Longform

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."

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea