Status Ain't Hood

Benny The Butcher & Mach-Hommy, Keepers Of The East Coast Flame

Buffalo is not New York City. It’s nowhere near New York City. It’s not even coastal. Buffalo is closer to Toronto or Cleveland than it is to NYC. And yet Buffalo is, at present, cranking out some of the best New York rap in recent memory. In the past few years, Westside Gunn and Conway, two Buffalo brothers with long-running underground rap pedigrees, have broken out and found an audience, and they’ve done it by resolutely refusing to adapt to the sound of the moment. Instead, they’ve been specializing in guttural, violent, verbally flamboyant street-talk — finely observed crime-life mutters over hazy boom-bap beats. That has taken them places. They’ve signed some kind of deal with Eminem’s Shady label. They’ve played summer festivals. And they’ve provided a forum for Benny The Butcher, a fellow Buffalo rapper who has that same wizened seen-it-all viewpoint.

For a while, I knew Benny The Butcher as the guy putting tough guest verses on Westside Gunn and Conway tracks. I wasn’t listening to Benny’s own projects, of which there are many. This was my loss. This past week, Benny released his The Plugs I Met EP, and I can’t ignore him any longer. You can’t, either.

The Plugs I Met is a classic rap flex. Almost every song on the EP has at least one guest verse, and many of those verses come from legitimate and long-established rap greats. Black Thought, who presumably never has to rap again if he doesn’t feel like it, brings fundamentalist authority to “Crowns For Kings,” and it’s genuinely thrilling to hear how driven and passionate he still sounds when he catches fire. Jadakiss shows up on “Sunday School,” his always-grizzled rasp now ravaged and desiccated but still full of charisma. Pusha T brings his full disgusted hauteur to “18 Wheeler.” And Benny outraps all of them.

Benny doesn’t do anything you haven’t heard before. He raps from the viewpoint of someone who has spent years in the drug game, who has regrets but who is at peace with the idea that he made his money doing what he had to do: “Niggas ain’t see what I saw / A brick turn into a pot full of gold / Over that, spent my daughter first birthday locked in the hole.” He’s made it through hard times, and he’s come face to face with stark realities: “You play this game, you better play hard / The judge’ll give you life and later that day, he gon’ be playing golf.” But he’s also perversely proud of the shit that he did, and he speaks about it in mythic terms: “I wash the blood off the money that my daughters inherit / And kept the barrel so hot that it fog up the mirrors.”

But Benny isn’t some drug-life avatar. He’s a musician, too. His voice is husky and gnarled, but he wields it with agility, locking into an almost-Southern bounce flow when it’s what the beat demands. He favors a certain type of track: heavy off-kilter drums, ominous synth-tones, chilly organ-drones. He has his preferred collaborators — Daringer, the Alchemist, DJ Shay — and he understands how to make his voice work with their instrumentals. And he’s in love with words. He’s a writer, and he finds vivid imagery in the way certain vowel sounds interlock with each other: “In the trap five straight hours, blending up fine gray powder / The fumes knock you out like Deontay Wilder.” The Plugs I Met is only six songs, only 24 minutes, and yet it stands as one of the most bone-solid rap records of the year.

But Benny has competition. On the same day that he released The Plugs I Met, another EP came out, and that EP scratches some of those same itches, albeit in different ways. Mach-Hommy, like Benny, comes from outside New York City, and like Benny, he makes his own version of classic New York rap music. (Mach-Hommy is from Newark — just over a couple of rivers from NYC, but a whole different world.) A few years ago, Mach-Hommy, like Benny, was affiliated with Westside Gunn’s Griselda label. They’ve since parted ways, and Benny has said some things about Mach-Hommy. Benny has called Mach-Hommy a “weirdo” and said that Mach-Hommy’s lyrics are “a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo.” He’s not wrong. But that weirdness, that mumbo jumbo, is what makes Mach-Hommy compelling.

Mach-Hommy the same type of writer that Benny The Butcher is. Instead, Mach-Hommy makes evocative music, music that creates a feeling. He raps in a lost, free-associative mutter. Sometimes, he veers off into Haitian French. Sometimes, he sings to himself, lowly and quietly. He gravitates toward beats that are loose, jazzy, expansive. Earl Sweatshirt is a fan and a regular collaborator. And Mach-Hommy works to cultivate a certain mystery — keeping his face covered whenever possible, keeping some of his music off streaming platforms so that he can sell it online for outlandish sums instead.

Last Friday, the same day that Benny The Butcher released The Plugs I Met, Mach-Hommy, presumably coincidentally, released his own Wap Konn Jòj! EP. The lengths of the two EPs are similar; Wap Konn Jòj! is one song longer and five minutes shorter. Both EPs feature Alchemist tracks and appearances from more-famous contemporaries. (In the case of Wap Konn Jòj!, that means Quelle Chris, Your Old Droog, and Earl Sweatshirt, who raps on one song and produces two.) Benny might not appreciate the comparison, but the two EPs work almost as companion pieces — as different sides of the post-boom-bap underground.

The music on Wap Konn Jòj! hits in hazy, abstract ways. Beats won’t maintain a single tempo throughout. Sometimes, they’ll barely include any drum sounds. Instead, they’ll use stray shreds of stand-up bass or icy piano, presumably sampled from obscure old jazz records. And Mach-Hommy drifts with those tracks, musing to himself and never fully bothering to lock in. Sometimes, a more linear rapper — like Your Old Droog, or like Mach-Hommy’s fellow ex-Griselda guy Tha God Fahim — will counterbalance his more expansive urges. But throughout, he stays loose and spacey, urging you to do the same.

If I had to choose between the two approaches that these two EPs represent, I’d go with Benny The Butcher’s stark, concrete bust-your-head shit over Mach-Hommy’s astral-plane zone-outs. But the beautiful thing is that I don’t have to choose. The two EPs make for great companion pieces — the legacy of New York rap’s beloved ’90s, twisted up in different directions. They’re both short enough to leave us wanting more, but they both cram in entire albums’ worth of fully-realized idea. (After all, if Nas’ Illmatic, with its 40 minutes and its nine actual songs, had come out today, it might be regarded as an EP or a mixtape or some other nebulous not-quite-album project.) And both EPs represent hope. Those old New York rap sounds will never die. They’ll just go in different directions, slowly dissipating and taking on new shapes.

FURIOUS FIVE

1. NLE Choppa – “Free Youngboy”
NLE Choppa is 16 years old, and he already raps with insane passion and confidence and with a fully-ingrained sense of melody that can turn all his lines into hooks. With every new song, those gifts become more evident. Choppa has no ceiling. Four years from now, he could be one of the biggest rappers in the world. Every atom in his being bursts with potential. It’s exciting to witness.

2. Anonymuz – “West Side Freestyle”
Anonymuz comes from South Florida, and I don’t know much else about him. Maybe that’s by design. His name, after all, is Anonymuz. But this two-minute track explodes with charisma and momentum, so maybe it won’t be that way for long. Also, I wish my gas station was more like this one.

3. Boogie – “Details” (Feat. Conway)
Boogie — the Virginia Beach Boogie, not the Compton Boogie, or the Bronx A Boogie With Da Hoodie — is brave enough to trade ugly, guttural bars with Conway, and he’s talented enough to pull it off.

4. ALLBLACK – “304” (Feat. Kossiko)
I love how Bay Area producers — in this case, it’s StraightDropVanilla — can take music that sounds like the Alan Parsons Project Chicago Bulls entrance jam and make it funky. And I love how ALLBLACK is perfectly capable of rapping his own Mexican-takeout order and making that funky, too. (Kossiko, if you didn’t know, is the artist formerly known as 100s. He still looks great. Amazing hair. And he remains funky.)

5. King Louie – “Tesla”
Sit back and imagine Renata Klein listening to this. Savor the image. You’ve earned it.

IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO