An outsider looking in on Pittsburgh's hip-hop music scene today would find it bursting at the seams, poised to blast through Pennsylvania's borders to engulf an industry thirsty for new talent. But insiders know recent successes are partially the result of an uphill, seemingly Sisyphean struggle by local artists over the past 20 years to reach the top of the genre. Rather than splitting for easy deals in cities with established hip-hop scenes like New York and Atlanta, Pittsburgh artists and producers dug their roots deeply into home soil, fine-tuning works from upstart studios and emerging artists since the early '90s. The streets, the Internet and stores such as Time Bomb Clothing in East Liberty served as distributors for mix tapes churned out by artists from ID Labs studio in Lawrenceville, Ya Momz House studio in East Liberty and others.
The creation of Rostrum Records in 2003 by L.A. Reid protege Benjy Grinberg opened doors to major labels like Warner Bros. and Atlantic Records that hungry artists have been kicking down ever since. By the time the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards Show emerged in 2007, the scene had definitely grown to a level worth celebrating.
Time Bomb owner Brian Brick compares Pittsburgh's hip-hop music market to that of cities like Oakland, Calif., that have had years of success with independent record labels and studios.
"Pittsburgh is becoming a lot more like those cities because MCs [rappers] are starting to support each other," Mr. Brick says. "People are starting to realize we've got that flavor and they're going to ask for more."
The absence of a hip-hop radio station in the city and a dearth of performance venues continue to serve as obstacles for local artists. Although they perform across the country, when they come home there are few clubs willing to cater to hip-hop crowds, which they stereotype as rough. East Liberty's Shadow Lounge and Millvale's Mr. Small's Theater are two of the few places that regularly feature hip-hop on stage.
Despite the challenges, hip-hop artists are thriving in Pittsburgh. And with artists like Wiz Khalifa receiving international acclaim for local efforts, the formerly underground scene is finally in position to bring the entire region into the spotlight.
"Pittsburgh has some of the greatest rappers and producers in the world," says artist Jasiri X. "The only thing we're missing is the managers, lawyers and labels. and I think with the success Rostrum is having, it's a prime time for some other labels to have more success as well."
Masai Turner, the MC of Formula 412, describes the city's rap scene as "raw and diverse."
"We have everything from an all-black live hip-hop band to guys that talk about very commercial and popular themes."
Adds Larrimer rapper S. Money, "Pittsburgh has history -- the jazz and blues scene were there. The city is growing with this new music industry and the' Burgh has a lot to offer."
Although this Larimer native made a recent detour to work in Atlanta's Hot Beats Studio, his representation of the Steel City and its role in his career hasn't waned. Starting off as one of the lead rappers for the Lincoln group The Govament put S-Money on the path toward rising stardom with a brief deal with Rostrum and a hit single, "I'm the Man," in 2008. After the Rostrum deal fell through, the rapper fell back into street life and out of the rap game until he emerged with the mix tape "Married to the Streets" last year. Now under new management with Fab 5 Entertainment, S-Money is making a name in the Atlanta club scene and recently had his 16-bar game lauded by rap impresario Bun-B of UGK.
Raising the ire of conservatives and the blood pressure of Tea Party members is a top priority for one of the city's premier political MCs. Originally a Chicago native, the vocal activist was thrown into the national spotlight with his 2007 "Free the Jena 6," a commentary on a racially charged court case out of Jena, La. He was the first hip-hop artist to receive the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture Fellowship last year, the same year his release "American History X" earned him six Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards, including Album of the Year. Recent video releases, including the song "What if the Tea Party Was Black," raised his profile even higher nationally with more than 200,000 downloads and thousands of comments. His latest video singles include "Real Gangstas," which takes on executives of Wall Street institutions, and "Dr. King's Nightmare," a response to Glenn Beck's rally on the anniversary of the March on Washington. In addition to hosting the Internet radio show "This Week With Jasiri X," he has been hard at work on his latest album, "Ascension," which is scheduled for release in October through Wandering Worx Entertainment.
The latest addition to the Rostrum Records family, Mac Miller's skillful rhymes, humorous themes and upbeat demeanor are catching the nation by storm. After the Allderdice grad built a local buzz by selling homemade mix tapes on the streets and through the internet, his 2009 release, "The High Life," gained widespread interest with about 30,000 downloads. Videos from his latest project with Rostrum, "K.I.D.S." have received more than 2.5 million views on YouTube since its release earlier this month. The 18-year old will embark on his first tour as a Rostrum artist with label mate Boaz this fall.
Pittsburgh's Shakespeare of the streets, Boaz is easily one of the strongest lyricists among the region's hard-core rappers. Also a member of the Govament crew, Bo moved thousands of units with his first solo release, "The Phenomenal," in 2007. He went on to drop the critically acclaimed "Monumental Music" in 2008. After releasing "The Audiobiography" last year, he's pressed on with the mix tape "Selling a Dream" this year and is set to put out "The Audiobiography 2" this fall under Point Blank Productions. He's scheduled to start the Smokers' Club tour with Mac Miller and national artists Curren$y and Big K.R.I.T. this fall.
The shining star of local hip-hop skyrocketed from independent distribution of the acclaimed 2008 album "Show and Prove" to briefly surpassing Jay-Z and 50 Cent on iTunes hip-hop charts last year. After ending a brief stint with Warner Bros. Records last year, he was quickly snapped up by Atlantic Records in June. With offers to tour with emerging rap superstar Drake, an appearance at New York's annual Rock the Bells festival in June, and the label of MTV's Hottest Breakthrough MC of 2010, the self-proclaimed Prince of the City won't be knocked off of his throne anytime soon. He kicks off the 70-city "Waken Baken" tour in Philadelphia in September and is set to release a new album with Atlantic in 2011.
Few hip-hop groups in the nation, let alone the city, can compare their work to that of Formula 412. The five-man live band uses a hip-hop base to create sounds fused with rock, funk and old-school soul music. Led by emcee Masai Turner, guitarist Byron "Nasty" Nash, drummer Dennis "Young D" Garner Jr., bass player "Big Cliff" Foster and keyboarder Akil Esoon, the group has performed with several national acts, most recently with Method Man and Redman at Altar Bar in the Strip District. The group will kick off the College Music Journal Conference in New York this fall and is scheduled to release the album "Reality Show" later this year.