Hip-Hop from the Heartland

Four hip-hop artists are developing their artistry in the Iowa City area.

Clockwise from top right: Dr. Dawson the individualist, Zone, the “critical money inc.,” and Yung Trey pose for a portrait in the Voxman Music building on Monday. All four are rappers in Iowa City.

Katina Zentz

Clockwise from top right: Dr. Dawson the individualist, Zone, the “critical money inc.,” and Yung Trey pose for a portrait in the Voxman Music building on Monday. All four are rappers in Iowa City.

Sarah Stortz, Art's Reporter

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“My name is Dr. Dawson.”

Her introduction is immediately followed by a holler from the audience as she stands inside Gabe’s. Fitting in with the crowd, Dawson warms up the stage by opening up for her friend who released a first album. While wearing a Chicago Bulls’ jersey, Dawson premières her song “Everything,” which she recorded that same day,

Not long after this performance, Dr. Dawson returned back to Gabe’s to host and open for CupCakke, two female artists emphasizing messages of self-love

Despite its relatively small population of 75,000 or so, Iowa City has garnered visits from notable hip-hop artists. SCOPE has booked shows starring Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, and Mac Miller in the past 10 years, according to its website.

Throughout the last year, other venues booked large names in hip-hop, with SCOPE bringing Lizzo for the University of Iowa’s Homecoming Show and Blue Moose hosting Chief Keef.

The town acts as a hub for several emerging hip-hop artists who deliver their craft for different types of crowds in Iowa City.

Mariah Dawson, otherwise known as DJ Doctor Dawson, said she broke into hip-hop because of love. Coming from Chicago, she grew up in a musical family, with her mother appreciating R&B and her father listening to soul.

Describing hip-hop as the last generation of everything people have created, such as taking elements from soul and rock ’n’ roll, she said it was inevitable for her to fall in love with the genre.

In her song, “No Issue,” Dawson uses a low, calming voice, showcasing her unbothered nature throughout the piece. Saying she’s in her own universe, she demonstrates how she uses her music as a source of healing, fittingly going with her brand, “HipHopHealinG.”

“I learned that, sometimes, [you] can only find a light in dark places, so I have to speak more about my dark places, and I have to talk more about who I am as a person,” she said. “That’s the type of music I listened to and I’m able to connect with as artists.”

Dawson said she greatly appreciates several venues in Iowa City for providing hip-hop artists with platforms.

“Local artists especially have to fight for their specific vision of themselves,” she said. “It’s exciting to see the different types of walks of lives.”

Zef Walker-El, also known as TheZeffster on stage, began pursuing hip-hop when he was 12 years old. Around this age, Walker-El saw a hip-hop artist perform on stage, immediately sparking him to follow that lifestyle after seeing how the artist interacted with the audience. 

“I knew right then and there, I wanted to be that in life,” he said.

Always being an outspoken person, he said, music was an outlet through which he could clearly express his feelings. Since he began working more professionally, he emphasized that artists need to carry themselves humbly. By networking, it opened a large community in which he met people who helped him further his career.

“It really gave me that drive to become who I want to be,” he said.

In November 2018, Walker-El began his own record label called Critical Money Inc., giving him the drive to be his own boss. With his label, Walker-El began to sign up artists who struggled finding their own spotlight.

In one of his recent songs, “Da Logic,” Walker-El used his experience in music to incorporate piano sounds in the beginning. With distant, backing vocals, he brings all the elements to flow together.

Typically, while creating a song, producers pick a sound based on the artist’s previous music and send it to the rapper. Walker-El called this process a musical collaboration between the beat creation and the lyricist. Often, he makes an effort to diversify his sound, particularly with mood.

“I can give you a song that’ll make you lit at Field House, but another song that’ll make you sit at the bar at Brothers thinking about your life,” he said.

Besides viewing it as a creative endeavor, Walker-El looks as hip-hop as a business process. In order to be successful in the music industry, he said, many artists don’t know how to sell themselves.

“Some hip-hop artists are completely blind to being musicians,” he said “They forget they’re musicians. That was something I needed to embrace and never forget.”

Walker-El encourages hip-hop artists who want to make it in the field to take it seriously as early as possible. Working since adolescence, he said, he believes these artists should reach out to others and expand their creative capabilities.

“You’re going to have to learn how to interact with these different people,” he said. “You can’t just be close-minded to what you do.”

For some, networking interactions can lead to their big break. LaTrell Burden, otherwise known as Zone, made his stage début at an open mic hosted by a UI professor.

Saying that hip-hop was already in him, he released an album on SoundCloud titled Perspective, ultimately trying to portray perspectives of a vast number of people.

“Ironically, Iowa does have a hip-hop scene,” he said. “That was a point that I was trying to prove with the album.”

He picked up the name Zone based on an observation of himself, he said, taking in how people confide in their own “zone” and avoid being elevated into a new world.

Burden approaches his work in a variety of styles, whether he’s whispering in a high-pitched voice in “It Was Song About Déjà Vu” or using simplistic lyrics in “Everything is Everything.” Common in many hip-hop songs, Burden takes samples and brings his own twist.

He cited artists such as Common, Outkast, and Jay-Z as his largest musical influences. Lyrics are the most essential component in a hip-hop song, he said; the artists often use analogies, metaphors, similes, phonetic funds, and double-entendres.

Using these language devices, Burden tries to emphasize a large message regarding perspective.

“Everybody [has] a chance to make each and every perspective matter,” he said. “The drug dealers’ perspective, the super smart kid’s perspective, everybody who [has one].”

Also a native of Chicago, Trevor Bell, known as Yung Trey, said he only listened to old-school hip-hop while growing up. Although he played around with music during high school, he decided to take his music more seriously during his first year at the UI.

Last summer, he had the chance to perform in his home city, surrounded by a significantly large crowd.

“Whenever I’m on the stage, I feel like I’m at home. I’m not nervous or anything, like I’m kind of nervous right now,” he said and laughed. “But I when I’m on stage, all that just goes away.”

In the song “BADBOY,” woodwind instruments are used to set the mood. Expressing how he’s been “bad” since he was young, he raps about the successes he achieved so far.

With the line “Look into the mirror, reflection of a G.O.A.T,” he fully exemplifies this message.

Being the first tape he made, Bell spent months creating “BADBOY,” taking pride in the creation. Feeling that many hip-hop artist don’t stay genuine to themselves, he said, several popular rappers decide to “stay true to the genre,” opting for a false persona filled with money and violence.

While many of these artists foster their work at a local bar or a recording studio in a basement, they continually illustrate how to remain true to themselves.