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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

D. Ellzey’s Hip-Hop for Grown-Ups

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D. Ellzey knows he isn’t the only 30-something rapper, but sometimes it can feel that way.

“A lot of rappers my age may have a family, business interests, a whole life outside of rap, but for some reason when they enter the rap realm, they don’t express those sides of themselves,” the Milwaukee rapper says. “They dumb it down, taking one part of themselves and exaggerating it. We all have a child inside of us, a playful side to us, but they exaggerate it and become a characterization of themselves. They don’t infuse their serious side into their music, too.”

A 34-year-old husband and father of four, Ellzey says that if there’s a theme to his new album, A Shift in the Wind, “it’s that it’s a man rapping like a man.”

“I’m a grown man, and I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Ellzey says. “A lot of rappers shy away from that. They don’t want to put themselves out there. But if you want listeners to relate to you, you need to rap honestly about what you’re going through, so I’m going to talk about all of my flaws, all of my strengths, so at the end of the album you feel like you really know me.”

A Shift in the Wind is Ellzey’s first since his last group, Black Elephant, went on hiatus in 2007.

“I didn’t have a lot of money, so I took my time recording it,” he says. “Especially coming off of Black Elephant and all the success we had, I wanted to make sure my first album was well thought out and cohesive.”

That meant whittling down the usual grab bag of collaborators that many solo rappers use to just a handful. Ellzey, who prefers to perform with a live band instead of a DJ, worked closely with producers Reason, S7Nlee and Edward Cayce to craft the soulful, live sound he envisioned, for a record that evokes The Roots in its fusion of hip-hop and neo-soul.

Black Elephant was one of the most prominent Milwaukee rap acts of the last decade, earning press from The Source and emerging as a popular (and profitable) touring act, but Ellzey doesn’t talk about recreating that success.

“It takes a certain amount of energy and drive to keep a career moving like that,” he says. “And I had that, but these days I think my energies are better spent elsewhere.”

Instead, he’s become the mentor of sorts to the mostly 20-something rappers in the Umbrella Music Group, a loose collective that contains some of Milwaukee’s fastest-rising talent, including Prophetic, who has attracted significant industry attention.

“Because of my experience in Black Elephant, they were asking me questions about what they could do to make it in music,” Ellzey says. “I told them they’ve got to develop a system, and carry themselves professionally and carry themselves like adults. It’s been working for them. The industry has responded to their professionalism.

“A lot of these young guys call me ‘big bro,’ and I appreciate that,” Ellzey continues. “They look up to me, and I understand my window is closing while their window is wide open, and I want to get them in. I don’t want them to be in The Source when they’re 30 like I was. I want them to be in The Source when they’re 24.”

D. Ellzey plays a release show for A Shift in the Wind at the Stonefly Brewery on Saturday, May 15. The $5 cover includes a free download of the album.