"Cause it ain't where you from/it's where you at." — Rakim, "In the Ghetto"
New York City hip-hop, the venerable home of that ol' boom-bap, is sounding rather homeless these days. To understand why, look no further than ASAP Rocky, the 22-year-old MC who had the Internet going nuts last week upon the release of his anticipated mixtape LiveLoveA$AP. The critical acclaim and condemnation surrounding it are partly due to the content — dude bears a Texas-sized affinity for all things screwed, swagged-out and dripping with purple syzurp — but only when contextualized by the crib from which he hails.
Trouble is, this disciple of Houston rap ain't from Houston, he's from Harlem — you know, as in New York; point of origin for East Coast beats, rhymes and life.
"I don't even like New York rappers," Rocky told the New York Times a month ago. Apparently New York rap is so out of fashion these days that ASAP Rocky's ability to distinguish himself from his hometown's overbearing legacy is exactly what earned him a purported $3 million dollar deal from RCA Records. But if ASAP Rocky is the future of N.Y. rap, does that mean N.Y. rap as we know it has no future?
In an information age where local bandwidth is the only obstacle to keep an artist from going global, the polemics of place in contemporary rap shouldn't be so pervasive. But for all of its ascendant qualities, rap is still the most site-specific genre on the musical map. No other form of music requires its practitioners to go to such lengths to establish credibility. Where you're from and how you choose to cultivate and represent that space — whether real or imagined — matters. So much so that without adequate voices, ill-represented regions can effectively be deemed irrelevant. Just ask yourself: What'chu really know about Boise, Idaho? In the grand scheme of things, it can make for one heck of an identity crisis.
Harlem MC Donny Goines, a 2006 winner of Source magazine's Unsigned Hype column, relocated to Atlanta over the summer without much forethought, just as his buzz among N.Y.-based hip-hop blogs was reaching the boiling point.
"I realized the city of New York is just a rat race to me," says Goines, when asked why he deserted the city five months ago, in the midst of completing his free album, Success Served Cold, due to drop Nov. 11. "I will always represent my city to the fullest but I think I've outgrown it to some effect."
His current digs, an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment on the 20th floor of a luxury tower in suburban Atlanta's Sandy Springs neighborhood, overlooks an oasis of fall-colored foliage and unobstructed blue skies. It's a stark contrast, he says, to the violence and grime he was accustomed to up North. "If I feel the need for air, I'll just go out there and sit on my balcony and just kinda look at the trees," says Goines. "Peace of mind — as an artist, I feel as if I didn't have that in New York."
That sense of freedom has also triggered a fierce independent streak. In the last two months, he's cut ties with his former management and taken the reins of his career. "As an artist, I'm not bound or confined by what most people in my city are," says Goines. "They have this whole stigma about them right now. New York artists are bitter, straight up. They're just some bitter motherfuckers. I can't be around that."
It's a broad-stroked critique on the state of N.Y. rap more than an assessment of any MC in particular, Goines says, but it's also a self-appraisal of his city's false sense of entitlement.
"We had it and then we let it go. We got sloppy, we started mimicking other sounds and doing what other people do. And that's not New York. New York is the home of creativity and originality. And I just felt like New York became a bunch of trend-followers. It's not to diss my city, it's just how I feel," says Goines.
The reverse migration isn't unique to hip-hop. It's a black socioeconomic thing, according to the last U.S. Census report, which confirms that African-Americans from northern cities have been returning to the South in droves for the better part of a decade. While Atlanta spent the aughts ascending to the vacated hip-hop throne with a steady barrage of crunk, snap and trap rap (Lil Jon, T.I., Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane), a laundry list of East Coast elites made primary and secondary homes here, including Nas, Raekwon, Jaz-O, Diamond D, Red Alert, DOOM, and Phife Dawg (who now resides in northern California).
But Goines' case is a little different. He's not a superstar looking for a retirement home to stretch his dollars further. He's also not a nonentity who's come to Atlanta to brand himself from scratch or immerse himself in the local industry. Instead, Goines represents a different class of New York MCs with established buzz who are forsaking the nonstop grind for something more livable.
The same need for lifestyle-change motivated Brooklyn MC (and former CL contributor) Sha Stimuli — another Source magazine Unsigned Hype alum and former Virgin Records signee — to make the permanent move to Atlanta in 2010 after years of visiting.
What he didn't plan on was how the relocation would impact his music.
"When I'm in New York, I'm hood-famous," he says, referring to the constant queries he gets from supporters on the streets asking about his next mixtape, club date, career move. "That starts to weigh on your brain. Out here, I'm more settled, not [just] existing, but I'm living life. And that life goes into the music. Sometimes you have to live in order to create, instead of just creating and trying to get hot, because then you ain't saying nothing."
Neither Stimuli nor Goines, however, are interested in aping the South to get shine. Goines' new album is very much a product of New York, boasting high-profile sponsorships from Jay-Z's Rocawear and Artful Dodger apparel lines, and executive producers/contributors Canei and Maki, both understudies to East Coast producer Just Blaze (Jay-Z, Cam'ron, Saigon, Jay Electronica). The song "Loudest Silence" was produced by Goines' deceased mentor Disco D, best known as the beat maker behind "Ski Mask Way," still considered the most street-worthy track on 50 Cent's 2003 major label debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Even Goines' Success Served Cold album cover is telling: An illustration of a New York Yankees fitted served on a platter. It suggests that he hasn't altogether replaced his empire state of mind for peace of mind; he's just making room for both.
All of which goes to show East Coast traditionalists are still far from a dying breed — cop Brooklyn-based Torae's stellar new release For the Record for further proof. But if the next big Houston rapper can emerge out of New York, what's to stop the next king of New York from surfacing in Atlanta?
"Hip-hop is the only genre where region is like this big to-do," says Stimuli. "I don't think country [music fans] care if you're from Kentucky or wherever. Prince is from Minnesota; nobody cares. But with hip-hop, people will embrace that kid [ASAP Rocky], for example, because he doesn't sound like New York."
If there's any consolation to be found, it's in the architect of the East Coast's grimy, backpacker sound: DJ Premier. As one of the greatest producers in the history of the genre, heralded with laying the foundation for New York's '90s-era boom-bap, with a discography that ranges from Gang Starr to M.O.P., Nas to Biggie, it's often forgotten that Premier is not a native New Yorker.
His place of origin? Houston, Texas.