The average rappers might not define themselves in terms of East or West anymore, but there’s still a healthy sense of location in the music.
The DIY spirit of rap — perhaps the strongest of any form of music — means that virtually anyone, anywhere can pick up a mic, acquire even the most basic understanding of drum machines or mixing software and become, almost overnight, a rapper.
The results are well documented. New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston — all have nurtured wildly fertile rap cultures, ones that over time found themselves spreading to the nation at large. Each city has its own unique take, its own sound, its own attitude. The intermingling of all of these subgenres into a single, nationwide conversation raises the artform as a whole, and we’re all better off for it.
Now, a word of caution: just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. The low entry cost for rap combines poorly with the tendency toward overconfidence in budding rappers, and the consequences can be dire. The United States’ smaller markets — far from the metropolises that spawned rap’s greats — often find themselves mired in rap mediocrity.
Perhaps that’s unfair, though. There might be plenty good reasons that the Oklahoma rap scene hasn’t exactly exploded, but it’s hard to make that generalization everywhere. Some states and regions are stuck, for better or for worse, in the pull of the nearest of rap’s many poles.
It would be hard, for instance, for a kid in Connecticut or New Jersey, coming up in the shadow of New York City, to not to show a lot of deference to Biggie and Jay Z. Similarly, few aspiring rappers in the South can admit to owing nothing to Outkast.
Outside of those poles, rap can be wonderfully idiosyncratic and even weird. It can also be square and traditionalist, gritty and dangerous or just plain boring. All are reflections of their location, the rapper’s origin and countless other factors.
The variety makes exploring the United States’ many iterations kind of exciting. For simplicity’s sake, here are the stories of the top rappers from all 50 states in the Union, presented to you in alphabetical order.