Some of the world’s top hip-hop talent emerged from the low-income housing projects of Brooklyn, New York.† That success has stirred the aspirations of young people who live there.
But now there’s a growing sense among hip-hop heads that New York, and Brooklyn in particular, is passť.
Last year, Sha Stimuli, a 33-year-old Brooklyn rapper, packed up and moved to Atlanta. He wanted to widen his audience, and the South beckoned.
He’s not the only one moving on.
“In the last decade, New York has been left behind,” said Sha Stimuli. Although being a Brooklyn rapper may have helped his career 10 years ago, today he sees it more as a disadvantage.
“Me saying I’m from Brooklyn doesn’t actually help, because there is no novelty there,” he said. “People got bored of Brooklyn and New York.”
Hip-hop may have first emerged from the Bronx in the late 1970s, but for a generation, Brooklyn has been known as the genre’s incubator. Brooklyn withstood the arrival of a West Coast rival, and a bloody battle that led to the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.
Now Atlanta and New Orleans have muscled in, with a southern hip-hop sound more focused on the beat than on the political message that made the New Yorkers famous. The names linked with Brooklyn hip-hop are still the same — Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Busta Rythmes, M.O.P — bolstering the argument the scene has moved on.
Hip Hop Flies South
Wes Jackson, president of Brooklyn Bodega and executive director of The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, believes Brooklyn is still full of talent. But some people, he said, mistakenly thought being “made in Brooklyn” was enough.
“I think a lot of artists in Brooklyn are resting on their laurels a little too much,” he said. “Some New York artists forgot that you still have to put in work. Just ’cause you live off the A train, it don’t mean nothing.”
New York hip-hop never disappeared, he argued. Other places have just caught up.
“I think it’s still happening in Brooklyn as much as anywhere else, there is a ton of quality hip-hop artists here. The problem is now there are quality artists everywhere.”
Artists like Sha Stimuli who have moved away say it’s hard to start a career in New York now, because local media are less than supportive.
“The radio stars in New York aren’t from New York,” he said. “If you go to a club, the hottest records aren’t from New York.”
New York rapper Donny Goines left, too.
“Radios don’t play New York rappers,” he said, “and the bosses are going outside to get their talent.”
Sha Stimuli still believes radio DJs have the power to make a rapper’s career. “Radio DJs can change things,” he said. “They can decide to play New York artists and show that New York is still a relevant force.”
But blaming the lack of support and airtime, others say, is often used as an excuse.
“Mainstream radio, media and the major blogs have a tendency to look down or not support some of the artists from New York, that’s true,” said Manny Faces, founder and editor-in-chief of Birthplace Magazine, an online publication that focuses on New York hip-hop. “But let me also say that some of the artists use that as an escape, as a cop-out. If you’re not making it but you’re from New York, is it because radio and media doesn’t support you? That may be part of it, but maybe it’s also because it’s not that appealing for the rest of the country.”
What Makes You Hot is That You Are
Corey Smyth, who grew up in Harlem and is now a key figure in New York’s hip-hop world, believes location is playing a decreasing role in hip-hop success. Smyth, founder of Blacksmith Management, Blacksmith Music Corp. and Blacksmith Corp., among other companies, has has worked with De La Soul, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. He says being a New York rapper is no longer sufficient to attract record labels.
“An area doesn’t make you bankable,” he said. “Being from L.A, New York, Chicago, none of that makes you hot. What makes you hot is that you are. And the way you perceive your surroundings and the way you’re able to regurgitate that back into an art form. That’s what makes you hot. You could be from anywhere.”
One of the first southern hip-hop acts to attract attention was Outkast. “They were hot — for southern rappers,” said Sha Stimuli. “That was the way we were trained to think. When they came out, we didn’t dissect them as people who could take the crown.”
A decade later, southern hip-hop is topping the charts, with artists like Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross and Young Jeezy.
“It’s been 10 years that southern rappers are spitting fire, it’s not a novelty anymore,” Sha Stimuli said. “But it has never penetrated New York the way it has now.”
The Atlanta Challenge
Rappers are not the only artists moving to Atlanta; the city has become a hotspot for black entertainment. And there is a wider migration movement that has occurred in the last 10 years. From 2000 to 2010, according to a study by the Brookings Institution based on the 2010 Census, three quarters of the nation’s black population gain occurred in the South, while the black population saw a drop in northern metropolitan areas. Where even 10 years ago blacks were migrating to the North, there are moving back down to the South. With them, the entertainment industry is flourishing in the big cities Dallas or Houston, and especially Atlanta.
Rapper Donny Goines didn’t rush into his decision of moving to Atlanta. He wanted to stay in New York.
“I tried to be my hometown hero,” he said, “but I felt limited because overall, a lot of other artists are bitter and jealous of each other, they’re not working together.” After trying to be a rapper in New York, he gave up.
“It became redundant and an exercise of futility,” he says, “I left to become strong and represent my city. I’m still rapping like a New Yorker.”
“This is the best career move I’ve made,” he said. Eventually, he plans to return to his hometown. He wants to make enough money to be able to donate half of his earnings to the charity he supports, as well as live in comfort, hopefully in a nice artist’s loft back in New York. He hopes to change the image he believes New Yorker rappers have, of not being profitable. “There is a negative connotation in being a New York hip-hop artist,” he said. “I want to prove people wrong.”
Even with the rise of southern hip-hop, New York is still a force, in good measure because of its history. In 2010, Joshua Atesh Litle directed the documentary The Furious Force of Rhymes, traveling to meet hip-hop artists around the world.
“New York City was the complete inspiration,” he said. “Some of the major artists who inspired these artists were Wu Tang Clan, Mob Deep, Jay-Z and Public Enemy. All from New York.
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