There is no bringing New York back—at least not in the sense of the catchphrase that's staled over the past decade (and has never quite come to fruition). Thanks to the internet, hip-hop is more democratized than ever. Scenes these days tend to be more dictated by sonics than geography. But that doesn't mean that there's not heat emitting from the Big Apple.
At a local level, New York rap is more exciting than it’s been in years. The wave set off by the Beast Coast movement five years ago created a new ecosystem of creativity within the city. Don’t get it twisted—New York has always been cooking up that fire. But in many cases, the city’s best artists aren’t heard outside of the five boroughs.
Many of these acts have taken inspiration from golden era lyricists while deviating from dusty boom-bap beats. New York has always been known as a place for cultural diffusion, so fittingly, some artists have incorporated sounds popularized by other cities while adding their own special New York sauce. And then there are the wholly unique ones bringing an original take on New York rap with no precedent in mind.
Here are 15 rappers that are showing exactly what New York City can do. Take a cue from the city that never sleeps. —Lei Takanashi
Hometown: Flatbush, Brooklyn
Sounds Like: A drill rapper who can knock the wind out of the Windy City.
Why You Need to Know Him: Folks from New York will tell you that Brooklyn drill rappers do it better than their Chicago counterparts—that they match the sonic aggression with razor-sharp bars. 22Gz stands at the forefront of that relocated sound. The leader of Blixky Gang Entertainment just signed with Kodak Black’s Sniper Gang label. His biggest song, “Suburban,” has surpassed 4 million plays on YouTube. 6ix9ine has also cosigned—or jacked (depending on who you ask)—the Blixky crew.
Hometown: Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Sounds Like: A rapper who escaped The Matrix and brought back a hard drive filled with beats from the future.
Why You Need to Know Him: A mentee of fellow Crown Heights rapper Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Chip Skylark looks to distort the perception of New York rap. His sound depicts a dystopian future rather than the city’s past or present. Skylark’s style is defined by his fondness for spacey and futuristic noises that pair well with his eccentric lyrics. Although Skylark has two projects out, his latest release with the electronic artist Tobias, Beautiful Dog, is probably the best one to sync into.
Skylark’s futuristic view of hip-hop is shared by the members of his eclectic rap collective ECW, which is comprised of 16 members who hail from around the five boroughs and showcase a variety of different styles. Bammo Gzz spits gully New York raps while other members like Red Note blend elements of rap with indie pop. While Skylark has made the most noise, appearing on major projects by fellow underground acts Mike and Show Me The Body, every member of ECW has a unique sound. The group’s second mixtape, Heatwave 2.0, is expected to drop this year, so running through the group’s discography is a guaranteed afternoon well-spent.
Hometown: South Jamaica, Queens
Sounds Like: When Frank Ocean raps.
Why You Need to Know Him: Deem Spencer is another New York rapper who has landed on a unique sound while keeping his rhymes on point. The 22-year-old rapper’s lyrics read like disjointed diary page entries, revealing anecdotal accounts of fickle love, deaths of family members and the stream of consciousness that comes with finding oneself within a city of 8 million people. Spencer flows effortlessly over somber and uncluttered beats and never shies away from letting his rawest emotions bleed onto that notepad. Sometimes he detracts from rapping, by either mumbling off a Frank Ocean-like melody or simply letting a well-crafted instrumental speak for itself. He’s hitting the road with DUCKWRTH this fall.
Hometown: Southside Jamaica, Queens
Sounds Like: A punchline queen for 2018.
Why You Need to Know Her: Kyah Baby has put out several mixtapes within the past couple of years, but in March, the Queens rapper was given the opportunity to freestyle for Funkmaster Flex. And she seized the moment, kicking witty bars with the most unbothered flow ever, absolutely bodying the classic “Flava In Ya Ear” instrumental and outrapping many of the bigger names who have appeared on the series. Kyah followed that up with Sincerely Kyah, a 12-track project filled with gritty raps about her upbringing, secure-the-bag anthems and empowering songs about womanhood.
Hometown: Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn
Sounds Like: What it’s like to secure the bag.
Why You Need to Know Him: This past summer, Jay Critch followers were once again gassed up about the Clinton Hill rapper’s long-anticipated debut project, Hood Favorite. While that has yet to drop, Critch at least gave fans something to feast on with Talk Money Tape, a hefty 90-minute project that showcases the other members of his rap crew, TME. While Critch’s tracks are the tape’s major highlights, Mally Bandz steals the spotlight throughout. His songs “Mistakes” and “Gelato” are infectious bangers carried by Mally’s distinguishably soft and melodic crooning. Mally has a swag of his own that stands well when he’s next to Critch or Rich The Kid (“Get It”).
Sounds Like: A scholar of Earl Sweatshirt.
Why You Need to Know Him: When Earl Sweatshirt copped one of Mike’s Bandcamp releases for $45, it was an indie rapper dream come true. From there, the Bronx MC went from being inspired by Earl to becoming one of his apprentices. Mike’s music is like therapy. He puts his heart on his sleeve and raps honestly about self-discovery in the Big Apple. His most popular release has been May God Bless Your Hustle, but this year Mike has already released three projects that continue to touch upon themes like Black pride, depression and anxiety. Check out his Slums crew as well, which features talented artists like Ade Hakim and King Carter.
Hometown: Bed-Stuy and Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
Sounds Like: MF Doom’s long lost son.
Why You Need to Know Him: Observant fans of Earl Sweatshirt might have noticed that the hermetical rapper has been fucking with New York heads for a minute. And one of Earl’s favorite MCs happens to be a Brooklyn rapper known as Medhane. He debuted in 2015 as one-half of Medslaus (with producer Slauson Malone), filling the void left after the great experimental rap group Ratking dispersed. Medslaus’ two projects, Poorboy and Greys In Yellow, proved early on that Medhane was a rising lyricist to watch.
Influenced by MF Doom, Medhane spits sharp stream-of-consciousness bars that tell visceral stories over punchy lo-fi beats. Songs like “Albany2Vernon” and “Garden” showcase his unique storytelling ability and make it clear why a fellow lyricist like Earl is a supporter.
Hometown: Flatbush, Canarsie and Crown Heights, Brooklyn
Sounds Like: Your new favorite underground Brooklyn rap crew.
Why You Need to Know Them: There isn’t much out there about NxGn. Made up by members Fresh The Prophet, TyBass, JonBoyIce, Nohri and ChrisMelh, the group has quietly released two projects within the past two years. But somehow, the group landed a Boiler Room set in 2016 and one of its main collaborators happens to be Melo-X, the Brooklyn DJ who went on tour with Beyoncé and co-wrote two tracks for Lemonade.
NxGn boasts some pretty incredible production for a fairly underground rap group. But it’s Fresh The Prophet and TyBass’s nasty skills on the mic that make them one to watch.
Hometown: Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn
Sounds Like: A Brooklyn MC you can trust.
Why You Need to Know Him: Last year, Patrick Moxey relaunched Payday Records, the legendary hip hop label that was influential during New York’s golden era, releasing records for the likes of DJ Premier, Group Home and Jay-Z. Radamiz was one of the star draft picks for the label’s revival.
In 2016, Radamiz independently released his debut album Writeous, a 10-track project that displayed a fresh take on the old-school New York sound. On the project, Radamiz spits emotional tales about growing up in Bed-Stuy, taking listeners on a trip through the Sumner Houses over crisp boom-bap instrumentals. His first singles on Payday—“V.I.M” and “NYNYNYNY”—came out this year and are hard-knocking, gully tracks that show a lot of promise for Radamiz’s next album.
Hometown: Lower East Side, Manhattan
Sounds Like: An rapper who came out of hell unscathed.
Why You Need to Know Him: There’s recently been a interesting SoundCloud niche that’s been dubbed “tread” rap—a movement rooted in Philadelphia with its sound being crafted by producers like Oogiemane and F1lthy from the Working On Dying collective. The sound is characterized by fast-paced snares and hi-hats that are then embellished with haunting synths to create a demonic effect.
TrippJones, along with other signees to Circle Five Records, is leading this subgenre. Like the OG graffiti writers who brought tags from Philly onto trains in New York, the Lower East Side rapper is lending his city’s signature gutter raps to the tread sound. His collaborative tapes with Morgue of 5 Finger Posse and his debut album Machine Smoke are good starter albums that give you a better idea of his cultural diffusing of two great underground scenes.
Hometown: Chelsea, Manhattan
Sounds like: A more laid-back Nas.
Why You Need to Know Him: It’s hard to find MCs who can both appeal to hardcore New York traditionalists and make raps that sound contemporary. But this is how a vintage North Face jacket-wearing rapper like YL steps into the picture.
YL has surrounded himself with some of New York’s most underrated artists. One of his closest collaborators within his RRR rap crew is Starker, a MC who comes from the vintage Polo-clad Outdoorsmen era of New York rap. And it’s clear that YL carries the same lyrical prowess that many of those vintage gear heads brought back into the fold in the early 2010’s.
YL, however, does this in a much fresher way, pairing his hypnotic voice with lo-fi, jazzy, minimalist instrumentals. The result: songs that burn nice and slow like a perfectly rolled L. While fans await his his upcoming project with Chicago's Thelonious Martin, newcomers should peep his friendofafriend or Open 24 tapes to understand the chill vibes this truly New York rapper has to offer.