Droppin’ Knowledge: Despite Life’s Ups & Downs, Virginia MC Chuck Dolo Is Doing “Aight”

Portrait of Chuck Dolo by Renato Pinto.

Late last year, the rap artist Chuck Dolo released his first official music, the single “Late Nights,” and the EP Amnesia. Both are atmospheric slices of hip hop, with trauma and recovery as their abiding themes, the music cathartic and clear-eyed, with a story teller’s attention to the small details of every day life.

Dolo’s voice betrays a hint of his Virginia roots when he raps, a slight, lilting tang, wrapped with a smoky husk, and a tone that can be menacing or soothing, depending upon the subject matter. On Amnesia, Dolo grapples with subjects he knows well: himself, his emotional life, his struggles and, the trauma at the center of the 22-year-old’s own life.

When Dolo was 17-years-old, he was driving home from the gym and a speeding car ran him off the road. Dolo jerked the steering wheel to avoid a large traffic sign, and the force of that corrective maneuver caused his vehicle to roll over seven times, until it came to rest, right side up. During the impact, he blacked out.

When Dolo awoke, he saw broken glass covering his body, and he could barely move; he feared that he had broken his neck. He felt his seatbelt pressing down on his chest, and, to relieve the pressure, he mustered the strength to unlock it. When first responders arrived, they cut open the car, stabilized his neck and back, lifted him onto a stretcher and loaded him into an ambulance.

As he lay in a hospital bed, afraid that he would never walk again, a police officer came into his room, and, without a word, dropped a traffic ticket on his chest. Dolo’s offense? Not wearing a seatbelt. He wasn’t given an opportunity to explain why his seatbelt was unhooked when rescuers found him and the cop didn’t ask him any questions.

During a recent conversation, Dolo is frank that in the days and years after the accident, he mined some dark parts of his soul to climb back out of the funk he found himself in. He self medicated. He had difficulty managing his anger. He receded deep into his trauma. But as he told me in a Zoom conversation, over the course of Amnesia, just as in his life, the darkness lifted, and he could finally put the accident (mostly) behind him. 

The great jazz innovator Charlie Parker once said that there is no beauty without pain, and Dolo took these words to heart in the aftermath of the accident.

“I just wanted to turn it into something beautiful, which is music…attach something beautiful to those thoughts as opposed to having to think about it all the time.”

Amnesia is a song cycle that moves from the first track, “PTSD,” to the penultimate one, “I’M GOOD,” carrying the listener on the artist’s journey from the physical and emotional wounds of the accident, to his recovery. 

The emotions on display in the record are raw and honest; Dolo offers an unflinching profile of the man he was, but the album is not a difficult one to listen to. On the contrary. Dolo keeps it real without the music feeling maudlin or exploitative. He wants you to feel what he felt, and, because he tells his story in an interesting way, with universal truths and candor, it will resonate with anyone who has experienced big “T” or little “t” trauma in their lives, which means it will appeal to everyone.

“I kind of wanted to do it [the album] for people who may have experienced some of the same things. And people who might not have experienced those things,” Dolo says.

Dolo’s models for his art, which include the rappers Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, The Creator, are more cryptic about their challenges, whereas Dolo is much more direct. There’s a reason why the third cut on the EP is called “TRAINWRECK,” and the metaphorical train jumping the track is the artist himself. But Dolo’s directness is not off-putting, he’s just telling it like it is.

“I feel like for men, a lot of men don’t express themselves in certain ways. But I’m going to tell you how I feel because that’s the truth,” Dolo tells me. “There could be other men who don’t talk about their emotions, but they can listen to my album, and relate, and maybe that will help them.”

Dolo also raps quite a bit about weed, which is not an unusual topic for a song, or any creative; many artists extol its virtues. Dolo tells me that at the time the songs on Amnesia were written, if he wasn’t rapping about weed, the EP wouldn’t be an authentic representation of those days and people who knew him would think the topic’s absence strange. The rapper readily admits that smoking weed was part of his coping mechanisms after the accident.

“[I]n those four years [after the accident] that was something that was a staple for me. I was going through all these things and that’s what I used to adapt. People use different things to cope, and that was what I used.”

It’s not just Dolo’s forthright writing that will reel you; his voice will, too. His flow is supple, his voice pleasantly rough around the edges, worn in but not worn out, his rapping energetic and compelling in its focus and word play. Rapping about the inner landscape of your life is not an easy thing to do, or share, but Dolo excels at it. He says he wants people to learn something from his music, and have fun, too. Amnesia is not filled with club bangers, but it bangs nonetheless.

Each song on the record features a different producer, but the sound of the music is consistent throughout. Keyboard notes squiggle in places like G-funk, and the vibe is sometimes eerie or ominous, fitting the mood, the subject matter, and Dolo’s voice.

Dolo and I spoke for just over an hour via Zoom. The artist told me that now, he doesn’t shy away from talking about the accident, and he emailed me a photo of his car taken after the crash. It’s difficult to look at, especially if you have teenage drivers in your home. The idea of a car as a metaphorical tin can is an overused trope, but in this case it seems apt. If you have ever crushed a can with your hand, the image of that in your mind will tell you what Dolo’s car looked like when it finally came to a rest. 

The first artist Dolo became enamored with was Tyler, The Creator.

“It was just the way he kind of said whatever he wanted. That was interesting to me because it’s not what I was used to. It was so raw. He was saying what ever he wanted, and it just caught my attention.”

From there, he began to listen to Buffalo’s Holy Trinity, Conway the Machine, Westside Gunn and Benny The Butcher, and Harlem’s Dave East.

I asked Dolo how he developed his voice and his flow.

“I think it was really just trial and error. I tried different things, I started rapping into better quality microphones and rapping on stage, it kind of let me reflect a lot. And then it just naturally came. I won’t try to force myself into a sound that I know is not in my pocket. I just kind of stay in my lane. I’m still trying to perfect it because I can always get better.”

Many artists use different methods for writing songs, sometimes in combination, sometimes just using a beat to inspire a more spontaneous flow. A year or so ago, Dolo started “writing in his head.”

“I just started listening to beats. And then I would write [lyrics] in my head. I would take it one bar, two bars, four at a time. Then I repeat the bar a couple of times. And then, by the time I was done with a verse, I had it memorized and I can go and deliver it.” Dolo then rehearses his verses, to practice his cadence and delivery, sometimes in his car on the way to the grocery store.

“My goal is to paint a picture with words.”

To prepare for live performances, Dolo participated in RVA Rap Elite, in Richmond, Virginia, which features Open Cyphers, Emcee Battles, and other types of community and support for both emerging and seasoned artists.

Dolo and I then turned to his EP Amnesia, and discussed how the project was created. When he was conceiving the album, he had a color in his head.

“For me, it was purple. So that’s how I ended up getting into that cover art. Purple is a perfect color. It has that gloominess to it, and that little bit of darkness, but it also has that shade that could become something brighter.”

Dolo explains that he titled the EP Amnesia because it is about memories. “I didn’t want to forget certain things, and there were certain things that I wanted to forget. And there were certain things I couldn’t forget. Amnesia is also about learning from your memories.”

Track two on the project, “AOD,” originated as a beat called “Attack of the Drones,” a name devised by producer Rummy. Dolo suggests that listeners interpret the acronym however they wish. For him, the initials could stand for ‘anger overdose,” but they are also subject to the listener’s interpretation.

“TRAINWRECK” is a portrait of the artist as a man with a “fragile mind” and a hell-bent locomotive. “AIGHT” begins the transition from darkness to light, with a catchy refrain and an evocative beat. Dolo assures us “he’s doin’ aight, but he could be better.” “2ECOND CENTURY $ESSION” is an ode to weed that pulses and Dolo reminds us “life is like a movie and without the weed it would be an awful plot.” $PACEDAVYJONE$ adds his own loopy (in a good way) bars. “I’M GOOD” completes the personal transformation and finds Dolo embracing his life and his art; rap saved me Dolo spits with conviction.

“I felt like I had fully conquered everything I was dealing with,” he says about the song.

If the first six songs on the EP look inward, the bonus track, “BLACKARICAN,” reflects on Dolo’s identity as a multi-racial man in America, and the perch it gives him to observe the good and the bad in the people around him.

“I’m a Black man,” Dolo tells me, “and there are people who might not have known that. People around me who weren’t Black might have said something wild, something racist, borderline racist, or sometimes something very racist. It put me in a situation [where] I was a spy or something; I’m a Black man in disguise. People express how they truly feel, [people who] have hate built into them.”

In the song, Dolo raps: “You should always ask a questions rather than assume; “all this stress leads to indica;” and then further along, “a victory for me is if I make you think on these flows.”

Now, Dolo has other projects in the works. “I told my story, and my story was Amnesia. I’m kind of working on some fun stuff, but still stuff that’s gonna challenge your thoughts.”

Charlie Parker once said that “music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” For Chuck Dolo, his voice is his horn, and he’s shared his experience, his thoughts and his wisdom with us. He’s making us think on these flows.

Independent artists need our support more than ever. If you like what you hear, purchase the digital version of Chuck Dolo’s project Amnesia on Bandcamp.

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