In the 30 plus years of its history, the pendulum of influence in hip-hop has swung between a few cities and regions — New York, California, the Dirty South (which has at various times been voiced by Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta).
It's a tough nut to crack — dominating the sound and style of hip-hop music for any stretch of time. And while Detroit may not have a singular sound or any one artist spawning imitators even outside city lines, at this moment, five rappers from the area are in the national spotlight. The cliques that once divvied up Motor City's underground hip-hop scene have begun working together, intersecting on records, on stage and in national media.
In the context of a city known for its poverty, crime and fallen businesses, the shift is notable. And though the collaborations that are happening now are not the only reason these artists — Royce Da 5'9", Black Milk, Danny Brown, FowL and Big Sean — are enjoying real visibility, it certainly doesn't hurt their cause.
"When we first started, if you went anywhere abroad and said that you were a Detroit rapper, nobody cared," Royce Da 5'9" remembers. "We kind of have a name now. We've grinded to the point that we've created a standard that I'm very proud of. We have to live up to that standard."
We all remember Eminem's pop takeover in the late 1990s when he paired his potty-mouthed brilliance with veteran producer Dr. Dre's beats and industry experience, going on to become the best-selling artist of the 2000s. His record label, Shady Records, helped other city talent like his group D12 and solo artist Obie Trice taste platinum-certified success as well. 8 Mile, the semi-autobiographical film about Eminem that was named after a road in Detroit, featured cameos by the likes of Detroit underground staples such as Miz Korona and MarvWon (some in bonus DVD footage).
But until recently, that's where the mainstream visibility ended. Legendary producer James "J Dilla" Yancey laid an audible blueprint for what would later be categorized as "neo-soul" music, and contributed songs to superstars such as Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson and Common. Still, he didn't get his just due until 2006, after he died of complications from lupus. Yancey's group, Slum Village, also enjoyed limited chart success but never completely broke through into mainstream circles.
For years, Detroit's rap scene was largely self-sustained. Acts from the city and the surrounding area, like DeShaun "Proof" Holton (D12 member and Eminem's best friend) and Elzhi, made their rounds in venues like The Hip-Hop Shop and The Shelter before becoming regional indie powerhouses. "It started out as an individual thing. Now, I think all of us realize it can't be an individual thing," says Royce Da 5'9". "We've all been self-contained over the years, but now we realize there's strength in numbers. It's good to be unified, as opposed to everyone on their own agenda."
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