Denzel Williams is a nerd.
You can't tell just by looking at him — he doesn't wear glasses taped at the bridge of the nose or Urkel pants. The 26-year-old rapper and producer, who goes by the name D/Will, dresses fresh in tilted hats, crisp polos and bright Nike SBs.
But he approaches music with the kind of devout seriousness usually reserved for, say, a theologian contemplating transubstantiation. The dude is emphatically not messing around.
Locals in the hip-hop scene know it, which is why, for the past year, up-and-comers and vets on the mic have been clamoring for Williams' beats. It's also why people are excited for his soon-to-be-released mixtape, Heir of Abraham, and debut solo album, Battery Effect.
Producer and DJ Andrew Rayl, who goes by the alias Beatbroker, mixed Heir of Abraham in the recording studio, making it flow seamlessly from one track to the next. "He's absolutely going places," Rayl writes by e-mail of his friend. "He's got serious skills and an insane level of drive and self-motivation. I mean, it's routine for this dude to crank out upwards of four or five serious beats a day."
Williams has always had drive, but he wasn't always known for his music. He grew up in North Kansas City and attended North Kansas City High School, where he was a track star and excelled at the pole vault and the high jump.
After high school, he studied psychology at Park University. Checking out the whole spectrum of psychological fucked-upedness probably made Williams feel awfully well-adjusted. He has a great family to thank for that.
"My pops, I can remember being like 15, and he told me that I was raised with a silver spoon and to make it platinum," Williams says. "To make it gold. Like, 'I put you on a high level, and I need you to exceed past that, as though you were at the bottom.' I've been built with the mentality of 'I have nothing,' but essentially, I've done really well, and they [my parents] worked really hard."
While at Park, Williams ventured into music armed with a Casio keyboard given to him by a woman at his church. He started recording beats on an MPC (music production center), a cousin of the drum machine with the ability to record, sample and loop sounds.
"The module is a complete, open box, and you put all the sounds into it," he says of his Akai MPC 2KXL.
Williams invited friends over to listen to his first, rudimentary beats. He got surprisingly good reviews, so he kept experimenting.
In college, Williams approached beatmaking the way he approached running track: through rigorous conditioning. While working part time at the community center in his neighborhood, he noticed a guy with a tattoo of an MPC who worked out there frequently. The guy was local producer Joe Simon, known as Simon Says. They started talking about music, and eventually Simon invited Williams to check out his home studio — which turned out to be considerably more high-tech than Williams' Akai.
"I went over to his house after work every night, or before work, probably for a good eight months," Williams says. "He let me watch, and he talked to me about whatever he was doing, and I just sat back. I took notes like it was class. Like, nerd-style, pen out, writing down stuff."
When Williams thought his own beats were ready, he started handing them out to MCs for free. But not everyone was a fan.
Some Park University classmates thought Williams was stuck-up. He acknowledges that the way he walked around campus — his headphones on, deep in thought — probably made him come off aloof. Some told Williams that his brand of hip-hop wasn't valid. They were fans of artists who rapped about sex, drugs and cash. Williams' soul loops and hard drums, a throwback to hip-hop of an earlier era, didn't sound like the stuff on the radio. And the idea of a rapper or a producer coming from a loving, two-parent household didn't fit the mold.
"I don't know if they just started hating or what, but I got a lot of nigger-isms about not being 'hood' or whatever," Williams says. "So, yeah, I got a lot of very bad looks and people thinking I'm thinking I'm better than I was. And it wasn't true. I was just on something else, you know?"
The frustration that came from those experiences manifested itself in a song called "Childhood." The chorus goes, I had a good childhood, now they want to take my black away/You see I ain't from the hood, now they want to take my rap away. That song appears on Battery Effect, due out August 16.
D/Will's beats are multilayered — he calls the sound "thick" — with horns, old-style breaks and soul vocals. Heir of Abraham showcases his production skills and features the artists with whom he thinks he's done the best work this year. It includes tracks by a few out-of-towners, including an MC from New York City who goes by Outasight; a rapper named L.E.G.A.C.Y. from the nationally known Hall of Justus Music Group; and Williams' longtime friend and collaborator CN-N.
Williams will be at Hip Hop and Hot Wings at the Peanut downtown (418 West Ninth Street) Sunday, June 29, to sell copies of Heir for $5. A code on the inside flap contains a link for a Web site with extra songs from C.E.S. Cru, Lucid, the Soul Servers and two D/Will beats. Williams says of the finished disc, "The way that Beatbroker mixed it added a completely different element with cutting and blending and scratching — it sounds ridiculous."
And nerds don't lie.