Turning the Soil
Dirt Platoon still addresses the everyday reality of Baltimore hip-hop
Published: February 2, 2011
Dirt Platoon with Ogun, Billy Lyve, and more.
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“Hip-hop had a message, and it still has a message right now,” says the rapper known only as Raf, the deep-voiced, older half of Baltimore duo Dirt Platoon. “I just don’t like the message it’s sending.”
Seated around a table in a lounge space in the Station North recording studios of Street Legal Entertainment, he’s joined by his younger brother and Dirt Platoon partner Snook Da Crook, local producer Tom Delay, and a small crew of friends and collaborators. The discussion topic has turned to dirt—as in hip-hop’s roots, the day-to-day life in the struggle, a subject that doesn’t get repped all that often in the larger rap world anymore, at least to hear the duo tell it.
You’d be pressed to find a more reliable source: Dirt Platoon started rhyming in 1997 in a very different Baltimore hip-hop environment. These were the days before Sonar was hosting local rap shows and before the New Turntable Club or its Morrell Park successor Club Reality. Rappers got known at the 5 Seasons or in big cyphers—group freestyles—in school cafeterias, or at one particular massive word-of-mouth gathering by the harbor that would draw “20, 30, 40 guys,” Snook says. “If you didn’t have no skills, don’t demand anybody’s attention. That’s really one of the places where Dirt Platoon really made their name at.”
“Then it was a lot more lyrical MCs from Baltimore and we had our own sound,” Raf says. “Nowadays, it’s more everybody sounding like everybody else, but back then it was more like we had our own identity. Everybody was an individual. Boogie Monsters, one of the first in Baltimore to get a deal. Guys like that. Labtekwon. These guys didn’t sound like anybody else. To this day, they probably don’t sound like anybody else. Everybody had their own voice, their own identity then.
“Back then we didn’t have as many outlets,” he continues. “We was driven to street corners and wherever we could get 45, 50 minutes for everybody to go.”
Part of the Dirt Platoon pull isn’t so much that it sounds all that old-school, but that it’s more unmoored in time. Dirt Platoon doesn’t chase nostalgia nor nostalgic listeners. The duo’s most recent full-length, Deeper Than Dirt, its sixth since a 2002 debut, channels prime Wu-Tang Clan more than anything: deft lyrical interplay, grimy beats, tons of samples, loads of soul, and indisputable weight. It’s the sort of hip-hop meant for big-ass speakers and paying close attention to, music that makes blood rush to a listener’s head.
Raf describes that first record, Daily Routine, simply as, “Fourteen songs, all our struggles. [You] can’t find it on the online. We did that purposely. Some things you just want to keep to ourselves. It was all our pain. Every album you get is a step up. It’s a different year of us tellin’ you about all our struggles—our pain, our happiness, our sorrow. We just givin’ you all-natural feelin’s, and I think that’s what people need and what music is lacking. Instead of us tryin’ to blind you and fog your mind with partying and, you know, just drug slingin’, we comin’ at you with real-life shit. They’re tryin’ to keep us partying, but what about our struggle that we got goin’ on?”
That’s the refrain when talking to the duo: Dirt Platoon is the embodiment of Baltimore’s daily reality. “Nobody then and nobody now is tryin’ to affiliate themselves with dirt,” Raf says. “We’re those regular guys that you pass by, that you see every day.”
Again, to hear the duo tell it—though it’s not all that far from true—Dirt Platoon is about the only hip-hop group in Baltimore on that mission. And, indeed, there’s a vast category of rap in the city that’s more about the “bottle poppin,’” the party, and making loads of money as fast as possible. And if this was a bigger city, that kind of stuff could exist without ever contacting Dirt Platoon’s rhymes. Asked what the mainstream-gunning rap world in Baltimore thinks of the duo’s music, Snook responds, “They respect us, they listen to our music.
“Our demographics, our target market is everybody,” he continues. “The guys that make the more commercial records, they like it too because they can relate. They know we telling the truth. We make music to hit home, even to them.”
“We say what they want to say,” Raf adds. “They have no choice but to respect it.” s