Friday, October 13, 2006

NYC Hip-Hop: Who's Got Next?

For the most part, I can do without ESPN: The Magazine. It's all a little too pithy and clever for my tastes and besides, I think we can all agree that there is plenty of ESPN in our lives already. It's practically unavoidable; multiple channels, a website that takes 90 seconds to load and then starts blaring highlights at you, mobile phones, and so on. That said, I love when "The Mag" runs its "Next" issue - a series of articles highlighting the up-and-coming stars in various sports around the globe.

There is something exciting about discovering a previously unknown talent and there is a certain thrill in seeing someone reach the next level. I think I am enjoying the LeBron James Experience so much because I've been following it since he was a sophomore in high school.

With that in mind, it seemed like a good idea to tie that "Next" concept in with my favorite subject of all: hip-hop.

And since I was already planning on creating a monthly "Regional Report" feature that highlights various aspects of hip-hop around the country, it seemed appropriate to just go ahead and run with all of this, all at once. What follows is the first "Regional Report" and it focuses on some of the up-and-coming rappers from New York City who may very well be the "Next" stars in hip-hop. I was going to cover the entire country, but it was starting to shape up as a 5,000-word column, so I decided to break them into regions. Be on the look out for more to come in the very near future.

New York City. New York is the birthplace of hip-hop. From Sugarhill Gang to Public Enemy to Biggie to Jay-Z and Nas, New York was always the leader in terms of cultural movement, musical trends, and industry sales. The West Coast burst on the scene with N.W.A. in the late 80's and remained a constant foil throughout the 1990's, peaking with the Biggie-2 Pac feud. My how things have changed. The South dominates hip-hop now and even a city like Chicago is rivaling NYC for rap superiority. 50 Cent's brief nexus of street/critical appeal and commercial success in 2003 looked like a big step for the Big Apple, but Curtis Jackson and the rest of G-Unit have become nothing but a well-oiled sales force since.

Will New York ever resume its place at the top? There are rumors that Jay-Z is coming out of retirement with a new album titled Kingdom Come and Nas has one of the most highly anticipated albums in years on the way in the form of Hip-Hop is Not Dead. Even Puff Daddy, sorry, Diddy, is back in the mix, dropping his Press Play next week. That's a lot of firepower and combined with a recent release from Lloyd Banks and a solid offering from Method Man, this is probably the hottest the city has been in a while.

That said, for NYC to truly reemerge as the dominant force in rap music, the city is going to need new blood to burst onto the scene. Here are the artists that seem most likely to get the job done.

Primary Challenger - Saigon. His major label debut The Greatest Story Never Told continues to be pushed back further and further to the point where I'm starting to worry that the title is going to be prophetic. That said, I can't imagine anyone that has a better shot at bringing New York rap back to the forefront than Saigon. He's got arguably the hottest producer in the industry (Just Blaze) in his corner, a distribution deal with Atlantic records, and a series of guest spots on Entourage that only served to boost his popularity. Saigon's combination of gritty street tales, clever punch lines, aggressive boasts, and on-screen persona have him poised to be an enormous hip-hop star. We just need that album to come out. Sometime. Anytime.

(By the way, everyone should know this Saigon story that occurred earlier this year. He was stabbed in the head with a beer bottle in a robbery and then ran around trying to hail a cap so that he could avoid getting blood in his Benz. Unable to do so, he eventually drove himself to the hospital where he wound up getting a whopping seventy stitches.)

Listen to: "The Letter P Freestyle," "Contraband," "Pain in My Life," and "Yup, Yup."

Secondary Challenger - Papoose. It was a tough call to relegate Papoose to second string. His label situation seems more secure than Saigon's as Jive/Violator recently made Papoose the "1.5 Million Dollar Man" and immediately put his debut album "Nacirema Dream" (American spelled backward) at the top of the priority list. And for good reason. Papoose has become an underground monster, churning out nearly a dozen highly regarded mixtapes in just a few years. In fact, so prolific was the Brooklyn rapper that he received the 2005 Justo Award, given to the top underground artist. Nicknamed "The Lyrical One" and compared to the late Harlem legend Big L, Papoose's only shortcoming is that he seems to lack the charisma of Saigon. He's rhymes aren't as incendiary and his style - while steady - can become a tad boring after too many spins. Expect this intelligent and confident rapper to have a long, prolific career, but I'm not sure he's going to become a megastar. He's like the NY rap version of Emeka Okafor.

Listen to: "Brooklyn Stand Up," "Alphabetical Slaughter," "Out in New York," and "Wake Up Call."

Darkhorse - Joell Ortiz. This Brooklyn rapper is probably the closest thing I've heard to Big Pun since the Terror Squad star's passing. Ortiz has a very nice flow and sounds polished, even on mixtapes and freestyles, and the track "I Mean Business" from NBA Live 2005 was a standout on a strong collection. The recent news that Ortiz has signed to Aftermath increases his chances of blowing up ... provided he ever cracks the rotation. Being signed to Aftermath appears to be a blessing and a curse - on the one hand, you have the most powerful imprint in the industry behind you (which means the best beats, best marketing, and a certain level of respect), but on the other hand, you might be waiting in line for years before you get your debut into stores. If Ortiz does get his chance, his stock may skyrocket. With his sharp punchlines, unwavering confidence, and fabulous metaphors, he could really stand out in a sea of mediocrity.

Listen to: "Who Better Than Me," "Mean Business," "Brooklyn," and "Hold it Down."

Others to Watch - Jae Millz, Cory Gunz, Stimuli, Uncle Murder, Maino, Eldorado Red, and Mazaradi Fox. It is interesting to hear people speak of the bleak NYC landscape, because there is a lot of talent ready to come up. Saigon and Papoose have the buzz and support systems to pump out platinum records in the near future, but the rest of these artists can make an impact as well.

Jae Millz made some noise this summer with the Scott Stoch-produced "My Swag" and dropped an impressive verse on the NYC Remix of Chamillionaire's "Ridin'". You might remember him as the guy that P. Diddy brought in to battle Ness on "Making the Band," but the Harlem rapper should be able to make a bigger impression than that when his Universal debut drops later this year or early next.

If you've heard of Cory Gunz it was probably as the young sidekick of the rapping version of Shaquille O'Neal or the son of veteran rapper Peter Gunz. Now he's grown up and he's signed to Def Jam and has Jay-Z himself overseeing his debut album, so he is someone to keep an eye on.

As recently as a year ago, Brooklyn's Stimuli was being mentioned alongside Saigon and Papoose as the next big thing to come out of New York, but he's been slow to saturate the mixtape circuit (he's only put out three in the past three years, which doesn't seem to cut it in this day and age) and things with his label, Virgin, have been dicey to say the least. If you heard his verse on The Clipse's "On My S***" then you know that this guy can rap. But will the masses get the chance to hear him?

Uncle Murder is quite possibly the most unique member of this group. The Brooklyn rapper has kind of a mumbling, nasally drawl that seems more equipped for a Mannie Fresh beat. He doesn't seem to have the talent of some of the other New York prospects, but given how well the South is selling these days, maybe his out-of-town sound is the key to success.

Maino calls himself "The King of Brooklyn," but so far he hasn't been able to emerge beyond being a sidekick to Lil' Kim or even fellow rookie Papoose. If you ask me, he's pretty average and plays up his "time spent behind bars" shtick too much. That said, he's popping up on every other Funkmaster Flex track, he had that massive underground hit "Rumors," and he's signed to a big Universal deal, so we probably shouldn't count him out.

Eldorado Red is a Harlem emcee who grew up listening to Afrika Bambaattaa and Jazzy Jay but is now teamed up with famed West Coast producer Rick Rock. If that juxtaposition isn't enough, he got his name from the Donald Goines novel. Throw in the fact that he can really rap and that he is unabashedly in pursuit of massive amounts of money and I think we may wind up hearing from this guy.

Finally, there is Mazarati Fox, who is arguably the biggest mystery on this New York list. We know he's from South Jamaica, Queens, just like 50 Cent, who supposedly signed him to G-Unit a few days ago. Known as "Million Dollar Fox," he's already got his first underground single out titled, "Pop My Heaters" which features - not surprisingly - Fifty himself and features several claims about Fox being someone worthy of fear. Considering the lukewarm reception that new G-Unit members Hot Rod and Spider Loc (more on them later in future editions of this column) are getting, maybe this guy will give Fifty and company a boost. On the other hand, considering that he sounds like a water-down Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), I'm not holding my breath.

That's it for now. Be sure to weight in with any thoughts on the New York hip-hop scene and be on the lookout for future columns looking at the Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, and the West Coast.

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