Considering New York—specifically the Bronx—is widely regarded as the birthplace of hip-hop, NYC has understandably always been at the forefront of hip-hop discussion.
Ever since DJ Kool Herc introduced his block to breakbeats in 1973, the East Coast hub of New York and its surrounding region has laid claim to the culture and musical genre that has since gone on to dominate the globe.
These days, every region of the US—and the world for that matter—has their own specific take on hip-hop, but there’s always been an added pressure for those that come out of NYC to put on for the culture in a way that represents the originators of the craft.
East Coast hip-hop itself has gone through slight shifts in style, from the in-your-face aggression of Run-D.M.C. to the more positive eclecticism of the Native Tongues Posse to the chilling street narratives of Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang Clan, among many others. Uniform across what we commonly consider "East Coast hip-hop," though, is an aggressive, lyrical-focused brand of rap, along with sample-heavy, "boom bap" production.
What was once a region heavily influenced by aggressive and intricate lyricism, sample-driven beats and expert storytelling, the East Coast has been tinged with the styles and influences of its global spawn over the past couple decades, leading to a dilution of the region's once concentrated sound.
For example, the explosion of Southern talent and influence over the past two decades has undoubtedly left its mark on the East Coast, with artists like A$AP Rocky and Nicki Minaj adopting aspects of Southern hip-hop that have made East Coast purists question their representation of the region.
While New York hip-hop never left—NYC rappers have been releasing NYC-sounding music ever since the genre's inception—its exposure on a mainstream level and prominence in the wider culture conversation has taken a backseat to other regions like Atlanta or Chicago. While the rest of the country has used experimentation in sound and technique to gain in relevance, NYC's tendency to stay rooted in traditionalism has caused many younger fans to equate the city with the sounds of the past.
Recently, though, we've seen a renaissance of hype around NYC rap. Not from NY-born artists whose style reflects Southern rap sonics (looking at you, Desiigner), but from a handful of artists rooted in classic East Coast sounds and attitudes, using influences and innovations of the last 20 years to sound fresh and contemporary.
Dave East is a 28-year-old rapper from East Harlem who’s been turning heads over the past few years to the tune of a Def Jam contract and a spot on last year's XXL Freshman issue. After years spent grinding away through acclaimed mixtapes, East received a co-sign from East Coast pioneer Nas, who signed Dave to his Mass Appeal imprint. While Dave doesn’t shy away from the trap sounds or bass that invigorated the South, his production still sounds right at home bouncing through NY's narrow streets and his bars are always at the forefront. Maybe Dave's greatest homage to his East Coast forefathers is his pristine storytelling ability, mastered by the likes of Biggie, Nas and countless others.
Then there’s Westside Gunn and his brother Conway from Buffalo, New York. The two started Griselda Records together and recently signed an exclusive deal with Eminem's Shady Records. Westside and Conway have reinstated the type of gritty, hyper-aggressive street raps that forebearers like The L.O.X. popularized in mid-to-late 90’s. Much of Griselda Gang's sounds come across as classic New York instrumentals coated in a thick layer of Atlanta-supplied codeine, with Westside and Conway sounding like fresh versions of Ghostface and Styles P, respectively.
Brooklyn's Young M.A exploded onto the scene through the viral success of her single “Ooouuu." With an update to the flashier, more bounce-filled side of NY's sound, M.A’s music picked up the musical torch where the once-promising Bobby Shmurda left it upon his incarceration in 2014. Influences from elsewhere can be heard, but M.A's biggest inspiration was 50 Cent, and at its core, her music offers a fresh take on the mix of hard-hitting instrumentals and razor-sharp braggadocio for which Brooklyn became famous.
Across the region, fellow artists like the Bronx's Don Q and Coney Island's Your Old Droog offer additional updates on classic East Coast sounds. Don’s recently released Corner Stories mixtape is packed with trap production from non-NY names like Honorable C.N.O.T.E., Murda Beatz and K.E. On The Track, yet is undeniably New York in attitude and content (features from Styles P, Jadakiss, Fabolous and more don't hurt, either).
Your Old Droog, meanwhile, packs so much of that classic NY sound into his music that, at the very beginning of his career, much of the internet thought he was Nas rapping under a pseudonym. Already an underground favorite, his recently released sophomore album Packs is his biggest project yet. His throwback, heavily sample-driven sound and often hilarious storytelling pays homage to jazzy boom bap of old without ever becoming boring or repetitive, with an incredible ability to actually rap, harkening back to legendary artists like Nas and MF DOOM.
For the sake of keeping the spotlight focused, I haven't even touched on Joey Bada$$ and his Pro Era collective, who—along with other groups like Flatbush Zombies, The Underachievers and others—have, for years now, been floating on the line between the mainstream and underground injecting golden era sounds with psychedelic, worldly influences and contemporary production.
Across the region, the sounds that once made New York a sonic hotbed have returned through the lens of the youth, helping NYC move closer to the center of the hip-hop universe from which it's strayed.
As hip-hop continues to grow and mutate, a melting pot effect on the sounds and styles has been inevitable, and this effect will only continue. After years of stagnation, these artists are proving that you don’t have to copy and paste the sounds of the '90s to represent for the East Coast.