Wallabe the Reallest hopes you know your ‘Worth’

The rapper’s heartfelt new EP, recorded alongside producer Jack ‘Tha Audio Unit’ Burton, releases on Friday

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Wallabe the Reallest (left) and Jack "Tha Audio Unit" Burton

By his own admission, Wallabe the Reallest just wasn’t made for these times.

Coming up, the rapper developed a skill for hand-to-hand promotion, building a reputation in Columbus over the years by selling CDs from the trunk of his car — an avenue that almost completely disappeared with the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020.

“I’m talking, I think I did over 100,000 CDs out of the trunk of my car. I still put flyers out, posters. I’m a guerilla marketer, and I’ve always been that way,” said Wallabe, whose new EP, Worth, a collaboration with producer Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton releases digitally on Friday, Feb. 11. “I’ve always been so old-school and analog and vinyl … but then Jack linked with me and told me I was ready for the digital world.”

There’s little separating the energetic Wallabe you hear on record  — an MC who fills his verses with deeply personal recollections and snippets of advice  — with the unfiltered man who speaks by the phone, peppering the conversation with rapid-fire personal anecdotes (a recent doctor visit turned up high blood pressure, which is something he needs to monitor in the wake of undergoing open-heart surgery at age 3) and more than a few times breaking into raps, some of which appear on his new record (he spits the final verses of “Visions” a handful of times), while others stretch back decades, including a verse off of “My Wish,” released in 1996.

“I remember my verses because it means something to me when I write,” Wallabe said. “You got me spitting verses from 1996 when I’m sitting in the parking lot in my car! But it’s natural, man. I could spit my first rap to you right now. I’m just telling you, I was made for the mic and the lyrics and the words, because if you cut my beat off, I still got it.”

Coming up, Wallabe, born and raised on the North Side of the city, patterned his style and flow after a quartet of rappers: AZ, Nas, Tupac and Scarface. In the years since, his content and approach have continued to evolve, a brief flirtation spinning street tales with his first rap group the Empire (“I could see we were starting to glorify crime too much”) giving way to more intensely political solo rhymes. “I was like, ‘What’s the probability of this world going back to slavery/Lifetime is already like the government chaining me,’” he said, breaking into rap. “I was a real wordy guy, and I was maybe too deep with the government.” In more recent years, Wallabe has adopted the tone and tenor of an elder statesman and educator, packing his rhymes with life lessons absorbed in his decades both in and out of music.

“It took me some time to find my voice. … I think I was 31 or 32 when it came about, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should just be an advocate in the bars I spit and give advice,” Wallabe said. “Around that time, maybe 2016, that’s when I started paying more attention to that idea, that image. That’s part of what Worth is to me. If you know your worth and your value, then you just won’t fall for anything. You won’t just say yes. … When you listen to the project, don’t it sound like I’m giving advice more than glorifying anything? Motivation is what I thrive on, to help the next person. My daily job, I’m a teacher, an instructional aid, and I work with kids with behavioral disabilities. So, I really work with those who need the attention, and I approach my music the same way.”

Wallabe’s perspective is further fueled by his upbringing. He became a father at a young age and said he dedicated himself to being there for his own children in ways that his own father was not. “My dad, as great as he was, he was in and out of prison, he had his fight with life, with drugs and alcohol,” the rapper said. “Even though he didn’t teach me like a dad throwing the ball … he’d tell me, ‘Don’t be like this. Don’t follow these footsteps.’ So, I can’t lie, even though what I said about him sounded negative, he taught me what not to do, and I’ve taught my children to learn from other people’s mistakes.”

In that way, Worth traces an arc familiar to the rapper. Following a brief intro, the EP truly kicks off with the title track, where Wallabe rhymes about carving out a foothold outside of the traditional music industry, and then progresses through songs where he traces his sometimes difficult path before closing with a hard-won celebration in the form of a booming “O.H.I.O.” “We knocked out Tyson,” Wallebe spits, a reference to fellow hometown hero James “Buster” Douglas, whose improbable heavyweight victory still resonates decades later, but also to the rapper’s own unlikely endurance, which has landed him precisely where he wants to be in this moment.

“I tell you, I’m just so hard-working. … Even though CDs are [being phased] out, I’ll pull a CD out and try to sell it to you in a heartbeat, because that’s how determined I am to have my message heard,” Wallabe said. “I’ll tell people, ‘I don’t want to be famous. I just want these messages to be heard.’ … Everything I’m rapping about, I promise you, man, it is right here. And maybe I was supposed to learn everything the way I learned in order to be where I’m at today.”