Since its conception, rap has existed as a reflection of the community. Although the genre has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon, localized rap is still thriving in countless cities across the country.
To find out exactly how rappers are cultivating a close-knit scene and connecting with local fans, we spoke to artists (Cali Kev, James Lopez), promoters, festival organizers (Cole Baker), educators (Chuckie Campbell), and underground leaders who are bolstering rap music in their local scene. From New Orleans to Detroit, from lo-fi raps to trap, rap lovers are keeping local hip-hop alive and well.
Believe it or not, the city of San Diego, California, has experienced much growth and cohesiveness over the past few years. Local rapper Cali Kev, 30, attributes the city’s increase in show turnout to rappers inviting artists from outside hip-hop to their concerts.
“If we get an eclectic artist, maybe a smooth jazz artist and a rock artist [at the show], you have so many different types of genres and fans there, that you might start picking up some new fans,” Kev tells DJBooth. “It’s beneficial to have that [assortment], rather than just the same [rap] cliques who have the same five fans.”
It may seem contradictory to extend invites to non-hip-hop performers, but this advice rang true for rappers across the country. Likewise, in Pensacola, Florida, longtime rapper and producer James Lopez, 37, says the city’s soul-infused trap, lo-fi, and experimental hip-hop shows draw the most massive crowds when merged with punk-rockers.
“One of the big things I’ve noticed with our scene is that mixed-genre stuff does really well,” Lopez says. “Especially punk and hip-hop mash-ups. I feel that both of those scenes have so much in common that it only makes sense that they vibe well.”
Beyond widening the appeal of a given show, rappers can connect with local fans by partnering with a non-musical outlet. In New Orleans—an underground scene currently defined by party-ready bounce and gritty street flow—area native and rap veteran Austin Levy, 36, says artists have found increasing success by associating with local lifestyle and clothing companies.
“All the artists are aligning with blog-style Instagram accounts and upstart clothing [and] lifestyle brands,” Levy says. “Lifestyle brands are the go-to right now. They’re part of all the festivals and have incredible followings.”
While Levy says the descendants of hometown heroes like Soulja Slim and Juvenile currently lead his local scene, the runners-up consist of loosely formed collectives backed by brands and record label crossovers, which offer new artists an immediate, built-in fanbase.
“Normally, it’s the opposite,” Levy explains. “Like, with somebody like Curren$y or Wiz Khalifa, they’d come out with clothing and sell it based on being a big artist. But [new rappers have] started using the influence of the clothing brand, with a record label, [to] finance their careers.”
Partnering with non-musical entities has worked in Buffalo, New York—Griselda’s home base—as well. Rather than aligning with brands, however, local artist, promoter, and hip-hop educator Chuckie Campbell, 39, credits his tight-knit turf to community-wide institutions that encourage hip-hop’s cultural avenues beyond the music.
“The hip-hop scene exists in a composite of the elements that make up hip-hop—graffiti writing, hip-hop dance, DJing, rapping/emceeing, and knowledge,” Campbell explains.
Community staples like monthly hip-hop breakdancing classes at Verve Dance Studio, graffiti workshops by revered street artist Vinny Alejandro and Bridge Studios NY—a collaborative rap mecca—offer a multi-faceted approach to keeping Buffalo’s hip-hop underground alive.
“These are educational springboards that cross-pollinate the Buffalo hip-hop scene, working to build a strong communal backbone for kids and adults alike who participate, give back, or contribute to the growth of the culture,” Campbell says.
Detroit native Royce da 5‘9” is fresh off the release of a new album, but his hometown is embracing hip-hop beyond household names. DJing, one of the five elements of hip-hop, has recently taken center stage. According to Motor City-bred rapper and producer Leaf Erikson, 43, monthly beat showcases have filled the spaces where rap battles once reigned supreme, creating a new place for hip-hop artists to network—and supplementing a new crop of potential local fans.
Cole Baker, 40, co-founder of the 2x2 Hip-Hop Fest in Columbus, Ohio, has been paying close attention to the non-rap aspects of hip-hop for as long as he can remember. Baker believes that setting a recurring stage for his city’s hip-hop heads has helped to create a sense of community in a divided scene.
“We saw a huge disconnect in our scene where not just rappers but beatboxers, breakers, writers, DJs, [and] skaters were all disconnected from each other,” Baker begins. “So, we wanted to throw [an event] where they were all in one place. The scene needed it. We made sure that not only did we have performances at 2x2, [but we also] had an area where MCs could grab the mic, throughout the day, to show and prove.”
Diversifying performances, tapping into non-musical audiences, and connecting to a city’s homegrown hip-hop outlets are all important. Still, these strategies alone won’t make or break an artist or a scene. According to many of the local leaders we spoke with for this story, support between rappers remains the most integral key to bolstering a city’s underground.
“One thing I feel like we’re getting better at is, before, when people would throw shows if your name wasn’t on the flyer, you weren’t retweeting the flyer,” Cali Kev explains of San Diego. “That’s not only hurtful to the city, but also the artists that are trying to blow up. The more you support people throwing shows, the more they’ll remember you and put you on the next show.”
Virtual applause, however, only goes so far.
“Going to a show, dapping people up, putting up flyers, pounding the pavement—new media strategies are a supplement to these things, not a replacement,” says Cullen Patrick Wade, 35, who runs Charlottesville, Virginia’s annual Nine Pillars Hip-Hop Cultural Fest. “Especially on a local level, where the face-to-face and social circles are so important.”
Support doesn’t end between performing artists, either. In a city vibrant with hip-hop history, Erikson says Detroit’s scene used to suffer from tensions between rap veterans and genre newcomers.
“We have to encourage the youth, and it has to go both ways,” Erikson says. “If we encourage the youth, then that’s gonna encourage them to want to do more.”
A great example of this interchange, Erikson mentions, is Apollo Brown’s 2019 LP, Sincerely, Detroit. The legendary producer not only accomplished the impressive feat of recruiting over 50 local MCs for the album—including Slum Village, Royce da 5’9”, and Erikson—but also fostered a space for rappers of various ages and career stages to collaborate and rep their hometown. In turn, from the city’s hopeful introduction in “Fate” to the sprinkled-in area codes, artist shout-outs, and “Motor City!” adlibs, Sincerely, Detroit delivered a boom bap anthem that local fans could bump with pride.
A local hip-hop scene can only be as vibrant as its participants. While most artists have swapped flyers for Instagram posts, rappers are still connecting with their local fanbases, and hip-hop continues to play a role in the fabric of these lesser-known hip-hop cities. Through local festivals, DJ showcases, breakdancing classes, brand collaborations, and more, communities can continue to celebrate their signature sounds and hear their own stories reflected in their favorite artists’ songs. The platform changed, but for hip-hop, its various communities are everlasting.