Word Of Mouth: evilgiane And New York Rap’s Renaissance

The rap luminary is leaving his mark my moving things forward...

Word of Mouth is a new rap music column by Grant Brydon, CLASH Editor-at-Large and author of ‘Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’. It coincides with our playlist of the same name which you can listen to on Spotify and Apple Music.

There’s a rap renaissance happening in New York right now. Though at first glance the birthplace of hip-hop may not appear to be the dominant force it once was, looking past the algorithm reveals some of the most interesting rap music of recent times; including Armand Hammer, MIKE, Xaviersobased and 41 to name a few. Against the backdrop of reports about declining success for rap in the mainstream, there’s an opportunity for artists who favour creativity and innovation to break through.

Among these divergent sounds is the music of evilgiane, the producer behind some of last year’s best tracks (Kendrick Lamar & Baby Keem’s ‘The Hillbillies’ and Earl Sweatshirt’s ‘Making The Band (Danity Kane)’) who recently released his debut mixtape ‘#HEAVENSGATE (VOL. 1)’. “Everyone’s trying new shit again in New York,” Giane declares. “Yeah we’ve got the sound of the drill stuff, but there’s also a lot of cool stuff you wouldn’t expect New York to be on, that’s going on right now. I really do believe it’s a renaissance, for hip-hop in general. It’s kind of like the 80s where now there’s a bunch of new labels popping up, there’s rap groups again, there’s R&B shit kicking off, there’s boom bap shit kicking off.”

Despite recent high-profile work – he’s also collaborated with Pinkpantheress, Playboi Carti and A$AP Rocky – evilgiane is in service to ideas above personal notoriety. There’s a deconstruction to the way he works, a re-beginning. Giane is creating like he’s travelled back to hip-hop’s genesis after spending a lifetime online. His approach to sampling is more post-internet cut-and-paste than digging in the crates, and his music collages elements of drill, cloud rap, trap, Jersey club and ambient music with whatever else is catching his attention that day. There is no room for hierarchy and snobbery. He just wants to inspire others the way he has been inspired by those that came before him.

Raised in Brooklyn, where his mother would write music and on occasion take him to the studio as a baby in his carseat, Giane’s music is indebted to the wealth of NYC creativity and culture that came before him: he got into music through skating and graffiti, and mentions the seminal 80’s hip-hop film ‘Wild Style’ as an influence.

“New York is the birthplace of a lot of shit. It’s where graffiti became stylised. It’s where, in my opinion, skating became a little bit stylised too,”  he says. “New York always had some kind of swag to it. And especially with music. My mom used to get these ‘Sub 0’ video magazines and I used to be really into the whole diss track culture. Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to have something to do with music.”

When he was very young his mother showed him Stacy Peralta’s 2005 film ‘Lords of Dogtown’ – a biographical drama about the Californian skateboarding crew the Z-Boys – and from then he and his brother became obsessed with skating. They’d hang out at local skate parks asking to borrow boards before Giane was gifted his first deck one Christmas. “From there it was history,” he reflects. “That’s what got me closer into music also – getting into the skateboarding culture more, watching skate videos. It just made me want to make music for skate videos first.”

Hand-in-hand with skating came his interest in writing graffiti, which he sees as synonymous with growing up in New York. “Even though it’s just one random word, it’s still telling a story,” he says. “If you look at something on the side of a building but there’s only a ledge, it tells that story of how they got up there, but what are they doing up there?”

Over recent years it’s begun to look like fitting in is the new standing out; inoffensive homogeneity that suits the agenda of streaming services seems like the goal for many of today’s more established artists. But the ethos Giane has carried from skating and graffiti hails back to a time where following the crowd isn’t it. “I’ve always wanted to leave my mark in some way,” he says. “I would like to separate myself a little bit from shit. Culture doesn’t move forward if it just stays plateauing, everything’s going to become jumbled into one simple thing.”

It feels important to Giane that he plays a part not just in contribution to, but the progression of rap music. The future of a thriving rap scene relies on its ability to constantly reinvent itself: innovation is imperative to survival. Giane is taking up the gauntlet and accepting part of the responsibility of keeping hip-hop alive. This drive, he says, comes from: “My love for rap music and what it represents for my people, just Black people in general. I don’t have to be the one person doing it, but I would like to be a part of [it]. Just continuing the culture, keeping it going. Because rap music, that shit is still a brand new culture. It’s only 50 years old. Hip-Hop is 50.”

Giane uploads prolifically to SoundCloud, often tagging tracks with #HEAVENSGATE or #SURFGANG – the latter referring to the collective he co-founded, now in its second iteration as a production trio. Beginning loosely as a graffiti crew, #HEAVENSGATE became a way of differentiating a particular collection of songs, which he tells me is “probably the less cleaned up version of Surf Gang.” Due to popular demand, these uploads have come to form the basis of his new mixtape, which compiles collaborations with a wide-ranging community of artists from LA folk hero 03 Greedo to Florida Soundcloud veteran Robb Bank$, Atlanta rising star Anycia to Rochester favourite Rx Papi.

“We were just like, actually we should release this to the world. Because many people were just asking,” he says. “Some of the tracks already came out two years ago on Soundcloud as I was building this #HEAVENSGATE lore.”

His interpretation of that lore began when he saw HBO Max’s 2020 miniseries ‘Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults’. The four-part documentary tells the story of a religious movement lead by Marshall Applewhite who organised the largest mass suicide to occur in the US in 1997. Giane was drawn to the parallel between Applewhite’s group and the way our society is increasingly obsessed with trends and followers. “Everyone in the cult had to wear this same suit which was like this tracksuit and then these Nikes,” he says. “And it kind of reminds us of what trends are now. Everything’s like a cult when you think of it.” Luckily Giane’s motives are far less sinister. “I’m just trying to guide people to good music,” he explains. “Just be the cult leader. Lead everyone to heaven. Lead everyone to good music.”

While it has become the norm for producers and rappers to exchange beats and verses via email, Giane prefers to work in the studio with his collaborators. “Most of that stuff [on the tape], is just from people coming to New York or me travelling a little bit to Atlanta and LA,” he says. “All of those were definitely in-person recordings, because a lot of them were songs that were – not really throwaways – but we didn’t have an idea for, and we decided they’ll just let me put them on my mixtape.”

This suits Giane well; the tracks were generally those left on the cutting room floor in favour of a safer option, meaning ‘#HEAVENSGATE (VOL.1)’ gives us a glimpse of his collaborators’ more experimental moments. “Usually how I make all my beats, it’s like all for evilgiane. I don’t really make beats for artists,” he explains. “When I collaborate with people I want it to be a full on collaboration. You’re mixing your sound with my sound. [It’s] a meshing of styles, putting my spin on somebody’s sound. And whatever track that I felt did that is what I chose for the tape.” Not wanting to leave things there, he crafted several new tracks with the tape in mind, including opener ‘LAND’ with his brother JDN and Canadian rapper SHAD, ‘141’ with Virginia natives Harto Falion and Nolanberollin, and ’40’ with underground stars Xaviersobased and Nettspend. 

After last year’s run of major placements, #HEAVENSGATE (VOL.1)’ brings Giane back underground, to an existing community of collaborators, where he is as free to experiment as possible. He’s honoured to have been co-signed by a plethora of big name artists and says that he doesn’t take those major league collaborations for granted, but equally expresses the need to remain focused.

“Don’t let that shit get to your head either,” he says, as if to himself. “There’s a lot of people that have had crazy years also, and then they just burn out and forget what they were doing this for in the first place. I’m just going to try and keep making good music. That’s all. That’s what I got from last year. It just inspired me to keep going.”

Words: Grant Brydon (@grantbrydon)

Photo Credit: @franciscorussso

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