“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. Along with Freeway, Peedi Crakk, Oschino and Omillo Sparks, Chris was in Beanie Sigel’s State Property collective—the East Coast’s answer to gangster-rap squad NWA and, hyperbole aside, one of the best rap groups to ever pick up microphones.
State Property suffered when Roc-A-Fella fell apart. They stepped directly off the block and into private jets overnight—tours, albums, videos, a clothing line, films, big pay backs. Then, when Jay and partner Damon Dash went separate ways in the mid-2000s, it all disappeared.
“When you chop the head, the body falls,” Chris says about the break. “The bosses stopped talking, and there was nothing we could do. We just the workers, so we stayed workin’.”
In many ways, State Property illuminates the big changes hip-hop underwent in the last decade. In Empire State Of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office, Forbes writer Zach Greenburg argues that Jay’s ascendance demanded he abandon his thug image—State Property’s frequent jail trips were bad for business. Kanye West became Jay’s new sidekick, because being mean to Taylor Swift is more marketable than Beanie’s felonies and misdemeanors. Hip-hop had to, as the song on Jay’s The Black Album states, “Change Clothes.”
There was also an increased skepticism toward the major label system. Artists like Chris were promised the world, but then fucked over by label execs who only cared about making millions. Many rappers went to indies, and others initiated the mixtape revival when the Internet provided a space for unsigned artists to build buzz by freely distributing their music. While Jay the businessman (uh, the “business, man”) gave rap a corporate makeover, unsigned rappers like Chris started doing it themselves in the underground.
After the fallout, State Property members scattered like rap Ronin—masterless warriors with no major label support, but many enemies. There was bad blood with Jay. Beanie and Peedi kicked off a beef with their old boss that still gets heads fired up, but Chris sought a more reasonable middle course. In 2007, he released a mixtape called The Newprint (named after Jay’s The Blueprint), where he spits over productions made famous by Jay.
“I was paying homage to a living legend,” Chris says. But Newprint’s definitely a critical homage. On “Big Brother,” Chris celebrates his “mentor” and offers forgiveness, but having followed Jay’s advice and continuously hustled, he seems to be asking, “You promised me a shot, now where the fuck is it?”
Newprint also exacerbated an ongoing debate about whether Chris jacks Jay’s mic flow, or if Jay stole Chris’. They do have a similar approach, but determining who invented it is a question best left to metaphysicians. More obvious is the difference between them: Jay lacks Chris’ hunger. While Jay’s biggest concern nowadays is where to hang his Picassos, Chris maintains his street swagger and rugged determination—rapping’s the only solution for his growling belly.
Newprint’s only one of about a dozen mixtapes Chris has independently released over the last eight years. The Revival (2011) was a powerful album showing Chris successfully merging the corner-grit of Killadelphia and the good-time bliss of L.I.F.E. (Ladies In Free Everywhere). He also spit a verse on Meek Mill’s chart-climbing “House Party,” another tune that let his compelling street-radio synthesis shine bright.
“Labels don’t give a shit about you unless you’re generating money,” Chris says, reflecting on the lessons he’s learned after more than a decade in the game. “If I’m not a priority, I don’t wanna be there. I’ve been grinding the past eight years alone. No label.
“I do this shit everyday,” he continues. “It’s not a job, it’s my life. The minute you lose the love, and do it just for the check, that’s when shit get tough. You gotta love it. Even if I never made another penny off it, I’d still rap. I can’t stop.”
Chris has recently connected with Rico Love’s Division 1 imprint, which is planning an official release in 2012. There’s also talk of a proper State Property reunion. Beanie, Freeway and Young Gunz hit the stage together at 2011’s Roots Picnic, and they collectively flexed on a track from Freeway’s recent The Intermission mixtape, but they haven’t converged for a full studio album since 2003.
“State Property got records in the trunk, deals on the table,” says Chris. “Some big shit’s about to happen—a record, a movie, State Property everything.”
“We definitely comin’ to take our spot back,” says Beanie Sigel, snatching the phone from Chris. “We took a little break and shit, now it’s time for us to get back in the dojo. The rap game missin’ us right now. They need us. There’s a void and we gonna fill it. We gonna come independent and we gonna come hard.”
Despite all the industry shakeups and false starts, Chris remains confident, and his raps ruthless. Like a Machiavellian prince, his eyes are always searching for an opportunity to attack.
“I still ain’t got my one shot, but I’m gonna work until I get it,” says Chris. “I never stop. I think I’m right there, but then there’s another obstacle. I was built for this shit, so that shit gonna come. It’s around the corner. Right down the street. I can see it.”
Follow Young Chris on Twitter @YoungChris
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.
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.”
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.
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.
PW's Music Issue 2013