The Detroit Rap Underground Remains Undefeated
Sada Baby does not come from a vacuum. This year, nobody in rap music has been bringing me as much joy as the voluminously bearded, imaginatively bloodthirsty Detroit dance machine Sada Baby, a man who has cranked out giddy drug-sales fever dreams at a baffling rate. Right now, Sada Baby is on one of the all-time great rap runs. He’s released two album-length collections thus far in 2020, Brolik and Skuba Sada 2, and they’re two of the best rap records in recent memory. Skuba Sada 2, which compiles most of the best YouTube loosies that Sada had carelessly tossed out into the world in the first few weeks of the year, is probably my favorite album of 2020, regardless of genre. The man is a singular figure, a one of one. And yet he is also a product of his environment. At this moment, the Detroit rap underground is the best environment in rap music.
Every local rap scene has its own personality, and Detroit’s rap personality is out of hand. Detroit isn’t isolated within rap music; it has strange connections to places like Oakland and Milwaukee. But the rappers on from the Detroit underground don’t seem to give half a fuck about what’s happening in the rest of the world. Musically, most of the great currently-working Detroit rappers are rapping over beats that could’ve come out at any point in the last 20 years: Giant rolling basslines, melodramatic piano melodies, drums that sound like water balloons smashing into your eardrums. They sound cheap, in a good way. That sound has been a godsend the the small army of Detroit rappers currently jamming YouTube circuits with low-budget shot-at-night mean-mug-the-camera videos.
I should probably specify that when I’m talking about Detroit rap here, I’m not talking about Detroit-born pop stars like Eminem or Big Sean or even established critical-favorite types like Danny Brown. Instead, we’re dealing with an interlinked mob of Michigan rappers who come from the same scene and who show up on each other’s songs and in each other’s videos. You know one of these Detroit rappers when you hear them. It’s a specific hard splat of a sound, and nobody seems to be in any hurry to change it up. (When people do try to progress, it doesn’t seem to work out too well. Consider the saga of Detroit duo Drego & Beno, who faced massive backlash for the robo-voice singsong experiments of the 2019 album Meet Us In Outer Space. A couple of months later, they followed it up with a back-to-basics mixtape that was literally titled Sorry For The Auto Tune.)
The thing I like the best about Detroit rap is the way so many of the city’s rappers sound like they’re trying to make each other laugh. They’re talking about doing dirt and living dangerous lives, but they’re bringing a sort of exaggerated tall-tale sensibility and a sense of gallows humor to what they’re doing. That’s the context for a Sada Baby line like “big ass shotgun look like Lauri Markkanen.” I’d like to say that this is the kind of thing that happens when you come from a truly hopeless city, but that’s some armchair-philosopher shit, and it’s too simplistic by far. The truth is more that Detroit has its own long-ignored rap culture that’s developed on its own, without much outside interference for years. It’s the type of place that would nurture the voice of an absurdist rascal like Teejayx6.
The list of gifted and charismatic rappers from this one particular Detroit scene is long and overwhelming: Icewear Vezzo, Cash Kidd, Bandgang Lonnie Bands, Babyface Ray, 42 Dugg, Kasher Quon. They’re all putting out a constant churn of music, and they’re all worth following. A couple of weeks ago, FMB DZ, a Detroit rapper who’s been around for at least a few years, put out his mixtape The Gift 3. For too long, I thought of FMB DZ as a kind of low-key role-player, a guy who would rap on songs with Sada Baby and give your brain a chance to rest between explosive Sada punchlines. But that’s not what FMB DZ is, and it underrates what DZ does.
FMB DZ isn’t as anarchic as some of Detroit’s other titans, but he approaches the city’s sound from a different angle. DZ’s got a cool, raspy voice, and he brings a wizened sense of authority even when he’s talking wild shit. Lyrically, DZ is as much into outlandish pop-culture riffs as Sada Baby, they’re just a little less attention-grabbing: “Pull up with our mask on, it gets spooky/ Duct tape a bomb to a nigga like he Pookie,” “762 will make your body twirl/ I used to watch Scarface, you watched Bobby’s World.” On The Gift 3, DZ does this for 16 straight songs, and it never gets tired. It’s a testament to how durable that Detroit style is.
One of the best Detroit-style rappers isn’t even from Detroit. Rio Da Yung OG comes from Flint, an hour’s drive away from Detroit. Rio’s only 25, but he looks and sounds much older. He had a big breakout year in 2019 after Detroit heavyweight Peezy discovered and mentored him. For much of last year, Rio was at home on house arrest because of drug charges. He used that time to go on a recording bender, posting videos that he shot in and around his house. (He should do just fine in the quarantine era.) A few weeks ago, Rio collected 15 tracks onto the album City On My Back, the best Michigan rap full-length of 2020 to be made by anyone other than Sada Baby. Rio raps in a concussively casual style, popping every plosive while maintaining a relaxed and conversational delivery. And nobody is better at the combination of cold-blooded street-talk and gleefully mordant humor.
Rio loves to rap about selling fake drugs to unsuspecting fiends: “He thought he bought some real drank, that was maple syrup/ Mixed it with a deuce of Tylenol and Karo syrup,” “I ain’t got no baking soda on me, bro, I’m really dope/ Just sold a zip, he say it smell fresh, that’s cuz it’s really soap.” Some of his lines take you on real emotional rollercoaster rides: “The Oxycontin got me groovy/ Catch a nigga out and beat his ass before I shoot him/ Pop him in his head, then take his bitch to the movies.” Some are note-perfect combinations of the comic and the tragic: “I ain’t never broke the code, so I won’t start now/ I’m having withdrawals off drank, I gotta fart now.” He is very adamant that he has a giant scar on his face and that he does not appreciate you calling it a pimple.
There are clever knuckleheads all across the country. But right now, Detroit is the kind of place where rappers like FMB DZ and Rio Da Yung OG have institutional support. If you’re a gifted enough shit-talker with a big enough personality, you can thrive in Detroit. Sada Baby is the best example, but he’s only one. There are so many more out there.
1. Jean Deaux – “Moody” (Feat. Saba)
Jean Deaux, from Chicago, is as much an R&B singer as she is rapper. But holy shit, she can rap. It’s not easy to outshine someone like her frequent collaborator Saba on a track, but she does that so naturally and breezily here. That blooping, thudding beat is perfect, too.
2. Yano – “Burna” (Feat. Toke & King Roc)
I know absolutely nothing about any of these guys, who apparently come from a small South Florida town outside Fort Myers. But they’ve mastered the oddly difficult art of projecting personality over tingly trap beats, pulling off technically impeccable raps with an effortless flair. The video is incredible, too.
3. Big Moochie Grape – “Eat Or Get Ate”
Ghostly horror-movie beats are still coming out of Memphis, and Big Moochie Grape does the Project Pat trick where he suddenly switches his flow from double-time bounce to something that sounds like an incantation. He also sounds a lot like circa-’08 Gucci Mane, which is a good thing.
4. Pouya & Boobie Lootaveli – “Muddy Waters”
One of these days, I’m going to have to write a whole column about stringy South Florida staple Pouya and about all the skate-rats who surround him. These guys project such scumbag imagery, and yet they are some of the most consistent and hard-working rappers out there. I should be used to it by now. I’m not.
5. Mozzy – “Pricetag” (Feat. Polo G & Lil Poppa)
I would’ve never thought to put Polo G on the same track with the permanently exhausted Sacramento hardass Mozzy, but they fit together magically. Polo’s bluesy melodies complement Mozzy’s matter-of-fact weariness like potato chips complement depression.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
DJ Premier TEACHING RZA HOW TO USE INSTAGRAM IS HILARIOUS
“RZA use your finger AND SCROLL DOWN”
— Shia Lé Buff 🏃🏽♀️💨 (@UglyCalifornia) April 12, 2020
YO RZA JUST TALKED ABOUT BEING VEGAN AND THEN SAID “YO NOT TO GET POLITICAL BUT I WAS IN MY CRIB AND I SEEN A FLOCK OF BUTTERFLIES JUST FLYING BY OUTSIDE AND I WAS LIKE ‘YO ANIMALS IS OUT HERE LIKE BONG BONG SINCE WE INSIDE’”
— Uncle Abe (@_uncleabe) April 12, 2020
the comments section is killing me pic.twitter.com/jF0HAkj2Po
— Natalie Weiner (@natalieweiner) April 12, 2020