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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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)
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.”
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