NYC rap is creeping on a come up—or make that a comeback. We follow Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire to Cali to see how a new generation of MCs is repping the city where hip-hop was born.
Written by Ernest Baker (@newbornrodeo)
It's an unusually frigid night for late February in Los Angeles, and the third floor of the Comfort Inn on Sunset Blvd smells like weed.
"You guys gotta go. I gotta get dressed," Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire yells from the bathroom of a cloudy two-bed suite. The request is directed at the handful of journalists who have tagged along for the pre-game festivities before his performance at the Echoplex in downtown L.A. The show comes on the heels of a whirlwind year that’s seen the Crown Heights, Brooklyn rapper go from underdog viral sensation to Universal Republic darling with a newly inked record deal.
In these moments before the show, Anthony Allison, the comic-book-reading, day-job-having kid from the Kingsborough housing projects, ceases to exist. Instead it's the mystique of the melancholic rapper behind last year's hit video, "Huzzah." His stage attire—gold fronts, crisp Yankees fitted, his signature cluster of vintage necklaces—signals the separation of a project denizen’s past and a burgeoning rap star’s future. Apparently, no one outside of eX's Peel Off Passion crew gets to witness his Clark Kent–esque phone booth transformation. Or maybe the guy just wants some fucking privacy before his concert. It could be that simple, but for a guy as self-aware and sullenly calculating as Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, it probably isn’t.
There's a job to do on the West Coast tonight and nobody here is shook. If there's any apprehension in the air, it’s just the general disposition of new artists who have a lot to prove. For Heems and eXquire in particular, that challenge comes with the added burden of being at the forefront of a New York rap scene that feels alive for the first time in a decade
Down the hallway, Heems, the most prolific member of the Brooklyn-based “alt-rap” trio Das Racist—who are headlining tonight’s Echoplex show—is more or less doing the same thing. Tweets go out about being sad and needing to drink in order to feel comfortable for the concert. That may be part of his inner monologue tonight, but the Heems who opens his door for small talk is poised, professional even, at worst suffering from a touch of jet lag. There's a job to do on the West Coast tonight and nobody here is shook. If there's any apprehension in the air, it’s just the general disposition of new artists who have a lot to prove. For Heems and eXquire in particular, that challenge comes with the added burden of being at the forefront of a New York rap scene that feels alive for the first time in a decade.
Yes, that means New York rap died—unequivocally and without debate. Hip-hop began a descent in its birthplace around the same time that the World Trade Center towers did. Jay-Z’s Blueprint, released on September 11, 2001 to nearly unanimous perfect reviews, was the last record of unquestionable quality to adhere to an archetypal New York sound. Eighteen months later, Queens native 50 Cent was the No. 1 artist in music, with Get Rich Or Die Trying on its way to eight million units sold, but a slight Southern drawl and Dr. Dre’s production decentralized 50’s sound. The city’s only other saviors were Harlem dwellers Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, and Jim Jones. The Diplomats' run was musically respectable and culturally influential, but the terrorist imagery and 9/11 motifs on their best work, Diplomatic Immunity, suggested that even they felt the New York rap scene was in ruins. And for all its celebration of success and excess, that 2003 album moved only about 500,000 units. By the end of that year, hopes for rap music in the mecca were dwindling as Jay-Z “retired,” opening the floodgates for a decade of Southern dominance.
By 2006, rap’s New York–centric status quo was a wrap. Three 6 Mafia took an Academy Award home to Memphis for their pimped-out Hustle & Flow soundtrack cut. Atlanta’s D4L scored a No. 1 hit with the snap-rap smash “Laffy Taffy,” and for the first time since 9/11, New York rappers were completely absent from the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for an entire year. By December, Nas’s latest album title proclaimed that Hip-Hop Is Dead even as benchmark releases from Clipse, Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy proved that it was very much alive.
Not that New York rappers were completely absent during the Aughts. “When you talk about New York being dead, you’ve got to take Fabolous and Jay-Z out of the equation, because them niggas never stopped making records,” argues Brooklyn rapper Troy Ave. He has a point, but Jay-Z really did stop releasing solo records for a stretch, and his most memorable returns to the mic came on the remixes to Southern hits like Young Jeezy's “Go Crazy” and “Hustlin” by Rick Ross. Besides 50 Cent, New York artists like Fabolous, Ja Rule, Fat Joe, Jim Jones, and Jadakiss had the biggest post–Blueprint chart presence. Their efforts were noteworthy, but not enough for a true revival. For the next three years, no NY rapper hit the No. 1 spot until Jay-Z reached that plateau with a song about New York, “Empire State of Mind.”
That year, 2009, brought the first signs of NYC's rap resurgence. In addition to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ smash, Queens native Nicki Minaj began an all-star run of guest appearances that saw her featured on seven Hot 100 singles before even dropping her debut album. The confluence of these efforts reignited an air of possibility in Gotham city. Three years later New York rap doesn’t feel like it’s struggling. Even though there may not be many charting singles or sales figures to support talk of a comeback, there is an undeniable new energy in NYC, and it can be felt all the way in Los Angeles, where underdog rappers Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire and Das Racist have attracted a crowd of rabid fans 3000 miles across the country.
Tonight at the Echoplex, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire has the California crowd hanging on his every word—even when he’s spouting off imagery they might not be able to visualize. The paranoia-laden “Huzzah Pt. 2” rings off twice that night—and each time eX raps the “pink Moet, rosé, pop it on a project bench” line, you can feel his attempt to bring the cold oppression of NYC’s public housing buildings to a city whose images of hood life are more aligned with the sun-soaked streets of Compton. Maybe it helps that he’s actually popping champagne onstage—or maybe the message fails to connect when the audience notices eX’s shiny new clothes, but by the time he gets to the “Huzzah” remix and raps “fuck a throne, watch the project bench covered in pigeon shit,” the crowd is too lost in the music to concern themselves with the intricacies of regional rap. All they know is that the song is good, and sounds unlike anything else available at that moment, even with its obscure, decade-old Necro beat.
Each time eX raps the “pink Moet, rosé, pop it on a project bench” line, you can feel his attempt to bring the cold oppression of NYC’s public housing buildings to a city whose images of hood life are more aligned with the sun-soaked streets of Compton.
New York’s sonic palette has expanded considerably in 2012. The current crop of New York talent shares a fiercely independent spirit that keeps them rooted in their own creative vision, which takes their respective aesthetics in a number of different directions, and certainly beyond the region’s niched boom-bap soundscape.
“The whole problem with New York in the past 10 years was they tried too hard to keep up with the clubs,” says A$AP Yams, A$AP Rocky’s manager and the co-founder of A$AP Mob. “You got a bunch of young motherfuckers now that wasn’t into standing on a couch with a bottle of Rosé. When we grew up, we used to be in the crib blowing it down or with a bitch. That really reflected on everybody’s music that’s coming out now. We’re doing shit that we want to do. On top of that, we’re the Internet age—the digital age of rap music in New York. We’re all tech savvy.”
Just as modern technology helped bring new musical influences to Harlem’s Houston-loving A$AP Mob, it also helped focus attention on a resurgent NYC scene that suffered when the music industry powers-that-be shifted their priorities elsewhere. “Out-of-town kids used to be on all the New York kids’ MySpaces,” Yams explains. But these voyeurs were more focused on New York style than sounds, leaving the local hip-hop scene unfulfilled. “We never had any music to properly represent us until now.”
Yams attributes the resurgence of New York rap to more than music. “I think the best thing that ever happened was the HD camera,” says the A$AP mastermind, “because you can really show the visual side of everything.” There’s no debating the fact that the videos for “Purple Swag” and “Pe$o”—along with the visuals found on realniggatumblr—fueled the rise of A$AP Rocky and the rest of the crew.
“It was all YouTube and Tumblr,” says Harlem native Steven “Steve-O” Brown, marketing manager to Bronx rapper Mickey Factz who also works with Mississippi MC Big K.R.I.T. “As sad as it sounds, I think people really got to see how we do it through social networks. It’s hard for a person from Atlanta to come and experience New York, but with social networking, you’re able to see everything.”
But technology wasn’t the only force behind New York’s comeback. By 2010, more people moved to New York (252,000) than left the city (220,000) for the first time in decades. Like Kool Herc, DJ Premier, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, J. Cole, and Danny Brown before them, this influx of transplants brought new ideas and ambition to the Big Apple. “The kids from out of state come here with a hungry mentality,” says “nightlife lord” and NYC cool kid 40 Oz. Van. Brooklyn artist Theophilus London says he can feel the change too. “Niggas want to move here to make art and shit,” he boasts with hometown pride. “Shows are getting sold out... It’s getting popping out here.”
Demographic shifts and technological advances are all well and good, but if you ask DJ Clark Kent, nothing really matters but the records. And with a production resumé that stretches from The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z to Rick Ross, he should know. “It’s never going to be about anything but the music,” he says. And don’t try to cop a plea about how the digital age has given listeners a shorter attention span: “Stop complaining,” DJ Clark Kent advises. “Make good records. You shouldn’t have no issues.”
All that hating sh*t went out the window a long time ago. That sh*t kept New York down for a long time already. I want to see everybody make it. When I saw eXquire got signed, I was happy as f*ck for him.
With that said, the only new NYC artist he considers worthy of mainstream hype at the moment is A$AP Rocky—and it’s a fair argument. A$AP Mob is undeniably at the forefront of New York’s resurgence. Not only was Live.Love.A$AP one of the most critically acclaimed projects of last year, but Rocky’s also hit the road with Drake for the Club Paradise tour. Then there’s that $3 million deal with Sony/RCA subdivision Polo Grounds Music. Just months ago his name was only known to a select few—now A$AP Rocky is a certifiable star.
But one hot crew does not a renaissance make. There’s at least a dozen acts with notable buzz in these New York streets and the money is starting to roll in. From independent acts like Das Racist, Action Bronson, Maffew Ragazino, Wiki, Smoke DZA, Flatbush Zombies, Joey Bada$$, Troy Ave, Fred The Godson, World’s Fair, Roc Marciano, and Ka to major label signees like eX, French Montana, Azealia Banks, Cory Gunz, Theophilus London, Dyme-A-Duzin, Vado, and Red Cafe, New York rappers are experiencing new heights of success and visibility.
“There’s that competitive energy, but we still got to support everybody,” A$AP Yams adds. “All that hating shit went out the window a long time ago. That shit kept New York down for a long time already. I want to see everybody make it. When I saw eXquire got signed, I was happy as fuck for him.”