Brooklyn was once considered an incubator for hip-hop, but has it lost its touch? Hannah Olivennes looks into hip-hop’s traveling geographical center.
Last year, Sha Stimuli, a 33-year-old Brooklyn rapper, packed up and moved to Atlanta. He wanted to widen his audience, he says, and the South beckoned. He’s not the only one moving on.
In recent years, there is a growing sense among hip-hop heads that New York, and Brooklyn in particular, is passé. While there are still stars emerging from the borough, the action, the excitement is taking place elsewhere.
“In the last decade, New York has been left behind,” says Sha Stimuli. Although being a Brooklyn rapper may have helped his career ten years ago, today he sees it more as a disadvantage. “Me saying I’m from Brooklyn doesn’t actually help, because there is no novelty there,” he says. “People got bored of Brooklyn and New York.”
But people weren’t always bored of Brooklyn. Hip-hop may have first emerged from the Bronx in the late 1970s, but it is Brooklyn that, for a generation, has been known around the world as the genre’s incubator. Brooklyn, along with the rest of the East Coast, withstood the coming of a rival from the West Coast—and a resulting battle whose intensity escalated into bloodshed, with the murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. More recently, both East and West Coasts have seen the rise of southern hip-hop in such cities as Atlanta and New Orleans, which have produced a sound more focused on the beat than on the political message that made the East Coast’s success.
All the while, the names associated with Brooklyn hip-hop have remained the same—Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Busta Rythmes, M.O.P.—leading to talk that perhaps after all these years Brooklyn, once so essential in hip-hop’s evolution, has lost its touch.
But has it? As Notorious B.I.G. once rapped, “where Brooklyn at? “
Wes Jackson, president of Brooklyn Bodega and executive director of The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival believes that Brooklyn is still full of talent, but says that some people thought being “made in Brooklyn” was enough. “I think a lot of artists in Brooklyn are resting on their laurels a little too much,” he says, “Some New York artists forgot that you still have to put in work. Just ‘cause you live off the A Train, it don’t mean nothing.”
For Jackson, who was born in the Bronx, New York hip-hop never disappeared. It’s just that everyplace else caught up with New York. “I think it’s still happening in Brooklyn as much as anywhere else, there is a ton of quality hip-hop artists here. The problem is now there are quality artists everywhere.
Artists like Sha Stimuli who have moved away say it’s hard to start a career in New York because, in their view, the local media are less than supportive. “The radio stars in New York aren’t from New York,” he says. “If you go to a club, the hottest records aren’t from New York.”
Rapper Donny Goines also made the move from New York this summer. Born in Manhattan, he grew up between the Bronx and Harlem. “Radios don’t play New York rappers,” he says, “and the bosses are going outside to get their talent.” Sha Stimuli still believes radio DJs have the power to make a rappers career. “Radio DJs can change things,” he says, “They can decide to play New York artists and show that New York is still a relevant force.”
For others, blaming that lack of support and airtime is often used as an excuse. “Mainstream radio, media and the major blogs have a tendency to look down or not support some of the artists from New York, that’s true,” says Manny Faces, founder and editor-In-chief of Birthplace Magazine, an online publication that focuses on New York hip-hop. “But let me also say that some of the artists use that as a an escape, as a cop-out. If you’re not making it but you’re from New York, is it because radio and media doesn’t support you? That may be part of it, but maybe it’s also because it’s not that appealing for the rest of the country.”
And with the rise of social media and YouTube, airtime and press clippings seem out of date as the chief marketing weapons. With websites like KickStarter, a fundraising platform for creative projects, record deals don’t seem as essential to success as they used to be. “The music industry is changing,” says Manny Faces, “and probably across the board not just in hip-hop—it is becoming a little more indie friendly. You see it with artists like Mac Miller from Pittsburgh, who just sold 150,000 records in his first week with no label!” Donny Goines, for example, has a direct distribution deal with iTunes. He released his latest album, Success Served Cold, in November without the help of a label, but with the support of sponsorships by big clothing brands such as Rocawear and Artful Dodger. While the Internet has opened up many avenues for undiscovered artists it has also vastly widened the market.
Wes Jackson of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival sees a danger in this. He compares hip-hop to a young growing plant. “You want the plant to grow,” he says. “But you still have to prune it and cut the weeds out. You still want growth, lack of growth is death. The danger is that the weeds will strangle you and your death will be your own success.”
Corey Smyth, who grew up on 125th Street and St Nicholas Avenue in Harlem and is now a key figure in New York’s Hip-Hop world believes that location is playing an ever decreasing role in Hip-Hop success. Smyth, founder of Blacksmith Management, Blacksmith Music Corp., and Blacksmith Corporation among other companies—he has worked with De La Soul, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, whom he still manages—says that being a New York rapper is no longer sufficient to attract record labels.
“An area doesn’t make you bankable,” he says. “Being from L.A, New York, Chicago, none of that makes you hot. What makes you hot is that you are. And the way you perceive your surroundings and the way you’re able to regurgitate that back into an art form. That’s what makes you hot. You could be from anywhere.”
Still, hip-hop retains a certain regionalism—one that is no longer limited to the coasts, as Sha Stimuli and Donny Goines have discovered.
“Other regions of the country rose to prominence,” says Manny Faces, “When Cash Money first started the New Orleans thing, they were doing their thing locally and selling lots of records and mixtapes. When the music business figured this out, and when Wendy Day got Cash Money their $30 million distribution deal, then it swiveled. The music business flooded, and they all turned their heads and started signing people.”
Is that just the natural evolution of a music genre that is barely 40-years-old? Probably, says Manny Faces: “Hip-hop being such a expressive form, where you’re not blindly following a formula. It has to evolve to the point where it means different things to different people.”
So how did the South emerge as a strong voice in hip-hop? Arguably, one of the first southern hip-hop acts to make a difference was Outkast. “They were hot, for southern rappers,” says Sha Stimuli. “That was the way we were trained to think. When they came out, we didn’t dissect them as people who could take the crown.” A decade later southern hip-hop is topping the charts with artists like Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, Young Jeezy… “It’s been 10 years that southern rappers are spitting fire, it’s not a novelty anymore,” he says, “but it has never penetrated New York the way it has now.”
If southern rappers are sending out messages, the meaning may not be the same and the overall sound is different. It makes the rhythm resonate in your rib cage, it sounds greasier, grimmer. New York hip-hop has the mind going in a hundred different directions to understand the meaning of the lyrics. It makes you try and dissect the meaning behind the rhyme, like poetry. In Decoded, Jay-Z’s autobiography, he says the first reason for writing the book was to make the case that hip-hop lyrics were poetry if you looked at them closely enough.
Rappers are not the only artists to be moving to Atlanta; the city has become a hotspot for black entertainment. And there is a wider migration movement that has occurred in the last 10 years. From 2000 to 2010, according to a study by the Bookings Institute based on the 2010 Census, three quarters of the nation’s black population gain occurred in the South, while the black population saw a drop in northern metropolitan areas. Where even ten years ago Blacks were migrating to the North, there are moving back down to the South. With them, the entertainment industry is flourishing in the big cities Dallas or Houston, and especially Atlanta.
Donny Goines didn’t rush into his decision of moving to Atlanta. He wanted to stay in New York.
“I tried to be my hometown hero,” he says, “but I felt limited because overall, a lot of other artists are bitter and jealous of each other, they’re not working together.” After trying to be a rapper in New York, he gave up. “It became redundant and an exercise of futility,” he says, “I left to become strong and represent my city. I’m still rapping like a New Yorker.” A few months in and there are no regrets. “This is the best career move I’ve made,” he says. Eventually, he plans to return to his hometown. He wants to make enough money to be able to donate half of his earnings to the charity he supports, as well as live in comfort, hopefully in “a nice artist’s loft” back in New York. He hopes to change the image he believes New Yorker rappers have, of not being profitable. “There is a negative connotation in being a New York Hip-Hop artist,” he says, “I want to prove people wrong.”
Still, even with the rise of southern hip-hop, New York remains a force, in good measure because of its history. In 2010, Joshua Atesh Litle directed the documentary, The Furious Force of Rhymes, for which he traveled around the world to meet hip-hop artists “New York City was the complete inspiration,” he says. “Some of the major artists who inspired these artists were Wu Tang Clan, Mob Deep, Jay-Z and Public Enemy.” All from New York.
For Sha Stimuli, fans still connect with the New York sound of the early 1990s, that of positive-minded groups like De La Soul or a Tribe Called Quest with their Afrocentric themes, although addressing society’s issues—the pioneers of conscious hip-hop. “There are still people out there who love that sound,” he says. “New York rap is still loved and adored.” In fact this year, Q-Tip, the leader of the 1990s iconic group A Tribe Called Quest filled his concert at the 2011 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival.
But New York’s endurance is not only a matter of celebrating the past. Corey Smyth is working on Talib Kweli’s new album. A young girl from Harlem, Azeaila Banks was everywhere on the web with her song 212. And of course there is ASAP Rocky. “New York always has a moment,” says Smyth. “It may not saturate the world but there is always something out. There’s always something poppin’. And if it ain’t poppin’ today, it’ll be poppin’ tomorrow.”
In fact, this year, Harlem-born rapper ASAP Rocky achieved what Sha Stimuli or Donny Goines could not: his first album—Live Love ASAP—was played on New York radio stations. He was even taken on board by Canadian superstar rapper Drake for his next tour. But there is something else that differentiates him from other New York rappers. He prides himself in not sounding like a New Yorker. “I don’t even like New York rappers,” he told The New York Times.
And he really doesn’t sound like them. With a slower, mushy sound, ASAP Rocky has the flow of a Southern rapper. Sha Stimuli was even surprised to find out he was from his hometown. “When I first heard him,” he says, “I thought he was from Houston!” ASAP Rocky has become a topic of conversation among Hip-Hop heads as an example of how hip-hop has widened its fan base.
“ASAP Rocky has a $3 million dollar deal even though he’s from Harlem but sounds like he’s from Houston,” says Manny Faces, who adds that ASAP Rocky proves his point that there can be local support, but only where there is talent.
“New Yorkers have never stopped trying to make music, and there has always been an underground scene here,” he says. “I think in recent years, it has even become more thriving. So the relevance, in terms of the business and media, is actually something very progressive and brewing.” His work, with Birthplace Magazine, is aimed at demonstrating that New York is, in fact, still relevant. “We write exclusively about New York hip-hop, to the general music world, and for the general audience, New York hasn’t had the perceived relevance as it used to have.” Birthplace regularly publishes a column called “5 Reasons Why New York Hip-Hop Doesn’t Suck.”
“New York is still very much on the cusp of what’s hot, what’s fashionable, what’s cutting edge because that’s just New York,” Smyth says. “Being a New Yorker in hip-hop is a privilege. It’s helped define me to a large degree. It’s afforded me insight that you couldn’t have gotten unless you were in New York at the time.” Having studied at Morehouse College, Smyth, too, lived in Atlanta. But, he adds, he never really left New York. “Leaving? You can move, but you can’t leave it. It’s too much to leave. It’s in you.”
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