What do Redman, Naughty by Nature, the Fugees, Queen Latifah and The Sugarhill Gang all have in common?
If you said that they all grew up somewhere in the state of New Jersey, congratulations. You are either a devout fan of hip-hop who hails from the Garden State or someone who read the above headline and realized the direction in which I was going.
If you weren’t aware that New Jersey is the home to a plethora of rap legends, who could blame you? After all, NJ is more musically well-known for its huge rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi.
There’s also the fact that many of the rappers I mentioned, as well as countless others, are often associated over time more with the scene that helped them blow up, whether it be nearby New York like the aforementioned OGs, LA for ex-Odd Future member Hodgy or Chicago for SaveMoney producer Thelonious Martin.
Still, as evidenced by the legacies of the aforementioned rap icons, the consistency of '00s NJ-ers like Joe Budden and the promise of youngsters like Topaz Jones, if one thing is clear it's that NJ, aka New Jerusalem, has and will continue to produce serious rap talent, whether people realize it or not.
This raises the question then as to why Jersey has been a place where rappers are born and bred, but not where they make their bread. And going further, what is the NJ rap scene like today for artists that are coming up now?
And as it turns out, the answers to these questions can vary greatly depending on the location of the person you're asking—either North, Central, South or Shore.
Angelo Mota is a 21-year-old rapper from North Jersey where many locals believe the scene is the most active. Mota is usually upbeat when talking about Jersey hip-hop if at times only cautiously optimistic. His story is consistent with other artists from his area. He grew up listening to hip-hop before getting involved with rappers in his high school and eventually connected with the grander scene in North NJ cities like Newark and Jersey City.
As it stands currently, Mota would diagnose the scene as healthy but believes there is a lot to be done for the scene to blow up on its own.
"We’re used to not getting checked up on, so we just make the hottest shit that we can and keep everything in our scene," he explained via e-mail.
Rodney Coursey, the owner of Garden State Hip-Hop and a native of Central Jersey and the Jersey Shore, paints a slightly dimmer picture than Mota.
During our call, he explained that while artists across North Jersey benefit from local venues with owners that are down for the culture and nearby NY, artists across parts of Central Jersey and the Shore do not. There are relatively few legitimate venues across Central Jersey, which often forces artists to rely on performing in sub-par spaces. This makes it harder for artists outside of North Jersey to make it big without hustling all over the state.
And while the Shore has a lot of venues, there are few that consistently book hip-hop, let alone local artists. He blames this on long-persisting, racially-driven stigmas about hip-hop on the part of the Shore's older venue owners.
As you get to other parts of Central Jersey and head south, the situation grows bleaker. Musa is a rapper who's lived all over Central and South Jersey and lacks much of the enthusiasm or optimism of Mota or Coursey. He instead affects a grounded pessimism as he discusses his own experiences with hip-hop throughout New Jersey.
"Jersey is a dark place, bruh," he says. "There’s a reason that shit’s not on the map. Not only [is it because] people are violent but the second thing is that there are no opportunities here."
Still, even with his largely negative perspective, Musa can't help but be slightly little optimistic. He is thankful for the support he does have in Central Jersey and the shows he’s been able to book at Rutgers University. Being Pakistani himself, he is also proud he’s been able to serve as an inspiration for other Middle Easterners looking to break into hip-hop.
To get you more familiar with New Jersey’s scene, here are five artists that make up some of the best of the area’s resilient pool of talent.
Topaz Jones (@TopazJones)
If any artist has captured the most attention and blog hype lately, it’s been Montclair, NJ native Topaz Jones. And though he is an example of a NJ artist that blew up while living in New York, he has stayed largely faithful to his home state, often working with fellow NJ artists and still listing Montclair as his location on SoundCloud.
His sound represents both the talent latent in the state and also the outward-looking nature of North NJ, as he weaves many different influences together without any blemishes. On his excellent 2016 project, Arcade, he puts his range on full display as no two songs are alike production-wise, yet he is able to ride each beat effortlessly. The only consistency from track-to-track is Topaz’s clever, wry lyricism, which he is able to mold into many different flows like a true rap artisan.
If you stumbled upon Mach Hommy’s music when Earl Sweatshirt shouted him out as his favorite rapper, you may not know that he is actually from New Jersey. Still, his music reps NJ well, sounding like a distorted version of classic NY street rap. His music is like someone tossed an early Mobb Deep demo in the Hudson River in the '90s, and then it was found in 2016 across the shore in NJ, all washed, warped and distorted by time and garbage water.
Mach-Hommy's latest project, the eight-track Dollar Menu 2, was released in March and is available on his Bandcamp page.
Alongside his partner in crime Da$H, RetcH is one of the most exciting acts to come out of Jersey in years, and perhaps is the one artist that represents the state most symbolically. The production on his tracks is often murky and gritty like streets cloaked by midnight darkness and his lyrics even more so. Still, RetcH raps with an irresistible resolve, like someone who has a chip on their shoulder that’s bigger than their actual shoulder.
RetcH isn’t just strong, he’s Jersey strong. Don’t sleep on him, or his 2016 project Lean and Neck.
Dougie F (@dougiefmusic)
Though Dougie F’s music leans Southern with his trappy beats and sing-rapping, he is, at his core, a New Jersey artist. Hailing from Orange, Dougie often raps or sings—or does both at the same time—about the high, the comedown and about moving forward while looking backward, motifs that are common amongst artists across New Jersey. He has infectious hooks and absolute pop appeal, but if you listen closely his potent lyricism will surprise you. Surprising people with hidden depth is also something that many New Jerseyans are accustomed to doing.
Dougie F’s last project was 2016’s Block Party.
Hailing from Piscataway, NJ, Dutchboy makes music informed by the sounds of the global, internet-fueled hip-hop of today. Like a NJ version of Bryson Tiller, Dutchboy toes the line between rap and R&B, spending most of his songs singing but in rap cadences. He's got a knack for making catchy, melodic jams, and better yet, is just as if not more talented as a producer, crafting most of the crisp, atmospheric sound beds he raps/sings atop.
His full-length debut, When I'm Not Around, was released in February.