Milwaukee's Best: The Wisconsin City Has Become a DIY Hip-Hop Haven
Brew City has never been a hip-hop destination, but a strong university arts scene and new sense of unity is changing that.
IshDARR, left, and WebsterX, right / Photo by Kenny Hoopla, courtesy of WebsterX
Milwaukee, Wisconsin has never been known as much of a hip-hop city. It’s had its moments: Coo Coo Cal’s 2001 hit “My Projects” topped the rap charts and made it to number 86 on the Billboard Hot 100. Rico Love, who has origins in the city, broke into the industry by writing and producing songs for Usher, Beyonce, and Nelly. But Milwaukee hardly jumps to anyone's mind when important hip-hop locales are named, and the city has yet to deliver a breakout figure. Milwaukee tends to be overshadowed by its nearby neighbor to the south, Chicago. Any momentum its scene has had has been short-lived at best. But over the last couple years, the Brew City’s rap scene has been simmering and is now about ready to boil over, finally coming together and finding cohesion. Above all, the city is not bound to genre, which allows artists to openly explore their aesthetic without being limited by a regional sound.
Milwaukee hip-hop is mainly divided along the city’s North and East Sides: More of the city’s grittier street rap comes from the North, while the alternative, experimental rap comes from the East. This division is in part the byproduct of the city’s historical segregation—Milwaukee is the third most racially segregated city in America. For decades, much of the city’s black population has resided on the North Side, while the city’s bubbling youth culture—spurred by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—is active on the East Side.
As a way to bridge Milwaukee’s cultural gap, Jordan Lee—a programmer at the city’s leading radio station and a huge platform for local artists, 88.9 Radio Milwaukee—created the Miltown Beatdown, which brings producers together for a tournament-style beat battle. This year marked the tenth year of the Beatdown but also its bittersweet end: Lee has decided to conclude the contest because he believes he has fulfilled the project’s mission.
Milwaukee is well on its way to remaining resilient in the Beatdown’s absence. Without the same kind of industry infrastructure as more prominent music cities, Cream City has developed a DIY attitude. Art schools like the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design and UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts help underpin a growing art community. Radio Milwaukee further bolsters the scene by hosting a weekly concert series that promotes local acts. While the city doesn’t have many labels or studios—one of the main studios is called Mammyth Studio, which is run by Charles Forsberg, or DJ Mammyth—the scene has become a supportive environment where the city’s rappers maintain an open dialogue and often band together in collectives and groups, while also developing individually. These are the artists who are forming Milwaukee’s new sound and helping its scene prosper:
If you’ve heard anything about Milwaukee’s contemporary rap scene, then you’ve most likely heard of WebsterX. Though his debut tape Desperate Youth came out in 2013, Webster only became a household name in his city after he dropped the loosie “Doomsday” this past winter. With most of his music, we often find him wrapping his sharp tongue around dreamy, ethereal production. It’s a particularly evident aesthetic in the Mic Kellogg-produced single “Lately,” where Webster waxes poetic on the fame he’s found since “Doomsday.” In addition to working with Milwaukee-based rapper and producer Kellogg, Webster also tinkers with the eight-person music collective New Age Narcissism.
Although Bliss&Alice sounds like a duo, it’s just one particularly talented guy. Bliss moved to Milwaukee from his hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin for school, and since then, he’s released his breakthrough project, Poetry Vol. 1: The Shit Talker Tape. His sound is jazzy, punctuated by brassy instrumentals, strings, and soft drums. Much of his inspiration comes from beat poetry and spoken word, an influence that is palpable in his raps and intonation, and lends itself to the opaque verses he spits.
IshDARR is further proof that Milwaukee is really not restricted to one sound. On some of his older tracks, from his signature project Old Soul, Young Spirit, Ish pushes toward sounds like DMV rapper GoldLink’s brand of future bounce. In newer loosies like “Sugar,” he’s further honing and intuiting—and placing his own stamp on—the aesthetic. Across the board, Ish employs his own version of melodic rap, oscillating between punchy bars that he then draws out over the beat. Though his music isn’t always uptempo, his sound is rooted in production that makes you want to dance.
BoodahDARR is actually IshDARR’s older brother—but even though they’re blood related, their sounds couldn’t be more distinct. The track “Almighty” is Boodah’s solo debut. From the looks of it, he’s evolving away from Ish’s melodic aesthetic, and veering towards something grittier and more somber. Both Ish and Boodah are part of the Cream City Motion rap group, which also includes Èmaad and ECoop.
Auto-Tune isn’t for everybody, but BANKX proves that the effect is right in his lane. The rapper’s dark sound—often emphasized by a heavy, subdued bass—is even further punctuated by his use of Auto-Tune. While he hasn’t dropped a full length project, he’s released a handful of loosies over the last six months that further solidify his fairly formidable lyrical and aural content. BANKX also spearheads a collective comprised of himself, rapper ¢heap$kate, and R&B singer Meraki.
Pizzle has been in the rap game a little longer than some of the artists on this list and can boast a more substantial catalog. One of his first projects was a 2012 tape called Insomnia, which vacillates between alternative hip-hop—employing the “Electric Relaxation” beat on Pizzle’s “Snapback Music”—but also drifting toward electronic and pop aesthetics, including a riff on Kreayshawn’s breakout hit “Gucci Gucci.” Around that time, he began working with big league beatmakers like Jahlil Beats, Cardo, and Honorable C Note, and he’s kept and honed those relationships over the years. His latest with Cardo, called “Once,” features Pizzle’s keen flow over Cardo’s whirring bass lines and slapping hi-hats. The Milwaukee rapper also has a new project in the works called Grand Design.
Formerly known as Vonny Del Fresco, Von Alexander’s most notable work comes from Memoirs, an effort on his part to present the knowledge he’s acquired while hunting for his sound and voice. It took him about six months to put together the four-track project, where he makes his way through beats that suggest elements of boom-bap and nimbler tunes with a jazzy backdrop. He's also half of the duo the iLLuminators with fellow Milwaukee rapper Dee Phr3sh.
Similar to Alexander, Reggie Bonds has been searching for his aesthetic, and he doesn’t feel the need to stick to one lane. On his signature project The Miseducation, we largely see 90s-inspired boom bap tracks and conscious lyrics, with a sprinkling of more rambunctious trap songs. Some of his recent singles, like “Menace II Society (Black Timbs),” veer towards that rowdiness, while his Funeral Service Sundays—three freestyles he gave on Hot 97—still hearken back to the golden era that he loves so much.
Mic Kellogg is a Milwaukee transplant by way of Madison, Wisconsin. His sound doesn’t necessarily fall in line with the city’s other rappers, with a breezier, lighter pop-rap inclination. He also does a lot of production work: In addition to producing his own LP Breakfast, he is responsible for WebsterX’s “Lately” and another Webster loosie, “Renaissance.”
Like BoodahDARR, Èmaad doesn’t have many songs under his belt. But what he does in his latest release “Champions”—one of two songs on his SoundCloud—is use Milwaukee’s burgeoning scene in a positive manner, speaking to his city and generation’s ambition. The track’s slight braggadocio, of course, is to be expected.
Over the last three years, Klassik has released a deluge of mixtapes, including his trademark project In The Making. Propelled by singing and rapping, and with a spotlight on his abilities as a pianist, the rapper explores alternative hip-hop, riffing on the edges of a very early Kanye West or Kid Cudi. Klassik’s most recent work has diverged a bit: His Season’s EP pushes forward with more present drums and synth production, though the piano still reigns supreme.
Yo-Dot is a veteran, slightly older than most of the other guys on this list. He came on to the Milwaukee hip-hop scene in the late 2000s as part of the Umbrella Music Group, a crew that rolls at least ten members deep. After a hiatus, he released one of his more popular projects, Red Mist, in 2012, an 11-track album where he takes an honest stance on his viewpoints and struggles as a rapper and father. He carries the same themes from Red Mist into his newer tracks, like heavy-hitting “Until.”
There’s always one rapper who verges on the truly alternative, and that’s Milo. After a period living in Los Angeles and working as part of the rap collective Hellfyre Club, he’s since found his way back to Milwaukee. On his well-received earlier project I Wish My Brother Rob Was Here, he rapped with punctuated syllables and a minimal sonic backdrop. With his latest release So the Flies Don’t Come, he’s leaning toward something a bit more melodic, fluctuating between a singing and spoken word cadence.
The other rapping member of New Age Narcissism, Lorde Fredd33 stands out immediately for his deep, rumbling cadence. Though his almost year-old project LRD3 is tagged as electronic on SoundCloud, songs like “Gravvy” are propelled by heavy 808s that meld into his voice. His latest work 33: The Education, is offset by a bevy of different sounds, ranging from neo-soul to jazz and those thicker basslines.
Wave Chapelle signed to Yo Gotti's label Collective Music Group in 2014 and has been the first to get a break out of his city. Since then, he's released two projects, Only the Beginning in 2014 and New Black History in 2015, solidifying his place both at the local and national levels. Throughout his work, he teeters between neo-soul production, trap-like beats, and boom bap, using the platform to spit bars on his personal narrative, his city, and his success.
Tara Mahadevan is a New York-based writer with Midwest roots. Follow her on Twitter.