THE EVOLUTION OF 90’S NEW YORK UNDERGROUND MUTTER- RAP.
Words by Tom Breihan
Photograpghy Delphine A. Fawundu Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop .
There’s something about a hard neck-crack snare, a lazy trumpet sample, a rugged voice muttering about fur coats and boxcutters. The rap music that came out of the greater New York area in the ‘90s – the grimy, wordy, obsessive boom-bap – remains some of the most evocative and cinematic popular music that this world has ever given us. But most of the architects of that sound have moved on, chasing pop stardom or moguldom or comfortable semi-retirements. Some of them (Jay-Z, Nas, the extended Wu-Tang family) entered the canon, the world agreeing en masse on their genius. Others (Biggie, Prodigy, Guru) are no longer with us. And the world has moved on.
Rap music doesn’t sound like that anymore. Truthfully, it didn’t sound like that much anymore in 1997, when Puff Daddy brought the shiny suit era in. And rap music has had rebirth after rebirth, to the point where today’s young SoundCloud-rap vandals routinely and performatively claim that they’ve never even heard of their ‘90s forebears. Sounds have changed. Ideas have changed. Personas have changed. And yet that hoodies-and-Tims ‘90s New York rap has survived and evolved, thriving in a few underground pockets.
One of the decade’s most quietly influential rap albums is Marcberg, the 2010 solo debut from Long Island rapper and producer Roc Marciano. Before Marcberg, Marciano had been kicking around the New York rap world for years, spending time with Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad crew and forming his own underground unit the U.N. But Marcberg was the moment Marciano found his voice. It’s a record soaked in musty atmosphere: intricately worded monotonal tough-talk, ambient movie-soundtrack loops, nothing as tasteless as a sung chorus anywhere. On Marcberg, Marciano sounds like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven: a haggard old gunslinger looking for peace but finding more violence anyway.
Marcberg was the breakthrough. Since then Marciano has carved out a lane for himself, doing a quiet and forbidding take on that ‘90s New York rap, working with fellow tri-state loudmouths like Action Bronson and Cormega. Marciano produces most of his own albums, and his sound – spacey, minimal, dark – is reliably tough and cinematic. He’s a master of the straight-faced one-liner: “Pockets swell, I got the intel from the golems out in Roswell / Now I got more rides than Jerry Seinfeld.” “The rap magnate, the jacket’s made of snake / The cash at a rapid rate, the way rabbits mate / Crack the safe, that’s an Accolade / Relax and get face from Christina Applegate.” “My shoes is worth a MF DOOM verse.”
More importantly, though, Marciano has inspired a whole wave of bent, idiosyncratic underground rappers, all of whom are twisting that classic New York sound in their own weird directions. They’ve taken this heavy, concussive old music and turned it into something blunted and psychedelic, a sound you can get lost in. And the best of them might be Brooklyn’s Ka, a frequent Roc Marciano collaborator.
Ka is another guy with a past that goes back to the actual ‘90s. During that decade, Ka was a member of Natural Ingredients, an underground group that showed plenty of promise but never really went anywhere. Now in his mid-40s, Ka’s not an old-timer trying to keep up with the kids. Ka’s not even trying to make a living out of music. He’s got a day job, working as a fire captain in the New York Fire Department. But since his staggering 2011 album Iron Works, Ka has been putting out his own music, on his own terms.
This decade, Ka has released six albums, doing everything himself. He releases music on his own label, shipping out physical packages himself. He directs his own inky, film noir-esque music videos. Other than Roc Marciano, he almost never collaborates with another rapper, leaving his albums as personal statements. Every once in a while, he’ll team with a producer for a full album. (This summer, working with LA producer Animoss, he released the LP Orpheus Vs. The Sirens under the group name Hermit and the Recluse.) But when he’s not doing that, Ka makes his own beats. And whenever he puts out an album, he tweets out which New York street corner he’ll be out on that day. And then he goes there with a box of his records, selling them hand-to-hand and face-to-face to his cult audience.
As a producer, Ka favours a brooding, cinematic style. And he’s evolving. Where Iron Works and 2012’s Grief Pedigree were slow, forbidding takes on Roc Marciano’s signature sound, full of hard snares and harder narratives, he’s crept further inside his own mind. These days, other than the occasional shivering cymbal, his records barely even include drum sounds. And he’s moved beyond simple street stories.
For the past few years, every Ka album has been a concept album. He finds a subject that fascinates him, and he spends all of it exploring that idea, using it as a metaphor for whatever he’s got going on in his own life. On 2013’s The Night’s Gambit, it’s chess strategies. On 2015’s Days With Dr. Yen Lo, a collaboration with the producer Preservation, it’s The Manchurian Candidate, both the 1959 Richard Condon novel and the 1962 John Frankenheimer movie. On 2016’s Honor Killed the Samurai, it’s bushido, the samurai code of ethics.
For Orpheus Vs. The Sirens, Ka’s latest, the theme is Greek mythology – especially the story of Orpheus, the legendary hero who made music so beautiful that it could make gods cry but who tragically failed to bring his dead wife back from the underworld. Early on, it seems like Ka is having fun with it, finding clever ways to work in the names of legendary monsters: “Being deprived of the papes, made a lot of mistakes in my era / Hard life, of course you needed white horse to defeat the Chimaera.” But the album really catches fire when Ka finds ways to draw parallels between those ancient stories and his own life, talking about the people who he couldn’t bring back from the underworld: “In 2015, said goodbye to my brother / On sight, I might look pristine; I’m still trying to recover.”
Ka’s voice is a heavy, rasping mutter, one that practically radiates wisdom. To listen to him is to feel like you’re unlocking the secrets of the universe. But not all of Ka’s peers are that serious and heavy-hearted. Some of them are downright goofy. Consider, if you will, Coney Island’s own Your Old Droog.
Even if you’ve never heard Droog’s music, you might find his voice familiar. Droog first emerged with a self-titled mixtape in 2014, and that mixtape came with no real information. Droog didn’t pose for photos or make videos. Nobody knew who he was, what he looked like, where he came from. And so theories circulated. After all, this was a guy with a husky but agile monotone flow, kicking complicated street-life punchlines over clattering, lo-fi, self-produced beats. As hard as it might’ve been, this was someone who was not shy about flexing his own intelligence: “The hell with this rap shit, I’m ‘bout to start writing novellas.” So people thought that maybe it was really Nas. Maybe, the theory went, Nas was out here, anonymously releasing music just to see if he could get back to the essence of what he was originally doing.
Of course, it wasn’t Nas. Obviously. Upon reflection, Nas was not exactly the type to revisit his past, to throw anonymous free music onto the internet when he could be making big money showing up on DJ Khaled albums or endorsing vape pens or whatever. Nas was not going to pick a whole new rap name, let alone one inspired by A Clockwork Orange. He was not going to come up with unabashedly silly punchlines: “Truth be told, the lab sessions should not sound like Taxicab Confessions.” And when Your Old Droog turned out to be a big white Ukrainian guy from deepest Brooklyn, nobody was all that shocked.
Since the big reveal, Your Old Droog has been steering into his own goofiness. He’s released a song about how much he likes Rage Against the Machine. He’s played a slacker garbageman in a music video. He’s rapped about being broke and bumming cigarettes, insisting that he’ll still be “dressing bummy” even if he somehow makes a billion dollars. In short, after shocking the world with just how much he sounded like a young Nas, Your Old Droog has matured into a true New York rap character, a fun guy to have around. His 2017 album Packs is one of the more low-key enjoyable rap records to come out of New York in recent memory. He’s hit a stride all his own.
But then, New York rap smartasses don’t just come from New York City, as the Buffalo brothers Westside Gunn and Conway prove. Geographically, Buffalo, a city off in the frozen and distant plains of New York State’s western reaches, is a lot closer to Toronto than it is to NYC. But that doesn’t mean Westside Gunn and Conway have anything to do with Drake. Instead, they remain mired in the violent, grimly funny existential ‘90s rap of the Lox and Mobb Deep. They also rap about pro wrestling a lot, and I’ve never heard Drake do that.
Of the two brothers, Westside Gunn might be the more obvious star, if only because nobody sounds anything like him. Westside Gunn raps in a weirdly charismatic slick nasal yammer, about halfway between Lil Boosie and the old gangster-movie star Edward G. Robinson. He loves rapping about clothes, but not as much as he loves rapping about ruining clothes by splattering them with brain matter. He’s tasteful enough to collaborate heavily with producers like the underrated stoner-rap master Alchemist and with Daringer, a Buffalo producer who understands his style completely. But he’s tasteless enough to release a full series of mixtapes called Hitler Wears Hermes.
Nothing reflects Westside Gunn’s marriage of the tasteful and the tasteless as much as his love of pro wrestling. Westside Gunn is a true connoisseur of the artform, a man who seems to spend a great deal of his free time watching YouTube clips of ‘90s All Japan matches. Supreme Blientele, the album he released this year, has songs named after Arn Anderson, Dean Malenko, Sabu, Rob Van Dam, the Steiner Brothers, and Rick Martel. (The album was apparently supposed to be called Chris Benoit, but maybe cooler heads prevailed there.) On his music, the voices of guys like Dusty Rhodes and Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan continually appear in sampled form, like kung-fu movie dialogue on Wu-Tang records. You have to pretty much be an enormous dork to enjoy Westside Gunn’s obsession, but I am one, and maybe you’re one too.
Conway the Machine, Westside Gunn’s older brother, might be even harder and more guttural. Conway is a street-life veteran, and his entire face is twisted to one side, partially paralysed after he was shot in the back of the head. Since he left that life behind to concentrate on music, he’s perfected a bleak, wizened drawl. Conway loves wrestling, too – sometimes he and Westside Gunn release music under the name Hall and Nash – but there’s nothing silly in his music. If anything, it’s disturbing to hear him rap with loving care about what he’s going to do to your body. And yet he’s a great storyteller, one who knows the value of a stray detail: “Back in jail, out of jail, nigga I got dumb priors / Drive-byes in that Buick, low air front tire.”
Both Westside Gunn and Conway are well into their 30s, and both of them are making proudly out-of-step music. But someone seems to think they have star quality. Last year, Eminem inked a deal between his Shady Records label and Griselda, the Buffalo indie that the two brothers founded. And yet they haven’t changed their music since signing with Eminem. If anything, it’s become even grimier and more forbidding. But they still spent the summer of 2018 playing most of America’s finer music festivals. If anyone seems poised to break out of this whole hazy, blunted post-boom-bap scene, it’s them.
One guy with absolutely no interest in breaking out is the Newark, New Jersey rapper Mach-Hommy, a former Griselda Records associate. Mach-Hommy sounds like a young, angry, and hungry MF DOOM, his street-life talk full of weird, free-associative digressions. Sometimes, he almost seems to be speaking an entirely different language: “Groucho Marx, narcoleptic vultures in the jungle / Martial art with algorithmic buffers in the Congo.” Mach-Hommy’s made fans out of rappers like Earl Sweatshirt and producers like the Alchemist, both of whom have produced many tracks for him. But while Mach-Hommy releases a tonne of music, he doesn’t make it easy to hear. For a while, you could only get his 2016 album HBO (Haitian Body Odor) by contacting Mach-Hommy via Instagram DM and sending him $300. And when he releases new music, he tends to keep it off of the streaming services, putting a triple-digit price tag on it instead. He’s a true eccentric, both as a rapper and as a businessman.
New York lost its place as the centre of the rap world about a decade and a half ago, and it seems less and less likely that it’ll ever get it back again. In recent years, the most successful New York rappers (Nicki Minaj, A$AP Rocky, Cardi B) have been the ones who aren’t even remotely concerned with sounding New York, who are versatile enough to adapt to other regions’ pop-rap sounds. The people in New York’s mutter-rap underground are never going to break out the way those pop musicians have done, but they’ve done something just as difficult. They’ve built a community, an interconnected world full of friends and collaborators who influence each other, pushing each other’s music into new directions. It’s not just the names in this article, either. There are plenty more out there: Elucid, Billy Woods, Benny the Butcher, Knowledge the Pirate, Meyhem Lauren, Hus Kingpin. The underground is full of fascinating and talented weirdos. Dive in.
Featured in Sole Magazine Event Edition 2018. Available in select retailers in the region including Amongst Few, FRAME and participating brands including adidas, Reebok and PUMA.
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