When Yosa fell in love with hip-hop, he fell hard. When he was just eight years old, his mother handed him her enviable CD collection—jumpstarting his lifelong musical education with the hip-hop elites, including the iconic Notorious B.I.G “Life After Death” album, TuPac’s “All Eyes on Me,” and Snoop Dogg’s “The Doggfather.” “Those CDs took me by storm. I couldn’t think about anything else. I memorized every single word on every track,” the rapper states.
Hip-hop burst forth like a tenacious vine out of the concrete jungle of the South Bronx in the late 1970s among black and Latino youth performing as DJs and emcees. Its roots, however, go deep and stretch wide across cities and national borders. The rhythms, flows, and beats characteristic of the hip-hop genre and culture are grounded in rich traditions of griots, poets, jazz, rock and roll, R&B, funk, and soul. The music itself carries within it mathematical precision, thrilling lyrical wordplay, and experimental sound. Today, hip-hop can be found pulsing along city streets, recreating itself in far-flung global locales, and even finding a new flow in quiet suburbia.
Not surprisingly, Rochester’s hip-hop scene is underground. Yet its stars like Lil’ Crazed, Looney Mobb, and YG On Da Beat have reached national and international heights. Its rising stars like Treezy, Yosa, the Bando Bunch, and Savior Playa are mavericks, thriving despite the displacement of arts venues and hip-hop’s “bad rep” in the community. True to their genre, they are prolific: releasing rich new mixtapes, collaborating with each other, and making the music they love no matter the odds.
You ask anyone who knows about the hip-hop scene in Rochester and they’ll tell you that it owes a lot to Looney Mobb. Much like the legendary Dr. Dre, the Looney Mobb trio, made up of brothers Buddah Bless, Skooby G. Slim, and Don Nocka Meechie, inspired and supported a generation of hip-hop artists in Rochester throughout the 2000s.
Rappers in Rochester are a mix of artists born and raised in the city or those who moved here from other parts of Minnesota and midwest cities like Chicago. Bringing their identities and life experiences to their music, Rochester’s emcees are as diverse in their backgrounds as they are in their styles and subject matter. Yosa states, “I rap a lot about women and relationships. I use my own life, but also take stories of things my friends have been through.” Yosa’s controlled silver-tongued rhymes ride the beats with effortless cool. He released his latest LP, “Way of the Samurai,” in August.
Hip-hop has long made room for emcees of all backgrounds, despite the common misappropriation of this historically black art form. Rochester’s scene reflects the city’s increasingly diverse undercurrent with artists who identify as Asian-American, African, Black American, multiracial, white, and Latino. Treezy, whose quick flow and melodic beats are uniquely his own, states, “I’m a white boy rapping. I’ve gotten hate mail and people telling me I shouldn’t be making this music. But music is about coming together. It should transcend and bridge.” Treezy’s latest mixtape “Chasin’ Lights” contains tracks that are by turns charged and brooding with lyrics full of hubris and contemplation.
Treezy and Yosa, part of Bando Bunch (formerly, Flight Club), often collaborate together as a pair or as part of the larger group. Their videos feature familiar images of Rochester’s downtown alleyways, landmarks, local parks, and neighborhood streets lined with snow. Both artists are tapped into a network of key players in the hip-hop scene that include music video directors and videographers like JANT Collaborative, as well as producers and recording studios they know and trust in Rochester.
One of these producers is YG On Da Beat, a gifted rapper in his own right. YG brings a level of expertise to making and producing hip-hop tracks that have made him a household name among local emcees. YG started making music as a drummer when he was only six. His big break came producing tracks for Chicago-native, Chief Keef who was discovered by Kanye West in 2012. In the local scene, “Prod. by YG on da Beat” has become synonymous with excellence and hit tracks.
Perhaps, the most famous of the city’s rappers is Cambodian-American artist Lil’ Crazed. Born and raised in Rochester, Crazed rose to fame on MySpace and YouTube and spent many years touring worldwide. Long before he became a breakout hip-hop star, Crazed was writing poems and rhymes. “I wrote my first poem when I was thirteen years old called ‘Day 9-1-1’ about the 9/11 attacks. The poem was on the news, in the newspaper, on the radio, and actually appeared on Good Morning America.”
Crazed started throwing beats behind his poems and the rest was history. He owns, “It wasn’t the best music. But I kept at it trying to perfect the craft. Praise for my work and my fan-base just started growing. I think being Asian was both a positive and a negative because on the one hand it made some people pay attention. But on the other hand, it made others not pay attention to my music because I was Asian.” Crazed’s lyrics talk about struggle, love, and family. Most recently, the rapper welcomed a daughter into his life and has turned his focus closer to home. “Touring all over the world took a lot of time away from my family over the years. I’ll still continue to make the music I love, but right now I’ll be staying close to family,” he says.
Despite the talent of Rochester’s emcees, hip-hop is not part of the music scene in most of the city’s venues. “We used to perform at the Wicked Moose and C4. C4 was always really open to us and our music. But now C4 is gone and no other venues really want hip-hop. They don’t want us to use profanity and they’re scared about the ‘type of people’ it’ll bring,” says Treezy.
As a result, home-grown hip-hop artists have been forced to perform elsewhere in surrounding towns and the Twin Cities.
A Minnesota Sound
Hip-hop has always been deeply grounded in place and geography. The sound of artists hailing from different regions and states can range, adding a vibrant diversity. Due to the migration of rappers from other metropolitan areas outside the state and the influence of more mainstream hip-hop, it’s difficult to identify a unifying style or sound to Rochester’s hip-hop. According to YG On Da Beat, “I’m influenced by that New York sound. But I do consider myself part of Midwest hip-hop.”
Midwest hip-hop includes artists in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Detroit and the Twin Cities. The Twin Cities has an underground scene dating as far back as 1981. Artists like Brother Ali and, more recently, Carnage the Executioner and Manny Festo, have become well-known names in Minnesota hip-hop. Yet the Twin Cities hip-hop scene has sometimes been criticized for being “white-washed” and out of touch with the realities of Minnesotans of color. On the other hand, hip-hop culture has been closely connected to empowering youth and community organizing in neighborhoods across Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Still, important questions of authenticity as well as audience abound. In Rochester, rappers aim to stay true to themselves and the art form. Politics is not usually part of the subject matter. Yet, by speaking from their own experiences and pushing themselves artistically, they strive to honor the hip-hop tradition and its original architects.
Special thanks to MedCity Rico for photos.