Baltimore’s disparate music scene is one of the most underappreciated great things in both the country and in the City itself. Even in an urban sprawl with eight universities, local talent is so often unexplored in favor of whatever pop sound defines each genre nationally.
The problem seems to be particularly acute at Hopkins, a place where the Baltimore music scene is, quite literally, on-campus.
Dan Mansion is, by his own description, “a producer, rapper, singer, musician: Whatever you want to call it.” He also works at the Daily Grind in Brody Cafe, the favored destination of the desperate, depleted and defeated student working their way through another day.
So we at The News-Letter reached out to him to talk about his music, the Baltimore scene and making coffee.
Mansion, 24, whose real name is Eric, is a Baltimore native who moved away and then came back. He is a fairly unassuming guy with a reserved and amicable manner, braided hair and a cozy aesthetic.
He met up with me in the library for an interview that eventually turned into a conversation about South Park, Kanye West’s mom, Yeezus himself, Pharrell in his pre-“Happy” years, gentrification and Baltimore’s path to greatness.
Mansion started making music as Dan Mansion when he was 19, although his roots go back further.
He got into playing the guitar and rapping when he was in middle school. In high school, Mansion formed what he called “a Paramore type rip-off band” while still writing raps and experimenting with making beats. For him, music made sense.
“I don’t know, I just always listened to music and it was always a part of my life. Whenever I watch interviews they always say that shit, but I don’t know — it just makes sense when you’re around it,” he said.
Mansion is part of Peer Group, a music collective made up of Joey Bricks, Jupe Fury, Steve Stellar, YRD and Mansion himself.
Jupe Fury, whose real name is Will (a great name), and Mansion started the group, later adding Steve Stellar (Jamiyah) after Mansion encouraged her to freestyle over a beat he produced. YRD/Yerden (Jorden) is a childhood friend of Mansion’s who also produces.
Alpha, whose rap name is Joey Bricks, went to Morgan State University with Dan, where the two met.
After losing touch, Mansion and Alpha were coincidentally reunited when the latter got a job at Daily Grind, after which he joined Peer Group.
So much of the underground rap scene today is based on the internet; sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp allow artists to work around record labels, cutting out the middleman between them and the fans.
“You can do everything yourself and that’s basically what I’m doing,” Mansion said.
Appropriately, Mansion got his start making beats by using a trial version of the digital-audio workshop FruityLoops, now called FL Studio.
The internet is also a place where musicians can interact, learn, collaborate and teach. Mansion’s life in music is inexorably linked to the online community.
Early on he was writing raps on a now defunct forum called Universal Emcees, where rappers would share verses, critiquing andadmiring each other’s work.
“They called them keystyles; you’d just like freestyle out, write a whole paragraph or a verse or whatever and post it, then people would comment on it and give you feedback,” Mansion said.
Mansion’s longtime friend and member of Peer Group, Shane Cromwell, introduced him to Universal Emcees. Back then, Shane also rapped, although he now works in videography. He’s shot a number of videos for Mansion, and for other Baltimore artists like Kotic Couture.
At the moment, Mansion feels pretty good about his music career. His latest album Trash-Fi got picked up by Detroit label TrashFuck Records, and is currently selling as a cassette.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 19 — I’m 24 now — so if I was doing this and nothing was happening, I probably would have stopped. But little shit here and there keeps happening and I’m like, ‘okay, I can keep doing this,’” he said.
Trash-Fi features verses from Jupe Fury and Joey Bricks as well as YRD production. It is a balance of wavy and heavy beats, laced with bars that are a mix of humor, wordplay and a flow with a mean change-up.
The tape is his third, following 2016’s Loading and 2015’s Blowshki, as well as a number of singles and standalone tracks.
True to the do-it-yourself lifestyle, Mansion does much of his own production, crafting beats that blend genres together.
“I’m not just into hip hop. Hip hop is a combination of a whole bunch of other genres anyway,” Mansion said, explaining the eclectic influences that drive his sound.
His flow has similar multifaceted characteristics; one can hear an element of rock in his delivery on songs like “FLAMEZ,” where he spits out his verses and cuts them with a grimy chorus.
In the same track, Mansion uses the human voice as a part of the rhythm, a technique explored thoroughly by Kanye throughout his career.
Mansion cited Kanye as a major influence, along with Pharrell and Timbaland.
Electronic dance music is also a significant influence on Mansion’s production, which is most evident in some of his instrumental tracks.
“I’m really into EDM or whatever you want to call it,” Mansion said. “If I could take some of that shit and put it into hip hop… I feel like people aren’t really doing that a lot.”
Mansion’s wide-ranging style in part reflects the art-rap scene in Baltimore, where artists of seemingly antithetical styles stand together on songs.
Mansion is excited about potential collaborations but is also wary of scene politics. Working with his friends in Peer Group lets him rise above some of that, although he expressed interest in linking up with artists like :31ON.
Overall Mansion is optimistic about the scene in Baltimore. Even as artists like JPEGMAFIA leave the city in pursuit of their growing fame, national outlets like Complex and Noisey have been looking harder at Baltimore’s scene.
Mansion sees positive growth both for the scene and for the City itself.
“Five to seven years from now, I feel like Baltimore will be at a better place than it is now,” he said.
Next week on Oct. 17, Mansion and Steve Stellar will be playing at The Windup Space in Station North. Stellar will soon be releasing an EP, so be sure to check that out.
As for Mansion, he’s hoping to make a full-length album over the coming summer.
“I want this one to be the best thing I’ve done,” Mansion said.
He spoke about hoping to “have something [he] can look back on and have some longevity with.”
In the meantime go listen to Trash-Fi on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, or buy the tape; cassettes are coming back. Also check out the other members of Peer Group — Jupe Fury, Joey Bricks, Steve Stellar and YRD — all of whom can be found on Soundcloud.
Most importantly, go to shows and support the music. If you’re too lame to do any of that, how about you say what’s up to a few local working musicians the next time you buy some coffee?