Detroit hip hop’s identity crisis 

You might do The C-Note Lounge. Detroit, east side, Van Dyke. Monday. Open-mic night. Local MC Uncle Ill is right. Most of the rhyme slingers here are essentially hardcore or gangsta. You’ll hear a fair share of ghetto soliloquies tonight. Call it as you see it, but in another part of town, the vibe is different.

Hamtramck — more like the hole in the Detroit doughnut. Motor Lounge. Tuesday. The vibe is more “underground,” meaning the MCs here emphasize lyrics more than posturing. Less sensationalism, more dexterity. You need metaphors and simile at this spot. And you might want to be a little battle-tested. You could also do Lush on Wednesday or catch a St. Andrew’s basement showcase on Friday. Each place feels different, and that’s a good thing. Kinda. The tough part is that, after experiencing all of these joints, you may find yourself struggling with an age-old issue.

Wanna know the one thing that connoisseurs of Detroit hip hop have struggled to do for years? No, not to get the music industry to show real interest in our beloved city’s talent pool (good guess, though). Rappers, DJs and dancers have spent years trying to simply describe Detroit hip-hop culture. What’s our personality like in this town? That’s a fair question, right? If you see red or blue, a gang sign or two, you know you’re in Los Angeles. Catch a Southern twang, and a “crunk” in the slang? Mmm, Atlanta. Some cat wearing Timberlands in 80-degree heat call you “son”? That’s New York City, all day long. Stereotypes, true. But as far as hip hop is concerned, cities build their reputation on these kinds of images. They live in the music, in the videos. They also help artists to create distinguishable styles.

Detroit’s lack of a clear identity in hip hop may actually be explainable. Brother Moushetti Muhammed, manager of local artist Budda Bless, has been working to pull together local rhyme crews like Street Lordz and East Side Chedda Boyz. He notes that sense of individualism that exists among Detroit MCs.

“One thing I can say is that Detroit hip-hop culture has such an independent mentality, and it’s crying to be heard,” he says. “What really sets us apart is that everybody in Detroit has such an individualistic mentality. That’s a good thing, and it’s a bad thing.” Muhammed and Ill share similar views, in recognizing alliances that have formed among Detroit artists lately. Sometimes, the alliances exist in moral support, but for hip hop, that can be enough. The most important result of these alliances is the sense of personality that emerges. Check similarities in the styles among the Eminem-D12-Royce da 5’9”-Obie Trice set. It may not be overt, but it’s detectable. Or note the similarities in the guerilla marketing techniques of the Chedda Boyz, Rock Bottom Records or Street Lordz. Among the most distinguishable of these trends may be the production style of Jay Dee, formerly of Slum Village.

Ladies are involved in the movement as well. Miz Korona, who performed at this year’s Hamtramck Blowout, is one of the most respected lyricists in the city. Likewise, Njeri Earth is attempting to do for Detroit what Lauryn Hill did for the state of New Jersey. Thus, through alliances, Detroit becomes identifiable. Hey, it worked for Chicago.

Now, here’s where we twist. Don’t shoot the messenger for attempting to cover too much ground, but there cannot be a discussion on Detroit hip hop without talking about race and class. That Eminem and Kid Rock hail from within — or within the vicinity — of one of America’s most chocolate cities is beyond the comprehension of many. But the fact that they have both reached back to put on cats like D12 and Paradime is pure Detroit union spirit. And that does not go unnoticed.

So how do you summarize Detroit hip hop’s personality? It’s the sum of its parts. It’s independent, yet built on coalitions, grounded in struggle, the streets and politics. It walks a tightrope between war and peace. In the end, it’s the D, and it ain’t meant to be easy. It’s like datch’all.

Khary Kimani Turner writes rhythms for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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