After the Echoplex concert, Heems & Co. skip town, but eXquire and his Peel Off Passion crew decide to spend a couple more days in L.A., far from New York and its suffocating music politics. At the time, the Brooklyn MC hadn’t even announced his rumored million-dollar deal with Universal Republic, but you wouldn’t know that from all the California love eX was getting during his extended stay out West.
Inside a Cartoon Network studio on Highland Avenue, there’s a shoot taking place for an episode of Eric Andre’s self-titled Adult Swim show. The actor has chosen Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire as one of his musical guests. For the better part of an hour, eX does several takes of his performance, shirtless, surrounded by dancers in furry animal suits spraying him with sticky soda pop. Then, finally, it’s a wrap, and free time looms. “I'm getting fucked up today," eX tells a member of his entourage after a production assistant wipes him free of sweat for the last time. “Work is over. No more work. That's how it go. Work before pleasure.”
After all those stagnant years where a New York rapper might have more Smack DVD interviews than songs, productivity is suddenly cool again.
That statement turns out to be a half-truth. A couple hours later eX and friends wind up in Marina del Rey at the apartment of Odd Future members Syd the Kyd, Matt Martians, and Mike G. Everyone has to take their shoes off before entering the professional studio set-up, complete with assorted instruments, red and green laser lights, and a collection of retro video games in the living room. Syd sits in a twisty, ergonomic chair, looking at real estate online. “About to buy a house with a two-car garage, turn that bitch out,” the Odd Future engineer says while an attractive young woman tosses and turns in her bed in the next room. “I’m trying to get that white picket fence.” OFWGKTA doesn’t seem the least bit concerned about the implications of fraternizing with East Coast acts—or vice versa. (It’s worth noting that a few weeks later, members of the Odd Future crew will be photographed taking in A$AP Rocky’s Coachella set—a far cry from the alleged tension between the camps that the media momentarily tried to sensationalize.)
Meanwhile eX holds himself to the “getting fucked up” statement—several blunts have been lit and Grey Goose is being passed—but contrary to what was said earlier, he’s still working. Him and L.A. hipster rapper Speak! sit on the floor with pens and pads, scribbling lyrics for a track called “Igloo.” They press on for hours, perfecting and crafting their bars with no sign of fatigue. Maybe it’s that easy when you really like your job, but it’s this type of work ethic that’s propelling New York rappers to the top right now.
A$AP Rocky already has a slew of features and music videos under his belt, and reportedly shot multiple videos in one day this month. Action Bronson’s output has been comparable, with him releasing two full-length LPs and an album-quality mixtape in less than a year. Meanwhile, French Montana all but forced his way into rap’s consciousness by sheer quantity of material. Members of Das Racist have put out an album and several mixtapes, both group and solo projects, all released on their own record label, Greedhead. After all those stagnant years where a New York rapper might have more Smack DVD interviews than songs, productivity is suddenly cool again.
It’s a movement of actual creative people who care about the art form and want to do something bigger than just go to the club and chill and smoke blunts.
“It’s undeniable at this point,” eXquire comments after he’s finished writing and recording “Igloo.” “It’s not a whole bunch of niggas that can’t rap and are just drug dealing, and putting out bullshit music and making y’all listen to it just ’cause. It’s a movement of actual creative people who care about the art form and want to do something bigger than just go to the club and chill and smoke blunts.” That desire to create something culturally significant—rather than just indulging in the hedonism of a successful hip-hop career—is shared by many of the new New York rappers.
The atmosphere in Heems’ Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft is a product of weed, Marlboro Reds, and a fancy bottle of 1996 Oban Distiller’s Edition Scotch. A week after the L.A. show, he’s fiddling with his BlackBerry and, in between bites of cheese and crackers, waxing nostalgic about New York hip-hop. Listening to his monologue, it’s clear that for all of Das Racist’s humor, Heems is deadly serious about his craft as an MC.
“I grew up listening to the radio and Mobb Deep and Lost Boyz and stuff,” says Heems, decked out in an expensive-looking beanie, blue hiking boots, and an embroidered crewneck. “Honestly, I’ve never been able to retain a lot of that shit. I’m not a dude that knows the words to every classic album. I never studied the shit. But I’m proud of the fact that I’m from New York. I’ll rep until I die. If you’re from here, you know how special it is. You know how much it sucks, but you know how great it is, too.”
I’m proud of the fact that I’m from New York. I’ll rep until I die. If you’re from here, you know how special it is. You know how much it sucks, but you know how great it is, too.
—Heems of Das Racist
Heems’s comments take on added weight given the fact that today happens to be the 15th anniversary of The Notorious B.I.G.’s murder, a major turning point in the history of New York rap. The rest of the time at the loft is spent mulling over “this weird rap revival” Heems is feeling right now—a sense that’s surely fueled by his constant repeat views of the “Wikispeaks” video.
Looking out Heems’ South 11th Street window, the new, almost-complete Freedom Tower is visible—a fitting symbol of New York’s revitalization. Thanks to tireless efforts at Ground Zero and beyond, spiritual scars are healing, memories of the past are being replaced. But what’s the source of all this replenished energy? Some credit the Giants bringing home Super Bowl championships, or the Yankees and Jay-Z celebrating a World Series win in 2009—even Linsanity and Tebowmania. Others point to a rise in restaurant openings, spiking fashion sales, successful Silicon Alley startups, and a $5 billion explosion of film and TV production.
Renowned Hollywood director and producer Brett Ratner believes in the energy of New York. After developing a lifelong friendship with Def Jam founder Russell Simmons during his time at New York University, Ratner made his bones directing videos for Wu-Tang Clan and Puff Daddy before moving to Beverly Hills—but he still maintains a fondness for the city. “It was a scene of cosmic proportions,” he recalls. “You could walk to any street corner and feel something. Feel the energy, feel the passion, feel the drive. Whenever I feel like I’m cooped up, or I’m bored, I go to New York and I am invigorated.” Ratner’s last film, $150 million Eddie Murphy x Ben Stiller comedy Tower Heist, was one of the 188 movies shot in New York in 2011. “I believe there will be a resurgence of that culture. You know, sometimes it has to dissipate. People die, people move away, people move on, and it’s like a living breathing organism—constantly changing and moving. It’s just when it clicks, when the right amount of influencers are interacting with the other influencers.”
But why does the city’s rap scene specifically feel alive again? “This shit works in cycles, man,” says Queens-born Action Bronson while seated on a crowded tour van in Austin, TX during the South by Southwest music festival. “It’s all recycled thoughts, anyway. It’s only hot until the next shit pops off. The thing is, you’ve got to get on that next shit before anybody else.” Bronson’s manager, music industry veteran Dante Ross, agrees. “With the Internet, there’s a lot more parity. People like shit from all over the country now. The regionalism in rap has decreased a lot. A lot of the boundaries that existed in rap seem nonexistent at this point, especially for artists. So I don’t know if I buy into the idea of the ‘new New York.’ I’m just glad there’s some good music coming from anywhere right now.”
It’s all recycled thoughts, anyway. It’s only hot until the next sh*t pops off. The thing is, you’ve got to get on that next sh*t before anybody else.
If there is a genuine rap renaissance going on in hip-hop’s birthplace, what’s keeping the revival from universal recognition? Bad Boy artist Red Cafe blames it on the lack of a cohesive sound. “A big thing for me is the production,” he says. “If we go back in time to Premier producing a large part of our artists, you saw the success with Nas and Biggie and Jay and Guru—and all the people that he produced. You saw them win. Even Swizz Beatz, Just Blaze, Trackmasters, and the list goes on. Irv Gotti and his team. Puff Daddy and his Hitman team. When the artists were being produced in New York, we were making great records and we were putting up numbers that were incomparable. I feel like we always got great MCs and rappers, but until the producers step up, we’re gonna be just in a place where we’re bouncing back and forth.”
New Yorkers Harry Fraud, Party Supplies, and A$AP Ty Beats—of “Pe$o” fame—are among the city’s most noteworthy beatmakers at the moment. All would seem to have bright futures ahead of them, but there’s no question that the idea of a homogenous “New York sound” has been dismantled. Live.Love.A$AP may be the closest thing to a quintessential contemporary New York rap record, but it sources production from all over the nation. Even producers like Clams Casino and Araabmuzik, who’ve found success with New York artists, hail from New Jersey and Rhode Island, respectively.
Bronx representative French Montana prides himself on standing apart from the cluster of artists labeled as “New York rappers.” Crediting his own success to an independent streak, he advises newcomers to take a deep breath and to think long and hard before making moves. “It comes down to decision making,” he says. “Business decisions—knowing when to drop, knowing what kind of deals to do. People buy into the lifestyle now, they don’t buy into just music. They wanna be like you. You can be the most talented artist, but make one wrong decision, and your talent don’t mean nothing.”
Even as someone who frequents the city’s most exclusive events on a nightly basis, 40 Oz. Van cautions that New York is still a tough market for aspiring newbies. “A lot of us are out here struggling,” he admits. “Don’t get it twisted. We might have celebrities in our phonebook, but we don’t have millions in our bank account. It’s unfortunate to say, but you’ve got a thousand people out here trying to do the same things and only, like, five out of a million are going to make it. That’s the thing about New York, we’re always hungry. But the thing that we’re lacking is unity.”
Don’t get it twisted. We might have celebrities in our phonebook, but we don’t have millions in our bank account. It’s unfortunate to say, but you’ve got a thousand people out here trying to do the same things and only, like, five out of a million are going to make it.
—40 Oz Van
Like the regional sound that some people are mistakenly waiting for, New York’s “hip-hop community” has gone through some serious changes. The video for Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s “Huzzah” remix brought New Yorkers Despot, Das Racist, El-P and Detroit transplant Danny Brown together on one set. “We all have a mutual respect for each other because we know the dedication and the hard work it takes to get you here,” eXquire explains. Meanwhile A$AP Yams has been tweeting about bringing Danny and eXquire on tour with Rocky and California upstart Schoolboy Q.
The improved musical climate seems to be rubbing off on veteran rap acts as well. Q-Tip just signed with Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music. Nas is popping up on J. Cole, Tyga, and Nicki Minaj albums. Fabolous is still jumping on mad remixes, and Jadakiss is always good for a hot feature. Cam’ron is currently in the midst of releasing a new song every day for a month. Busta Rhymes had the standout verse on a No. 1 Chris Brown hit and inked a deal with YMCMB. Sean Price is leveraging the blogs to reach an entirely new legion of fans. Wu-Tang is booking swanky Fashion Week parties while the RZA produced on Watch The Throne, rap’s most undeniable tour-de-force in years—which of course features Brooklyn rap mogul Jay-Z and was partially recorded in Manhattan’s Mercer Hotel.
Underground rapper Despot—a part-owner of New York’s Santos Party House who’s credited with introducing eXquire, Danny Brown, and Das Racist to one another—cautions against reading too much into these developments. “We’re just making music,” he says. “It feels good for me to be around people who are new at it and excited and being immediately successful at it. But to label this era is a waste of time.”