So often, when regional rap scenes blow up nationally, they’re treated too much as a passing novelty: a city has its moment in the sun, and then it’s on to the next one. Just as frequently, the popularity of regionally-specific sounds doesn’t actually benefit artists from those areas very much. The influence of the old school Memphis underground has been inescapable in the last decade of rap, but so many of the artists who made their name on that haunted sound — from $uicideboy$ to Russian phonk producers — aren’t Memphians. Jersey and Baltimore style club beats are all over modern pop, but most superstars aren’t giving back to the places that actually created that music. Even as the popularity of a style fades in the mainstream consciousness, the people who forged that style continue to exist; it’s important to not just treat local scenes as sonic fads, but to recognize them as living cultures rooted in a sense of place.
Milwaukee hasn’t been a stronghold for hip-hop until recently, once a distant constellation in the shadow of Midwestern rap metropolises like Chicago and Detroit. But sometimes being overlooked is a powerful motivator — over the last few years, the largest city in Wisconsin has given rise to one of the most inventive and hyper-active rap scenes in the country. There are familiar strains of influence to the Milwaukee style: it brings together the relentless speed of Michigan rap, the autotuned psychedelia of Atlanta, and the plunderphonic middle-finger of sample drill. When you hear that super-charged non-stop clap, the defining attribute of the bass-rattling “lowend” sound, you know it couldn’t come from anywhere but Milwaukee.
Milwaukee rap can often be euphoric and electric, made for trunk speakers and club sound systems, offering a certain escapism from the harsh realities faced by many of the city’s Black residents. Due to a long history of redlining and racial discrimination in housing, Milwaukee is still considered one of the most segregated cities in America, so its rappers and producers have had to work that much harder for recognition. The scene has been riddled with its share of tragedies too; Milwaukee founding father Jigg tragically passed away in a shooting this past December. Jigg and Chicken P’s “Fast Cash Babies” from 2019 is regularly cited as a formative origin point for the modern Milwaukee scene: the beat is menacing, with an ornate piano line over pounding 808s, mirrored by the elastic sensitivity of the duo’s autotuned wails. Milwaukee flows might be fast, but they don’t conform to one technique, the edges of syllables blurred with autotune and the speed constantly varying, effortlessly alternating between falsetto croons and tight bars. In a word, Milwaukee rappers aren’t afraid to get weird.
The world has finally started to listen to Milwaukee, thanks to the national success of artists like Certified Trapper, a bonafide rap gonzo with the sardonic wit of BabyTron and the frenetic work rate of RXK Nephew — Quality Control recruit Lakeyah also became the first ever Milwaukee rapper to make XXL’s Freshman list in 2021. In many ways, the increased profile of Milwaukee rap over the last several years is a testament to the continued value of rap journalism. The jaw-dropping output of most Milwaukee rappers almost necessitates the curatory skills of dedicated critics, with the patience and persistence to sit through the mammoth amount of mixtapes that drop every month — at least 75 projects from Milwaukee rappers were released in December 2023 alone. Milwaukee rap is on my radar more than ever before thanks to the DIY gonzo criticism of blogs like No Bells, as well as the immersive on-the-ground reporting of writers like Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre. Over the last year, as so many pundits engaged in a self-flagellating existential crisis about the cultural status of the genre, Milwaukee proved that hip-hop — as well as writing about hip-hop — can still take us to new places.
Here’s a survey of 6 of the most creative new voices breaking out of Milwaukee and what they’ve been up to recently.
AyooLii & Maz G
In their own words, brothers AyooLii and Maz G are the Hardy Boyz of the Milwaukee rap, an effortless tag team of real-life brothers that are preternaturally on the same wavelength in how they push the stylistic envelope, combining lowend thumps with unpredictable samples and emo rap guitars. Most of the pair’s songs — whether together or individually — hardly clock in at two minutes, but a few bars contain more creativity than many rappers express in entire mixtapes. As video game synthesizers blast like colorful lasers, the boys slide in and out of silly, almost cutesy, voices; sometimes Ayoolii’s flow is woozy and slurred on songs like the Xaviersobased-featuring “Pop Trunk,” but in other moments he’s the amped-up hypeman of a party from the future, like on the groovy disco bassline of “Soul Train” or the anthemic and stadium-ready “Shmackin Town.”
Like so many regional rap scenes, Milwaukee can have its boys’ club tendencies, but female MCs in the city are proving their worth and fighting for their rightful place. Lonni Monae’s 2023 project Classroom Hero announced her position at the head of the class, with a flow as sharp as her acrylics. Over a distorted guitar loop and taunting flute on “Step Yo Game Up,” she lays down bars with a limerick-like playfulness but isn’t messing around: “I don’t act funny, bitch / I act accordingly.” The pitch-shifted sample selections, like the stirring strings on “The Build Up,” make for something like chipmunk lowend, retrofitting warm soul music into a tough armor.
Mariboy Mula Mar
Alphonse Pierre once described Mariboy Mula Mar as “Milwaukee’s version of Young Thug,” and it’s an apt comparison — Mul Mar’s warbling wail comes from somewhere otherworldly, keeping up with the fast lowend clap without ever letting it dictate how he raps. When Mula Mar partners with more cut-throat and direct rappers like Chicken P, he can go bar for bar, but his voice is restless, constantly exploring new pitches and breaking into unexpected directions. Even within the space of a single bar, his delivery mutates, like on “G.O.Y.A.,” where he switches into a quick falsetto for the last word of every line, stretching words out until they’re loose and limber.
The gravelly register of MarijuanaXO might be more straightforward compared to some of Milwaukee’s most extensively autotuned oddballs, but there’s a gleeful humor and high energy to his voice that keeps the atmosphere breezy. MarijuanaXO and regular sidekick Joe Pablo established themselves as something like the Rio Da Yung OG and RMC Mike of Milwaukee with 2021’s Window Service, swapping punchlines like a relay race. As much as the nonstop bars of Detroit rap, MarijuanaXO recalls the late Drakeo the Ruler, not just in the intricacy of his delivery, but in how casually hilarious he is, tossing out off-the-cuff absurdities before you can even process them. It’s not all jokes, though; MarijuanaXO and Joe Pablo’s latest collaboration, last year’s 30 Mil No Deal, radiates a triumphant spirit that makes it an ideal soundtrack for world domination.
The lowend beat might be pure Milwaukee, but sometimes you can hear the influence of Southern pain music on the bluesy flows of the city’s rappers. On “Rod Wave Wit Me,” from his New Year’s Day release Cali Plug, SME Taxfree shouts out the Florida vocalist and reigning king of heartbreak. While the up-tempo beats keep everything in motion, there’s a cloudy lining to SME Taxfree’s gritty delivery, like he’s trying to outrun the demons by rapping so fast. Cali Plug may not contain straight-up guitar ballads, but SME Taxfree shares a similarly fluid relationship to the beat as a rapper like Rod Wave, toying with the beat instead of following it strictly.
Rap Column is a column about rap music by Vivian Medithi and Nadine Smith for The FADER.