Flat Out with Butch Dawson
© Shan Wallace
One of Baltimore’s underground titans give us a tour of the neighborhood that raised him.
In terms of Black Baltimore’s musical and cultural legacy, there isn’t a strip in the city that has more significance and lore than Pennsylvania Avenue. For at least the past 60 years, The Avenue — as it is called by locals — has brought stars of the Motown Era to perform in the heart of West Baltimore, been instrumental in the city’s jazz scene, produced one of the city's most significant rappers ever in the late Lor Scoota, and been at the forefront of 2015’s Uprising in response to the unjust death of Freddie Gray. Even on a regular day, The Avenue is still one of the more lively parts of the city. It’s where people congregate in front of the Avenue Market to hear messages and opinions bellowed out through loudspeakers. It’s where young girls from all over the city come to show off their marching bands. And it’s where — pre-COVID-19 — you could hit Shake & Bake to roller skate on a nice afternoon. It’s also the area that standout Central Baltimore artist and figure Butch Dawson grew up.
“You see that? You see that block? A lot of people don’t know, I used to live right here. 1920 Division Street,” Butch shows us as we walk around Pennsylvania Avenue early on a hot July day. He’s dressed appropriately for the scorching sun: a white tank top, green basketball shorts, and a pair of Sk8-Hi Vans. “That was where I was born and raised. That’s the real house. And then my grandmother bought that house right there.” Butch’s love for his neighborhood and specifically the street that he grew up on radiates while he speaks and that pride has been consistently reinforced in his music throughout his decade-long career on the scene. One of the best demonstrations of that love came with 2018’s “Division St. Blues” which was featured on his breakout Swamp Boy project from the same year. On it, over beautiful piano play and thumping bass he mourns over both friends from the block that he’ll never get to see again and a neighborhood that’s gradually changing in front of his eyes every time he comes back around the way. “You ever like, grow up somewhere, and when you come back a lot of shit just like, buildings just be built in certain places that just wasn’t there before?” he asks, looking around, as we continue our stroll. “That’s one thing I’m afraid of, coming back here and the shit just looking totally different. It’s almost gon’ feel like I ain’t got nothing to come back to. You know what I’m saying? The home is not like a home no more.”
While the area that he was molded in during his youth continues to transform for better or worse, Butch Dawson also lays claim to the city’s only operating arts district — Central Baltimore’s Station North neighborhood. For the past decade it’s where he and his Basement Rap crew have established themselves as some of the district’s most consistent, visible, and respected artists. In the early half of the 2010’s, on any given weekend you could catch Butch and company throwing a show in the basement of the now-closed Bell Foundry warehouse space. That space is also where the crew produced Basement Rap Radio, a still-running monthly Soundcloud mix that features previously unheard tracks from artists throughout the Baltimore/DMV region as well as original comedic skits and commercials for products that don’t exist in real life. In more recent years you’d catch Butch headlining a show at spaces like The Crown or The Ottobar, where fans throughout the region come to jump around uncontrollably and recite his lyrics without missing a syllable. Being present in the alternative scene — which is what Station North is typically referred to as by Baltimore natives — has changed Butch’s perspective for the better and, in many ways, made him appreciate the part of the city he came from.
“Getting into that scene helped me evolve artistically because, you know, I was more open to different shit,” he says. “Living in a hood and shit all day, you can be close-minded a little bit if you don't go out and just see the world for yourself. So for me, just going out there and just seeing people soak all this music up, it allowed me to just open my mind creatively, and it made me become more like experimental with my music.”
Pre-Station North Butch Dawson was a teenager trying to find his footing in the Baltimore battle rap scene, but as he started to meet artists who were students and transplants, it gave him the agency to be more daring. The result was a delightful mashup of street smart lyricism joined with production elements (that he handles himself) of jazz, soul, and punk. Being able to add those dimensions to his toolbox not only gave him more confidence in his own artistic ability, but it made him attractive to people outside of the city. That’d probably explain why when an artist like JPEGMAFIA hit the Baltimore scene in 2015, he and Butch became instant collaborators (the two toured together in late 2019) and why Telfar Clemens — the designer with Maryland ties whose bags are breaking the internet on a weekly basis — has been using Butch as a muse for the past two years.
Now, as Baltimore’s artsy music scene continues to grow and produce more young acts like Baby Kahlo, Miss Kam, YTK, and others, Butch Dawson has become somewhat of a blueprint for how artists who still want to be true to the underground can maneuver through their careers. In 2020, he’s released a handful of loose tracks — one of the best being “Not to Corona,” a PSA on how to stay safe during quarantine — and has continued modeling for brands like Converse and Telfar. And though he’s still admittedly figuring it out, he is starting to see and embrace his changing role in the scene as one of its most seasoned creatives. “I definitely see my role change,” he says, now sitting on a chair in his grandmother’s backyard. “If I say something to some artists they really listen and that's when I know like, ‘Oh I guess I got some kind of like a responsibility.’ And that's dope for me. I just try to be there if people need advice I'm there to give it. You know what I'm saying, that's all I wanna do. I just wanna make sure niggas doing shit right.”