Retirement is, typically, reserved for the old. It is an act earmarked for those who have fulfilled their promise, those who can do no more, those who cannot continue. It is not for the young and talented who have much more to accomplish. But that is the first of many cases where esteemed 24-year old Seattle rapper D.Black finds himself existing in duality, often in contradictory terms. Saturday’s Curtain Call at Chop Suey marks his last headlining show and the second-to-last chance fans will get to see him rock mics onstage before leaving rap alone in the name of God and family, a decision he believes comes straight from a higher power.
Damian Black’s place in Northwest hip-hop is well-documented. The flagship artist and eventual part-owner of Sportn’ Life Records, a long-running local independent label and for much of its existence the only one of note to feature street-oriented artists and more mainstream urban sounds, Black’s club- and radio-ready fare soon gave way to a spiritual awakening resulting in his conversion to Orthodox Judaism and 2009’s Ali’Yah. Pairing expert production and immensely improved raps with positivity and lessons learned from his enlightenment, the well-received album birthed another stark pairing: devout religion and hip-hop.
It was an uneasy union that was not to last much further than one LP, national exposure from MTVu and XXL magazine, and official showcase performances at the CMJ and SXSW music festivals. “I look at what hip-hop is doing to our kids. You see this destroying your kids and destroying your youth, and you do something else [in the genre],” D.Black said in a recent phone interview. “I want to be the exact opposite, but stay within the same genre and same place and provide a different kind of music for them to listen to as an alternative.”
It’s an admirable intent, but one he felt could not transcend overwhelming outside negativity. “What happens is that after a while, words are no longer heard, all they see is action,” he continued. “And when they look at you, a great deal of them, they don’t see any really difference. They cannot tell.”
Still, Black’s view of contemporary hip-hop is not the whole reason for his decision to leave rap alone. In fact, it was not his choice at all. “It’s one of those things that I really honestly feel is pushed from a godly spirit, to put D.Black to rest,” he said.
The retirement talks have been ongoing for over a year, and in their midst resulted in a fall 2010 project, The Black & Brown EP. However, do not mistake the prolonged exit as another in a line of hollow departure threats from other rappers. “I never said that I wasn’t going to [retire]. I’ve been saying the same thing and I’ve been trying to,” Black explained. “I didn’t want to just drop because I’m having a religious ordeal, that I’m just going to stop fulfilling obligations because that’s not really religious at all.”
His obligation was to Sportn’ Life Records, its artists, and its owner and label head DeVon Manier. Herein lies another binary of Black: flagship artist, the recognizable public face of a label, and behind-the-scenes everyman. “D.Black was the producer, the engineer, the rapper, the guidance, the mentor, the road manager, the artist developer. He was the person who knew talent,” said close friend and label mate Fatal Lucciauno.
“I’m almost double his age and he’s probably been the best business partner I’ve ever had,” said Manier over iced tea at Beacon Hill’s The Station coffeehouse. D.Black’s transition out of Sportn’ Life comes at a time where the label deals with the ramifications of a music industry still awkwardly adjusting to the digital age. His 2006 official debut The Cause & Effect was sold as hard-copy CDs; The Black & Brown EP was given away as a free download.
“D.Black is so poignant of that era right there. It used to be out of the trunk; now it’s like, how do we do this now?” Manier said. “We’re slowly making the transition.”
It’s a development Black, nor anybody really, can help make go smoother, so the Sportn’ Lifers vow to remain resilient and push forward, just as they have while Black has backed away from music. Lucciauno already recorded two albums without his friend and mentor; Spac3man awaits several upcoming releases in the spring and summer. “He was one of the flagship artists, but that’s not along the terms of saying that he’s one of the only artists or that he’s the best artist,” Space said while stretching outside Nectar, preparing to deliver a typically energetic and boisterous performance opening for Keak da Sneak last weekend. “That’s one of the beauties of it.”
Yet Sportn’ Life is losing a talented, multifaceted musician who can wreck a verse, craft a banger, and move a crowd with the best of them. “Certain times I wasn’t like he’s the illest lyricist, but I was like, this song is f*cking amazing,” Spac3man said. “That’s an element of hip-hop and music that’s not happening. I feel a lot of people are making a bunch of hits. But him, he’s thinking about everything. He will map out the formula for how his album’s going to be from beginning to end and execute.”
“He absolutely has really, really good stage presence,” glowed Grynch, whom Black cited as one of his closest friends in hip-hop.
Lucciauno’s adulation is extraordinary. “D.Black is the greatest artist to ever touch a microphone, period,” he proclaimed. “Besides Tupac Shakur, I put D. Black against Hov, Biggie, anybody. I put D. Black with Sting and Bono. He’s an artist.”
And he was an artist just hitting his stride when he was given a message to give it all up. Ali’Yah saw Black improve his lyricism and technique by leaps and bounds, coupling a quicker flow and more intense wordplay with an added depth to his words able to match the weight of his husky voice. The flimsy club jams were gone, and in their place stood great hip-hop songs with meaning, forming a cohesive album.
But then came a divine message, and with it, a spiritual crisis of Lucciauno’s own. “I was mad. But I wasn’t mad at Damian,” he reflected, thinking back on first hearing from Black of his retirement. “I was upset that whatever God was telling him was being interpreted as he needs to quit … so I had a real misunderstanding with my spiritual father and the way things work. I don’t think it’s the way the world is and the weight of him making music and being with family that made him quit. He’ll tell you why he quit. God put it on his heart to stop making music and to leave it alone altogether, and that’s why he did it. I was more upset that he was getting so much better.”
It does seem unfair to be left wondering what the future may have held, and so all we are left with is his recorded work, testaments to his talent that will, for better and worse, live on as his legacy. It is there that the most important duality and greatest contradiction of D.Black rests: that of the past and the present. The Cause & Effect is straight-up hip-hop with a street bent; it is full of profanity, of guns, of drugs, of clubs.
It does includes a burgeoning consciousness that is distracted by the pull of the rap life, one Manier, who has known Black since he was a teenager, says has always existed. “D.Black’s been like that since he was young, that’s his thing. When I met him he was a very devout Christian, he was born a Muslim. In my eyes he’s kind of a theologian because I’ve seen him go through transitions and whatnot but I know that he holds his spirituality real close and it motivates him through his life.”
His search for a higher meaning can be found on his debut full-length, as can an inattentiveness to it. On Cause’s “Crazy,” Black’s questioning of worshiping a white savior in Jesus is interrupted: “In the process of thinkin’, my phone starts ringin’… bring the 12 gauge don’t forget the vests.”
This side of D.Black may not exist in the present, but it forever will in the past. His words are recorded, they were bought and experienced — they do not belong to him anymore, nor have they for a long time. They serve as reminders of what once was, and also what cannot be. “I can’t endorse any music that is contrary to what my religious beliefs are. That’s why it’s so hard for me to have a job in music,” he said. “It’s a really tough thing to have kids coming up to me singing ‘Get Loose’ then they’ve seen a show from me back in the day, or the interviews — me cursing up a storm and all that. And obviously, seeing me this way they think that I have two lives. It’s a tough thing to compete.”
To Black, it’s impossible to compete. As he mentions on Ali’Yah’s “Yesterday,” “How can you see in front of you if you’re always looking back” — and looking back at another self, a self with the same name and history as the current one? “As a person who is growing you want time to learn, you want time to spend with the divine,” he said. “I honestly feel like with me being pulled in so many different directions that the best thing for me to do is to lay music down. I honestly feel like that was from the Almighty, that I had to slaughter it … I just have to put D.Black out of his misery.”
In talking with his friends and collaborators, it’s hard not to feel as if D.Black isn’t departed already. “I hate to talk about it like this. I feel like he’s dead,” Lucciauno said. “He’s not dead. I could go down to his house right now. He’s my homie.”
Still, there are some who hold out hope that D.Black may be resurrected in the future. “It’s a bummer that he’s hanging it up,” Grynch said before adding, “but we’ll see what happens.”
There does seem to be an underlying feeling that Black could return, that he just can’t leave music alone, but Lucciauno is almost certain that any possible return would come as a new incarnation. “Damian wouldn’t disrespect himself to come back rapping,” he stated with conviction. “He wouldn’t have put us through all this to come back 10 years later rapping. I could see him strumming on a guitar and telling folk stories, but he’s not gonna come back as a rapper.”
And he’s not going to come back until he’s given the okay to do so. “God willing, one day I’m sure God will find it in his heart to allow me to do these things again,” Black hopes. “But I think right now, it’s not the time.”
Music is something that has been such a part of his life that it’s extremely difficult to let go, and even more difficult to let go of the people and relationships associated with it. “I’m gonna miss people, I really am. I’m gonna miss being on a stage, and being in front of people. Seattle hip-hop really is a brotherhood; it’s a very very beautiful thing and I’m so happy that I was accepted and people allowed me to be a part of it.”
For two more nights, D.Black will be alive onstage. Saturday marks his last headlining performance with what he promises will be a host of guests, and then April 28th is it: an opening spot for Eprhyme’s album release at the Rendezvous. After that, D.Black is no more; after that, there is just one. As Choklate sang on the hook to Cause’s “Survive”: “Somebody’s got to survive… might as well be me.” After that, ghostly whisperings may pop up occasionally — Manier promised to drop unreleased stray singles of Black’s throughout the year.
“I’m not quitting anything, I’m transitioning. I’m going from one chapter of one place and I’m going into a different dimension,” he says. “I’m just Damian the leasing consultant. That is who I am now.”