This is independent hip-hop’s New Weird America moment, where
rappers in every city are pursuing idiosyncratic tangents, sustaining themselves
with Internet-generated fan bases that vary in size from extremely tiny to
A decade ago, to be independent was to make the best of getting the proverbial
short end of the stick. Hip-hop had made its commercial breakthrough, but that
success didn’t trickle down to everyone. Instead it created new sounds and new
attitudes, and gave birth to the idea that there was more than one path to
But today’s independent hip-hop movement, if it can be called that, is still
looking for a cohesive argument. Unlike the independent rap of the
mid-to-late-1990s, which was lyrically and sonically hyperdense, often dystopian
and dogmatically anticapitalist, this scene has only a distribution mechanism,
the Internet, in common. It has room for outcasts of all stripes.
That was clear on Tuesday night at Glasslands Gallery in Williamsburg, at a
showcase sponsored by, of all institutions, the indie-rock-leaning New York
concert-information blog Brooklyn Vegan, filling a void left by traditional
hip-hop media. The show featured three acts — G-Side, the headliner, from
Huntsville, Ala.; the rapper whose name is printable only when shortened to
eXquire, from Brooklyn; and Cities Aviv, from Memphis. Each of these acts tells
a story about making hip-hop on the fringes of the mainstream in 2011, but the
stories are not the same.
At best, they have tradition in common — not outright nostalgists, or
unreasonably emulative, they owe a heavy stylistic debt to the 1990s, both the
mainstream and the underground.
Of these acts, G-Side is the least oppositional, the most harmonious and the
most established. In the last year alone, this duo — Yung Clova and ST 2 Lettaz
— has released two impressive albums, “iSLAND” and “The One ... Cohesive” (Slow
Motion Soundz) that place it directly in the lineage of great, organic,
melody-minded Southern hip-hop like Goodie Mob and UGK. A video the group
recorded this summer of a transfixing a capella rendition of its song “My Aura”
on a Chicago street at night is one of this year’s most vibrant hip-hop clips.
At this show, the two men exuded easy confidence, when performing their own
boastful, smooth songs, or over the beat from “Paris,” the shortened title of
the hit by Kanye West and Jay-Z , or when ST 2 Lettaz rapped largely
unaccompanied about stressful situations at home. Even the duo’s two backup
singers — Joi Tiffany and PH — were savvy, varying tones and speeds, adding a
delirious and mature texture to the proceedings.
The G-Side sound may be an anachronism, but as Southern hip-hop has become more
brittle and militaristic, it feels more radical, which is why it has a home in
the new underground. The same goes for Cities Aviv, whose lullingly pretty album
“Digital Lows” (Fat Sandwich), with its proclivity toward warm soul and neatly
articulated storytelling, is reminiscent of thoughtful 1990s independent-rap
rarities like the Nonce and Natural Elements. There’s chillwave in his music,
though it’ll probably be gone by his next album — besides, chillwave, last
year’s Internetcentric fuzzy post-rock movement, didn’t get enough credit for
repurposing smooth 1980s soul, which was a worthy strategy.
Cities Aviv opened this show, switching between two microphones for different
vocal effects, though at times he got drowned out by the more diffuse of his
productions. But there was an urgency to his performance, which cut through the
haze most of the time.
He was not heavy handed, though. That fell to eXquire, who arrived on stage with
a crew of a half-dozen, a throwback to New York rap shows of the ’90s. With a
tangle of colorful chains around his neck and an omnipresent mischievous smile,
eXquire is an appealing goofball. In interviews, he’s professed his love for
coloring, as in books. He would have been a BET star in the mid-’90s or, at
minimum, a “BET Uncut” star.
That’s because there’s no shortage of raunch on his recent mixtape “Lost in
Translation” (Mishka), a sharp tragicomedy about making music in the face of
emotional and financial devastation. Of the acts at this show, eXquire is the
closest to the independent hip-hop ideal of a decade ago; that he samples
Cannibal Ox, one of that era’s great groups, only drives home that point.
At this show, he was pure charisma, especially on his breakout hit “Huzzah!” And
he sprinkled references throughout, quoting from Method Man and Lil Kim and,
improbably on “Build-a-Bitch,” from Drake. eXquire rapped that last song
shirtless and at one point grabbed at the empty innards of his jeans pocket,
But only 15 minutes earlier, in the middle of his set, he was messing with a
scrawny white guy in the crowd, asking him a lewd question over and over, then,
when he finally answered, ripping the microphone away and starting into a song.
After he was done, he locked eyes with his target and offered a huge grin and a
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “You part of the show now. Put that on your