My brother and I were sitting in a friend’s D.C. living room this past October when he made a bold proclamation—“Meek Mill is cooking up a gradual comeback.” Whoever had the aux cord had slipped on a few of Meek’s most famous tracks, and the conversation turned to the state of his career. As a fellow prideful Philadelphian, my heart jumps every time I hear him rap-yell, I rep my city from South Philly back to Uptown. This time, almost 140 miles from our hometown, the anxiety left over from Meek’s silence following his rap rift with Drake felt deeper. Meek Mill fans are still waiting on something, but many of us have experienced this wait before.
The sounds of cities across the nation have gone through their respective evolutions, and regional representation continues to be central to rap culture. Major rap hubs like New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston, and even smaller ones like Detroit and, more recently, Toronto, see glory in their past and in their future. But for Philadelphia, the odds often feel stacked. We’ve witnessed the success of greats like the globally beloved The Roots, Eve, Will Smith, and DJ Jazzy Jeff. But mainstream rap radio today doesn’t have a consistent lineup of cats from Philly in rotation.
As a Philadelphia native, I know too well what it’s like to see my favorite hometown rappers fall from grace, or just off the grid. I remember being 13 and hearing my dad recount the demise of Cool C, a rising artist from West Philly who was sentenced to death after being found guilty of a murder committed during an armed bank robbery.
Before Roc-A-Fella took interest in the Beanie Siegel-led State Property, the only time a posse of Philly rappers were collectively signed to a label was when Lawrence “L.G.” Goodman created the city’s first independent label in 1979, Pop Art. Goodman signed locals, but also Queensbridge MCs Roxanne Shante and MC Shan. He also had a hand in the careers of legendary East Coast artists like Biz Markie, Marley Marl, Salt & Pepa, Will Smith, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Schoolly D. Goodman became known as the “godfather of Philly rap” for his leadership in bridging the gap between the scenes in Philadelphia and New York early on.
Two decades after we lost Cool C, rappers Freeway, Beanie Sigel, Young Gunz, Oschino and Omillio Sparks, and Peedi Crakk were all coming “live from the 215,” giving our city great pride by being affiliated with Roc-A-Fella, one of hip-hop’s most legendary labels. As members of the State Property family, they represented the hardcore style of rap that was part of Philly’s evolving sound. We finally had what felt like cohesive representation in the mainstream. When it eventually fell apart in the chaos of Jay Z and Dame Dash's infamous split, most of us hung up our SP jackets.
Other characters have come and gone. My older cousin Big Star was instrumental in establishing Philly’s infamous rap DVD movement with his popular series 2Raw4TheStreets. In 1998, he started filming on college campuses in Pennsylvania and at Philly landmarks like South Street and the annual Greek Picnic. He captured the underbelly of the city’s street rap culture through cyphers, freestyles, and battles of the week.
Alongside other Philadelphians and even a national audience, I watched the DVDs religiously to see the city’s best spar in the backs of barbershops and on street corners. Philly's street rap DVDs provided entertainment and gave viewers a chance to put names and faces to the voices we’d heard on the mixtapes that circulated organically. We witnessed guys like Joey Jihad and Reed Dollaz create a buzz by spitting on video in the early 2000s, go on to build a little momentum, but eventually dissipate into the unsung Philly rapper abyss.
Following in the unfortunate footsteps of Cool C, and of rappers from across the nation, a lot of artists from Philly fall victim to the dangers of their lifestyles outside of music. While trying to pursue rap as a legitimate career, they often encounter setbacks in the form of run-ins with the law and other socioeconomic circumstances that are difficult to overcome.
In 2005, rapper Cassidy, best known for hit songs like "Hotel" and "I'm A Hustla," served eight months in jail on an involuntary manslaughter charge stemming from a gunfight outside of his Philadelphia home. Shortly after he was released, he was injured in a serious car accident that resulted in short term brain injury and memory loss. After surviving both adversities, Cassidy came back to rap in 2007 and dropped the single, “My Drink N’ My 2 Step,” a song that got him buzzing again and that got Philly excited. He still pops up on occasion, but Cassidy failed to get back to where he was.
In 2014, Meek Mill was sentenced to three to six months in jail for violating probation related to a previous case. After his release, he was determined to defy all odds. And he did, coming hard with 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money and maintaining his stature as one of the genre’s most preeminent stars. On album opener “Lord Knows” he rapped, Shout out that judge that denied me my bail/ It made me smarter, it made me go harder/ They locked me up, it slowed my album up/ But I did not give up ’cause I knew I would prevail.
But then he sounded off those tweets about Drake. And when it was time to produce a diss record that could’ve ended the feud between the two, he went ghost, despite his well-documented battle rap roots. I selfishly consider that moment in his career as another incident that anyone could use against my city in conversations about Philly rappers who’ve taken blows in the industry.
Still, there are other rappers from the city who can fill the airwaves. Talented artists like Lil Uzi Vert, A$AP Mob’s Chynna Rogers, and PnB Rock are showing potential and attracting attention. These rappers have used their music to experiment with influences outside of Philly's usual hardcore rap, incorporating elements from other cities' subgenres—trap and drill influences weave their way into the music on songs like Rogers' "Regina George" and PnB's Fetty Wap-featuring "Jealous." It feels like there's a renewed will to reach beyond city limits.
In Philly, we tend to live in our own bubble, aware that we’re collectively viewed as underdogs on the spectrum of hip-hop (and, yes, sports). Still, I’m hopeful. I don’t think we’ve lost Meek. I don’t think we’ve lost rap. Perhaps things just take a little more time in my city. I’m waiting. We’re all waiting.