Where You’re From and Where You’re @

Azealia Banks, A$AP Rocky, TNGHT, and the end of hip-hop regionalism.

Azealia Banks.
Azealia Banks

Photograph by Karl Walter/GettyImages.

Harlem native Azealia Banks has been making music for a couple years, but her recent song “Jumanji” is the first thing she’s released that sounds like the work of a Harlem native. Banks, a rising hip-hop star, scored an out-of-nowhere hit last fall with her foulmouthed dance-rap track “212,” the video for which has been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube. The title refers to the area code for Banks’ home borough, but the song, pounding along at 126 beats per minute, is based on a whimsical house track by the Belgium-based producer Lazy Jay, and you would have been forgiven, upon first hearing it, for assuming that she was a European club kid.

“Jumanji,” by contrast, channels the sort of hip-hop that dominated New York in the early- to mid-’00s—in particular, the triumphal cacophony and inspired gobbledygook of Cam’ron and his Harlem crew, the Diplomats. A bright, elastic melody blares out, first as a distorted trumpet fanfare, then through synthesized steel drums. The percussion is almost comically helter-skelter—bomb-tick hi-hats, bellowing tympanis, feverish clapping—but the underlying tempo is about 80 bpm, a relaxed pace that better accommodates kingly rapping. Banks opens with a direct homage to Cam’ron’s vivid, sound-for-sound’s-sake nonsequiturs (“This is that jammer-jammer, go anthem banana-getter”) before rhyming “trendsetter” with “cheddar” and “feathers and leathers.”  At the refrain, Banks drops a Google Maps pin on the track, repeating, “Real bitch all day / Uptown Broadway.” “Jumanji” ’s uncanny Diplomats impersonation, however, belies the song’s globetrotting pedigree. Banks lives, these days, in Southwest London, and the track’s co-producer is a rising young Glaswegian called Hudson Mohawke.

A few years ago, an aspiring rap artist hailing from New York might have felt compelled to lean harder on that fact, both sonically and lyrically —the way that, say, Queens-born Nicki Minaj, a Banks forebear (they both attended the Upper West Side arts high school LaGuardia), did at the start of her career. Over several reputation-building mixtapes, Minaj rapped in a battle-hardened style over old Biggie, Noreaga, and Beanie Sigel instrumentals. The proof was in the provenance: Before we’d follow Minaj into pop orbit with a song like “Starships,” she had to flaunt, and pay respect to, her roots.

But in 2012-era hip-hop, Harlem (and Brooklyn, and Detroit, and Miami, and Atlanta, and Toronto, and on and on) is becoming less a specific place that an artist hails from and tailors her sound to reflect, and more an aesthetic option, among many, that she can gesture toward or ignore as she sees fit. Another notable hip-hop rookie is the smooth-talking A$AP Rocky, who also comes from Harlem, but who stresses to interviewers how geographically unrestricted his style is: A product, he says, of an adolescence spent devouring not only New York titans like Eric B. and Rakim (his parents named him after the latter artist) but also acts like DJ Quik, from Los Angeles, and UGK, from Port Arthur, Texas. In his songs, Rocky is as comfortable maneuvering through the slow-mo sludge of Texas screw-music as he is aping the singsong pitter-patter of Cleveland’s Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and he’s no less convincing for this carpet-bagging. Many of his tracks fall into a new, Internet-born sub-sub-genre, nicknamed “cloud rap” for its diaphanous textures and foggy melodies. Cloud rap’s other main practitioners hail from the Bay Area (Lil B, Main Attrakionz), Seattle (Keyboard Kid), and New Jersey (Clams Casino), all of them collaborating with each other via broadband connections—cloud has a nice double meaning in this context. We listen to an artist like Atlanta’s Young Jeezy, in part, for his blunt evocation of place: run-down drug houses, musty strip joints, classic cars orbiting the perimeter. We listen to an artist like A$AP Rocky for rich evocations of everywhere and nowhere.

Such geographical unmooring is partly a function of fringe experimentalism—conventions are always easier to ignore when commercial stakes are lower. This is certainly the case in the music of Spaceghostpurrp, A$AP Rocky’s friend and crew-mate, an inspired weirdo from the same Miami neighborhood as Rick Ross whose dank, lo-fi mixtape tracks evoke Memphis, Tenn.’s Three Six Mafia.* But regionalism is eroding at the genre’s center as well. Ever since Drake’s forlorn mixtape track “Houstatlantavegas,” the Canadian star has cultivated an aura of placelessness in his music, wringing pathos from tales of a life spent largely in clubs, hotels, and airports. As far as the hip-hop map is concerned, Drake’s hometown, Toronto, is a nonsignifying blank spot, and he more or less keeps it that way in his lyrics, mentioning the city but not bringing it to life as a place that you can picture in your head. Like Banks and Rocky, Drake nods to the tradition of hometown name-checking without letting his hometown say much about who he is. 

Near the front of this trend is Kanye West, a Chicagoan who made his name in the early ’00s as a producer for Jay-Z, helping to architect the brassy, bombastic millennial Roc-A-Fella sound before transcending it on his solo albums. The way West makes music these days is by assembling unlikely, border-busting consortiums of talent, teaming up musicians from far-off places and seeing what happens. In one installment of West’s recent online tour documentary, he brings together London electronic whiz James Blake and New Orleans bounce god Mannie Fresh for a late-night bull session. Diplo, a DJ who made his name in Philadelphia and who has helped expose broad American audiences to Baltimore club music and Brazilian baile funk, told me recently that, during the Watch the Throne sessions, West situated him at a studio console alongside a Nigerian musician whose name he couldn’t recall (it was probably either D’Banj or Don Jazzy), and asked them to collaborate on the song “Lift Off.”* West’s recent single “Mercy” features production from—him again—Glasgow’s Hudson Mohawke.

Local pride has been a part of hip-hop since its inception, but rap regionalism as we currently understand it—manifested, that is, in geographically distinct sonic and lyrical styles—is a later development in the art form’s lifespan. It was only when hip-hop matured, and overflowed its East Coast cradle, that regional sounds hardened. The hip-hop beats that we identify as sounding uniquely “East Coast,” for instance—like the sample-drunk innovations of Marley Marl, EPMD, and Eric B. in the late ’80s, the droning minimalism of RZA and Havoc in the early ’90s, or the pumped-up “Tunnel bangers” of Dame Grease and Swizz Beatz in the late ’90s—were consolidated contemporaneously with, or arose in reaction to, incursions from artists in places like Los Angeles, Texas, and Atlanta. In the early days of acts like the Sugarhill Gang, Furious Five, and Afrika Bambaataa, disco and electro samples were commonplace: Hearing a track like “212” from a New York rapper then probably would have been less jarring than it is today.

There has long existed a touristic impulse among MCs, as they borrow other regions’ styles and guest-rap beside other regions’ stars in attempts to tap different markets and stay current on new sounds. But there’s a difference between the way Azealia Banks relates to place in a song like “Fuck Up the Fun”—its beat ripped from the Netherlands-based bubbling scene—and the way Jay-Z related to place on the remix of Juvenile’s bounce-music wonder “Ha” or Panjabi MC’s bhangra smash “Mundian Tu Bach Ke.” Following a path cleared by M.I.A., Banks slips between borders like a nonstate actor; Jay-Z will always be a citizen of, and an ambassador from, Brooklyn’s Marcy projects.

If a younger generation of hip-hop artists and fans is less concerned with geographic identity than their predecessors, this attitude suits the way that music is born and proliferates nowadays: not only in specific clubs in specific neighborhoods, but across specific music-streaming Web pages that link back and forth between each another, connecting cities and countries. It’s become less important, as a matter of musical career-building, to plant oneself and one’s sound in a physical location.

One of the reigning musical municipalities is Soundcloud, a music streaming site where ideas from around the world germinate and cross-pollinate. There is still such a thing as a regional sound, but sites like Soundcloud help make sure that these don’t stay strictly regional for very long. Take footwork, a hyperkinetic Chicago dance/hip-hop genre. In 2010, a British dubstep producer named Addison Groove scored a club hit with his footwork-inspired song “Footcrab,” which he situated at a slower tempo (140 bpm) than most footwork tracks (160 bpm). Chicago footwork luminaries DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn remixed the song, starting at 80 bpm before doubling speed. Addison Groove posted the remix to his Soundcloud page. Where does it make sense to say the end result comes from?

A few weeks ago, I came across a set of songs on Soundcloud entitled “Trap Shit Music,” made by a mysterious producer who goes by ︻╦╤─ ƱZ ─╤╦︻  (pronounced “Uzi”). Trap music is a spare, hard-rolling, Atlanta-borne genre that has dominated hip-hop airwaves in recent years (Nicki Minaj’s recent hit “Beez in the Trap” pays tribute to the style), and its chattering hi-hats, mob chants, and bullish 808 basslines provide Uzi with the jumping-off points for exhilarating compositions. Uzi has released no biographical information, so I’m not sure where he is from—perhaps “the Internet” is a satisfactory answer. The American South has been hip-hop’s stylistic center for a decade, but its sounds have lately fueled a decentered network of far-flung electronic musicians like Uzi. The same sonic signatures that anchor beats by Virginia’s Lex Luger and Tennessee’s Drumma Boy pop up now in music originating in London (on Kuedo’s album Severant, on Girl Unit’s single “Wut”), in Los Angeles (on songs by the producer Kingdom), and in Glasgow (on Rustie’s “City Star” and on Hudson Mohawke’s forthcoming TNGHT EP, a stellar collaboration with Canadian beatmaker Lunice). Thanks to figures like Kanye West and, more recently, Waka Flocka, these global trap interpretations don’t sit within a vacuum, outside hip-hop proper. Waka, who became one of Atlanta’s favorite sons by barking over Lex Luger’s punishing beats, recently commissioned TNGHT to remix one of his songs. Who needs an area code when you’ve got a URL?

Correction, June 21, 2012:
The article originally stated that the rap group Three Six Mafia is from Mississippi. They are from Memphis, Tenn. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, June 20, 2012: The article originally stated that Diplo was born in Philadelphia. He was born in Mississippi. (Return to the corrected sentence.)