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All Rap Is Local

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July 17, 2023
Sheldon Pearce

Hey, young world. Here's a story about one measure of the distance hip-hop has traveled in its 50 years. Once upon a time, not long ago, to paraphrase a great rap storyteller, an 11-year-old in Queens became obsessed with the nascent rap movement. But circumstances forced the young Q-Tip, the rapper-producer who would soon found A Tribe Called Quest, to get creative with his equipment. Like most Black kids then, he didn't have a track machine, so learning the craft required a workaround. As he told Red Bull Music Academy later, he would take "some janky-ass stereo system" with dual cassette recorders and make pause tapes out of his dad's jazz collection, taking hours at a time to loop small sections of songs into crude beats. "While doing those takes I was like, 'Man, I gotta make something out of this mess.' " It's a glimpse of rap's humble beginnings but also its early hurdles: the need not just for equipment and technical prowess, but for a connection, for finding someone with clout to whom you could hand that tape. Today, nearly anyone can make a song in 15 minutes, upload it a few minutes later, and have someone in another hemisphere hear it that same day.

Few forms represent our world's shift from 20th century to 21st century, from analog to digital, more effectively than hip-hop culture. Music that once played off of something (vinyl, 8-track tape, cassette, disc) through speakers, headphones or a boombox now streams directly into our pockets, making the internet the primary place where people discover and listen to new music. But the music itself has become a digital medium too. It is mostly created utilizing software, production and performance programs with massive libraries of instruments and samples. The most hardware you need is a phone or tablet. Today there are attempts to take humans out of the equation entirely.

Alongside this gradual evolution from decks to plug-ins and RPMs to streams, two things have happened: Rap has become the dominant cultural export in America, and it is now seen primarily as a virtual phenomenon — one that plays out primarily within the social media ecosystem, where digital footprint supersedes regional identity. You can plot the course along a timeline of technological breakthroughs; rap's steady growth coincided directly with that of high-speed internet. First, DatPiff and iTunes collapsed the distance between the stars on national radio and the up-and-comers on hometown promo flyers, then the blog era let a more scattered assortment of tastemakers churn out recommendations by the download, and finally recording technology made creation and distribution a simple matter of clicking buttons. Now playlists dictate what is heard — powered not just by algorithms, but by major labels — seemingly limiting grassroots development in favor of corporate enterprise.

It might seem that instantaneous direct-to-consumer dissemination portends a new world or meaning for hip-hop, or that the fundamental nature of the genre has changed, but no. Something at its core has remained linked to transmission in closer spaces: over the air, hand to hand, connected to the character of a place. Yes, regionality still rules. Look at NBA YoungBoy, or Ice Spice, or Toosii, or Rod Wave. Even as hip-hop has spread far beyond American city centers, it is still born of grassroots movements.

Do some rappers exist outside traditional scenes? There are always outliers. But all rap is local, if not literally, then philosophically. Even Freddie Gibbs, from the rap wasteland of Gary, Ind., only recorded his first mixtape (a tape an Interscope intern heard trolling regional rap blogs) because of the local producer Finger Roll. All rap is the byproduct of regional culture and community, which is why we've chosen to chronicle its 50 year rise at area level.

There are a few different ways that these things manifest. Sometimes, it's the shared fabric of the place you were born or raised, like Michael "5000" Watts and OG Ron C starting Swishahouse in response to the spread of Houston's chopped and screwed music, or Lil Wayne hanging around the Cash Money offices as a kid. Sometimes, it isn't where you're from but where you end up — DJ Premier leaving Texas to become the sound of New York or Tupac moving from Baltimore and emerging as a West Coast legend. Sometimes, it's a matter of isolation and independence, like Rhymesayers becoming a sanctuary for like-minded outsiders in Minneapolis. Even today, in the supposedly flattened, equal-opportunity streaming age, nearly every breakthrough star, from Cardi B to GloRilla, is a hometown contender having a national moment.

Just as Kool Herc's 1973 back-to-school party generated the sonic boom that sent rap blaring across the five boroughs, every supposedly cloud-bound rapper can trace their rise to something on the ground. Odd Future released all its early music on Tumblr but recorded in engineer Syd's house. Even stuff that feels native to a digital platform has real, tangible connections to something resembling a scene. For a few years, SoundCloud was treated like a portal away from rap regionalism. But the connections are still there: in the late emo crooner Juice WRLD signing with drill bruiser Lil Bibby, in Playboi Carti's affiliation with Awful Records, in Lil Uzi Vert getting his name from DJ Diamond Kuts and working with producer Maaly Raw. Lil Peep had schemaposse and GothBoiClique. XXXTentacion and Ski Mask the Slump God had each other and their Members Only collective. Even when you feel like you can't hear it on the surface, it's there. It's Travis Scott modeling his (globally dominant) album after (his hometown's) Astroworld theme park. It's Chance, Noname, Saba and Mick Jenkins linking through the YOUmedia project and Louder Than a Bomb.

Every scene has its own landmarks, gatekeepers, intermediaries, investors, but no scene exists in a vacuum. And it is the endless string of regional breakthroughs that made rap into a global phenomenon with satellite scenes in many major cities around the world. To celebrate hip-hop's 50th anniversary and chart its cultural takeover, we have decided to get granular, with 14 pocket histories considering different regions across the country — their styles and sounds, the ideas and aesthetics they brought to the wider rap ecosystem, the figures at play. Individually, they examine the way that places shape plans and prospects. Threaded together, they explain how a supposed fad spread into a national phenomenon and rose into a commercial titan. We didn't pick just the biggest, most obvious or most important places; our selections represent how scenes developed and self-governed over time, with surges into the national spotlight that raised rap's collective profile. The story of rap music is one of zonal identity becoming the pervasive atmosphere, over and over and over and over and over and over again, until it seems as if there isn't anything its influence isn't touching.

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Design and development: Connie Hanzhang Jin, Jackie Lay and Mike Fussell

Map illustration: Connie Hanzhang Jin and Jackie Lay

Icon illustrations: Jackie Lay

Digital editing: Sheldon Pearce, Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Jacob Ganz

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Sheldon Pearce