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Diamond District - In the Ruff

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Artist: Diamond District

Album: In the Ruff

Label: Oddisee

Review date: May. 22, 2009

D.C. has never really been known for its hip hop. While DJs in New York were manipulating drum breaks during the late 70’s, musicians in the District (aka Chuck Brown) were busy creating go-go, which has encompassed much of the city’s African American music scene since. Though it has evolved significantly from its foundations — even incorporating a heavier emphasis on rap in the ‘90s — go-go has been an insular community, staying largely in the D.C. metro area. Only in recent years has D.C. hip hop really made a push for broader recognition: Mainly through the city’s ambassador emcee Wale, who has been adamantly flying the Washington flag by infusing go-go’s thick rhythms with his rapid-fire flow. Couple Wale’s enthusiasm with the swell in D.C. pride among residents during the weeks leading up to Obama’s historic inauguration, and momentum is born.

Hip hop trio Diamond District have also captured that swagger, but went a step further — transforming it into what could almost be considered a concept album. Consisting of producer/emcee Oddisee and rappers XO and YU, their debut, In The Ruff, is basically a full-length anthem for the District, employing diamond-related metaphors every other breath in reference to the shape of D.C.’s borders. But their defintion of the “Diamond District” extends well beyond the city’s actual municipal limits and into the surrounding suburbs of Maryland and Virgina — the combination of which has come to be known as the “DMV.” Each member represents an individual piece of the area: YU went to high school in Alexandria, Virginia, Oddiseee grew up in neighboring Prince Georges County, Maryland, and XO was born and raised Uptown in D.C. around Georgia Avenue. If you’re confused, the group explains the whole distinction in their mini-documentary.

Though the local pride is obvious on In The Ruff, Oddisee’s intro acknowledges how envious he was of the NYC hip hop scene as a child, listening to the wealth of music coming from Brooklyn’s projects. As the group’s in-house producer, Oddisee’s beats certainly pay homage to the genre’s forefathers: His self-professed motto aims at adding a present-day touch to the raw “East Coast boom bap” sound a la Pete Rock and De La Soul. Largely based on a kick-snare backbone, Oddisee’s production sounds familar, but unique — catchy, but effortess. “Get In Line,” for example, sets up a playful “Funky Drummer”-esque beat, colored by breezy horn lines and chopped soul samples. It’s not a new approach by any means, but Oddisee manages to evoke Golden Age revival without getting stuck as a “throwback.”

XO, YU, and Oddisee each hold their own on the mic too, speaking focused, street perspectives largely devoid of the insipid tendencies that Southern rap embellishes. They reference being “conscious” and the production recalls that of backpack hip hoppers such as Talib Kweli, but the originality and skill exhibited on In The Ruff sidestep such generalizations. Their words are never too lecturous, preachy, or overbearing, but they still maintain instensity. Lines like “Throwin rocks at a tank ain’t makin’ a dent, but knowin’ that still throwin’ ‘em make the rock represent” on standout track “I Mean Business” offer a brand of “little man” inspiration that rings genuine.

Currently, In The Ruff is only available as a free download of the radio-friendly version, which sounds like a smart marketing plan: reel in the listeners with a free (clean) download, and then make them want to buy record for the dirty words. But unfortunately, there isn’t any way to actually buy or obtain the explicit copy (which isn’t too explicit, compared to, say, a Gucci Mane bleep-fest), so their business plan seems to be missing a crucial step. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s an addictive, well-executed record though. And especially for a city so often characterized by its transient occupants — the Hill staffers, summer interns, and 9–5 dwellers — that tend to counteract an established sense of community in the city, it’s refreshing to hear a group of folks that are proud to be (to steal a line from XO) “on some D.C. shit.”

By Cole Goins

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