In the 30 plus years of its history, the pendulum of influence in hip-hop has swung between a few cities and regions — New York, California, the Dirty South (which has at various times been voiced by Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta).
It's a tough nut to crack — dominating the sound and style of hip-hop music for any stretch of time. And while Detroit may not have a singular sound or any one artist spawning imitators even outside city lines, at this moment, five rappers from the area are in the national spotlight. The cliques that once divvied up Motor City's underground hip-hop scene have begun working together, intersecting on records, on stage and in national media.
In the context of a city known for its poverty, crime and fallen businesses, the shift is notable. And though the collaborations that are happening now are not the only reason these artists — Royce Da 5'9", Black Milk, Danny Brown, FowL and Big Sean — are enjoying real visibility, it certainly doesn't hurt their cause.
"When we first started, if you went anywhere abroad and said that you were a Detroit rapper, nobody cared," Royce Da 5'9" remembers. "We kind of have a name now. We've grinded to the point that we've created a standard that I'm very proud of. We have to live up to that standard."
Since those early days a few hip-hop musicians have given Detroit a taste of glory — but none have managed to spread the love onto every upandcomer that shares the 313 area code or create the kind of infrastructure that could support a burgeoning scene. And, aside from Eminem, the most influential albums and artists have remained under the radar of mainstream media and commercial radio.
We all remember Eminem's pop takeover in the late 1990s when he paired his potty-mouthed brilliance with veteran producer Dr. Dre's beats and industry experience, going on to become the best-selling artist of the 2000s. His record label, Shady Records, helped other city talent like his group D12 and solo artist Obie Trice taste platinum-certified success as well. 8 Mile, the semi-autobiographical film about Eminem that was named after a road in Detroit, featured cameos by the likes of Detroit underground staples such as Miz Korona and MarvWon (some in bonus DVD footage).
But until recently, that's where the mainstream visibility ended. Legendary producer James "J Dilla" Yancey laid an audible blueprint for what would later be categorized as "neo-soul" music, and contributed songs to superstars such as Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson and Common. Still, he didn't get his just due until 2006, after he died of complications from lupus. Yancey's group, Slum Village, also enjoyed limited chart success but never completely broke through into mainstream circles.
For years, Detroit's rap scene was largely self-sustained. Acts from the city and the surrounding area, like DeShaun "Proof" Holton (D12 member and Eminem's best friend) and Elzhi, made their rounds in venues like The Hip-Hop Shop and The Shelter before becoming regional indie powerhouses.
"It started out as an individual thing. Now, I think all of us realize it can't be an individual thing," says Royce Da 5'9". "We've all been self-contained over the years, but now we realize there's strength in numbers. It's good to be unified, as opposed to everyone on their own agenda."
Royce earned early critical acclaim as both a solo emcee and as a rhyme partner of Eminem in the duo Bad Meets Evil (the two met in 1997), but his career has had its share of setbacks. The label he was signed to folded and his album was bootlegged. A working relationship with Dr. Dre went awry when Royce's manager leaked info that he ghostwrote on Dre's 2001. Royce also had a public, drawn-out feud with Eminem and D12 that resulted in a series of scathing diss tracks and even street violence.
After a year-long prison stint for a DUI, Royce resurrected his career with a mixtape series entitled Bar Exam (for which he worked with legendary producer DJ Premier) and in 2008 resolved the tension with Eminem. The next year, rapper Joe Budden formed the indie rap supergroup Slaughterhouse with Royce, Joell Ortiz and Crooked I. Impressed by the group's self-titled debut, Eminem signed the group to Shady Records.
With a new business relationship in the works and their friendship repaired, Royce and Eminem reunited as the duo Bad Meets Evil and released Hell: The Sequel, an EP that showcased Eminem largely abandoning his pop sensibilities for the two to revisit their gritty, underground roots.
The EP debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard 200, the Bruno Mars-assisted single "Lighters" peaked at number five on the Billboard Hot 100 and Royce has traveled with Eminem to perform at festivals worldwide. As Royce quips on the duo's first single, "Fast Lane," "Me and Shady deaded the past, so that basically resurrected my cash flow."
"Things are a little easier," the 37-year-old admits. "I think it's the same story that anyone would have if they stuck it out, fought and was a warrior."
Black Milk, a younger veteran of the city's hip-hop scene, prefers to stay away from the major label system. The 28-year-old wunderkind has established himself as one of indie rap's most prolific acts, with nearly a dozen solo and collaborative releases as a producer and rapper under his belt, including Random Axe — the eponymous debut of his group with fellow Detroiter Guilty Simpson and New York emcee Sean Price. He's also lent soundbeds to the likes of GZA of Wu-Tang Clan, Lloyd Banks and Slum Village.
But his most surprising collaboration occurred last April, when Black's management was contacted by yet another musician from Detroit — rocker Jack White. The former White Stripes frontman discovered Black's music through the music video for "Deadly Medley," the Elzhi and Royce-assisted single from his 2010 opus Album of the Year, and invited him to his Nashville, Tenn., studio to record together (Black recounts the experience on his web site). The two released a single and b-side, "Brain" and "Royal Mega," on vinyl and iTunes.
In July Black signed copies of the vinyl at Detroit's Peoples Records. "It was funny to see older white people come through to the store and ask if they had Black Milk vinyl. There was an old lady who looked like she was 60, man," Black remembers, adding that the project garnered press from media outlets he isn't usually covered in. "It was dope to see a different kind of music lover that supported what I was doing. I've got fans of all races, but that age difference [was new]."
Black also said that his record with White is more indicative of the music he wants to make in the future, and that he wants to continue to build with the audience that still buys vinyl. In the meantime, Black stays productive: he has three instrumental albums ready for release and an EP with Danny Brown, called Black and Brown, due out Nov. 1.
Though he's currently enjoying national attention, Black says people in Detroit notice his work more than those elsewhere. "I think the people that live here pay attention to it more than people that don't live here," he says. "People outside the city don't pay attention to where an artist is from as much as who lives in that city. It's definitely a great look for us, and the audience isn't even aware that all these cats are from the D."
While Detroit veterans with nearly a decade of experience are just now getting the exposure they deserve, new blood is becoming prominent on a national level.
Big Sean met Kanye West in 2005 while West was promoting the eventually triple-platinum-certified Late Registration. West was impressed when Sean rapped for him and ended up signing the teenager to his G.O.O.D. Music imprint two years later.
His style heavily influenced a group of rappers including Drake, Nicki Minaj and Kanye — he calls it the "Supa Dupa flow" — you've heard it as a rhyme style of similes and metaphors punctuated by one-word punchlines (an example from Drake's verse on "Forever": "Swimmin' in the money, come and find me. Nemo.")
But he stayed in limbo for a couple years, leaving fans — and himself — worried. After self-releasing several mixtapes, appearing on many of the free tracks Kanye gave away in the leadup to the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and building his buzz with dozens of shows around the country, a suited Big Sean spewed a witty, show-stealing freestyle alongside Common, Pusha T, CyHi Da Prynce and Kanye in a promotional video for BET's Hip-Hop Awards that also aired during the show last fall. "Detroit's angel, I even have red wings," he rhymed, in a reference to the city's dominant hockey team. "Last year I was watching from the couch, and now I'm here. / That should let you know what I'm about."
Def Jam released Big Sean's star-studded (Pharrell, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West) debut, Finally Famous, in late June. His first single, the Chris Brown-assisted "My Last," reached Number 1 on the Billboard Rap/R&B charts, and Sean has built a bubbling modeling career with endorsement deals with Adidas, Ray-Bans, Ti$A and more. He shows allegiance to his hometown by namedropping the West Side of Detroit in virtually song and wearing Detroit sports memorabilia regularly.
"Whether you like me or don't like me, you can't deny the fact that I be reppin' hard for the city," he says. The day before I spoke to him, on a day off from tour with friend and chart-topper Wiz Khalifa, Sean was in New York City. He did interviews at three radio shows, attended three parties and four business meetings, and snuck in some quality time with his mother. "I rock Red Wings everything, and, even on 106 and Park, I was doing the Blade [a dance originated by Detroit street emcee Blade Icewood]. It's important to rep your city first."
FowL represented his city on the national stage last summer — and took home the title of best freestyle rapper in the country. The charismatic 20-year-old had already garnered a respectable fan base with mixtapes and freestyles, but in August 2010, he won the Red Bull EmSee Battle — the final round was held in Detroit and judged by Eminem.
Both before and after, FowL has maintained healthy relationships with Detroit veterans and youngsters alike: his crowds are full of teens and 20-somethings, but his latest mixtape, Good Vibes, features a beat from HouseShoes, a respected Detroit DJ who ran with J Dilla and is considered an ambassador for the city's rap scene.
"As a person, and someone who loves music and grew up in Detroit, I was blessed to see these people up close, face to face," says FowL. He says he's heard both good and bad music on local radio in his city. "Everybody on the underground tip is much better, but the other people are more popular. I have to find a way to get the best of both worlds."
Danny Brown has emerged within the past two years as one of the most buzzworthy names in indie rap. Last year he signed to Fool's Gold, the indie label headed by DJs A-Trak and Nick Catchdubs. Despite making songs specifically about the Detroit experience — "Cartier" is about the popular and deadly trend, a trend Brown has spoken against, of people getting robbed for their designer glasses — he says that city-dwellers dislike his wacky haircut and clothing choices.
"Detroit's a close-minded city. People always talking s--- back home, but it's been embraced outside of home. It's depressing at times," Brown laments, recounting stares and laughs. "Can you imagine me walking round Northland on a Saturday? S---'s crazy. But let me walk thru the Beverly Center on a Saturday, no one pays me any attention."
Brown has since moved to Royal Oak, a suburban city outside of Detroit. Despite the move, songs like "Detroit 187," "Fields" or "Scrap Or Die" from his latest album, XXX, still show listeners the gritty realities of his hometown: violence, abandoned houses and scrapping metal for extra money.
"Somebody's got to tell the story," he says. "I just want people to know what it's actually like here, like Nas did Queensbridge for me when I was a kid."
Much of the success hip-hop musicians from the Detroit area are seeing today has followed tough times. J Dilla, Proof and Blade Icewood, who anchored disparate groups of rappers and producers, all died in the mid '00s. While acts like Guilty Simpson, Finale and One Be Lo (from neighboring city, Pontiac) have maintained successful indie careers, for the five rappers hitting hardest right now it's been a rollercoaster ride.
But there are signs of progress. Big Sean's "Hometown Heroes" show in the Detroit area last December was received well, and Black Milk's release party for Album of the Year last fall packed St. Andrews Hall, one of the city's most known concert venues. Danny Brown is currently on tour with popular indie rappers Das Racist. Slaughterhouse is at work on its major label debut. FowL says it hasn't been easy, but his lofty goals remain the same: sell 10 million records, and become the greatest rapper of all time.
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