The golden yellow walls of the Owings Mills office sparkle as the sun shines through the windows. A logo of The Demo Tape is plastered on one wall. A number of microphones sit around a table for an ongoing podcast.
In 2015, Jordan “BDJ” Taylor and Justice “Rez” Gray created a music, sports and culture blog called The Demo Tape. Fast forward five years, and The Demo Tape has the Baltimore music blogging landscape in a vice grip.
The Demo Tape, a free blog, currently features 12 writers — eight staff writers and four administrators. While there currently is no compensation for “true employees” of the blog, including the administrators, the platform serves another, grand purpose. “[We’re] trying to be an example for Black kids that want to be journalists,” Gray said.
There’s also the podcast, called The Working Title, where a number of writers for TDT, local artists and others discuss topics spanning from Jada Pinkett Smith’s recent revelations about her affair with singer August Alsina to former Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant’s death.
In one recent episode, titled “It’s 9/11 every week,” co-host Rod Wynn sounded off about George Floyd’s death and other Black people adversely affected by the criminal justice system. He delved into the pain that the situation brings him.
“I don’t like watching Black trauma videos,” Wynn said. “I still haven’t seen that Korey Wise video, the Central Park Five — that Netflix series [”When They See Us”] — I just can’t bring myself to watch people die on camera. That [stuff] really messed my mental up.”
The Demo Tape has created opportunities for local hip-hop, R&B artists and other creative Black people to gain exposure to the general public. And in the process, the blog has forever changed Taylor’s and Gray’s lives.
“I thought that it was going to be a highway that led me into my next professional job,” Gray said. “I never thought that I was going to be here for that long.”
Taylor and Gray grew up in Baltimore County — Taylor in Pikesville and Gray in Randallstown — and graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School in 2013. At the school, the two were involved in a number of clubs, including the Spoken Word Club, and created a separate group with friends outside of school called the Erratic Society through which they worked on graphic design, social media and rap.
“We’ve always been a good team for real and before we did The Demo Tape, I had a blog,” Taylor said. “But I didn’t keep up with it consistently. When he [Gray] hit me about, ‘Hey, let’s start blogging together,’ I’m like, well, if I couldn’t hold myself accountable, I know he’s depending on me to put s— out and be present.'
So, after Taylor wound up at the University of Maryland as a communications major and Gray at Temple as a journalism major, the two began The Demo Tape journey from their dorm rooms. They bounced ideas off of one another, stemming from their stories about music to thoughts on sports and eventually paired up to write a blog together.
Andre Small, a Towson University graduate, hooked up with the duo to create a website. Brandon Austin, another Mount St. Joseph and Towson University graduate, joined to write about sports.
Austin played defensive end for the Mount St. Joseph football team, graduating in 2011, and at Towson he majored in communications. He brought his knowledge of sports and his editing experience to the team (he had written and edited for FanSided’s The Baltimore Wire). Now, he has made his mark as a “playlist curator” and music writer for the site.
“Just growing up, you listen [to music] in the car, whether it’s church music — you’re on the way to church with grandma — or you doing you’re own thing,” Austin said. “Me and my brother used to [rap] battle in the crib. If I’m listening to music every day, why not try and write about it?”
One of Austin’s most notable contributions is “Songs For the Trenches,” a playlist that the group calls “the most certified tracks in the streets,” which has nearly four hours of Austin’s favorite rap songs.
Gabrielle Manning-Jones was the first person to apply to write for The Demo Tape in 2016 and went on to to become the chief financial officer/human resources coordinator for the site. On a whim, she wrote a long email accompanied by an article for the site that she wrote. Gray immediately replied to her to join..
Though her current title doesn’t include writing, she has made an impact in a number of ways. While holding down a full-time job as a human resources specialist with the Washington, D.C.government, Manning-Jones has been the glue that binds the team together..
“I do a lot of administrative stuff now,” she said. “If it’s for things that we need, I’m your go-to person for that.”
At first, The Demo Tape had a basic, gray website and no true identity or logo. As time went on, they opted for a black and red color scheme.
After changing website developers, they finally decided on a logo: a stylized tape deck.
The old site didn’t allow for certain things the group wanted to do aesthetically. “I think that as you grow, your site needs to grow to keep reminding your readers and your fans that you’re showing the growth essentially,” Gray said.
Another member of the team is 2015 New Town High School graduate Njera Perkins, who’s made quite a name for herself in the blogging world. Before joining The Demo Tape in May 2018, Perkins worked as a social media coordinator for three months with Access By NKC before becoming the editor-in-chief of Blackaphillyated for a year.
The Demo Tape also has begun an awards show called “The Tapeys,” where Baltimore-area hip-hop and R&B groups, producers, artists and other creatives like NWØ, Butch Dawson, Austin-Taylor Richburg, FinagoBaby, Chris Cassius, 4kmicheal, Shordie Shordie, YG! Beats, Joy Postel, Bandhunta Izzy, JiggyRunTheCity, Tmcthedon and Deetranada all have won awards in 2020.
A number of artists also take part in “3 & Out” — a weekly web series on YouTube giving readers an inside look into the organization’s inner workings. In the latest episode, Gray and writer/videographer Antwane “Twan” Outerbridge are behind the camera. Area artists Mack Scott, FinagoBaby, Cassius, Score Swayze, T. Ali and La’ Matic stop by for interviews throughout a week.
The group, including Taji Burris, another podcaster for The Working Title, listen to Cassius’ music. Everyone vibes to the music. It’s all fun and then they ask Cassius what he’s sipping.
“Hennessy,” Cassius stated. “This is is Hennessy and orange soda. I don’t recommend it, but if you don’t have anything to supply a little dilution, orange soda is cool.”
Cassius is among the area rappers that have been able to contribute to a number of podcasts, videos and interviews for The Demo Tape. He was one of the first artists that the blog profiled and the writers set up his first out-of-town show in Philadelphia on Sept. 1, 2017. They’ve also been able to flesh out his personal story beyond his rapping.
“They’ve given me access to much-needed camera time, which I also think has complemented my growth and [ability to be] renowned as an artist locally and beyond,” Cassius said. “They’ve also been super helpful with my new ventures! I’m doing two new YouTube segments; one is with Taji Burris called CTE where we just chop it up about current events and the other is “I forgot my scale,” which is a cooking segment because it’s a pastime for me.”
The group hopes the easy banter helps to build a coalition among Baltimore-area rappers. There are friendships, team building and creating an environment of authenticity.
While Gray is currently unemployed, he was formerly a valet supervisor at a hotel. Taylor has held a number of positions, including working as a ramp agent for Southwest Airlines and assisting as a DJS Fellow at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with Americorps. He soon will begin a job as a communications organizer and archivist at the Black Yield Institute, a Baltimore-based organization that, according to its website, cultivates “self-determination through Black land & food sovereignty.”
Taylor brings those organizational skills and sense of camaraderie to the blog.
“For me, I’m a person that if you got me, I got you, no matter how it is,” Taylor said. “When you show love, you get love back. That’s true if you in the city, in the country, Maryland. Wherever you at, if you show love, you get love back.”
To this day, people interviewed by Taylor years ago can still hit him up and ask, “Hey, can you listen to that song?' he said.
“I feel like for The Demo Tape, we were able to give a lot of people their first look in general, their first song post, their first interview, even their first re-tweet from a media outlet,” Taylor said. “It’s just showing love and then just cultivating those relationships like staying true and staying honest.”