Special Delivery: May's Best NYC Hip-Hop

Will Cee
Will Cee
Photo courtesy of the artist

In New York, there’s a sizable disparity between rappers who have “made it” and rappers on the come-up, with very little middle ground. There are the recognized newcomers, A$AP Rocky and Joey Bada$$, who represent New York well, and whom everyone knows — but there’s still a division of independent and underground MCs left largely unexplored. Oddly enough, the internet and its wealth of information doesn’t really help. New York’s positioning as the epicenter of hip-hop has been lost in the melee of the Web: Other cities are continually cropping up to challenge Gotham. So we ask, who is the Empire State’s new class of hip-hop — who is the new New York? In this month’s edition of Special Delivery, we pool together a collection of ripe talent for you to delve into, some who are green, and some who are on the rise; some who honor New York’s musical past, and some who push the boundaries. Because sometimes, all you gotta do is dig.

Manhattan

Bishop Nehru, “It’s Whateva”
Bishop Nehru came up alongside Joey Bada$$ and A$AP Mob and is doing pretty well for himself. He’s landed co-signs from Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, a mentor in Nas, a deal with Mass Appeal Records, and collaborations with MF Doom, Dizzy Wright, and 9th Wonder. He does classic East Coast rap justice, but he also adds layers to his music to propel the sound forward. On “It’s Whateva,” the first single from upcoming mixtape Magic 19, Nehru employs resoundingly deep 808s and brassy percussion, reminding us that he’s deserved his accolades — and that while people hate, he’s only going to get better.

A$AP TyY, “Grapes”
With A$AP Rocky, A$AP Yams (R.I.P.), A$AP Ferg, and A$AP Nast picking up most of the A$AP Mob spotlight, it’s easy to forget that the roster has at times included as many as sixteen rappers. With such a large crew, some are bound to get lost in the fold, including A$AP TyY, a Mob member who stepped away from the hype when the group began to pick up steam in 2011. Now he’s released his debut nineteen-track opus, Best Kept Secret, and while the entire tape is an exercise in resonant bass and 808s, it’s tracks like “Grapes” that really stand out. Certainly, the bass is still there, but it’s toned down by melodic background vocals and TyY’s laid-back, drawn-out raps (though his flow is still true to the Mob and their Harlem home).

Will Cee, “Treasure”
Still at the very start of his career, the novice rapper Will Cee builds off the history of the city, where every borough and every neighborhood has a story to tell. On “Treasure,” he flexes his pen, bragging about accomplishments he plans to breeze past, with Swum and RSNZ’s production ripping out a page from storied musicians like MF Doom, Knxwledge, A Tribe Called Quest, and J Dilla.

Brooklyn

Chuck Strangers, “34th & Beverley”
Like A$AP Mob, Pro Era rolls deep, and Joey Bada$$ is its assumed leader. As more notoriety gets thrown in Joey’s general direction, Pro Era prospers and the rest of his cohort — particularly Kirk Knight — gains more ground. Known more for his production, Chuck Strangers flies under the radar as a performer, but he brandishes his rap skills on “34th & Beverley,” a symbol of gratitude for his East Flatbush neighborhood. While his beat certainly falls in line with Joey’s usual boom-bap marinade, Strangers adds an impassioned, soulful guitar, which reminds you of familiar things, of home — even if you’re not from Brooklyn.

Black EL, “Kid Icarus”
While Black EL is new to Brooklyn, he’s not new to hip-hop — he’s been making music for nearly a decade in his hometown of Boston. Over the last couple years, he and producers Durkin and Victor Radz have been developing what they like to call “space wave,” a subgenre trademarked by its effervescent, ethereal qualities. Now, the team has refined that sound even more with a stream of loosies, the latest one being “Kid Icarus,” where they take space wave’s atmospheric nature and create something even more lush. The track is still true to EL, matching his vocal melodies with a deft flow — but it’s also brimming with a pulsating bass and snapping drums, à la Durkin, whose specialty has become matching house-like rhythms with hip-hop production.

PAT RZL, “Melanin”
Brooklyn’s PAT RZL astonished the crowd with her song “Melanin” at the first Pigeons & Planes open mic night at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side. Opening with an almost juicy, saccharine trumpet, the song features an energized RZL, as she aims to uplift herself and other people of color. With such a sobering subject, it’s easy to create an equally sobering beat, but producer Stunnah Beatz picks up the pace to create something seductive, while still being able to retain the potency.

Bronx

DOT Demo, “Plugged”
Lyricism and poignancy aren’t lost, and DOT Demo is proof, using his music as a means to tell stories of his surroundings. His style and concept naturally tap conventional New York rap, but rather than being heavy-handed, he’s tactful and deliberate. On “Plugged” he plays off the two dominant populations in the Bronx, rapping in both English and Spanish, his flow easy-going and nostalgic. But he reinforces these elements with a reverberating bass, sharp hi-hats and a sweet-sounding flute, instrumentation that looks toward the new school of rap.

$ha Hef, “Po’ It Out The Brick”
Plain and simple, “Po’ It Out The Brick” is an homage: lean Bronx rapper $ha Hef opens the track by paying respect to Three 6 Mafia, Plain Pat, and UGK’s illustrious “Sippin' on Some Sizzurp.” But “Po’ It Out The Brick,” from Hunnit Round Hef’s latest project Krime Pay$: The Re-Up, instead relies on skeletal production and verses dripping in bravado. It’s a brazen, drug-fueled song that follows his same aesthetic of villainous beats and pithy lyrics, an echo of the hard-knock life into which he was born.

Kemba, “The New Black Theory”
Kemba is the newest embodiment of the artist formerly known as YC the Cynic, and “The New Black Theory” is our introduction to this latest chapter. The last we heard from the Bronx rapper was his 2013 mixtape GNK — Gods, Niggers, Kings — a project rich in religion and history, sonically dark and lyrically grim. With “The New Black Theory,” he extends those same themes, but with etchings of a lighter, bouncier aesthetic motif; you could almost read it as hope, seeking answers in addition to asking the questions about the black American experience.

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New Jersey

MoRuf, “Golden Lakes”
Unlike many artists, MoRuf doesn’t hide behind bass or use it as a crutch, instead letting soulful rhythms reveal his artistry. The mark of his influences, like J Dilla and Madlib, are evident, planting him firmly in “soulhop” terrain. “Golden Lakes” speaks to that label, the mellow, understated production — accented by softened keys, hi-hats and drums — allowing MoRuf to remain vulnerable and visceral, two characteristics that sit at the core of his skill. At a time when bass is king, hearing a bit of neo-soul is rejuvenating.


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