Welcome to the second edition of the "Hip Hop Regional Report." This week I am continuing to look at the "Next" rappers in hip-hop. The artists from various cities, boroughs, ports, and provinces around the county that appear to be on the verge of breaking through to stardom. Last week the focus was on up-and-coming New York City rappers. This time around the spotlight shines on a region that is an underrated rising power in hip-hop: the Mid-Atlantic states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland (including D.C., of course).
Primary Challenger - Serius Jones. There really isn't a surefire hit coming out of the region, but there are some terrific sleeper prospects. For the lead position, I'll go with the guy doing his best Saigon impression. Much like "Sai-gitty" has super producer Just Blaze behind him, Jones is working almost exclusively with Needlz, another red hot producer. Jones, a native of Engelwood, New Jersey, gained some modicum of fame last year when he won the Fight Klub freestyle competition with a devastating assortment of punch lines. He's known for being extremely clever and humorous, but is able to temper that with some strong reality-based songs. He sounds a bit like Mysonne, a flash-in-the-pan that signed with Violator back in the late '90's. Here's to hoping that things work out a little better for Jones. Perhaps a better comparison is to Rhymefest, the Chicago product that manages to mix brag raps, humor, and social consciousness with relative ease. I personally am rooting for J-One-S based solely on the fact that he penned a pretty hilarious article for AllHipHop.com titled "The Anatomy of a Sucker Emcee." Plus, he put out one of the better mix tapes in the last few years with King Me.
Listen to: "Up Top," "Serius," "Grind Mode," and "Life in the City."
Secondary Challenger - Bossman. Baltimore still doesn't have a national face in the hip-hop industry despite the fact that fabulous HBO show The Wire is referenced in just about every other rap song these days. That could change if Bossman is able to carry over the success of his local club hits like "Hand Clap" and "Oh: The B-More Anthem" onto his major label debut with Virgin, which is expected to come out next year. Bossman hails from Northeast "Bodymore, Murderland" and is one of the rare emcees that can change his style for virtually any beat (although Baltimore club music purists might argue that Bossman's slowed-down tracks are cheating a bit on that front). Don't be surprised if Bossman becomes a huge star. Of course, don't be surprised if he disappears into obscurity (like fellow Baltimore rappers Comp and B. Rich) either. It's not easy trying to put an entire city on the map. (See: just about everyone on this list.)
Listen to: "Hand Clap," "A-Yo," "Feet," and "Oh."
Darkhorse - Wiz Khalifa. Bossman and Wiz Khalifa are really pretty interchangeable, but we'll call Khalifa the darkhorse of the two because of the fact that he's from Pittsburgh, which is an even more remote hip-hop outpost than Baltimore. If anyone emerges out of the Steel City to become a national force in hip-hop, that will probably rank as a major upset. That said, this guy just oozes talent. Only 18-years old, he already has the right monicker ("Prince of the City"), the proper nickname for his home state ("Pistolvania"), and one of the better mixtapes to come out in the last two years (appropriately combining the two in the title, "Prince of the City: Welcome to Pistolvania"). He sounds a little like Cam'ron but with more bite and already comes across as a polished rapper with years of experience. He has a real knack for rhyming multiple words in the same bar and is one of the best I've heard at the sharp, staccato style of rhyming in complex bursts ("I got a hot rhyme, yours cool, not mine, 1-900 only time he got a hot line"). Throw in some of the talented producers coming out of Pittsburgh right now (DJ Huggy, Juliano, and Nicolay) and the pieces might be in place for a star to emerge from a previously untapped landscape.
Listen to: "Lay Em Down," "Damn Thing," "Thrown," and "Pittsburgh Sound."
Others to Watch - Nickelus F, G.A.G.E., Tabi Bonney, and Wale!. In my opinion, the Mid-Atlantic area of the country is producing some of the most talented artists out there - it is just a matter of whether they get the right platform to make people take notice. Hopefully the fact that Jive is finally releasing The Clipse's (hailing from Virginia Beach) second album, Hall Hath No Fury will generate some buzz for the entire region.
Nickelus F is pure underground at this point, but the Richmond, Virginia native has arguably the best flow on this list. He sounds a lot like Saigon but might actually be a better rapper. Here's to hoping he can land a major label deal at some point. For now, head over to his MySpace page for some terrific tracks from him and his Da Burglars crew.
G.A.G.E. already has the major label part down, as he signed with Dr. Dre and Aftermath in 2005. The Philadelphia emcee is currently working on his debut album The Soundtrack To My Life right now and is getting beats from the likes of Dre, Focus, Hi-Tek, and Scott Storch. The question, as it is with all Aftermath rappers, is whether this album will ever see the light of day. If there was any reason to believe the debut was actually coming anytime soon, G.A.G.E. would have been at the top of the entire Mid-Atlantic list.
Tabi Bonney is less "up-and-coming" and more "underground" as he already has two LP's out, but emergence on a big stage is still a possibility. The D.C. artist is known for his Andre 3000-like obsession with fashion (he has is own clothing line called Bonney Runway), Q-Tip sound, and eclectic Kanye West-type song arrangements. With the general movement in hip-hop away from the "thug" aesthetic and into more artistic, alternative styles (Lupe Fiasco being a headliner of this movement, joining the likes of Pharrell and Kanye), Bonney could be the kind of artist that major labels are looking for.
Wale! is trying to do what has been impossible until now - fuse traditional hip-hop with the authentic local go-go music that has been king in Washington D.C. for years. If you check out songs like "1 Thing About a Playa" and "Dig Dug" you see that he might be on to something.