The 411 On The 313: A Brief History of Detroit Hip-Hop

From Eminem and Big Sean to Danny Brown and J Dilla, we take a look at the history of hip-hop in the the Motor City.

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Complex Original

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For much of the initial half of hip-hop’s first three decades, Detroit was a missing player on the national stage. Despite being perhaps the most important city in the musical history of the 20th Century, there were remarkably few rappers that managed to break free of municipal limits until the late 1990s.

The music industry had treated Detroit as flyover territory ever since Motown Records departed for L.A. in the mid-’70s. With few opportunities for major label deals, no consistently successful local independent record companies, and scant radio airplay, the deck was stacked against any artist being heard much beyond 8 Mile Road (the infamous northern boundary line between the predominantly black city and its predominantly white suburbs).

Today, of course, any hip-hop head is familiar with the legacy of the producer J Dilla and the high-octane hijinks of motor-mouthed Motor City MCs—from Eminem to Big Sean to Danny Brown. But it takes a little deeper digging in the crates to unearth the fuller story of Detroit hip-hop’s truly flavorful history. This is The 411 On The 313: A Brief History of Detroit Hip-Hop.

Written by Mike Rubin (@rubinbooty)

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Detroit's Role In Early Hip-Hop

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Though a distant spectator, Detroit was actually a willing participant at rap's inception, thanks to the city's embrace of electro, one of the rhythmic sources from which early hip-hop flowed. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force (as well as his sampling inspiration, Kraftwerk) were staples of the late-night sets by the influential FM radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo, along with the early recordings by Cybotron, a local duo featuring a young synthesizer enthusiast named Juan Atkins. But where New York DJs and producers concentrated on the verbal gymnastics of MCs, Detroit remained focused on the music's sleek electronic instrumentals and driving drum-machine beats, and soon a generation of African-American producers and beat-makers would speed up the tempos to create the futuristic-leaning sound of techno instead.

Cybotron "Clear" (1983)

MC Pioneers

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Detroit's earliest relatively successful rappers were probably the Jheri-curled duo Felix & Jarvis, who had a local hit with their 1982 single "Flamethrower Rap" (co-produced by Don Was), which borrowed its music wholesale from the J. Geils Band's "Flamethrower" (itself a staple of Mojo's WGPR-FM sets). Further cementing their local fame, the pair provided the theme song for the daily dance-party TV show The Scene on African-American-owned UHF station Channel 62: "It's 6 o'clock and it's time to rock/We rock non-stop til 7 o'clock . . ."

Felix & Jarvis The Scene theme song/"Flamethrower Rap,"WGPR-TV (1983)

The Re-Emergence of Detroit Rap

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Felix & Jarvis had posed the eternal question "Are you ready to throw down?" But while audiences enthusiastically answered "Yes we are!" it would prove to be several years before Detroit's rap scene was heard from again. When the music resurfaced in the late '80s, the call to party-hearty had been replaced by post-Public Enemy black consciousness and post-N.W.A street-corner reportage.

The image of the MCs themselves had hardened as well, influenced in no small way by the headline-grabbing exploits of local gangsters like the Young Boys Incorporated drug cartel (who devised many of the organizational innovations later employed nationwide in the '80s crack trade) and the aggressive persona of the "Bad Boys"-era Detroit Pistons.

Prince Vince and the Hip Hop Force "Gangster Funk" (1988)

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Awesome Dre & The Hardcore Committee "Frankly Speaking" (1989)

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Awesome Dre & The Hardcore Committee "You Can't Hold Me Back" (1989)

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Kaos & Mystro, "Mass Confusion" (1989)

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Kaos & Mystro "Mystro On the Flex" (1989)

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Merciless Amir (as Ameer Stein) "A Day Without A Rhyme" (1989)

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Hip-house Pioneers

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Given its affinity for both electronic music and hip-hop, Detroit was a prime breeding ground for the short-lived "hip-house" sound, which combined accelerated rapping with up tempo dance beats. Detroit techno originator "Magic" Juan Atkins dabbled in hip-house, the pioneering radio DJ Jeff Mills spun the music during his frenetic WJLB-FM shows as "the Wizard," while Mills' politically incendiary group Underground Resistance featured rapping by Robert Hood in their live shows.

Magic Juan (Juan Atkins) & Normski ""Yeah, Yeah, Yeah," (1988)
Underground Resistance & Robert Hood "Panic" (1991)

Detroit Storytelling (and The Controversy That Came With It)

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Forced to reckon with an overwhelming onslaught of urban maladies—economic deprivation, rampant crime, government corruption, crumbling city services, failing schools—Detroit MCs have historically been among hip-hop's feistiest and filthiest, truly putting the "hard" into "hardcore."

Few were fouler than Esham, who helped pioneer the fusion of rap and metal in the early 1990s, welding hard-rock riffs to increasingly lurid subject matter on a series of records on his own independent label Reel Life Productions. Esham would later join up with Mastamind and T-N-T to form the "acid rap" trio Natas (Nation Ahead of Time and Space, but, yeah, Satan spelled backwards), who generated their own sensational headlines in 1992 when a Tennessee teenager killed himself playing Russian roulette after listening to their Life After Death album while stoned.

Esham "Redrum" (1990)
Esham "Judgement Day" (1992)
Natas "Fuck the World" (1995)

Straight Outta Flint, MI

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Flint's MC Breed was the first Midwestern rapper to enjoy commercial success nationally, creeping into the Billboard album and singles charts after his 1991 collaborative debut with his cousin Al's group DFC (who would later split off on their own and sign with Atlantic). The cousins' records sound more like they came straight outta Compton than Genesee County, however, and aside from the backdrops in their videos, there's not much to distinguish their G-funk as distinctly 313.

MC Breed & DFC "Ain't No Future In Yo' Frontin" (1991)
DFC f/ MC Breed & Nate Dogg "Things In Tha Hood" (1994)

Kid Rock

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Long before he was the poor man's Bob Seger, Kid Rock was a teenage breakdancer, DJ, and rapper with the Beast Crew (along with Champtown and The Blackman) who signed a solo deal with Jive Records at age 17. Despite selling 100,000 copies of his debut album, his career tanked in the wake of the post-Vanilla Ice backlash against white MCs, and he'd already been dropped by Jive before he achieved his greatest pre-rap-rock notoriety: in 1993, WSUC-FM at SUNY-Cortland was fined $23,750 for playing Kid's profanity-laced ode to cunnilingus "Yo-Da-Lin In the Valley," the FCC's largest-ever penalty against a college radio station at the time.

The Beast Crew "Got Drawls" 1990
Kid Rock "Yo-Da-Lin In the Valley" (1990)

Putting On for Detroit

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Champtown, Kid Rock's former Beast Crew collaborator, never managed to gain any national attention himself, but he proved to have an impressive knack for spotting potential stars. After splitting with Rock, he would nurture the early career of Detroit's other most famous white rapper; look closely in the background of 1992's "Do-Da-Dippity" clip for a cameo appearance by a young Marshall Mathers making his music video debut. Mathers, then a member of Bassmint Productions and still known known as M&M, would later work with Champtown while a member of the group Soul Intent.

Champtown, "Do-Da-Dippity" (1992)
Champtown, Check It (1996)
Bassmint Productions with M&M (Eminem) "Steppin' On To The Scene" (1990)
Soul Intent (Champtown/Chaos Kid/M&M) "What Color Is Soul" (1992)
Soul Intent "Biterphobia" (1995)
Soul Intent f/ Proof "Fuckin' Backstabber" (1995)

The Hip Hop Shop

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The mid 1990s are fondly remembered as Detroit hip-hop's Golden Age, with a thriving scene revolving around Friday night club parties at St. Andrew's Hall downtown and Saturday afternoons at the Hip Hop Shop on 7 Mile Road in the city's northwest side, a store run by budding fashion designer Maurice Malone.

During the the Hip Hop Shop's 1993 to 1997 lifespan, the Saturday evening MC battles hosted by Proof provided a golden opportunity for a budding MC to become a local legend, most notably allowing a skinny white kid from a trailer park to channel his inner Slim Shady and begin morphing into the industry-transforming force named Eminem.

Eminem vs. Kuniva "Freestyle Battle" (February 17, 1996)
Eminem "Infinite" (1996)
Eminem & Proof MTV Freestyle (March 13, 1999)

Before Jay Dee & After Dilla

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Production-wise, Detroit hip-hop can be divided into two eras, BJ (Before Jay Dee) and AD (After Dilla). The late James Yancey blazed a trail over his too-short life, impressively raising the artistic level of beat-making during his stints in the groups 1st Down and Slum Village, his productions for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, and Common (as well as with local MCs like Phat Kat and Frank-N-Dank), and his later solo work.

1st Down "A Day Wit the Homiez" (1995)
Slum Village "Forth & Back (Rock Music)" (1997)
J Dilla "Featuring Phat Kat" (2001)
Frank-N-Dank f/ Tammy Lucas "Ma Dukes" (2003)
J Dilla f/ The Roots "Workinonit" (2006)

J Dilla's Legacy in Detroit's Hip-Hop Scene

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Dilla left Slum Village in 2002 to embark on a solo career, and by the time of his death he'd become one of the most respected producers in hip-hop. Though he lost his battle with lupus in 2006, his legacy has lived on in the MCs he worked with, the producers he inspired, and the steady stream of his unreleased beats and tracks that continue to be unearthed.

Today DJs like House Shoes, producers like Black Milk and Waajeed, and MCs like Guilty Simpson and Elzhi (a former member of post-Dilla Slum Village who recorded the outstanding mixtape Elmatic, a full-length, Detroitcentric take on Nas' classic Illmatic) are among the artists that carry on his spirit, which is honored each February with a Dilla Day concert in Detroit.

Slum Village f/ Dwele "Tainted" (2002)Guilty Simpson "Man's World" (2007)
Black Milk f/ Royce Da 5'9 "Losing Out" (2008)
Black Milk f/ Royce Da 5'9 & Elzhi "Deadly Medley" (2010)
Waajeed "Beat Tape 2008: Part One" (2008)
Invincible f/ Waajeed "Detroit Summer/Emergence" (2010)
House Shoes "King James Version: Chapter 1 – Verse 1" (2009)Elzhi "It Ain't Hard to Tell" (2011)

Introducing Slim Shady

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By now the story of Eminem's residency under the tutelage of Dr. Dre needs little introduction. If Detroit wasn't firmly represented on the hip-hop map already, there was little doubt once Eminem conquered Hollywood with 2002's semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile and "Lose Yourself" became the first rap song to ever win the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2003. By the end of the 2000s he had become a multiple Grammy winner, the best-selling pop artist of the decade, the best-selling rap artist of all-time, and one of the most famous entertainment icons in the world.

Eminem "My Name Is" (1999)
Eminem f/ Dido "Stan" (2000)
Eminem "Lose Yourself" (2002)

Dirty Dozen's Peak

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Eminem's breakthrough success proved to be the tide that lifted all boats, particularly those of his D12 crew and collaborators, several of whom received their own major label deals (some through the auspices of Eminem's own Shady Records imprint). Though others like Obie Trice and Trick Trick sold more records, the most beloved of these artists was Eminem's ubiquitous sidekick Proof, whose 2006 shooting death at the CCC Club on 8 Mile Road shook the city's hip-hop community and devastated Eminem.

D-12 "Purple Pills" (2001)
Royce Da 5'9" "Boom" (1999)
Eminem f/ Royce Da 5'9" "Bad Meets Evil" (1999)
Bad Meets Evil f/ Eminem & Royce Da 5'9" "Fast Lane" (2011)
Obie Trice f/ Saigon "Wanna Know" (2006)
Trick-Trick f/ Eminem "Welcome 2 Detroit" (2005)
Proof f/ J Dilla "Keep It On the Low" (1994)

Kid Rock's Return

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Despite its being the largest U.S. city with a majority African-American population (more than 82 percent black in the most recent census), many of Detroit's most well-known hip-hop exports have been white rappers. While some are outright clowns, others like Hush and Paradime are earnest protégés of Eminem and Kid Rock. Then there's Rock himself, who resurrected his career in the late 1990s, riding the shotgun marriage of classic rock riffing and redneck riff-raff rapping to multi-platinum success for himself and his crew, which included his sidekick Joe C—who died in 2000 of coeliac disease, the autoimmune system condition that had stunted his growth as a child—and DJ-turned-rapper Uncle Kracker.

Kid Rock "I Wanna Go Back" (1996)
Kid Rock f/ Joe C. & Tino "Early Mornin' Stoned Pimp" (1996)
Kid Rock f/ Joe C "Kyle's Mom Is a Big Fat Bitch" (1999)
Uncle Kracker "Better Days" (2000)
Hush f/ Nate Dogg "Hush Is Coming" (2005)
Paradime "Better Days" (2004)

East vs. West

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The venom of hip-hop's legendary East Coast vs. West Coast feuds played out in microcosm in Detroit, with crews from the city's East Side beefing with those from the West Side. A running dispute over the origin of the nickname "Chedda Boyz" turned fatal in 2004, when Wipeout of the Eastside Chedda Boyz was gunned down outside a Woodward Avenue club; two days later, in apparent retaliation, Blade Icewood of the Street Lord'z was shot seven times in his home. Icewood survived, but was killed in a drive-by shooting at a carwash a year later.

Eastside Chedda Boyz f/ Jesse James "Oh Boy" (2002)
Eastside Chedda Boyz "Chedda Boy Baby" (2002)
Street Lord Juan f/ Chedda Boy Malik, Blade Icewood, G-Rock, & K-Doe "Original Chedda Boys" (2004)
Blade Icewood "Boy Would You" (2004)

Female MCs from Detroit

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In an overtly masculine, frequently misogynist culture like hip-hop, it's notoriously difficult for female rappers to make their own mark, but that didn't deter pioneering old school Motor City MCs like Ms. Nikki D., Smiley, and Boss, the latter widely considered to be the first female gangsta rapper. For the last several years, the prodigiously talented Invincible has been one of Detroit's unsung treasures, eschewing offers of national record deals in favor of a full-time commitment to hip-hop-driven community organizing and political activism.

Ms. Nikki D "Work That Sucker" (1989)Smiley "But I'm Not Friendly" (1990)
Boss "Recipe of a Hoe" (1993)
Invincible f/ Finale "Locusts" (2008)

Detroit's Club Music

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The polar opposite of Invincible's conscious hip-hop is probably the pottymouthed patter of booty bass, the illegitimate love child of electro and gangsta rap. Harder and faster than the similarly salty bass music of Miami or Atlanta, Detroit booty bass became the soundtrack of choice booming out of car speakers on weekend nights at Belle Isle, Detroit's popular island park, and cars cruising down Jefferson Avenue with trunks full of woofers.

DJ Assault "Ass-N-Titties" (1996)DJ Godfather "Player Haters In Dis House" (1998)
Disco D vs Paradime "Detroit Zoo" (2008)

Eleven Phases

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The crosspollination of hip-hop and electronic music has taken other forms besides merely the profane. The largely instrumental hip-hop experiments of Detroit techno producers like Anthony "Shake" Shakir, Robert Hood, Daniel Bell, Claude Young, Kenny Larkin, Eddie "Flashin'" Fowlkes, and Stacey Pullen, for example, were collected on 1998's inspired "Eleven Phases: Detroit Compilation" by Japan's Sublime Records.

Model 500 (Juan Atkins & Robert Hood) "Everyday" (1999)
Hood Scientific "Mystique (Mix-2)" (1998)
Daniel Bell "In the Park" (1998)
Shake "Can't Turn Back" (1998)
Shake "Detroit State of Mind" (1998)

Merging Genres

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There's still an occasionally fertile crossover between Detroit's electronic producers and their hip-hop brethren. Mahogani Music, a label run by Detroit deep house producer Moodymann, has released records by Slum Village's DJ Dez (under the name Andrés) as well as a series of archival recordings culled from unreleased J Dilla tapes, while Dabrye has built a fervent following for his abstract hip-hop grooves, working with MCs like underground titans like MF Doom and Beans.

DJ Dez "All Day All Nite" 2003
Andrés "New For U" (2012)
Dabrye "Smoking the Edge" (2001)
Dabrye "Smoking the Edge" (2001)

Detroit's Underground Scene

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Detroit's underground hip-hop scene remains vital as well, fueled by the work of artists like the Crown Nation collective's Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey, and Nick Speed, who released his debut album (as Nicholas) on Moodymann's Mahogani Music.

Quelle Chris f/ Danny Brown & Roc Marciano "Shotgun" (2011)
Denmark Vessey f/ Quelle Chris "Green Party Swishercrats" (2011)
Denmark Vessey "Cult Classic" (2012)
Nicholas "Streets of Detroit" (2013)
Boldy James "JIMBO" (2011)

Detroit's Current Rap Scene

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In the summer of 2013 the city of Detroit may have declared bankruptcy, but the same can't be said for Motown's hip-hop community. The rise of Big Sean (signed to Kanye West's GOOD Music), the emergence of Danny Brown, and the return of Eminem has Detroit hip-hop gaining more positive attention than ever. Now if only there were a way for record sales to fund the city itself...

Danny Brown "Blunt After Blunt" (2011)
Big Sean "Marvin & Chardonnay" (2011)
Eminem "Berzerk" (2013)
Danny Brown "Dip" (2013)

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