Detroit Vs. Everybody: How One City Staged a Hip-Hop Takeover (Editorial)

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Hip-Hop Fans, we need your help...We recently launched AFH TV, a streaming video service focused on Hip-Hop culture. We already have exclusive interviews, documentaries, and rare freestyles featuring some of Rap’s most iconic artists and personalities. But, there is so much more to come--movies, TV series, talk shows--and we need your support to make it a reality. Please subscribe to AFH TV. It is only $1.99/month or $12/year, and offers 30-day free trials. Thank you.

Detroit, Michigan is historically, a fighter’s city. The sharp elbows of the Bad Boy-era Pistons, the unbreakable spirit of the autoworkers through the decline of the industry’s bountifulness, and the cold, harsh conditions of everyday life make for the Great Lakes State to be rugged, never smooth.

In the context of Hip-Hop music, a form of expression that self-identifies with grit, tenacity, and perseverance, sadly, the Motor City’s offerings have oft been lost in year-to-year cultural movements. Detroit is easily dwarfed to Los Angeles’ allures of sun-kissed women, candy-painted cars, and potent strands of marijuana, or New York City’s centrality surrounding the culture’s creation and business epicenter. Detroit is hard to get to, and a city that is not a common destination for artists or labels. Motown is also a hard act to follow, particularly for a genre that in many ways is so antithetical to the clean cut pop Soul that was generated in the early days of Berry Gordy’s hit-making machine. In a city where foreign cars are still a taboo, gold is pawned more than sold, and a stacked Coney hot dog trumps decadent Riviera cuisine, it’s a wake-up call to reality—something that many artists in today’s climate could find unsettling. There is no posh hotel to record in, no beach to escape to, and few velvet-rope clubs to toast rare bottles to life’s successes.

Historically, however, Detroit is often defined by its arts and culture and has still pushed through. The city’s music prowess predates Berry Gordy and “Hitsville U.S.A.”, but the sweet melodies, articulate writing about love, lust, and struggle, and pulsating rhythms made the ‘60s great. Especially for Black music, and more accurately, Soul music, Detroit was once nothing short of Mecca. From Marvin Gaye to George Clinton, iconic artists left home and traveled to Detroit in the same way that DJ Premier and Guru fled their homes in Texas and Massachusetts, respectively, for New York City—for the promise of fame, fellowship, and getting heard through organic channels. But even before Rap music was pressed to vinyl in the 1970s, Motown Records vacated Detroit. Berry moved his operations to L.A., and the automobile plants of Detroit started facing increased competition from government and abroad. The gas crisis ended the muscle car era, and suitors like Nissan, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz challenged GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Before a single Rap song was ever pressed up in the D, things were already at a disadvantage.

Thirty five years after Rap’s formal transition from party to pressed-up records, it would be hard to say that 2014 was anything other than Detroit’s year in music. More than one great album, or one emerging artist, it was complete synergy. As the song suggested, for once—it was “Detroit vs. Everybody.”

In a way that’s uncharacteristic of the D, this movement, in the year that was, started at the top. Eminem, the alliterative Rap persona of Marshall Mathers, spent much of the last decade living more like Howard Hughes. Em has always made Detroit his home. He lives there, records there, and seems to conduct much of his business there (even while his Shady Records is based in Lower Manhattan). Whether confronted with prospects of a speckled legacy or simply the beneficiary of a rekindled love affair with the word, Em hit the microphone with fervor in the last year—without even releasing an album. Shady XV was a rechristening of a label that began as a distribution artery for Detroit (Obie Trice, D12), but got lost or misplaced along the way.

Many times throughout the last 15 years, Shady Records felt like a laissez-faire label. A branch of Interscope, the imprint released commercially successful albums, but lacked the badge of a Bad Boy, a Young Money, or even a collective like G.O.O.D. Music. After the Anger Management era, 50 Cent—the kind of star that eclipsed any label’s wildest dreams, focused on his own branding: G-Unit. Stat Quo, Cashis, Obie Trice, and Bobby Creekwater appeared as hangers on, and were discarded much akin to Aftermath and Interscope’s way. Sign, develop, and discard 90% of the roster. Shady XV declared otherwise, and linked the label’s early and loyal stars to later extensions, such as Slaughterhouse, Yelawolf, and Bad Meets Evil—a passion project that excited fans three years ago, when Eminem and Royce Da 5’9″ fulfilled a pact that predated each’s “careers.”

The reunion of Eminem and Royce several years ago set a tone for Detroit. Em and Nickel’s differences had plagued the city, who watched its other heralded group, Slum Village, suffer more personnel changes (and challenges) than any group in Hip-Hop, short of the Geto Boys. These two men, despite a speckled and complicated past, put brotherhood and art above politics, industry, and ego. Whether or not Hell: The Sequel was in step with the duo’s 1999 Game Recordings single is up for debate—but it was filled with heart, and attention to lyricism.

Within Shady XV was a posse cut, “Detroit Vs. Everybody.” The song acknowledged all of the pockets of the D. Em and Royce stood tall, but welcomed Danny Brown (whose management is inside the Shady compound). The track also featured star Big Sean—Detroit’s biggest success story outside of Eminem ties in the last 15 years. Trick Trick, a onetime Motown Records-signed Gangsta Rapper more known for his strong-arm tactics off the mic than his bars, was included. DeJ Loaf, an emerging female MC was the last component of the track. Signed to Columbia, the 23 year-old may help show a new side of the D. In addition to a female experience on the mic, something not prominently heard since Invincible (well, besides meme, T Baby), DeJ represented the youth perspective, and showed a new organic voice.

At the top, “Detroit Vs. Everybody” was brothers (and a sister) in arms, demanding the recognition that the city’s vibrant music has so long deserved. Naturally, as with any posse cut, there were exclusions—not on the fault of Eminem and Shady though. To Shady’s credit, in fact, they almost immediately extended a 16-minute remix, welcoming Guilty Simpson, Black Milk, Sino, Marv Won (who produced on Shady XV), Payroll, Hydro, Boldy James, Big Gov, Kid Vishis, Big Herk, Icewear Vezzo, Detroit Che, Calicoe, and Diezel The Hitman. After appearing on the official remix, Guilty took it another step, leading the charge with Elzhi and Phat Kat, on “All Madden.”

Outside of the posse cuts, 2014 blessed album shelves with a host of powerful releases from Michigan stars. Willie The Kid (brother of Wu-Tang Clan affiliate La The Darkman) made a grimy and highly-stylized indie release alongside fellow Grand Rapids native Bronze Nazareth, Living Daylights. Black Milk made two critically acclaimed solo albums, the early Glitches In The Break, and the deeply-cohesive If There’s A Hell Below, two of the latest in a series of show-stopping releases dating back to 2008’s Tronic. The group Black Milk cut his teeth producing for, Slum Village, also released a small EP, Vintage, including some posthumous contributions from J Dilla. Apollo Brown, one of the most commanding new producers from the D, released his instrumental LP, Thirty Eight, before producing a resounding comeback album with Ras Kass, Blasphemy.

For big and small platforms, the table is set for Detroit again. Artists like Quelle Chris, Denmark Vessey, Yancey Boys (Illa J & Frank Nitti), DJ House Shoes, Red Pill, Boldy James, and even Mayer Hawthorne (with his latest act, Tuxedo) are poised to strike this iron while hot, after years of consistency, excitement, and dedication to the craft.

Between Michael Jordan’s retirement and Lebron James’ arrival, the Detroit Pistons struck back and became a championship-winning contender once more. In the face of overseas automakers, Detroit resurrected the American muscle car, with big horsepower, load exhaust, and a kinder carbon footprint—making Camaros, Mustangs, and Challengers universally cool once more. Detroit can never be counted out—nor should it. 2014 was an off-year for some, regarding music and Hip-Hop. However, for an epicenter of dues paid, of fractured Rap crews, bonds, and a mainstream that often missed the message, 2014 was a brutal reminder, and brandished return to form for Detroit.

Related: Today It All Makes Sense: A Retrospective On The Chicago Hip-Hop Sound (Food For Thought)