Wale: Don't Call me Wale!
Having already been prestigiously hailed “hip hop’s next heavyweight” and even “The Future ”(!), 25-year-old rapper Wale - whose origins lie in the colourful backstreets of Washington, DC - this month finally releases his eagerly-anticipated debut album ‘Attention Deficit’, following the UK Top 15 success of its Lady GaGa-featuring compulsive offshoot single ‘Chillin’’.
Interestingly, it was actually through the street-level success of his independent 2007 record ‘Good Girls’ that Wale initially attracted the attention of Grammy-winning super-producer Mark Ronson. Who - impressed with the East Coast rapper’s laid-back flow and skilful wordplay - ended up signing Wale to his own, Interscope-affiliated label Allido Records... Which ultimately has now resulted in the release of the aforementioned ‘Attention Deficit’. Whose tracks (frequently influenced by the funky grooves of Washington, DC’s vibrant go-go scene) range from the brassy, party vibe of its Gucci Mane-featuring current single ‘Pretty Girls’ and jazzier, Chrisette Michele-featuring ‘Shades’, to the moody electronica of the Rihanna-sampling ‘Contemplate’.
Cue a laid-back Wale (whose LP additionally boasts input from the likes of Pharrell, K’NAAN, plus contemporary soul divas Jazmine Sullivan and Melanie Fiona) enjoying a brief introductory chat with Pete Lewis amidst the comfort of Central London’s recently-refurbished Cumberland Hotel.
“I decided to title the album ‘Attention Deficit’ because I just think people are generally stingy in what they pay attention to over a long time-period. And, with my album rubbing into a lot of emotions, lyrically it’s all OVER the place”, he begins: “It’s happy, sad, mad, glad, insecure, indecisive... You know, emotionally it’s not censored, it’s not hidden... So, when you put it all together, it’s not a smooth RIDE. And, because in that way it’s kinda everywhere, it reminds me of attention deficit disorder!”
“I mean, there’s a lotta DEPTH in my songs”, he continues: “I’m basically telling you what I like, what I DON’T like, and WHY I don’t like it! It’s kinda like a thesis, a synopsis on my life thus far. And the goal was just to make some records that the people really UNDERSTAND - because there’s a lotta BS on the airwaves right now! You know, a lotta people are rapping and trying to scare you or CONVINCE you of something. Whereas my music is more like a narrative of what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced in my life. Which is why I brought on board female soul singers like Jazmine Sullivan, Chrisette Michelle, Melanie Fiona... Because I just feel women are better at conveying raw emotions than males, and I think it’s important to include a lotta soul when you’re doing songs that are representing your true feelings about stuff.”
Production-wise, meanwhile, ‘Attention Deficit’ very much boasts a mixture of the established-and-successful with the new-and-upcoming: “Yeah, I have on there Cool & Dre, The Neptunes, Mark Ronson, David Sitek, some producers outta DC called Best Kept Secret, a new guy named Syience who’s signed to Roc Nation… You know, I wasn’t caught up in NAMES”, asserts Wale: “I just wanted to make a record with the people who best understood the vibe that I wanted for a particular song. I’d basically just tell them what the song represented - and, if they could execute that emotion through the music, then I was IN! You know, I wanted to make sure everybody brought the exact emotion I needed on each track. So the ones who could best feel or understand what I was trying to say were usually the ones who ended up producing the TRACK for it!”
Born Olubowale Victor Folarin in Washington to Nigerian immigrant parents in September 1984, Wale (pronounced “wah-lay”) cut his teeth in the unforgiving northwest district of DC - before, with his parents desperate to find quieter environs, moving with his family to the Maryland suburbs while in his teens. Which in turn resulted in him spending time in no less than seven different High Schools scattered about the DC/Maryland area!
“My early musical influences were all OVER the place, because my father drove a DC cab. So we’d be listening to all different types of music, bringing different tapes home and stuff”, he recalls: “And, in terms of the neighbourhood itself, at the time I was growing up there crack was very much the drug-of-choice and DC was America’s murder capital! So, during that time, I was very much kept at HOME! You know, my parents didn’t play around. So, as soon as the sun went down, I was in the HOUSE! And so it was really only after we moved to Maryland that I started to rebel a little and started getting into trouble. But then, at the same time, I guess the fact I ended up going to so many different schools did actually help me understand the plight of different people from a lotta different environments.”
“Like going to the white schools I think helped me understand politics in general”, he adds thoughtfully: “You know, whether it be politics on the football team or politics in the music industry, it just opened my mind to the world in GENERAL a bit more. And then the black schools toughened me UP. So yeah, I definitely think everything happens for a reason. And that part of my upbringing definitely did play its part in making me who I am today.”
Earning football scholarships to Robert Morris College and later Virginia State University, the young, multi-talented Wale started out making a go of higher education. Nevertheless, realising his heart ultimately lay in rapping and performing, in 2004 he dropped out of school to pursue a career in music full-time; his first taste of success arriving in 2006 when his track ‘Dig Dug (Shake It)’ became the most requested song by a local artist in Washington DC radio history: “Yeah, it was basically just that I could FEEL it was time to stop playing ball and really pursue the music”, he explains: “You know, the mixtapes were working; I was having a lotta success on the underground… And so I just felt ‘If I devote ALL my time to this, there’s no telling WHERE I could end up!’!”
Indeed, coming to the attention of world-conquering Amy Winehouse producer/writer Mark Ronson in 2007, Wale has not looked back since - with Ronson being sufficiently taken with the rapper’s natural blend of street-reared ruggedness, introspect and wit to straightaway sign him to his aforementioned Allido label. Since which time Wale has steadily increased his international profile, via a series of acclaimed-on-the-underground mixtapes (including 2007’s ‘100 Miles & Running’ and 2008’s ‘Mixtape About Nothing’); plus appearances on Philadelphia hip hop band The Roots’ single ‘Rising Up’ and a globally-acclaimed remix of London singer/songwriter Lily Allen’s bubbly pop chart-topper ‘Smile’. Which in turn cemented Ronson’s view of Wale as an artist after his own heart - unaffected by the hot sound of the moment and unafraid to tackle tracks from different genres.
“Yeah, Mark Ronson is a straight-up music junkie. And so, when he stumbled across one of my records that he thought was really hot, he reached OUT”, relates Wale: “And, with him being the complete opposite of narrow-minded, Mark has really broadened my OWN musical taste. Like through him I’ve been exposed to more artists like Lily, Amy and Adele… I mean, that was actually the way my relationship with him STARTED - the Lily Allen remix! Which was definitely a great idea for my first collaboration, because it really helped blow me up internationally. Plus I’ve learned so much just by going on TOUR with Mark, and seeing how the overseas music scene is far more open-minded than the American. I mean, my whole mission right now is just to make music that people EVERYWHERE can dig. So I’m just happy with how international cities like London today are showing me so much love, and I just hope they CONTINUE to support me!”
Wale’s album ‘Attention Deficit’ is out now through Allido/Interscope
Words PETE LEWIS