Music

"City of Dealers": The Future of Detroit Rap

By Thomas Klepacz

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In a 4Sho Magazine YouTube interview from December of 2015 ­ titled “Walk A Mile,” undoubtedly in reference to the colloquial ‘7 Mile’ stretch of Detroit, Michigan ­ a rapper named CashOut HBK sits in a bar as his friends play pool. There’s a camera on him but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge it much. Most of what we see is HBK’s lefthand profile: a black beanie pulled over his head, an empty ear piercing, a neatly manicured moustache. Just beneath his jawline is an illustrious depiction of the Detroit Lions logo, complete with smoke detailing and a cursive Detroit title beneath it. As he lifts up his hand to sip from a drink, we see a blue star (the same hue as the Lion on his neck) wrapped in bright red flames, with another cursive title ­”Grin d 2 Shine.”

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Much of the 4Sho magazine interview is typical of a rap video director’s “behind the scenes” footage. We begin in HBK’s car, then travel to a bar, then to a nondescript house, then to a gym, then back to another nondescript house. Throughout all of it, HBK maintains a distinct narrative of personal (and economic) growth: “I was once this, but now I’m on to p and I’m this.” He’s comfortable playing basketball with old friends, but various girls interrupt his session to ask for pictures. At 2:30, he refers to himself and these friends ­ some of whom happen to be in a rap group called DoughBoyz Cashout ­ as the “face” of Detroit. Which, in reversion of typical rap aggrandizement, could actually be an underestimation.

I first heard DoughBoyz Cashout via the late Steven Rodriguez’s (BKA ASAP Yams) extraordinary Tumblr page. If I recall correctly the song was “City Of Dealers,” an ode to —­ you guessed it ­— Detroit, a city of drug dealers. The opening bars of the song go as follows:

“My plan out of high school was simple, get skrilla

My heroes ain’t wear no capes, just chinchillas

Living in a city where a n*gga with a job is a nobody

While the dealers treated like Gods”

The song continues on in a similar fashion for the next three minutes. Various members of DoughBoyz trade off rapping privileges, sharing their experiences on the rough streets of Detroit and the success they’ve now been able to attain. It’s foreign shoes, platinum Rolex’s, and 22 inch rims; champagne in cups, and my favorite: DoughBoyz Roc’s simple assertion that “Real talk/I got bands guy.”

Nothing else in the song seems to generate the magnetism of the first four bars, however. It’s these bars that made me remember that first play on my computer screen (and, unabashedly, the first time I heard it in public: at Supreme on Lafayette Street). It could be the No Limit Records­-derived cover art that drew me in, or the track’s “Mannie Fresh Kit” electronic drums. Or the rapping style of each member, which seemed to evoke a Los Angeles accent (car pronounced as “couhre”) in the rhythmic format of 90s-­era Master P. Or maybe it was all of these things collided with the lyrical premise of the four bars: you don’t understand where I’m from.

Now, who exactly were the DoughBoyz’s heroes? And how did their music ­— made in the 2010’s in Detroit, Michigan ­— come to sound like it was made in Hollygrove in the late 90s? We can turn to HBK’s interview to navigate this . In the same sequence in which HBK sits in that Detroit pool hall, with his Detriot Lion-­blue body ink flashing the camera, he speaks about his (and DoughBoyz’s) greatest influences: “You know, we’ve been the biggest thing since the Street Lordz was here,” he says before sitting up to reveal the graphic on his baggy black t-­shirt —­ an artistic rendering of this famous image of Master P.

There isn’t much information on The Street Lordz, nor much of a discography to build off of. The rap group ­ formed in the early 2000’s in the same 7­Mile territory that Doughboyz come from ­ are perhaps more famous (or rather, infamous) for their territorial feuds with another rap group from the same region, The Eastside Chedda Boyz. Feuds between the two camps culminated in in 2004, when opposing members from each group (Blade Icewood;

Wipeout) were killed in a dispute over the ownership of the term “Chedda Boyz.” A Detroit Free Press piece from 2004 seems to strike at the core of the dispute: “A look at the frustration that grips many Detroit communities ­ despair brought on by high unemployment, poor education and a weak economy ­ may help outsider understand how a man can can lose his life over a marketable name, or an expensive chain.”

“An expensive chain” is a key part of that statement. Harkening back to the opening bars of “City of Dealers” ­ “my heroes ain’t wear no capes, just chinchillas” ­ we can understand that 7 Mile’s model of success is largely dependant on gaudy material possessions (“bling,” as people 10 years older than me would call it, but we’ll call it “ice,” as the DoughBoyz do). Couple this with the distinct territorialism seen in the 7­Mile area and you’re bound to hear rappers rapping like this .

The DoughBoyz style of “street rap” is nothing new. As Meaghan Garvey excellently outlines in this piece from 2014, the DoughBoyz have simply built upon a long legacy of regional (and national) “gangsta” rap, or “drill,” or whatever you’d like to call it. This even earned them a strange, tension-filled stint with Atlantic Records’ CTE imprint – a subsidiary started by Atlanta trap maestro Young Jeezy – that disintegrated early this year. Perhaps the DoughBoyz’s lack of comfort with major labels is representative of something greater: unlike Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, or East New York (and maybe even DC ), rap from Detroit seems to maintain a particular locality. It’s from there, it’s about there, and it stays there. Which explains why HBK would reference The Street Lordz before he would the icon on his shirt – Master P.

That isn’t to say that Detroit street rap doesn’t take from regions around it. If anything, it distinctly takes from the No Limit south: The Street Lordz’s second album, Platinum Masterpiece, has features from seminal southern rap figures Juvenile and Birdman. And that’s probably why the album sounds so much like something the guy who tried to kill Lil Wayne would put out ­ The Street Lordz were working upon a model of visceral, abrasive music that celebrated what other than gaudy material possessions and territorialism . But unlike the music of their colleagues ­ — some of whom have transitioned into all-­out meme stardom ­— the music of the Street Lordz was made in Detroit and (for all intensive purposes) stayed there.

Sort of. When you have guys like Yams and Chief Keef —­ and even Drake, pop-­rap’s unofficial A&R —­ jumping on Detroit rap, you start to see young Detroit artists like Rocaine, internet favorite Pablo Skywalkin, and the upcoming Molly Brazy getting hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of views on YouTube uploads. Lest we not forget Dej Loaf, who got 50 million off of her Detroit hit. There’s even Cash Kidd ­— my personal favorite ­— who’s gotten 5 million plays for sounding just like a DoughBoyz member without actually being one. And Payroll Giovanni, DoughBoyz’s unofficial frontman, who’s making videos in the Hollywood Hills, part of a “Famous People Networth” page, and also released a Pitchfork-approved EP with Cardo back in August. Spend enough time on contemporary rap YouTube and you’ll probably find some song or feature from a Detroit artist. Which allows people like me to write about it.

Yet throughout all of this internet fame, you still have artists like Doughboy Roc giving 27­-minute long interviews about their city and their upbringing. As Roc drives around in his car speaking about Detroit ­ much like his colleague HBK did in his interview ­ he covers everything he knows about his city while going to everywhere he knows in his city. On a flurry day in Detroit winter, Roc crunches around his elementary school, various houses from his upbringing, and a coffee place called Grandy’s all while shivering in a seemingly­unworn Nike sweatsuit. He talks about his uncle’s job at Ford (and how it allowed him to wear the “freshest” clothes as a kid), Detroit’s closing schools, and finally, about how the death of his “old dude fucked me up.” “But then,” Roc says as his phone begins to chirp, “I was venting… and that’s when I wrote my first rap.”

And that seems to be Detroit ­ and Detroit street rap ­ in a nutshell. Detroit has the highest unemployment rate in the country, the highest percentage of a population living in poverty, and one of the highest crime rates in the US. Perhaps it’s where the “frustration” of Detroit street rap comes from. Or the territorialism. Or the obsession with gaudy wealth. They’re all tropes of contemporary “gangsta rap” (or “drill,” or, again, whatever you want to call it), but for whatever reason, musicians from Detroit seem to hold these values ­— and their city —­ particularly dear. And its rappers like to talk about them, like great rappers do.

I can’t fully explain why Detroit street rap is so “Detroit.” What I do know is that while the fringe­rap of other cities — ­ Chicago, Atlanta, LA —­ has entered the mainstream listening conscience, fringe­-rap from Detroit hasn’t. It’s getting there, surely —­ as is the city, which seems to be looking more and more like Sodosopa every day — ­ but for now, the million­-play Detroit street rap songs are staying —­ predominantly ­—  in Detroit.

You can still find me listening to this on a couch in Connecticut any day, though.

Thomas Klepacz is a recent college graduate who isn’t quite sure what to do with his life. In the meantime, he’s writing (predominately) about what makes him happiest — the often-unheard hip-hop music that drives pop culture forward.