There are a number of things that set Ray Dawn apart from the current pack of Pittsburgh hip-hop artists who are trying to make it. He's not only a college graduate, but a former law student. He's 31 and working a day job at a bank to make his dream possible. He's mature and businesslike, yet his focus is on his music as a mode of self-expression. It's tough not to take a liking to him. As he performs at South By Southwest this week — the second time in as many years — the Pittsburgh rapper who's better known outside of Pittsburgh hopes 2013 will be his breakout year.
Ray Dawn didn't grow up wanting to be a rapper. Education was a priority for the future MC then known as Raymond Sims; both his mother and grandmother were educators. After attending Squirrel Hill's Minadeo Elementary, he started high school at Central Catholic and then his family moved to Holland, Mich. He went to nearby Western Michigan University — where he studied journalism, and where he also began writing rhymes. The bug bit him just as he was leaving for school.
"I was watching the Source Hip-Hop Awards on UPN," Ray Dawn recalls. "I'm in the basement, packing, to get out of my parents' house, what I've been waiting for my whole life: Do my own thing. And Snoop Dogg gets an award and he's like, 'I'm a high-school dropout.' And I'm like, 'What? A successful guy like this? I'm about to go to college and he's a high-school dropout? I could do this shit!'" He wrote his first song that night.
He started writing rhymes regularly, but not the way some start out, freestyling over beats with friends. Ray Dawn wrote on notepads and on the computer, and started sharing on an online forum called Freestyling.com. "At some point, I wrote a verse every day for a year. After a while, it got to be where the guys who took this seriously were like, 'OK, we've got to start recording, we can't be Text-Cs, we have to be MCs." (To this day, though, he writes it all down: "Every studio I go to, I'm the only guy they've ever seen write his rhymes down," Ray Dawn says with a laugh.)
From there, it was campus shows and parties, familiarizing himself with performing live. But prioritizing was sometimes a struggle.
"It got to a point in college where my grades were suffering so much, I had to give [music] up. One semester, I failed all of my classes. I've always had the ability to achieve, but I'd be like, 'Fuck homework, I'd rather play video games.'"
Ray Dawn finished out undergrad and started law school, but hip-hop was calling him back — and he found that he couldn't do both. Plus, he was having trouble keeping on the straight-and-narrow. During law school, he got his second DUI. "I was actually driving home because I wanted to get up early and study the next day, not wake up on somebody's couch," he says.
After a year, he dropped out of law school in grand fashion: walking out in the middle of an exam. He just knew it wasn't for him — for one thing, the language of law doesn't leave much room for self-expression. He was soon spurred to take rap even more seriously after he placed in the top five in a national contest to open for Common.
In 2008, Ray Dawn moved back to Pittsburgh to be with his grandparents; they served as an inspiration, and The Last Sleep of Arthur, Ray Dawn's latest EP, is dedicated to them. The album mixes personal writing with Arthurian legend; it's smart, but not overtly nerdy. He references Oberon — the summer ale from Bell's, a microbrew near his college — and is well aware that it's a Shakespeare reference as well. There's surely a bit of double entendre, too, in "NB 420," which ostensibly is about the pair of shoes that he likes to wear onstage. This is a good-time rapper who reads The New York Times on the regular and references Malcolm Gladwell from time to time.
Another selling point for Ray Dawn: He's punctual, easy to get along with and reliable.
"I pride myself on my work ethic, and so does Ray," says rapper Beedie, who guests on Last Sleep, and who recently brought Ray Dawn on as hype man for an out-of-town show when his regular partner couldn't make it. "We definitely vibe on a number of levels, musically and otherwise. That's what I vibe with: Good people who make good music."
It's not hard to follow Ray Dawn's evolution; The Last Sleep of Arthur is more mature and cohesive than his first official mixtape, 2010's Controlled Chaos. Part of the development is probably attributable to his working regularly with two producers, Danimal and Ohini Jonez, on Last Sleep. But it's also because he's settled down as an artist and a lyricist.
"I used to be more like, lock myself in a room and write. In the morning, write. Get home from work and write. Now I'm more like, let life dictate the music. Let it breathe. I don't find myself stuck in writer's block, because I have a different perspective."
"Before, I'd want a structure: something for the club, something for the ladies, something smooth to play in your car in the summer. Now I do that stuff because I'm living it."