Last year a small, underground pocket of NYC-based hip-hop found its voice again. With Roc Marciano’s unimpeachable Marcberg album as the catalyst, a crew of loosely associated artists shook off that tired cliché about our city’s commercial-outsider status and, for the first time since the height of the Dipset era, reaped the dividends of pulling from their immediate environment. They dropped tracks paying tribute to graffiti culture, rattled off rhymes about various Queens neighborhoods as if reading from a street map, shot videos on the type of deli-and-produce-stand-populated blocks you walk down every day, and, fittingly for a city where everyone’s an amateur chowhound, embraced a recurring culinary sub-theme: mixtapes titled after ghee, say, or raps mentioning pan-seared tilapia and heirloom vegetables.
There’s no snappy, collective tag for the sound, and no sense that the whole thing’s about to be co-opted by major labels and established artists. It’s not led by teenagers, and there’s certainly no quirky signature dance. But that all just adds to the organic charm. It’s healthy hearing local artists celebrating the city around them — consider it the aural equivalent of shopping at outer-borough mom-and-pop stores, rather than indulging the big-box invasion of Manhattan. Here, then, are the five leading rap acts chronicling the authentic sound of New York in 2011.
Flushing lifer Action Bronson can lay claim to probably the only hip-hop song to include the ad lib, “Is that prosciutto?” It’s fitting, as the 27-year-old rapper holds down day duties as a chef, has dropped a series of instructional YouTube spots showing how to sear Ahi tuna and correctly chop an onion, and readily references James Beard and Napa Valley vineyards in his lyrics. But if the culinary arts give Bronson the type of background that would at one time have seen him touted around by an a&r as something like “the hip-hop chef,” his raps are straight-up serious: On last year’s “Imported Goods,” his densely stacked lines bring to mind the (literally) breathless flows of the late Big Pun as he drops localized slang and weaves in vignettes of the crime life.
Brilliantly, Bronson’s videos showcase the type of lo-fi slices of NYC life that wouldn’t look out of place on something spliced together by Ricky Powell back in his days running around town with the Beastie Boys. “Imported Goods” is like a promotional spot for Flushing; “Get Off My P.P.” showcases Bronson rapping on an overpass at La Guardia Airport. And on “Shiraz,” home to the aforesaid prosciutto ad lib, Bronson — “heavy-bearded like I’m Jesus” and rocking “Fila jumpsuits, sandals” — frames coarse braggadocio over a beat anchored by a sleazy flute sample crafted by Team Facelift’s Tommy Mas while mingling with former addicts in a park in the Bronx. (“You can’t pay for talent like that,” he says.)
Presently out of action in the kitchen after breaking his ankle, Bronson is recording tracks for a collaborative project with the producer Statik Selektah while readying the release of his debut album, Dr. Lecter, which will drop in early March. “You’re not gonna hear catchy hooks, I’m not gonna be doing any dances along to my songs, and I don’t have any hidden agenda,” he promises. “I’m just here to bring good music to the people for your enjoyment.”
Maffew Ragazino Sr.
Ten years ago Clark Kent, the DJ whose talent-scouting résumé includes Jay-Z and Shyne, walked into a record store near Glenwood Houses in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and heard a 15-year-old kid spitting. As Kent remembers it, “He was tearing the mic in half.” That kid was Maffew Ragazino, who has Kent recalling the moment on “Battle of the Metropolis,” the opening track on last year’s Where I’m From: The Experience EP and the recently released round-up mixtape, Rare Gems: The Collection.
Growing up under the influence of a hip-hop- and sneaker-obsessed uncle during the genre’s golden era, Ragazino remembers pointing an antenna outside their apartment window to pick up late-night Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito broadcasts; fittingly, his confident rhymes show deference to the culture’s history via name-checks to being “Slick Rick fly” and interpolations of Run-DMC bars. More importantly, Ragazino’s aura brims with Brooklyn pride, most monumentally on his Nottz-produced collaboration with fellow Brownsville representer Masta Ace, “Where I’m From.” An intricately detailed insider’s guide to the area, the duo go back and forth name-checking individual blocks, buildings, and the area’s street legends and rap royalty. (The hook-up with Ace came about through producer Sha Banga and Ace’s DJ, Steady Pace.)
Talking about his heritage, Ragazino says, “I want to be the voice for a neighborhood that was sorta forgotten about. Of course we have Masta Ace, Sean Price, and the whole Boot Camp Clik, but these days, as far as new artists, they’re not looking at anyone from my neighborhood. I want to be the person to tell Brownsville’s story.” The next chapter in Ragazino’s tale is a street album with DJ Teddy King titled Rhyme Pays and the Vinyl Destination EP with production unit Vinyl Frontiers.
When Meyhem Lauren wrote “Got the Fever,” he intended it to be “just my personal tribute to the culture of graffiti.” His salute resonated, with the accompanying YouTube video, which shows graff artists getting up against the stark beauty of the city’s concrete and metal frame, clocking up over 100,000 views and inspiring comments like, “Hello hip-hop — nice to see you again!” It’s a just acknowledgment for Meyhem, whose rapping roots go back to his first mixtape in 2004, but who hopes to cash in on the years of hard work with the release of the 41-track Self Induced Illness (out this week on iTunes, with a physical release to follow later this month) and two other full-length projects, featuring production from Just Blaze and Large Professor, to be released before 2011’s end.
Lauren is a pivotal figure in this strata of New York hip-hop — he’s worked with everyone else on this list — and the Ralph Lauren Polo clothing aficionado has coined something of a statement of intent by heading up the posse cut “Ray Lewis” with fellow members of the Outdoorsmen crew Action Bronson and A.G. Da Coroner (not related to D.I.T.C.’s A.G. the Giant). Over a lumbering, horn-driven beat, the MCs define themselves as offering up “HBO rap, not regular TV.”
When not making music, the Queens-based Meyhem prides himself on being a “food connoisseur.” He named his last mixtape Clarified Butter, after the pure butter fat commonly used in Indian cooking. “It’s a more refined butter, like our music,” he says.
Roc Marcy isn’t new to this. The Long Island-based rapper escaped a spell in Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad (less fortunate alumni: Baby Sham, Spliff Star), and as part of the U.N. dropped the underground favorite U.N. Or U Out in 2004. But last year’s Marcberg heralded the arrival of a bona fide solo artist. Over 13 self-produced tracks (plus obligatory intro and outro), he effectively captured the texture of the day-to-day sound of the city. When you’re wading through dirty snow and slush only to arrive at a congested subway car, this is your soundtrack. As Marcy puts it, “Ain’t no palm trees/And this ain’t r&b/We sippin’ Dom P/Listening to Ron G.”
True, there’s a whiff of the Wu and early Nas about the project, but only in a dignified way: The sorrowful “It’s a Crime” is the sort of production you wished GZA would drop a nefarious narrative over, while the elegiac “Thugs Prayer” is a block-corner sermon of the type Nasir used to pride himself on penning. But Marcy’s sound doesn’t come over as dated — it’s like a gritty beacon for how New York rap can remain modern and relevant while still connecting with its roots. (The track “Panic” alone, all jittery cowbells and skewed synths, is enough to dead any tired boom-bap accusations.)
Upon its original April release last year, Marcberg‘s promotional push might have teetered on the non-existent, but critics, local artists, and savvy fans picked up on the album’s importance: It placed as the eighth best rap album in 2010’s Pazz & Jop poll, besting more publicized efforts from Waka Flocka Flame, B.o.B. and Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt. Steadily, Marcy is becoming NY’s guest-rapper du jour. It’ll be out on vinyl soon; after that, Marcy plans to drop another full-length project before the year is out, reasoning, “I know what I’m doing, I’m a veteran.”
“If you’re a true New Yorker, we’re music to your eardrums — it’s just hard beats and hard rhymes.” So promises O-Prime, who, along with his biological brother Solace, makes up the Flushing-based group Timeless Truth. It’s a vow many a proud New York rapper has made before, but with tracks like the furious “World Renown (Corona Queens Remix)” (featuring Q-boro icon Kool G Rap) and “Priceless” (co-starring the Boot Camp Clik’s punchline king Sean Price), they show the skills and sincerity necessary to back up that claim.
Timeless Truth’s soon-coming but years-in-the-making debut LP, Rock’it Science, is currently being mixed by Eddie Sancho (the engineer behind D&D Studio classics from Jay-Z, Nas, and Gang Starr), and will feature Roc Marciano and Action Bronson — collaborators O-Prime calls “part of the inner circle.” He feels that the momentum is building for a “New York rap renaissance,” thanks to “the right people now getting in the right places, and the spotlight going to where it’s supposed to be.” But don’t mistake the purist talk for a retro thing. As O-Prime raps on “World Renown,” “This is East Coast rap, not a cheap throwback.”