The Philly Hip Hop Problem: Egos, Distrust, and Missing Communication

What's up with all of the ego, lack of collaboration, self-aggrandizing award shows, and twerk contests? Opinions from a philosopher, designer, organizer and one-time manager, agent and promoter

When one thinks of the city of Philadelphia, a lot can come to mind.  The inevitables: the signing of the declaration, Ben Franklin, soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, throwing snowballs at Santa, etc. But when one thinks of the history of art and culture in Philadelphia, the blueprints aren't so clear. Yet more specifically, Philadelphia's hip hop culture is even murkier. Sure, The Roots are the perennial Philly all-stars (and for good reason), free Meek Mill posts are still abundant throughout the social media realm, and going back further, we see the Ruffhouse heyday of the 90's and before that the soul movements that give way to a rich R&B heritage for the city.

But what's going on right now? What can be said of the current state of the underground hip hop scene in Philadelphia? I want to encapsulate the general gist of my piece here: the Philadelphia hip hop scene is A) flourishing as a result of the number of creatives currently existing in it but it is unfortunately also B) simultaneously suffering as a result of three serious problems: lack of communication, trust and vision. Like any philosopher (philosophy is what I got my bachelor's degree of questionable worth in), it may take me way too long to flesh out these critiques but I'm going to try anyway. If you have even the slightest measurable interest or investment in this scene we call Philly hip hop, it is my hopes that you will bear with my winding prose and see this essay through to the end. Let's begin.

I concern myself in this essay with the "underground" scene because I think all mainstream must necessarily come from the underground at first. I owe much of my experience with music to the do-it-yourself hardcore punk scene that has thrived in Philly for years. It's this scene--and the important people involved in it who taught me a lot, Joe Hardcore and Bob Wilson to name just a couple--that have shaped my view on music and how it should be experienced and presented to the world. Underground movements like Philly hardcore punk as well as Philly hip hop usually stem from a scene of like-minded forwarded thinking individuals who want to push the envelope of culture in order to gain exposure for a burgeoning class of talented artists and musicians. It is this underground culture in Philadelphia with regards to hip hop specifically that I am going to talk about here.

First I want to begin by putting this op-ed into context with making my background clear. I am a 25 year-old white male who was born in Chester and grew up in a middle-to-lower class town called Eddystone. Eddystone is a blue collar town with row homes in an area stuck between Philly and Chester with a consistent, problematic and disturbing drug problem. I moved to north Philadelphia when I was 18 to attend Temple University. I've lived in some okay neighborhoods and some really rough neighborhoods. I remember when living at 19th and Thompson in the house where we started our fashion brand Cult Classic, a man was shot to death across the street from our stoop. I don't share this story to brag about the living situations I've been through but rather to make it clear that Philly can be a rough, unforgiving and an even confusing place. I don't think the city's hip hop scene is any different.

While some of you may not be familiar with our brand, we started Cult Classic just over two years ago in that North Philly row home. At the time I did not know we would find ourselves so intertwined with various hip hop circles here, but this is how things played out: our first party was planned as a free warehouse party at 9th and Diamond on Friday July 13th, 2012. I was looking for acts to put on the bill and our first natural choice was Uncle Ron to spin, a close friend of my partners in the brand. In addition to him I put on some DJ homies (Dayo for one) who would go on to work with Pure Productions. Lastly, I wanted a hip hop act to round out the event. My good friend from high school, Dan Centrone, now a professional director and videographer based out of Philly, suggested I check out this group of skate rappers, The Bakery Boys. I checked them out and liked their energy and style, so I went ahead and contacted them. After arranging a deal with them (and paying them far too much for a free party--another issue I will get to later), they were the last piece of the puzzle. We now had our lineup for our first-ever party to commemorate the first Cult Classic clothing line release.

Fast forward a couple months: The Bakery Boys asked me to manage them and I dove into the opportunity, perhaps naively, but I wanted them to succeed. I wanted them to win, and I knew in my gut I could help make that happen. We were now beginning to plan a block party for when the fall semester began at Temple for the 2012-2013 year. This would become the Quite Hype "My America" Block Party which we used as a means to improve voter turnout for our young demographic for the upcoming election that would see Obama eventually be reelected. In that meeting room where we first discussed the block party were the Bakery Boys, Yinka Soda, me and Anthony Coleman, the seeds of Quite Hype Records (there may have been a few more in attendance, and if I forgot you, I apologize).

This is quickly turning into an autobiography, so to prevent that I will try to summarize the next two years as quickly as I can. My tenure as the manager of the Bakery Boys was an educational one. I learned a lot about myself and the mistakes I made. I also learned that I was dealing with a group of kids who weren't ready. They weren't ready to be put on, and they weren't prepared. Maybe things have changed and I wish them the best of luck. Sometimes, the fact of the matter is, you can't teach someone something without letting them go through the struggle first.

But what mistakes did I make? First, I gave them too much too quickly. $400 for their first show with me? A FREE show I might add? Nearly $1500 in free Cult Classic merchandise over the course of our relationship? I spent a lot of time securing them shows, DJs, promotion, write-ups, meetings, etc. These kids, some who might not have grown up with much, were all the sudden receiving a lot of attention and a lot of benefits. This did a lot to affect their egos. All of the sudden the Bakery Boys really thought they could be something. Which is good. Hunger is good. But the Philly type of hunger is dangerous, really dangerous. Ever deal with a hungry Philly kid when something doesn't go their way? They act out. This happened on more than one occasion. I remember when I had agreed to pay Yinka Soda of K$K an insanely cheap amount to direct a video for the Bakery Boys. What did the outspoken, defacto leader of the group, Q, say to me? "Why are we paying him to do our video if he works with us? That's not fair. That's not right".

Try getting a visual for that bargain price from Yinka now. He'll laugh at you. And so will everyone else who has an ounce of sense in them.

Long story short, things didn't work out with me and the Bakery Boys, but I still continued my involvement in the label Anthony and I started, Quite Hype. Throughout the course of the label's nearly 2 year history, we would continue to lose money on artists who I don't think ever fully appreciated how much I and we were trying to do for them. I lost over $1000 on a release event for another group affiliated with Quite Hype. I lost money on every single one of those block parties we put together. I question whether we really saw a return on the free clothing we gave out to so many of those we once considered "homies".

I've always had the attitude then when things don't work out, you keep pushing. Keep trying. "Don't give up," my dad would say. So I didn't. We continued with Cult Classic and Quite Hype until we made our way down to A3C this year to put on our own event. This event was supposed to be a showcase for the talent we thought were really doing cool things in Philly including: Theodore Grams, Lil Uzi Vert, Dizzy Santana, Zah Garner, Tierra Whack, and Andreavalle. That was the idea at least. Things did not go as planned.

I think sometimes people don't realize the amount of effort and energy it takes to put something of that magnitude together. Not only that, but it's expensive. Yes, we paid to put on a show. But at the time, it made sense to us. A prime directive of Quite Hype was to put on for the community of artists and visionaries in our scene. This is why we started the Three for 3 series almost two years ago. Now everyone and their grandmothers are doing similar shows with similar lineups in similar venues we once called our own, and perhaps this is the way things go. I'm glad the creative class in Philly is thriving, but it is also fractured.

Anyway, the A3C Philly event in Atlanta had some serious issues, the majority of which were out of our control. The sound guy was over an hour late. We couldn't sound check, and even if we wanted to, the sound was horrible. The whole event was delayed which caused more problems because A3C had the bright idea to schedule another show immediately after ours. This put a strain on the lineup and everyone involved. Moreover, one Philly DJ in particular who seriously needs new equipment caused another 15 minute delay which further contributed to Theodore Grams and Tierra Whack's sets getting cut short (Grams did one song). This situation boiled over into a heated discussion outside the event. These two artists in particular and their teams now want nothing to do with me or any of my business ventures-- even after a futile attempt on my part to reach out and mend the relationship. Even when you try to do something positive in earnest and it backfires, the negatives of that Philly hunger of those you work with can end up biting you in the ass. So it goes. It's not that I wish these two any harm either, but the situation is yet another symptom of the Philly hip hop problem.

Time and time again I have tried to work with creative individuals I see potential in, and when they don't get exactly what they want delivered in the exact method they demand, they act out. They make immature subtweets on Twitter or outright bash our brands. They try to sneak into my events and parties without paying, under some pretense that I owe them the time of day. They remove Cult Classic references from their songs after whatever "falling out" they deem as too insurmountable to overcome.

I think what a lot of people in this scene do not quite realize is that if everyone does not support each other, it makes it a lot more difficult to bring exposure and money to the scene. The egos have to go. The attitude that comes along with Philly hunger has to get out of the room. People need to confront those they have issues with head on and resolve whatever trivial problems they have for the sake of bettering the scene, the culture, and the perception of it for those outside of it who may want to invest in the cool shit we all have going on. People need to trust each other and realize that even when things don’t go perfect, the intent was to do something positive. Is that not worth anything anymore?

And the promoters? An essential quality for growth in any scene is the collaboration of like-minded individuals for the shared goal of success.  It’s tough to do that when you have different personas with different visions trying to do essentially similar things without at least talking. There seems to be little to no communication between folks organizing hip hop events in the city. This is bad for business--everyone's business. Not only do those who organize refuse to communicate and come together for the betterment of the scene, but the shit in general in regards to lineups and party ideas is getting really stale. Now, it would be disingenuous to say that anyone who does events does not pick favorites. We all know what it is. But why is it that TLA hip hop shows have the same revolving door of undercard artists performing at them? Why did approximately 10 people show up to Two-9 when they played the Barbary this past summer? (Livenation: I'm looking at you) Why did a FREE Ty Dolla Sign show at a small venue not even sell out? Why does the upcoming Fat Trel show have an absurd opening lineup that makes absolutely no sense? Why do major artists often skip over Philly on their tours and when they do actually come to Philly, why do we have no meet-and-greet culture? What about the afterparty culture? Philly has none of it. These things are bad for business.

These are some of the reasons we started the Three for 3 show series: to bring artists together in a scene of kids who would come out and support one another. We had a vision of putting together thoughtful, curated hip hop shows much in the same vein as the aformentioned Joe Hardcore does for the city’s historic hardcore punk scene. It’s time our Philly hip hop scene cuts the bullshit. At least, for some, that's beginning to happen: Grams and the Bakery Boys never fucked with each other when I was managing them or when we put on a Baked Life affiliated artist Davey Denairo to open for Grams at the first Three for 3, but now they have a show together tonight at the Troc (tickets available here). I guess you could call that progress, and I really hope the show is a success.

Now, to pull the lens back again, we are finally getting to the present argument I want to talk about. I can only speak from my personal experiences and frankly, these experiences force me to question whether or not I’m interested in still entertaining the hip hop scene in Philly. Sure, there are many different scenes in Philly hip hop, and I can't even pretend I know enough about all of them to be some sort of Philly hip hop authority, but my experiences paint a troubled picture. I take issue with many things—too many to discuss here—but I’m going to do a quick rundown of some things that come to the front of the mind:

The Philly Hip Hop awards is terrible and needs to die. And if I need to explain to you the reasons why that disease of an event needs to go the way of the Wooly Mammoth, well then you need a bigger lesson into the current state of the scene then what I can adequately provide here.

We need to cut out the corny. I’m talking about the attempts at “cool” events that fail because they are direct rip-offs of formulas many of those who are legitimately pushing the boundaries of culture are already doing. #HomegrownPhilly: y’all need a reality check. What you do is kinda whack, let’s be real. Keep trying though.

Sometimes people do get it right: much respect to UncoolChuck for trying to unite the community with events of his like the WeCulture photoshoot. I see Don Scott and his art movement doing cool things over there out West. I respect Joey Stix and his series of shows. Salute to DJ SYLO who has transformed Thursday nights at the 700 club as the go-to hangout for creatives in our scene. I commend Akasha and the rest of the team for continuing to carry the torch for Temple’s Student Hip Hop Organization. Shout out to What Scene? for bringing artists to the city in similar DIY fashion and pushing the envelope with creative events. Respect to the LAVY crew who want to put on for the emerging artists and DJs in our community.

But often times, even some of these creative are getting it wrong. Why are we promoting twerk contests? What is that doing to positively promote our scene? With all of the conscious issues going on in our society and country right now particularly with regards to race relations, police injustices, equality, and feminist issues, what good are events like that doing to gain exposure positive for our scene?

Why do the different hip hop camps refuse to work together? Do we want to make money or do we want to continue to just appear cool for instagram? Take a look at the rising scenes from other cities, for example: Atlanta. Why are people talking about Atlanta hip hop akin to the attention Seattle’s grunge scene was getting in the early ‘90’s circa Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, etc? Here is why: that community—much like Seattle did—is able to put the bullshit aside even if some of the players may or may not fuck with each other on the personal tip. They put the money and the business and most importantly collaborative modes of artistic expression first. Sitting on a stoop drinking 40s, popping bars, and hitting blunt after blunt isn’t cool to me. Connecting, collaborating, innovating, experiencing, and traveling: THAT shit is cool to me.

You might be asking yourself why I am writing this editorial. Maybe now I'm finally being comfortable with taking a stand against the issues I see every day in this scene and community. Maybe now I'm finally become comfortable calling out the personas I see doing nothing to advance positive and individual growth in a community and age where the youth are so susceptible to complete distraction. If you are the type who wants to continue to enjoy free or cheap parties and the same revolving door of struggling artists and DJs over and over with no new crowds, artists, or money funneling into the city, be my guest. But I want no part. I would rather be trying to bring rising, exciting and talented artists from other places to this city and pushing the boundaries of what's really possible when you have great ideas and a drive to execute and show the youth that we can all really eat off this stuff. And if that’s not possible with the current climate of our city, scene and community, then maybe it’s time for me to take a step back and focus on the things in my life that actually have a positive return and that people actually appreciate. With that said, this past Wednesday's Key! Show at Sole Control may be one of the last Philly hip hop events I find myself directly involved in for little while (if you weren't there you missed an insane performance by Dizzy Santana as well as a slew of new people who came to support quality music). I have to take a step back and continue to foster the relationships with the people that truly get what it means to strive for success and opportunity in positive fashion. I can't say this run hasn’t been fun nor is it anywhere near complete, but it was definitely a learning experience. Regardless of the resolute nature of this conclusion, Cult Classic as a Philadelphia brand and Quite Hype as a growing record label will both live on but perhaps without the support of some of the very community who helped bring them to life. And if I have to, I can live with that. My only hope is that this writing invigorates the spirit in those who truly want to flourish and flourish for the right reasons in the right way.

Joe Pitts