Baltimore rapper Ellis eyes hip-hop stardom on his own terms

With influences ranging from Nas to Bjork, Baltimore rapper Ellis hopes to leave his musical mark.

As a kid growing up in Randallstown, Ellis Hopkins Jr. would often write out the future he dreamed of on a piece of paper, over and over.

"Ellis Hopkins, 6'5, Georgetown University, starting shooting guard, averages 20 points a game," he said last week from a Dundalk restaurant. "I would do that all of the time — try to write what I would achieve."

That goal never happened, but years later, the 32-year-old West Baltimore resident still regularly puts a pen to paper, determined to achieve something great. His basketball days behind him, Hopkins is now better known simply as Ellis, an ambitious rapper who is equal parts dexterous and thoughtful. His 2013 record, "The Education of Ellis," introduced rap fans, both local and outside of Baltimore, to an observant MC with a writer's love of detail.

Now, with a Rams Head Live performance on Saturday and the scheduled release of his new album on Monday, Ellis said he is ready to make his mark."I believe Baltimore is really a microcosm of America's ills. It's all in one place, and to make it out of here, bro? It's not easy. It was what — [45] murders last month?" Ellis said in-between bites of his favorite plate of crab cakes. "That's a story that needs to be told."

The fact that Baltimore has yet to produce its own bonafide rap star is well known to Ellis, but it does not deter him.

"Just to be honest with you, I don't think any rapper has represented Baltimore the way I can do it, lyrically," he said.

Born in East Baltimore, Ellis moved to Randallstown in elementary school. After a couple of years at Frederick Community College, he played basketball for Davis & Elkins College, a private, Division II school in West Virginia. His basketball dreams ended there, and Ellis was back in Baltimore with a degree in business management, but nowhere to work.

"I was realizing how hard it is to get a job, even with a bachelor's degree," he said. "I resorted to doing, uh, illegal activities, and got locked up."

His 2008 arrest in Towson — possession of marijuana, along with possession with intent to distribute — led to two days of jail in the Baltimore County Detention Center.

"You don't go from college to jail," Ellis said. (The charges resulted in probation before judgment.) "I've been focused ever since then. I hate that me going to jail had to really get me on track, but I haven't been back."

Hip-hop was always a love for Ellis ("I remember the first time I heard 'It Ain't Hard to Tell' [by Nas] — it was over, bruh"), but the arrest made him realize how badly he wanted to make rapping his career. First came his debut album, 2011's "Bluray E.," and then the mixtapes "BMC2K12" and "BMC2K13."

But it was "The Education of Ellis" — a cohesive document of vividly told stories and ruminations on a young black man's experience living in Baltimore — that made rap fans take notice.

"I wanted 'The E.O.E.' to sound like Baltimore, but not sound like Baltimore if you turn on the radio, you know what I mean?" Ellis said. "I really just wanted to make that so-called 'classic' record."

With thematic inspiration drawn from the movie "The Education of Sonny Carson" and soulful production by his friend Legin (Nigel Jefferson of Baltimore), the project earned him new fans and put Ellis on airwaves beyond Maryland.

"I'm a world-champion flower, I'm coming for all of the belts / Swimming in that ocean grown, from the home of Mike Phelps," Ellis rapped in December 2013 on "Sway in the Morning," a popular rap show on Sirius XM radio.

On Monday, "Ocean Grown," the follow-up to "Education," arrives on iTunes and other online music services. The new album, according to Ellis, sounds more urgent, and it also showcases his abilities beyond writing a standard, 16-bar rap verse.

"I wasn't really too concerned with showing people that I'm nice lyrically," he said. "As a songwriter, I wanted to show that I can do hooks."

"Clear Conscience" atones for his wrongs, while "also owning up to it like, 'This is who I am,'" he said. "Embrace the Grind" depicts the hustle of an independent music artist. There are sonic surprises, too, like the Bjork-sampling "The Essence."

"I don't care if nobody buys it," he said. "I just want a lot of people to hear it."

Saturday's show completes Ellis' first mini-tour, a five-gig trip that took him as far as Charlotte.

"I want to be able to touch as many people as possible," Ellis said. "Selfishly, I love the energy from people."

The tour is a modest, but necessary start for an artist whose only goal is "to be the greatest rapper of all time." Ellis knows it's a cliche, but refuses to compromise for less.

"It's going to be tough coming out of here, man," Ellis said, staring down at his plate. He then looked up with a smile.

"But that's what makes it even greater when you do it!" he said. "That challenge — it fuels me."

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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If you go

Ellis performs Saturday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, downtown. D. King, Laelo, Loud Cru and others will also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 day of show. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.