New York hip-hop is in good health. It seems churlish, nigh on disrespectful, to even question its wellbeing considering it’s, well, New York - the birthplace of rap, realness and foundation within a big city of dreams, and long the cause for street Dick Whittingtons to sling rhyme-filled bindles over their shoulders.
We can sit here all day reeling off pioneers and legends from the Five Boroughs. The Golden Age is long gone, pundits say, destined never to return. True or not, there is still Jay-Z, who remains arguably the biggest, most recognisable, most influential rapper on the planet. There is Nicki Minaj as the corresponding inverse. Nas returned to form with last year’s ‘Life is Good’ (with the enormous bread and butter, where-you-at moment ‘The Don’), to show that exhaustively fertile Queensbridge can still stir itself into something spectacular. Though far from his heyday, 50 Cent is still getting rich with the assistance of Adam Levein and Eminem, re-finding the charts with pop-readied boom-bap. The Kool Keith-helmed Luv NY explicitly shows it allegiance, as does Azealia Banks’ reading from the phonebook, and the likes of Action Bronson spit in a way that uphold all that is good and proper (“if you're from New York and you're in the rap game you’re expected to be nice; you’re not expected to be on some bullshit.”) Roc Marciano, MFN eXquire…let’s face it, NYC isn’t exactly short on firepower or has to go looking too far for new microphone administrators.
But by the same means, it is developing a core of insiders looking out, eschewing the accepted idea of NYC being a make-or-break Mecca on its own terms. If you’re out the loop or still clinging to Capone & Noreaga’s ‘The War Report’, you cannot ignore A$AP Rocky (plus Mob) doing New York with a Southern-taut trap style – drum machine booms and skitters wrapped in an infectious, substance-aided stupor that both slows and sharpens. Clearly it’s at odds with perceived Big Apple customs, but a Harlem zip code cannot be argued with. It’s a pot-pourried coup exerting the sound of the ‘Beast Coast’ - though not strictly an NY thing - that goes on to cover the wired, brain-sousing trap chemists Flatbush Zombies (“hip-hop is dead, Zombies for pres”), line-blurring tour de force Ratking, and The Underachievers, who flag up ‘New New York’ by ironically keeping it real, from their hot ‘Indigoism’ mixtape. Both hail from traditional NY hotspots with twists of the template and adaptations of origins found up and down the country, rather than just keeping to the right of your wall map. The DJ Premier-endorsed Joey Bada$$ and his Pro Era crew pay most dues in this sense, going by their ‘Peep The Aprocalypse’ mixtape and especially with the sampled shout-outs on ‘Florists’. Notably all keep a youthful perspective of inter-crew camaraderie, waving the banner for if it bangs, who cares about its passport.
Whether facing a state of flux, a healthy headway being made or a changing of the guard, NY (like it or not) is having to let its hip-hop become as cosmopolitan as, well, someone like pro-East Coast reviver French Montana - born in Morocco, repping the Bronx and rolling with Rick Ross. Nowadays it’s too easy to regionalise hip-hop into sound categories with their own insular, close-ended particulars: the game simply doesn’t keep its own counsel like that anymore. Don’t be shocked: Ice Cube worked with the Bomb Squad as an example of early 90s cultural exchange, mirrored years down the line by El-P (Brooklyn) blanket producing last year’s lauded ‘RAP Music’ album by Killer Mike (Atlanta) in a true and vital East-South soundclash.
Maybe NY – and the world – has been waiting too long and too stubbornly for the new Jigga or Nasir Jones, still hoping that Biggie reloaded or Rakim 2.0 has been waiting on some corner, poring over newspaper cuttings celebrating past giants. If there’s complacency or a notion that because NY is what it is, something’s bound to come around again soon enough to reconfirm its centrality to the rap universe (something Action Bronson has verified in interview), maybe NYC is only as good as its beats and that it’s been under-served by its producers rather than its rhymers. Or, without casting aspersions on birthright, its new skool breakouts are burgeoning, thriving adaptors who are only natives ‘by association’. Homeboy Sandman isn’t your archetypal hometown rapper, finding success on California’s Stones Throw, but you can’t accuse him of representing an Empire State identity crisis. Alternatively, it’s telling that this year is likely to see the release of Papoose’s debut album; regularly given the prodigal son-second coming tag (on the remix of Busta Rhymes’ ‘Touch It’, he decisively details the locale he stands for), after years of mixtape exertion and label buffeting, his full-length proper could well go unnoticed, pertinently passed over as a what might have been footnote. If it wins banger of the year, NY will be hollering that it’s still got it.
Action Bronson recently told Clash that “in the commercial world New York isn’t as prominent as it used to be, because people in New York are turning up and listening to other things and most people from New York aren't native New Yorkers. There are a lot of different people from all over, from every single walk of life, living in New York - so it's not just a New York thing anymore.” Attempting a sporting analogy, New York hip-hop is like the top flight football (or soccer) team that has long stuck to its guns with a certain playing style. It may satisfy its most ardent followers, but at the final whistle, it’s not filling the trophy cabinet following a relatively fallow period in its history. Taking on different tactics might not please this core support, but if it gets results, who are they to complain – it’s a rather outmoded argument of tradition against progression. Having its balance redressed from geographically-aware, up-to-the-second savants makes for a more liberal, almost enlightened native sound, recalibrating its definitions in rough, rugged and raw and where it should only be proud of revisiting the cutting edge.
Words by Matt Oliver
Like the sound of all this? Try out the 'New York Renaissance' mixtape - pieced together by Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg.