The Return of the “Boom-Bap” Sound in Philadelphia

Buddy Leezle

Buddy Leezle by Caitlyn Kennedy

New York is commonly considered to be the birthplace of hip-hop music and culture. What’s not often discussed is the role nearby cities also played in the genre development: Englewood, New Jersey was the home of both Sugar Hill Records and the Sugar Hill Gang; Lady B, from Philadelphia, was one of the first female rappers to release a single (her “To the Beat Y’All” appeared in 1979). Gangsta rap also has roots in Philadelphia: Schoolly D’s “P.S.K. What Does It Mean?,” released in 1985, is often credited with birthing the genre.

In fact, Philadelphia has been the home of some of hip-hop’s most successful and influential acts of all time. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, The Roots, Eve, Meek Mill, and Lil Uzi Vert all hail from the city—evidence of the range and diversity of acts in the city. That broad sonic scope continues to this day: the sound of trap may rule the airwaves, but there is a contingent of artists in Philadelphia dedicated to keeping the sound of boom-bap hip-hop alive and well.

There are two distinct groups responsible for this renaissance: The Wrecking Crew (Zilla Rocca, Curly Castro, Small Professor, and Prem Rock) and a loose association of like-minded individuals connected to one another by Philly transplant Buddy Leezle. Those acts include Dart Unit (Ralphiie Reese, Vinny Vindetta, and Vic Earth), Da Buze Bruvaz (Clever 1 and Him-Lo), and Sadhugold.

On Zilla Rocca’s “Make The Sickness, Sell The Cure,” he raps: “I used to rap on pay phones, the city was a mess / Record stores were everywhere, my hip-hop is dead / Nobody could make a beat, we used to trade cassettes / Studios were magical, my hip-hop is dead… I worshipped Biggie Smalls and I bit Inspectah Deck / Rap City, VHS, my hip-hop is dead.”

In the song, Zilla acknowledges the music is still alive, it just sounds a bit different from the version he was raised on. Which makes it all the more apt that Zilla and his crew are among those responsible for reviving the boom-bap sound in Philadelphia. Here are seven other rappers who, along with Zilla, are doing the same thing.

Ralphiie Reese
Bladesylvania

Ralphiie Reese

Ralphiie may be one of the newest MCs on the Philly scene, but he’s quickly established himself as a strong presence. It would be easy to call this rapper/producer the ideological offspring of the Wu-Tang Clan—Nation of Islam values and an affinity for comics and martial arts flicks did not start with the Staten Island crew—but Reese will be the first to admit that he is carrying the baton for The Clan’s style and feel. He is a proud Five Percenter who espouses the tenets of Supreme Mathematics and the Supreme Alphabet with every verse. Moreover, he has adopted the Wu’s penchant for aliases and taken it to a new level, developing new characters with each project, like the black samurai Takeda Ahki, Stylebolgia the demon of rhyme, or the Ziggy Stardust-inspired Arrow Bowie. He brought all eight of his distinct personas together for his upcoming release Bladesylvania. To go down the Ralphiie Reese rabbit hole is to be transported to a different world.

Vinny Vindetta
Marvolo

If Ralphiie is the Dart Unit’s terror general, Vinny is the squad’s high priest. He’s been rhyming since grade school, and his esoteric bars are proof of his training. “I was what they call a ‘gator’ in my city,” he says. “The Gator Pit is a place top-level freestylers go to test they skills against other top-level MCs. It’s like a hood cipher in undisclosed locations. I was just 11 [years old] battling grown men—and winning!” Vin and Reese are a-alikes (hip-hop slang for “kindred spirit”), so it should come as no surprise that Vin also has a fondness for concept albums. His most recent effort is Marvolo, named for Thomas Marvolo Riddle (Lord Voldemort, for the uninitiated). Accordingly, the album is heavy on both Harry Potter samples and lyrical sorcery.

Da Buze Bruvaz
OJ Glovez w/ Giallo Point

The Lo-Lifes started as a boosting gang in 80s New York City, but in 2019 they’re a worldwide crew who collect Polo clothes and also boast formidable hip-hop skills. While founders Thirstin Howl III (aka Big Vic Lo) and Rack-Lo have been releasing music since the late ‘90s, a newer generation of Lo-Life rappers has appeared over the course of the last half-decade or so. Spit Gemz and Eff Yoo out of New York, and Da Buze Bruvaz (Him-Lo and Clever 1) out of Philly are among the most popular. Him-Lo and Clever have put out three group LPs since their 2017 debut Adebisi Hat, and each one has been chock-full of the kind of gritty East Coast boom-bap that many fans thought had gone extinct. What’s more, after working with U.K. producer Giallo Point on their Adebisi Hat and Drinkin’ Beer wit Prostitutez projects, they both started recording solo albums with the respected beatsmith. Him-Lo recently dropped OJ Glovez, and Clever’s Kiss Da Converse is on the way soon.

Buddy Leezle/Dwellers on the Threshold
Mobius Trip

Buddy Leezle (fka Buddy Leroy) is the linchpin that connects Dart Unit, Da Buze Bruvaz, and Sadhugold. He’s an underground vet who’s worked with all of the above, and is responsible for connecting them with one another. Although originally from Fayetteville, NC, he moved to Philly almost 10 years ago. He started his career as an MC in 2000 with the Broady Champs, a group founded by underground Philly sensation MarQ Spekt. The clique petered out in the mid ‘00s and, after some cross-country travels and a couple of collaborations, Buddy eventually moved to Spekt’s hometown. While he ultimately became a solo artist, he clearly thrives when working with other artists. His most recent offering is a new LP from his Twin Peaks tribute group Dwellers on the Threshold, Mobius Trip. As you might expect, this is left-field boom-bap with a Lynchian aesthetic, packed with references to (and samples from) Lost Highway, Blue Vevet, and more.

Sadhugold
SoulGLO

Most hip-hop heads will be familiar with beatminer Sadhugold. He’s already made notable contributions to albums by Westside Gunn, Mach-Hommy, Tha God Fahim, Estee Nack, and more. Nevertheless, many people don’t know that he’s from Philadelphia, or that he’s part of a local crew called Scary Hours with rappers Wiles Martyr, Atare Godspeed, Ol Head, and Q3. Sadhu’s loop-heavy production style is marked by a fondness for late ‘70s and early ‘80s soul. And his obsession with gold (both the metal and the color) makes him something of the King Midas of beatmaking. His 2017 album Dump Dynasty: Kung Fu Island and its instrumental counterpart DumpDawg Millionaire are considered classics among peers and critics alike. His latest release is SoulGLO, a project on which he leans hard into funky rhythm & blues.

Small Professor
86 Witness w/ Sean Price

Small Pro is another prodigious producer from The City of Sisterly Affection who boasts some pretty impressive credentials. In addition to working with a slew of the underground’s elite over the last 10 years, he’s also released projects with hip-hop deities Guilty Simpson and the late Sean Price on Coalmine Records. While the Sean P albums were recorded in 2015, 86 Witness just dropped this past February. Pro’s name is an ode to the legendary MPC grandmaster Large Professor, which should give you a good idea of how his music sounds. Small Pro has released scores of instrumental albums dating back to 2011, and also releases remixes as Floss Premolars—an anagram of Small Professor.

Zilla Rocca
Future Former Rapper

Zilla Rocca

Photo by Bob Sweeney

Zilla is the de facto leader of The Wrecking Crew. He considers DJ Jazzy Jeff a Philadelphia pioneer, saying, “Most people who touch that level of fame turn their backs on Philly, but Jeff never did.” That made an impression on Rocca; the producer/rapper works mostly with his home team, Small Professor and Curly Castro. His work with Billy Woodz and Elucid of Armand Hammer, Castle, and Open Mike Eagle have led some critics to label his music “art rap,” but his own music hews closer to traditional boom-bap. He refers to the style as “noir-hop,” and one listen to the pulpy sound of his latest album Future Former Rapper makes it plain why.

Curly Castro
TOSH

A self-proclaimed contrarian, Castro took a different path to MCing than many of his peers. While others were emulating colorful characters like Busta Rhymes and Mr. Cheeks, this dreadlocked rapper wanted to be an effective hype man, like Spliff Star and Freaky Tah. The idea of being the livest on stage may have been what attracted him to the music but, eventually, he started writing rhymes of his own. Soon, he was spitting the bars with the same high energy he had used to support others on stage. Like his Wrecking Crew cohort Zilla Rocca, his cerebral content takes a few listens to absorb, but once you have, the rewards are endless. On his newest album TOSH, Curly’s pro-black stance and Rastafarian convictions are coupled with experimental boom-bap and dub, for songs that are bracing and original.

-Jordan Commandeur

One Comment

  1. Posted April 27, 2019 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Still got love for the streets. Yo!

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