Cheat Sheet: NYC's Rap Revival
When did New York hip-hop officially make a comeback? Was it when Nicki Minaj became the first new platinum artist from the five boroughs since who knows when? Was it when bloggers studied the mixtape fodder of Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren as if they emerged from a regional rap wormhole? Or was it when the sheer diversity of New York rappers, from the jabberwocky freestyles of Homeboy Sandman to the '90s-era homage of Joey Bada$$, confirmed to us it runs much deeper now than G-Unit and Definitive Jux?
For much of the 2000s, New York seemed divided between polar opposites: the "Ghetto Quaran" of 50 Cent's G-Unit empire and similarly thugged-out crews like The Diplomats and Ruff Ryders; and El-P's Definitive Jux imprint, home to Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif and other indie rap stars. When those two camps faltered, the city seemed to lack fresh and compelling voices, and the rap world's collective interest moved on to vital scenes elsewhere. Occasional attempts by its tastemakers to brand new movements out of mixtape-certified artists like Saigon, Papoose, Mims and Jae Millz proved unsuccessful.
The reason why New York rap finally seems relevant again is because it has learned to operate by the same principles as the rest of the country: Make a mixtape, hire a marketing team with deep connections in the music industry, publicize songs from that mixtape via the blogs, and then drop the whole kit and caboodle when our appetites are whetted. The old radio DJs that used to run New York with an iron fist and plenty of payola are now just gatekeepers that can help a rising artist reach the pop market; they're no longer an impediment for an artist that can reach a mass audience via the Internet. Back in the late '90s, their disinterest in underground hip-hop meant that the likes of Company Flow and Artifacts struggled to get taken seriously.
Now we can indulge in whatever crosses our computer screen without prejudging it as "mainstream" or "indie." We're learning that New York rap can be just as weird and exotic as anything from Atlanta, Los Angeles or Houston. Until they broke up last year, Das Racist were a hilariously off-kilter blender of pop culture in-jokes. Mr MFN eXquire blends street hop pugilism with nascent trends like trap music. Action Bronson is a knucklehead that speckles his rhymes with food and sports metaphors; he's like the second coming of Ill Bill (and Ghostface Killah, to whom he's frequently compared), but without Bill's torture-porn themes. However, some of New York rap's best voices, like Roc Marciano and Ka, have developed a kind of classicism rooted in nostalgia for the 1990s, when the Big Apple was the center of hip-hop culture. Roc Marciano, who now lives in L.A., is an old vet like El-P, who continues to refine his memorably noisy and cluttered take on N.Y. rap.
Still, the question of what it means to be a New York rapper seems central to the city's identity in 2013. Regardless of what you think about Nicki Minaj -- whether you love the pink Barbie or think she's gone downhill since her "I Get Crazy" days -- she's had an inarguably wide influence. So when Hot 97's Peter Rosenberg criticized her at the station's annual Summer Jam event last year for being too pop and not representative of authentic hip-hop, he wrongly dismissed a wide swath of people that enjoy rap music but don't necessarily subscribe to the same hardcore street sound that he does. A$AP Rocky doesn't sound traditional, either, but he's praised for his Southern influences and cloud rap aesthetic; nor does Azealia Banks, who has won acclaim for tapping into corners of urban culture that hip-hop has rarely acknowledged, like the ball culture depicted in films like Paris Is Burning.
So what represents New York hip-hop in 2013? These are some of the artists who hope to answer that question.