Interview | Julius Jetson
Born in Silver Spring and raised in Bethesda, Ragland attended boarding school in southern Virginia for much of his adolescence. He wasn’t allowed to have any music with explicit lyrics, but he remembers smuggling in three obscenity-filled rap CDs: the self-titled debut by Boyz n da Hood, Young Jeezy’s seminal trap record “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101,” and an album by Lil Scrappy and Trillville. “My counselor caught me listening to Trillville and he took it away,” Ragland recalls, “And then he started listening to it!”
From then on, Ragland would listen – after lights-out – to a SiriusXM radio that he hid under his mattress. But soon, it wasn’t all Atlanta hip-hop in his headphones: during his junior year, he was introduced to the world of electronic music, first listening to acts like Tiësto and Eurodance heavyweights Scooter, and then to whatever was being championed by Mad Decent and their tastemaking blog. He says it was “very weird” to be listening to hip-hop and electronic music in southern Virginia alongside his conservative classmates. “Turn that hip-hop and techno down,” he recalls them saying, adding a heavy Southern drawl.
Ragland attended the University of Maryland and would soon find like-minded music fans. His first electronic music show was a Nouveau Riche party at U Street Music Hall during the summer of 2010. Founded by DJs Gavin Holland, Steve Starks, and Nacey, Nouveau Riche ran for seven years and was D.C.’s preeminent dance night for electro, hip-hop, and everything in between. Ragland doesn’t hesitate when asked what drew him to the party: “The community aspect.” Soon, he was part of that community, interning for the Nouveau Riche crew while also running Electric Squeeze, a combination blog, radio show, and promotional outfit.
After a year of DJing and throwing parties, Ragland pulled back from the nightlife scene and started making music. “I made 60 tracks, and they all were terrible, awful, so bad,” he laughs. Those practice reps served as the foundation for his production skills, which he honed alongside his friend Chris Gavino, who would soon find notoriety as Manila Killa. “He’s talented as hell, and it was so crazy to have someone like that around, 24/7, hanging at my mom’s house,” he says.
He’d go on to co-found music collective/booking agency Nü Androids, promoting a wide range of electronic dance music in the D.C. area. But after a few years, Ragland had lost his passion for promoting. He was depressed, and wasn’t making music that he wanted to make. He quit Nü Androids last summer and moved to Berlin for a month and half. While there, he attended a 48-hour Superlongevity party that celebrated the 20th anniversary of minimal techno label Perlon. “That party changed my life,” he admits. “I came back so inspired. It was the first time I was really attentive to detail, and I felt myself growing as an artist.”
After Berlin, Ragland was inspired not just to make music, but to start a label, Ghetto Ghetto. His goal was to bring people together, recreate the type of community he had first discovered with Nouveau Riche, and let his friends release their music without having to tailor it to the needs of a label. “They get to do what they want to do,” he says of artists on the label. “That’s special for a lot of people.” And for the first time, he’s trying to create not just a local community, but a global one, and is working with artists from the U.S., Mexico, Norway, Turkey, Lebanon, Brazil, and elsewhere.
Ghetto Ghetto has also become a clearinghouse for G-house (or “gangsta house”), which he describes simply as “house music with hip-hop influences.” He says the style allows him to “bring my childhood back in a way that I can play out.” It is also reminiscent of the electro-house mashups favored by Mad Decent and Nouveau Riche at the turn of the decade, connecting the dots of his musical background. As for the label’s name, he acknowledges the risk of it being seen as inappropriate appropriation, but it comes from a personal place. “There was a moment when I was making silly tracks, and I thought, I want to rep the African-American in me,” he says, noting that he’s “fully black.” “I’m making bass [music], but I want to draw in all my influences, and with a name like Ghetto Ghetto, you know exactly what you’re getting.”