Rapper Dominique Larue long approached her music like Muhammad Ali stepping up to the podium, filling her verses with over-the-top boasts about her verbal dexterity and blow-by-blow accounts of the various lyrical beat downs she was gearing up to inflict on those rival MCs who dared cross her path.
But on the recently completed Grand, which Larue will unleash at a record release party at Double Happiness on Friday, April 4, the rapper finally drops her guard, paying homage to family members both departed (“Attucks,” for one, includes a tribute to her late grandmother, who died before the MC was born) and new to the fold (“Feels Good,” the first song the rapper has penned about her son).
“I'm from the whole battling aspect of rapping, so when I first started creating music it was about saying, ‘I'm better than you,’” said Larue, born Dominique Owens 29 years ago, in a late March phone interview. “As time went on I was like, ‘OK, let me open up a little more about the things I go through every day.’ I think it has to do with growth. When you're creating music you don't want to make the same thing every time out.”
This new direction was influenced in large part by the rich, soulful backdrops constructed by Maja 7th. The Washington D.C.-based producer, born Michael Chamberlin, imbued his beats with a heavenly quality, crafting a lace-delicate backdrop awash in lush strings and flowering beds of horn. These gentler arrangements, in turn, helped inform Larue’s more introspective approach.
“I don't write at all before I listen to the beats. I might jot down ideas — huge might — but I tend to let the music take me wherever,” the rapper said. “I'm really private when it comes to [my son]. That's just the mother in me. But when I heard the beat that's just how I felt. It was like, ‘Yo, I've gotta talk about my son on this one.’”
Larue, who was born and raised in Columbus, crafted her earliest rhymes at the age of 7, and was the first rapper to earn a degree from Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School, an arts-intensive institution on the northeast outskirts of Downtown where she studied vocational music. In addition to heightening her musical acumen — “You couldn’t sit around and write raps all day [at Fort Hayes], so I studied piano as well,” she said — the program allowed the burgeoning MC to perform in spaces musicians tended only to visit when stricken by illness (Riverside Hospital) or when checking in for an extended vacation stay (the lobby of a downtown hotel). It also forced Larue to increase her vocabulary, since curse words were strictly forbidden in school-related showcases.
“I couldn't cuss, and back then I used to cuss a lot,” she said, and laughed. “Going through that experience it was like, ‘OK, how many words are there in the English language? Then why do I keep going back and using those same four words over and over again?’ It definitely broadened my horizons.”
It’s a shift that even bled over into her choice of reading material, and during her freshman year of high school Larue would often find herself thumbing through the dictionary as though it was YA fiction. Soon after, she adopted the name Intalekt, a short-lived moniker chosen to better reflect her rapidly expanding vocabulary.
While Larue has long had a love affair with hip-hop — her influences stretch from De La Soul and Queen Latifah to Lauryn Hill and Outkast’s Andre 3000 — she also takes inspiration from artists that fall well outside that musical sphere, including Fiona Apple, Amy Winehouse and, uh, John Denver.
“I know this is going to sound crazy, but [Denver’s] music almost sounds like hip-hop to me with the way he puts his words together,” Larue said. “When I'm looking for inspiration I always look to people I think are dope, regardless of [genre]. Songwriting is such an incredible art, and creatively speaking I just want to make sure I reach that next plateau.”
Considering how far the MC has come, it’d be a mistake to bet against her.
The first time Larue stepped into a professional recording studio with producer DJ O Sharp she said she was completely lost. “He would get so flustered … like, ‘You gotta surf the beat. You gotta surf it!’” she said. “And I was like, ‘What do you even mean?’”
“Now I know what it means, and I know how to flow with the beat and project my voice,” Larue said. “As the years go by you just get better each time out. Now it’s really second nature.”
Red August photo