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How Detroit and Flint became havens for rap dark horses

BabyTron, Tee Grizzley, Eminem and Danny Brown. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.
Kyle Gustafson / Bennett Raglin / Kevin Winter / Ilya S. Savenok
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BabyTron, Tee Grizzley, Eminem and Danny Brown. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.


More than any particular sound, lyrical style or historical movement, the true calling card of Detroit hip-hop just might be its underdog spirit. Despite the reign of Motown Records in the 1960s, the region has long lacked the infrastructure and resources of prosperous, self-sustained scenes in New York City, Los Angeles and Atlanta. There are fewer live venues, label offices and behind-the-scenes heavyweights. For years, major tours and street team promotions regularly skipped Detroit on the way to bigger cities. The slogan "Detroit Vs. Everybody," ubiquitous on shirts and in song, is less provocation than observation, the principle holding together a city of splintered scenes through decades of inattention from the outside world.

The independent horrorcore pioneer Esham broke the seal for Detroit rap with Boomin' Words from Hell in 1989. That same year, Awesome Dre and The Hardcore Committee scored a deal with the rising label Priority Records, which had just minted Compton stars N.W.A. In 1993, Bo$$ was among the first from the city to earn major hits with "Deeper" and "Recipe of a Hoe," which topped the Billboard rap charts. The '90s brought other minor triumphs — Kid Rock and Champtown and Soul Intent — but the seismic shift toward Detroit along the fault lines of rap production came with J Dilla, who built on the work of Pete Rock and Q-Tip to combine warped soul and jazz samples and off-beat drum programming that glowed with the magic of live, improvisational instrumentation. After perfecting the sound for his groups 1st Down and Slum Village, he worked with hometown compatriots Frank-N-Dank, Guilty Simpson and Elzhi (his eventual replacement in Slum Village) while expanding his repertoire as part of the Soulquarians. Whether the raps were about street life, strippers or Black liberation, his warm beats brought it all to the same place. His sound eventually influenced countless progeny, even after his death at 32 to complications from lupus in 2006, but it was less the Detroit sound than the Dilla sound, in part because his particular genius was so hard to replicate.

In Esham's wake, horrorcore, the dark rap subgenre that pulled imagery from slasher cinema, gave rise to complicated white rappers on opposing ends of the spectrum: the cartoonish, rock-tinged Insane Clown Posse and the angsty lyricist Eminem. The ICP's decades-long career, built around a cultish fan base and its Gathering of the Juggalos festival, has often felt like its own entity — more a weird, self-contained realm of evil clowns seemingly detached from reality, less Detroit hip-hop's story. Conversely, Eminem has made Detroit rap a personal mission, using his massive platform to elevate local acts, such as his Bad Meets Evil partner Royce Da 5'9" (who grew into an indie-rap titan in his own right), his group D12 and local legend Trick Trick. Em, of course, became the best selling rapper in history, but even that wasn't enough to really kickstart a regional movement. Behind Em and his wordier compatriots, the city did earn a hyper-lyrical rep, but there was also a comparatively unpolished, straightforward street style, with artists like the Eastside Chedda Boyz and the Street Lord'z, that felt more indicative of the city's own identity. Collectively, they set the sonic framework that followers would build upon, arranged primarily around prickly synth keyboards. Their legacy lives on, beyond rap, thanks to Street Lord'z's Blade Icewood; though the rapper, hailed by some as the ruler of the Great Lakes, was killed in 2005, his indomitable "Blade dance," from the song "Boy Would You," made it to the NFL years later.

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At the turn of the 2010s, as Big Sean was freestyling his way onto Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music roster at 105.9 WDMK, a host of local underdogs were also making their pushes, with varying sounds and strategies. The no-frills street storyteller Boldy James built a rep on the mixtape circuit, pairing his sinister, deadpan flow with producers like The Alchemist and, eventually, joining the renowned Griselda collective. Pushing 30 and seemingly on his last break, the eccentric Danny Brown finally hit the jackpot with a run of releases on the Brooklyn label Fool's Gold, floating between soul samples (with locals like Quelle Chris and Black Milk) and thrashing electronic music (courtesy of Skywlkr and Paul White), until he steadily compiled a monumental catalog defined by his nasally raps. In the early '10s, street rap also sought a defining voice. Dej Loaf quit a janitorial job at a Chrysler plant to focus on music, evolving from her teenaged backpack raps into a more melodic, threatening style. And Doughboyz Cashout, a mob mashup of two groups, took their West Side Detroit brand of flashy criminality worldwide when they signed with Jeezy's CTE World in 2013, while providing an early blueprint for other Detroit rappers who would find allegiances below the Mason-Dixon line in subsequent years.

The spiritual successors to Detroit's street rap progenitors became the OGs in the city, their rise fueled by a prolific mixtape economy, and with them a little colony has taken hold. Payroll Giovanni, once a member of Doughboyz Cashout, earned his tenure in the Motor City outsourcing beats from producer Cardo, bridging West Coast bounce and Detroit menace. Across a decade-long career, the weightless, nonchalant Icewear Vezzo has inherited the creeping, springy ethos inherent to the music of the Eastside Chedda Boyz, in turn tending to the deep upstart crew Team Eastside, buying them beats and shuttling them to the studio. Some of the members, Babyface Ray and Peezy, have become formidable in their own rights — the former's languid delivery underscoring an effortless lifestyle and the latter's stout, impenetrable verses activated by a Zen hood philosophy.

An hour and change north on I-75, the scene in neighboring Flint has lived out a similar origin story on a smaller scale. The 1990s saw MC Breed using G-Funk for his 1991 hit, "Ain't No Future In Yo' Frontin," and collaborations with 2Pac and Too $hort, while the Dayton Family built a regional fan base around Michigan and throughout the South with uncompromising gangsta rap, delivered in double-time flows. In the 2010s, rapper Lyric Da Queen found a national profile on music competition show The X Factor, while thoughtful everyman rapper Jon Connor landed a deal with Dr. Dre's Aftermath Entertainment after years of grinding in the mixtape scene.

While the budding Michigan OGs are enjoying their reign, their young'ns in Flint have been developing their voices too, pushing the envelope with a lewd irreverence. Peezy proteges Rio Da Yung OG and RMC Mike have relentlessly flippant senses of humor, Bfb Da Packman is a self-deprecating and vulgar joker and YN Jay and Louie Ray's "Coochie" is at the center of its own vulva-honoring sonic universe. Flint brings a thorny wit to hip-hop, but for a city that's been left out of the conversation so often, there's a sense of low-stakes liberation that comes with it.

Today, after years of relative obscurity and breakout successes that failed to trickle down, the Michigan scene is one of the brightest in the game. The state has a sonic signature in Detroit producer Helluva's self-described "basement sound" of ominous pianos and eerie synth stabs (a marriage of West Coast gangsta rap and Detroit's techno lineage) — which, paired with slippery, off-beat raps that tell gritty street narratives with eccentric and exultant personality, showcases the vibrancy that the region has to offer. Helluva's sound was boosted by "First Day Out," the viral hit that made Tee Grizzley a star, in which Tee basks in the blissful gratitude of a prison release before leaping into a cocky proclamation of his return to the streets. "Jesus Shuttlesworth" finds BabyTron scattering flossy scam raps over a laser show of '80s synths. The whimsical Sada Baby uses "Aunty Melody" to float harmonies about Perc'd up trysts and heartbreak. Helluva may not have Dilla's prestige, but he's taken up a similar mantle with his penchant for collaborating around the city and beyond. His production is energetic and spacious, versatile enough to attract stars like Jeezy, Megan Thee Stallion and Kodak Black. But in classic "Detroit vs. Everybody" fashion, his focus is local. In 2018, he revealed he wanted to emulate the homegrown ownership Chicago had with drill: "In Detroit, all we got is each other."

In each other, the artists found all the infrastructure they needed. These days, the scene has the necessary ingredients for development: a variety of perspectives and styles, a sound that embodies the area without restricting it, veterans who have established themselves and youngsters nipping at their heels. Its finest rappers may not all be household names, but give Michigan an inch and it will figure out the rest — just as it always has.

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Where to start with Detroit rap:

  • MC Breed, "Ain't No Future in Yo Frontin'" (1991)
  • Dayton Family, "FBI" (1996)
  • Bad Meets Evil, "Scary Movies" (1998)
  • Slum Village, "Get Dis Money" (1999)
  • Eastside Chedda Boyz, "Oh Boy" (2000)
  • Blade Icewood, "Boy Would You" (2004)
  • K. Deezy, "In My Hood" (2005)
  • Doughboyz Cashout, "Good Ass Day" (2010)
  • Tee Grizzley, "First Day Out" (2016)
  • Sada Baby, "Aktivated" (2020)
  • YN Jay and Louie Ray, "Coochie" (2020)
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    William E. Ketchum III