In the internet age, it’s unlikely a singular sound will come to define Twin Cities hip-hop, as it did with the introspective Rhymesayers crew in the ’00s.
These days, there are too many scenes and micro-scenes — all with different aesthetics — for that to happen. Instead, T.C. rap, as seen by the rest of the country and the world, is increasingly reflective of its diversity.
Here are just some of the artists making that happen, and having it register with listeners well outside of Minnesota.
NDO might be the first Twin Cities street/gangster rap group to break out on a national level. Mainly composed of rappers King Savage and cousins Tarxan and Boss Sleep, the crew has been rapping together in St. Paul's West Side going back to the MySpace era.
It was just last year, however, that their YouTube views and SoundCloud plays started totaling six figures. It’s hard to argue with those stats, and for what it’s worth, they deny allegations from East Side rivals that they paid for views.
“We don’t even know how to do that shit!” Savage, 21, tells City Pages. There’s plenty of reason to believe him. Anyone who’s witnessed footage of a sizable crowd losing their minds to Tarxan’s “Faneto” at a rare Minneapolis show last winter can testify: NDO’s popularity is very real.
While gang-related legal troubles have slowed their rise at times, including indictment of Savage and Sleep on federal weapons charges last week, the core NDO trio is still productive. As far as Twin Cities street music goes, they’re dominating. “We our own competition,” Savage notes.
Tarxan noticed a void in St. Paul when his two fellow rappers were incarcerated, saying, “It took for Savage and Sleep to go to jail for me to realize the game is really ours.”
Of the three members, Savage is the closest to releasing a new solo mixtape, Deeper Than Rap, his follow-up to last year’s I Can’t Fold. For now, one-off songs and videos are doing the trick, with new tracks like Savage’s “Right Now,” Tarxan’s “Dead Wrong,” and Boss Sleep’s “Arrogant” combining for 60,000-plus YouTube views within a matter of weeks.
St. Paul rapper and singer Taylor J has enjoyed success on a national level for years, thanks, in part, to early records like his 2012 Gucci Mane collab “No Good.” In recent months, though, he’s experienced a cluster of career wins.
There’s his August trip to New York, which, as he tells City Pages, was “a week-long grind” that included meetings with 50 Cent and 300 Entertainment (the label home of Young Thug and Fetty Wap). He’s also working on what he says is a “short and solid” project with Lex Luger, one of the most influential rap producers of the decade due to his work with Waka Flocka Flame and others.
The expertise and professionalism that Taylor has built up over time shows in his fluid, melodic songwriting, as heard on new singles like “Juice,” “Heaven Like,” and “Highlight.”
Taylor, 25, recognizes the reality that, broadly speaking, there aren’t enough eyes on Minnesota. He says that makes it all the more crucial to move ahead strategically. After growing up in St. Paul, he spent considerable time living in Atlanta and Las Vegas, places more commonly recognized as music and entertainment hotbeds.
“You don’t have to leave Atlanta if you’re in Atlanta; you don’t even gotta go to Cali,” he says. “We don’t really got our own pot of gold yet [in Minnesota].”
The key word is “yet.” And now, at this pivotal point, it’s looking like Taylor’s master plan might help change that.
Why Khaliq’s patient approach to his music is refreshing in an era of hurried YouTube and SoundCloud uploads. Though the St. Paul MC consistently releases new music, none of it seems rushed, and more and more Twin Cities listeners are catching on to his movement.
Khaliq tells City Pages that the release party for his soulful and jazzy EP from January, Under the Perspective Tree, sold out Amsterdam Bar & Hall, whereas his previous release party last year only brought out 20 or so fans. “I’ve seen my music progress and more people start to gravitate toward it,” he says.
Last year’s The OtherSide: The Six5 was one of local music’s best full-lengths of 2015, leading to boosted anticipation for UTPT, which was entirely produced by beatmaker Lelan Foley. The EP scored an impressive 7.8 out of 10 from Pitchfork, and was later named a personal favorite of 2016 by senior editor Jayson Greene.
While his lyricism is deeply intelligent, Khaliq, 22, is hesitant about the notion that he’s a “conscious rapper.” At the same time, he also makes little to no use of mainstream fads. Understandably, Khaliq doesn’t feel his style of rap is easily categorized.
“I don’t really say it’s ‘underground,’” he says. “That’s all politics.”
Khaliq humbly says he makes his music free because he feels it’s not yet good enough to sell. Based on the strength of new songs like “Makeda,” “Long Sunday,” and “TILTWA,” we’re guessing he’ll feel comfortable monetizing soon.
Finding Novyon is probably the fastest-rising rapper in his native Minneapolis. This time last year, hints of that began to emerge. Last November, the 25-year-old MC opened for Detroit superstar Big Sean in Los Angeles. Soon after, he met with Atlanta super-producer Sonny Digital in California, which, as he tells City Pages, resulted in “a whole week together making songs.”
Later, the influential blog Pigeons and Planes named “Lots,” his self-produced Allan Kingdom collab, a top song of the year. Those successes were the result of Novyon’s hard work and DIY know-how — he even handles heavy lifting like emailing blogs in hopes they’ll post his music. “I know I hate when I get ‘BCC,’ so I try to do personal emails for everybody,” he says.
Though Novyon’s music has signature qualities — he consistently comes up with some of the catchiest, most immediate choruses in Minnesota, for example — he’s still in search of his own sound.
His wide-ranging output from this year alone boasts appeal to various audiences. There’s the “turn-up trap music” of his Super Saiyan EP and collaborations with Digital (“I Can’t Lose,” “Let’s Get Lit”). There’s also his more classicist, East Coast-feeling Believe in Mpls project with producer J.KELR, a release that features “Whole Fade,” his standout collab with Chuck Inglish.
Earlier this month, Novyon was voted the sixth most-promising Twin Cities newcomer in City Pages' annual Pick to Click poll. With Super Saiyan 2 on deck, plus shows planned with the likes of Compton rapper YG, expect even more noise from him in the coming months.