Unlike LA or Houston, Wisconsin cities Milwaukee and Madison have never been linked to any one singular defining sound.
Like the beer here, you can find an artist that suits any preference, whether you prefer hard trap bangers, like Trebino’s, or party-ready anthems, like those of IshDARR, Wave Chapelle or 3rd Dimension. Or, you could choose between Ra'Shaun’s R&B-ified jams and Rich Robbins’ lightly cerebral offerings. There’s stuff that pushes the boundaries of the genre too, like WebsterX’s industrialized sound, Milo’s surreal spoken-word rap, or Zed Kenzo’s dark electro-infused stuff.
In Madison, it’s somewhat clear why this variety of styles exists. The local scene has been bolstered by UW students from different rap backgrounds across the country thanks to the university's general gravitational pull and its hip-hop scholarship program, First Wave.
In Milwaukee, largely a locally-driven scene, the picture is less clear. One Milwaukee friend I spoke to suggested that the variety of sounds and styles exists in the city because Milwaukee artists, few of whom have made it big, still have the attitude of making their art for its own sake, rather than out of commercial desire. Another suggested that the scene’s still relatively small size and insulated nature leads to a large amount of diversity in the music, much like a small, isolated pool of one species will become. And yet another said that each city not having a “sound” has more to do with a scene’s “sound” being defined not by which style is most common in a given location, but by which artists from an area have made it the biggest nationally. No artist from either metropolis has really made it big yet, therefore there’s no specific artist the locals feel pressured to conform to and no bloggers generalizing the scene from a national perspective.
It’s also important to note that Milwaukee and Madison’s hip-hop scenes do not simply exist in spite of their cities’ small sizes. At times, they also exist in spite of the cities themselves. Madison artists have had it rough since the genre’s introduction in the state capital. Artists frequently cite a lack of venues willing to book them, unfair policing at the shows they do land, and a generally hostile attitude toward hip-hop from owners of bars and other establishments.
Milwaukee artists tend to see more opportunities for live shows and also benefit by having more of a built-in local market. Still, there is a shortage of small to mid-sized venues in general, as well as many venues and festivals, namely Summerfest, that could book local rappers but choose not to. This often forces artists to rely on opening for larger visiting acts or performing at DIY functions.
It would also be irresponsible not to mention that each city exhibits a startling amount of racial segregation, has huge economic gaps between their white and black populations and that each incarcerates black people at staggering rates. You can read more on this here, here, here and here, but for the purposes of this article, I believe it is safe to say that these institutionalized forms of racism are obviously going to have an effect on a black art form that is predominantly created by black artists.
Despite these difficulties, though, hip-hop in each city does appear to be on the rise. Select artists from both cities are on the cusp of making it big, and even more are getting co-signs and collaborating with artists from bigger Midwestern scenes like Chicago or Minneapolis. Even more importantly, perhaps, the scenes in Milwaukee and Madison do appear to be inching slowly towards some sort of merger. While there’s a bit of a shortage in terms of inter-city collaborations at the moment, artists from one city are performing at venues in the other city with more frequency as well appearing on the same bills when that does happen. Artists are even starting to take creating performance opportunities into their own hands, such as WebsterX’s Free Space performance series.
Once linked simply by geographic proximity and by having amorphous aesthetics, the possibility of a bonafide Wisconsin scene, consisting of both cities, grows more likely with each shared concert and rare collaboration. For the talent in this state to get the national recognition it deserves, it might prove to be necessary as well.
To get you more familiar with Madison and Milwaukee scenes, here are five artists that make up some of the best of the area’s surprisingly deep pool of talent.
Trapo, a native Madisonian, is the type of artist that evokes very literal double-takes from new listeners. The first “take” comes at the immediately apparent quality and distinct nature of his music. If you don’t notice any cracks in his songs at first, it’s because there are none.
Trapo can do it all as a vocalist, making rapping, singing and lyric-writing look preternaturally easy. He rides instrument-laden beats effortlessly, shifting melodies and flows with the adeptness of a racecar driver taking a victory lap.
The second “take” then comes when you realize he’s only 19 years old. This is, in part, because he has the smooth, leathery voice of someone at least twice his age, but it is also because his sound is already fully-formed yet still clearly growing, having improved with each project. The raspy-voiced artist released his debut album in 2016, entitled Shade Trees, and he has another EP, Ford 4 Door, due out this year.
Lucien is another young gun out of Madtown, and the 19-year-old—raised in south Minneapolis but currently attending UW-Madison—is a perfect example of how UW’s First Wave Program, a hip-hop scholarship program and interdisciplinary collective of artists, is shaking up Wisconsin hip-hop. Without the program, Madison, and by extension Wisconsin, would not have the influx of diverse talent it has had in recent years, which includes artists like CRASHprez, Broadway or Ru.
Lucien weaves together rich R&B coated in a variety of different emotions and his background in spoken word to create a sound that’s fresh but with a painstakingly familiar quality. He’s also been quite active lately, releasing songs in bursts.
Mic Kellogg, born in Madison but now living in Milwaukee, represents the potential of fully embracing both cities’ hip-hop circles, as well as the tendency of artists across the area to unwaveringly be themselves on their tracks.
Kellogg’s tracks are laden with emotion, but he never fakes the funk, exhibiting a Chance-like quality where his feelings and his experiences seamlessly blend with your own. He also has a knack for evoking memories of lost childhood, adolescence and the ever-present fear of growing up without seeming like he’s just trying to cash out on cheap nostalgia.
The breakfast-loving rapper hasn't released a true project in two years, choosing instead to unload a number of singles earlier this year.
If someone wrote a listicle comparing Wisconsin rappers to superheroes, then Reggie Bonds would be a strong candidate for Batman.
Bonds fully understands the grittiness and injustice apparent in his city of Milwaukee and then channels it both in his lyrics and his vocals. He delivers lines about people overcoming and thriving despite the odds—or those that don’t—with an aggressive, defiant swagger that’s downright contagious. Do listen to his songs if you encounter any walls you need to run through in the near future.
We’re still waiting on a proper project for Reggie, but he has plenty of singles for you to sample in the meantime.
It’s only fitting that a car graces one of the covers of Milwaukee native Von Alexander’s latest project, Mayhem1993, because his music is tailor-made for driving around with some aim but without a direction.
A proper and accurate comparison to the Milwaukee emcee would be a darker, distorted J Cole. Like Cole, Von Alexander is a technically proficient rapper and is very adept at building worlds in his songs in which listeners can place themselves. Still, there’s something dark, almost surreal, and sometimes sad lurking in the depths of a lot of Von’s tracks. That quality keeps you on edge, preventing you from ever fully escaping into the music. You may be the main character, but you’re always aware you’re living in Von’s world.
You can bump his album Mayhem1993 that he released back in January.