How Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller and Girl Talk became the new face of the music scene
Rapper Mac Miller has nearly 230,000 followers on Twitter.
Benjy Grinberg, left, and Wiz Khalifa, pictured in 2005, were not afraid to take the long road to stardom.
Donora, from left, Jake Churton, and Jake and Casey Hanner, could be the next up-and-coming band from Pittsburgh.
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Throughout the history of pop, there have been times when lightning strikes in a bottle, when a city grabs hold of a "sound."
Detroit caught it a number of times, first spectacularly with Motown, then with heavy garage rock. Philly and Memphis both had soul, Chicago had blues, San Francisco hippies, New York punks, Seattle grunge, Nashville twang and LA has been split between surf rock, folk rock and hardcore.
A fertile jazz scene back in the day and a flurry of doo-wop -- Del-Vikings, Skyliners -- but nothing that amounted to a signature "Pittsburgh sound."
The closest we came was the late '70s City of Champions renaissance when the Iron City Houserockers, Silencers, Donnie Iris and Norm Nardini churned out hard-edged bar rock with a shot of rhythm and blues. It was a perfect fit for the Steel City's gritty, working-class shot-and-beer image, right along with three yards and a cloud of dust.
Despite some of those artists still grooving along in their 50s and 60s, that scene is history now. The city's image has evolved from steel mills to high-tech, and with it, our hottest exports are a pair of jet-setting rappers -- Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller -- and a guy called Girl Talk who rocks houses with a laptop. All are prone to repping their town with black and yellow (or gold, if you prefer) Pirates, Pens and Steelers gear.
The most recent issue of XXL Magazine, a leading hip-hop publication, not only has Mac on the cover as part of the 2011 Freshman Class, it has a page devoted to Pittsburgh as the Freshman City, deeming it "hip-hop's latest hot spot."
Before that, it was loooow profile.
"I'm not so familiar with Pittsburgh in general, especially the music scene," says XXL editor Vanessa Satten. "Wiz and Mac make the city more relevant than it has been in a long time, if ever, which is a great thing for the music genre because it brings a new location, cast of character and artists, sound and feel to the music, like Toronto did last year and Houston did a few years ago. I look forward to seeing what else comes from Pittsburgh because with Mac and Wiz you already can see the diversity in the music. It's exciting."
Ryan Dombal, an editor at the taste-making music site Pitchfork, says, "Honestly, I didn't have much of a perception of Pittsburgh music before Girl Talk or Wiz came out. So they didn't change it as much as they introduced me to the idea in general. And, based on those acts' music, the scene seems pretty fun-loving -- and possibly weed-friendly."
The story so far
The new XXL-style crew, of course, wasn't the first to mess with the city's bluesy, bar-rock reputation, which ruled the weekends three decades ago at the Decade. Even in the heyday, there were bands like Carsickness, The Five and Cardboards making sure we had our own versions of British and New York punk. They forged a raw, rival scene at the Electric Banana and managed to infiltrate the Decade on weeknights.
Although those bands were fierce and creative, they never made many waves beyond Pittsburgh, in part because that kind of career ambition was anathema to the movement.
When the college-rock scene got more polished in the mid-'80s, and R.E.M., U2 and the Cure became the model, a new breed of bands rose up from the Graffiti Showcase. Bands like Hector in Paris, the Affordable Floors and The Clarks, still obviously a major draw in the 'Burgh. A few got signed to major labels or subsidiaries, but no real stars emerged as they did in similarly smaller markets, whether Minneapolis or Athens, Ga. (One exception might be The Cynics, which became iconic worldwide in garage-rock circles -- and still are.)
Nationally, the '90s brought a strange mix of Seattle grunge, gangster rap, punk and hippie-rock revival. Pittsburgh made a modest contribution to the rap scene, but not within the 412 itself. Producer/rappers Sam Sneed and Mel-Man went west to help Dr. Dre pioneer his Aftermath sound, and New York-born RZA, who grew up in the Hill District, went back to NYC to form the Wu Tang Clan.
On the jam side, the city produced Rusted Root, an uncharacteristic "tribal acoustic band" that amassed a huge, colorful fanbase that the majors couldn't ignore. Root went multi-platinum, thanks in part to a single, "Send Me on My Way," that never actually charted, and still draws college crowds. Erupting from the underground were influential math-rock band Don Caballero and political punk poster-boys Anti-Flag, who have played all over the planet.
Later in the decade, we popped a genie out of the bottle named Christina Aguilera, who was nurtured through the musical theater community and ended up part of the Mickey Mouse Club. Her coming-out show was the Lilith Fair tent at Star Lake, so it wasn't like she was ever a mainstay of people's weekends.
The Night Ripper
Based on his unique approach, it might seem like digital crusader Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) came out of nowhere, like a cyber-genie, but that's not the case.
The 29-year-old played in indie bands as a student at Chartiers Valley High School and then, inspired by Negativland, John Oswald and the like, he ventured into the experimental electronic scene, playing for small handfuls of serious-minded people.
Then, combining computer savvy with his infectious love of pop, rap and indie-rock, the bio-medical engineer (by day) unleashed a frenetic cut-and-paste collage on the album "Night Ripper." It landed in Pitchfork's influential Best New Music section in 2006, and when word spread that he was also a gregarious wild man on stage, the party was on. Girl Talk started banging at festivals and parties all over the world, and the fever has yet to die down.
"Pittsburgh has always had a vital music scene with a bunch of diverse bands who are doing their own thing. Girl Talk is a classic example," says Sam Matthews, a veteran of such bands as Carsickness and the Crow Flies. "He had a unique take on an old idea -- DJs have been doing this for years -- and he figured out a way to translate it to the masses while staying true to his idea."
As for Khalifa, he was a Rolling Stone Artist to Watch in 2009 and The Source's Rookie of the Year for 2010, but the buzz on him locally started in 2005 when he was a 17-year-old phenom at Allderdice High School selling mixtapes in the hallways.
In some ways, the odds of his success were even more remote than Girl Talk's given that he was working in a field with a clear geographical bias that had already excluded Pittsburgh. Rappers came from LA, New York, Atlanta and, occasionally, St. Louis. Wiz had the nerve to show up with a song called "The Pittsburgh Sound" that never made it clear exactly what the Pittsburgh sound was.
What he had going for him -- besides long, tall talent, charisma to spare and that happy, dope-smoking persona -- was Benjy Grinberg. A fellow Allderdice alumnus and Penn grad, he had interned with music honcho L.A. Reid and when he started a label called Rostrum, he knew what he was doing.
Still, despite the good buzz on Wiz and albums like 2006's "Show and Prove," obstacles went up all over the place.
Before Rostrum cut that first deal with Warner Bros. in 2007, Mr. Grinberg says, "labels that were sort of interested in Wiz would say things like, 'We really like him. Maybe we would put him under one of our other labels,' like Def Jam has DTP, which is Ludacris' label. Or 'Pittsburgh isn't really known for anything, so we need to give him some kind of co-sign, so people have some way to relate him to the rest of the hip-hip world.'
"We were always fully against that, because Wiz is a new artist from a new city, and we're not afraid of that and we'll take the longer road to make sure we fully represent that, instead of going under someone else's wing, like Atlanta. I felt like that whole era of needing gatekeepers and needing co-signs was coming to an end anyway. We didn't care about the gatekeepers. What was important to us was the fans. We never paid attention to 'Oh, this important DJ, you should give him money, so he'll do this.' We were like, 'We're not really interested.' We're going to go right to the fans through the Internet and have the fans tell the DJ this is what we wanna hear. It was not an easy road."
The Warner deal didn't pan out, and he departed two years later without an album. But with the "Kush and Orange Juice" mixtape going viral and tours selling out, he hooked up with Atlantic to send "Black and Yellow" to No. 1 and now release his national debut, "Rolling Papers."
"Wiz and Gregg have been at it for a long time," says Chris Daley of the pop-punk band Mace Ballard, "and they actually did it the way you think that it should happen, by working hard in their hometown, constantly in the studio and at shows, then having someone who believes in them be their advocate. That joint effort -- no pun intended, Wiz -- pays off with national attention.
"I also have to say they are two people that are out in front of some of the social media marketing, like the way GT was one of the first to give away his album for pay-what-you-will and Wiz's massive Twitter following. It's not a formula, though. If it was a formula, we'd all be doing it and Rolling Stone would have to be a weekly magazine, so there is that element of surprise and mystique to their success as well."
The next class
Rostrum's rise doesn't end with Wiz. It has a second Allderdice product in 19-year-old Mac Miller -- a white, Jewish, one-man Beastie Boy with mad mike skills and a supple musical touch. His buzz has spread through his mixtapes, "KIDS" and "The High Life," millions of views of his playful, well-crafted videos on YouTube and his lively, sold-out national tours.
When he released "Best Day Ever" for free on the Internet earlier this month, it did nearly 200,000 downloads in one weekend. While Wiz has that whopping 1.3 million Twitter followers, Mac has nearly 230,000 -- more than Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu combined.
Mr. Grinberg says they were able to break Mac using the same network as Wiz. Is there a third, fourth, fifth hip-hop act to be found in our midst?
There are contenders, like Jasiri X (one of the nation's most outspoken political rappers), the hard-edged Boaz, Taylor Gang member Chevy Woods and rap crews Formula 412 and Common Wealth Family.
"There's a lot of talented people here, but they have to know what to do," says Dwayne Muhammad, who runs the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards and similar ones across the country. "There's several people trying their best. You've got labels like Rovalike, which should be the next label to go in and go. They got the artist 2GZZ. They're putting out a lot of videos, are just a motivated group of guys. You have another label, Steel City Records, which has Big Lyfe, one of the best new artists coming out of the city. They're traveling around the country to different music conferences, learning how to take it to the next level. Everyone's been waiting for the doors to open. The doors are open now, and we're looking for the next superstar to come out of here."
Rostrum hasn't signed any other local rappers, because, Mr. Grinberg says, "we don't want to take our eye off the ball and we don't want to spread ourselves too thin." But he says the label is building its infrastructure now to handle more acts.
One artist already on the Rostrum roster is female-fronted pop-rock band Donora, which has catchy songs made for radio. The label is putting the plan in place now for Donora's sophomore release, but Mr. Grinberg says breaking a rock band will be a whole different game from the rappers with a completely different network of contacts.
Easy as 1,2,3?
Maybe Donora could be the start of something, because Pittsburgh's band scene has some weight behind it. There are release shows every week, local bands selling out at clubs like the Brillobox and Thunderbird, and lots of vans heading out of here.
Lohio, which toured with Donora in February and then hit SXSW in Austin, Texas, has long been a contender for recognition, and a national buzz is growing. Another heatseeker is dreamy indie-pop band 1,2,3, led by former members of Takeover UK, including Nik Snyder (son of Iron City Houserocker Gil Snyder). It's signed to Frenchkiss, the indie imprint behind such bands as the Hold Steady, Les Savy Fav and Passion Pit.
"They were creating all of this buzz down at SXSW this year," says Lohio's Greg Dutton. "People who didn't even know I'm from Pittsburgh were coming up to me and talking about them."
From that stable of East End indie bands, we also have the likes of Big Hurry, New Shouts and Meeting of Important People.
"There's definitely a lot of talented bands," Mr. Dutton says. "With Wiz, you have this extremely talented artist, but you also have Benjy helping to create opportunities -- helping to land him at the level he's at right now. More of those type of people would have to be present in order to raise the profile of the Pittsburgh scene."
"To me, it's criminal that more Pittsburgh rock bands haven't gotten the attention they deserve," Mr. Matthews says, throwing out the Cynics and Kim Phuc as examples. "But I've always held the position that music is about creating something unique and true to yourself and not pandering to the latest flavor of mass taste. Personally, I really can't 'rally around' Wiz or Girl Talk because they're not my thing, but I'm happy for them and their success. And if it means people from the outside world are going to scratch deeper in our music scene, I'm all for it. I've always said Pittsburgh has the best bands in the world. People just don't know about them on a mass scale."
Ask the band people here how they feel about non-instrumental acts like Wiz and Girl Talk being the new face of Pittsburgh, and they all have a similar reaction.
"As far as making it out of Pittsburgh, hey, God bless anyone who can make anything in the music business," says Joe Grushecky of the Houserockers. "Pittsburgh has never been an easy town to break out of because we've never really been noted as a music town. So I'm all for them. I'm rooting for all of them."
Norman Nardini echoes that: "I think it's cool that guys from here can find success. They're doing something different and their goals are different."
Mr. Daley says when Mace Ballard plays out of town, they hear a lot of "Black and Yellow" talk from fans, a sign of Wiz's grip on the national music mindset.
"There are a lot of deserving bands in the Pittsburgh music scene to take the next step, and there isn't one obvious path to do so. The fact that we are using the word 'next' is something we can all thank Wiz and Gregg for, but the rest is up to us and every band themselves. Which reminds me, I have an album to go finish writing lyrics for ...."
First Published March 31, 2011 12:00 am