Miami hip-hop used to be exotic and wild, our town known around the world as the land of bass. Today it's not so unique, closely resembling regional flavors such as Atlanta crunk and New Orleans bounce (though one could convincingly argue that Miami bass influenced both of these sounds). But just as Jay-Z's "99 Problems" was acclaimed by fans as one of his greatest tracks even though Trick Daddy rapped about "99 Problems" first on Thugs Are Us, Magic City crunk finally brought this city a degree of rap industry respect it never knew when it was derided as the bass capital of the world.
Today, the city is home to acclaimed producers such as Red Spyda, Cool and Dre, Gorilla Tek, and Scott Storch. DJ Khaled, DJ Irie, and DJ EFN wield influence via their club residencies and mixtapes. Most importantly, Pitbull conclusively proved that Southern hip-hop has changed the landscape when his debut, M.I.A.M.I. , was greeted with solid reviews and a Top 40 bow on the Billboard charts, instead of the sneers that the old 2 Live Crew albums drew.
Pitbull's entree was the hit single "Culo," a brazen appropriation of Mr. Vegas's "Pull Up" all the way down to the Coolie Dance riddim and a similar hook. "Culo" was a gas, but his subsequent "Dammit Man" single was better. It was more boisterous and confrontational, less suited to cheesy Coolie Dance megamixes linking "Pull Up," "Culo," and Nina Sky's "Move Ya Body."
Pitbull didn't sell as many albums as Trick Daddy, whose Thug Matrimony: Married to the Streets launched the Unusual Suspects-produced, Ozzy Osbourne-sampling "Let's Go" (currently being played at a sporting event near you). Still, it felt like 2004 was Pitbull's year. Taking a cue from his mentor, the omnipresent Lil' Jon, Pitbull seemed to be on every local underground mixtape, to have spoken to every publication, and his songs were in heavy rotation on urban radio stations around the country. His gimmick? M.I.A.M.I. itself.
As inevitable as Pitbull's rise seems now, it was less than a year ago when industry insiders predicted Jacki-O would be the toast of the town. Last year, she was hip-hop Miami's It Girl with her "Nookie" single. "Nookie" didn't break out the way "Culo" did, but it got her national attention, and she followed it up with a solid album, Poe Little Rich Girl. Even after Poe Boy Entertainment switched distribution for it from Warner Music Group to TVT, pushing the release date back, the album yielded as many admiring notices when it finally hit stores in October as the unreleased promo version did in March.
So what happened? Even if Jacki-O had delivered a classic (and, truth be told, Poe Little Rich Girl is a pretty good album), she would have been hard-pressed to win over male rap fans, many of whom see female rappers as pornographic novelties, rather than as artists worth listening to in their own right.
Nevertheless, Jacki-O and Pitbull led the city's quest to cash in on the rap game, closely followed by major-label prospects Dirtbag, Smitty, and P.M. Their success illustrated the value of hard work, constant movement, a steady stream of product, and an accessible-but-street image. Such principles don't always make for good art, but who cares? Look at Jay-Z, who crafted an excellent album in Reasonable Doubt that was ignored by mainstream journalists. Five years later, after he had released several multiplatinum albums and a plethora of club and radio hits, he dropped The Blueprint, and those same critics hailed it as a self-conscious work of "art."
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The lesson? Art is validated by commerce, not the other way around. Caught somewhere in the middle was Garcia, whose Anti-Social was one of the best albums to come out of Miami this year. Not enough people heard it, but his powerful live performances at Sax on the Beach, where his Crazy Hood crew held an open mike session for several months, marked him as a rapper to watch out for.
Meanwhile, Climber and Seven Star seemed to operate in a completely different world. While the aforementioned ballers hung out at Club Deep and Opium Garden, these guys made the side rooms at I/O and Soho Lounge their homes. Seven Star's My Mother and Father Were Astronauts and Climber's Downtown Loop had their admirers among the backpack set, as did Algorithm member Seth P. Brundel's Devil's Pawn.
When 305hiphop.com announced the nominations for its second annual Miami Awards, held in November at Players and mostly dominated by a triumphant Pitbull, none of them made the cut (although Counterflow Recordings, which issued Seven Star's debut, was cited as one of the best local labels). In a climate more accustomed to purist, classical hip-hop, they may have stood front and center, but in get-rich-or-die-tryin' MIA they lie on the fringes. Everywhere, in every hip-hop scene, you'll find the same ideological divide between the "mainstream" and the "underground."
As much as I enjoy seeing the local rap community scrap and fight its way to prominence, I also find it depressingly familiar. Hell, everyone's trying to get paid from hip-hop (even, to a certain extent, yours truly). But when music is reduced to its commercial prospects, there's little attention paid to whether or not it is music in the first place -- or, rather, if it moves the heart.