Flat Out with DDM
© Shan Wallace
The West Baltimore native talks about the journey through multiple local rap scenes over the years, and his new album, "The Ballad of Omar."
There’s likely not another rapper in Baltimore who has participated in more local music scenes and eras as DDM. When he got his start in the early 2000s, he frequented spots like 5 Seasons in the city’s downtown to make his name by battling peers — the way most Baltimore rappers “got on” at that time. In the early 2010s, he was a fixture in the eccentric rap-meets-fashion scene, where colorful Kanye-inspired fits were the uniform. And over the past decade, DDM has been a key figure in Central Baltimore’s DIY scene where rap, punk, alternative, and everything in between congregate. His music — more experimental and free flowing in approach — during this time has reflected that convergence.
“The Baltimore rap scene when I first started was white tees, Air Force 1s, Girbaud jeans, ‘Get out my face. I might rob you.’ Okay?” he recollects, perched on a reddish-orange throne-like chair, in a small park across the street from his apartment. “It was very fragmented.” Where we sit — luckily — is protected by shade, enough to distract us from the unforgiving summer sun. DDM is draped in a fishnet cardigan, a disco ball-looking durag and a black tee that has an animated character on it that looks like it should be on Adult Swim. His nails are long and painted with (glow-in-the-dark, he notes) purples and pinks. Right before we met, he was at a two-hour appointment getting them freshly done for our photoshoot.
In recent months he’s been promoting his new album, “The Ballad of Omar,” which was released independently in May. It makes a strong case for being the Park Heights, West Baltimore native’s most complete project, and that’s because of how personal it gets. Its title is inspired by Michael K. Williams’s widely-lauded portrayal of Omar in “The Wire”: an openly-gay man raised in West Baltimore who sent waves of fear through people just by his mere presence and the reputation he had as a gun-brandishing stick up man. DDM saw himself in Omar and flipped the story to be based around his own coming-of-age on the same side of town through eight tracks. There’s “Boys Don’t Cry” which delves into his relationship with his father, who taught him (like many of our fathers are conditioned to) vulnerability was a weakness. At the song’s end is a skit where his mother berates him for wearing a dress. On “Ova West” he makes it clear that he knows he’s better than most and takes jabs at people who, in the past, were aware of his skillset but wouldn’t acknowledge it: “You be’s in the trap, but never could find a buzz.” The album’s closing track, “The Ballad of Dontay,” feels like the making of a film that needs to be brought to life.
Starting with mournful horn play and an incoming jail call, the song outlines a romantic relationship that started during DDM’s teenage years with an older street dude in his neighborhood. He raps, “The nigga that I’m in love with couldn’t let it show / It’s like I’m losing my drive, I think I need a tow. Fuck it, you make me push the envelope / I don’t really do love songs but this is what I wrote” at the song’s start before going into the feelings associated with never-discussed, but mutually-understood love and how it’s progressed into an unbreakable bond, regardless of romance. Songs like “The Ballad of Dontay” demonstrate why the album was such a long time in the making for DDM, who first announced it somewhere around five years ago. It goes so deep into DDM’s experiences that you can live through them while listening.
“You must evolve with the times,” he says of Omar and other recent projects of his like 2019s pop-leaning “Beautiful Gowns.” “That’s what I loved about Kanye West. Every album was a different bitch. And with me, I create like a fashion designer. So once I find my muse, I start weaving the tale around that. 'Beautiful Gowns' was inspired by pop, fun, and being a global citizen. 'The Ballad of Omar' was inspired by West Baltimore in the '90s. So each look has to cater itself to the story that I’m tryna tell.”
Hearing that approach articulated is a key factor in why DDM is still one of Baltimore’s most captivating artists to engage with. He’s not phased by flavors of the month and as he ages and gains more experience, he constantly grows instead of operating in a repetitive hamster wheel-like fashion. And that’s not just an assessment that onlookers have about him, it’s something that he recognizes in himself. “It’s easy to do it now when it’s new and fresh,” he says, thinking of his younger peers. His posture is more upright now in his chair. “But when you 10 years in, you done had false starts and stops. People done told you everything from ‘You’re too fat’ to ‘You’re too Black’ to ‘You’re too gay,’ that’s when you find out if you love it.” The topic changes the mood of our conversation. Not for better or worse, but in the moment, DDM’s passion for the subject of perseverance is refreshingly resonant.
“When you start going to weddings every six months, when you have to make appointments to see your friends, and you find yourself 10 years later in the club with kids who were 10 when you were 20,” he continues. “That’s when you find out if you really love it or not. And that’s how I realized I love this. I’ma die making records. I don’t care if I sell 10 of ‘em. It’s always gonna be a production. I’m always gonna do a show. I don’t give a fuck if we wrinkled in this bitch.”