y the time the 1990’s rolled around, hip-hop’s foundation in Los Angeles—largely built by mobile DJ crews like Uncle Jam’s Army and various talented poppers and lockers—had fully transformed into a nationally recognized scene. It’s a style that lives on today through the work of Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples and Kid Ink, buoyed by a relentless drive to progress the genre through haunting lyrics and melody-laden production. If one thing is for sure, it’s that this new eye-opening sound could only have come out of the turmoil that engulfed LA’s toughest neighborhoods, attracting the attention of the world in the process.

Boosted by legendary hip-hop station 1580 KDAY, artists such as NWA, Ice Cube, Ice-T, DJ Quik, King Tee and CMW had gone from being local success stories to bonafide rap stars. Listening to the music itself was akin to watching a classic gangster flick. Contrary to the direction of contemporary rap, these emcees embraced the real life struggles of the hood that dominated LA’s streets. For better or worse, NWA, Quik, Ice-T and MC Eiht, among others, introduced LA’s tough and uncompromising culture to the world with vivid story-telling and an ear for killer hooks (techniques that would be re-visited on modern albums including Kendrick’s seminal Good Kid M.A.A.D. City).

Along with the shift in tone came a transition that would define West Coast rap for years to come: Ice Cube leaving NWA to go solo and Dr. Dre following suit a couple years later to form Death Row Records with Suge Knight. Cube would go on to release a string of projects that solidified him as one of the greatest to ever touch the microphone, while his former partner would release back-to-back classics in The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s debut Doggystyle. These two albums would reach far beyond the confines of southern California, exposing the LA story to audiences from NYC to Paris as never before.

Dr. Dre’s little brother Warren G also contributed in a big way: The Chronic’s synth-heavy vibe was expanded upon with a signature sound palette for the burgeoning LA scene, dubbed G-Funk. His debut—Regulate…G Funk Era—is widely credited as the project that saved a then-struggling Def Jam, while simultaneously boosting the national profile of the area’s go-to vocalist, Nate Dogg. Both artists would be instrumental in smoothing out the rougher edges of G-Funk for a more mainstream, R&B-centric market; one that has found dedicated contemporaries in singer-rappers such as Kid Ink, Frank Ocean and Miguel.

The melting pot mentality of the city also played a pivotal role in creating a tough-minded vibe in Los Angeles, with OG DJ’s, dancers and rappers hailing from all over. “Growing up in LA there’s a lot of cultures…different music, different food, different religions that makes you a more open-minded artist,” recalls Kid Ink, adding that, “the toughest thing about LA though, is staying out of the streets.” Having cut his teeth as a producer for the likes of Diddy and DJ Drama, the artist credited a local community center stocked with drum machines and equipment for giving him the confidence to build beats and eventually, rap and sing.

A crucial element of the Los Angeles story came out of the Latin quarter of the city, with Kid Frost becoming the first Chicano rapper to break out nationally with his debut Hispanic Causing Panic. Other Latin rappers like Mellow Man Ace and Lighter Shade of Brown would hit with popular singles, but it would take South Gate trio Cypress Hill to blast through the glass ceiling, becoming the first Latino hip-hop group to sell over a million albums.

As the scene’s profile grew across the country and the world, the LA lifestyle became not only marketed through music, but also on the average American’s television screen. Dark and stripped-down music videos, the Rodney King trial and subsequent 1992 rebellion, films such as Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society... each captured the sun-soaked, gritty visuals of South Central and Compton for the world to see, with new films including Dope and Straight Outta Compton continuing the 90s visual legacy today.

The high water mark in the 90s was when Death Row was at its peak in 1996, having signed LA transplant 2Pac and releasing the diamond-certified All Eyez On Me double album and 4 million seller Makaveli. After 2Pac was killed though, LA hit a valley in terms of commercial rap success. Despite critically acclaimed (and dope) music from Ras Kass, Tha Liks, Kurupt and WC to name a few, it would take another release from Dr. Dre to bring the ball back to the city. 2001 (released in 1999) was Dre’s redemption song after leaving Death Row, letting the hip-hop nation know that he still ran the show.

During the time that Death Row was dominating the charts, a divergent movement with a different story to tell began happening in the same South Central streets that had enamored G-Funk audiences. The Good Life Café, a health food store by day and an outlet for fresh emcees by night, drew hip-hop heads and rap stars alike to its weekly showcases with Hollywood celebrities often in attendance as well. At least five acts (including The Pharcyde and Jurassic 5) signed major record deals off the strength of their performances at the venue, with Good Life eventually morphing into Project Blowed. This new open mic event spawned a classic underground album of the same name, produced by Good Life alumni Aceyalone and Abstract Rude.

It was with the recent release of Dre’s autobiographical Compton soundtrack to Straight Outta Compton, as well as the meteoric impact of Kendrick’s follow-up LP, To Pimp A Butterfly, however, that it became apparent that the rugged streets of LA seem to be back in full effect in 2015.

You've probably heard wrong about New Jersey. You’ve probably heard the whole state from Newark to Camden is loaded with spray tanned, fist pumping bros or that things might get real if you cross the wrong block in Trenton. You’ve probably heard it’s a cultural wasteland, that the Garden State is a hilariously ironic moniker for a stretch of eight-lane highways and cookie cutter suburbs. You’ve probably heard there’s not much there. You probably heard all that, and I’m here to tell you to forget about it.

New Jersey has changed a lot in the last 50 years—maybe more so than any other state in the country. Newark, just across the Hudson from New York City and once a booming industry town full of working class families of every color, was hollowed out in the years following World War II when many families left the city for the suburbs. Between 1960 and 1990 the city lost 130,000 residents, cutting its population by more than 30% and leaving a financial chasm the city is still struggling to fill. Same story goes for cities like Paterson—where, oddly enough, both Allen Ginsberg and Fetty Wap were born—and Trenton, the state’s capital where the Morrisville Bridge still bears the city’s motto: “Trenton Makes the World Takes.” But while New Jersey may have lost its industrial core, the gritty influence remained through a steady stream of cultural exports from every end of the state.

A city like Newark can trace its musical tradition back to the jazz vocalist Sarah Vaughn, a titan whose career intersects with legends like Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. She’s the beginning of a rich cultural thread that runs throughout the Brick City’s history, connecting artists from Frankie Valli to Philip Roth to Whitney Houston to Ray Liotta. It’s a tradition of artistry that is up there with any city in America, but Newark is different. It’s grit incarnate. This is where the Fugees put their classic album The Score together in 1996, and where Ice-T first cut his teeth as a DJ. Ray Liotta’s star turn as good kid gone gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorcese’s mob classic Goodfellas is a touchstone of that North Jersey ethos, that idea that life isn’t a passive exercise. As Henry Hill says, "For us to live any other way was nuts."

North Jersey isn’t the only part of the state that casts a long shadow in the arts, though. In the late 1960s a kid named Bruce Springsteen started playing shows near his hometown in Freehold, a small hamlet a few miles inland from the curled stretch of beach towns lovingly called the Jersey Shore. He was writing and playing songs that are essential artifacts of post-industrial Jersey: families trying to make ends meet, brawlers and rebels stumbling through hazy nights on the boardwalk, veterans crash landing back home, and, more recently, redemption. Jon Bon Jovi followed Springsteen’s lead in the 1970s writing ballads about tough neighborhoods and environments, giving way to a period that spawned Bon Jovi’s immortal "Livin' on a Prayer."

Rock 'n' roll continued to blossom at places like Maxwell's in Hoboken, the infamously rowdy City Gardens in Trenton, the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park, and the Court Tavern in New Brunswick. The latter town is home to Rutgers University and a punk scene that, with a number of DIY shows, spawned the Bouncing Souls, Lifetime, Gaslight Anthem, Screaming Females, Thursday, and many, many more.

The story of art rising from the streets continued across the state: Yo La Tengo, an indie band hailing from Hoboken released their latest album to critical acclaim after a full three decades of recording and hustling. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, a native of Princeton, is rethinking the way people interact with subway systems, attempting to replace shrill tones with harmonious notes. Sharon von Etten, Real Estate, and Titus Andronicus have all also released widely lauded albums in 2015. Oh, and that guy Fetty Wap? Well he just made history by becoming the first rapper since Lil’ Wayne in 2011 to hold down two spots in the Billboard Top 10 simultaneously.

The surge of influence emanating from the Garden State shouldn’t be considered a rebirth or a renaissance, though. The bright line connecting Sarah Vaughn to Sharon von Etten hasn’t lost any of its shine.


he truth is, we never saw Brooklyn coming. While such a statement seems ludicrous now that BK stands as the most populous and culturally trendy of New York's five boroughs, let's flash back to hip-hop's takeover of the American mainstream in the ‘80s. At the notorious Queensbridge projects, future super-producer Marley Marl was forming his legendary rhyme collective the Juice Crew: an audacious clique that included such standout emcees as MC Shan, Roxanne Shanté, Kool G. Rap, and a notable outlier: one of of Brooklyn’s finest, the indomitable Big Daddy Kane.

Meanwhile, Bronx-bred KRS-One--backed by the overwhelming history of hip-hop's birthplace--stared down Marley's seemingly unbeatable unit and raised them with his much-feared Boogie Down Productions crew. Doug E. Fresh and Kool Moe Dee repped Harlem USA to the fullest from uptown Manhattan, while the greatest lyricist of his generation, Rakim, led an unlikely rhyme stronghold in Long Island with the likes of Public Enemy, EPMD, and De La Soul taking turns releasing some of the genre's most celebrated works.

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There's a reason that the artists from this storied borough faced an uphill battle early on for rap supremacy. From 1977 to 1982, the Bronx was ground zero for all things hip-hop. If you wanted to bomb with the best graffiti writers, dance with the illest B-Boys/B-Girls, or experience the sickest parties and park jams being thrown by larger-than-life spin-masters DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Coke LaRock, and Grandmaster Flash, Uptown was the place to be.

It seemed logical that Brooklyn had next, but the borough didn't have a visionary like Queens rap impresario and Def Jam founder Russell Simmons leading the way to commercial heights. Nor did it exhibit its surrounding boroughs’ tight knit, DIY camaraderie and readiness to crew up.

And yet against all proverbial odds, the BK would have its say.

"Born and raised in the streets of Brooklyn/There's three of us, and we're all good looking," proclaimed Whodini frontman Ecstasy on the hit-making trio’s majestically booming 1986 track, "Funky Beat." Hip-Hop's first official band, Stetsasonic, proudly waved the Brooklyn banner, finding chart success with their insightful pro hip-hop anthem "Talkin' All That Jazz." And while he rolled with a Queens-heavy lineup, the aforementioned, highly influential Big Daddy Kane--one of the genre's most celebrated lyricists--was BK all day. His Juice Crew cohorts, the gifted emcee Masta Ace and the collective's infectious class clown Biz Markie, also hailed from the unflappable borough. From late Beastie Boys member Adam "MCA" Yauch to game-changing female spitter MC Lyte, Brooklyn was in the house.

But BK's hard-boiled surroundings always loomed large in the background, informing the work of artists, filmmakers and actors alike. "Being a black man from Brooklyn, it was do or die," veteran actor Michael Kenneth Williams recalls of his turbulent come-up in the place proudly billed as the County of Kings.

"My craft was, for me, developed through my life experiences...my pain basically...my downfalls. We have an old saying in the 'hood in Brooklyn. We say real recognize real."

Actually, Brooklyn was at times a little too real. Biggie Smalls would become one of the highest selling recording acts of the '90s; a genre-shifting, indispensable wordsmith who proved that the reinvigorated East Coast could thrive at a time when the West Coast's Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur were mashing the game and the South was emerging as a major player. But the stout Bed-Stuy representative was also a product of one of Brooklyn's toughest neighborhoods and drew heavy personal inspiration for his brilliant, yet at times dark words by tapping into the uneasy, paranoid experiences he had hustling on the streets.

But arguably the most important Brooklyn voice had even bigger ambitions. Indeed, B.I.G.'s boy and future hip-hop mogul, Shawn "Jay Z" Carter, took notes from his fallen hip-hop comrade, but added more Fortune 500 sheen to his immaculate, 'hood-tailored verses. Thirteen number one albums later and a reported net worth of nearly $520 million, Hov now stands as rap's longest running headliner; a touring behemoth that routinely sells out stadiums.

Jay Z's epic journey from the notorious Marcy housing projects to cashed-out owner in the Brooklyn Nets' $1 billion Barclays Center represents the borough's startling evolution. There is an irony to an increasingly gentrified area that is fighting for its do or die soul. And yet Brooklyn still cuts through the bullshit. From veteran punchline king Fabolous to new blood spitters Joey Bada$$ and Troy Ave, the BK still has something to say.