When rappers pile up a little bit of money, they move to California. It’s a smart thing to do. If you’ve got yourself and your family installed in a rented Calabasas McMansion, then you’ve effectively removed yourself from all the people back home who might want something from you. For someone like Polo G or NBA YoungBoy — baby rap stars who are still relatively new to fame — the California move makes sense from a self-preservation standpoint. Rappers who move to LA and its environs have access to much of the industry, and they have insulation from people who might want to use them or do them harm. (It doesn’t always work out. Pop Smoke was murdered out there earlier this year.)
But there’s an aesthetic consequence. Rap music has historically thrived on regionalism — on different sounds bubbling up from different cities and arriving fully-formed in the mainstream. These days, established rap stars don’t tend to tweak their sounds much after they first arrive — or, if they do, then they’re drifting toward the Auto-Tuned singsong and trap hi-hats that dominate playlist-oriented mainstream rap. Even if you’re getting beats emailed in from your favorite producers, you’re not necessarily reacting in real time to what your audiences back home might want. One of the reasons a place like Detroit is so vital is that almost nobody is getting rich off of rap, and almost everyone is staying in Detroit.
But not too far from those Calabasas rentals, things are happening. This is not new. California has had a thriving rap underground since the days when Egyptian Lover and the World Class Wreckin’ Cru were selling cassettes at mobile sound-system parties. There’s a lineage that runs from that early electro scene to ’90s G-funk, hyphy, jerk, Mustard-wave, and everything that’s happened in the past few years. LA and the Bay Area have always had distinct scenes and sounds, but they’re coming closer and closer together. And there’s an army of hungry young rappers who are constantly putting out new music without getting a ton of mainstream attention for it.
Every once in a while, someone like YG or Blueface will come out of the California underground and find some level of fame. But right now, there’s a whole generation of energetic rap kids who don’t even seem to have their sights set on that. In Southern California, artists like South Central LA’s AzChike, Compton’s 1TakeJay, and Long Beach’s $tupid Young bring an anarchic energy that’s hard to bottle. In the Bay, there’s a similar feeling around people like ShooterGang Kony and the hard-ass veteran Mozzy. The intertwined Bay and LA scenes face constant setbacks. LA underground overlords Drakeo The Ruler and 03 Greedo are both currently incarcerated, and Drakeo’s trial has been dragging out forever. The promising young Sacramento newcomer Bris was shot dead earlier this year. And yet there’s still so much good music coming out of California that it’s hard to keep track.
SOB x RBE, the Vallejo group that generated a whole lot of excitement a few years, ago, seems to be stuck in a permanent state of chaotic flux. Earlier this year, group members Yhung TO and DaBoii released a really great collaborative album called Demon And Mufasa. But these days, Yhung TO is beefing with remaining members DaBoii and Slimmy B, something he’s done before. (Former member Lul G was arrested for murder last year.) Maybe SOB X RBE are really done this time. But DaBoii, my favorite pure rapper of the group, just released a solo album called Remotivated that’s worth your time.
DaBoii always sounds like he’s rapping upstream, against the beat. DaBoii is more of a character actor than a star, and he works well in the context of a group, when he can add excitement to tracks rather than carrying them himself. But the kid can just flat-out rap, and it’s a pleasure to hear him do that for half an hour straight, without interruption: “Me and Slimmy on the E-way, n***a, racing spaceships/ When I walk inside the mall, I see anxious faces.” And on “When I Hear Some Shit,” DaBoii goes in hard over a sample of Debbie Deb’s 1983 Latin freestyle classic “When I Hear Music,” and he opens the track just by enthusing euphorically about how much he loves that song. It’s infectious.
ALLBLACK, from Oakland, has the same kind of explosiveness that DaBoii does, but he modulates it more. ALLBLACK always knows when to quiet down, when to snarl. ALLBLACK gets fired up when it works; he does that all over 2 Minute Drills, the great 2018 EP that he recorded with producer Kenny Beats. But he’s more of a classical rapper. He finds the pocket, and he projects.
Last week, ALLBLACK released the new project No Shame 3. It’s a prime example of a rapper knowing his lane and his audience, giving people what they want. Nothing on No Shame 3 is surprising, but the whole thing makes for engaging, satisfying rider music. ALLBLACK raps about pimping, about popping pills, about dodging bullets at barbecues. Many of the track feature peers like DaBoii and GuapDad 3000. One features Too $hort, the man who’s been synonymous with Oakland rap for longer than ALLBLACK has been alive. (Right now, Saweetie, a Bay Area rapper who is decidedly not underground, has a hit with a flip of Too $hort’s 2006 hyphy-era comeback hit “Blow The Whistle.” We really never get sick of this stuff.) So ALLBLACK is working within a tradition, but he has fun with it and makes it sound vital.
Celly Ru is from Sacramento, and he came up alongside the fellow Sacramento rapper Mozzy. That means he’s different. There’s nothing fun about Celly Ru. Instead, he’s cold and forbidding, and he conveys the heavy-hearted intensity that comes from growing up around violence. Celly Ru’s new album P.I.R.U. (Pimp Inna Red Uniform) is mean, hard-boiled Bay music. Celly Ru’s voice is a flattened-out chirp, and he never sounds excited about being tougher than everyone else. He uses the same big digital basslines and the same hard-impact drums as DaBoii and ALLBLACK, but he uses them to convey something more severe. Celly Ru doesn’t make party music, but his style is never anything less than compelling.
Rucci is from LA, not the Bay — or, more specifically, from Inglewood. But like a lot of other rappers from the recent LA underground renaissance, Rucci owes as much to Bay Area hyphy as he does to classic LA rap. Before hearing Rucci’s new album Midget, I tend to think of him more as of a party-starting punchline rapper, a peer of AzChike or 1TakeJay, than as a serious-artist type. But there’s a lot of sadness on Midget, which makes sense once you learn Rucci’s life story. He comes from a whole gang-affiliated family. In 2010, a SWAT team raided his home, deporting his father to Mexico and sending his uncle to prison for 35 years. In 2017, Rucci’s best friend and rapping partner Sean Mackk was murdered. Given all that, it’s amazing that Rucci’s music ever gets upbeat. But Midget walks a line, combining relatively effortless party tracks with dark-night-of-the-soul talk.
Remotivated, No Shame 3, P.I.R.U. (Pimp Inna Red Uniform), and Midget all came out last week. That’s one week of strong, solid West Coast underground albums — and that’s just the ones I’ve heard. None of those albums are great, but all of them are worth your time, and all of them radiate potential. The amount of good underground rap music coming out of California right now is baffling and overwhelming. If it stays this good, it’s hard to imagine all this music staying underground for long.
1. Cakes Da Killa & Proper Villians – “Don Dada”
When was the last time you heard a hip-house track that made you want to fight someone? I want to throw bottles to this. Shit’s hard.
2. Otis Bruno & Sheff G – “Crody”
One of the things I love about Brooklyn drill is the sense of urgency. The best of these tracks bring a real ominous knife-edge atmosphere; your stomach muscles get tight as soon as the beat drops.
3. RU$H, Tha God Fahim, & Jay Nice – “Grandiose”
The beat sounds like weed-flavored cotton candy dissolving in your mouth, but then you hit a line like this: “N***a got stabbed at the dice game over light change/ I pulled off in a white Range/ Didn’t even wait for the light to change/ We in a frightening game/ Yes, I spit lightning, mane.”
4. Juicy J – “Load It Up” (Feat. NLE Choppa)
Juicy J is 45 years old, which means he’s 28 years older than NLE Choppa. On this track, you can’t really tell. I like that.
5. Hotboii – “Noun” (Feat. Plies)
Plies is 44 years old, which means he’s 24 years older than Hotboii. On this track, you can’t really tell. I like that, too.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO