Five mixtapes from the Philly hip hop scene you need to hear right now

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Yikes the Zero: a Philly hip hop artist to watch
Yikes the Zero | Photo by Dom Savini | DomSavini.com

A couple weeks ago, I was trading Twitter messages with King Shampz, a Philly rapper on the come-up, and he said something that really struck me. “I’m trying to show people that there’s more to this city than Meek Mill.” With all due respect to Meek and everything he’s done in drawing outside eyes to the Philly hop hop scene, there are so many talented MCs on the grind and so few who get to the level of recognition as him. Or, say, the level of The Roots – though it should be noted, even they took 15 years to reach celebrity status. It can be a tough road, but the Philly hip hop community is a hotbed of talent, and people should sit up and listen, even when they’re not names you’ll recognize. (Especially when they’re not names you’ll recognize.) Here’s a rundown of five releases / Bandcamp EPs / mixtapes from the Philadelphia scene that impressed me this summer, and why you should lend them your ears.

1. Yikes the Zero – Yikey the Giant Slayer - I first heard of Yikes as a collaborator on Lushlife’s ambitious Toynbee Suite, so I already had a sense he was an outside-the-box sort of MC. But even with that expectation of the unexpected, there’s still not a lot out there that’s quite like Yikey the Giant Slayer, his latest release on Bandcamp. The beats are chilling, Yikes’ delivery is fierce, and the music is a total psychedelic trip. “Sir Tomahawk Duncan” has backwards loops of instruments and synthesizers blended with old movie clips; meanwhile, his verses and are free-form and poetic. This seems to be his trademark, using his rhymes to explore random and far-out ideas, but always returning to themes of struggle and perseverance, doing what you’ve got to do to get by. “He knows just how to survive / He can switch like his birth name was Jekyll and Hyde,” Yikes raps on “Say Something.” On one level, he reminds me of art-minded abstract rap progenitors like Dälek; on the other hand, his balance of weird and accessible is pure Yeezus.

2. King Shampz – All Hail the King - A definite contrast to the trippy rap of Yikes is the grittiness of King Shampz, but that just goes to show how much the city has going on. All Hail the King reminds me in a way of early Dr. Dre in its very smooth and suave production by Azzan. You’ll hear tasty horn samples on “Comin’ At Cha,” a jazzy piano on “Homicide,” swinging guitar licks on the single “Gotham.” Musically, it’s very accessible, but lyrically, it hits hard and doesn’t flinch – another Dre parallel. It describes rough neighborhoods and scary nights when danger is never far and survival become a matter less of philosophy and more of necessity. “I’m not bragging, I’m just paraphrasing” Shampz raps during a particularly intense bar. The vividness of his descriptions is what makes this mixtape so compelling – there’s blood and gore galore, but even at its most brutal, it doesn’t feel like total glorification, but rather that the MC is painting a picture that for some is all too true-to-life.

3. Sugar Tongue Slim – We Can Talk Politics and World Affairs - I’d already been keeping my eye on Sugar Tongue Slim (S.T.S.) as an MC to watch after hearing his collaborative tracks with Philly producer / musician Khari Mateen (particularly their track “White”) and being further drawn in by his weekly “In The Lab” series that’s been rolling out this summer. But the We Can Talk Politics and World Affairs EP, released last month, takes all that stuff and blows it out of the water. Another collabo with Mateen, this is Slim doing more or less what the title promises – dispensing with the party jams (for the most part, anyway) and just dishing real talk about real issues. “Hell Wrong” dissects racial profiling in the retail world; “Why Can’t I Say It” lays out why it’s simply not cool for white rap fans to use the N-word, even if they think it’s in the spirit of solidarity and camaraderie. “Questions” is amazing; with a heavy rock underbelly reminiscent of Saul Williams’ work with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, this song is Slim’s fist-pumping manifesto: “What good is a prison if it does not reform / what good is revolution, n–’s scared to join / what good are the polar caps if it gets to warm / what good is our freedom if it’s just to conform / what good is a rebel if he ain’t got no call / what good is a stripper, she don’t come out her draws / what good is religion if it causes division / naw, question it all, question it all.” Unbelievable.

4. Reek Da Rookie – F.a.n.T.a.s.Y. - On the more sensitive side of the Philly rap game is Reek Da Rookie, who has been doing production for Tiani Victoria and Chill Moody for a couple years now. He started leaking his own tracks last fall, and this summer wrapped them together in his debut mixtape, F.a.n.T.a.s.y. The same way that Lauryn Hill’s classic Mis-education meditated on love (you know, “I treat this like my thesis / a well-written topic broken down into pieces”), Reek’s debut explores the idea of dreams. That’s both dreams as goals, and the way dreams clash with reality; its no accident that you hear a piercing alarm clock buzz at various points on the album. Topics range from playful (“Race Car,” featuring the soaring vocals of Astronauts Really Fly’s Andrew Meoray) to poignant. Over a beautiful church organ and a hard-hitting beat on “Cloud 9,” Reek describes this intersection, talking about a family member doing a prison stint who’s never met his daughter. “The kids got it hard in the ghetto / but this is theme music for the stars of the ghetto / who know nothing about astrology / they’re all young kings and queens, angels and prodigies.” Perseverance seems to be a running theme among all these mixtapes I’m highlighting, and Reek approaches it with a purpose – making the world a better place.

5. Tanch – Green Light Captain - Picture the intensity I talked about earlier with King Shampz, those unflinching verses and hard-hitting descriptions, but take away the smooth horns, accessible beats and jazzy backdrops. That’s Tanch: he’s an MC that talks about difficult topics, and he doesn’t always use the music to make it go down easier. A lot of the tracks incorporate trap stylings – the sweeping soundtrack orchestra and tolling bell on “Did It For My Dawgs,” the eerie synthesizer and skittering drum loops on “Intro” – and Tanch’s chanted entrance on that opening track is both intimidating and stunning, establishing him as a vocal force to be reckoned with. But that’s not to say Green Light Captain is aggression for aggression’s sake. There are musically poppy moments, like the sample of Jay-Z’s “Dead Presidents” on “She Riding With Me.” And like Shampz, Tanch spins heavy stories but does it with a conscience: “Gotta hold it down cause my kid is what I’m livin’ for / had to make a stretch, that the reason that I hit it for / mom wants that house on the hill, I’m tryana get it for her.” The standout hits at mid-record, “If You Wanna,” and it’s all about motivation: “you can make it if you wanna make it, you can fake it if you wanna fake it / but if you take it than you gotta make it / this is a real life situation.”

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