatload.” Check out the wink to his craft when he brags about having “infinite flows.” Pay attention to that hiss at the end of the word “dollars,” and how it makes the word feel super-plural, as if you’re suddenly swimming on millions of them.

How many different influences is he siphoning through is brain in moments like these? “I’ll talk influences all day, because my influences only affect my music in the subtlest ways,” Wifigawd says. “I grew up off original hip-hop, right? Then I found Memphis. Then the DatPiff wave. Kid Cudi’s early hooks? Very influential. That laid-back style, very effortless. Currensy in style, beat selection. Dom Kennedy bars. Kanye. Bob Marley. Stevie Wonder. Pharoah Sanders sonically, emotionally — which might not make sense for rap, but it’s all about the feelings for me. When I say I’m influenced by certain people, it’s by the way they make me feel.”

So even if Wifigawd’s sound is built on an incredibly ornate, half-hidden framework of techniques, traditions, styles and flows, it’s all in service of the feeling — a feeling he’s trying to vocalize every time he approaches the microphone. “The first thing you hear in your head when you hear a beat is probably the right thing,” he says of his first-thought-best-thought approach to rapping, casually summarizing a conversation he once had with notable fan-peer Earl Sweatshirt. “If I put that bar down, that’s what I’m going for.”

And now, as cool and thorough as his music, he’s suddenly defining the entire essence of rap music itself — that is, the art-slash-craft of summoning the entirety of your experience into the present, and ultimately trusting yourself in that decisive moment. “The one rule of hip-hop is to be original, to be yourself,” he says. “That’s what it means to be a rapper. You have to have the swag to put it down. What you say is gold. You have to know that. It took me a minute to get to that point, but once you’re there, you know what to say. Just go.”

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