Books are mostly how he makes his living, but the heart of Bookman’s street vendor operation, located just outside 52nd Street Station at 52nd and Market, is hip-hop. Most days, he’s bumpin’ beats from his tabletop rig—a CD player and speakers powered by a car battery. And those in the know know Bookman’s the man when it comes to getting your hands on the latest, greatest mixtape to hit the streets. Albums are nice, but underground mixtapes (they’re CDs, but the classic nomenclature sticks) have been the life-blood of hip-hop for ages. With mixtapes, established rappers who use them as promotional tools—like Lil Wayne, who seems to put out about 97 of them every year—cannot only stay hot and relevant between “official” releases, but they can get as real, experimental or controversial as they wanna be, and collaborate with whomever they want, all free from the shackles of record companies. More often than not, their mixtapes are way better, and more popular, than their albums.
Meanwhile, for local up-and-comers, mixtapes are like a hip-hop farm system in which rappers can show off their skills in hopes of building street buzz and eventually making it to the big leagues. Like Philly’s Meek Mill, who blew up and got signed by hip-hop heavyweight Rick Ross largely on the strength of his underground smash Flamerz mixtape series.
But they all need to tap into the mixtape distribution network—guys on the street like Bookman, who grew up in New York City but has lived in West Philly for a decade—because moving product out of the trunk of your car is a relic of hip-hop’s past. Bookman’s only too happy to take on that crucial role: Books are his primary business but music is his life. In his spare time he produces tracks under the name We Make Original Beats, and from his corner at 52nd and Market, where he’s considered a tastemaker, he’s helped build the careers of Meek Mill, Young Chris and others (and make a side profit for himself) by playing and selling their mixtapes for a few bucks.
“People walking up and down the strip, people gettin’ off the train, we’re the first thing you see and hear,” says Bookman. “We’re kind of like the pacesetters. People stop their cars and yell out sometimes ’cause they heard something we was playing.”
Rappers and DJs hit up Bookman all the time with their mixtapes, sometimes cutting consignment deals or just giving him a stack of discs to move, because they know the impact it can have.
“You can get real successful in Philly as an underground mixtape artist if you’re good,” says Bookman. “People in Philly love Philly. They about their teams, they about their music, they really about that underground hip-hop. If your mixtape gets big here, it’s a real thing. It’s not no commercial propaganda behind it. You can’t convince people out here to like something if they don’t like it. If they like it, it’s on. They make who’s good big.”
What’s hot on the streets right now? Bookman says it’s North Philly DJ Choc’s We Winning series, and rappers Joey Jihad, AR AB and Santos. Bookman says trap beats—the mid-tempo Dirty South style with the crisp snares and thick orchestral synths—are still popular, though he doesn’t like it, or play it, much. “Not that soulful,” Bookman says.
Bookman’s also dealing with a different kind of heat right now. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been snooping around, and with the help of the PPD they’ve been shutting down, sometimes arresting, other mixtape vendors around the city. The record industry doesn’t get a cut from the mixtape industry, but mixtapes—which often outsell proper albums—frequently contain partial or full cuts from mainstream albums alongside original productions. And a lot of rappers illegally grab beats from popular songs (Jay-Z & Kanye’s “Ni**as in Paris” is big at the moment) to freestyle over on their mixtapes; one hot Santos track uses Lil Wayne’s “Banned From TV” beat.
“That’s just the hip-hop version of the cover song,” says Bookman.
The artists manage to get away with it because they typically give the mixtapes away for free as “promotional only” items. And often, since a rapper’s mixtapes can still generate interest in their major label releases, the RIAA usually doesn’t go after the artists themselves. The street vendors who do the actual distributing that the industry needs, for a small profit? That’s a different story.
Bookman keeps his discs off the red tablecloths and in nearby plastic bins, and you gotta know what’s up to get your hands on what you want. “I’m legit—I’m not trying to hide it, and I’m cool with talking to you about it,” says Bookman, “but if I have a whole bunch of CDs on the table that’s just bait, whether it’s independent or not. They arrest you first and ask questions later, and I don’t wanna sit in jail for no amount of time.”
Still, Bookman’s been out here doing his thing for five years. He has a business license, a vendor’s license and pays taxes. He says the cops themselves—“the blue shirts and the white shirts”—have been buying mixtapes from him for years. He doesn’t think he’s going anywhere, “but you never know,” he says.
“Philly hip-hop needs someone like me, the people need someone like me to help them hear this music,” he says. “Music has a lot to do with the spirit of the people. People are not going to the record stores but they always want new music, so if I’m gone, then some type of emptiness is gonna be in us all.”
Who’s hot in Philly hip-hop right now? That’s the perilous question we asked ourselves at the beginning of a long journey. It’s impossible to answer. Or, more to the point, impossible to answer succinctly. The list is lonnnnnng. So we’ve broken it down.
“Jahlil Beats. Holla at me!” If you didn’t hear those words kick off a song last year, you didn’t listen to rap music. There was no escaping it—the club, the car, the street—especially in Philadelphia.
“People always ask why I ain’t got a girlfriend,” says Young Chris during a break from working in a Northern Liberties studio. “I tell ’em, ‘Yo, rap’s my girlfriend.’” The North Philly-born rapper’s been devoted to the game since the early 2000s, when his Young Gunz duo with MC Neef Buck was signed by Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, and their first single, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” was nominated for a Grammy in 2003.
Perhaps change will come this year, as several female rappers are gaining momentum. Harlemite Azealia Banks’ “212” displays the 20-year old’s impressive range and skill, and White Girl Mob leader Kreayshawn definitely has more than the “Gucci Gucci” meme hidden up the sleeve of her baggy Fred Flintstone jacket. Will these ladies threaten Nicki Minaj’s queen-status in 2012? Maybe. The only thing that could hold ’em back are the dick-centric rap fans and critics who guard the gates.
In hip-hop, many of today’s rappers are putting out three or four or 40 releases a year. They’re shooting and editing their own videos. They’re their own publicity firm. They’re booking their own shows. They’re working smarter and harder than ever before, and doing it independently. And perhaps no Philly hip-hop act exemplifies this DIY spirit more than young upstarts Ground Up. They’re their own insulated, independent music universe.
The Internet exploded at the close of 2011 with rumors that Planets were uniting for a new studio album. While talks are underway, nothing’s confirmed. “I’m down, no doubt,” says Irving about another reunion. “Planets was the best time of my life, but a gift and a curse. As a musician, I wanna spread my wings and not always be stuck as ‘that Digable Planets dude.’ I wanna try new things and experiment.”
Time for a big Bang breakthrough?