When he and Sneaker Man Dan were selling shoes, Wale would sometimes rap at the front of the store. “Everybody knew me and Dan,” he says. “We sold sneakers to every dope boy in northern PG County and MoCo. We were the ones dictating fashion for two years in that store.” Legend has it that during his 90-day trial period at the store, Dan never wore the same sneakers twice.
Wale had talent, but without the help of DJ Alizay, a former host on WKYS 93.9, his voice may never have been heard on the radio. Alizay, whose real name is Isaiah Johnson, was the hottest deejay in the area in 2003, and he shopped at Prince George’s Plaza—a lot.
The first time Wale approached him, Alizay shook his hand, but he never played the CD Wale handed him. Wale honed his approach.
“I have to be fresh every time I see this dude,” he recalls thinking. “He has to know I’m the flyest rapper in DC.”
The next time Wale gave Alizay a CD, the deejay listened to it. “He was just different than everybody else,” Alizay says.
Soon Wale’s voice was on the radio. Alizay took him to parties and handed him the mike, “to get his confidence up,” he says. He trained his protégé, just four years his junior, like a prizefighter, and signed Wale to a management contract in 2004.
But management didn’t suit Alizay, and the two ended their business relationship, with Daniel Weisman, who was based in Beverly Hills, stepping in as Wale’s manager in 2006.
Weisman sent Mark Ronson, a British-born producer and New York deejay, Wale’s single “Good Girls.” “I remember playing it and saying, ‘This shit is f---ing dope,’ ” Ronson says. “And saying on the radio, ‘I don’t know who the hell this is, but we’re going to keep playing it.’ ”
Ronson invited Wale to tour with him around Europe in the summer of 2007, and they played before huge crowds at the Glastonbury Festival in England.
Wale signed with Interscope Records and performed on MTV’s Video Music Awards. Wale and Ronson worked together on his first album, Attention Deficit, which was to be released in 2009. Stardom seemed just around the corner.
Almost as soon as it got going, however, Wale’s career stalled. The album’s first single, “Chillin,” which featured Lady Gaga, didn’t make the splash they’d expected. “Putting that out as his first single was a mistake,” Weisman says. “It was too pop for him, and it wasn’t pop enough for pop music. It was confusing.”
When the full album came out, critics panned it and Interscope dropped Wale. Weisman and Wale parted ways.
“People were questioning whether he was capable of coming back,” Shari Bryant says. “It doesn’t happen a lot in rap.”
• • •
One night in April, Wale asks a sold-out crowd at the National in Richmond, “Tell me where y’all from?”
The audience erupts. It’s classic hometown call and response, a line borrowed from go-go legends James “Funk” Thomas and Rare Essence.
Wale shows his roots in other ways, too—he often rocks a huge gold Redskins chain and a Nationals hat, and he touts DC in nearly every song. He owns a house in Bowie and splits his time between there and Atlanta.
But Wale’s hometown doesn’t always love him back.
“DC’s a tough place to get love, unless you’re from DC,” he said in a radio interview. “It’s like everybody hates you here. The only black person that everyone can agree on is Obama.”
A constant theme among his detractors is that because he spent much of his childhood in Maryland, he’s not really from DC. Wale says the criticism comes along with being the first guy from the area to make it as a major hip-hop artist.
His aim is to become a legend, like his idol, Jay-Z. “Before, I was trying to get in the door,” he says. “Now it’s like, ‘I’m here. I’m among hip-hop’s elite.’ ”
Some of the friends and early supporters who helped him get through that door are still around. But DJ Alizay is notably absent; they haven’t seen each other in five years.
These days, Alizay plays clubs and hosts an Internet radio show. He says he’s tried to reach out to Wale and doesn’t understand why their friendship ended when their business relationship did.
Wale can’t explain it, either. He credits Alizay with giving him his start but says it’s just the reality of success. “Sometimes people don’t understand your vision, and they think it’s supposed to go a certain way,” he says. “Sometimes people may not have the patience. Or you don’t understand each other as you get older.”
Alizay has watched Wale’s career with pride. But he still thinks about what they could have been. They were, he says, supposed to be like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, traveling the world together.
“I’m happy for him,” Alizay says, adding that he wishes Wale the best with his new album: “I can’t wait to hear it.”
• • •
A few weeks after the Richmond concert, Wale walks into a recording studio in New York trailed by employees and friends. It’s been a long day—photo shoot, meeting with executives at Atlantic Records, recording sessions.
“I need coffee—black,” Wale tells a runner before taking a seat with Black Cobain, a rapper from Virginia. The engineer cuts on a song they’ve recently recorded. The chorus kicks in over a thumping drum beat: “Shout out to my f---ing favorite stripper.”
Wale listens for a moment, then ad-libs, crooning “la, la, la” to the chorus. Soon he’s dancing, entranced by the drums. The smell of marijuana wafts through the studio, and Wale helps himself to a hit. The group discusses whether this should be a song for the album or a single released to the clubs later on.
Later, Wale and his staff will go to Brooklyn for an interview to promote the album. Then they’ll head to another studio around 11, where they’ll work with Rick Ross until 3 in the morning.
“We know it’s time to deliver,” Sneaker Man Dan says. “Third one’s the charm.”
Wale believes in the new work, but he’s anxiously awaiting the response from fans. “As much as I don’t want to admit it, my fans are the only ones that can hurt my feelings when they’re not pleased with what I’m presenting,” he says. “I want it to be perfect for them. I want them to have a different sense of pride in my music.”
And what if he misses?
Edward G. Robinson III (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about the Wizards’ John Wall in March.
This article appears in the July 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.