Break Thru

A half-decade after Mac and Wiz, the Pittsburgh hip-hop scene is still waiting for its moment


MARCH 30, 2017

On the outside, a crowd of fans no older than 15 is gathering around Social Status to get a glimpse of the local hip-hop phenom himself.

On the inside of the Downtown clothing store, Jimmy Wopo is smiling. The 20-year-old rapper from the Hill District almost never turns down pictures with fans.

“When I go out of town, it be like, ‘Yeah, it feel good to be chilling,’ and nobody knows who I am,” Wopo says. “Here I can’t even go to the mall on a regular day and walk through — there’s gonna be somebody who wants a picture.”

But being anonymous outside Pittsburgh is not what the hip-hop talent here want. Ever since the city produced two mega-stars a half-decade ago in Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, the pipeline to make it big has shrunk, and it has forced artists to work harder and be more creative.

Wopo, for one, touts millions of views of his songs on YouTube and Spotify, and has attracted attention from rap aficionados across the country for having potential to make it huge.

Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette

But in his own city, he has had trouble booking shows because of the violent themes in his music. “It’s all entertainment. People don't understand that in Pittsburgh,” he says.

The hip-hop scene, vibrant in cities like Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans, lives on the underground again in Pittsburgh, surviving on the backs of a talented few — the artists, venues and creative spaces that value hip-hop as an art form and a money-maker.

It’s up to them to put the city on the hip-hop map again, and they know it.


The Wall

Hip-hop in Pittsburgh is struggling to find its new home.

It used to be at 5972 Baum Blvd., under the looming shadow of the mammoth East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Under that shadow was the Shadow Lounge, where rappers and DJs from all across the city could perform and mingle.


Watch Mac Miller perform at Shadow Lounge circa 2009

When it closed in 2013, it left a gap in the rap scene that has yet to be filled. Talk to any artists in the city, and they talk about two hip-hop eras: pre-Shadow and post-Shadow. Artist and 1Hood Media founder Jasiri X remembers meeting Mac and Wiz there. Scotty Sabatasso, a local DJ, fondly recalls the open mic nights, where hip-hop heads packed the tiny venue to hear the latest talent.

“I would say Shadow was like lightning in a bottle — a perfect storm,” owner Justin Strong says. “It’s hard to duplicate that.”

Not many have tried. One effort is Spirit Hall in Lawrenceville, where Strong, 39, is now the general manager.

But it underscores a greater problem on the scene: There’s all this music, but not many places for it to be heard. There’s all this talent, but very few to help cultivate it.

Listen to Mac Miller's "Bde Bonus"

Listen to Wiz Khalifa's "Prequel"

Shadow Lounge owner Justin Strong (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

For most rappers, making it big means making it out of Pittsburgh. They talk of following in the footsteps of Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, who built huge followings from free internet mixtapes they made from the halls of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. They talk of escaping the city to places like Atlanta, Chicago or Los Angeles.

“If I’m in a studio here, Metro Boomin isn’t going to just walk in,” says local street rapper Hardo, referring to the Atlanta hip-hop producer responsible for several chart-topping hits. “If I’m in Atlanta, that will happen … At the end of the day, if you’re just making music in Pittsburgh and doing all these numbers, the business don’t know you.”

Artists can only speculate as to why the infrastructure for a thriving hip-hop scene isn’t here. Maybe it’s because Pittsburgh doesn’t have enough people. Maybe Pittsburgh really is a “blue-collar, football rock n’ roll town” without a love for hip-hop, as rapper Ray Dawn calls it.

“I have more plays in Pittsburg, California, than Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” says Dawn, who has nearly 50,000 views on his latest single on Soundcloud.

To artists, Pittsburgh seems like a wall, holding them back from fame and fortune. It looked as if that wall might be coming down for good when Wiz and Mac blew up. But though they launched record labels and signed a few Pittsburgh artists, it wasn’t enough.

Listen to Ray Dawn's "On My Own"

Listen to Jasiri X's "The Babies"

The producers never came. The record labels looked elsewhere, so more artists never popped.

“When Wiz went and when Mac went, we kind of thought that, ‘OK, the floodgates are going to open and other people would go,’” Jasiri says. “When they didn't, it was kind of like, ‘what happened?’”

“But to me, they were like blockers. They came up and made a hole, now it’s up to me to run through that bad boy.”

Local producers and rap fans say there are several Pittsburgh rappers poised to run through that hole.

And they could do so behind a style of hip-hop much different than the city’s used to.


Listen to Mac Miller's "Bde Bonus"


Listen to Wiz Khalifa's "Prequel"


Listen to Ray Dawn's "On My Own"


Listen to Jasiri's "The Babies"


From the streets to the suburbs

The first time a song of Hardo’s blew up on the internet, he was in jail.

It was 2011, and the then-19-year-old rapper from Wilkinsburg was in on drug charges. It wouldn’t be his first or last time locked up, but it was the first time he knew hip-hop could be a way out of a life of crime.

For Jimmy Wopo it wasn’t until he was shot — for the second time — that he realized how much music could be an outlet for his emotions, and a way to escape.

Lake Fong, Stephanie Strasburg/Post-Gazette


Listen to Hardo's "Trapnfever"


Listen to Jimmy Wopo's "Elm Street"


Listen to The Come Up's "Shinin'"


Listen to Norman Dean's "Dial Tone"

The two street rappers are on their way up. Their mixtape together, titled “Trapnese,” has amassed more than 2 million views on Spotify, and that’s not counting the tape’s single, “Today’s A Good Day” featuring Wiz Khalifa, that has about 4.2 million itself. Wopo’s song “Elm Street” was featured as one of Complex’s “10 Dope New Songs You Should Be Hearing Everywhere Soon,” and Hardo has received praise from stars like Mac and T.I.

Listen to Hardo's "Trapnfever"

Listen to Jimmy Wopo's "Elm Street"

Their music is considered trap rap, a style of hip-hop that’s as bass-heavy as it is raw and unfiltered. It bounces in the club but also drives home a message. And for a city that has a rich history of jazz music, it’s an abrupt change in style. Most lyricists who have broken out of Pittsburgh in the last two decades, including Mac and Wiz, made music heavily influenced by jazz, with an ear for rhythm over noise — or, as Franchise from local rap group The Come-Up describes it, “rapping street music, but rapping it over horns.”

Hardo (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

To rappers like Hardo and Wopo, trap is about their own lived experiences, but the style is often criticized for glorifying drugs, guns and crime. It’s that stigma, Wopo believes, that has prevented him from booking shows in the city easily. That could be why there’s a disclaimer before one of his recent music videos, “All Guns are Props.”

There’s no doubt, though, that trap is what’s hot. What was once a niche musical movement in Atlanta is now an undeniable wave in popular culture, with artists like the Migos, Future, 21 Savage and Lil Yachty flooding the pop music charts.

Listen to The Come Up's "Shinin'"

Listen to Norman Dean's "Dial Tone"

“It’s not just people from the streets listening,” says Pittsburgh artist and producer Norman Dean. “You got suburban kids listening to trap music more than they listen to anything else. That's what it’s become these days. It’s spread like wildfire, from the streets to the suburbs.”

Not everyone is riding the trap wave. PK Delay and Joel Kellem, both 22, take pride in sounding different — “The music that’s popular right now isn’t the sh*t we make,” Kellem says. “Because the sh*t we make is hard and wavy.” It’s not uncommon for artists to be a bit territorial in Pittsburgh; though trap is popping, hip-hop here is still a mesh of subgenres lacking a cohesive sound.

Joel Kellem and PK Delay (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)


Listen to Joel Kellem's "My Dad's Benz"


Listen to PK Delay's "Gloves"

Listen to Joel Kellem's "My Dad's Benz"

Listen to PK Delay's "Gloves"

So there are a lot of lanes. And those lanes are getting more crowded. Hip-hop connoisseurs say there are more rappers on the local scene than ever, thanks in part to the immediate platform aspiring artists are given on social media and the popularity of hip-hop nationally. Dean, who has seen about 300 aspiring rappers come through his South Side studio in the past three years, says nearly everyone wants to try their hand at rapping, but he can count the number of potential breakout stars in Pittsburgh on one hand. That’s a question that everyone on the scene mulls: Who is next to pop?

Local producers say the potential breakout stars here — Wopo, Hardo, PK and Joel, Flatline Nizzy, Trula Moses, Trula Meez, Dean, Choo Jackson, Palermo Stone, The Come Up Boys, Devin Miles, Chevy Woods, Mars Jackson — have the talent. They just need some help from their city. They need venue owners to open their doors for more hip-hop shows, and they need fans to come and buy merchandise. They need artists and DJs to bring local acts with them when they tour the country, like Pittsburgh's DJ Afterthought did on all 47 dates of his last tour with Houston rapper Riff Raff. They need Soundcloud and Spotify plays from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and not Pittsburg, California.

“The lane is wide open for someone to blow,” says Nigel McDaniel, host of WAMO 100’s “Local Music Monday.” “We can't be like crabs in a barrel, we have to broaden our horizons and can't be too narrow-minded when we see someone bubble up.”


The sub-culture

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Listen to Palermo Stone's "Whiplash"


Listen to Chevy Woods's "Losing It All"

It’s about 9 o’clock on a cold, rainy Friday night, and most of the Pittsburgh hip-hop scene is flooding into the basement of Cattivo, a divey concert venue and bar tucked away on a side street in Lawrenceville.

The space looks more like a local rap red carpet than a Choo Jackson show, with more hip-hop personalities on the floor than actual fans.

But tonight, they’re all fans. They’re all part of the scene, and though it has an uncertain future, it brought them together for at least a couple of more hours of music.

On the stage, Sabatasso spins an opening DJ set under his stage name, DJ Spillz. Between smash trap hits, he plays Wopo’s “Elm Street” — a show of respect to a rapper quite different from those in his artist collective, Rare Nation. It’s a simple but powerful display of unity for a scene struggling to find its moment.

Listen to Palermo Stone's "Whiplash"

It’s easy to be worried about the future of rap here, especially when artists feel as though they don’t have anyone looking out for them. But almost everyone on the scene speaks of this camaraderie, of unity between artistic creators, as a saving grace and a reason to be optimistic. The Pittsburgh scene isn’t divided. Jasiri, whose music is laden with political and social messages, says he’s open to working with Hardo and Wopo. And Hardo welcomes that collaboration; “We haven't crossed paths yet, but we got forever, right?”

It’s a community where multiple styles of hip-hop can thrive, and even collaborate.

“People in the Hill, the people I know from McKeesport, Duquesne and Braddock — they're all in the same spot,” Sabatasso says. “You'd normally never catch those neighborhoods together unless you're there for a common reason, and that’s music.”

DJ Spillz (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

As Sabatasso powers through a 90-minute set, an unassuming character walks into the room and navigates to the bar in the back. It’s Thomas Agnew, founder of the Pittsburgh-based JENESIS Magazine and co-founder of Boom Concepts, a performance space along the arts corridor on Penn Avenue in Garfield. Several artists and personalities see Agnew’s ventures as another reason to look excitedly toward the future; his magazine has been covering urban arts and culture since 2007, and his performance space, which opened in 2014, is on its way to becoming the city’s unofficial hip-hop hub.

Agnew won’t go as far as saying he wants Boom to be the next Shadow Lounge — “it’s a workspace” for artists of all types to create freely, he says — but the way he describes it is very reminiscent.

Listen to Chevy Woods' "Losing It All"

“When you come here, it’s a bigger process than having a place to perform. It’s being able to have that mentorship and being able to talk to somebody, and learn how to build a strategy,” Agnew says. “At Boom, [artists] are able to shine up their performance and actually get their music out to the people.”

Boom is just one pillar of the underground infrastructure that supports the hip-hop scene here. Hybrid clothing boutiques like Time Bomb and Daily Bread, which also holds performances, are as much a part of local rap culture as the artists. There’s Social Status on Liberty, where Wopo can be seen handing over a stack of $20 bills to owner James Whitner in his “What U Know” video.

The shops are home to the latest in urban style trends, and their clothes pop up at almost every hip-hop event in the city, at the venues that hold rap shows frequently like Cattivo, Spirit Hall, and Rex Theater and Devils and Dolls in South Side. Mr. Smalls Theatre will host the most anticipated rap show of the spring when Wopo headlines the Millvale venue on April 15.

At this Cattivo event, another familiar presence is backstage preparing for a set of his own.

Christo, a 25-year-old DJ and producer from Homewood, is about two months away from going on the road with Atlanta rapper J.I.D, on J. Cole’s big “4 Your Eyez Only World Tour.”

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette


Listen to Choo Jackson's "Wishing Well" (prod. by Christo)

Agnew says Christo will be the next big artist to break out of Pittsburgh, and that’s what the young producer wants to do.

“Pittsburgh is definitely not a producer’s dream city. A producer would like to have the hustle and bustle and fast pace of a New York or an Atlanta,” Christo says. “That’s why they say that all the time, ‘move, get out of here’ ... But having up-and-coming artists I can build a sound with myself, it made me use Pittsburgh to my favor.”

1Hood Media, from left: Paradise Gray, Baiyinah Brookins, M.A.N.-E., Jacquea Mae, DJ QRX, Jasiri X, LiveFromthe7ity, Idasa Tariq, Ayana Sade, Julian Butler, Gene Muhammad, A-King. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)

To Christo, Pittsburgh is small enough to allow him to connect with practically any artist he wants. Tonight he’s doing a set with Choo Jackson, another rapper who gets props for having superstar potential. Christo likes to work with artists he calls “psychos,” an assessment that Choo would agree with. “I don’t want to be in a box. I was put here to be the weirdo, and I’m totally fine with that,” he said at his home in Highland Park weeks earlier.

Listen to Choo Jackson's "Wishing Well" (prod. by Christo)

That’s why the show tonight is called “Sub-Culture,” which could define Pittsburgh hip-hop as a whole. It’s a scene sustained by hard work, small spaces and late nights in the studio. It’s the 11 p.m. weeknight recording sessions through the unmarked double doors of ID Labs in Etna, where Kyle Edwards is hunched over a mixing board and computer. It’s the excitement rappers have when their songs are tweeted out by The Daily Loud, the wildly popular hip-hop outlet run by 26-year-old Squirrel Hill native and Wopo manager Taylor Maglin. It’s the allure of seeing an artist like Wopo, who could be a superstar soon, walk the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh on a weekday afternoon.

And it’s the sight of Jasiri, hip-hop legend Paradise Gray and the rest of 1Hood Media brave a snow flurry in East Liberty to talk about what hip-hop means to the community.


Tell us your story through rap

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is inviting anyone 16 and over to write a rap for its first-ever Pittsburgh hip-hop showcase. All you have to do is send us a rap during the month of April that answers the question,“What is it like living in Pittsburgh?” Your verses could be chosen for a special presentation on

Click here to learn more

  • Reporting
  • Julian Routh
  • Design/Development
  • Ben Howard
  • Development
  • Laura Schneiderman
  • Additional Credits
  • Editing: Lillian Thomas
    Intro & Outro videos: Steve Mellon
    Artwork: Daniel Marsula
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