Willy Northpole and the Phoenix hip-hop scene explode
Under the bright club lights at The Door on Scottsdale Road, Willy Northpole is shining like a gold star. The Phoenix-born-and-bred rapper is wearing a shimmering designer shirt that hugs his bulging biceps, and several thick gold chains hang from his neck. The diamond studs in his earlobes flash when he turns his head. He's got a beautiful woman with him; she's wearing a classic little black dress and being very quiet.
Northpole's not speaking much, either, even though the club is full of other Phoenix rappers, DJs, and scenesters. For the past year and a half, they've been gathering at The Door every Wednesday for Groove Candy, a hip-hop night that packs people in by the hundreds. Groove Candy's got a traditional, urban hip-hop vibe, with DJ M2 spinning neo-soul and old-school hip-hop, mashing up everything from vintage '70s break dance tracks to '90s club bangers, and a crowd decked out in baggy FUBU pants, Sean John shirts, sideways baseball caps, and more bling than a Black Friday sale at a jewelry store.
While people walk around exchanging high-fives and bopping their heads to a Young MC song coming out of the speakers, Northpole sits on one end of a plush red-velvet couch and surveys the scene. He hasn't been to Groove Candy for a few weeks, mainly because he's been busy finishing up his debut album for Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace imprint on Def Jam records. Northpole is one of three Phoenix MCs from this scene who've landed major label deals in the past year, and he's at the forefront of what many see as an impending Southwest takeover of hip-hop. He's certainly at the helm of Phoenix's black rap scene — a movement that's been thriving underground here for more than 10 years, while other factions of Valley hip-hop, like the Blunt Club weekly in the East Valley, have come to define hip-hop for most people in this city.
But it's rappers like Willy Northpole — guys who look like they're from the streets of L.A. or New York — who are making an attempt to represent Arizona hip-hop in their music and their lives, not the MCs at Blunt Club, who may occasionally reference the city in their lyrics but keep the local pride insulated. By contrast, the Valley's urban rap set has been developing Phoenix hip-hop into a movement, even while most people here are unaware of their strides. There are terms for this faction of Arizona hip-hop: Terrazona, Azilla, The Zona, Phire City, Bird City, the Dirty Southwest. There's also a hand gesture — the "A," formed by two interlocking sideways peace symbols — that pops up at most local shows, and the phrase "Get your A'z up" has become a call-and-response staple of local shows.
"I think that Phoenix's hip-hop scene is growing," says Karlie Hustle, midday deejay at local hip-hop station Power 98.3 and the founder of Groove Candy. "It has a lot of components that burgeoning hip-hop scenes across the States have, but it hasn't blown up yet, if you will. There's some stratification, there's politics, there's good versus evil, there's agendas — but it's gonna happen no matter what."
The stratification is one reason Northpole's so quiet tonight. He knows that everybody's looking to him to blow the doors open for Phoenix on a national scale, and some have a jealous eye on him, too. Wherever opportunity arises, so does competition and animosity. There are other major players in the local scene, like Hot Rod, who just signed to 50 Cent's G-Unit label; Juice, who got a deal with The Game's Black Wall Street label; and 5Fith Coast Records co-owner Roca Dolla, who just spent two weeks staying at Lil' Jon's house while doing a studio session with Dr. Dre. But Northpole's upcoming debut on Disturbing Tha Peace features appearances by Ludacris, Chingy, and Ne-Yo and is probably the most anticipated release ever from a Phoenix hip-hop artist.
For Northpole and others in the Valley's urban rap scene, the time is ripe to show people what's really going on with Phoenix hip-hop and to make their marks. Northpole was born and raised here, and his experience as a black man growing up in the ghettos of Phoenix saturates his sound. On his track, "The People," backed by psychedelic synthesizer hooks and a pulsing funk bass line, Northpole raps, "This is for my daughter/This is for AZ/Stand up, I know it's been a long way/Watch your boy bring a platinum plaque to the whole state."
With statements like "Arizona, stand up — I'm bringing home the Grammy, baby," Northpole's set some high expectations. He's supposed to be the one who launches local rap into the national limelight, and few people in the local scene have any doubts that he'll deliver.
"Willy Northpole has the potential to do some really great things," says Mattlocks, promotional director at Valley radio station 101.5 JamZ and former longtime host of local hip-hop show "Friday Night Flavas" on Power 98. "Willy's on the brink. [This year] is gonna be his year. You can't deny those movements. People say, 'When is AZ gonna be on the map? When is it going to blow up?' I think we're past the point where we have to ask that question now. It's happening."
Phoenix — a city where the African American population is a scant 5.6 percent, according to the most recent census data — is not known for its black rap scene. Most media coverage of local hip-hop has focused on the indie backpacker set that revolves around Blunt Club, the Thursday weekly that's drawn crowds of hundreds to the East Valley for the past six years. The local artists that regularly perform at Blunt Club include Chicago transplant Emerg McVay, and instrumental hip-hop ensembles Antedote and Drunken Immortals. There are a lot of group jams and freestyling, laden with lyrics that wax socio-political-philosophical and encourage a groovy, get-together vibe. White college students constitute a large part of the audience. With a few exceptions (like McVay and a guest appearance by Public Enemy in 2007), most of the performers at Blunt Club are white, too. The weekly continues to receive coverage from local and national media, and recently moved to Club Red in Tempe after outgrowing its last home at Hollywood Alley in Mesa. The Blunt Club crowd is seen as the crème of Phoenix hip-hop, but it's very much a do-it-yourself scene, with artists releasing their own records and promoting a grassroots, community vibe.
None of the Phoenix MCs who are hobnobbing with platinum-selling hip-hop CEOs and signing record deals has anything to do with Blunt Club. That's an entirely different faction of hip-hop in a city that's always had two different hip-hop scenes, but a spotlight on just one. These artists are coming from the neighborhoods of south, central, and northwest Phoenix, and they rap about life on the 602 streets — as hustlers, gangsters, pimps, dealers, and reformers. They don't have extended live jams behind them, choosing instead to rap over hard snare beats, booming bass lines, and punctuated samples. This is the scene that saturates Groove Candy. The weekly event regularly draws around 300 people, about the same as Blunt Club draws on a good night. But they're completely different draws.
"There's definitely a division amongst the scenes," Karlie Hustle says. "They do have that sort of white hippie, hemp necklace, backpacker, super-hip-hop-nerd group. And then you have a more mainstream 'commercial' community."
The music that the artists who frequent Groove Candy make — with its propensity for booming bass beats, shout-outs to other rappers, and catchy hooks — certainly sounds more commercial than the hip-hop heard at Blunt Club, so it's ironic that this scene is still so underground. "This is a big hip-hop night — a ton of local hip-hop MCs have made it through here, but many people who go to Blunt Club might not come here," Hustle says. "It doesn't mean they don't like us or whatever, but it's kind of a disconnect. It's different. This is a hip-hop night, but it's not so deep into the crates that your average person can't come in here and understand it or recognize the music. I don't know that there's a lot of respect for each others' communities and what they bring to the table."
Groove Candy started in 2006, but the urban scene that meets there every week has been around since Roca Dolla (then known as Mr. Iroc) founded 5Fith Coast Records and released his first single in 1986 — 16 years before the first Blunt Club show. At the time, Roca Dolla says, there were four or five hip-hop artists in the scene making good records, but the hip-hop industry ignored Phoenix for political reasons. Even though these were black MCs making marketable records, nobody wanted to represent Arizona at the time. "A lot of things affected early Phoenix hip-hop, but the main thing was political," Roca Dolla says. "When the record labels first started looking for more hip-hop artists, Evan Mecham was the governor here, and he opposed a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and that made a lot of people angry. We should have been on the map years ago, but because of politics, we were kind of blackballed from the industry."
While urban acts like Roca Dolla, Survivalist, and Cut Throat Logic played underground shows to packed houses in Phoenix throughout the '90s, a new twist was emerging in hip-hop: the white MC.
From the earliest stages of its evolution in the parks of the Bronx, where a Jamaican DJ named Kool Herc starting reciting poetry over funk records in the early '70s, hip-hop has always been a predominantly black genre. Rap has its roots in the folk poetry of West Africa, Caribbean chants, and the blues (a genre rooted in the struggles of the black South). The first hip-hop wave from the East Coast centered on acts like Run-D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Sugarhill Gang. These were MCs who sang about the struggles of growing up in the ghettos of New York. In the '80s, the West Coast wave of hip-hop hit, with artists like N.W.A coming out of Compton to rap about life as gangstas and hustlers. This was the crux of gangsta rap — black men coming from lives of crime to make money off hip-hop. N.W.A's songs were filled with shady slices of ghetto life — dope dealers, police brutality, drive-by shootings — that are still the main topics of gangsta rap. This subgenre of hip-hop harks back to seedy stories of inner-city life in a way that only someone from the inner city can relay. Even the MCs who weren't rapping about the black experience in a direct way — like MC Hammer and LL Cool J — presented the image of the empowered black man overcoming adversity to make his millions. Throughout the '90s, hip-hop continued to present various slices of life from Black America, whether it was Snoop Dogg rapping about smoking blunts and house parties, or Tupac encouraging his black sisters to keep their heads up in abusive situations.
Up until the mid-'90s, very few white artists had hit rap records, but nevertheless, those were the first rap records to crack the mainstream market. The first song featuring a rap to hit Number One on the U.S. Billboard charts was Blondie's "Rapture" in 1981, a song that references pioneers Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. The second rap song to hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 charts was Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" in 1990. The Beastie Boys' 1986 album, Licensed to Ill, was the first rap album to top Billboard's Pop Albums chart. But though these records caught the ear of America, they didn't come with instant credibility from the black community. They were pop songs; these artists weren't rapping about the struggles of growing up on the streets, getting shot, or selling dope. There was nothing in the songs that resembled the black experience lyrically.
In the late '90s, two artists emerged that changed the game for white MCs: Everlast, and Eminem. Everlast's first solo album was financed by Ice-T, and he'd worked with a number of other black hip-hop acts, like Cypress Hill and KRS-One, before hitting with the single "What It's Like" in 1998, a song that detailed urban struggles and the injustice of inequality. But it wasn't until Eminem's 1999 debut on Dr. Dre's Aftermath Records, The Slim Shady LP, that any white MC truly crossed the color divide and gained the respect of the black hip-hop audience. Unlike the white rappers who came before him, Eminem was anything but safe. He was rapping about killing his wife, doing drugs, and ejaculating on things. For all his controversies, Eminem's sold more than 70 million albums worldwide. Like it or not, he's the main reason most people will tell you race doesn't matter in rap these days — Kid Rock, Bubba Sparxxx, and Paul Wall can all have hit records, and Blunt Club's artists can dominate the buzz in Phoenix. Grassroots growth is only natural for them, considering the organic, free-flow community vibe of that scene. They've got their own peace-and-love groove thing — and it's nothing like the "I'm-the-shit-in-this-city" competitive aura that surrounds the Groove Candy folks, many of whom are frankly tired of being overlooked in their hometown.
"There have always been two scenes here," Roca Dolla says, "but there is a 'hood here, and there is an underground urban sound out here. At our last show, we had 500 people, and we had to turn away about a hundred. And that's a local show. There are cats that are getting the light that don't deserve it. You've got to find the groups that are crackin' on the underground."
The night after New Year's Day, Phoenix's hip-hop underground has come out en masse for a group photo shoot at Groove Candy. Willy Northpole is here, sitting next to Hot Rod, who's wearing a dark hoodie that covers his eyes and continually checking his lit-up cell phone. Roca Dolla is seated a little farther down, talking with his extensive entourage. All around them, 35 other local MCs, DJs, and members of crews are chatting, laughing, arguing, sipping on champagne, grabbing Life Savers Gummies off the tables, and trying to crowd in front for the photo. Everybody wants to be the star.
But there can only be so many stars tonight. Northpole, with his connections to Ludacris and his record deal with Luda's DTP imprint, is obviously one of them. So is Hot Rod, who's working on his debut album for 50 Cent's G-Unit label. Juice completes the trilogy of prodigies, having landed a contract with Black Wall Street through The Game. There are other Valley rappers making serious headway, too, like Jiggalo, who signed to Suave House Records, which also housed Eightball and MJG (now on Diddy's Bad Boy label). A couple of local artists, Atllas and Spanfly, have deals with Rawkus Records, the label that kick-started the careers of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Everybody's walking around talking about their deals, or talking about the people who are talking smack.
"My deal set everything off," Hot Rod says. "There's a lot of people telling stories. Since I got signed, and since Willy got signed, everybody's talking about having label deals when they don't."
For the group gathered at Groove Candy tonight, hip-hop is a gladiator sport. Some of these urban artists have been struggling to make it in this city for years, and now there's a collective feeling that Phoenix is about to take off. And everybody wants in on the ride. Tiffany J, a former Phoenix resident who now works for one of hip-hop's most prominent national companies, Family Tree Entertainment in Atlanta, says that such a competitive climate can only bode well for the scene. "Once Hot Rod's deal came about, and people started meeting other people, it became a competition," she says. "But that's good, because inevitably, what everybody's doing will make Phoenix the next Atlanta or Miami."
In the meantime, the situation is tense. Some of the people here at The Door tonight don't get along. Within minutes of arriving at the venue, Cinque, a member of a local hip-hop crew called the Man Up Squad, is confronted by Roca Dolla in the VIP area. "Cinque, what's the deal? I read some shit somewhere that you were going off about me trying to be your boss. What the hell is that?"
Jiggalo backs Cinque up. "That shit was a long time ago," he tells Roca Dolla. "That's old news. Let it go."
After a couple of minutes of back and forth between the 5Fith Coast crew, Cinque and Jiggalo, Roca Dolla storms out of the VIP area, telling his crew, "This is bullshit."
Such confrontations aren't unusual in hip-hop — the genre's full of conflicts and feuds, and everybody wants to be top dog in Phoenix right now. The MCs who are working with national names are taking it upon themselves to try to build an atmosphere of community, even where there should be problems by proxy. For example, The Game and 50 Cent have been feuding through diss tracks since 2005, with each rapper taking shots at the other's integrity and creativity. In the past several months, each of them signed an artist from Phoenix. But Juice says that just because he's signed to The Game's label and Hot Rod is signed to 50 Cent's label, that doesn't mean they can't get along. "There really ain't no beef between us," Juice says. "Whenever you hear of Black Wall Street or G-Unit, naturally you think there is tension between the two camps. With that said, when you have two of the most dominated labels connected in the same city, questions and opinions will rise. As far as Hot Rod goes, there is no beef — just two artists from the same city with the respect for their label."
Willy Northpole feels that healing petty rifts within the community and supporting each other is the key to breaking the Phoenix scene, and he's not about to hang out in an angst-ridden atmosphere. He leaves Groove Candy as soon as the photo shoot's over.
"It's a lot of bullshit going on," Northpole says. "Everything is petty, nothin' in the streets, just a lot of people talking stuff. There are a lot of issues going on in Arizona that need to be addressed. But I'd rather fix it in Phoenix than go on a national level and do a diss track against one of my Arizona brothers. I'm not gonna do that. There's a lot of talent out here. If people would stop the hating and the bullshit and come together, it could be bigger."
Northpole says he's ready for the responsibility — and the backlash — that comes with being the first Phoenix MC to release a record on a major label this year, and he wants to set an example. "They're looking at me to open doors in the right way," he says. "Somebody's gonna have to take the rocks and the whips on the way up. When you're the first person to come out, people are gonna hate on you, because they didn't do it first. But if you can take those whips, it'll all come back in love. I truly believe that."
A lot is resting on the shoulders of Willy Northpole. Of all the Phoenix MCs with records coming out this year, Northpole is expected to lay the golden egg. "Willy's record will be the record that opens the doors for everyone," says Justus, half of Valley hip-hop duo Cut Throat Logic. "All these other records will make noise, but regionally. His record will get national play."
Northpole will open Ludacris' February 2 show at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, and there's been talk of him joining Ludacris for an extensive tour afterward. Having the support of a platinum-selling hip-hop artist can only help Northpole's career, and in the end, it can help Phoenix's hip-hop scene, too. In explaining why he signed Northpole, Ludacris gives props to Phoenix's pool of talent. "In the ever-changing music industry, it was important to me to find a unique artist in an untapped market in the U.S.," he says. "I felt Willy Northpole's style and music the moment I heard his voice. I believe he will open the world's eyes to the growing talent coming out of Phoenix, Arizona."
While it would seem that Northpole's story is the stuff of music industry dreams, none of this happened for him overnight. "I worked hard, and here I am," he says. "But it took a lot of work. That's what people don't understand — it's not like playing the lottery. It doesn't happen overnight."
As the first black Phoenix rapper to potentially break out on a national scale, Northpole also feels it's important to represent the city. He just nabbed an endorsement with New Era hats and plans to design a hat that reads "Bird City" on the back and has some sort of Arizona symbolism on the front. "That's all I'm doing, is representing Arizona," Northpole says. "I'm the first signed hip-hop artist that was born and raised on the streets of Phoenix. I grew up off Broadway and 24th Street. I have a lot to talk about."
In many ways, Willy Northpole personifies the Phoenix urban rap sound. His songs are filled with danceable beats, R&B vocal hooks, looped synthesizers, and lyrical flows that give props to the city. In "Streetz," Northpole raps, "I've roamed the streets with killers and creatures/And I'm a drug dealer to preachers/Bernie Mac bringin' the story cap/The Arizona bully is back/As a matter of fact, the bully of rap."
Of the six songs Northpole's posted on his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/willynorthpole), every single one contains multiple references to Phoenix and Arizona. He's got a story to tell, and that story is about how a black rapper who grew up amidst violence and crime in central Phoenix redirected and made it to the top. Similar stories are pretty standard in hip-hop, but Northpole's story is unique in that it starts with him being born in the skies over Phoenix.
Northpole came into the world as William Adams on February 22, 1980, during a period when Phoenix was under siege from massive floods and declared a disaster area three times. Because of the floods, Northpole was born in a helicopter.
He took an interest in music early on, entering talent competitions and rapping over Kool Moe Dee and Too Short records in his bedroom. His father was addicted to crack, so young Northpole chose a different family role model — his cousin, Walter "Salt" Morrison, who was a member of the Broadway Gangstas, a violent street gang with alleged ties to both the Bloods and Crips gangs of Phoenix. On August 23, 1992, Morrison was shot 21 times. His murder devastated Northpole, who became a Broadway Gangsta himself and starting selling drugs (including selling to his own father) to pay for studio time and continue developing his rap career.
That plan stopped working when Northpole was popped for armed robbery in 1995. He spent the next three years as inmate number 13393 at the Adobe correctional center for juveniles. Upon his release at age 18, he decided to get a full-time, legit job and work on his raps at night. After years of grinding it out on the streets, playing underground shows and recording in home studios, Northpole found an ally in an unlikely person, rival Valley rapper Hot Rod.
Hot Rod had just signed a deal with G-Unit, and he invited Northpole to stay at 50 Cent's house with him. "I went out there, and I was so excited. We had a great time, and I really wanted to sign with G-Unit," Northpole says. "But then I got a phone call from Tiffany J."
Tiffany J had known Willy Northpole since they were 8-year-old kids. She grew up in the same neighborhood and worked as an on-air personality at Power 92.3 before relocating to Atlanta. She arranged Northpole's signing with Disturbing Tha Peace, and continues to try to increase opportunities for Arizona artists. She's in a good position to do so, too — in addition to managing Northpole, Family Tree's roster also includes Nas, Aaron Carter, and Nick Cannon. The company's owned by Michael "Blue" Williams, the former manager of Outkast.
Tiffany and Northpole agree that his geographic roots can be the key to potential success.
With Northpole's lyrics, there will be no mistaking he's from here. He's got an intricate tattoo that reads "Broadway" across his shoulders, something he references in "Body Marked Up," a track he recorded the night he first met the heads of DTP. "The Phoenix boys will make the block smooth like Sade," he announces. "I'm in the club with those things that pow-pow/Thug, turn around and keep dancin' to Bow-Wow/You see them boys with tattoos, street homies inked up/Willy Northpole, guess so, criminal linked-up/I've never been a joke/I was into dope/Phoenix, I've been a pope/your boy's been a loc/Body tatted the thug way."
As someone in a position to break into the big-time, Northpole's not afraid to let his roots show. He sees himself as a survivor and hopes to be a positive role model now. In "The People," he raps, "Move to the destiny/chest got an iron plate/Welcome to the black jungle/staring at a lion's face/Broadway be the hood/South side most gutter/Hit me with a low blow/came back with more butter."
Unique among civic boosters, Northpole wants to show the world that Phoenix does have a hard street side and that a lot of talented rappers are coming from that side. For anyone who has any doubts, Northpole refers them to lines from his song "DTP": "The real West is back/and Arizona's next with that/and Willy North is next at bat."
Whether it's Northpole or someone else (and her money's on Northpole), Tiffany says it won't take much to put Arizona's style on the hip-hop map. "My goal when I moved out of Arizona was to get Arizona artists a deal," Tiffany says. "To me, being around it for so long, it was always a perfect blend of any kind of hip-hop you'd want to hear. Every area has that thing they rap about, and we don't really have people out representing Phoenix. I think after a lot of these guys come out, it's really gonna create a feeling, like, 'Yeah, that's from AZ.'"
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