An outsider looking in on Pittsburgh's hip-hop music scene today would find it bursting at the seams, poised to blast through Pennsylvania's borders to engulf an industry thirsty for new talent. But insiders know recent successes are partially the result of an uphill, seemingly Sisyphean struggle by local artists over the past 20 years to reach the top of the genre. Rather than splitting for easy deals in cities with established hip-hop scenes like New York and Atlanta, Pittsburgh artists and producers dug their roots deeply into home soil, fine-tuning works from upstart studios and emerging artists since the early '90s. The streets, the Internet and stores such as Time Bomb Clothing in East Liberty served as distributors for mix tapes churned out by artists from ID Labs studio in Lawrenceville, Ya Momz House studio in East Liberty and others.
Homegrown communities of musicians are common. Every city has a golden era when it seemed that the scene there could go national. Inevitably, the top talent either shifts gears or moves to a bigger, more established market (e.g. Nashville). A band or two makes it big, somewhere else.
The tipping point for a music scene is the arrival of talent from out of town. That's why the following article caught my eye and reminded me about the Post-Gazette piece:
If you head into the cafeteria or to the courtyard at J.H. Rose High School around lunchtime, you're likely to find yourself in the midst of a beat battle.That's where local up-and-comers Young Lion and Y.L.S. Crew got their start as public performers. In fact, the future of local hip-hop most often begins in the hallways and grounds of local high schools.The members of Y.L.S., for example, (K-Check, Drizzle, Butter and Detonator) met through these freestyling moments three years ago, but didn't think they'd form a group at the time.“I knew Det because he was on my basketball team and he told me he was making beats and producing,” K-Check, 18, said. “Det introduced us to Butter.”“We didn't really approve of him too much,” he added, with a laugh.“He was different,” said Drizzle, 19. “When I met K-Check, I was just coming in from Atlanta. We were freestyling in the cafeteria. That was the first time I heard somebody that young with a mind like that. I instantly felt like that's someone I need to be around.” ...... Out of high school, the aspiring musicians have been thrown into a different world. Drizzle is enrolled at Pitt Community College to study business administration and computer engineering, while K-Check's at PCC majoring in computer science. Young Lion is moving to Pittsburgh to attend college this January and start a fusion band with “a white kid and an Asian kid,” but he fully intends on keeping his name relevant in J.H. Rose, other area high schools and colleges.The Y.L.S. crew also has begun branching out, starting with the soon-to-be-announced East Coast Music Fest that they're organizing, which they plan to hold on the Town Common this fall.“We understand we face unbelievable odds,” Drizzle said. “My parents separated, his parents separated; we're black males living in Greenville, North Carolina; we're a group; we started out at 15, 16; I mean, when you factor in all those different things, there has never been a group of black males that ever made it from Greenville, North Carolina.”
Sure, Young Lion is moving to Pittsburgh for college. Just the same, he will be part of the music scene. I'd love to know how he decided on Pittsburgh for school. Greenville is a long way from Pittsburgh in more ways than just distance. I would have expected Young Lion to attend university in Atlanta.
Call it a hunch. Pittsburgh is getting onto the mental maps of outsiders as a cultural destination. Hip-hop talent from Greenville moving to Pittsburgh instead of Atlanta is surprising. I see a tipping point.