The Geography Of Hip Hop
A Vice Guide to the USA
THE EAST COAST
There’s nothing like good old East Coast rap—gritty lyricism and sample-based music. To this day, East Coast MCs are measured against the meticulously constructed rhymes of legends like Rakim or Big Daddy Kane, while beatsmiths strive to attain DJ Premier-like perfection. Forget the fact that New Yorkers now like to get crunk and throw elbows like they were Tupac fans all along. Cop an album like Nas’ 1994 classic Illmatic and you’ll get a real musical representation of the NY state of mind.
New York is where it all started, South Bronx to be exact, and the BX still represents that true-school heritage. With KRS-One as its perennial rap mayor, this is the borough that brought us Fat Joe, who stepped in the scene in 1995 with limited skills and a whole lot of realness. A few years later, Joey Crack introduced the world to the legendary Big Pun. Meanwhile D.I.T.C. producers Show, Lord Finesse, Buckwild and Diamond D continue to provide backdrops for Bronx classics.
KRS’ first hit, “The Bridge Is Over,” was a diss to the borough of Queens, somewhat of a second birthplace for New York rap. Home of pioneers such as Run-DMC, Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, LL Cool J, and more recently A Tribe Called Quest, Organized Konfusion and The Beatnuts, Q-Borough is now widely associated with thug rap. That legacy of graphic storytelling undoubtedly started with Kool G Rap, and is perpetuated by Queensbridge Projects’ finest: Nas, Mobb Deep, Cormega and Tragedy, to name a few.
Move a little South and you’ll end up in Brooklyn, home of the East Coast’s answer to Holy Makaveli: The Notorious B.I.G., R.I.P. Now if you don’t think Biggie’s the best rapper ever we’ve got a problem. Illest voice, wittiest punchlines, cleverest lyrics and two classics, Ready to Die and Life After Death—a legacy that can only be rivaled by his heir to the throne: playboy Jigga. Jay-Z made his debut in 1996 with the seminal Reasonable Doubt, followed every trend, and got better with every album, and now he’s a trillionaire who screws models and can’t stay out of court. Word is his ever-expanding Roc-A-Fella label just signed Brooklyn’s grimiest gun-toting duo: M.O.P. Also worthy of mention is BK’s Bootcamp Click. Although they kind of fell off, Black Moon, Smiff N Wessun and the Beatminerz helped shape what is now known as the underground East Coast sound with stellar LPs like Enta da Stage and Dah Shinin’.
Now, is there rap from Manhattan, you ask? Well, take the train Uptown and you’ll end up in Harlem World, birthplace of the his royal jigginess Puffy, Ma$e (we miss you), Cam’ron, and the late great Big L. Is there rap from the New York suburbs? Absolutely, starting with the Wu Tang Clan, straight from the slums of Shaolin (AKA Staten Island). EPMD and De La Soul both came from Long Island (Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, too, but we won’t blow your cover P), Naughty by Nature and Redman hail from New Jersey, while DMX and The Lox live up in Yonkers. Shit, Heavy D and Pete Rock & CL Smooth even came from Mt. Vernon.
Let’s backtrack to 1996 for a minute. While Puff & the Bad Boys were on TV with their shiny suits and everything you heard on the radio was disco beats, rappers in NY started releasing more and more independent records, with the help of Fat Beats distribution and the then fledgling Rawkus label. Stretch & Bobbito were doing their thing on the radio and cats like The Arsonists, Company Flow, Mos Def, Non Phixion and Necro were moving strictly butter 12 inches in the musical tradition of the ’93-’95 golden era. A bunch of college dudes caught on and boom, there was the start of the so-called underground rap movement. Now everybody and their three cousins have an indie record out but most of the originators are still around, and still setting the standard.
Moving right along to Philadelphia, home of DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Apart from them, Philly has at least one rap pioneer, Schooly D, but, to quote Beanie Sigel, the city’s current rap king, “when I grew up, if you was a rapper you was a sucker. It wasn’t cool to wear a Gumby hairstyle, sneakers, and suits to match.” Nowadays, however, all eyes are on the city of brotherly love, as Bean’s whole crew got signed to Roc-A-Fella. On a whole other tip, Philly is also one of the home bases of the so-called neo-soul movement, with Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch of Jazz production house (who brought Jill Scott to all the coffee shops) and, of course, everybody’s favorite rap band, The Roots. Their last album was actually the first to feature cameos by Beans and a then-unknown Eve. Speaking of females (they rap, too, you know), the once Gang Starr-affiliated Bahamadia is a permanent fixture in Philadelphia’s underground scene, and so are Jedi Mind Tricks.
Jedi have ties to the whole Boston underground movement, whose salient figures include Mr. Lif, Krumb Snatcha and the Polo-clad 7L & Esoteric. Who else is from Beantown? Well, the one and only Guru, as well as Ray Benzino. He’s the dude that nobody listens to and still gets ads everywhere in The Source. That’s because he’s part owner of the damn magazine.
THE DIRTY SOUTH
Okay, now for the real fun. It wasn’t cool to like Southern rap a few years ago but now everybody’s appropriated the slang and the twang. All that “holler” and “you heard me?” Country motherfuckers were saying that back when all you heard in New York was “wordem up, that’s def.” To really understand the magnitude of down South hip hop, read a mag like Murder Dog. You’ll see hundreds of regional artists that you never knew existed. All of them independent, and all of them selling tens of thousands of records to a clientele that couldn’t give two shits about most East Coast rap stars. This goes for the Midwest and much of the West Coast: regions where major label interest has been sporadic and where, therefore, artists developed successful grassroots approaches. Also, regions where Tupac is God. Musically, most of Southern rap oscillates between two poles: accelerated bounce beats, and super-slow 808 grooves to bump in that jacked-up Impala. In the words of Houston’s Lil Troy, “it’s a laid-back vibe that we like down here. That way you can understand what people sayin’ real slow and stuff. When you’re smoking that weed everyday and drinking that codeine syrup, your brain is slow already so you on time with it.”
The first Southern entrepreneur-slash-rapper to get really worldwide recognition was New Orleans’ Master P. Around 1997 he started raking in some serious cheese with his No Limit label and he lost it. Soon after, No Limit Clothing, No Limit Films, No Limit Cell Phones and No Limit Athlete Management were born. At its prime, Master P’s roster included over a dozen acts (Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, Mystikal and Mia X to name a few), each with their own full-page ad in every magazine, every month. Moreover, P’s musical influence of crunkness (accompanied by a trademark stationary-jogging dance) was felt throughout the South. No Limit’s New Orleans rivals are the Cash Money Millionaires: the Hot Boys and the Big Tymers. They took over the scene for a minute, with the help of Mannie Fresh’s catchy production and Juvenile’s genuinely skillful rhymes. Not as popular today, they will always be remembered for coining the expression “bling bling.”
Moving westward to Texas, we find one of the greatest rappers ever: Scarface. He’s the unanimously respected pioneer, the hardcore lyrical superhero and now the CEO of Def Jam’s Southern division. His early albums with the Geto Boys are timeless, his solo endeavors like Untouchable, classic. Face’s label, Rap-A-Lot records, owned by Houston big willie J-Prince, remains one of the South’s most influential imprints. Also from H-Town, and also one of the South’s most influential music makers is DJ Screw. He’s the one who first started making tapes with super-slowed down versions of rap songs. As if Southern rap beats weren’t slow enough, most releases out of Texas come in both normal and “screwed-up” versions. Screw passed away in late 2000, apparently of a syrup-related overdose. Port Arthur, TX, is the home of a group widely recognized as the South’s best lyricists: UGK. You’ve probably heard them for the first time on Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin” but the duo of Bun B and Pimp C have been doing shit since ’92. Pull out your old Menace To Society soundtrack and listen to “Pocket Full of Stone” for a taste of the greatness. To quote Pimp C: “this ain’t no motherfuckin’ hip hop records, these country rap tunes.”
One of the crews that made a hit with UGK is Three 6 Mafia, the self-proclaimed kings of Memphis, Tennessee. The codeine anthem “Sippin on Some Syrup” was their major-label debut and they’ve long gone platinum since then. Other artists in Three 6’s Hypnotize Minds Posse include Project Pat and Gangsta Boo. Now, do you remember magazine ads in the mid-90s that showed two black dudes on a giant pool table with a car on it? Or those same two cats in space with pimp suits? Well that was another group of Memphis natives: Eightball & MJG. Their music combines live instrumentation and sophisticated arrangements, as a song like the classic “Space Age Pimpin’” could easily pass for an O’Jays’ slow jam from the 80s.
Perhaps the Southern city that gets the most mainstream exposure is Atlanta. Of course, Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def powerhouse has been churning out hits ever since this dwarf brought us Kris Kross. (He’s also the genius behind Lil Bow Wow, if you were wondering). On another tip there’s the Dungeon Family: the crew composed of OutKast, Goodie Mob and the Organized Noize production team. Sophisticated in both their beats and their lyrical approach, they can be seen as the Southern counterparts to the likes of Tribe or The Roots. Pastor Troy, who walks around with a wrestling belt, reps ATL as well, and so does Def Jam’s superstar Ludacris. Of course, Atlanta also has a bunch of ghetto superstars selling tapes out of their trunks, such as the legendary Sammy Sam or Ghetto Mafia.
Again, this is just a partial view of the Southern steelo. We haven’t expanded, for instance, on the Miami booty bass scene and its forefather Uncle Luke. Virginia also deserves to be mentioned, with its trend-setting superproducers Nottz, Timbaland and the Neptunes. Finally, there is such a thing as underground Southern crews that make East Coast-flavored music, like K-Otix out of Houston, Mass Influence out of Atlanta and Mad Skillz from VA.
Who knows what goes on in the Midwest? One thing is for sure: you’ll get to hear a bunch of different rap styles, all mixed together. Take Chicago for instance. On one hand, you got Common, who came out in the early 90s as an East Coast-flavored wordsmith, became the purists’ poster boy with his classic “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” and is now the king of organic rap, under The Roots’ guidance. And then on the other hand, you’ve got a bunch of independent gangsta rappers like The Snypaz, Twista and Crucial Conflict, whose music could be easily compared to that of Southern or West Coast artists. Once in a while, some rap act comes out of the Midwest and blows the fuck up. That was the case for Cleveland’s Bone Thugs N Harmony, who harmonized and tongue-twisted their way to the top of the charts some five years ago. Now we have Nelly, from St-Louis Missouri, who sells as many records as Britney Spears with a unique formula he calls jazz-rap. That’s basically him singing nursery rhymes over easy-listening keyboard beats, and the world loves it.
Things are a little more gloomy in Detroit, where we find the Guinness World Record holder for the most rap albums ever: Esham. He’s the originator of a satanic horror-core genre called acid-rap. Some refer to it as Wicked style. Esham’s got this group called Natas and he’s also down with the Insane Clown Posse. They’re all pretty out of control, but again, cater to a cult following and sell tons of records. You can imagine how those cats reacted when Eminem and D-12 came out and claimed all that shock-value shit like it was theirs. Well, D-12 settled it last summer during the Warped Tour by beating the Natas crew to a pulp (one of the members apparently lost hearing in one ear). On a whole other note, Detroit is the home of one of hip hop’s most prolific producers: Jay Dee. After lacing Tribe’s two last albums, he introduced the world to his group, Slum Village, and a slew of other MCs in his entourage, such as Frank N Dank and Phat Kat. While never acclaimed for their lyrics, this crew gets unanimous love on the strength of their unique, jazzy-yet-thumping beats. Jay Dilla, along with Common and The Roots, is said to be perpetuating Tribe and De La Soul’s Native Tongues musical legacy.
If there’s one producer who can be compared to Jay Dee, it’s certainly Cincinnati’s Hi-Tek. His first release was Mood’s highly slept-on 1997 album. He then hooked up with Brooklyn’s Talib Kweli and formed Reflection Eternal. Their Rawkus debut, last year’s Train of Thought is a rap purist’s wet dream. Lone Catalysts and Five Deez also hail from the ‘Nati, and lace the underground with the same vein of melodic beats and intelligent rhymes. Last but not least, the Rhymesayers (namely Atmosphere and Eyedea & Abilities) are stars of the Midwest underground. They’re a bunch of white b-boys that do super abstract hip hop and, once more, cater to a devoted following (probably not the same one as Esham, though).
THE WEST COAST
All right go get that plaid shirt, strap on those Chuck Taylors and pull down those Dickies (with the cuff and the crease), because we’re going to the Westsiiiide – first stop, L.A. Now if Los Angeles is known for one thing in this hip hop game, it’s undoubtedly gangsta rap. Explicit lyrics over funkafied beats. The soundtrack to Compton’s race riots and to the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings’ warfare. Of course, gangsta rap finds its eighties source in N.W.A., later to be solidified in all of Eazy E, MC Ren, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre’s solo endeavors. Dre has to be one of the most important, if not the most important rap personality ever. Money started out by making booty clap beats for J.J. Fad, then did all the classic N.W.A. stuff, and in the early nineties went on to create G-Funk, reviving Parliament-Funkadelic’s musical heritage with his Moog-infused masterpieces. The heyday of that G scene is unforgettable: Snoop Doggy Dogg was the man, Warren G was on MTV all day, Nate Dogg was crooning, Daz and Krupt were coming up, MC Eiht and DJ Quik were eternally beefing, and Dre was the major sonic architect behind it all (although Quik, Warren and Daz’s beats are equally brilliant). As the home of most of those artists, Death Row records was a full-fledged empire who’s C.E.O., the infamous Suge Knight, had everybody scared shitless. After 1996 ‘Pac died, Biggie died, Suge went to jail, Dre started his own label, Snoop signed with No Limit and it just wasn’t the same. To this day however, Dre crafts hits for all of rap’s heavy hitters (not without the help of his trusty ghost-producers). Somewhat bridging the gap between LA’s mainstream and underground realms is Cypress Hill, creators of a distinctive brand of beats and rhymes loved by cholos, heavy metal heads and pot smokers world wide.
Now the Los Angeles underground, promoted in part by the Beat Junkies DJ crew, is almost the antithesis to the radio-dominating G-Funk culture. King Tee’s Likwit Crew (composed of Tha Liks, Xzibit, Defari and Phil the Agony) came to the table with delinquent raps of substance abuse. The Pharcyde brought kooky humor and true school beats, earning them the status of every raver’s favorite rappers. Freestyle Fellowship have lyrics so out there only Fritz the Cat understands them. More recently, Dilated Peoples and Madlib’s Lootpack won the heats of all the backpackers with their East Coast influenced sound.
Moving North a bit, we get to the Bigidy-Bay Area, and the first cat to mention is Too Short. He absolutely has to be one of the top three realest rappers ever, hands down. First rapper in Oakland, original pimp, original gangsta, and entrepreneur—you name it. And the beauty of it is that his whole career, which began in 1981, can be summarized in three words: “bitch, shut up.” Another key figure, this time from Vallejo, is E-40. He’s the slang master. All that “fo’ shizzle my nizzle,” “pop ya collar” talk, that comes from him. Next up is Digital Underground, who are not only responsible for “The Humpty Dance” at all your frat parties, but also for discovering the single most revered rap figure ever: Tupac Shakur (he used to be their dancer). And, just like in the South, the Yae Area houses tons of regional rap kingpins such as Rappin 4 Tay, Yukmouth, San Quinn and JT the Bigga Figga.
Arguably the most trend-setting crew in the Bay’s underground scene is the Hieroglyphics, led by Del the Funky Homosapien. When Souls of Mischief dropped 93 ‘Til Infinity, they set a whole trend of metaphor-heavy freestyle flows. Since then they went the indie route, toured the world, and still sell hundreds of thousands of records. The Living Legends, who also have garnered a massive cult following, seem to belong to Hiero’s lyrical lineage. Now if you want to hear metaphysically abstract raps by a bunch of white dudes with long hair who listen to Bob Dylan, you have to peep what comes out on Anticon. That label is based in the Bay but its artists (Sole, Jel, Dose One and Why? to name a few) come from all over. All weirdos. Other underground Bay Area champs include Rasco, Saafir, the politically charged The Coup, and the DJs formerly known as the Invisibl Skratch Piklz.