What Is New York Hip-Hop in 2018?

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Shek Wes performs in concert during the inaugural Astroworld Festival at NRG Park on Nov. 17, 2018 in Houston.  

Denzel Baptiste and David Biral -- better known as production duo Take A Daytrip -- recall the events that led up to their biggest song from their small SoHo studio during a brisk November evening.

Fellow producer 16yrold came up with a carnivalesque keyboard melody and connected the pair with Harlem talent Sheck Wes. The rapper came in and did just one take, an off-the-cuff performance that’s marred by the recording software freezing and cutting out the brooding instrumental for a few brief moments. That malfunction -- filled out by Sheck’s very punk, “Aw, fuck! Shit! Bitch!” ad lib -- became the final cut. This was 2017; by 2018, “Mo Bamba” would go viral, breaking the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10 in November.

Take A Daytrip weren’t just excited because their song became a national hit -- this was also a New York banger. As New York University students, they spent time DJ’ing at clubs in Manhattan’s lux Meatpacking District and noticed the crowd’s excitement every time they’d play Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” or another banger local to the city.

“They all have this emotion of grit and energy and power behind them that you play in the club and everybody is just going crazy to it,” Denzel says. “Being able to make those types of records has always been our dream.”

“Mo Bamba” is one of the more recognizable hits from a newer crop of New York hitmakers that includes Cardi B, Flipp Dinero, and A Boogie wit da Hoodie, who’ve emerged over the past two years with Hot 100 hit singles. While New York is a cultural center, the rap scene has been stiffed on the national stage in favor of Atlanta, Chicago, and the west coast. With the exception of Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z, and A$AP Rocky, New York rappers have sparsely made it to the year-end Hot 100 since 2010 -- at least compared to other regions. This year, Cardi B dominates with eight spots (including two in the top ten), followed by appearances from Tekashi 6ix9ine, ASAP Ferg, and Rocky.

Hip-hop and R&B as a whole have benefitted from the ubiquity of on-demand streaming; the genres have reportedly accounted for a third of music streams. Their dominance allots the genre more Hot 100 entries. The streaming-first shift has rearranged the dynamic of New York hip-hop’s vanguard: Whereas radio stations like Hot 97 were once the city’s core gatekeepers, they’re now the Internet’s corollary.

“The program director that ultimately decides what’s on the radio, they pay a lot of attention to analytics and what’s streaming,” says Torae, a Brooklyn-born rapper who hosts on SiriusXM’s Hip-Hop Nation. “To me, it’s also about what sounds good and what I feel in my gut that I think is dope. But streaming is key. Artists say, ‘I wanna get on the radio.’ I’m like, ‘Listen, your Spotify numbers gotta be up.’ Those views on YouTube gotta be up. There’s gotta be something that’s gonna get the attention of the people that program the music.”

Producer Kirk Knight has been on both sides of that sea change. In 2012, the Brooklyn native emerged as part of the Joey Badass-featuring Pro Era, a collective that mostly followed in the spirit of the amelodic, lyrics-heavy raps of the ‘90s that many still most closely associate with New York. They earned a large following without scoring a Hot 100 hit (Joey appeared as a feature artist on XXXTentacion’s "Infinity (888)," which peaked at No. 83), but Knight broke ground for the crew when he produced A$AP Ferg’s “Plain Jane,” a Three 6 Mafia-sampling bounce that landed him his highest charting Hot 100 single. Knight believes that the way fans now consume music has given he and his peers more room to shine.

“Hip-hop is so much bigger now, and everyone’s listening, so everybody’s getting love,” Kirk Knight says, “Even if you make something that’s like ‘What the f--k is this? That ‘what-the-fuck’ [fan] is gonna like that.”

New York’s recent hits have largely drawn from other regions as well. Bobby Shmurda’s 2014 jam “Hot N---a” -- the rare non-Nicki Minaj/ASAP New York hit from this decade -- had clear influences from Chicago’s drill scene, right down to the DIY aesthetic of the video, which was a major factor in its virality. “Bodak Yellow” cribbed its flow from Kodak Black’s “No Flockin,” while A Boogie owns a melodic delivery that had been a southern trademark. Most infamously, many pinned Desiigner as a Future doppelgänger when “Panda” dropped in 2016.

The city’s classic soul-samping style has largely fell out of favor in recent years; even a group as unapologetically New York as the ASAP Mob came into the spotlight by blending Houston’s chopped and screwed subgenre and Three 6 Mafia’s gothicism into its sound. With so many incoming influences, most conventional descriptors of the “New York Sound” currently feel too stringent. Still, the world-beating personalities the city breeds remains a signature.

Tekashi 6ix9ine is perhaps the most perverse version of this characteristic. Throughout his breakout 2018, the Bushwick native was infamous for his numerous beefs carried on through social media, constant Internet trolling, and IRL physical altercations. Even after his 2015 guilty plea for use of a child in a sexual performance was made public, 6ix9ine still scored big time collaborations with the likes of Nicki Minaj, and had 14 songs chart on the Hot 100.

Though he doesn’t directly condone 6ix9ine’s actions, Torae believes that the loudness of New York hip-hop’s personas is what drives their music’s appeal. Cardi B is a prime example, a charismatic entertainer who popped up as a “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx” on social media videos and Love & Hip-Hop before breaking out with “Bodak Yellow.”

“Whereas some regions are laid back -- whether it’s the flow or the way they deliver their words -- New York definitely has tons of attitude,” Torae says. “Flipp Dinero’s ‘Leave Me Alone’: tons of attitude in that record. 6ix9ine: tons of attitude in all of his records.”

Take A Daytrip would agree that it’s not just a generational quirk. “Something that ties every era of New York together is still that grit and the personality,” Denzel says. “That feeling that you got when you were out at a party when Ja Rule was out, is the same feeling and emotion [you get] when ‘Bodak Yellow’ comes out, probably.”

New York’s footprint on the mainstream will likely grow in 2019 as streaming remains dominant and new artists continue to integrate popular techniques into their styles. A notable recent example is Flatbush native’s Flipp Dinero’s “Leave Me Alone,” which features a singalong-ready mantra with a brash, romantic rebuke that contrasts the yearning of “In My Feelings” (although Drake did point to “Leave Me Alone” as one of the tracks that inspired Scorpion). Other standouts include Jay Critch -- whose serpentine flows and ear for hooks are highlighted on November’s Hood Favorite -- and 16-year-old Smooky MarGielaa, a Bronx native armed with co-signs from ASAP Rocky and Schoolboy Q and a gift for melodic earworms. His influences also include Lil Durk, the late South Carolinian Speaker Knockerz, and Chief Keef.

The city’s drill-infused corners also have a sizeable number of up-and-comers looking to make inroads into the incarcerated Bobby Shmurda’s lane. 22Gz, another Flatbush native, broke out last year with the bleak street hymn “Suburban” and has since signed to Kodak Black’s Sniper Gang label. With a debut project on the way next year, 22Gz’s songs center on his street-talking grit, as well as his secular ear.

“My influences are Lil Baby, YoungBoy [Never Broke Again], Kodak Black,” 22Gz says. “I feel like listening to them kind of does help me in a way, because that’s what people want to hear. But I have my own swag, too.”

Billboard Year in Music 2018

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