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Abe Beame keeps getting the wrong emails.

The Follow is an interview series I plan on putting out occasionally, or frequently, or maybe never again, in which I basically just talk to the people I enjoy following online who are willing to talk to me for a while. It will be about what they come to Twitter for, how they cultivate their online personas, the things they feel passionate enough to contribute to the infinite discourse on this app, and why they feel the need to do it. And on a basic level, it will be two people fucking around on Zoom and shooting the shit. 

As the number of media outlets around the country dwindle,, and the jobs leave with them, the American music scene faces a crisis of information. Without local critics covering arts and culture, how will we continue to discover new artists and their music in a national media market where even the New York Times has greatly reduced their footprint?

Lawrence Burney presents a solution. He is from Baltimore, Maryland and covers the music coming out of the mid Atlantic corridor known as the DMV, or D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. For the last ten years, Burney has been the DMV’s most prominent advocate with his independent culture magazine True Laurels. He has made a name for himself with his tireless reporting and championing of the artists from his part of the country both for national culture sites like The Fader and Pitchfork, and small local rags like the Washington Post (he also currently has a joint residency through the Enoch Pratt Central Library and the Parkway Theater in Baltimore, run by the Maryland Film Festival. He’s developing programming for both).

His Twitter account is a great resource for Baltimore culture, and not just music. He’s a guardian of authentic Baltimore cuisine, and all things crab, and has become one of my favorite food critics. I had to talk to Lawrence about his project, proselytizing the gospel of his city, and why you’re probably fucking up your crab cakes.
 – Abe Beame

(Author’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)

As far as I’m aware, you’re the most prominent national voice following the DMV’s music scene, rap and R&B specifically. For you, how did the focus come about? Was it immediately apparent that with True Laurels you were going to be focusing on a smaller scene, or did it kind of evolve naturally?

Lawrence Burney: I would say that to start- True Laurels always had emphasis on Baltimore specifically. But I always tapped into national and international coverage. True Laurels was really just my outlet. I started it at the end of 2011, I wasn’t as consistent with it at that time. The blog at that time, I was covering local things, I did have my cousin Ryan that had a blog called A Baltimore Love Thing who was an inspiration, but he was covering more “conventional hip hop”, for lack of a better term. He loved real hip hop, so that was his focus.

I grew up on club music, which is a Baltimore thing. So I focused on club music. I focused on the real hip hop, I focused on the street music, I focused on the alternative music because at that time there were a lot of alternative approaches to club music. There were a lot of underground artists playing around with the club music sound, so I covered that.

So it was strategy, but also a genuine interest because the people I was trying to compete with, I had to cover national shit because if I only cover local shit, it’s local. And at that time, Baltimore and the DMV area as a whole wasn’t, it’s not a rap region. DC got go go, Baltimore got club music, and to be honest, if you were a local rapper up until maybe around the time I started writing, you would be corny. No one supported local rappers much. People listened to rap but it was rap from other places. If you were a local person trying to rap, no one took it seriously.

So from the beginning I always focused on local shit, but, I’m gonna write about Schoolboy Q shit, I’m gonna write about Kendrick, I’m gonna write about Rocky, I’m gonna write about whatever was hot at the time. That’s what helped me get a growing platform outside of home, because I wasn’t just talking about local shit, I think people realized, “oh, this is a person that’s from this place, and puts on for this place, and has context for this place, but also can be part of the larger conversation.”

So that’s been the approach from the jump, and then I’d say in later years, maybe 2016, 2015, I really started to see something bubbling in the area, like “I think we’re starting to get enough attention nationally where I can just strictly focus on home. And I think this could be the most pivotal time for somebody to be doing this. So I’ve always done it, but it’s taken different forms.

So it’s almost kind of a thing where the scene had to evolve to a point where it could be a full time focus for you.

Lawrence Burney: I would say so. I think between the years of, I wanna say between 2012-2013-2015 were really pivotal years for Baltimore, DC, and everything in between. By that time you had a couple people, Wale of course from the DC side, but his success was individual in a way. Not to say he didn’t help anyone, but he was an outlier. Everybody didn’t blow.

By the time Fat Trel and Shy Glizzy and Light Show started to come out, those were voices of the average youth in inner city D.C. Then on the Baltimore side, we had Lor Scoota, Young Moose, YGG Tay, an artist named G Rock and a guy named Smash. That period of time was when it really started to shift, and that’s just the street music side. On the alternative side you still had Oddisee, Goldlink, Ciscero, Abdu Ali, Butch Dawson, TT the Artist, JPEG, it was a lot of things bubbling. That’s when I realized “Ok, I already cover all these people for national and for local shit.”

So it just made sense. It was a natural progression. I think because I’ve been so relentless in covering local shit, by the time people started to blow up, it worked well for my career because I had already started planting the seeds with a lot of these people before they blew up. So the trust was there, the rapport was there, and you can check the internet and see I was probably the first person to profile a lot of artists from this region for sure, at least for national places.

So on that note, how do you view your space covering a region that’s so underrepresented? Are you just a chronicler, are you a champion? Can it be hard to maintain objectivity when you’re covering these artists, and rooting for them, and it’s your corner, do you know what I mean? Do you find yourself trying to negotiate being a journalist and being, not a promoter because of course there’s journalistic integrity involved, but you have a stake in the game, you know?

Lawrence Burney:  Hell yeah. It’s tough. I would say that my role has changed over time. I think, when I was just doing it and it was really causing waves locally because someone didn’t like what somebody said in an interview, or didn’t like my critique or whatever, I would say that I’ve always been a chronicler since day one, and then I started becoming more and more of a critic. And I would say between the years of 2012-2015 I was probably a critic, but I was also an active part of the scene. I was booking shows and doing parties, I was bringing artists from outside of Baltimore to come do shows with Baltimore artists, I’ve always been juggling it.

As the region started to bubble on a national level, and my opportunities became national opportunities, I did become a beat reporter for lack of a better term.

I would say that’s exactly what you are.

Lawrence Burney: My first two pieces for Pitchfork were, I was 23, and this was like 2014, the first one was a critique of Baltimore Club music as a culture, and not a sound, and I was talking about how the culture was dying for a myriad of reasons. Of course, a lot of people didn’t like it. A lot of people felt excluded. A lot of people felt I was being disrespectful or whatever. My second essay was about how street music in DC was taking the place of go go. How the youth of DC, where every generation that had come before came up on go go, this was the first generation coming up on the street music. And history has proven that was definitely a fact because that is true to this day.

So I would say I was always a critic just so I could contextualize what was happening in the scene for a national audience. And with my Twitter, I’m always doing that. It went from a critic to a beat reporter because a lot of times, a critique of a particular cultural thing is not always going to grab the interest of national publications. So what got me through the door was doing profiles and interviews, and “look at this cool thing that’s happening here”.

And all the while I’m still doing True Laurels, I’m putting out magazines, I’m working at Vice at this point, I started working at Noisey in 2016. Went from there, I got a Red Bull radio show, I’m still bringing DMV artists to a national platform, then I became an editor at the Fader in 2018, and it’s still the same thing. And now it’s not just a me thing. I see that there’s young people coming up that are photographers, and want to be writers from the region, so I started assigning that work out, just so it can be covered outside just my point of view.

So my role has just changed over time. I’ve worn a lot of hats, and at this point I’m kind of all of those things, but now that I’m newly into my 30s my role is changing because a lot of the kids who are in the scene now were reading True Laurels when they were in high school, or maybe middle school because they’re 21, 18, 19. So I think I’m viewed in a particular way because of the things I’ve accomplished and my associations with certain people.

Yeah, my friend Jeff who runs the website where this interview is going to run, he has a similar sort of role in the LA music scene and I see when you’re wearing a lot of hats, the lines can get blurry and navigating these roles can get really interesting.

Are you still doing the DMV column for the Post?

Lawrence Burney:  Nah. That ended in September. But now there’s a new startup news organization coming to Baltimore called the Baltimore Banner launching in May, in competition with the Baltimore Sun, and I’m going to be the arts and culture editor there.

I thought it was incredible that the Post, a national paper, ran a column that was so niche and specific in the first place. It would be like if the Times had a sample drill column.

Lawrence Burney: Yup, exactly. They should, to be honest.

Of course. It would be great if all these larger outlets, especially because all the smaller ones are dying out-

Lawrence Burney: Yeah, that was great. That was definitely a bucket list type of thing that happened out of nowhere. Chris Richards, the critic at the Washington Post was about to go on paternity leave and we talk from time to time because our focus is similar, and he hit me with the opportunity to take over for him while he stepped away. So we came up with the idea to do a Baltimore/DMV music column. And it was great because a lot of artists who deserve to be recognized by the biggest paper in the region were put in the archive.

Yeah. I’m bummed it’s not out at the moment, but I guess it will come back in a new form at your new gig.

Lawrence Burney: Definitely.

So I know you also cover the music scenes in DC and Virginia, but Baltimore, I think it’s the most insular, the hardest to understand from the outside, and so it’s the one I’m most interested in. You kind of touched on this a bit earlier, but in New York, we have a lineage of rap that goes back to the beginning, and I think there are parts of the DNA of New York rap that are distinct, and imprint on every New York rapper, whether the influence is obvious or not, whether the young rapper in question is aware of the history they’ve inherited, it influences and shapes their style and sound in tangible ways.

Based on how you were laying it out earlier, the Baltimore scene seems almost in its infancy. There’s Baltimore Club, this guy B Rich who had a gimmicky single when I was in school, Dru Hill on the R&B tip. But when it comes to the modern Baltimore rap scene, do you think it’s a scene that was informed nationally? Do you have a similar lineage, things you would say are indicators, stylistic things, production styles, things that make the scene distinctly and specifically Baltimore. Is there a unifying theory of Baltimore rap that connects Shordie, with Lor Choc, with Money Jake?

Lawrence Burney:I mean the accent, for sure. To be honest, the Baltimore scene is extremely diverse. I would argue it’s a bit more diverse than the DC area because I think street music is always the most popular music. It’s always the source, everything is inspired by the streets: Fashion, the style, the way people talk, all of it comes from the streets so I think that street music is always a really good indicator of how a majority of that area operates.

The DMV sound, and when I say the DMV sound I mean the DC area and its suburbs, there is a DMV flow and a DMV production style that is almost ubiquitous among their street artists. In Baltimore it’s not really like that. You have certain pockets of artists that sound similar. Like OTR Chaz, DNice, Roddy Rackzz come up, Breezy, these are artists that are very melodic. Baltimore is way more melodic than DC, in the street music for sure.

But I think that Baltimore is more identifiable by scene. You have pockets of artists that all sound a certain way and they’re all from West Baltimore, while East Baltimore artists are more raw and abstract in the way that they rap. Then you got kids in the alternative scene that might have elements of punk in they shit, that’s where you get the JPEG Mafia and the Butch Dawsons, a girl like Baby Kahlo or Abdu Ali. Central Baltimore is way more diverse because it’s transient. It’s transplants, there’s a couple schools around there, so the locals mix in with the people who are not from here. So you have artists mixing in all these different genres.

So I would say there’s particular styles that different pockets run with, but the most common identifier is how we talk. I think that’s one cool thing about being from here, because it changes shit. The way we pronounce certain words changes how we can rap because we’re pronouncing shit different than a lot of people, like its own language.

A great point.

Lawrence Burney: So I think the accent is probably the most distinguishable thing for sure, but I don’t think Baltimore has gotten to the place where you hear a particular beat and go, “Oh, this is from Baltimore”. On a national scale, musically Baltimore is influenced by the South for sure. When I was growing up we listened to a lot of Southern music, and I think the DMV as a whole is in that weird middle ground. It’s on the East coast, but a person in New York will say I’m country.

Below the Mason-Dixon line.

Lawrence Burney: Yeah it’s below the Mason-Dixon line, but barely, so it kind of has remnants of both. What I was seeing is people that were ten years older than me, when I was growing up, they were very East Coast focused even though a lot of our families are Southern, but I think it’s because New York rap was dominant at the time. But if you were born in the 90s, my generation, very Southern focused. We listened to Boosie, lot of 3-6 and Project Pat, Yo Gotti, Gucci, Wayne, of course. Those are the most popular rappers. A lot of Louisiana shit, Memphis shit, and then later on Atlanta.

I’d say our influences are from those places and you can hear a lot of the artists here, the production that they choose is more in line with somebody from a Louisiana or Memphis or Atlanta. Anybody you hear from here doing drill shit, or boom bap shit, they are not the norm. They are relegated to hip hop heads or whatever. That is not the sound of the city.

I think here, we really appreciate story tellers in the music. The biggest artists from here are ones that tell stories about they life, Baltimore is just that kind of city, goes back to Billie Holiday. It’s a lot to talk about if you come up in this city. It’s a lot to express. That’s why Young Moose, Lor Scoota, and YG Tek, who’s one of the hottest street artists right now, people love them because they are talking about shit you can relate to. I would say that is what informs a lot of Baltimore. And even our club music, some of our biggest club music songs are talking about hardships and stories like “Dance My Pain Away”, Miss Tony “Livin In The Alley”, a lot of our biggest shit is stories, we really respect storytellers.

You brought up DC and the differences between Baltimore and DC a couple times. There used to be an intense rivalry between Baltimore and DC (Author’s note: I lived in Maryland from 2002-2006). I don’t know if it’s still going on, but if it is, have you found it a weird thing to navigate between the two cities?

Lawrence Burney: It’s changed in a lot of ways. I would say the generations before mine took that beef a lot more serious. And to be honest, a lot of it started in juvenile detention centers in the state of Maryland because people from Baltimore, DC, and all the places in between-

They get sent out to the county.

Lawrence Burney: Yeah. They get sent out there and a lot of people had to pick a side. You either on DC side or you on Baltimore side, and it kind of spread out from there, but that shit is kind of old. At this point it’s really like internet back and forth, and cracking jokes like “Yall talk like this” or whatever whatever. To me it’s way more cultural overlap, especially now. I think the internet really accelerated that. I think it always was similarities, but they’re both small cities that are very territorial. But there’s a lot of people from one place that got family in the other place, it’s way more connected than the internet will let you think.

For one, it’s only 45 minutes from each other. It’s like going from the Bronx to Brooklyn. It might be shorter. But the cultures and the way people come up is different. Politically and socially, Baltimore and DC are worlds apart. So there is a rivalry, but it’s not a beef anymore.

Well, that’s great.

Lawrence Burney: It’s tough trying to navigate sometimes, but to me that’s small minded shit. I think me living away from home and realizing that people don’t even know what the difference is.

Outside the area they’re not even aware of any of this shit.

Lawrence Burney: And don’t care when you tell them what the differences are. It just kind of set off a lightbulb in my head like, yeah, I can cover this whole region the same way I can cover the city that I’m from. From my late teens, early 20s, I always had friends from out there, I would go out there for certain shit. I would go to DC to party. There’s a lot more back and forth than people think.

On the subject of Baltimore culture and representation in media, I wanted to ask you about The Wire.

Lawrence Burney: Ok (Laughs).

So I think The Wire has aged interestingly, it’s been picked up and reassessed by the next generation who have come away with a different impression than my generation had. David Simon hasn’t aged particularly well as a public figure, and my sense talking to younger writers and critics is there’s this perception that the show is kind of overrated, it’s a stock “GOAT show” for a certain class of white fan and type of guy, that it’s copaganda. Have you had a reconsideration of the show since it went off air? Or do you think this is largely bullshit and it’s still the masterpiece it was once hailed as?

Lawrence Burney: I didn’t even watch The Wire until 2015. I resisted watching it my whole life because I just lived it. There was no point in watching it, I could go outside and see the same shit that was happening in the show. Especially since every time I would travel that would be all people would ever want to talk about. It made me hate it even more. But once I actually started watching it, I do think it’s an amazing show. For a show to break down that many facets of how a city works, and how a city runs, it’s one of the most thorough pieces of television ever, for sure.

I don’t know if I think it’s the best show of all time, I think a lot of hyperbole happens on the internet, and that’s not to say it’s not arguably one of the best, but there’s a particular fandom that’s associated and attached to The Wire that I really don’t like. At all. I would say that every podcast and every little project that comes out about The Wire, I hate. It really salivates over an experience that a lot of people are just seeing from television. And it’s somewhat a fictional show, but it’s not, because my grandfather actually grew up with a lot of guys The Wire is based on.

He’s from the project called Lexington Terrace, it’s a historical housing project in Baltimore that’s West Baltimore but it’s very close to downtown, but I’ve even met some of the people the show is based on through my grandfather. I’ve met Bodie, Bodie’s actual last name was Barksdale, he was a Barksdale. That’s not to say that’s why I feel a certain way about the coverage. I just don’t want to see anything else about The Wire. I think it’s been drained, I don’t want to see that opening clip of Snoop with the drill, I don’t know why people think that’s the best scene in TV history, it just all feels weird. Not gonna lie, it all feels weird.

So one of my favorite things about your feed is your food coverage. As someone who has gone from Baltimore to Brooklyn, (Author’s note: Lawrence divides his time between the two cities) what food do we fuck up the worst up here? What food do you miss the most when you’re in Baltimore?

Lawrence Burney: I’ll never eat crab meat in New York. Never.

What if they’re live crabs?

Lawrence Burney: I’m just not doing it. It’s not worth the time. Most crab cakes that you get outside of Maryland, for one Baltimore is the king of it, but anything you get outside Maryland, DC, and some part of Virginia, I’m not fucking with it. At all. I’ve been thoroughly disappointed by crab cakes all over the country. It’s a lot of imitation meat, a lot of breading, a lot of unnecessary shit inside it, they just don’t get it right. I don’t blame them because if you’re not from a place that specializes in it you’re probably not going to know any better, but crabmeat for sure is something that I thankfully don’t really eat in other places.

I kind of think of you as a guardian of Maryland cuisine. Can you tell me about a flagrant violation you came across on social media that drove you crazy?

Lawrence Burney: One time, I want to say three years ago, this girl had went viral, I think she was from Texas, from Houston, and she was grilling crabs and putting barbeque sauce on them. That was the craziest thing I ever saw in my life.

(Laughs) What the fuck? That is so disgusting.

Lawrence Burney: Craziest shit I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s probably the worst for sure. Putting barbeque sauce on crabs is wild.

Ok, so this is for the interview, but I’m honestly just abusing my access to you right now. Can you hit me with some of your favorite Baltimore spots doing regional cuisine? It can be highbrow, lowbrow, crab spots, anything. I need a list for the next time I’m in town.

Lawrence Burney: (Laughs) Uh, Waverly Crabs on Greenmount is definitely my favorite crab spot, I think they do the best crab seasoning for their steamed crabs. There’s a place called Flamant, it’s actually in Annapolis. They have these crab rolls that’s like lightly battered spring rolls with lump crab meat that’s crazy. I think crab soup is good wherever.

I made crab soup over the weekend as prep for this interview and it was fucking incredible. I’ve never had it before. I’ve only had bisque, and it’s so fucking good.

Lawrence Burney: Like tomato based with the lima beans and the Old Bay?

Yeah. Oh my God.

Lawrence Burney: That’s good pretty much anywhere you go. One thing I do love about Baltimore is it’s a bit over the top, but every place, regardless of the cuisine, has to incorporate crab and Old Bay into their shit. There’s a Thai place I really fuck with that you can just add jumbo lump crab meat to anything. So I get pineapple fried rice with crab meat, shit like that. Honey Old Bay wings are definitely one of the best things in Baltimore for sure.

Is there a wing spot in particular that you like?

Lawrence Burney: There’s this bar that literally just has an address. The name is the address. It’s like 311 West Madison. Best honey Old Bay wings. That’s like the thing here now. Also crab cake egg rolls is a thing, a lot of places do that shit now. I can’t say I have a favorite, it’s a bit much, but a lot of places are doing it. It’s heavy though. It’s heavy as shit.

I’m here for it. So if you don’t eat crab outside of the region, are you just a blue crab guy, or will you try dungeness, or stone crab, or jonah?

Lawrence Burney: I really just like blue crabs to be honest. I’m not a crab leg person.

Yeah. Alaskan king crab legs.

Lawrence Burney: That’s what people really seem to eat outside this area. Most people are not really eating the whole crabs, but crab legs are not even my favorite texture of meat, so anything bigger than a blue crab I’m not gonna like it, for sure.

You gotta go digging for it. I wanted to go over the staples of Baltimore cuisine to see if there’s anything I’m missing. So everything crab related we just went over. Then I would say pit beef, and lake trout sandwiches. Am I missing anything? Would you quibble with either of those inclusions?

Lawrence Burney: I think white and Black Baltimore have different go to cuisines. Pit beef, not a Black Baltimore thing. That’s not really our shit. I’m not gonna say nobody eats it, but not really a thing. Crabs is everybody’s thing. Everything crab related. Crab cake egg rolls is definitely some Black people shit. For sure. What else? Berger cookies is some white Baltimore shit, but it’s really not good.

What is this?

Lawrence Burney: It’s like plain really tough cookies that have chocolate icing just slapped on every individual cookie, and it’s never evenly on it. You can just tell it was food for poor people at a point, and it got people by and became a staple. But it’s not really a thing to me. Black Baltimore is definitely snickerdoodles, but that’s a whole Black DMV thing. Old Bay is an everybody thing. Of course lake trout. I’m assuming that’s an everybody thing, I’ve only really seen Black people go up for lake trout.

I used to eat them all the time (Laughs). I loved them.

Lawrence Burney: Yeah. Lake trout is definitely a thing.

This is a personal question but can you tell us what your crab cake is? Can you share with the readers?

Lawrence Burney: Absolutely not. I can’t.

I had a feeling.

Lawrence Burney: I can’t give that one up.

The world needs to know man. When’s the book coming out?

Lawrence Burney: I mean to be honest, every crab cake is different. Everybody makes their own sauce up. Everybody puts different shit in theirs that I don’t. You just gotta explore. Start with the basics, then just start getting creative with the shit.

Do you process your crab meat when you make your cakes? Like do you start with live crabs or do you buy lump?

Lawrence Burney: Oh hell no. I buy lump crab meat. Jumbo lump specifically. Most people here, we’re eating jumbo lump crabmeat.

Last question. It’s been a while since we’ve gotten a True Laurels. What’s on the docket? Like I said, my friend Jeff has a local magazine he runs and I know the insane amount of work that goes into producing a single issue, but when can we expect a new one?

Lawrence Burney: I’m actually working on it right now, I want to do a tenth anniversary of True Laurels event. Haven’t announced yet, but it’s going to be early Spring, and it’ll be an exhibition that doubles as the launch of this next magazine.

Word. Well looking forward to it. Thank you for everything you do for the DMV, thank you for your time. It was nice talking to you.

Lawrence Burney: Thanks for reaching out.

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