Everyone is fully aware of the mainstream scope of the genre of hip hop/rap. It has become the premier genre of music in the United States and is on its way to taking over the entire music globe. With this global takeover occurring, it is important to understand that rap music is not a monolith. There is no one correct way to produce the art form. Even though rap music came from a singular source, the great DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock, the genre itself as split and diverted into a number of different styles and sounds. There are now many distinct sounds of rap that it is possible to determine where someone just based off of what their music sounds like.
Why is rap music like this? Different cities and regions adapted the music and added their own flavor to it. Think of it like food, as I often do. Each area of the nation has their signature style of food, their own little piece of food culture that they are known for. Rap music is very similar to this. Each region of the nation and the world has their own signature sound and history, and the artists that come from their often subscribe to this sound, creating a regional sound that groups them together. In this article here, I’m gonna lay out some of the regions that have created their own flavor of rap, and that artists that are a part of them. Along with each section comes a playlist that acts as a starter pack for each region.
The first edition of the Atlanta sound came in the mid-90’s with the rise of Outkast, Goodie Mob, and the Dungeon Family. With them, they brought a style of rap with an affliction for soul music, creating the “Dirty South” style of hip hop. Shortly after this, in the late 90’s and early 2000’s were characterized by Lil Jon’s crunk music, which was much more club oriented and upbeat, and trap rap, which is characterized by gritty lyrical content about the life of drug dealing and ominous beats made up of heavy kick drum usage and hi-hats.
Atlanta has become a hotbed for talent that was born out of the three main styles of the city. Artists like 2Chainz and Gucci Mane have popularized the trap sub-genre for over 10 years now, opening the door for newer artists to come in and share their stories over Zaytoven beats. They allowed the next wave of Migos, Future, and Young Thug to breakthrough as well. Artists that relied on more soulful and alternative sounds like CeeLo Green and OutKast allowed for more variety in the Atlanta music industry. Newer artists like Migos (I don’t know if they count as new anymore but yeah), Rich the Kid, Childish Gambino, Playboi Carti, and J.I.D have taken the torch for Atlanta and continue to keep their style in the forefront of rap.
The West Coast is one of the most important areas of rap, as it originated almost simultaneously with the creation of hip hop in New York. Much like it’s East Coast counterpart, West Coast hip hop stemmed from DJ functions, with the sound developing an electric feel. In the late 1980’s, the foundation of gangsta rap was established by NWA and helped to carry the West Coast’s popularity for over 20 years. In the 90’s, with the rise of Tupac Shakur, the basis of socially conscious rap was laid, with a focus on social awareness and social injustice. After his death, there was somewhat of a vacuum of popularity left to fill. Hyphy music coming from the Bay Area, which was more club oriented and known for showcasing a flamboyant lifestyle, was pushed into the forefront.
The West Coast rap scene has experienced a renaissance as it combines a number of different styles. With the hyphy movement, as well as DJ Mustard’s takeover of the production game for the West Coast, uptempo, club-centered music characterizes the Bay Area’s style of rap. Some rappers like The Game and YG still keep the gangsta rap sub-genre alive, whilst the members of TDE have done a fantastic job of continuing the socially conscious trend of rapping. Newer rappers like Vince Staples, Cozz, Anderson .Paak, and Boogie have the ability to carry the West Coast to new levels of popularity.
The Big Apple is heralded as the birthplace of hip hop, pioneered by disc jockeys at house parties during the 70s. It emerged with positive themes with artists like Run D.M.C, Grandmaster Flash, and the Sugarhill Gang, and continued to develop and grow into a more eclectic mix of beats and styles with De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. As it began to develop and change during the 80s and 90s, there was a greater emphasis on lyrical skill and dexterity. Eric B & Rakim, Nas, and Notorious B.I.G all carried the torch for intricate metaphors and complicated wordplay. The production style gravitates towards aggressive beats and soulful samples. As we reached the 2000s, the subject matter was centered towards gritty, realistic, street life.
The New York style of rap music has been able to keep its hardcore style, while also adapting to the modern styles of hip hop. The beats have become faster, while also keeping the sample-laden production that is more conducive to active listening to lyrics than dancing. Rappers like Joey Bada$$ and Dave East are keeping alive the focus on lyrics, whilst artists like Cardi B and A Boogie wit da Hoodie are adapting the style to achieve more mainstream success. Other popular, newer artists like the members of A$AP Mob and Flatbush Zombies combining aspects of alternative music with the core principles of New York Rap to resonate with listeners.
When most people think of the Midwest and rap, their minds immediately migrate towards the city of Chicago and the rich musical history that it has. However, the Second City is not the only hub for rap music in the Midwest. Ohio, specifically Cleveland, Michigan, and Missouri, primarily St. Louis, all have left their imprint on the rap game.
Chicago style has always been hard to define, as there hasn’t been one signature style that critics have been able to pin down. Early in its inception, Chicago rap was characterized by fast rapping, popularized by Twista and Common Sense (who later dropped the sense and became the Common we know today). Later on, with the rise of Kanye West, the production style of taking soul samples and speeding them up, affectionately known as “chipmunk soul,” put Chicago on the map. With the combination of his beats and his socially conscious lyrics, he birthed a number of rappers with the same style. In Ohio, we saw Bone Thugs-n-Harmony popularize the style of chopping, displaying an insanely quick flow and mixing that with a melody of harmonizing vocals. In Detroit, Michigan, J Dilla was the pioneer of production for the city, becoming one of the most sought after producers in the history of the genre. Along with J Dilla, Eminem with his lyrical dexterity and wordplay dazzled in the battle rap scene and translated it to widespread mainstream success. It definitely helped that he is white, but he is one of the most technically skilled rappers in the game. In St. Louis, Nelly and the St. Lunatics popularized the “Bounce” sound, characterized by melodic, almost sing-song like rapping over beats that utilize blues guitar riffs and chords.
Whilst Kanye has abandoned Chicago to go be a Kardashian, a number of other rappers have stepped up and carried the mantle. Mick Jenkins, Noname, Chance The Rapper, and Saba have all continued to keep the popularity of Chicago at an all time high. For Detroit, Big Sean subscribes to the wordplay heavy style of rap, while Danny Brown and The Cool Kids venture on the more eccentric and experimental side of rap. In my humble opinion, St. Louis is being carried by Smino, who has the lyrical dexterity and soulful sample to continue to build upon the popularity that Nelly built.
Many people think that we’ve just begun to be exposed to British rap, but rappers Slick Rick and MF Doom have both achieved high levels of mainstream success in America. Where it used to be traditional hip hop with artists like Tinie Tempah, Britain hip hop has been reduced in popularity due to the rise of “Grime”. This genre draws heavy influence from dancehall and hip hop, with beats bordering on electronic with heavy usage of breakbeats. It primarily focuses on providing a gritty, realistic look into their lives. Current acts like Skepta, Stormzy, JME, and Giggs are all carrying Grime on their back and helping it achieve mainstream success in the UK and the US. Other artists like Dave and J Hus are combining dancehall and Caribbean influences to create an extremely popular sound.
While we often forget about our northern neighbors, it’s important to recognize the history of their rap and how they’ve grown. Hip hop first began to show up in Canada in the 80s, and followed the themes and styles of traditional hip hoop in the US. However, it did not achieve mainstream success right away and had a largely underground following due to a lack of airplay and label support. It wasn’t until the 2000s that rap and hip hop was able to find its footing not only in Canada, but in the US as well. The original success of artists Kardinal Offishall and P Reign provided a doorway for other Canadian artists to run through. And through that door, K’naan and Drake helped to bring worldwide, mainstream success and finally allowed Canadian hip hop to find its footing in the music industry.
Now, the future of Canadian rap is in the hands of the city of Toronto. With the success of Drake and his OVO label, the city has become a hotbed of talent for hip hop and R&B artists like Allan Kingdom, Jazz Cartier, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Tory Lanez, and Smoke Dawg. With Drake still at the top of the rap game, the future of rap in Canada seems bright.