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Battle-Tested and Raw Life Approved

Philly Rapper Rone releases his debut album The First Story

The fact that Rone is a white dude, is a product of a Catholic high school and a graduate of Penn State is not the story here. It could be; it could easily be. But it’s not. You can try, but it’s just not. The story of Rone is the story of another promising young rapper from Philadelphia and how with the release of his debut album, the First Story, this up and coming, free-wheeling wordsmith is poised to take his battle-tested skills (literally) to the national stage.

That’s the story here.

And this is The First Story, Rone’s debut album on Raw Life, the Philly-based label run by Dice Raw, the Roots associate and Philly rap legend. The First Story is a tight and well-crafted display of everything Rone can bring to the table- crafty and witty lyrics, a rat-a-tat flow and a burn it down bravado. Rone has made his footprint in the constantly wet cement that is hip hop with the countless YouTube videos of his rap battle exploits, but The First Story is his quest at legitimacy. Rone is serious. Rone is all business. Rone is a funny son of a bitch.

Proof, in the form of some of his best lines from past rap battles:
“I’m my Grandmom’s favorite grandson. Ask my Grandmom.”
“Another white kid who wants to be a black one. He probably used to ask questions, now he ax ‘em.”
“If you were any more laid back you’d be horizontal.”
“How can I do more white things than a mother fucking Viking?”
“Son even cheerleaders get Super Bowl rings.”

Rone is a young buck, born and raised in Philly. In college, amidst the rolling hills of State College, PA and the free time and time to kill that comes with college-living, Rone started rapping- getting drunk with buddies and recording freestyles on Garage Band. He discovered rap battles on YouTube and became obsessed. The dynamic of the rap battle and the skill and stage presence required to win one appealed to Rone and soon he was dabbling in as many as he could find, quickly earning a reputation as a dude to reckon with. Upon graduation, he brought that reputation with him back across the state to Philadelphia and through a mutual friend met up with Dice, who was immediately impressed by the clever, young rapper.

“Apparently in the meeting I was charming enough to warrant a little test songwriting session with a producer of theirs,” Rone says. The producer was Rick Friedrich, the man behind the Philadelphia Record Company and Bold New Breed Records, a prodigy of legendary producer Larry Gold, and a producer who has done work with the Roots, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Rhianna and more. The first song they cut was “Giving My Love,” which appears on The First Story.

“I thought of the hook as I was driving up to the building,” Rone says. “Sang it to Rick. He crafted a song around it while I wrote my verses. When I finished thirty minutes later, Dice told me to re-write my verses. I hadn’t planned to sing or rap, but they just told me to go in and do whatever. After fucking up one or two times I nailed the verse and the people in the other room were blown away. There was kind of a collective look on everyone’s faces- that we’ve got something here look.”

What did they have?

They had a dude who would do anything and say anything. Who was willing to put in the work and take his career beyond all the rap battles and YouTube videos that followed. Rone was signed to Raw Life and earlier this year, had two songs featured on the label’s compilation The New School Presents: What’s Next. Both of those tunes appear on The First Story, one of which is the prime-to-be-a-summer jam “200 Miles to Philadelphia,” which was produced by another up and coming Philly producer, Ritz Reynolds, who has worked with rappers Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, in addition to being part of the brain trust behind the Philly band, Drgn King.

When it came to The First Story, patience was the name of the game and it was a lengthy process. Ultimately though it was a process Rone was cool with, as that first step is the most important. The majority of the album was recorded at Gold’s studio, in the Roots’ room there and over at Freidrich’s house. Rone found a kindred spirit in Freidrich as the two built most of the songs from scratch.

“I would just think of a hook in my head, just a plan old acapella hook and I would take it to Rick. We’d burn a little weed into our lungs and I would beat out a tempo on my chest or a table and sing the hook,” Rone says. “He’d (Friedrich) get the metronome, record what I did, then craft a beat around it. The songs would grow and get chiseled down until we had a product with which we were happy.”

For a debut, there is a focus and drive on The First Story that is often absent on such albums. I was initially drawn to Rone because of his command of his lyrics and the head strong determination and swagger in his flow. It was reassuring to find all of that intact with The First Story, an album that is brimming with some honest to goodness quality hip hop tunes. Besides the previously mentioned “200 Miles to Philadelphia” and “Giving My Love,” other highlights are “I Woke Up,” “Roadrunner” featuring Ricky Radio and the block party jammer “Come Home to Me.” Dice Raw shows up on the first track, “Against the Wall,” which was another Ritz Reynolds’ production.

Now what do the folks at Raw Life have?

They have Rone, a dude described as a “funny mother fucker” by Drew Daniels of Tsunami Rising and a dude who is undaunted by the “white rapper” label destined to be bestowed upon him.

“I’d be lying if I said there is no stigma attached (to being a white rapper,) but it’s definitely faded some. Look where we are. There are so many successful white rappers that if it is surprising you right now, then you are just truly out of touch with reality. Sure there might be instances where people are reticent to give me a chance because I am white, but that has forced me to have a high standard for myself and has encouraged me to step up every aspect of my game. It can even help in some cases…I get the White Men Can’t Jump wow-factor when I go up there, looking white as shit and then just tear it down.”

Clearly not lacking motivation and definitely not lacking skill, Rone is a man on a mission and a man looking to make the most of his talents- his side-splitting, thought-inducing and groove-ready talents. Not resting now that The First Story has been released, his plans for the summer are to promote it non-stop, play some shows, get into some rap battles and release a mix tape.

But wait, didn’t Rone also play the Roots Picnic?

“Nah, I went bowling instead.”

Rone’s going to pick his spots, which is cool. Spots won’t be a problem. But come on, sometimes getting a lane is.

Rone is not lacking street smarts, especially when it comes to bowling.

The First Story is out now and available on I Tunes. It hit #29 on the hip hop charts earlier this week.

Rone plays Milkboy in Philadelphia on Saturday June 23rd with Don McCloskey. For ticket and show information, check out Milkboy’s site.

front page photos by Rick Friedrich. photos on this page by Christos Karabelas

Enter The Drgn King

Dominic Angelella fiddles with a twelve string electric guitar. Ritz Reynolds puts on a jean jacket. This is happening at their studio- located in an unassuming and gritty building in South Philly, in between Mummer Town and the Delaware River. Outside there are people pushing grocery carts and dudes working on motorcycles. This is the home of Drgn King.

Drgn King- spelled that way for a reason. Maybe a couple reasons depending on how long the conversation lasts. Google “dragon king” and a sugar rush of sites devoted to Dragonball Z and ancient Chinese myths appear. Google “Drgn King” and Angelella and Reynolds appear- one with long hair, one with short and collectively with funky tunes. One is from the suburbs of Philly, one is from down Baltimore way. Old news though, because now it’s all about Pennsport, Google searches, homemade music videos and Drgn King.

The sound of Drgn King:
“Brian Eno and the RZA hanging out,” Angelella says. Reynolds nods in agreement.

Drgn King- they recently expanded to four members with the addition of bassist of Julie Slick, who according to Angelella is “the illest bass player in the city” and drummer Joe Baldacci. Angelella plays guitar, keyboards and sings while Reynolds does the producing.

Drgn King: music videos inspired by the Beastie Boys, live shows inspired by the Flaming Lips, musical upbringing inspired by the Roots.

Ritz Reynolds is a busy man. He is not just one of the dudes behind Drgn King, but also a sought after freelance music producer who has done work with the Roots, Black Thought, Mac Miller and more. Reynolds is the Philly native of Drgn King, having grown up in the lush, tree-lined streets of Ardmore and learning about music from his big brother; everything from Wu Tang Clan to Nine Inch Nails and eventually the Roots. It was all about the Roots for Reynolds and was a dream to work with the Philly legends some day. It was, as time progressed, a pleasure to work with the Philly legends, which he’s been doing since their album, Rising Down and has continued to do so up through their most recent release, undun. He bounces back and forth between Los Angeles and Philadelphia. He promises to make those Drgn King live shows if he can.

Drgn King- a good drunk conversation helped get things started.

At the Piazza in Northern Liberties a few years back, Angelella told Reynolds he wanted to rap for him. Both had known each other from traveling in similar circles and jamming with similar people- people like Dice Raw and Nickie Jean. But at first glance the pairing was an odd one- the rock n roller Angelella and the hip hopper Reynolds.

Angelella is the one from Baltimore and the one who came to Philadelphia to attend University of the Arts. Upon arrival, he got out there; determined to play as much music as possible- a sideman, a solo act, a member of multiple bands, bands with amazing names like Elevator Fight. In those first couple years, Angelella got around.

“I tried to play with everybody,” he says, “just to figure that (what kind of music he wanted to play) out.”

After that conversation at the Piazza, Drgn King hunkered down in Reynolds’s studio- recording music. There are live shows once or twice a month, but for the most part, Drgn King is a science experiment and Angelella and Reynolds are the mad lab coats behind it. Their debut album is done; it’s in the can. It’s mastered and everything. Drgn King are sitting on it though, currently trying to figure out how to release it. A handful of songs from it are out there, released via the band’s Bandcamp page and one or two, accompanied by music videos. The most popular one so far is “Holy Ghost,” directed by David King, and was released late last summer. The tune Reynolds admits, “is a very likable jam” and the video features Angelella and Reynolds walking the city streets, joined by friends and passer-bys. All that is missing is a fish eye lense, but the Beastie Boys’ influence is clear.

“Those Beastie Boys’ videos,” Angelella says, “were the best thing ever when I was in high school, middle school.” He is the proud owner of the Beastie Boys Criteria Collection, a DVD of all of the band’s music videos.

Also in the Drgn King pipeline is an EP of covers, which may or not include a D’Angelo tune, and a hip hop influenced mix tape. The mix tape raised an initial concern for Angelella, who worried that it might throw fans off; fans who may have been introduced to Drgn King through the “Holy Ghost” video. Reynolds was unfazed though. It was what Drgn King was about- this desire to be unattached to any particular genre and do what they wanted. Drgn King was about making their musical style a musical style all of its own. There would be big drums, but there would be pop. There would be some hip hop, but there would be some rock. At times, it may even sound like a good old fashioned Spaghetti Western.

There would be Drgn King.

There is a live show that may also include a projector or a television; the presence of a visual element. For Drgn King, the live show should be an experience. It should be experienced by the audience in a way that they are involved; be made part of the show, but not through sing-a-longs or clapping in unison.

“Being so fucking on,” Angelella says of the crowd, “so excited about being there.”

There is a Reynolds sighting, carrying a briefcase containing only a tambourine at Johnny Brenda’s.

There is another appearance by the Philly rapper, Asaad, who both members of Drgn King believe is the best young rapper in town.

There is Drgn King, not a Chinese myth, a Chinese restaurant or a Chinese, crazy cartoon.

It is Drgn King, original rock music from down South Philly way.

photos by Anthony Farlow and Don King.