SmCity’s Confident Gambit Into Hip-Hop’s ‘Critical Years’

By Joe Warminsky

"Artist development doesn’t really exist in the industry anymore," SmCity says.
"Artist development doesn’t really exist in the industry anymore," SmCity says. Mary Miller

“I apologize for my lateness/Finalizin’ my greatness” raps Simeon “SmCity” Booker during “Cinematic Moment,” one of the centerpiece tracks on Empire Falls, a new album that, one way or another, will represent a fresh phase for the Northeast D.C. resident.

At age 29, SmCity is about to enter what is typically a make-or-break decade for a lot of rappers, especially those known for long indie careers and dreams of big-time exposure. Empire Falls, with its smartly programmed tracklist and pre-release surge of videos and leaked songs, intends to bump the MC’s career up multiple levels. He freely acknowledges that age is playing against him.

“That’s definitely on my mind. I can remember being 22, 23 — and I feel like that time has just disappeared. And I felt like I was ready then. But when I look at myself and what I can do now, maybe I wasn’t,” he says. “Or maybe I was supposed to go through all of this — it just wasn’t my time, you know? We’ve got to be realistic, man. There’s not too many 35-year-old rappers that is coming out. It’s cool to be in the game at that age, but not starting off, you know, really just breaking in. So, we’re getting to those critical years now.”

Empire Falls, released on SmCity’s own Twenty20 Music label, is hardly an act of desperation, though. In an era of too-long mixtapes, the album has the end-to-end commercial punch and easy-to-digest sociopolitical threads of a Golden Era best-seller. SmCity says he spent much of the last two years corralling the beats, culled mostly from brand-name producers with boom-bap tendencies, including New Jersey’s !llmind (“Homeland,” “Cinematic Moment“), Massachusetts’ Statik Selektah (“New Spiritual“), Atlanta legend DJ Toomp (“MIA”) and Brooklyn’s Harry Fraud (“Riding Off in the Sunset“).

He sees those sonic goods as a way of ensuring that the messages — there are nods to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, Chuck D and Muhammad Ali — find their way to all kinds of listeners.

“I just try to find a balance. Sometimes if you go too hard in one direction, you turn certain people off,” he says. “Jazzy Jeff said something to me one time: He said music is one of the few genres where people are trying to make music for everybody, you know, they’re not just trying to make music for one particular group. He said it in a negative way — and I’m the perfect example of that, whether you look at it in a good way or not. But I definitely want to make [music] so it can be widely accepted.”

One thing is noticeably absent from the title Empire Falls: the signature phrase “Indie Life,” which SmCity applied to almost everything he touched — notably a concert series and a 2011 album — while coming up with other DMV hip-hop artists over the last decade. (Collaborators have included Oddisee, Phil Adé, Pro’Verb, Kokayi, Uptown XO and the producer Judah.) The indie spirit is still strong, he says, but it’s time to expand outward.

“I was a little bitter for a minute about certain periods of my life where people sold me dreams, or wasted my time, and I kind of felt like, they wasted some of my great, creative, youthful, energetic years, you know?” he says. “But in retrospect now, everything really happened exactly how it was for me to be the man I am and the artist I am today. Artist development doesn’t really exist in the industry anymore. But my last eight to 10 years was my artist development.”

He says he feels freer than ever to jump subgenres. The videos for “New Spiritual” (a soulful track meets a 9-to-5 theme) and “Cinematic Moment” (an of-the-moment club banger meets a striking, booty-shaking tattooed model) couldn’t be more different, for example.

“I had a couple family members that were surprised about the ‘Cinematic Moment’ video … and I’m just sitting there, thinking, ‘That’s my fault for just putting out one type of [music video], because that’s so not what I’m about,'” he says. “If you’ve ever listened to the projects, every one of them has been multitiered like that. … I don’t want to be just one-dimensional.”