Baltimore rapper Butch Dawson discusses his upbringing in West Baltimore, releasing his anticipated project "Swamp Boy" and more. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
Downstairs at the Crown in Station North, Butch Dawson kicked off a mosh pit on a night in July with his recent local anthem, “Feel Nobody.” As the bass line rumbled, the Baltimore rapper quickly jumped in the middle, microphone in hand as he jumped up and down alongside the modest-sized crowd.
Months later, sitting inside his manager’s makeshift home studio in Charles Village, Dawson — the 25-year-old born Jujuan Allen — smiles at the memory.
“I’m ready to sweat. I want to feel energy,” Dawson said of his approach to performing. “I’m just so down-to-earth with people that they have no choice but to go crazy.”
These days, Dawson is a leading voice in Baltimore’s evolving rap scene, and his anticipated project, last month’s “Swamp Boy,” could take him well beyond his hometown. With his most cohesive effort to date, Dawson — who performs at Baltimore’s Metro Gallery on Friday and the Trillectro festival in Columbia on Saturday — said he’s ready to bring the energy that filled the Crown that summer night to the rest of the country.
“The momentum is going so crazy — people are starting to believe,” Dawson said. “It’s beautiful.”
Dawson’s path to potential rap stardom began as a kid growing up in West Baltimore’s Upton neighborhood. He was a happy kid, Dawson said of his “average city black-kid upbringing,” and often played outside with friends. Walking by Pennsylvania Avenue, a couple blocks from his home, Dawson constantly saw drug dealers selling to customers.
Baltimore has nicknames for areas like this — the trenches, the mud, the trap. Dawson said his neighborhood’s empty lots, the result of the city razing dilapidated buildings, reminded him of a swamp — hence his own label for it.
Dawson, who attended Renaissance Academy High School, said music has been a focal point throughout his life. He often watched his father — Huli Shallone, the Baltimore rapper who scored a local hit in the mid-2000s with “For My Shorty” — record in the studio. But for Dawson, it was hearing stars such as Lil Wayne and Nas that made him want to rap.
He started rapping in earnest over chintzy YouTube beats but grew unsatisfied with the quality, so Dawson began handling his own production in 2009. Since then, Dawson has continuously worked at his crafts — releasing songs, freestyles and mixtapes, like 2014’s “Lower Mercury” and 2015’s collaborative “PVRVLLELS EP” with R&B singer :3lon, online for free at his whim.
“I don’t look at things as albums,” he said. They’re just “projects” — what he was focused on at that time.
Even still, “Swamp Boy” holds special significance for Dawson, who worked on the eight-song effort for three-and-a-half years.
Produced largely by Dawson, “Swamp Boy” is his most cohesive statement, capturing his penchant for street rap (“Ridin’ Round”) and eerie jazz sounds (“Distances”), tied together by Dawson’s clever lyrics and DIY energy. Opening track “Liberation” sets the tone.
“Pitching rock, watch ’em build a block like it’s Tetris / In the swamps, you get trapped if you thinking headless,” Dawson raps.
It’s a message of perseverance, and a reminder to others that surroundings don’t always dictate outcomes, he said.
“I want to basically embrace my craft and where I come from, and show people there’s people like me out there,” Dawson said.
“Swamp Boy” features Baltimore rappers Tracksmith and Black Zheep DZ (a member, like Dawson, of the collective Basement Rap). On “Better Forever,” a familiar voice also appears: Hemlock Ernst — the rap persona of Samuel Herring, lead singer of Future Islands — who provides a sprawling, tongue-twisting verse.
But the star of “Swamp Boy” is undoubtedly Dawson — a feeling he might need to get used to as more eyes and ears outside of Baltimore take notice. (Since “Swamp Boy’s” release, Dawson has received praise from magazines Respect and The Fader.)
Dawson, who also models and recently performed at the Telfar show at New York Fashion Week, said he’s tempted to move to a larger city, but can’t fully commit because he wants to continue to create music and art in his hometown. Dawson wants to be a visible example of a Baltimore success story.
“As an art kid coming from here, I want to express myself and everything I’ve seen,” Dawson said. “Any kid coming from the hood feeling like you might never get out the hood — you could. Just keep creating.”