Detroit is having a hip-hop renaissance. Every week I stumble across a new rapper with that signature Midwest slur and slightly behind-the-beat delivery, telling tales of their latest credit card scam-funded shopping spree and delivering a downpour of punchlines over funky instrumentals. On the rapping end, the bar is high: lyrical, boundary-pushing, and funny. The production is unconcerned with outside trends, so much so that the piano-driven and bass-heavy beats could have been made in 2006, 2016, or 2019, and nobody would know the difference.
But there was a time when Detroit seemed destined to exist in the regional bubble. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, while the blondie with a buzzcut was cementing his pop legacy, the Eastside Chedda Boyz and Street Lord’z were laying the foundation for Detroit street rap. Their music only trickled into a few ears outside of the Midwest, but their local impact was massive. In the late ’00s, Doughboyz Cashout picked up where those early collectives left off. Doughboyz Cashout modernized and polished the sound of those early crews, making it more accessible for those outside of the region and the next generation. In 2013, they signed a major label record deal with Jeezy’s CTE World Print. That partnership only halted their momentum, with a string of delayed releases, and they eventually parted from Jeezy. Soon enough, behind the rise of local YouTube pages like TF Circle Entertainment, 4Sho Magazine, and LED Productions, interest in the region’s rap intensified, and Detroit rap was getting national attention.
Since Sada Baby and Drego released 2018’s “Bloxk Party,” Detroit’s rap scene has been moving at hyperspeed—there’s so much daily output that by the time this article is published it will instantly be dated—and yet in its own, refreshing way, it feels stuck in time. It’s a surprise when any of the rappers are good at the internet—every Detroit rapper definitely prefers Ask.com over Google—and most are influenced more by Doughboyz Cashout than anything they’ve come across online. It’s an insular city that for the first time truly has a platform and its artists have used it for a year of new talent, ideas, and music at a pace rivaling Atlanta. Here are seven songs from Detroit that are defining this moment.
Icewear Vezzo and Babyface Ray – “Champions”
Icewear Vezzo and Babyface Ray are two veterans in a scene that’s always moving onto the next new and hot thing—I swear these new Detroit rappers pop up overnight already equipped with a back catalog of mixtapes and budgeted music videos. Icewear Vezzo is the steady hand, able to make complex street talk sound simple, and his threats visual: “Playin’ with them rubber bands, get yo’ ass stretched.” Babyface Ray’s laid-back approach has been adopted by many in the city, but still there’s few that can rap about counting bills and whipping a new car around the neighborhood back roads like he can. But the life of the song comes from their back and forth, a clear connection between two rappers fully appreciative of the moment.
Kasher Quon and Teejayx6 – “Dynamic Duo”
Kasher Quon purchases iPhones in his nephew’s name, steals from his girlfriend’s cousin from Utah, and scams his cousin for sneakers. Teejayx6 is angry that his girlfriend wants to cuddle and is insistent that you DM him your bank account. But don’t get it wrong; Kasher Quon and Teejayx6 may be the most untrustworthy rap duo to ever grace the internet, but they have their limits too: take off your shoes before entering their home. This is all from “Dynamic Duo,” the boiling point in Detroit’s longtime infatuation with scammer rap. “Dynamic Duo” is a marathon: you’ll be either exhausted or offended by the end. Probably both.
Damjonboi – “Rip Icewood”
In Detroit, you’re not truly popping until you’ve done justice to a Damjonboi beat. Luckily, the rapper/producer still saves a share of his versatile selection for himself. Compared to the often over-the-top personalities in the city, Jonboi sticks out because of his subtlety. The smoky Regina Belle “Baby Come To Me” sample on “Rip Icewood” is a perfect complement to Jonboi’s reflections on his spiritual attachment to his neighborhood: “The only nigga to rap about his hood and still be in it.” The core of the song pays homage to the late Blade Icewood—the sample was also used on Icewood’s “Great Lake Ruler”—who paved the way for future generations as a member of the Street Lord’z collective.
Baby Smoove – “Akorn”
I like hearing Baby Smoove rap about his day: strolling through Saks Fifth, stuck in traffic, purchasing a new iPhone. If these one-liners came from any other rapper I wouldn’t care about them, but Baby Smoove’s naturally carefree personality elevates simple observations into IG caption-ready poetry: “How the fuck you on the streets and on the stand you a witness.” On “Akorn,” his raps are effortless, and you can tell. The Godfather theme-sampling instrumental is perfect; he sounds like a bored mafia boss at the head of the dinner table, sending out warning shots to inferior rappers and dropping in ad-libs that sound like early morning stretches. Baby Smoove can’t be imitated—and he knows it.
Ice Burgandy, Drego and Beno, BandGang, and VVS Beezy – “Detroit to Inglewood”
The duo Drego and Beno released one of 2018’s best mixtapes with Sorry For The Get Off. BandGang Lonnie Bands and BandGang Masoe are two members of the BandGang collective carrying the DoughBoyz Cashout torch. On “Detroit to Inglewood,” the four of them bring the regional Detroit sound to the West Coast, in collaboration with L.A. rappers Ice Burgandy and VVS Beezy. Each verse is short and direct: Drego and Beno are the youthful, arrogant shit-talkers, Lonnie Bands is the narcotized money spender, and Masoe the high-pitched traditionalist. The music video is a hypnotizing one-shot stroll through an L.A. mansion—Drego plays video games, Beno slouches on the steps, and Lonnie Bands counts money on the floor. It’s a moment that captures both the essence of Detroit hip-hop while operating at a visibility unfamiliar to the city.
Veeze, WTM Scoob, and DT – “Itself”
Half of this write-up could be Veeze songs and nobody would be able to provide a reasonable argument against it. When Veeze raps, he’s often quiet, but you listen, and he’s able to cut down stories that could last an entire song into two or three bars. “I ain’t gon’ tell on myself/Them bitches tellin’ me to write a statement, bitch I say go to hell/Bitch I rather go to jail,” he mumbles on “Itself.” Veeze is joined by WTM Scoob and DT, and both rise to his level: Scoob is so real that he tells the cops he doesn’t recognize a person that is in fact himself, and DT gives a dope-cooking tutorial. Yet, at the end, you go back to that Veeze verse. It’s the only thing madder than the mind-scrambling, tension building piano-heavy beat.
Shittyboyz Babytron – “Punch God 2”
Meet the Shittyboyz: a trio of Detroit-area teenagers that look like they spend most of their time scrolling Stockx and Crunchyroll. There are probably hotter artists in the city that could fill this last spot—42 Dugg comes to mind—but the Shittyboyz speak to a rising generation as influenced by the internet as they are by Detroit’s history. Recently, the group has come to prominence by rapping about scamming, but unlike their peers they rap over instrumentals that sample ’80s pop songs. Shittyboyz Babytron—yes, his name is Shittyboyz Babytron—is the breakout star, studding his offbeat delivery with pop culture-referencing punchlines. He also happens to have the same haircut as Justin Bieber circa “Baby.” “They said I look like Drake Bell, bitch I’m still trippin’,” he says on “Punch God 2,” laughing at the critiques of his appearance. Babytron delivers every line with the utmost confidence, and is completely self-aware that a kid with a bowl cut making waves in Detroit is something that could only happen with the help of the internet: “She said it don’t look like you swipe, that’s the whole point.”
Listen to these tracks and more from Detroit on our Spotify playlist.