Lil Wil Takes Dallas Hip-Hop National

His shoulders are slumped, his eyelids are heavy, and his gait is deliberate. Lil Wil, dressed in all black, looks a tired man.

To his credit, the unassuming 21-year-old Dallas native, born Wil Martin, has been staying busy, working round the clock to promote his major label debut, Dolla$, TX, and help prepare its upcoming release on Tuesday.

That alone is quite the burden for a man who's never before been in this situation. But there's more on Wil's mind: writing and recording his follow-up full-length (currently slated for a September release); ghostwriting rhymes for other emcees; the constant travel. Wil's been in and out of town consistently over the past few months, performing gigs all around the Midwest and South to help get his name out to the masses. And that's just the half of it, Wil says.

Hell, he's even working on a cartoon.

"It's kind of like The Boondocks," he says matter-of-factly, as if that alone isn't mind-boggling enough. He shrugs: "I like The Boondocks."

So, deservedly, when he finally slides into a booth near the back of the Ice House on Commerce Street—"the chill spot," as he calls it—and gets the chance to just sit and talk, he lets out a deep breath.

"Everything's been crazy," he says. Finally, a smile creeps onto his face. "I'm just embracing it all. It's exciting—exciting every day, man. Every day there's something to do, so I love it. It's something different."

Different for him, a young man who, just a year ago, dreamed of having his music videos played on BET and has already, in a short amount of time, seen that come to fruition. But it's a far cry from the norm for the rest of Dallas too. Apologies to Vanilla Ice and The DOC, neither of whom ever really repped Dallas to the fullest, but the Dallas area has never been hailed as a hip-hop hot spot—at least not to the extent that Houston, Atlanta and the other major cities in the South have.

And yet now, some 30 years after the birth of the hip-hop genre, Dallas is starting to make its move into the spotlight. Local emcees dominate the request lines on the urban stations around the city: There's Fat Pimp, recently signed to Warner Brothers; Lil Shine, a labelmate of Lil Wil's at Asylum Records; Trap Starz Clik, whose "Get It Big" might be the catchiest song of the bunch; and plenty of others bubbling up by the day.

And, yes, there's Lil Wil, too, whose smash single "My Dougie" boasts an all-ages-friendly hook and mass appeal. He proudly stands at the forefront of a scene in a time that could potentially become the Golden Age for Dallas hip-hop.

The wheels have already been set in motion. For the past year or so, "My Dougie" has been a permanent fixture in the nightclub circuit and on local radio. And it's not like it's just another filler track for DJs to spin between the crowd pleasers, either; "My Dougie"—a tribute to looking fresh and fly a la Doug E. Fresh (hence "dougie")—is the crowd pleaser, not to mention a dance craze in which listeners fix the hair around their ears in time with the simplistic synth-heavy beat of the track. The 1.5 million YouTube hits for the video, which, yes, includes a cameo of Doug E. Fresh doing the Dougie dance on top of a car in Oak Cliff, proves as much. So do the radio plays.

The success Wil and his song have achieved have turned the man into something of a numbers freak. Without prodding, he drops lots of figures like some sort of hip-hop Rain Man: How many spins "My Dougie" earned in Shreveport, Louisiana, two weeks ago; how many times its been played in Honolulu; how many times MTV Jams has been playing his video over the past seven days. He never so much as pauses to run them in his head first. It's information that constantly sits on his tongue, waiting to be dispensed.

"And it's just getting started," he says excitedly. "I'm about to drop my second single—some stations are already playing it, so I've got two jams on the radio."

Wil would be lying if he said the success hasn't changed him. Once a troubled teen in North Dallas, Wil found hip-hop when his mother shipped him off to Atlanta to live with his father and set his life straight. There he discovered the Atlanta-based artists (T.I., Cee-Lo Green, Andre 3000) he proudly considers his influences to this day. And upon his return to Dallas a few years back, hip-hop remained his main focus, his goal. He's proud to say the hard work has paid off—both for himself and for his counterparts in the local scene.

"Man..." Wil says, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief. "A lot of cats is getting looked at. A lot, a lot of cats."

Yes, Wil takes a fair share of credit for it all; one thing he's certainly not lacking is confidence. "Every day I wake up I got something to rap about," he says. "Just me waking up is something to rap about. As long as I'm living, I got something to rap about. Yeah, it's a problem," he says before pausing, chuckling and continuing on. "For all the competition."

Not, though, for Dallas artists. They're just gonna reap the benefits of his success, he says.

"I really, really, really believe that," Wil explains. "And I can tell you this. When we get on? We're gonna be on for a minute, man. Because Dallas is so big. This hip-hop thing in Dallas—at a point in time, it was like crabs in a bucket; ain't nobody getting big and ain't nobody making it. That caused people to separate and get strong independently, like these people over here have strong teams and then these people over here have a strong team. The support system just kicked in in like the past two years. We're all supporting each other. It's easier than ever. We're past any [beefs], man. It's 2008. It's about getting that money.

"And we finally got that support system, and we're finally supporting each other, so after all these years, it's like ridiculous. We've been waiting so long and been grinding so hard to get on. And now that we've got their eyes, you can be sure we're gonna keep their eyes."

The tired look on his face and in his posture are long gone. He gets excited when he talks about this city's hip-hop future. After all, Dallas becoming a prominent player in the national hip-hop scene just makes sense.

Hip-hop loves money.

Dallas loves money.

He can't understand how no one else ever figured pairing the two before. Whereas rappers from other cities boast their nice cars and jewelry, Dallas has them all topped—here, people know where to invest their cash. "Here, it's like, 'Come look at my house!'" he says.

Hence the name of his record: Dolla$, TX.

"The name says it all. It's 2008. Get money and push the bullshit to the side. We're already running with it. We just finally got the big picture."

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Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman