Hip-Hop Hits the Road 

A New York Art Form Leaves Home For Good

 

Hip-hop is New York’s baby, and New York loves its baby — clingy-mother style. New York worries over hip-hop and pines longingly for the years when it had its baby all to itself. Local rappers love reminding hip-hop of the charmed infancy this city provided, and prattle on incessantly about the old days. Remember Slick Rick? Remember Adidas? How about Zulu Nation? New York brought hip-hop into this world and all it ever wanted in return was unflagging devotion — but hip-hop has gone and left home.

Out of 15 hip-hop acts on the sunny side of the Billboard 200 chart, as of this writing, just two local rappers were represented: one of them was the Notorious Franken-Biggie, dragged out from the crypt once again by Sean Combs, and the other was Juelz Santana, of ‘The Whistle Song’ fame. Hip-hop’s as big as ever in 2006, but it has unquestionably moved south: Houston and Atlanta have roughly five times as many hip-hop albums in the top 100 right now as New York does. Since the salad days of Biggie, Wu-Tang, and A Tribe Called Quest, north and south have swapped places in hip-hop’s geographical hierarchy.

Despite its overarching maternal pride, New York’s scene is pretty well fractured these days, so it’s no surprise that the reaction to this switch-up hasn’t been exactly uniform. The Dipset camp has adopted something of a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” stance, collaborating frequently with southern talent like Paul Wall, and unabashedly biting the occasional gimmick (Juelz’s hit single ‘The Whistle Song’ rode the coattails of Ying Yang Twins’ ‘The Whisper Song’). Dipsetters Cam’ron and Jim Jones even went so far as to launch a drink called Sizzurp Purple Punch Liquer, pinching southern slang for prescription cough syrup. Dipset’s strategy put Juelz Santana on the pop charts, but others in NYC are turned off by that approach. Tru Life of Roc La Familia sums up how a big part of the city feels in his single ‘New New York’, a track dedicated mostly to scolding New Yorkers for aping out-of-town fads like the A-Town Stomp: “I want New York to be New York again.” As the South becomes increasingly influential across the board, there’s a real feeling in New York’s hip-hop community that it isn’t just losing money to the South, it’s losing dominion over its own culture for the first time. “We copyin’ them now B,” lamented local mixtape fixture Saigon in a recent allhiphop.com interview, “like we call the fronts ‘grills’… it’s like we don’t start no trend.” The fronts vs. grills thing sounds trivial but it’s a matter of regional pride: Nelly’s into grills. Kool G Rap had fronts.

One curious aspect of the current situation is that New York once faced considerably stiffer competition than it’s up against now, and it met the challenge handily. After a string of West Coast gangsta rap hits and the massive success of Dr. Dre’s 1992 G-funk classic The Chronic, California looked nigh invincible, but debuts from Wu Tang, Biggie, and Nas put New York back on top in short order. Besides OutKast, there really are no southern hip-hop crews that should present anything like the problem Death Row represented in the early 90s.

A big part of the reason New York can’t compete like it used to is that the infighting here has gotten way out of hand. 50 Cent has running issues with nearly everyone else in the city, and Cam’ron from Dipset has recently begun putting out tracks dissing Jay Z. While beef can be an effective publicity ploy, this much beef ultimately does the region a fair amount of harm. One major advantage the South has over Gotham is the fact that southern rappers generally seem to get along, and they clump together impressively to help each other out. An incomplete list of MCs who helped nudge Bun B’s album Trill up the charts includes Ludacris, Scarface, Young Jeezy, T.I., Ying Yang Twins and Mike Jones. When New York tussled with Death Row in the 90s, the city was similarly united. Biggie helped feed dozens of rappers and earned plenty while he was at it. 50 Cent doesn’t get along with anyone outside of G-Unit, so when he does well New York isn’t any better off for it. Jay Z’s recent “I Declare War” concert, where Hova publicly made peace with longtime rival Nas and put just about every New York rapper on stage to perform, was read as an attempt to unite the city, but his increasingly ugly spat with Dipset is beginning to make the effort look pointless.

Another factor in this city’s fall out of style may be straight tedium. MCs around here have been selling the same “I sold crack” story for more than ten years now. It actually makes Crime Mob’s ‘Knuck If You Buck’ gibberish sound refreshing. Gangster street-cred’s getting tougher to come by these days, too. In a city thoroughly pimpled with Starbucks, crack dealers aren’t “rebels of the street corner” anymore, they’re chumps about to get gentrified out to Jersey.
Things aren’t all bleak for hip-hop in the Big Apple. Ghostface generally gets slept on like Ambien, but the cuts floating around from off Fishscale sound encouraging. A successful Ghostface album would benefit the whole Wu-Tang Clan, not to mention his Theodore Unit protégés. We should also be seeing a proper album from Saigon sometime in the near future. Sai’s mercurial, unpredictable flow doesn’t really sound like anyone else; he just may be the guy for the “new New York” to rally around.

There’s a real possibility that New York’s days as the creative and commercial epicenter of hip-hop are over with for good, though. Leaving home is part of growing up, and at nearly 30 years old, hip-hop may just be at that point in its life cycle. Maybe it’s a good thing. If jazz hadn’t ventured from New Orleans at 20, Coltrane’s thing never would’ve happened. Rock ‘n’ roll dumped Memphis pretty much right off the bat and did its most significant personal growth backpacking in Hamburg, of all places. New York should be glad hip-hop stuck around as long as it did and wish it well on its travels — it may grow into something even bigger. Here’s hoping, though, that something gets going here. We all miss the kid sorely.

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